How to survive an RV vacation with your family

rv vacation

It happened on a hot autumn afternoon as we cruised south toward Santa Rosa, Calif., on Highway 101 in a 24-foot Coachmen Leprechaun recreational vehicle.

“THUMP!” the camper went. Not like the kind of thump you make when you go over a speed bump. It was the thump of hitting something.

What just happened?

Did a wheel come off?

Did one of my kids fall out the back?

Did we run over a deer?

It was about that time that I started to have my doubts about this whole RV vacation thing. I had gone into this with an open mind, trading in our small, fuel-efficient Honda CR-V for this land yacht, a motorhome that rides a little precariously atop a Ford E-350 chassis. But you can survive, and even enjoy, an RV vacation with your family. It starts with avoiding the THUMP. I also have a few tips on getting along in tight quarters and a word of advice if you’re considering an RV vacation with your family.

An RV can be a cost-efficient way to take a vacation, according to a study conducted by CBRE Hotels Advisory Group and commissioned by the RV Industry Association, a trade group. A four-person party like us can save between 21% and 64% compared with the cost of a traditional vacation using hotels or vacation rentals.

rv vacation
The upper deck of our RV. It was a favorite spot for my two youngest kids.

But let’s talk about that THUMP. I pulled over and found the source. All of my kids were still present, thank goodness. No venison on the grille, either. But a panel next to the generator had disappeared.

How? I wasn’t sure. One possibility: A manufacturer’s defect. Sometimes, panels fall off. It just happens. Another possibility: I hadn’t properly secured the panel after using the generator at our previous campsite. The panel swung out while I drove over the rough road. Maybe I hit a traffic cone or something else, shearing off the panel.

That brings me to my first piece of advice: Make sure you batten down the hatches before you leave. And by all means, buy the insurance if you’re renting the RV. I was RV “sharing” through a company called Mighway, and was covered, fortunately.

rv vacation
Iden and Aren Elliott enjoy lunch in Santa Rosa. It’s nice to have your home on wheels, but it can get a little cramped.

Surviving in tight quarters

We were lucky to have stayed in a tiny house in Buellton, Calif., the previous week — so we were accustomed to living in a tight space. But nothing could fully prepare us for being this close. Even though I found the RV had ample space for sleeping, the kids were stepping all over each other inside the motorhome when they weren’t resting.

But the more I thought about it, the more I liked that part of being in an RV. “Go outside!” I told them — and they did. They explored the Russian River RV Campground, where we camped for two nights, and they enjoyed touring the Six Sigma Ranch, which is part of the Harvest Hosts network.

When you’re in a hotel or vacation rental, you can sit on the sofa and watch Cartoon Network. But in an RV, you can’t do that. (I couldn’t even get our TV to work.) So the kids explored the great outdoors, which, in Northern California’s wine country, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

A few more thoughts on coexisting in tight quarters:

✓ Give everyone a job to keep them occupied. You know what they say about idle hands. I managed to convince my middle son, Iden, to help with the dishes, which kept him out of trouble for a little while. He had no choice — all the dishes were used.

✓ Limit your time in the RV. Go hiking, visit a museum, drive into town — but whatever you do, don’t let the family stay cooped up in a small enclosure. The RV is for eating and sleeping. I also preferred the shower facilities in the campground. Kept our black water tank from overflowing.

✓ Use games and other “together” activities to keep their minds off the close quarters. My daughter is unbeatable at several card games, but that doesn’t stop her brothers from trying.

rv vacation
Erysse Elliott checks in at the Russian River RV Campground north of Santa Rosa, Calif.

If you’ve never RVed, read this

I think it’s safe to say there are two kinds of travelers in this world: people who RV and everyone else. We’re part of the “everyone else.” I can’t handle more than a long weekend in a tight space, and although I appreciate some of the cost-savings, I’m pretty sure it costs as much to fill a 55-gallon gas tank in the state of California as it does to spend the night in an all-suite hotel.

Still, there’s a lot about an RV vacation that I admire. RV people are some of the friendliest in the travel industry. It’s not unusual for a fellow camper to invite you over for round of bocce or horseshoes. Try that at a hotel and they might call security.

I also love the idea of carrying your home with you. It’s all there: your kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom. That kind of freedom is found nowhere else, except maybe a tent. But that’s another story.

All of which brings me to my advice for anyone considering an RV vacation. Try it. Take a motorhome for a spin, maybe for a long weekend, and see how it feels. If you like it, you might know how to spend a lifetime of vacations. If you don’t, then you just had an adventure of a lifetime. I know I just did.

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Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t. He’s the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, and the Washington Post. If you have a consumer problem you can’t solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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