By Valerie Coffey
Love camping and travel? Dreaming about buying a recreational vehicle (RV)? When it comes to shopping for an RV, the choices can be overwhelming. Where do you start? The answer depends on numerous factors with a tangle of pros and cons, and is quite different for everyone.
When you start your search, you’ll need to understand the different classes of RVs. Each type has its pluses and minuses.
Travel trailers (TTs) come in a wide variety of sizes, but are defined by not having a motor. Travel trailers must be towed by a full-size pick-up truck or SUV with a trailer hitch.
The gateway RV drug is often a pop-up camper (a hybrid tent and TT), which are small and limited in amenities, but are the cheapest option, costing a few thousand U.S. dollars new.
A tiny tow-behind trailer like an R-Pod from Forest River is the next step up, purportedly offering luxury amenities at unloaded weights of only a ton (2000 lb) or so. You could find a used one starting at a few thousand dollars. New ones range up to an MSRP of US$23,000. But these are not ideal for full-time living, and they won’t stand up to extended use.
From there, TTs get bigger, more expensive, and heavier (requiring more horsepower to tow), all the way up to a 44-foot, 7-inch-long full-time residential trailer called a fifth wheel. The fifth wheel is the most popular TT. The trailer sits partly over the bed of the truck, which has a special hitch that prevents much storage in the truck bed, but makes it inherently more stable to tow.
The largest fifth wheels currently in the marketplace have slide outs that give them a maximum allowed 430-square feet of living space (interior). A fold-out three-season porch can extend this functional living space, making some fifth wheels over 54 feet long when stationary.
Fifth wheels are a bit cheaper than motor homes, so are often considered the best dollar-per-square-foot value. The entry price for a new fifth wheel is around $20,000, with high-end models running to $150,000 or more – not including the price of the heavy duty towing vehicle.
Note: Trailers are not to be confused with park models, stationary trailer-park residences with as much as 400 square-feet of living area, designed with no water storage tanks. Park models must be hooked up to water and power to be livable, and don’t have wheels.
What if you don’t already own a pick-up truck or SUV? What if heavy duty trucks or SUVs and their fuel-hungry engines don’t appeal to you for your everyday use and exploration when not in the RV? What if you don’t want to spend travel days in a truck or SUV, stopping for meals and bathroom breaks?
Then a motorhome may be just what you’re looking for.
Motorhome: an RV that motors under the power of its own engine.
Motorhomes or mobile homes have three different classifications – Class A, B, and C. Here’s a description of each, with approximate pricing. As a disclaimer, pricing is just a suggested range based on a smattering of currently available units on RVTrader.com. I’m hoping to provide a current overview price range, but you may find better or worse deals (and buyer beware – do your research!) :
Class A: The conventional bus-like motorhome or mobile home is a Class A, the most expensive and luxurious classification, and common choice among full-timers who move often. Class A motorhomes can offer comfortable interiors as big as 430 square feet, full-size appliances, and powerful engines, but they are too big to park just anywhere and they are fuel-inefficient (6 to 9 mpg), so many owners tow a car for exploring once the RV is set up. New models enter the market above $150,000 and range to $2 million and up for a custom luxury coach brand like Prevost (PRE-voh).
Class B: The smallest of the three (the classes are not organized by size) are van-sized panel trucks designed for recreational camping by auto manufacturers like Mercedes, Volkswagen, or Ford. The roof is designed to extend in height so that campers can stand up in them. I think of them as a “bump-up” to explain their Class “B” designation. They offer a small temporary kitchen area and combination toilet/shower/sink. The engine and chassis part of Class Bs is that same as that of the non-camper trucks and vans, so it carries the advantages of quality, service, and reliability that come from long-entrenched, high-volume auto manufacturers and readily-available mechanics across the country. This small class of RV is perfect for parking and sleeping anywhere without drawing attention. Their small size enables them to get the best gas mileage of the three motorhome classes. Used Class Bs start at $5000 for a vintage project for mechanics only, while new models go for $70,000 to $200,000 MSRP.
Class C: Known as a “cab-over” or mini-motorhome, most Class C motorhomes have a van or truck chassis, like the Class B, but have a camper cab attached. The Class Cs have an area that overhangs the cabin with a bed in it. They provide the conveniences of larger motorhomes at a lower price than Class As. Cab-overs have more amenities than camper vans, e.g., it might have a dining table that converts to a sleeper, but would be cramped for full-time family living. With this size RV, you don’t need a tow car, as you can park them in most driveways and parking lots. New Class Cs start at $50,000 and range up to $300,000 .
Why does a new Class C start at a lower price than the smaller Class Bs? The demand for luxury Class B vans is high, which drives up price. And Class Cs tend to have more low-end choices. At first glance online, I found used Class C mechanic’s specials with high mileage for under $10,000.
Keep in mind that you can haggle on RV prices with RV dealers, just like auto dealers, so you can expect a 20 to 30 percent discount off MSRP (and may even get more off some models). Financing is also an option if you qualify, as with vehicles.
Just knowing the definitions of the various RV classes may help you narrow down the right RV for your needs. But if you still aren’t clear about what type of RV you want, budget and frequency of use are the next variables to explore.
Frequency of Use
The number one consideration should be how much to spend per the frequency of use.
As the most affordable options, a Class B or C small motorhome are popular entry vehicles. Class B (camper vans) are great for singles or couples who don’t mind a small space and don’t want the hassle of hooking up and unhooking a pick-up or tow vehicle. You can just drive and go, park anywhere a van or small campers can, and roll into the back to sleep. Class Bs are the smallest, most reliable and still (relatively) affordable, so are a better choice than Class As or Class Cs if you plan to use your RV for every-day driving when you aren’t camping.
Class Cs are a bit bigger, so better for families who camp frequently and don’t want to bother with a tow vehicle. It’s more for going to your destination, and staying put for a few days. You’ll have a larger kitchen, dining space, more sleep space, and more room for toys in a Class C than in a camper van. One thing we realized recently is that in some Class C models, you can get up from the front passenger seat and move back into the camper while underway (albeit carefully and briefly)
A Class A motor coach is a home away from home, with a view. With a powerful engine, lots of space, storage and appliances, a motor coach is a big investment if you only use it a few times a year. But if you plan to live and travel full-time in your RV, many RVers choose a premium motor coach as their best option.
In my next article, I’ll explore the pros and cons of the two most popular choices of full-time RVers: fifth wheel travel trailers versus a Class A motor coaches.
See you in the warm places!
Other useful links:
Read why RVLuckyOrWhat recommends Wholesale Warranties for an extended warranty on your RV