RVs Ready to Rumble, and Look Who's Driving

Baby boomers get behind the wheel as families find a cheaper road to vacations

If you still think "RV" stands for "retirement vehicle," think again.

The recreational-vehicle business is booming, with baby boomers and young families driving most of the growth.

They are hitting the road in rented or purchased RVs and finding it means more time spent with family, more time spent with the sights of America, and less money spent on vacations.

"We're seeing more professionals saying, 'Our parents used to take us tent camping, and we want our children to share the same experiences.' But they don't want to sleep in a tent," says Janet Smith, president of Trip Makers, in Walpole, Mass., which sells and rents these human tortoise shells.

Since 1980, the percentage of American families owning an RV has grown from 8.3 percent to 9.8 percent. The number of rental units has more than doubled in the same period, to about 8,000, says Bob Calderone, spokesman for Cruise America, the largest RV rental outfit in the country.

They're taking them across the country, to auto races, even to visit relatives. (No more sleeping on the couch).

Joan Benjamin, president of the Urban League of Greater Boston, and her husband, Milton, president of the Community Development Finance Corp. in Boston, rented an RV from TripMakers for their vacation last month to Grand Canyon and Mesa Verde National Parks.

But Milton was skeptical at first.

"We're not really driving people," Joan explains. "As a family, the farthest we had ever driven was five hours to Philadelphia."

It turns out that renting a mobile home was perfect for their 7,000 mile trip from Boston to Arizona and back.

"It's a great way to take a family vacation. We joked about our family bonding experience, but it really does create forced time together. And you have to talk," she says, adding that their two children, Kellen and Adam, loved it. "There were lots of times of quiet when everybody's eyes were glued out the window."

Cost also figures heavily in the decision. A week's vacation for a family of four - plane fare, motels, restaurants - means big bucks, and an RV wraps transportation, food, and lodging in one rolling package.

Joan Benjamin calculated they saved hundreds of dollars compared with buying plane tickets, getting hotel rooms, eating out, and renting a car.

RV rentals usually run about $1,000 a week, including a weekly rental fee of $600 to $800 plus mileage and sometimes insurance charges.

Rental companies often want advance payment for rental and estimated mileage fees plus several hundred dollars as a damage deposit.

Modern RVs hit the highway with full kitchens, complete with microwave and refrigerator.

In their three weeks on the road, Joan says they ate out only twice, and cooking was not the chore she worried it would be.

"All the local grocery stores had everything we needed. And I didn't feel at all like I was spending all my time cooking as if I were home," she says.

Better yet, RVers can go where they want, when they want.

If Mesa Verde in Colorado shuts down because of a forest fire, finding an alternative destination is as complicated as reading a road map. If Yosemite deserves more attention than planned, just put away the keys and park a few days longer.

And Joan cites campground friendships as one of the most rewarding aspects of the trip.

She says she spent two weeks planning the trip full time, plus evening and weekend hours lining up the motor home and researching destinations.

Once at the rental counter, some homework helps. The rental agent will offer insurance and usually a "convenience package" of sheets, towels, utensils, cups, and plates.

As with any rented vehicle, you need to know whether to accept optional insurance.

The RV's contents are covered by most homeowner's or renter's policies. But not physical damage. Nor do most credit-card protection plans cover it, as they do for rental cars.

Check with your insurance agent whether your personal auto policy pays for damage. If not, take the insurance from the rental agency.

Motor homes are seldom involved in highway accidents. Damage usually occurs maneuvering in close quarters such as backing into a camping space, says Ms. Smith of TripMakers.

But most modern RVs are relatively easy to drive. They have automatic transmissions, power steering and brakes, and often a rear-mounted video camera hooked to a dashboard screen that serves as a rearview mirror.

"After a day or so of driving, you get acclimated," says Joan Benjamin.

Other checklist items: Does the rental agency provide full propane tanks for the stove and other appliances? What about chemicals for the septic system? If they're not provided, do you know where to get them? Do you need to return with a full tank of gasoline or diesel? And who's responsible for cleaning at the end of your trip? (Usually you.) And check for any hidden charges such as for using the generator.

Also, make sure you know how to work all the accessories, light the stove and water heater, run the generator, and flush the holding tank.

Most customers rent RVs in the Southwest, where vacationers start out near many of the grandest national parks.

"During the summer virtually every one of our motor homes makes a lap through Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon," says Randall Smalley, president of Cruise America.

Cruise America has 4,000 vehicles across the US, most of them in Arizona. But many local RV dealers also rent out units. Private owners may also rent out their motor homes through newspaper ads or on consignment through a dealer.

Joan Benjamin says she'd recommend it to a friend any time.

R U READY 4 AN RV?

* Two agencies rent recreational vehicles nationwide:

Cruise America 800-327-7799

El Monte 800-367-3687

You can find local outlets in the Yellow Pages under Recreational Vehicles, Renting and Leasing.

Getting Ready To Roll

* Make rental reservations well in advance, especially during peak vacation times.

* Ask for route guidance in advance from your rental agent or auto club.

* Call your insurance agent. Does your personal auto policy cover an RV rental? If so, take a photocopy of the policy when you sign the rental agreement.

* Determine who is responsible for repair and towing charges if you break down.

* Make sure you know how to work all the vehicle's systems, appliances, and accessories before you leave.

* Know who's responsible for cleaning the motor home on return. The rental company could keep your damage deposit to pay for cleaning.

* Make campground reservations in advance. You can always change them later.

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