High fuel prices curtail RV trips – just a little

For millions of Americans, towing the vacation home or traveling around the country in an RV is a way of life, even with the high cost of fuel.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    At the pump: Filling up an RV can be a wallet-sapping event. Some models, for example, carry 90 gallons of gasoline. At today's fuel prices, it would cost $332 to fill it up.
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Inside the door of their 36-foot-long RV is a map that shows the route Bob and Linda Timko have pulled their "fifth wheel" – from Pennsylvania to California and back again.

With fuel prices at record levels, they allow that the trips may cover shorter distances – especially when they get 10 miles to the gallon. There will be some sacrifices for the retirees: perhaps fewer meals out, maybe working a part-time job.

But they can't imagine giving up the RV lifestyle: a sense of freedom and adventure mixed with close friendships developed over years of traveling around the country. They don't plan to turn in their wheeled home for a condo.

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"I don't know how high fuel would have to go for us not to do this," says Mr. Timko. "God has created so many great places to see, and we just haven't seen them all."

For millions of Americans, towing the vacation home or traveling around the country in an RV is a way of life, even with soaring fuel prices. This time of year, for example, thousands of "snowbirds" are working their way north after spending the winter in Florida – as the Timkos are doing. By Memorial Day, many parks and campgrounds will be full of RVs. In fact, one indication that the RV crowd still considers the price of fuel secondary: Slots in campgrounds and RV parks are filling up fast.

According to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA), some 8 million households own an RV. One in every 12 vehicle-owning households owns one. About 80 percent are "fifth wheels," the variety that is towed.

In March, when the price of gasoline hit $3.35 a gallon, an RVIA survey found that 93 percent of owners said they planned to use their vehicles as much or more than they did last year. "We're finding people are traveling closer to home," says Courtney Robey, a spokeswoman for the RVIA in Reston, Va.

That would include Charlie and Janet Cooper of Milford, N.J. As they pull their RV into the parking lot in Hamburg, Pa., at Cabela's, a large outfitting chain, Mr. Cooper says the couple has decided to forgo trips to Darlington, S.C., and Martinsville, Va., so they can see NASCAR races. "The gas prices are not keeping us home, but we are not out as much or going as far away," he says as he uses the free waste disposal at Cabela's.

Cabela's anticipates some spillover effect on its sales. "Some customers travel 500 miles to come to the store to shop," says Bruce Biedenharn, manager of the store. "A good gauge will be after Memorial Day to see if people will jump in the car or RV to visit us."

If campground reservations are any indication, the fifth wheels will be rolling this summer. "We're hearing campground reservations are up 5 to 15 percent, depending on where you are," says Ms. Robey of RVIA.

The Pine Hill RV Park in Kutztown can attest to the incoming tide of RVs. Most of the RV park's 123 sites were taken for Mother's Day, especially after the offer of a free breakfast for mom. Only a few slots are left for Memorial Day weekend, says Pam Hasse, co-owner of the park.

"This summer, we've booked a lot of clubs like the Kangaroos, the Shriners, the Campers for Christ," says Ms. Hasse, who purchased Pine Hill in March.

Just down the road from Cabela's, the Boat-N-RV Superstore offers buyers 30 acres' worth of RVs for sale. The business is expanding, adding a fourth location, says manager Bert Landes. Some of the business includes RVers who are downsizing and buying vehicles that use less fuel.

Filling up an RV can be a wallet-sapping event. A Winnebago Destination, which has a $164,752 price tag, carries 90 gallons of gasoline. At today's fuel prices, it would cost $332 to fill it up – an event that occurs relatively frequently since the vehicle gets seven to 10 miles per gallon.

RVers try to monitor prices at the gas stations. On his way to New Jersey, Mr. Cooper filled up at a Flying J in Fredericksburg, Va. There, lines of RVers were waiting for a turn at the pumps.

RV manufacturers are trying to produce vehicles that get better fuel mileage. "We're now building vehicles with a smaller chassis and lighter materials and utilizing engines with better fuel efficiency," says Sheila Davis, a spokeswoman for Winnebago Industries in Forest City, Iowa.

The vehicles with improved fuel economy are selling better than the traditional-styled motor homes, Ms. Davis says. "But bear in mind that, mileage-wise, most of the vehicles only travel 5,000 to 10,000 miles per year. It's not like driving a typical car."

In fact, the Timkos are quick to note that their impact on the environment is considerably less than when they owned a conventional home. "We're only heating and cooling 400 square feet of space," Mr. Timko says. "We've probably reduced our carbon footprint by 20 percent."

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