America is on the move. Constantly. Everywhere you go there are RVs towing cars and/or trailers, cars towing cars and/or trailers, U-haul rental trucks relocating people’s lives and cars crammed with personal belongings (a hanging rail between the back windows that converts the rear seat area into a wardrobe is popular). Add to that an almost overwhelming number of tractor-trailers (think Semis) and mile-long trains with four locomotives pulling double-stacked shipping containers across the vast plains and you begin to get the picture. And don’t even get me started on the airports.
RVs – be they motorhomes, fifth-wheelers, travel trailers (think Caravans) or toy haulers – are commodities over here. Old ones litter the landscape and fill the back yards of ramshackle properties across the nation, often providing secondary accommodation and regularly just falling apart. There are countless RV storage yards across the country bulging with idle machines, while even in suburbia they are parked on driveways and on the streets. And of course that’s not counting the ones on the highways...
Massive production fueled by massive consumerism, which is powered by ultra low interest rates (you can fix a 30 year mortgage at around 3% pa and auto finance is often 0%), plus the ability to tax deduct you home mortgage and even your RV as a second home (!) keeps the whole spend, spend, spend treadmill going. To an Australian like me it’s staggering in its scale and voracity, and to be honest more than just a little off-putting at times. As Mrs iMotorhome noted, “America isn’t for the feint hearted.”
Only about 10 per cent of American RVers have sold their home and are living on the road, I’m told, while another 15 per cent or so still own a home but are more or less full-time travellers. The rest are holiday makers and weekend escape people, or ‘Snowbirds’ from the North who migrate south to warmer climes every winter. Only having two weeks annual leave is a big limiter for working Americans, which is one reason why so many reach retirement before ever leaving the country. Long Service leave is unknown, along with many of the freedoms we take for granted, like flexi-days and nine-day fortnights (in certain industries). One young guy I was talking with has been in his semiprofessional job for two years and still only gets one week’s annual vacation. He gets two weeks from next year.
Gas is King
The majority of American motorhomes are gas (petrol) powered and ride on Ford E350 or E450 chassis, powered by a 6.8-litre V10 engine. Even many of the big A-classes are gas powered, although at the top end of the A-class market, diesels rule. Why is this so? Gas is cheapish (we’ve been paying the equivalent of $0.90c - $1.10 per litre) and as many people travel shortish distances, towing their cars and basing themselves in RV parks for weeks or even months at a time, it makes fuel a small part of the overall cost equation. That’s also why it’s quite common to find a 10 year old motorhome with just 10,000-20,000 miles on the clock.
Americans have been slow to embrace Euro technology and only Mercedes Benz has any sort of presence. Originally marketed here as Dodge Rams (can you believe!), Sprinters are now out on their own as Mercedes Benz, because Fiat bought Chrysler (Dodge is a Chrysler brand) and now, for the first time, Fiat Ducatos are available – you guessed it – as Dodge Rams! Oh you guys...
There are no Fiat-based RVs that I’ve seen yet, but there are quite a few Sprinters on the road, mainly as van conversions and B-Class motorhomes with a slide-out dinette. There are also a few C-class Sprinters and Winnebago offers both B and C-class designs, plus two very neat A-Class Sprinter adaptations.
Interestingly, whereas you can buy a 26’ ft C-class Winnebago gas motorhome on a Ford chassis from just US$64,500, a 24 ft Winnebago Sprinter (diesel) C-Class starts at US$101,500 and you can buy a lot of gas with the difference.
Stay or Pay
Unlike just about everything else in America, RV Parks are expensive – and not just in comparative terms. We’ve only used two during our journey but checked the prices on several others. We paid US$18 for an unpowered site by a river on our third night, which wasn’t too bad, but are paying US$109 for two nights to park on glorious asphalt in beautiful, downtown Las Vegas. I know; location, location, but along the way for very average places we’ve been quoted US$35-39 per night.
The trick is to stay for a month or more. Rates then often drop to about US$100-$125 per week. Staying for a week often only sees a one-day discount, so they really don’t want short-stay customers. This is why so many motorhomes tow cars – and why Walmart carparks are so popular.
For 10 of the 13 nights so far we have free camped, and 8 of those nights have been in Walmart carparks. Sound sad? Not at all! To be honest, with its all-bitumen surface and close quarters camping, this US$54.50 a night RV park looks just like a Walmart carpark...
Walmart is a massive (what else?) chain that sells everything from fresh food and wine to clothes, shoes, sporting goods, computers, phones and even have a small RV section in their auto aisles. You can also buy guns and knives, but don’t try to buy wine before 12 on a Sunday (in Missouri), or anytime on a Sunday on Navaho land on a Sunday. Heaven forbid...
By and large, Walmart stores welcome overnight RVers of every denomination, as long as you stay on the periphery of their massive carparks and don’t get in the way. Some stores are off limits, usually due to local community objections or small carpark size, but unless signposted otherwise you’re free to stay. Many even have 24-hour security that drive around all day and night making sure no bad asses hassle you. We even had a meet-and-greet in Amarillo as we pulled up, welcoming us to ‘his patch’ and assuring us he’d be on duty all through the night to keep us (and the other four RVs) safe. Now THAT’s service!
Of course it’s a win-win for Walmart because it’s almost impossible not to go inside and spend a few dollars – or even a lot of dollars. Many have Subways or McDonald’s outlets inside and we did all our food and wine shopping, bought toilet chemicals for the RV, kids clothes to take back to the neighbours, a coffee bodum (middle America still doesn’t ‘get’ good coffee) and various essentials. Finding RV-friendly Walmarts is easy too, via the Allstays app. Of course! It costs about $10 but is money very well spent (Allstays also do an RV Park app).
Fill ‘er Up!
Unlike Australia, the Interstates (freeways) don’t have any services on them, save the occasional rest area. You have to go off at one of the regular junctions, where you’ll usually find a myriad of gas stations, fast-food outlets and accommodation options.
Early on I found the Flying J/Pilot brand of gas stations/truck stops, which offer a 2c/gallon discount loyalty card plus special RV lanes with their own fuel pumps, drinking water and dump points. These are invaluable! Not every stop has full RV facilities but most do, and it’s good to be away from the trucks and cars (although you might have to queue).
Because American RVs use black water tanks for toilet waste you regularly need to find dump points when free camping (there are websites, of course!), but most Fling J/Pilot gas stations have them. You’ll pay $10 for a dump (if you know what I mean) or $5 if you have the aforementioned loyalty card. Every three or four days, it’s a small price to pay.
All gas stations take credit cards to pay at the pump, but there’s a catch: you have to enter an American zip code to authorise the purchase. Otherwise, you need to pre-pay, which is a bit of a hassle (prepay something like $150 and then go back in and get a refund if the fill costs less). So from the second fill I tried entering the only US zip code I know: 90210 (Beverley Hills) – and it worked! Ironically, the zip code is supposed to match your billing address to verify security. Go figure.
America is a land built of breathtaking natural beauty, friendly people and is very RV friendly. If you’ve ever wanted to try motorhoming over here then just do it. Try a rental relocation (www.standbyrelocs.com) as we have to get a taste for it and see how you go. It’s a huge adventure that’s not for the feint hearted to be sure, but it’s greatly rewarding and will also help you appreciate just how special Australia and New Zealand are too.
For the full article, including photos, download Issue 23 of iMotorhome eMagazine by clicking on the link below.