Road trips are fundamental to the American spirit. The people you love all gathered together, heading from home on a journey of discovery.
In a very real sense, it harks back to the founding of the nation, to journeys made by ancestors, or journeys made by pioneers who paved the way.
The RV is our modern equivalent of a Conestoga wagon in more ways than one.
- Everybody’s onboard in one vehicle.
- We take lots of our home comforts with us along for the ride.
- We’re masters of our destiny – free to eat on board or not. Free to sit and watch the stars if we want to.
- And not to put too fine a point on it, it’s cheaper than hoteling and moteling it every step of the way. You also feel more like a citizen of a great land when you’re RVing it, rather than a tourist in your own country when hoteling and moteling.
So, what makes the ultimate RV road trip? Let’s load up and find out.
Why Road Trip In An RV Rather Than A Car?
Road trips in a car are fine as far as they go. But there are several disadvantages, which the RV neatly negates for all on board.
You Can Travel More. Road trips in a car mean whoever is doing the driving can’t ever get any real rest.
You can take it in turns, yes, but with sleeping in the passenger seat and getting all kinds of uncomfortable the only option, the likelihood of real rest is slim.
What’s more, if the person who has been driving is now napping, trying to recharge their batteries, everybody in the car has to be quiet. That’s nigh on impossible if there are children in the car.
With an RV, a quick change of driver means the person whose shift has ended can go behind, stretch out in a real bed and get some proper rest. And any children can still be children, without disturbing the sleeper.
The result is the potential for much longer journeys, and much bigger adventures further away from home.
Then there’s the question of bathroom breaks.
In a car, every child – and every adult too, come to that – is at the mercy of their bladder. Every time someone needs a rest stop, you’re more or less obliged to find somewhere civilized to take them.
That means pulling in to a rest stop regularly, and having to re-acquaint yourself with the road again afterward, cutting into the time you spend traveling.
In an RV, if you need to go, there are onboard conveniences, so you go, do what you need to do, and the wheels just keep on turning, adding miles to your journey.
The same sort of thing applies to the cramped conditions in the back of a car, compared to the ability to go and sit, stretched out in comfort in an RV.
Easing that discomfort means easing the boredom of children, which in turn leads to fewer rest stops based on sheer exasperation and boredom. And the miles keep rolling away behind you.
Any which way you look at it, the RV, rather than the car, is the right way to make a road trip if you want to get further from home and have those bigger adventures with a different sky.
You Spend Less
This should be self-evident, but fewer stops for bathroom breaks, comfortable naps, or simply a distraction from cramp and boredom means you spend less en route.
You’re not required to make a rest stop, only to fill up again on coffee and soda pop at chain store prices. The more prepared you are in advance, the less you need to spend at premium, on the road, prices.
It’s also true that when you sleep on your RV at night, you’re not paying hotel or motel prices for an experience you can have right there on the vehicle.
You Can Prepare Your Own Food in An RV
Sure, part of the adventure of a road trip is to see new places, experience new things, and maybe eat different foods from across the country.
And that’s fine when it comes to destinations – places you’re aiming to get to and see.
But during the getting-there, why would you want to spend money for uncertain food that might for all you know be filled with additives and preservatives and anything else you care to name?
Part of the point of an RV is that it comes with at least a galley kitchen. That means you can fix your own meals and snacks while the miles run away from you.
That’s not only cheaper, it can also be reassuring for children. Children have different modes of thinking. They can be On An Adventure, and they can be Traveling.
If you encourage them to think that the traveling part is what happens before the adventure, they won’t feel the need to be eating Adventure-Food until you actually arrive somewhere, and will be comforted by the tastes of the familiar to pass the time while they’re traveling.
You Get Your Own (Clean) Bedroom And Bathroom
Let’s be clear here.
There’s no disrespect intended to the owners of America’s fine network of hotel and motel chains, or its Mom & Pop establishments offering beds for the night.
But let’s remember we’ve just experienced a pandemic viral infection. One of the key strategies for limiting infection during that pandemic was for families to ‘bubble’ together – to keep to their own as much as was humanly possible.
In hotels and motels off the highways of the nation, people sometimes stay for only one night, and sometimes for longer.
There’s often a quick turnaround to get the next guests in. Who knows if maybe the cleaning regime is overworked (especially given the Covid restrictions on working and travel).
With an RV, you know what you’re eating, you have your own bathroom for the ‘bubble’ of your family, and you bring your own sheets, pillows, and bed linen.
As much as a precaution for anyone else as for your own family, staying in an RV means you’re doing the socially responsible thing and keeping everyone safe.
There’s The Mindset
As we mentioned, in an RV, there’s a sense of adventure baked right in – all traveling together, with the potential to sleep, eat healthy food, and play without driving anyone else into a rage.
It’s a harmonious way for a family to travel into new territory and feel the spirit of exploration. In a car, it feels like a Monday morning commute that goes on for miles, and miles, and miles, and…
So, hands down, an RV is the best option when it comes to having the ultimate road trip across America. Cars are great, but for the ultimate road trip, they just don’t cut it.
Planning A Successful RV Road Trip
That’s not to say everything’s free and easy in an RV. If you’re going to have the ultimate adventure, you need to plan quite a lot of the trip ahead.
Because an RV is a very particular type of vehicle. You can’t legally just park it up on the side of the road. You have to book campsites to house it overnight.
You have to be sure there’s legal RV parking at the places you want to include on your adventure.
You have to make sure that the route you take is RV-friendly, rather than just car-friendly.
And again, you have to make sure you have the budget to complete the trip comfortably (which means building in some contingency for frivolity. Possibly quite a lot of frivolity where children are involved).
So – to the Planmobile!
Make A Plan That Matches Your Budget
When taking a road trip by RV, there are three major sources of expense.
- Campsite fees.
You know yourself how much money you have to dedicate to your RV adventure.
The trick is working out how to hit all the spots you want to hit, see all the things you want to see, and get all the way back again, on the money you have available.
There are several factors that account for how much gas you need.
- Size and year of your RV
- Speed of travel (the slower you drive, the less gas you’ll burn in the same period. This also correlates to less distance travelled).
- Price of gas when you set out.
There are any number of handy calculators to help you get numbers on this. One of the simplest, assuming you know your average vehicle mileage per gallon of gas is the KOA calculator.
Whatever else is true in this world, you can take it as fact that RVs will cost you more at the pump than regular cars. On average, RVs get about 6 to 18 mpg, depending on the size and model, whereas cars average about 24 mpg.
So, work out how far you want to go, your RV’s mileage per gallon, and the price of gas per gallon, and you should have a rough figure for your gas costs.
Then add more on top for off-ramping, driving from interstates to campsites, driving to any particular attractions you (or your kids) mark as a must-see while you’re on the trip, etc.
There is of course no standard campsite fee in America. You pay more or less from season to season, and from location to location, so how much you pay per night depends on where you go and what you want to see when you wake up.
Got a national park on your itinerary? The National Parks Service runs official RV campsites at most national parks, and prices vary from $15-25 per night at the Grand Canyon park to $120-125 per night at Colter Bay in the Grand Teton park.
It’s also worth knowing that while the National Parks Service keeps its prices as low as possible, there are sometimes private park owners within the same park whose prices can be substantially higher.
For example, at the Grand Canyon, a non-NPS site can cost you between $49-62 per night.
Across the country and outside of national parks, prices also vary considerably, so it’s worth planning out a route that’s friendly both for your RV and for your bank account.
To find RV campgrounds across the country, try:
Food and drink are primary expenses on a road trip, not least because it’s probably relatively rare that a family eats all its meals together in day-to-day life – children at school, parents at work.
On a road trip, the likelihood is that most meals will be eaten together, and must be planned or paid for out of a holiday budget.
To some extent, the cost of this can be mitigated by careful planning before the trip.
Simple family meals involving pasta, beans, rice, etc mean the bulk of the food can be bought at least one monthly budget ahead and stored in the RV ready for the trip.
Some of the rest of the equation will depend on the size of your RV’s kitchen, and what size refrigerator it has, for the storage of meats, cold drinks, etc.
Expect to take a lot of non-perishable snack foods for kids made ravenous by adventure and new locations. If you’re going to be doing a lot of outdoor activities like hiking, budget for high-energy slow-release foods too.
And include a larger budget for eating out at least some nights on your adventure, so as to add a sparkle to the eye and give a break from travel-food.
It’s been suggested by guides that $10 per person per day is a reasonable budget if the food is bought and cooked in the RV.
So if you use that as your guide, and then add extra for site-specific snacks and any food eaten in diners, restaurants, etc, you should be about right.
Admissions, Events, Etc
Remember to budget for entry into any events, attractions, and the like. Want to visit an alligator farm in Arkansas, it’ll cost you $9 per adult and $7 per child under 12.
Want to marvel at the weird and wonderful roadside attractions of America? No charge but the gas to get there. Budget accordingly and get your mind a little blown so you remember the trip forever.
Book Campsites In Advance If Possible
Campsites can be competitive, and they are a naturally finite resource – once they’re full, they’re full. Booking your spaces as far in advance as possible means your spot is secured, so you’re not forcing yourself to drive on through the night to another location.
It also means you won’t be forced by necessity out of cheaper campsites into more expensive, more run-for-profit campsites, eating into your road trip budget.
Apart from relieving any issues of not getting in somewhere, the further in advance you plan and book your campsite reservations, the less financial pressure there is on you in the immediate run-up to the road trip.
Book and pay for a night or two out of each paycheck for a few months ahead of time, and you won’t have to take a big hit in real-time when the road trip arrives. That will leave you free to enjoy more of your time without that extra burden.
And in addition to all that, having designated places to get to each night helps keep you on your route.
Sure, the biggest ball of twine in the world may be fascinating, looked at from a simple “Who thinks to do this?” angle, but if you don’t get to your campsite by nightfall, you’ll miss the slot you paid for…
Plan An RV-Friendly Route
Now – there are lots of people who feel the freedom of the open road is tied up with taking winding little detours wherever the next dirt road takes them.
All power to them, but that’s not practical with an RV.
As we mentioned at the start, an RV is a different class of vehicle altogether to a Nissan family-wagon. It’s taller, wider, slower, and often falls under restrictions that you might not ordinarily think about.
You’re going to need to think about them. Plan your route with regard to low clearances, propane-restricted bridges and tunnels.
Research tough gradients and switchback corners along your proposed route, and cut them the heck out, because getting an RV caught in a tight bend is like trapping a walrus in a washtub – it’s loud, it’s messy, it causes undue panic to everyone, and it just isn’t pretty.
Also, map your route according to RV-friendly gas stations. No, not all gas stations are RV-friendly. Fortunately, you don’t need to get out your dowsing rods to mystically find RV-friendly gas.
There are plenty of apps and map-overlays now that will take the heartache out of this element of your route-planning, including everything from Google Maps to the Gasbuddy app.
Research RV Parking In Advance
Similarly, it’s an RV rookie who rolls up to an event or location and just expects to be OK to park an RV there. If there are definite places you want to hit on your trip, make yourself a list and do the research – online first, phone second, just to confirm that you’re OK to park your RV at the venue.
Is this taking the spirit of adventure out of RV road-tripping? No, it’s proper planning to avoid disappointment, unnecessary difficulties, and looking unprepared in the eyes of your family.
Sure, there’s still room for the unexpected detour to see something cool – but ideally, as soon as it’s mentioned, check your Google Maps overlay or ask the digital butler that lives in your phone whether you’re OK to park an RV there.
Adjust Your Estimated Time Of Arrival
We need you to do something.
We need you to calculate how long it would normally take you to get from point A to Point B in the family car.Write it down for us on a piece of paper.
Now, very carefully, tear that piece of paper in half, lengthwise. And then do it again. And again. And then throw it in the garbage.
That right there is the experience of time planning with an RV.
You’re not in a family car anymore. You’re in a road warrior. A Conestoga wagon with a lot of modern conveniences. You don’t fit your beds in your family car. You don’t fit a refrigerator or an oven. Whole. Different. Ballgame.
Sure, the engine in your RV is larger too.
But with the route planning to avoid frightened bridges, the avoidance of some more direct routes because of their gradients and zig-zags, the detours for RV-friendly gas, and the occasional reductions in speed so as not to, for instance, hurl all the crockery out of cupboards, you’re going to be slower than you think you will if you base your calculations on standard car speed and progress.
Why is this important?
Remember that thing where you have to get to your campsite each night? Yeah, that.
Considerations of RV speed should never be allowed to get in the way of your adventure, but it’s worth factoring into your route-planning when it comes to how many miles you think you’re likely to realistically cover each day.
Road Trip Essentials Checklist
So you’re all ready to hit the road? Got your route planned, your budget fixed, your sights to see, and an empty RV?
Great – now all you need to do is fill that puppy up and you’ll be ready to go.
It’s not that easy remembering all the things that really should go in an RV when you’re embarking on a road trip though.
That’s why we’ve put together a ready reckoner for you, so you can check off what you’re taking along for the ride.
Sure, you’re going away on a great adventure. Great adventures take paperwork these days.
License and Registration For Your Vehicle
We’re sure you drive like a dream, but in the event that a cop is curious about your RV and its route into the road trip of a lifetime, these are the documents they will always ask for, to make sure that a) you are you, and b) you own the vehicle.
Take them with you, leave them in the glove compartment the whole time, remember to bring them back inside the house when you get home – at least until you next use the RV.
Insurance Documents and Relevant Numbers
As with the license and registration, you probably won’t need these on your road trip, but if you do need them, you’ll really need them. Dig them out, put them alongside the license and registration documents.
The Hard Copy Manual For Your Vehicle
More and more often, the manual comes as a downloadable document. By all means, have that to hand on a phone or e-reader of your choice. Carry the hard copy version too.
Because the world is such that the moment you need it, your battery will die, that’s why. Again, store it with the license and registration documents in the glove compartment.
Passports – Optional
Unless you’re planning to cross a border, or you feel like the urge might suddenly come upon you, you’re probably safe to leave your passports at home.
If you are likely to be going close to a border and might decide to hop over for an afternoon, take them with you.
Ideally, don’t keep these with your car’s documents, but in somewhere secure within the RV. Just in case.
Medical Details, including Insurance Documents And Numbers – Optional
This is only really necessary if you have an ongoing chronic condition, and may need, for instance, to prove you a) need the medications you’re carrying, or b) need some more of them, and are insured to receive them.
Again, there’s very little likelihood that you’ll need a spare tire, let alone two.
But if and when you do need them, you’d better believe you’re really going to need them.
If you’re rolling down the road and a tire bursts, it’s going to put a serious crimp in your adventure, to say nothing of your schedule, to have to wait till a local garage can get to you – and that’s if they have a spare for your particular RV.
Carry at least one spare tire on a road trip. Two for preference, just to give yourself twice the odds.
Roadside Emergency Kit
You need one of these so that if something goes wrong with your RV while you’re on the road, you’re not simply lost and floundering with an outsize vehicle on your hands, going nowhere.
A standard roadside emergency kit will include:
- Battery booster cables
- At least two light sticks
- A reflective vest, so people can see you working
- And emergency rain poncho, because immediately you break down, it will start to rain on you
- A warning triangle
- A whistle
- A tire pressure gauge, to confirm what you already know in your heart
- A window breaker, because yes, it will absolutely come to that
A Domestic Tool Kit
You’re essentially taking a mini-version of your home away with you. Anything that can go wrong in the full-sized version can go wrong in the mini-version too. Take:
- At least one sledgehammer or mallet
- Several screwdrivers – cross-cut and flat-head – of various sizes
- Ideally a multi-wrench
- A highly portable multi-tool
- At least one flashlight and batteries to power it
- Because you’re carrying your own plumbing, one plunger
Medications And First Aid
There are two levels of medication you might need on a road trip.
First, if you take any ongoing medication for a chronic condition, remember to pack enough of it for the whole trip PLUS two days, in case of complications en route.
Obviously, store all prescription medications out of the reach of children – even if they are prescription medications for the children.
But if you’re diabetic, asthmatic, have ADHD or anxiety, there’s no way you want to be 200 miles from home when you realize your medication’s in the cabinet at home.
Apart from the potentially serious side effects of missed doses, you really don’t want to have to spend money on replacement meds while you have them sitting at home.
That will make you feel like a diagnosed dumbass. Also, a lot poorer than you thought you were.
And second, there’s first aid. Anything can happen on a road trip. If you’re taking a road trip with children, anything is almost clinically guaranteed to happen.
Headaches, coughs, poison ivy, scraped knees, you name it – it’s probably out there waiting with your child’s name on it.
Take a reasonable first aid kit for the region you’re heading into – including sunscreen, bug spray, and calamine lotion if you’re going to enjoy some sun. Sure, they say a parent’s kiss can cure a thousand ills.
Take the lotion anyway.
Everything But The Kitchen Sink
If you’re going to be cooking, eating, and washing up after your meals on board the RV, you’re going to need to bring everything necessary with you.
Kitchen Checklist - Serving
- At least two size-appropriate plates for every family member
- Potentially, one bowl for every family member
- Two items of each type of cutlery per family member – forks, spoons, knives
- Two mugs per adult
- One juice glass per family member
- One wine glass/beer glass per adult, as required
Kitchen Checklist – Cooking
- Three deep pans, various sizes – think pasta, sauce, vegetable
- One frying pan
- At least one wooden spoon
- At least one silicone spatula
- At least one slotted spoon
- At least one drainer, suitable for pasta, vegetables, etc
- At least three sharp knives – meat prep, vegetable prep, one spare as needed
- One can opener, minimum. Two for safety
- Cheese grater – simply because you’ll realize how much you miss it when you don’t have one
Kitchen Checklist – Washing
- Dishwashing soap
- Utensil of choice for cleaning dishes
- Dish drying towel, if usual
We’ve mentioned this previously, and the exact make-up of what you take on your adventure will be up to you.
We suggest lots of long-life products, like pasta, rice, beans, etc.
Lots of snack foods to avoid the need to cook full meals to kill a hunger-pang. Canned products as appropriate.
Limit the fresh and refrigerated to absolute must-haves, to save space. Take enough to allow for a certain spirit of adventurous gluttony.
Good intentions and back-up plans are the order of the day when packing clothes for a road trip.
Ideally, take enough casual clothing so there is at least one outfit per family member per day.
One slightly more formal outfit per family member, in case of dining out.
Significant extra socks and underwear, because they are prone to accidents, from stepping in big puddles and soaking through the shoes to finding a muddy spot and sitting in it, accidents will happen, and when they do, the last thing anyone wants is to be sitting around in squelchy socks or muddy underwear.
Also, include appropriate weather gear – sun hats, rain ponchos, wellington boots, earmuffs – you know the terrain you’re going into. Pack accordingly for the most likely weather.
If you’re aiming to get out in nature and do some hiking, add appropriate footwear for all the family.
Aside from clothes for the family, it’s always a good idea to put fresh bed linen on the beds when you start out on a new road trip.
It helps deliver that feeling of being both away from home, and yet connected to all the good things that home provides, while you’re off on your adventure.
Toiletries & Personal Care
From nail files to toothbrushes, toothpaste, and dental floss, you’d be amazed what you forget when you leave the day-to-day world of home life behind. Remember to take enough toilet tissue to last you the whole trip – you never know when you might need it, even outside the vehicle (not all restrooms are necessarily adequately provided!).
Take towels, wash cloths, potentially razors or shavers, perfume, cologne, nail clippers, mouthwash, acne cream, tampons – you name it, you go through your bathroom at home and make sure to duplicate on a smaller scale.
There’s no reason why each family member shouldn’t have their own small toiletries bag to keep separately.
We all know we live in an age of navigation on our phones – but the navigation signal receiver in your average smartphone is the size of a paperclip, trying to receive and interpret an already weak signal coming from satellites in low-earth orbit.
Just saying. Take some paper maps and route-planners, too.
If you’re aiming to get out into nature and do some hiking, it would be useful for each family member to have a bag or rucksack appropriate to their size.
When getting on board the RV, this could be filled with their own personal choice of amusements – from e-readers, a couple of good (paper) books, packs of cards, etc, to miniature game consoles, every doll ever made, or a handful of action figures.
These could then be each person’s travel diversion bags, but when needed for hiking, could be filled with more appropriate things like energy bars, water supplies, and the like.
In addition to this, games that can be played as a family are always good on a road trip. They can bring everyone back together after a day of traveling, seeing new things, and adventuring.
Every USB Charger Known To Man
Yes, the point of a great RV road trip adventure is to get out into the country, spend time together, reconnect with one another and the world around you. But on the other hand, if your phone battery dies, you’re as good as dead.
Take at least one charger per personal device, be it a laptop, a games console, an MP3 player, a phone. You need to be able to charge all these – more or less simultaneously.
In fact, you could do worse than also investing in a solar power station, which converts the sun’s energy into usable, device-charging power without it costing you any additional cash.
An Awesome Playlist
It’s not a real road trip without an awesome playlist.
In fact, and this will be controversial with most adults, everybody should make their own awesome playlist.
So while Mom and Dad crank out their road classics from an age gone by, the kids too have a chance to educate their parents on what Real Music is.
It’s possible no adult reading this will ever tell their children about the suggestion. That’s on you – we’ve done our due diligence by the next generation.
While talking about playlists, it’s also an idea to load up your phone with a couple of kid-friendly audiobooks for the journey too, for a change of pace, a calming influence, and even an aid to sleep of an evening.
It’s worth investing in a Bluetooth headset for your phone, because it is of course illegal to answer a phone by hand while driving.
You might also invest in a portable wi-fi hub, because this is the 21st century, and even adventures are made better by the ability to stay connected with friends, family, the news, and the ever-crucial socials.
Taking a road trip in an RV is a great opportunity to get away from the day-to-day and experience new things. It can be an experience that makes memories for everyone on the RV, including some that will last for decades.
It’s a way of connecting to the great pioneering spirit of America, while being always firmly rooted in the 21st century.
It takes proper planning and some budgeting to pilot a modern RV, but the preparation, the planning, the pre-booking, and the parking checks will all ultimately reward you with a smooth trip, hopefully filled with shared laughter, new experiences, and an infusion of wonder that will keep the smile alive inside you for years to come.