Motoring toward retirement, dreams of wide-open blue highways might be stoking your passion to hit the road. With no job to tie you down, the kids grown and gone and maybe having kids of their own, why not sell the house, buy a recreational vehicle and see the country (or countries)?
You wouldn’t be alone. In the last 20 years, RV ownership in the U.S. has shot up 62%, according to a recent study by the RV Industry Association. RV ownership is at a record 11.2 million households, half of which are 55 and over. Another 9.6 million households plan to buy an RV in the next five years, the study found. Roughly 1 million Americans are living full-time in them.
Sales at some RV dealerships have been blazing. 2021 was a record year for the industry, with 600,240 units sold according to the RV Industry Association. While this year is forecast to see a 8.4% decline to around 550,000, that would still make 2022 the second-best year ever for sales of RVs.
“Our forecast shows another very strong year for the RV industry which is being driven by continued consumer demand and inventory restocking at dealerships across North America after a record-breaking 2021,” said RVIA President and CEO Craig Kirby. “Despite the economy as a whole facing headwinds with continued supply chain issues and rising inflation, RV manufacturers and suppliers are well-positioned to meet the ongoing demand for RVs as consumers continue to desire ways to get out and experience an active outdoor lifestyle.”
So are you ready to ride? We spoke with retirees who spend much of their time in recreational vehicles for their guidance on the pros of RV living in retirement. Here’s what they had to say about the upsides of life on the road in an RV.
Nervous? You Can Get Trained to Become an RV Ninja
If driving one of those gargantuan RVs gives you the willies, help is out there.
During the buying process, folks at the dealership where you’re looking will likely have eager staff on hand to give you tips and walk you through the processes. The bigger the ride, the more systems there are to master, from mirrors to back-up cameras – maybe even air brakes. Towables – from tiny pop-up trailers to the giant fifth-wheel trailers that demand a dedicated truck, present their own learning curve: backing up, negotiating tight turns.
For more extensive training, reach out to an RV driving school and instructor. Training programs might even save you money on your RV insurance.
Head over to RVBasicTraining.com and have a certified instructor come to you for one-on-one training in your own RV for $450 for a full day. They also offer manuals if you’d like a more DIY approach.
RV Driving School via rvschool.com skips the manuals and videos some instructing sites use for, yes, one-on-one training in your rig. Private training – eight hours over two days – costs $595 and two-person training is $895. Want some tuneup on the best ways to back up your RV? There’s a course for that. It costs $325 for a one-day lesson.
Retired RVer Geoff Baker is also an RV driving instructor, based in Florida (Baker drove buses for bus companies and Walt Disney World – and before that was in the British Royal Navy).
“I have been with the RV Driving School for about four years, mainly teaching spouses how to drive their RVs in case something happens to their driver husbands,” said Baker. “I still drive big rigs occasionally for Orlando’s Scootaround, moving electric mobility equipment to various state fairs.”
An RV Offers Built-in Isolation During COVID Surges
With COVID still with us, recreational vehicles continue to offer a safer way to travel.
“They kind of check a lot of boxes, right?” says Phil Ingrassia, president of the RV Dealers Association. “You can be outside with your family. You can self-isolate in the RV. So you're not with a bunch of other people that aren't related to you.”
Those dealers were very busy when the pandemic struck, says Ingrassia. Many frontline workers bought RVs to park in their yard or driveway to isolate themselves from their family after workdays in COVID-ravaged environments, including hospitals. Then business got a boost from a surge in first-time RV owners hunting for a vacation vehicle.
“So it's not exactly a free way to retire, but certainly for people who plan, it can be a very economical way to stretch their retirement savings,” Ingrassia says.
You Can Live on a Modest Budget in an RV
About those savings. It’s fairly common for income to dip in retirement, and that can necessitate lifestyle changes. Longtime RVers say that life on the road works well on a limited budget.
One retiree noted a couple of years ago that “we live modestly,” Charley Hannagan, who began RVing with her husband, Joe, in 2014, told us in 2018. “Joe tries not to spend more than $40 a night, on average, on housing. We have spent more, and we have parked for free.”
That’s the old $40. With private RV parks and state and national parks overflowing with RV travels, the prices have, however, increased. Retirees Nancy and Allen Fasoldt, who have been RVing for 15 years, are on the front lines of rising campground costs for RVs. “What used to be $25 a month can now run $40 or more,” says Nancy Fasoldt. “And what used to be $40 is $89 and higher. And many campgrounds have become resorts, mega corporate lots. Give it time and hedge funds will start gobbling them up.”
There are many places you can park for free: Many Walmarts and Cracker Barrels welcome overnight stays for RVers, as do some retail destinations, including Cabela’s (which offer water and dump stations) and the L.L. Bean flagship store in Freeport, Maine. Most won’t have hookups, however, for electric, water, and waste disposal.
“Our favorite overnight stops are at Elks Lodges,” said Geoff Baker, 74, a retired commander with the British Royal Navy who has been RVing across America with his wife, Laura, 67, a former safety manager at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, since 2011 (they are based in Polk City, Fla.). “I am a member in Gillette, Wyo., and we can stay at Elks Lodges around the country that offer RV parking – often free, and up to $25 per night donation for water and electric service
Another option: A senior pass for the national parks ($20/year or $80 for a lifetime pass) that gets passholders in for free and cuts the price of parking in half. Parking fees usually include electricity and water, access to a sewage dump station and sometimes amenities like Wi-Fi and cable.
As for the cost of an actual RV bought new, prices vary greatly, from as little as $6,000 for a pop-up trailer you’d need to tow behind your own vehicle to half a million or more for a large, tricked-out motorhome, with the middle of the market in the low six figures.
That might seem like a lot of money if you think about it as a vehicle, but sounds much more reasonable when you consider it as the replacement for what the RV community calls “sticks and bricks” — your old house, condo or apartment.
“We don’t pay property taxes or other taxes on the motorhome,” says Hannagan. “We paid a tax when we bought it. We pay about $1,700 a year to insure our car and RV. We spend about what we would for food if we lived in a sticks-and-bricks house.”
Also note that since RVs depreciate quickly, you can save a lot by shopping used.
Wait. You Can Park Your Traveling RV for Free? Yes, Boondocker
We just told you about how some national retail outlets open their megalots to RVers. However, don’t just randomly pull into a Walmart or Cracker Barrel and make yourself at motorhome. Check ahead whether overnight parking is allowed. Some retailers have to defer to local zoning laws that forbid overnight RV parking.
Another option is Harvest Hosts, a network of wineries, breweries and distilleries, museums, farms and golf courses that allow RVers to park their rigs for free; the RVers pay annual memberships with Harvest Hosts that range from $99 to $179, with the two upper tiers including golf courses and community hosts as options. The hosts are also hoping you’ll do business with them – buy some wine, play a round – during your stay.
As more Americans take to the road, RV-related businesses including Harvest Hosts are noting a surge in business, brought on, in part, by the limited availability of existing RV parks. Harvest Hosts offers more than 3,200 locations.Another free (after annual membership of $79, the cost of about one stay at a true RV park) option for RVers to park overnight or multiple nights is BoondockersWelcome (opens in new tab), an RV club which was acquired in 2021 by Harvest Hosts and is being integrated into that platform. BoondockersWelcome adds free overnight parking on private property, including residential homes.
RVers Can Volunteer to Give Back (And Save Money)
Some RV-living retirees are also giving back by volunteering. This altruism can have a side benefit of reducing day-to-day expenses.
“We volunteer for a United Methodist organization called NOMADS, which does service projects across the United States, such as rebuilding homes after disasters, doing repairs on churches and camps,” says Hannagan. “The projects last one to three weeks, and we park for free during those times.”
Retirees Bill and Cheryl Wessels of Sun City, Ariz., also volunteer for NOMADS as they travel the nation in their RV.
“Since 2005 [starting with Hurricane Katrina] we have rebuilt after several hurricanes, floods, tornadoes and even after fires,” says Bill Wessels. “Many charitable organizations sponsor groups such as our NOMADS, and many live and travel in their RVs to the work sites, because they are self-contained. Our NOMADS organization calls it retirement with a purpose.”
Hannagan says it’s common for RVers to volunteer at parks, forests or other public lands in exchange for free parking — serving as a host in a campground is a popular option. “If we weren’t doing the volunteering, the cost would be the same as being in a sticks and bricks with the insurance, electric and gas, and taxes,” she estimates.
You’ll Buy Less Stuff Traveling in an RV
Because your home is on wheels, there’s only so much you can put in it. A travel trailer, for example, is typically less than 400 square feet, according to the RV Industry Association. By comparison, the average square footage of a U.S. house is 2,301 square feet, according to Rocket Mortgage.
Newbie RVers find the longer they’re on the road, the more they can do without. Culling clothes is a constant, and getting rid of junk is a routine because there just isn’t the space to store it or the need to own it.
If you’re the sentimental type, living in an RV can be challenging — and expensive, if you need to rent storage space for the rest of your belongings. Alternatively, seek out a kindly friend or relative who has extra space in the basement or attic to store your stuff for free.
You Can Take the Road Less Traveled in an RV
When you’re retired and on the road in your RV, there’s rarely a need to get from point A to point B in the straightest line. Sometimes it’s more fun to avoid the interstates and go out of your way. Just be sure the backroads you travel can accommodate your RV.
“We’ve programmed our GPS to keep us away from anything less than a 13-foot bridge,” says Hannagan, whose RV is 12 ½ feet tall. “We plan routes to avoid crazy turns and bad bridges. Unlike with a car, you can’t just wing it.”
In addition to the roadway itself, you’ll want to ensure you have a place to park along the way. The Fasoldts have become pros at identifying welcoming overnight parking spots, from the aforementioned Walmarts and Cracker Barrels to casinos and truck stops. Even some rest stops on major highways – we’re looking at you, Ohio Turnpike – offer overnight parking for RVs and travel trailers.
So You’d Rather Be Glamping? Many Private RV Parks Are Loaded With Amenities
One of the main points of RV life is that you get to decide what features your RV has. You want air conditioning, satellite TV and internet? They can be installed, and if you have a generator, powered up wherever you go. Most larger RVs have a toilet, sink and even a shower. That said, private campsites offer electric, water and sewer hookups, laundry facilities and more. Most critically for many, full-scale bathroom facilities with “real” showers and normal flush toilets.
The WiFi alone is much-welcome plus for long time RVers. “since we began RV’ing 15 years ago is the availability of WiFi,” said Fasoldt. “Used to be we’d have to stop at local libraries, sit out back at McDonald’s or even cruise around looking for open networks. Not anymore. Most campgrounds offer free WiFi. It’s usually slow and often cranky, but it is there.”
Want to step it up? Luxury RV parks are a thing now, with singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett expanding his hold of Margaritaville-themed retirement communities by adding a chain of 30-50 RV parks, called Camp Margaritaville RV Park and Cabanas. One is open in Auburndale, Fla., and it also offers $195-a-night cabanas for wastin’ away without an RV (they come with golf carts for zipping around the resort). Georgia and Tennessee each have one Margaritaville RV park. Amenities include RV sites ($70-$200 a night), Motorhome Suites (around $200 a night) with upscale offerings including a private tiki hut with a Kamado Joe grill, outdoor TV, Adirondack chairs and hammocks. The 60 Cabana Cabins offer full kitchens. The resorts offer arcades, bars, pools, game courts, kids play area and dog play areas (Barkaritaville, of course).
You’ll See More of Your Family While Traveling in an RV
Relocating in retirement is common. Warm-weather states such as Arizona, the Carolinas, and Florida are popular landing spots for retirees. But leaving the place where you raised your brood can make it harder to keep up with family. That is, unless you retire in an RV.
Many senior RV couples comment that they see their grandkids more often and for longer amounts of times when they’re road-tripping. Parking your rig in the driveway of relatives’ homes means you’re saving on hotel expenses and crashing in your own place at night, right outside. Many retired RVers say they like this balance of family closeness during the day and private space at night.
You’ll Eat Well in Your RV Travels
Some RV retirees say they dine in more and eat out less (and thus save money) than when they lived in their fixed real estate. Not only is the impulse to just go to a restaurant after a long day at the office faded, but the issue of getting out — depending on your rig and where you’re going to park it for the nigbht — tends to make that private traveling kitchen right there in your living space the better option.
But many RVers also laud the variety of fresh foods and regional specialties they get to sample, either at restaurants or cooking it up in their motorhome as they traverse the nation.
“We can’t finish this discussion without talking about food,” says Bill Wessels. “Oysters in the Pacific Northwest, lobsters in Maine and don’t forget all the Cajun food in Louisiana. I can’t get salmon as fresh as in Alaska.”
Adds Fasoldt, “Our aim when we do eat out is to do the unchained eateries, where the likelihood of getting fresh food is greater than in fast-food restaurants. Thank goodness for a little [free] app called Around Me. I even find thrift stores and post offices using that app.”
Oh, the Places You’ll Go …
Of course, the core appeal of retiring in an RV is the ability to see as much of America (or other countries) as you want at your own pace.
“We traveled to 49 states, several Canadian provinces and drove it to Cabo San Lucas [in Mexico],” says Bill Wessels. “We lived in our RV full time for two and a half years, and most of the rest of the time we’re in it a minimum of six months a year. We have seen the fall colors in New England, followed the aspens as they changed colors in Colorado, experienced the beauty around every curve in the road as we followed the Columbia River, and got up close and personal in Denali National Park [in Alaska]. An RV allowed us to be volunteers in places we couldn’t otherwise have helped and give back during retirement.”
The Hannagans have found some out-of-the way places to station their RV.
“We parked on a small island in Alexandria Bay [in New York]. We sat on a bridge overlooking the Hudson River — it’s a park called Walkway Over the Hudson — to see Fourth of July fireworks, which was way cool,” says Charley Hannagan. “We parked for six weeks in the fall in Waves, North Carolina, on an island in the Outer Banks. We evacuated twice for hurricanes. We’ve camped twice in the Smokies. We swam in clear springs and saw manatees in Crystal River, Florida.”The Fasoldts, too, have traveled extensively in their 14 years of RV retirement, hitting 49 out of 50 states as well as several Canadian provinces. Says Nancy Fasoldt: “We’ve enjoyed countless national parks and monuments — Death Valley is beyond amazing; the jaw-dropping Cascades in northern Washington; California’s Highway 1, before the floods and fires; Pilot Butte Wild Horse Scenic Loop in Wyoming; creative, lovely Bisbee, Arizona; Padre Island National Seashore, near Corpus Christi, Texas; South Padre Island, Texas, where we still winter over; all of Idaho one summer; tons of presidential libraries and museums — you should see the Watergate exhibit at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California; many, many, many zoos and quirky museums; the Golden Isles off Georgia; Florida’s Key West and the Everglades; and Nikolaevsk, a Russian Orthodox village of 'Old Believers' in Alaska.”
Baker notes that “traveling this beautiful country is a great experience and we love the Corps of Engineers parks, where we can camp at a 50% discount with the senior card ... There are many wonderful COE [locations] on the banks of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.”The Bakers’ favorite spots include the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone, the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, Custer State Park and the Badlands of South Dakota, and Devils Tower in Wyoming. Their least favorite: “You can keep the New Jersey Shore and southeast Florida coast,” said Baker.
… And the People You’ll Meet
When you’re moving about the country in your motorhome, you have a chance to see the makeup of America more closely.
“People are our lives, and we meet tons and tons of them,” says Fasoldt. “But fleetingly. Some of our travel friends we’ve held on to for years, even though we’ve not seen them in person for years. Others we connect with annually. I compare the RV life to life in the military. When you enlist, you know you are likely to be transferred here and there, so you learn to make friends in a hurry. Same thing on the road.”
Adds Hannagan: “We’ve met some really interesting people. We had dinner with three brothers fly fishing in the Smokies, and the subjects of our conversations wove a friendship into the darkness. We parked next to an artist in Florida, who decorated her fifth wheel [trailer] with vividly colored paintings of birds and cats. People offer tips on what to see and where to eat. I always ask people, what’s the one thing I should see that most people miss?”
Bob is a Senior Online Editor at Kiplinger.com. He has more than 40 years of experience in online, print and visual journalism. Bob has worked as an award-winning writer and editor in the Washington, D.C., market as well as at news organizations in New York, Michigan and California. Bob joined Kiplinger in 2016, bringing a wealth of expertise covering retail, entertainment, and money-saving trends and topics. He was one of the first journalists at a daily news organization to aggressively cover retail as a specialty, and has been lauded in the retail industry for his expertise. Bob has also been an adjunct and associate professor of print, online and visual journalism at Syracuse University and Ithaca College. He has a master’s degree from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and a bachelor’s degree in communications and theater from Hope College.
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