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All Contents © 2020The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Bob Niedt, Online Editor
| May 28, 2020
Retirement is in sight. You’re ready to begin new journeys, hit the open road — and travel the blue highways in a recreational vehicle.
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And why not? You’ve earned it (literally), and with a comfortable cushion of retirement income, you can satisfy your yearning to roam the country, visit children and grandchildren — and, of course, hit the big sightseeing destinations.
You won’t lack for fellow travelers. Approximately 10 million U.S. households own RVs, according to the RV Industry Association, and roughly 1 million Americans live in one full time.
Even amid the uncertainty and gloom of the COVID-19 pandemic, current and future RVers are ponying up for wheels. Earlier in May, shares of Camping World Holdings Inc. (CWH) surged 35% after reporting first-quarter earnings that blew past analysts’ estimates. Sales of RVs are rocking, likely fueled by pent-up demand to go vacationing, along with interest from “covid campers,” people no longer willing to stay in a hotel or motel and seeking a self-contained way to travel.
But is an RV in retirement really right for you? We checked in with retirees who spend much of their time in recreational vehicles for their take on the upsides of RV living in retirement. Here’s what they had to say about life on the road in an RV.
As Camping World’s results show, sales remain strong. People are browsing and buying online, over the phone and through live video chats as dealers adapt to selling in a pandemic.
In some states, dealerships are open — or about to be — for in-person browsing and buying, with social distancing enforced and employees employing thorough cleaning routines.
Salem Hassan, owner of RV dealer Travelcamp of Jacksonville, Fla., told The Florida Times-Union, “We are also seeing a shift in buyers, where people are now entering the shopping and research phase of RV ownership with the idea that it can be a more relaxed and safer way to enjoy a vacation versus some of the traditional options that place people in more proximity to others. RVing provides for more isolation.”
Some dealers (including Hassan’s Travelcamp) are even delivering RVs purchased online to residents’ homes or some other prearranged pickup point.
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.
“We live modestly,” says Charley Hannagan, who has been RVing with her husband, Joe, since 2014. “Joe tries not to spend more than $40 a night, on average, on housing. We have spent more, and we have parked for free.
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There are many places you can park for free: Many Walmarts and Cracker Barrels welcome campers, as do some retail destinations, like some Cabela’s and the L.L. Bean flagship store in Freeport, Maine. Joe has a senior pass for the national parks [$20/year or $80 for a lifetime pass] that gets us in for free and cuts the price of parking in half.” Parking fees usually include electricity and water, access to 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, as RVs depreciate quickly, you can save a lot by shopping used.
Some RV-living retirees are also giving back by volunteering. Their 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.”
COVID-19 has disrupted these programs, but these retirees expect to be back at it when coronavirus-related restrictions are lifted.
Hannagan says it’s common for RVers to volunteer at national parks, forests or wildlife refuges in exchange for free parking. Other RVers volunteer as camp hosts in state parks to park for free. “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.
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.
“Surprisingly, I find that the longer we’re on the road, the more stuff I can do without,” says Hannagan. “I’m constantly culling clothes and other junk because we just don’t have the space to keep things we don’t use.”
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.
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. In fact, 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. Retirees Nancy and Allen Fasoldt, who have been RVing for 12 years, have become pros at identifying welcoming overnight parking spots, from the aforementioned Walmarts and Cracker Barrels to casinos and truck stops. The number-one rule, according to Nancy Fasoldt, is to call ahead and ask for permission to park overnight. And it’s especially important to check given the coronavirus, which led some destinations to close up.
The Fasoldts rely on technology to unearth parking options.
“A great app for finding these places is Allstays Camp & RV” says Fasoldt. ($9.99 on Apple’s App Store) “Online, we use Freecampsites.net and Casinocamper.com. We also use Campendium.com. We are in our first year as members of Harvest Hosts, which lets us stay for free overnight at wineries, some museums, some farms and golf courses. The catch is they want our business.”
Relocating in retirement is common. Warm-weather states such as Florida and Arizona are popular landing spots for retirees. But leaving can make it harder to keep up with family. That is, unless you retire in an RV.
“We see our grandkids, and for much longer amounts of time, now that we’re on the road,” says Hannagan. Included among the recent meet-ups with family was a camping trip to West Virginia and sightseeing in Gettysburg, Pa. and Philadelphia. A volunteer disaster-relief project in Louisiana also let her catch up with an aunt and uncle.
Some RV retirees say they dine in more and eat out less (and thus save money) than when they lived in a traditional house. “Because we carry our home with us, we only eat out about once a week,” says Hannagan. “That’s much less than when we lived at home and often didn’t feel like cooking after work.” And with many restaurants closed (and possibly folding) due to the coronavirus, it’s a bonus to have your own private traveling kitchen.
But many RVers also laud the variety of fresh foods and regional specialties they get to sample 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.”
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, 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 13 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.”
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?”