Picking the right style of RV for your family

When we first started looking at RV’s, we knew nothing about how many styles, configurations, floor plans, and accessories were available. This is the first post of many where we’ll dig into what we’ve learned from our research and explain our decision-making process as we gear up to hit the road. The first big decision we had to make is what style of RV we wanted that would fit the needs of our full-time family.

There are a three main styles to talk about here – Travel Trailers, Fifth Wheel campers, and Motorhomes (which are commonly broken down into Class A, B, and C, and are also known in our household as “home buses”). Before we talk about the pros and cons of each of these styles, let’s take a minute to talk about what they all have in common: tons of floor plans.

You’ll be able to find an RV that fits your needs in all three styles. You can find a studio-like space with lots of windows and creature comforts, you can find a more rugged layout that just gives you a place to lay down that’s not a tent, and you can find everything in between. In addition to a kitchen, a bathroom, and a comfortable common area, we’re looking for an RV with a bunkhouse because we need space for three kids and two dogs. We have found all of those required features in all three styles of RV.

With that out of the way, let’s look at each style individually.

Travel Trailers

Travel Trailer
Photo copyright Trailerlife Magazine

If you’re like me, the Travel Trailer probably isn’t the first thing that pops into your head when you hear someone say “RV” – that distinction goes to the Motorhome. Travel Trailers are motor-less RV’s that are connected to your towing vehicle with a regular hitch. They are available in a staggering array of lengths, weights, uses, and floor plans. You can get a small Travel Trailer called a “Toy Hauler” that is basically a mobile garage with room for a couple motorcycles and a bed, or you can hit the other end of the spectrum and get a monstrous 40’+ Travel Trailer with multiple rooms, king beds, and 50″ TV’s that would put my first apartment to shame.

Travel Trailer Pros:

Price

Travel Trailers tend to be the cheapest of the bunch. They aren’t as tall and heavy as Fifth Wheel campers so they don’t require quite as much towing power, and they don’t include the motor part of Motorhomes. Both of these factors generally mean that Travel Trailers will be more affordable to most people.

Maintenance

This style of RV also comes in the cheapest for insurance and maintenance costs. They’re smaller, lighter, and use fewer materials, plus there is no motor to take care of. Many of the issues you may come across in a Travel Trailer can be fixed without the assistance of a repair shop. There are dozens of how-to resources available online that can walk you through every step of most repairs so there’s the potential to save a lot of money there as well.

Flexibility

When it comes to setting up camp and going exploring, the advantage to Travel Trailers (and Fifth Wheels) is that you can easily disconnect your tow vehicle and leave the RV behind while you go on an adventure knowing that all humans and animals fit in that vehicle. If you’re in a Motorhome you can tow a vehicle behind it, but there’s a good chance it’s going to be a smaller vehicle that may not fit all of you.

This is also a bonus if either your tow vehicle or your trailer are in need of repairs – if the trailer is in the shop you’ve got your tow vehicle to get you to a hotel, and if your tow vehicle is in the shop you’ve got a place to stay while you wait.

Travel Trailer Cons:

Towing

Because Travel Trailers use a standard hitch, they’re going to be hanging out pretty far behind your tow vehicle. Anyone that has towed anything at highway speeds knows that things can go wrong very quickly. There are accessories you can use to help counter swaying, assist with braking, and generally manage the entire experience, but Fifth Wheel campers are far more stable because of how they connect to your tow vehicle. It’s not all flowers and puppy dogs at low speeds either. Backing a long, heavy, jointed box into tight spaces takes a lot of practice and finesse. Fifth Wheel campers shine here as well because of how they’re attached.

Quality and Condition

The more we look into becoming a full-time family, the more we come up against the old adage “you get what you pay for”. This holds doubly true when looking at Travel Trailers. You can find used Travel Trailers as low as $1,000, and you can find brand new ones for well over $100,000. There are literally hundreds of factors to consider between those two price points.

If you just want to pick up a trailer to use a couple weekends a year, you can probably get away with an older, cheaper model. If you’re going to head out on five or six week-long excursions every year, you should look into something more reliable and made with better materials. If you’re going to live in one full-time for 3 or 6 or 12 months, the quality of what you buy is going to be the difference between success and misery. Don’t break your budget, but apply some common sense here and don’t cheap out.

Separate Travel

One of the best mental images is of a family rolling down the road in a Motorhome, one parent at the wheel, the other navigating, and the kids sitting on couches playing games (who am I kidding, they’re fighting) in the back. You can’t do this with a Travel Trailer (or a Fifth Wheel) – it’s illegal in every state I’ve looked at to have anyone occupying a camper while it is underway due to extreme safety concerns. This applies to your animals as well. Everyone you’re traveling with has to fit inside the tow vehicle, or you have to drive an extra passenger vehicle or two. Luckily there is a wide array of crew cab pickup trucks and passenger vans that fit the bill.

Fifth Wheel Campers

Fifth Wheel
Photo by Larry Page

Fifth Wheel campers kind of look like the bigger, more serious version of a Travel Trailer. Aside from how they connect to your tow vehicle, they’re basically the same as Travel Trailers. They don’t have a motor, they’re available in a ton of lengths, weights, and configurations, and you can find one to fit your needs to a T.

Fifth Wheel Pros

Flexibility

Like the Travel Trailer, you are able to disconnect a Fifth Wheel from your truck and go exploring. They’re bigger, heavier, and use a completely different hitch mechanism, but they operate in virtually the same way.

Towing

The primary advantage to the Fifth Wheel style of RV is the way that it connects to your truck. Instead of connecting way out behind your truck with a ball joint, a Fifth Wheel connects all the way up in the bed of your truck through a beefy horseshoe-and-kingpin setup. This is virtually identical to how semi-trailers connect to their massive cargo loads, so you know it’s a strong connection. Fifth Wheel campers are also a lot more stable at highway speeds and easier to maneuver while reversing because the trailer is connected above the rear axle of your truck.

Height

Most Fifth Wheel campers take advantage of the space above the hitch, frequently called the gooseneck. A lot of floor plans put the master bedroom and a bathroom in this space. Because you can make the area above the bed of the truck usable, this makes your overall rig shorter than it would be with a Travel Trailer of the same length. This can be important when traveling in some areas that have smaller roads with tighter bends. The height also frequently means a taller ceiling which not only gives the occupants more headroom, it can also mean a lot more storage opportunities.

Fifth Wheel Cons

Price

When you compare Travel Trailers and Fifth Wheels, you’ll notice that comparably equipped Fifth Wheels will be more expensive. Because they’re taller and use a heavier hitch mechanism, they require more materials to construct. Many manufacturers also don’t offer the simpler floorplans in their Fifth Wheels as they are generally perceived as more luxurious than Travel Trailers.

Towing

Wait a minute, I thought towing was in the pro column? Well yeah, the Fifth Wheel gives you a stronger, more agile connection point, but that also means you need a bigger, more powerful, more expensive truck. Also, notice how I was saying “tow vehicle” with Travel Trailers but “truck” with Fifth Wheels? That’s because they only work with pickup trucks that have a tow package installed that allows them to accept a Fifth Wheel. Our family will fit in a crew cab pickup truck, but we’ll be maxing it out.

If you need more space, you might look at some of the bigger vans that are capable of towing. A van can’t pull a Fifth Wheel camper though, and it’s illegal for anyone to be in a camper while it’s on the road, so this pretty much means you would have to drive two vehicles to handle more than five passengers.

Height

Oh come on, height was also in the pro column! You’re right, height gives you some great advantages with comfort and storage, but if you’ve spent any time on the road you’ve encountered bridges and tunnels with height restrictions. There are a lot of areas, especially in the older parts of North America (like New England), that have older, lower overpasses that just can’t accommodate large campers. There are even older mountain tunnels out west where you’ll encounter the same issue. You should almost always be able to find an alternate route, but this is definitely something to consider if you’re going to be spending much time in those areas.

Separate Travel

As outlined above under Trailer Trailers, no one can be inside a Fifth Wheel camper while it is underway. Make sure your truck is large and comfortable enough to carry everyone between campsites and while you’re out on excursions.

Motorhomes

Motorhome
Photo copyright Luxe RV Rental

Here’s where you can drop some serious money and get a fully-appointed land yacht. Or you can spend $20k or less and pick up a fun retro model that has some years and miles on it. Motorhomes are broken down into three styles all their own: Class A, Class B, and Class C. Here are some brief points on what those classes mean.

  • Class A Motorhomes are built on a heavy-duty commercial truck or bus chassis. They are large, roomy, and built for comfort and luxury. They’re also capable of towing the most weight, so if you have a lot of passengers and need a large towed vehicle, this is your only option.
  • Class B Motorhomes are at the other end of the scale. They’re the cheapest and smallest of the three classes and are more commonly known as Camper Vans. You’ll get a kitchen, a bed, a bathroom, and that’s about it. They don’t sleep a lot of people so if you’re hitting the road with a family you probably shouldn’t look at Class B’s.
  • Class C Motorhomes are the middle child of these three. They have a lot more in common with the Class A, but they’re a bit smaller and less powerful overall because they’re built on a lighter chassis. You can also tow a vehicle with a Class C, but not a very large one. This is probably where you’ll start looking if you’re going the Motorcoach route.

For the purposes of this article, we’re only going to talk about the pros and cons of the Class A and Class C Motorhomes.

Motorhome Pros

Comfort

Motorhomes are kind of the all-in-one package when it comes to having an RV. The driving area is directly attached to the living area, so you and your passengers get to travel a bit more comfortably between stops. Everyone still needs to be buckled up properly (and the littles need to be in car seats), but you’re not all elbow-to-elbow in a pickup truck or van. This gives you the chance to get some work or teaching done on the road while seated at a table. You can also much more easily grab a snack from the fridge, take a nap, or use the bathroom (while pulled over).

Flexibility

Motorhomes are able to tow small vehicles, and this setup has two big advantages. First up is flexibility – once you’ve set up camp you can scoot around the area in that smaller vehicle that you’ve been towing. It’s much easier to fit into parking spaces, garages, tunnels, and cities in a normally-sized vehicle. In order to tow a Travel Trailer or Fifth Wheel, you’re going to need a large truck or van, and these are far less nimble.

Gas Consumption

The second big advantage to towing a small vehicle is your gas consumption. Those smaller vehicles consume a lot less gas than the bigger ones capable of towing. Motorhomes aren’t exactly known for sipping gas, but you’re probably setting up camp for multiple days at a time so you’re not necessarily chugging through gas every day in it. That small, fuel-efficient vehicle is your daily driver.

If your traveling party is on the smaller side, these are two really important things to consider.

Motorhome Cons

Price

Motorhomes, especially Class A’s, are expensive. If you’re looking at getting an RV but don’t already have a vehicle that can tow a Travel Trailer or Fifth Wheel, you might think that a Class A or C is a great way to save on buying two big items. Things don’t generally work out that way though. In many cases, especially if you’re buying used, the combined price of a trailer and a truck can be half the price of even a Class C.

There’s also the matter of depreciation. Motorhomes tend to depreciate a lot faster than a Travel Trailer or Fifth Wheel because of the wear and tear placed on the motor and drivetrain, so your resale value is going to decline much more rapidly.

Maintenance

Motorhomes are expensive not only in their upfront cost, but also in their daily operation and maintenance. They’re all of the living space you have in a Travel Trailer or Fifth Wheel plus the motor and everything that goes along with it. If you’re towing a vehicle, now you have two engines and transmissions you need to provide upkeep for. Insurance is also more expensive on Motorhomes because of their size, weight, and cost to repair.

Size

Class C’s get a pass on this category as they tend to be significantly smaller, but Class A’s will frequently come up against size and weight restrictions. You can avoid these headaches by using your towed vehicle, but you may have to alter your route between camps to get around bridges, tunnels, overpasses, etc.

What Did We Choose?

The crew here at Five 2 Go has settled on finding a new or gently used 30-35′ Travel Trailer or Fifth Wheel. Our plan is to hit the road sooner rather than later, so our budget is a bit low for a Motorhome.

We haven’t settled on any brands or models yet, so there will be more on that to come soon. We also haven’t settled on new vs. used. The difference in upfront cost between the two isn’t as significant as it would be with Motorhomes, but depreciation is a big factor.

Stay tuned for more as we keep researching and sharing what we find!



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