At Home on the Road: Joining the RV Caravan

A six-berth Mercedes motorhome, from Adventure Motorhomes, NZ.The Joys of traveling in a comfortable land yacht around the world

By Sally Dillon

In Australia they call them the Grey Nomads; they're the retirees who sell their houses, spend the kids' inheritance on a caravan (trailer) or motorhome and then head off to explore the Outback.

With a month's supply of meat packed into daily servings in the freezer, their favorite pewter wine goblets, and deluxe folding chairs, they roam from one free roadside campsite to another, part of a community of travelers that shares travel stories, spectacular sunsets, laughs, and directions to the cheapest fuel.

They travel equipped with all the comforts of home: gas refrigerators, showers, comfy beds -- often a TV. And their adult kids are realizing they're onto a good thing and throwing in their jobs, buying themselves a moveable home, and joining the Grey Caravan. So, just what is it that inspires people to travel in a home away from home?

Travel consultant Tanya Peach took time out from a demanding job in Mackay, Queensland, to head across Australia with her husband Alan and a camper trailer for a year. She says, 'We thought, 'Why wait until we're retired?''.

She doesn't regret quitting her job, renting out her house and taking to the road in her 30s: 'So many things we did, like walking up mountains, and roughing it, make me so glad we did it now.'

Their trip was a long time in the planning. Because they wanted to go off-road they opted for a camper trailer rather than a caravan. Alan spent months fitting it out. Tanya says, 'We knew we were spending a long time on the road and it would drive me insane to not be able to find things. Some of the things that Alan's done to it are so good. I've got everything at my fingertips.'

Of course, all this doesn't come cheap: there was the cost of the car and trailer (around $50,000), plus traveling expenses food, fuel, camping fees and entertainment for which they budgeted $2000 a month. Tanya says, 'You have to accept that you have to spend money. We met people who would bypass places because they wanted to save money. What's the point in that? You're traveling to see places. Others would race up the road to score the spot in the free campsite by lunch time and miss everything in between.'

Affordable Family Vacations

Still, renting a campervan can provide a more affordable family vacation than staying in hotels; it gives you more flexibility in where you spend your money as you can often camp in free sites, eat home-cooked food and save your money for the city attractions.

Thirty years later, my brother and I still reminisce about the three months we spent traveling with our parents around Europe in a rented combi van. We nicknamed 'Herbie', after the famous car in the movies.

We were aged five and three and yet the memories stick in our minds: eating stewed windfall apples; being made to bathe in icy streams in between campground showers (and the karmic retribution on mum when she fell into a stinging nettle patch); the Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen; windmills in Holland; and the Eiffel Tower
in Paris.

Tanya raves about the places she's seen: 'Karijini National Park...the colors: reds and purples and oranges and swirls of rock melting together even amateur photographs look amazing.'

But it's also the friendships made along the way that made the trip memorable. Tanya bumped into the same couples and families at several towns and even traveled in convoy for a while.

It's this idea of community that's helping to attract more people to self-contained travel in the USA. Nancy Nelson-Duac, from St Augustine, Florida, editor of family website, has taken her kids on several motorhome (RV) holidays.

She says, 'We always find that RV-ers form little communities. Friendly conversation and sharing is common. Need an egg? Just go to the RV next door. While at a RV spot not far from Hearst Castle [California] we spent a wonderful cold rainy night playing charades with newly acquired friends. The next morning one of them arrived at our RV with freshly baked doughnuts, concocted in their own RV.'

Not Just Snow Birds

Once the domain of the 'Snow Birds', the US retirees who follow the sun to Florida or Arizona in winter, RV vacations are becoming more and more popular with families. Mike Gast, Director of Communications for Kampgrounds of America, Inc, says the increase is a response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. 'After the attacks, the US saw an increase in the 'nesting' phenomenon, which causes people to desire to stay close to home, or at least vacation with family and friends in a safe, secure setting. Camping fills that need,' he says.

He says 'About 10 million households in the United States now own a recreational vehicle, which includes motorhomes and truck campers (a unit that slides into the back of a truck bed)[with] a 16% increase in orders from dealers this year.' Plus, there are short-term rentals, mostly from families with kids aged 10 to 18.

Nancy Nelson-Duac says a home away from home has definite advantages when you're traveling with kids: 'Not having to pack and unpack several times just because we wanted to go to more than one place; the advantage of not having to keep track of kids clutter each day, and each child had their
own space and could settle in easier each night.'

Plus, there's the flexibility of choosing your own itinerary: 'We could select our own room-with-a-view location. You wake up in a beautiful spot and don't have to drive to the natural beauty,' she says.

Of course, a home away from home doesn't have to be on wheels. In Europe, in particular, canal boat vacations are always popular. Mike Hamilton, from Foster City, California, took his wife and two sons canal boating on the Canal du Nivernais in Burgundy, France.

He chose a canal boat vacation because, 'You experience a country by shopping for groceries, not by staying in the Hilton and taking tour buses.'

He says, 'Another advantage of 'going on a home away from home' is the room. A hotel room can get very small very quickly for a family of four. The canal trip enabled us to spread out, shop in the villages, and meet people along the way. Every time we went through a lock we talked or tried to talk with the lock keepers. It was a wonderful experience.'

Sally Dillon is a keen touring cyclist (another way of taking it with you). She co-authored Lonely Planet's 'Cycling France' guide and has contributed to other LP books. This article originally appeared in the Comet, LP's monthly newsletter.

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