Fans of RV travel are a hardy group. They endure traffic jams, mosquitoes and the occasional bear, so fluctuating gas prices won't keep them and their RVs parked at home this summer.
Average U.S. gas prices rose above $3.90 this spring, though they had dropped in most places by the start of June to $3.61 a gallon. But whether they're up or down doesn't make a huge difference for those driving gas-guzzlers, like Bill Battle's Winnebago Itasca Suncruiser that averages about 7 mpg.
Battle and his wife plan to drive their 38-foot motorhome (towing their Jeep) about 1,400 miles round-trip from their home in southeastern Michigan to Forest City, Iowa, for the Winnebago Grand National Rally this summer. It will likely cost them between $700 and $800 in gas, depending on pump prices, plus another $750 for food, campground fees and other expenses. The rest of the year they expect to stay closer to home, driving less than 600 miles per trip.
Even if gas were to go as high as $5 or $6 — though that seems unlikely given the direction prices are headed at this point in the season — Battle, a 68-year-old retiree, said they wouldn't stay home. "We'll still go, but we'll do shorter trips," he said. On the other hand, a steep drop might inspire more travel: "If fuel prices were $2.50 a gallon we probably would have made a second big trip to the Western U.S."
A recent survey shows others have arrived at the same conclusion. Of nearly 425 RV owners interviewed in March by the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, 60 percent said fuel prices were affecting their plans, and that they would adjust by driving less and traveling to destinations closer to home.
KOA, which represents about 500 campgrounds, has been marketing to the "camping closer to home" crowd, and reservations for this summer are up about 4 percent over 2011, said spokesman Mike Gaft, in Billings, Mont.
There are about 9 million RV owners in the United States, and sales of new campers are expected to increase 5 percent this year, said RVIA spokesman Kevin Broom, in Reston, Va.
About 90 percent of the units sold are towable trailers, as opposed to motorhomes. Broom said that has less to do with high gas prices, and more to do with the purchase price.
The average price of a big Type A motorhome, which looks like a bus, is about $176,000, while a small travel trailer averages $20,900 and a folding tent trailer $9,400, Broom said.
In fact, manufactures have been conscious of rising gas prices for the past few years, making campers smaller, more aerodynamic and fuel-efficient. A new 32-foot Type A motorhome, for instance, might get up to 15 mpg, Broom said.
The industry commissioned a study on the cost of RV travel last summer, and PKF Consulting found that the average weeklong two-person vacation using a Type A motorhome, staying in campgrounds and cooking all meals, would cost about $4,285, when factoring in the RV purchase price, maintenance and gas.
The cost for two people flying economy to their destination, renting an intermediate car, staying at a standard motel or a hotel like Days Inn, and eating in restaurants for the week would cost $2,735. Only with first-class plane tickets, premium SUV rentals, dining out and the most expensive hotels — like the Ritz Carton or Four Seasons — did it become more costly than Type A motorhome camping, averaging $5,360 per week, the study found.
On the other hand, pulling a travel-trailer with a light truck and staying and eating at campgrounds would cost about $1,845 for the week, it found. Savings or not, Battle likes his 5-year-old Winnebago Type A motorhome and has no interest in flying. He reels off a list of reasons why camping is better: no airports to deal with, no security lines, room for more luggage and golf clubs, a fridge and freezer he can stock, no bedbug worries and the company of Buddy, his chocolate lab.
"One day we can be in a quaint village touring wineries and the next we can be in a RV park on the shore of one of the Great Lakes," Battle explained.
In order to watch the pennies, Battle said he uses an interactive AAA site to map his route and check the prices at gas stations along the way. He and his wife will often barbecue instead of eating out, and they've been known to overnight in a casino parking lot.
"You know what you have to spend and you make your plans ahead of time," he said. "We love the convenience of the motorhome."
If You Go...
—GasBuddy.com and the CheapGas app can help you research cheapest places for gas on your route.
—The advertised price at some gas stations is for cash. You may be charged more if you swipe a credit card. If you don't have cash, buy a gift card to that gas station with your credit card and use it at the pump.
—Look for discount gas gift cards from sites like GiftCardGranny.com that sell cards for less than face value.
—Take advantage of grocery store and gas perks. Some supermarket brands partner with gas chains to offer a discount if you use points from the store to buy your fuel.
—Break down the added cost of gas for towing heavy equipment like a boat. Depending on the distance, you may find that renting a boat for a day at the lake is cheaper.
—Gas station prices usually drop midweek.
—Look for credit card deals that offer cash back on gas purchases or points for gas purchases that can be redeemed for cash.
Source: Consumer savings expert Andrea Woroch.