RVers CHOICE: MOTORHOME OR TRAILER?
[Ed Note: This article was first published in 1999, in response to a a question that frequently is of concern to new RVers. The answer then is no different from the answer now, and despite the age of the vehicles described the considerations discussed below are as valid today as when first discussed...]
Lots of readers at Rvers Online have asked, either explicitly or implicitly, which "way to go" when selecting an RV. Most Rvers who have had both trailers and motorhomes will recognize the answer is not a simple one -- if indeed there is any "answer" at all. Yet it's important for first time RV buyers to know what the pros and cons of each are, so that they can get into a unit which will be best for their particular RV lifestyle.
We've run just about the entire gamut. From very modest beginnings with backpacks and campfires under the stars, to our current fifth wheel slider which has just about every amenity one could want. In between there was a tent trailer, a pop-up slide-in camper, a full size slide in camper unit, a 27' Winnebago Elandon (Class A Motorhome), and a 26' non-slider fifth wheel. We've enjoyed each of these units as we progressed up the relative "comfort chain". Each does something better than all the others. And each was "right for us" at the time.
Before getting to the Great Debate over Motorhome versus Trailer, let's give the credit that's due the relatively smaller types -- the tent trailer and the slide-in camper. Actually, both of these RV types can come in quite fancy packages too. But typically there is some sacrifice in space and ameneties.
The tent trailer offers quite a bit of inside space, given the relatively small size of the typical unit. Not only is it an economical choice in terms of purchase price, it's lighter weight assures much better fuel economy over the road. Equally important, most units are light enough to pull behind almost any car equipped with an adequate trailer hitch. No need to buy one of those expensive, full size pickup trucks as part of the price for getting into Rving.
And let's not forget about those slide-in campers. Now, of course, you DO need a pickup truck, though some units are made to fit the mid-size models such as a Chevy S-10 series. But having neither running gear nor motor, they are of course a more economical buy than many trailers, fifth wheels, and motorhomes. It's of course important to "match" the size and weight of a slide-in camper to the truck that will haul it, to ensure adequate power and suspension. But with that accomplished, the slide-in unit can be the envy of all other types of Rvs in terms of where it can go! Espcially if the truck is a 4x4, this type of setup can be ideal for reaching those out-of-the-way spots you could never take either a motorhome or any type of RV that was in tow.
Having given due respect to the tent camper and slide-in camper, let's look at what most regard as the most difficult set of trade-offs: Motorhome versus Trailer.
Our own experience is no doubt representative of many Rvers who have sampled both sides of the RV fence. Our first full size RV was a 26' Winnebago Elandon. While hardly the equivalent of the much larger "bus type" units, it was nonetheless a fair sampling of the advantages of the motorhome. Being a Class A motorhome, it of course had large and comfortable twin captains chairs for driver and passenger. The "cockpit" is relatively high off the road, compared to any type of tow vehicle, and affords a splendid view above most of the other traffic.
A motorhome is particularly user friendly going down the road -- which we did to the tune of some 25,000 miles per year on average. While underway, the and of course using due care not to move about on winding roadways or in traffic, the passenger has access to the full range of motorhome amenities. A snack is as far as the refrigerator; a quick nap is but a few steps to the coach or bed; and of couse the onboard lavatory is fully accessible.
We both found driving a motorhome -- at least one of this size -- to be little more than driving a full size car. And backing into an RV site was easier than maneuvering a trailer in what often appears to be an unnatural direction. There seemed to be something inherently "superior" about a motorhome (at least the Class A types -- we leave the "Class A versus Class C discussion for another time). No doubt many view the "motor coach" with a certain sense of elitism. And for some presumably ego will be a factor. We omit comment on the reasonableness of that possibility.
But there were drawbacks. Perhaps the most significant -- for our Rving lifestyle -- we didn't discover until it was too late. We're not "go there and stay" oriented. If we stay more than two or three nights at any destination, that's a long time for us. More typically we're there for a night or two and then off again in search of new places -- or one of the many, many "old places" we've catalogued in our years of RV travel. The Willie Nelson song title describes our style perfectly: "On the Road Again"! As the odometer on our motorhome neared the century mark -- only a very few years after we'd purchased it new, we discovered to our dismay that its resale value had all but disappeared. This despite the fact that we'd incurred significant maintenance expense to ensure the coach would always be in top shape. We began to speculate about Rvs that did NOT have odometers. This eventually led to our current choice of a fifth wheel.
Another, and unrelated factor was pointing in the same direction. After our very first weekend outing in our new motorhome, we concluded that our travel style would require that we take along a tow car. Once a motorhome is parked, leveled, and hooked up to utilitites, one hardly wants to undo all that loving work just to drive to the grocery store for a carton of milk. We opted for a Suzuki Samurai. It was light enough to tow without adding any sense of added weight, and it could be towed without the use of a car dolly -- still another chassis to worry about. But of course the Suzuki began to log some big mileage too (that was before other options were available), so its resale value plummeted prematurely as well. Moreover, we were now providing maintenance on two separate vehicles, neither of which could accomplish the purpose of a "family car" -- so there was of course a third vehicle to maintain.
Since our third vehicle was already a full size diesel pickup, the move to a fifth wheel became irresistable. We took the first plunge in 1993, opting for a 26' Alpenlite. The fully loaded towing weight was around 6,500 pounds, and it was quite easy to tow. In all fairness, it was a bit more of a chore to tow the fifth wheel than to simply drive the motorhome; but it was not at all difficult. Parking at RV parks was a bit more tedius when backing into a small space was required. But soon we had our "signals straight", and that problem too was minimized. We missed the over-the-road convenience of the motorhome, but our fuel economy went way up, and our mainenance costs went way down. And of course we no longer needed to tow a separate vehicle, because we were already driving a full sized one.
Another difference we noted was the superb on-road stability of our 5th wheel. While the motorhome was in all respects comfortable to drive, on occasion the wind blows -- hard. And when that wind is a crosswind, or when an 18 wheeler passes at high speed, the motorhome could feel like a sailboat for a second or two. Not so with the 5th wheel -- which is generally more stable in windy conditions. We would note carefully that we are talking about a 5th Wheel trailer -- not a travel trailer. While we've not owned a travel trailer, a rental experience we had years ago indicated a travel trailer can be challenging in the wind as well. Keep in mind both 5th wheels and motorhomes come in all different sizes, shapes, weights, and design. Not all 5th wheels would be more stable in windy conditions than all motorhomes. But our experience tells us as a general rule, we'd rather have a 5th wheel than a motorhome when the wind really decides to blow.
After logging about 60,000 miles in the first two years of fifth wheeling, we opted to go for a slightly bigger Alpenlite -- this time 29'. But the more significant change was getting a slider, which both provided what seems like oceans more room inside, and in our case about a 30% increase in towing weight. Happily for us, we'd since traded in our non-turbo Ford on a new Dodge turbo diesel. When we moved up to the bigger 5th wheel, our towing mileage dropped from around 14-15, to what appears closer to 12-13. But we still had ample power, and by adding an exhaust brake, the downhill rides were easy as well. Incidentally those mpg figures still compare favorably to the 7-8 mpg we got from our Chevy 454 equipped Winnebago.
And that brings us almost back to the beginning. Because our most recent decision was to sell our fiver and purchase a new diesel pusher. So back to the Class A we went. This time our intent was to find a unit which we could use to take a one year trip around the country. We think this will best be accomplished by base-camping in the motorhome, and using the tow car for extensive exploration in the areas we stay. For this purpose, a smaller tow car will serve our purposes better than a large pickup truck. So -- we've come full circle.
For us, the bottom line to the Motorhome versus Fifth Wheel seems to have everything to do with one's current RVing lifestyle. For low mileage travels, or for extended RV travels, a motorhome may offer certain advantages. But our time with fivers, covering lots of ground with the RV, suited our needs at that time as well.