Renting vs Buying an RV or Travel Trailer

travel trailerWe threw around a few ideas for the summer – one of which was a trip to Europe for an extended summer vacation.  In the end, we decided to hold off on that until the kids are older and investigate more of the US before branching out with our 6 and 4 year olds.

We had previously traveled with the kids (when they were 3 and 18 months) in California, with a travel RV.  The RV was a fabulous experience for the whole family.  California trip report here. Since that was such a success, we evaluated the cost of doing it again and calculated what would make the most sense.

Renting an RV

Renting an RV with kids is great option.  Eating out when traveling is always a bit of a struggle.  I’ve previously written about the choice between camping vs. a hotel with kids.  The RV option (travel trailer, RV, pop up etc) provides a mix of both worlds.

  • A cushy mattress
  • Heat
  • Air conditioning
  • Plumbing, running water, heated shower, toilets.
  • Food/kitchen/cooking (no restaurants needed)
  • Portable, close to the crag
  • Toilets.
  • Did I say toilets?

With the cost of a rental which ends up being around $750 to $1000 or more a week (depending on location, size, reservation company, length of trip), we determined that purchasing a used travel trailer was a better economic option.

Purchasing an RV or travel trailer

First things first when purchasing an RV or travel trailer.  There are a few vital pieces of information that you should start with.

  1. What is your budget
  2. How many people do you want to sleep?
  3. What can you tow, if anything?

These things will help you determine if an RV (a motorized recreational vehicle) is required and/or even an option.  For us, we own a F250 diesel pick up with massive towing capabilities.  So our options were limitless with a travel trailer.  We also didn’t want to pay insurance and maintenance on a separate vehicle (include those costs in your analysis, as a motorized RV will require registration, insurance, maintenance etc.)  While the convenience of an RV can’t be beat, the costs and ongoing commitment of funds and time were a bit prohibitive for us.

Towing Capacity

Towing capacity is your next “deal breaker” limitation.  If you own a minivan or an SUV, you have some options that include lightweight travel trailers and pop up trailers.  These can be towed by a smaller vehicle but you’ll want to pay close attention to weight.  The new lightweight travel trailers are full size hybrids (a little low in the ceiling space) that offer everything a full sized trailer does.  Since they are lighter, they are also a newer line and will limit your options a bit with regard to “used” vs “new” and pricing.  (Expect to pay more for those features).  If your budget doesn’t allow for much, you’ll want to consider a pop up trailer instead (if you can’t tow anything big).  These pop ups have burners/cook tops, toilets, showers (some), and beds, but you sacrifice privacy (there are no doors for those using the potty). You can find these in luxury or budget price points, so these will give you the broadest selection, but within a low tow capacity.

For those that have a larger towing capacity (read, you already own a pickup), a full sized trailer can be found in pretty much any price point and size.

What factors to consider in purchasing a travel trailer

A few things that will change what you are paying:

  • Age – the older the vehicle (in general) the less you pay
  • Size – the bigger the vehicle, the more you pay, but you can certainly find large trailers in the lower price points, you’ll sacrifice things like age and condition, though.
  • Layout & Features – some layouts include more privacy, more sleep capacity, better “flow”. Features can include upgrades like solid surface countertops, oven (or microwave), audio features (tv, radio, satellite speakers,) and more.
  • Condition – this is the most significant factor and the one that you’ll sacrifice when you have a specific price in mind and the other factors are not “variable”.  i.e. if you want a specific layout, sleep capacity, or year.  Deal breaker and/or budget makers are things like a “soft floor” where water has leaked and made the floor rotten/soft – that will need to be replaced in most cases.  Another deal breaker/budget maker is a leaky roof.  Those are “fixable” but usually cause damage in the interim.  Also, remember to check the awning if there is one, (expensive to replace) and the plumbing/gas lines as well.  Make sure that someone has “tested the lines” (in a private deal, you’ll want to have a professional look it over, in a dealer sale, that is something they typically include). Check the frame to determine if it is bent and/or has seen damage, as well.

photo(8)One other factor is brand. You will note (as you begin shopping) that anything in the Airstream line is more expensive.  I’m sure that there are other brands that similarly impact price, but it isn’t quite as obvious as Airstream.  That puts you in a $10,000 range (generally) just because of the brand.

Travel trailers, like cars, have a standard value book.

You can do your research here.

photo(10)Ultimately, we ended up purchasing a 2003 22 foot Thor Chateau travel trailer.  The interior height was a bonus as my husband can stand tall inside, but we did sacrifice a bit in layout in order to get something in “like new” condition.  The kids would have liked bunk beds and we would have loved a bit more space around the “master” bedroom but all in all, the price point, size, and condition were our sticking points and we weren’t willing to wait in hopes of finding a similar trailer with exactly the sleep layout we wanted.

The kids are in love with our purchase and I’ve had them cleaning it out already.  Seems like they think it is “their home” instead of ours, and they are taking a lot of ownership for keeping it clean and organized.  I look forward to their efforts as we start to plan our upcoming weekend and summer trips!





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About Laura Boniello Miller

Laura Miller is a internet marketing professional and a mother of two. Her interests include sport climbing, bouldering, reading, traveling, and spending time with her family. She believes that playing outdoors is integral to health and well being, and that if your kids aren't dirty, they haven't had enough fun.