Take the most difficult parts about selecting a new house and a new car and combine them, and you'll have an idea of how mind-boggling the world of recreational vehicles can be for a newcomer. The myriad floorplans, engine choices and vehicle types can make choosing just the right vehicle quite a challenge.
When deciding on an RV, the first place to start is with size. When it comes to self-contained, self-propelled vacation housing, you can choose from type A, B and C motorhomes. The scale isn't linear; type B is actually the smallest, with type C the mid-size and the big type A units at the top of the size and price range.
Of course your motorhome will have a kitchen, on-board plumbing, multiple beds and sofas and a bathroom and shower. Most can be had with onboard generators, auxiliary air conditioning, and entertainment systems as well. Which size is best for you? It depends mainly on how many of you there are. Couples and small families can get by with more space, but hard-core party-givers and larger groups will want a bit more elbow room. Longer trips are naturally more comfortable with a bigger vehicle as well.
The next consideration is the drive itself. Going big seems like the natural thing to do, but the larger an RV is, the more challenging it is to drive...and to feed. Bigger units are going to burn more gas, and with gasoline and diesel prices hovering around three dollars a gallon, the difference between 10 and 17 miles per gallon can mean the difference between supper at Denny's or Ruth's Chris, when you arrive.
Type B motorhomes are commonly known as "van campers," because they're built directly from full-size vans (and in rare cases, minivans as well). The roof is often raised for additional headroom, but the wheelbase and body width are not enlarged. They're best for singles or couples; most will sleep up to four, but are most comfortable for one or two. The Type B RV has significant maneuverability and fuel economy advantages; most will fit in a regular parking spot, and their economy is similar to that of SUVs--in some cases, as with the diesel-powered Freightliner Sprinter-based Roadtrek we drove, it's actually better. The Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) tells us that type B motorhomes usually cost between $41,000 and $74,000 new.
A step up in size is the Type C, with specially widened bodies on van-based chassis and additional sleeping space above the front seats. Type Cs can sleep anywhere from six to ten people. Floor space is improved over the Type B with the availability of slide-out sections that can be extended when the RV is parked. They're a little bit more challenging to drive, thanks to their widened bodies and greater length and height, but the controls are just like those found in any full-size van, so the view from the driver's seat is a familiar one. Expect to pay $48,000 to $140,000 for a new Type C.
If that's still not big enough for you, you'll want to step up to one of the big boys, the Type A. These vehicles are distinguished by bus-like dimensions with unique bodies. A Type A RV offers all of the comforts of home and then some, but timid drivers beware; when your vehicle is up to 40 feet long and eleven feet tall, you really will feel like you're driving a house. The Type A actually tends to have less sleeping space than the Type C, and most will only sleep up to six people. The tradeoff is that each of those people will have more space to move around in, making long trips much less stressful. Slide-out room segments increase interior space while camping. With prices going as high as $400,000 and more for a coach-based Type A, the amenities and features available can be as luxurious as four-star hotels. For serious jet-setters and road-dogs, the bigger Type A motorhomes are actually tour buses. Built by long-haul bus companies on the same chassis as their charter buses, the big Type A coaches are grand, look-at-me works of art on the road. With a ride like this, you're not just arriving with your house on your back; you are arriving, and everybody knows it.
Anything bigger than a Type B will require you to tow or carry an alternate form of transportation. It's handy to have a "dinghy," as many RV owners call the cars they tow behind, or a bicycle, because once the RV is hooked up at a campground it's cumbersome to disconnect everything just to run to the store. Additionally, a Type A motorhome or coach can be quite difficult if not impossible to park at a crowded tourist destination, or even at some restaurants if special parking is not provided. Most RVs are equipped with powerful diesel or gasoline engines that have no problem towing a car behind.
Another alternative is a towed RV. Campers and trailers range in size from ten-foot pop-ups to forty-foot fifth-wheel units, and offer the added convenience of being able to stay at the campsite hooked up while the tow vehicle is free to sightsee or run errands.