What’s Better: A Motorhome or Trailer?
Ever since the first motorhomes and travel trailers appeared early in the twentieth century, there’s been an ongoing debate over which is better. And the correct answer is: it depends.
Just like car enthusiasts who differ strongly about which motor vehicle rules the road, the same debate exists between RVers who feel that towing their home is better than driving it, and vice-versa.
So let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each class when choosing between a motorhome or a trailer.
How often will you use your RV, and how many people will be with you?
This is an important point to ponder, especially if you’re thinking about a motorhome.
A nice Class A rig with all the gadgets and “must-haves” can easily top $150,000 and usually more. The smaller Class B and Class C motorhomes can come in for less but still, that’s a whole lot of cabbage to have sitting idle on the side of your house or in a storage lot if you go out only a few times a year and don’t travel far.
Of course, if you do go out regularly and/or for long distances, then a motorhome with all its accessories can make the journey all the more pleasurable, especially if you have a mid- to large-sized family. There’s plenty of room in Class A’s and Class C’s to spread out, and storage space is generous. Class B units, also known as “camper vans” are more suited for couples…and perhaps their pet terrier.
A nicely equipped travel trailer can help make an outing more comfortable and more fun—whether for a three-day weekend or a three-week sojourn. Travel trailers can be had for less than $20,000, making them a more attractive alternative for low usage situations. And like their motorhome brethren, larger trailers, especially those with slide-outs, can likewise accommodate large groups and their gear.
Pop-up trailers, while able to sleep up to six individuals, usually lack space and storage for larger families. These shortcomings and their very low price, starting at around $4,000, make them better suited for short jaunts of a few days.
Do you currently have a vehicle that could tow a travel trailer?
This is important, because while today’s travel trailers are noted for their lightweight yet sturdy construction, some midsize to large models, especially fifth-wheel units, require a lot of horsepower to get their bulk safely over hill and dale.
Pop-up trailers require the least amount of “oomph” to get the wheels rolling; many models can be towed with the average minivan and are the easiest to park.
A typical travel trailer can usually be handled by the average full-size V8 pickup truck or large SUV, and with today’s advanced technology, some V6 trucks are able to out-pull them.
A fifth-wheel trailer generally requires not only more horsepower, but also more load carrying ability since 15 to 25 percent of the trailer actually rests in the truck’s bed. This means that a heavy duty or “super duty” tow vehicle is a must.
A heavy lift/tow vehicle may also be in order for the newest member of the trailer family, the sport utility RV. Popularly known as “toy haulers” because of the garage area in the rear used for hauling motorcycles, quad runners and personal watercraft, toy haulers can require extra pulling strength to get to where you want to go.
On the flip side of the coin, the motorhome is self-propelled. That is, the manufacturer equips it with either a diesel or gasoline powerplant of sufficient size to move it down the road with little effort and still have enough extra “giddy-up” to tow a trailer or smaller vehicle for side trips.
Ask Yourself: do you currently have a tow vehicle strong enough to pull the trailer or RV, or is a new, more powerful ride needed? If you do need to upsize, how do the cost of both the truck or SUV and the trailer compare against that of a comparably equipped motorhome?
How much are you willing to spend?
There are a lot of costs you need to keep in mind when trying to decide motorhome or trailer.
At the front of the line is the purchase price. As mentioned earlier, a nice Class A motorhome can cost as much as some real homes. Even so, there might not be a huge difference between the price tag of the motorhome and a new pickup truck and a travel trailer.
Other cost areas include:
Rule of thumb: trailers have fewer things that break. And the bigger the RV, the more that can go wrong—because motorhomes have engines, and transmissions, and pumps and sophisticated electronics. So unless you’re handy with a screwdriver and a wrench, repairs are generally more expensive.
And don’t forget: if your motorhome has to go into the shop, your living accommodations go with it. On the other hand, with a trailer, should your truck or SUV need repair you’ll still have a place to live while waiting for the mechanic to work his magic.
Miles Per Gallon
Except perhaps for the pop-up, pulling a trailer is like pulling a small building. And buildings are not usually noted for being fuel efficient. This means that, depending on your tow vehicle and trailer, you might see a sobering 8 to 12 mpg on a good day.
For motorhomes, again, depending on the size of the rig and its equipment, 6 to 8 miles per gallon is about the norm.
Fees for campgrounds are all over the map. Some federal, state and county agencies offer free camping in primitive sites or a very reasonable $10 to $20 per night. (Keep in mind that luxuries like water, sewer and electricity, if available, will add to the cost.
At the other end of the spectrum, privately run campgrounds that offer heated swimming pools and hot tubs, laundries, rec rooms, restaurants, landscaping, cable TV and hefty 50-amp electric service charge equally hefty fees—some exceeding $50 a night.
And because most government-run campgrounds were built w-a-a-y back in the early days, the size of many sites can be on the tiny side (think two-door car and a tent). With today’s increasingly larger trailers and motorhomes, fitting into many campsites can be a challenge if not downright impossible. So when you’re deciding on a motorhome or a trailer, keep this in mind, as bigger is not always better.
Same as with maintenance: the bigger the rig the larger your insurance bill. You should check several insurance companies for the best rate and service before you buy, and figure that a motorhome is always going to cost more than a trailer.
Due to the cost, most RVers finance a large part of their purchase (for 10 to 15 years on average). This makes it worth your time to check bank and credit union rates and see what type of loan you can obtain before you go shopping. Then there’s no pressure for you to use the dealer’s bank.
TAX TIP: Because virtually every motorhome and many trailers feature beds, kitchens, sinks, and bathrooms, the IRS considers them to be homes. And that means that the interest on your loan may be tax deductible as a home mortgage.
And keep in mind that if you decide on the trailer route and you also plan to purchase a new tow vehicle, car or truck financing is seldom longer than seven years.
It’s a sad fact that just about any major purchase you make depreciates the moment you hand over your money. And while trailers aren’t immune to such declines in value, they still have the advantage over motorhomes. Because motorhomes have odometers, and the more miles on the clock the lower the resale value.
How comfortable are you driving a motorhome versus a trailer?
There’s much to be said for both camps. On one hand, many RVers feel that driving a motorhome is not much different than piloting a large truck or SUV, and in fact, is easier to park in a campsite than a 23-foot truck pulling a 30-foot trailer.
For trailer enthusiasts, the fact that the truck/trailer combo pivots in the middle makes it easier to get around sharper bends in the road (keeping in mind those older campgrounds, especially in the mountains, which are built around massive trees and towering boulders).
But no matter whether you’re driving or pulling, always beware of wind. Always.
How important is easy access while en route?
There’s no contest when it comes to activities while on the road. The motorhome is the clear winner. Because in a motorhome, you don’t have to pull over for a bathroom break (except for the driver, of course!)… the potty is right down the hall. With a trailer, you’ll need to pull into a rest stop or gas station, or stop at the side of the road and run back to the porta john you’ve been pulling with you.
In a motorhome, it’s easier to make snacks or take a nap. Everything you need is right with you (although take care moving about while you’re underway). In a trailer, everything you need is close behind you. But you still have to stop and get out to get to it. Not fun in a thunderstorm.
How convenient is the set up and take down?
Once you arrive at your destination your first order of business is setting up camp. In a motorhome this can be as simple as leveling the rig with electric jacks and hooking up the utilities. To depart, simply reverse the steps.
With a trailer you have a few extra steps. Such as leveling the unit, unhitching, lowering the stabilizing jacks and then connecting to shore power and water. And like the motorhome, takedown is the reverse. Still, for many campers it’s this ritual of set up and knock down that they enjoy; “real camping” that just can’t be appreciated by motorhome jockeys.
While some of these camping rules are considered standard at most campgrounds, others simply come from experience. Be sure you follow these unwritten rules, and any others you learn along the way, if not for yourself, for your fellow campers who are looking to enjoy their time away, too.
By Jeff Adams