RV vs Car: What's Best For A US Driving Holiday?

15 January 2015

You won’t find any caravans on the interstates of the USA.

Just as the Aussie-style box trailer was superseded in the ‘states many years ago by the all-American pick-truck, caravans have been pushed into history on the other side of the Pacific by new-age RVs.

We’re not talking here about SUVs, the faux four-wheel drives that also dominate Australian roads in the 21st Century, but the Recreational Vehicle. RV is shorthand for a motorhome, and it can be anything from a cheapie slide-on conversion for a pick-up truck through to a $500,000-or-more palace on wheels.

RVs are everywhere in America and they are favoured by all sorts of people for all sorts of jobs.

 We're talking full homes on wheels (Getty)

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All The Benefits Of Home

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There are compact models that do the same work as a caravan in Australia, bigger and ritzier rigs – often with a ‘toy box’ in the tail to carry motorcycles or even a dune buggy – for weekend breaks, and the heavyweight haulers used by the ‘snow birds’ who spend their whole lives on the road, chasing the sunshine from the Great Lakes in the north in summer down to Florida in the south in winter.

It’s not unusual to see a full-sized RV towing a family car or SUV to complete the home-on-wheels picture.

But is an RV a good choice for a driving holiday in the USA? And how does it compare to a car?

 Renting an RV can be a good family option (Getty)

That depends on where you’re going, what you’re doing, and how long you plan to spend on the road. Most important of all is the number of people in your holiday group.

Hiring an RV can be as cheap as $59 a night, looking lately at LA rental sites, and that’s about the same price as a sensible hotel room alongside an interstate. So the numbers look about right when you compare the snail-trail option of taking your home with you against a drive-by drop-in.

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Your Chance For Affordable Adventure

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Things look better again when you consider that you can sleep up to seven people in a motorhome, paying not much more for the privilege, against two or three in an average hotel room.

And when you include the savings from cooking yourself, the chance for family bonding, and the opportunity to live a Giswalds-style adventure, life in an RV looks pretty good.

Until you have to empty on the on-board dunny, of course...

 At home on the road in Yellowstone National Park (Getty)

But have you ever driven a truck, because that’s what it’s like when you’re behind behind the wheel of a big RV? As for parking ...

RVs can also be thirsty big things as they always have V8 engines in the USA and even a lightly-stressed diesel has to work hard to push the wall of wind that buffets the front of an RV.

On the car side of things, renting is cheap in America and you can get anything from a sensible compact through to a Mustang fun runner or a LandCruiser-sized SUV – or bigger – if you have a family or a lot of luggage.

There are motels at almost every freeway exit, fuel is cheap, and driving is pretty easy.

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Circle The Wagons

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So the choices look pretty even at first, but drilling deeper finds the flaws on both sides.

If you have a big tour party, or are planning some ‘boys’ time’ in America, the RV wins every time because of its size. You can load everyone aboard, party hard, and know that the designated driver can handle the work for everyone.

The benefits of an RV are obvious when you drive America at holiday time, as I’ve done, and see hundreds of them camped in the desert dunes to the east of Los Angeles.


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It almost looks like a series of old-time wagon trains, with the wagons all circled around a central fire, except that the gold rust pioneers didn’t have dirt bikes and buggies for their downtime.

The biggest downside of any RV is that you’re stranded once you park for the night. There is no chance of a quick dash to the shops, or a quiet drive to town for dinner, unless you’re prepared to rent a car for the occasion.

But an RV can take you to those unexplored places, allow you to settle down, and it’s not too tough to cruise the arrow-straight interstates in comfort.

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A Car Is Less Like Work

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Personally, I’m a fan of the car.

I’ve driven a full-sized motorhome and, although I like the amenities of a fully-loaded RV and the novelty value is great, it’s more like work than a holiday. Driving a big RV takes a lot of concentration because you have to think about other traffic, the gradients and even crosswinds, and if you’re new to the business it can be a bit harrowing.

 You can hire just about any kind of car in America (Getty)

A car also allows you to get more travel done in a day for more downtime along the way, paying less for fuel, and it can take you everywhere you want to go.

Unlike Australia, there always seems to be a convenient motel and you can go cheap for a few days and then splash if you find somewhere you really like.

On the food front, eating is cheap in America and the servings are so super-sized you won’t need more than one big feed a day. American cars are also loaded with cupholders and snack storage spaces.

 The car offers much more freedom (Getty)

It’s easy to park a car, you can get up close to the action – whatever it is, from a restaurant to a shopping centre or a scenic attraction – and you can head out once you’ve found your motel home for the night instead of being bunkered with the rest of the RV crowd.

So there are some times when an RV cannot be beaten, but for the rest of the time it’s a car that comes out on top.

RV versus Car: The final say

RV

Best for: A boys’ adventure

Worst for: Late-night junk food run

Car

Best for: Side trips from the motel

Worst for: Do-it-yourselfers

Paul Gover

Paul Gover is Australia’s leading motoring journalist and has been on the car beat for more than 30 years. In that time he’s won at Bathurst, driven thousands of new cars, interviewed Jeremy Clarkson, and travelled to 45 countries. He says he still learns something new every day.