A bit over a year ago we took The Big Kahuna down to Key West to start our full time RV adventure, committed to two years, possibly more. We have had far more drama and mechanical difficulties than we ever anticipated, but have no regrets about the lifestyle we chose. Now having shifted to a modern, though still used motorhome, we are hoping for a bit less drama in year two. Before getting into our plans for 2016, here is a summary of our first year in a format similar to our monthly reports, but with additional data, particularly about the diversity of our RV campgrounds, the discounts we took advantage of, and our favorite places.
The Distance: 14,926 miles between the two motorhomes, about 95% of it in The Big Kahuna. Had the bus not been down for repairs or upgrades for more than four months of the year, we would have broken well past 20,000 miles. As it was we had to cut out the entire New England region and part of the upper midwest from our planned clockwise circle of the country. Of note, our highest altitude in the RV was 11,158′ crossing the continental divide at Eisenhower Pass, our lowest was -282′ in Death Valley.
The Side Trips: Other than eleven miserable days in Odessa, TX during a significant cold snap (16 degrees!), we didn’t exactly suffer during all those times when the bus was in the shop. We took vacations to Hawaii and England, and spent time with family in California, Florida, and North Carolina. Poor us!
The Places: We spent 244 days living in the RV and 121 staying with family or in hotels. Breaking that down by places first, and then by days:
- During those 244 days we went to 88 different RV overnight spots (91 if you count the three repeat visits) in 26 states! This includes 34 private parks (three were repeat visits), 23 national sites (national parks, recreation areas, forests, and BLM land), 18 different state parks, 5 municipal/city/county parks, 7 mechanic/repair shop parking lots, 2 military facilities, and 4 “stealth” parking spots or family/friend driveway sites.
- The 121 days not in the RV were spent at eight different homes of family or friends in Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, California, Oregon, and London. In most cases we came back for a second or even third visit. We also stayed in 15 different hotels.
- Breaking it down by days: while in the RV we stayed in private parks 91 nights, military campgrounds for 6, national/federal areas for 42, state parks for 55, county/city/municipal parks for 13, and “stealth” or driveway parking for 8.
- Outside of the RV we stayed with family for 75 days and in hotels for 46.
- Another way of looking at those 244 days in the RV: we had electrical hook ups (at least 30 amp), usually with water, frequently with sewage, for 178 days, while we dry camped with no connections for 66.
Money: We broke our annual budget by about 12%, and that doesn’t count the money-sucking black hole for The Big Kahuna’s work. We will end that artificial, double-bookkeeping method with the sale of the old bus upon completion of the latest transmission work. All repairs and upgrades for Serenity will count against the regular budget this year, making for a more honest system.
We learned a lot about living on a significantly reduced fixed income, and have made adjustments to keep ourselves in line. Primarily, we have gone to a daily accounting system rather than a loose “figure it out at the end of the month” method. As stated in the 12 Month Report: Monthly Income minus monthly recurring bills, minus 1/12th of annual recurring bills, the result divided by days in the month. All significant purchases must wait until we have built up enough positive balance to buy them. We did pretty well in November and December, and have started out January on track for being under budget as well.
The Discounts and Clubs: We spent almost all of 2015 as members of a wide array of RV clubs and travel discount organizations. The two most useful for us: An annual national park pass ($80) and a fifteen month Passport-America membership ($44).
- We went to 21 National Parks as well has numerous National Recreation Areas, wildlife refuges, and forests. Most of the parks and some of the others have entrance fees ranging from $5 per car to $10 per person. The $80 annual pass covered all of those, paying for itself multiple times over.
- We stayed at private RV parks on the 50% Passport-America discount for 34 nights, saving anywhere from $12 to $35 a night. Easily, clearly, overwhelmingly worth the $44 annual fee.
- We also held annual memberships with Good Sam ($25), Family Motor Coach Association ($50), and AAA (at least $60, more for each additional family member covered). I also have my retired military ID card, which led to an occasional RV park discount. Between these four programs we received an approximate 10% discount for 29 nights in RV parks during 2015. By my rough math, that is worth about $100.
- The problem, or challenge, is that these four options overlap significantly, i.e., when you can get a Good Sam discount, the same park often offers an FMCA, AAA, or military discount. Complicating the analysis, each of these programs offers benefits beyond just park discounts.
- We have been on the fence with regard to our Good Sam membership. It seems to be the most consistently offered discount, and there are benefits associated with purchases at Camping World stores. But the overlap with both AAA and my military discount, as well as the limited shopping we do at the frequently overpriced Camping World stores, we are leaning towards letting this membership expire in February.
- We used the FMCA membership to get the lowest price on Michelin tires, but see no reason to keep it since I can’t recall a single park that offered an FMCA discount exclusive of our other discount options.
- AAA provides me a peace of mind for when my wife, son, or daughter may encounter difficulty on the road, as they have all experienced several times during the past half decade. I have committed to keeping it for 2016, and look forward to seeing if the combination of a AAA and retired military discount will make up for dropping FMCA and Good Sam.
The Breakdowns: It’s a bit difficult to account for our breakdown time since we started the year “taking advantage” of breakdowns to also do elective upgrades. The best I can figure is this:
- We were towed four times; Big Bend to Odessa, Rocky Mountains NP to Milliken and Greeley, Tabor City to Wilmington, and finally James Island to North Charleston. This is big rig, heavy duty towing, not your average tow truck. Thank goodness for our excellent Progressive Insurance Roadside Assistance rider. We renewed that before they could deny us another year, heh.
- Three additional “Roadside Assistance” events; in Yellowstone NP after our flex shaft bit the dust, during a coolant failure after leaving Moab, and with a fuel line supply failure that prevented us from starting in Nebraska.
- The Big Kahuna was stopped for repairs or upgrades about 151 days in 2015, of which 108 were for “no kidding, must be done repairs,” the remaining 43 were either for optional upgrades or delays on our end as we were still visiting family.
Favorite Private RV Parks: As mentioned above, while in our RV we stayed in 88 different sites, including 31 different privately owned RV parks. This is a tough call, but here are our top three private parks, and a handful of honorable mentions:
- Periwinkle Park and Campground on Sanibel Island, FL. We love this island, and we love the community nature of the sole RV park on it.
- Rambler’s Rest RV Resort in Venice, FL. A large, mixed use park (semi-permanent “park model” homes and a few sections for traditional RVs) this is the first campground that redefined for me what a “mobile home” park could be. Truly a sense of community in this place.
- Bay Breeze RV on the Bay. A very small (25 sites) campground on the Alabama side of the Floribama coastal border, this is another park that astounded us with the sense of welcome and community presented by both the residents and owners/staff.
- Honorable mentions: Jolly Rogers Travel Park in Marathon FL (the Fl Keys), Orange Grove RV Park in Bakersfield CA, Sea and Sand RV Park in Depoe Bay OR, Spanish Trails in Moab UT, Elk Meadows near Rocky Mountain National Park CO, Chimney Rock Pioneer Park in Bayard NE, Carrolwoods RV in Tabor City NC.
Favorite National/Federal campground spots: In general, we were very disappointed with the full service campgrounds within the national parks. Usually operated by contract consessionaires, we found them overpriced, very crowded, tightly squeezed, and quite run down. Contrast that with our surprise at discovering fantastic national recreation, forest, and refuge areas, as well as a few excellent BLM land areas. Our top three, and a handful of honorable mentions:
- Salmon River Campground, Sawtooth National Forest, ID
- Amistad National Recreation Area, Del Rio, TX
- Government Wash, Lake Meade National Recreation Area, NV
- Honorable Mentions: Jedediah Smith Campground in Redwoods National and State Park, South Rim Campground in Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP, Heaton Bay in the White River National Forest, Gulpha Gorge Campground in Hot Springs National Park, and the Datil Well BLM Campground in NM.
Favorite National Parks: We so love national parks, which might be obvious from the 21 we visited this year. Its really tough to rank these, but here are our top picks, and for once we had to actually separate a Rosemarie from a Jack favorite:
Favorite State Parks: Man we love these, especially the dozen or so we in which we have stayed in Florida. Our top three and a couple of honorable mentions:
Favorite municipal/city/county parks: OK, granted, we only stayed in six of these, but like the national recreation areas, county parks turned out to be hidden gems:
Favorite Military RV Parks: We only stayed in two, and we loved them both. But, and this is a big “but,” we are a bit down on staying on military bases willy nilly: the added hassle of getting on base and complying with extra layers of aggressively enforced rules means that we only stay when the financial benefit is great, as it was in both Key West and Monterrey.
- Key West Naval Air Station: There is simply nothing comparable. For $13 a night you can park a couple of miles from downtown Key West. The nearest private RV park alternative is more than 30 miles away and $90 a night during peak season. Want even cheaper? Or closer to the action? How about $8 a night for dry camping in the Coast Guard annex less than six blocks from Mallory Square. Ridiculous! Thank you tax payers!
- Monterey Golf Course RV Campground: In another ludicrously expensive area, the military comes through with an affordable option. Full hook up sites for $26 a night in biking distance from the seaside action in Monterrey. Loved it.
Least Favorite places: I don’t think it particularly surly to point out a few places we truly disliked among the 88 at which we stayed. Note our disappointment with the contracted full service parks within the National Parks:
So that’s it, our 2015 year in review. Since closing out the year we have spent January at a Florida State Park that we had not previously visited, and stayed with relatives for the remainder of the month before heading south towards the FL Keys. Soon we will catch up with posts about all of that, as well as an explanation of our 2016 plans. Hope we can meet up with all of you sometime during the year.
Individual monthly reviews for 2015: