FOR R.T. RYBAK and his wife Megan O’Hara of Minneapolis, the spring and summer calendar was packed with travel plans. They were all ready to fly to the Norwegian Arctic, then visit their children in the Bay Area, detour down to the Channel Islands near Santa Barbara and finally swing through Yosemite with the educational travel group Road Scholar—the last two spots ticking off numbers 16 and 17 on their bucket-list quest to visit all 62 of America’s national parks.
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“When the pandemic hit, we had to cancel,” said Mr. Rybak, CEO of the Minneapolis Foundation, which supports civic initiatives in the city where he served 12 years as mayor. But as a spring of hunkering down wore on, he began searching for ways to travel confidently again once state and local authorities gave residents the green light.
“ ‘The folks that are renting these RVs are pro athletes, celebrities—we’ve had 10 or 15 billionaires this year.’ ”
His prime concern was safety. “[We] felt stuck because even if we were isolated in a car and brought our own food, we would still have the challenge of what to do in a hotel,” he said, a common sentiment among quarantiners yearning to be free. Only 14% of travelers feel safe taking a domestic flight, and 17% feel safe at a hotel or resort according to a late-April survey by MMGY Global for the U.S. Travel Association. The couple ultimately decided that when they can again venture into the world, they’ll do so in a nostalgic way they’d “never” considered: aboard an RV.
During his research, Mr. Rybak signed up with Outdoorsy, a peer-to-peer RV rental platform which is to recreational vehicles what Airbnb is to homes. He has his eye on a one-of-a-kind 1940s teardrop-style camper which was built on an Arizona Air Force Base and, according to its listing, “used to fetch hot air balloon baskets after flights.” It rents for $90 per night. A mere 12-feet long, the pale-green air-conditioned trailer still fits a full-size bed and a library in its cedar-lined interior. From beneath its rear hatch emerges a compact kitchen outfitted with a Coleman camp stove and an AeroPress coffee maker. To pull the thing, the RV’s owner will even rent you a 2019 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off Road pickup truck, outfitted with a roof tent, for an extra $155 per night.
Other American travelers, too, have decided that classic Airstreams and pop-top camper vans, Winnebago-style motor homes and even deluxe coaches are uniquely well suited to the current situation. Although Outdoorsy saw a quick spike in cancellations when stay-at-home orders and travel restrictions initially went into effect, said co-founder and CEO Jeff Cavins, daily bookings have since rebounded by 450%.
Jon Gray, the CEO of RVShare, a similar peer-to-peer platform boasting more than 100,000 recreational vehicles among its nationwide listings, has noticed that a lot of people don’t want to risk hopping on airplanes to get where they’re going: “We’re seeing our drive-to markets doing particularly well right now.” The site has seen a 650% rise in RV rental bookings since early April.
Not every RV has been snapped up. Michael Smalley, executive vice president of Cruise America, which has more than 4,500 vehicles across the U.S. and Canada, said his company was on pace to record all-time highs for rental days, rental revenue growth and sales of retired vehicles until Covid scared away inbound international RV travelers, which represent almost 40% of its annual rental business in North America.
But those cancellations have translated into availability and flexibility for the RV-curious. Jake Goble, a creative director and singer-songwriter in Venice, Calif., and his girlfriend, Krizia Vega, wanted to get a dose of nature and pay a visit to his mother, who lives in Shasta County, about 600 miles north of Los Angeles. For the trip, they rented a 20-foot long “compact” motor home from Cruise America, equipped with a refrigerator and stove, a queen-size bunk above the vehicle’s cab, a tank that holds 17 gallons of fresh water for cooking and showering and an additional 17-gallon tank for sewage. They decked out the utilitarian interior with tapestries, Mexican blankets, color-changing Philips Hue smart lights and a scented oil diffuser, as well as the season’s hottest accessories: disinfecting spray, masks and a big box of gloves. Cruise America RVs rent for an average of between $50 and $150 per night.
“Originally, we were going to make it a six-day trip,” said Mr. Goble, “but we were honestly having such a good time we extended it four times into an 11-day trip.” Normally, rental companies’ full calendars preclude such spontaneity. Thanks to the motorhome’s self-sustainable features, they stayed overnight at a campground just twice on the trip. Most of the time they’d “boondock”—that is, stop at places without water or electrical hookups, or nightly fees. Say, creekside clearings off fire roads deep in the forest.
But boondockers needn’t choose between a remote forest or a Walmart parking lot. Harvest Hosts, an app that helps road-weary travelers find pastoral plots to pull in, offers members no-charge access to more than 1,400 wineries, breweries, farms, museums and even golf courses that will let them put up for a night (from $79/year, harvesthosts.com). The rules require that your RV has its own bathroom and not need external power or water—a standard most recreational vehicles meet. And Harvest Hosts requests that you patronize the place you’re staying, buying whatever is on offer in the way of wine, beer or produce.
“ No need to scout a campsite. Road-weary travelers can find pastoral plots to pull in, from wineries and breweries to farms, museums and even golf courses. ”
Novice boondockers with mega-RVs are often surprised they have access to even more places. Spots like Mountain Falls Luxury Motorcoach Resort (mtn-falls.com, from $115) in the Blue Ridge Mountains, about an hour south of Asheville, N.C., or the Polson Motorcoach Resort on Flathead Lake (polsonrvresort.com, from $90) in Montana cater exclusively to tourbus, or “Class A”-style motor coaches, offering guests spacious landscaped lots, often outfitted with outdoor kitchens, gazebos and the kind of concierge service typical of five-star hotels.
If you’re not ready to pony up more than $2 million for a top-of-the-line luxury land yacht, talk to Goss RV of Atlanta, a travel specialist and coach brokerage who maintains a nationwide fleet of vehicles for their owners and rents them out while they’re not in use, with models starting at about $15,000 per week (gossrv.com). In a more typical year, one would find Goss’s inventory parked at megaevents where the well-heeled congregate, like the IMSA Series of auto races, airshows like the EAA AirVenture Oshkosh and cultural happenings like Burning Man, where upward of 15 of high-end Goss coaches rolled in last year.
“The folks who are renting these vehicles are professional athletes, celebrities—we’ve had maybe 10 or 15 billionaires this year,” says CEO Jer Goss. Take, for instance, the unnamed entrepreneur who had planned to celebrate the sale of his company with a whirlwind six-week European jaunt this summer. When that got scuttled, he reached out to Mr. Goss. The 45-footer he’s taking on a month-long amble is built by Marathon Coach on a Prevost chassis, and outfitted with a master suite including a king-size bed, two bunks in a slide-out compartment, a kitchen that includes a full-size Subzero refrigerator, DirecTV, Wi-Fi from a Verizon Wireless Jetpack and iPad controls for all of its major functions including the full-length awnings.
Once the RV is parked, an outdoor entertainment system that tucks into the luggage bays under the carriage can be unleashed. Though Goss also offers drivers, the entrepreneur has chosen to take the wheel himself, with the company guaranteeing 24/7 support. The month’s bill? In the neighborhood of $130,000.
Depending on your chosen adventure, Goss will even deliver your coach to you wherever you live (or wherever your jet lands), fresh from a cleaning and maintenance process that takes about five days, fully stocked with whatever groceries and supplies you request. But long duration travel isn’t reserved for the 1%, nor is it only doable in something the size of a brownstone, said Bill Ward owner of Livmobil (livmobil.com), which rents silver-skinned Airstreams from locations in San Francisco, Denver and Washington, D.C. Livmobil largely stocks recently built models like the 22-foot Safari Sport, the Flying Cloud 23D and the International Signature 25, which start at $260 per night, with a five-night minimum. They also offer tow vehicles, which range from Dodge Ram pickups to Cadillac Escalades and Range Rovers.
“We have been flooded with new inquiries, and an unusually high number of longer rentals (lasting from one to three months in duration),” said Mr. Ward. “I think this is going to be the trend for the remainder of 2020 and 2021, at a minimum.” One couple, he said, just booked their RV for a three-month loop around the deep South on short notice. “Neither have work to do right now due to the virus, so they’re like, ‘There’s no better time. We’ve always wanted to travel in an Airstream. This works for us now.’”
In a season when the urge to escape home will only be matched by the need to be flexible, getting lost in America in an RV works for a lot of people right now. Mr. Rybak and Ms. O’Hara are still hoping to tick at least one national park off their list in the next few months. They even have a campsite reserved. If you see them, say “Hi.” From a safe distance.
NOTES ON CAMPERS / THESE ‘WEEKENDERS’ ARE PERFECT FOR A COUPLE’S COZY GETAWAY
IN MORE CAREFREE times, camper vans were merely funky and bohemian, the sort of vehicle you’d take to outdoor bluegrass festivals and Wiccan weddings. But in the Summer of Corona, they represent what amounts to mobile quarantine units for apartment-mad millennials. Smaller than a motor coach and easier to park, these boxy havens support up to two days of socially distanced travel, apart from hotels, restaurants and even campgrounds. You might have to stop for gas.
And yet, in this hour of need, where is VW’s camper van? Elsewhere, alas. The company sells a version in Europe, called the T6 California, which is not available in the U.S., even in California. That hurts.
VW has, however, broadly hinted that its new all-electric ID. Buzz microvan, due in the U.S. in 2023, will have a glamping configuration. That would be pretty granola. But if you can’t wait, I’ve pulled together a summary of camper-van options, for getting away from it/them all.
Mercedes-Benz announced in February it would import a version of the Metris Pop Top Camper, with bunks for up to four. Mercedes has partnered with one of its “master upfitters,” Driverge, to convert the vans at its facility in North Charleston, S.C. Prices will start in the low $70,000. Another of Mercedes’s collaborators, Peace Vans of Seattle, offers Metris conversion—including cabinetry of dovetailed plywood, stove, fridge, sink—for $47,995, not including the Metris itself. Allow 90 days from order to delivery.
Winnebago hasn’t made a pop-top camper van since 2003. That product white space was filled in with the new Solis, which smartly packages dinette seating with three-point safety belts, two-burner range top, a pull-out counter and stainless-steel sink and fridge. Plumbing includes a hot water shower, toilet and exterior wash stations, with a 21-gallon freshwater tank. Starting at $100,667.
The trouble with camper vans, as anyone who’s shopped them knows, is the exorbitant prices. But Cascade Campers of Grass Valley, Calif., will convert a Ram ProMaster City utility van (about $28,000) into a tiny bit of glamping heaven, with fully equipped versions starting around $7,000. The company holds down costs by pre-assembling components in batches, including quarantine-friendly options such as birch paneling, a fridge and solar-backed onboard battery. Once delivered to Cascade Campers’s door, the conversion takes only one day to complete.
If you’re handy with a table saw you can do what thousands of vagabonds have done over the decades: build your own camper-van interior, typically out of marine plywood.
The #vanlife industry has spawned dozens of conversion-kit manufacturers who will ship cabinetry, galley fixtures and appliances to be installed DIY. Zenvanz in Portland, Oregon, for example, has designed its modular bamboo interior to be easily installed or removed using the original bolt-holes of Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans. This leaves DIYers easy access if they want to upgrade systems, or return the van to normal whenever the carpools kick off again.
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