Dear Tom and Ray:
My wife and I are getting close to retirement, and we would like to travel, visit friends and see the sights before it all goes underwater. But we hate sleeping in motels, so we want to find an inexpensive van that would function like a recreational vehicle, but on a much more modest scale. We saw the Winnebago you folks described from the recent auto show, but it seems way too elaborate and gets terrible gas mileage. We were stunned by the $85,000 sticker price of a modest RV and the 9-mpg fuel economy.
Here's all we really need:
(1) Room for a little corner porta-potty
(2) A fold-out bed/sofa
(3) A reasonable amount of storage space for a tent or two, luggage, a Coleman stove and perhaps a harmonica.
We own two hybrids, and realize that an RV is not going to get 50 mpg in the near future. But is there an RV that doesn't cost an arm and a leg and gives us what we're looking for?
RAY: Not really. There are van converters that will convert minivans into small campers. That's one option.
TOM: But unless you're willing to buy a used one and take your chances on reliability when you're far from home, you're still probably looking at $40,000-plus, with mileage only in the mid- to high teens, with all the extra weight.
RAY: And I'm not sure any of them will build in a bathroom for you, but I suppose you could drop your own crank-powered composting toilet in a corner and hope it doesn't tip over.
TOM: So I'm going to suggest another option: Keep your hybrid and check out some much better hotels.
RAY: Right. If you use one of your 50-mpg hybrids instead of an RV, you'll consume somewhere between one-third and one-fifth of the fuel you would have used with a larger RV.
TOM: And by foregoing the $40,000 purchase price of the converted minivan, you can stay almost anywhere you want for a long time, and still come out ahead.
RAY: While you might not enjoy staying at the roadside Motel 2 1/2, I'm guessing you'd be OK staying at the Four Seasons, right?
TOM: Or someplace in between. Let's say, for the sake of calculation, that the average cost of a nice hotel for a night is $200. That $40,000 buys you more than six months of 800-thread-count-Egyptian-cotton sleep.
RAY: And don't forget the HBO, fresh towels, ice, a hot shower and all the stealable little shampoos, conditioners and body lotions you can stuff into your bag.
TOM: Or you could balance the two approaches. Let's say you trade in one of your hybrids for a Prius V (the station wagon version of the hybrid Prius). That has room for your tent and sleeping bags in the back.
RAY: And then you could alternate camping with nicer hotels. You can camp in spots that put you in the middle of particularly beautiful scenery, like the campgrounds at Jenny Lake in the Tetons, the north rim of the Grand Canyon or Jedediah Smith Park in California's redwoods.
TOM: Remember, the campsites provide restrooms, so you won't have to drive around with that porta-potty the rest of the time, holding your nose.
RAY: Many campsites also offer showers, so again, you won't have to drive around the rest of the time holding your nose.
TOM: And then, after sleeping on a tree root starts to make that Motel 2 1/2 sound good, you make your next day's destination a nice hotel in an interesting place, and live it up for a few days.
RAY: With the seats folded down and an air mattress (and a DC-powered air pump), you might even be able to spend the occasional night sleeping in the back of the Prius V in an emergency.
TOM: But I'm pretty sure your night after that will be at the Four Seasons.
RAY: So I'd rethink the RV plan, Arch. I know a lot of people love the RV scene and the camaraderie of driving your house into a parking lot and putting out the lawn chairs. But that doesn't sound like what interests you most.
TOM: I'd suggest that you stop looking for one contraption that can serve as both a home and a car. That requires serious compromises in the functionality of both.
RAY: I think you're better off choosing a car based on its ability to get you from place to place, and choosing places to stay based on their ability to provide a comfortable night's sleep. And HBO. Send us a postcard.