If you are new to RV traveling or are considering it, picking the right vehicle can be a really daunting task with so many different styles, makes and models. Each style of RV is designed to suit a certain type of travel and knowing which one is for you isn’t easy when you are just starting.
When we started this lifestyle back in 2008, we were total newbies. After a fair bit of research and seeing all of the choices available, we quickly realized that there is not a perfect RV for everyone. Everything is a compromise and depending on your budget and how you like to travel.
In 2007, about a year before we started full-time traveling, our daughter was born. Suddenly we had to carry around strollers, car seats, pack n plays on top of all of our stuff when we needed to spend a night somewhere. After a couple of attempts at air travel with an infant with all of the extra stuff, we quickly knew it wasn’t for us. We became interested in the idea of RV traveling but had no idea how to even approach it.
Back then there was no social media, no smartphones and the only people we could find living this lifestyle were retired couples. We finally found a couple of families who lived this way and shared their experiences on their websites: Greg and Jen of Bare Naked Family with their 3 kids and Rich and Eleanor of Airstream Life with their daughter Emma. With them as inspirations, we knew this was something families could do.
But now we needed to find a rig.
We looked into renting one first but rental options at the time were limited to basically white box class C RVs and cost easily over $1000 for a week long trip. We decided it was going to be cheaper to find a used small travel trailer with good resale value. It would be a lot of effort to go through the process to do the research to find and buy one. If we somehow found out right away that we didn’t like it, all of that effort would be wasted. But we were committed. We went into this process with an attitude of making it work rather than expecting it to fail.
RV #1 – Used T@B Trailer – $11,000
After a good amount of research and weeks of looking at used RV listings on CraigsList we landed on a small T@B trailer. These were pretty new to the market at the time and used ones were hard to come by. We didn’t want to waste anyone’s time without knowing it was the right camper for us so we first looked for dealerships that stocked new models. We found a dealership in southern California within about a couple hours drive so we headed over there one day to check them out in person. When we got it see them in person, we were convinced that it would be the right first camper for us. The resale values are good, they are light and easy to handle, stylish and has plenty of space for a young family of 3.
It was also at this dealership when we first saw a new Airstream in person. We had heard of them before and knew that they had a rich history. When we saw them in person at the dealership, we quietly thought to ourselves that if all of this works out, we would do what we could to get one of those some day. But we will talk about that later.
So back to the T@B. We came home and kept searching and finally found one in Sun City, Arizona for $11,000. It felt like a lot of money for such a small trailer especially at a time when we knew very little about RVs. But because we looked at a lot of them and seeing how quickly each one is sold at, or near, the asking price, we knew the price was fair and the risks were low. It was also the perfect setup for us at the time. We were only traveling part time and it was easily towed by the vehicle we already had. It was also small enough that we didn’t have to pay to have it stored when we weren’t using it.
We knew that when we were ready to upgrade, or if we didn’t like the lifestyle after trying it, we had done enough research to know that we can basically sell it for the exact price we bought it for. We have done this with essentially every vehicle and every camper we have bought in these last 12 years. Whenever we could, we always made sure we bought the right vehicle, focusing on quality and resale value over other reasons to make sure we didn’t regret the decision. That is exactly what we did a year later when we decided to upgrade to a bigger trailer. We had spent a few hundred bucks in upgrades in the meantime but sold it to someone for the exact same price that we had bought it for a year before. It allowed us to really give the lifestyle a try without spending a lot of money to rent. I am really glad we did our trial this way but it may not be the best way for you. Committing to buying and selling something in a short time can be stressful. If you make a mistake, pay too much or have an accident with it, you can be out a lot of money. It’s also much different now with the peer-to-peer sharing economy, you can rent any type of RV you want and at much lower prices on websites like RVShare or Outdoorsy.
So including our first T@B travel trailer we have owned 5 different campers in the last 12 years. While we were looking to buy the T@B, I found and bought a full size GMC diesel cargo van as the tow vehicle and did a basic conversion to add more seats and a fold out bed in the rear. The cost of the diesel van was $21k and the simple conversion was done by El Kapitan vans in Orange County for $6k. The idea was that just in case we felt the T@B was too small, we had this other indoor space in the van as well to stretch out during bad weather days when we couldn’t be outside. It was a ¾ ton van with the Duramax diesel so it was also ready to tow a much bigger trailer if we decide to upgrade.
And we did.
RV #2 Airstream 25FB Ocean Breeze – $45,000
After taking several trips with the T@B, we loved the lifestyle and wanted to dive in head first with a bigger trailer. During this whole time, we have always remembered and talked about the Airstreams we saw back at the dealership when we were searching for the T@B. After another intense search online we found an amazing deal at an RV dealer in San Diego. Because the 2008 recession had just began earlier in the year, the RV industry had taken a big hit. The timing was good for us to be buying an Airstream at this time.
Instead of the listed sticker price of $75000, we were able to buy exactly the model we wanted for $45000. Once again, we thought it was a lot to pay for a travel trailer. But once again, in retrospect, we made the right choice. It was the perfect size RV for us for those first 7 years where we explored the United States and Canada.
We also didn’t really know at the start that owning an Airstream wasn’t like owning any other travel trailer. This Airstream opened the door to a big community of like-minded people who appreciated the design aesthetic, the historical importance and the love for travel.
We initially mostly stayed in campgrounds while visiting cities and ate our way around the country. Eventually we graduated to primarily boondocking in nature and visiting state parks and national parks. Our van and Airstream combo was still suitable for this change in our travel style but we knew we were pushing the limits of where we could go. In 2015 we visited the last of the 50 United States when we spent the summer in Alaska. While we were there we pushed the Airstream to go to more far away places that it was not designed to go. Even though we mostly escaped unscathed with the exception of a set of trailer brakes and countless dings on our rock guards, we knew it was time to switch. As soon as we returned to the lower 48 we began looking at our options.
RV #3 Four Wheel Camper Grandby on F250 4×4 – $60,000
Our criteria for the new rig was that it needed to be smaller, reliable, off-road capable, seats 5 and sleeps 5. Because our plan was to have minimal down time while we did the switch, we also wanted it to be as close as turnkey from the factory as possible. Our plan was to head south into Mexico for the majority of the year. We took delivery of the truck camper in December and crossed into Baja Mexico in January. Because ultra low sulphur diesel was not as readily available across the whole country, we opted to go with a gasoline engine in the new vehicle.
We narrowed pretty quickly down to a 4×4 pickup truck with a small slide in truck camper. The final 2 choices were Alaskan Campers from Washington state or Four Wheel Campers from California that would go on a Ford F250 gasoline 4×4 truck with an 8 foot bed. We chose the Four Wheel Camper Grandby model with the front dinette over the Alaskan because of its lighter weight and slightly less cost. I don’t think the cost difference is as significant anymore and I think we could have just as easily chosen the Alaskan and been happy with it.
For all of 2016 we travelled across most of the states in Mexico and then back up to Canada to see the rest of its provinces to the east. It was a great choice for us and we were really happy with our added mobility. It did come at a cost of not having a dedicated work space for me since I was still working full time as a web developer.
RV #4 Casita Spirit Standard 17 ft – $18,000
In 2017, we added a 17ft Casita trailer to our setup. Towing a small trailer with the slide in truck camper turned out to be a great option for boondocking in North America. Just for a peace of mind and simplicity sake, we were glad to not have towed a trailer in Mexico. But in 2017, we took our new dual camper setup for another loop around the west and visited all of the places we thought our Airstream was too big to take to.
During that year, we plotted our next move which would come in 2018. Now that we have visited every state and province in the US and Canada as well as most of Mexico, our plan was to ship our vehicle to Europe and continue exploring.
The casita was a short-lived experiment that served its purpose of providing more space for work. Just like our first T@B trailer, we knew when we bought it that it would hold its value and be in high demand if we didn’t want to keep it. Once again it sold for the same price that we had paid for it. We did add a couple thousand worth of upgrades in the meantime but it was totally worth it for our 1 year of ownership. Initially we thought we would just ship the F250 and Four Wheel Camper to Europe. But after taking a deeper look and knowing the poor fuel economy of a big V-8 engine and the high prices of fuel in Europe, we once again decided to switch our camper setup.
We sold our F250 and Four Wheel Camper to a couple who we met on the road and are also full time travelers and fellow Airstream owners. We lost the most money in this switch but I think what we got back in return was worth the cost. This truck and camper had so far taken us to the farthest places we’ve ever gone in 2 foreign countries and we wanted more. This time we had a bit of time to build out something that was just right for us.
RV #5 Self-Built Sprinter 170 Crew 4X4 ($60k + $10k in build costs)
A Mercedes Sprinter van turned out to be the best choice for its size, fuel economy and the readily available service locations and parts in Europe. We were unsure whether a 4×4 option would be feasible because of its scarcity. But it ended up being the reason why we chose it as the van platform over the Ford Transit and Ram ProMaster.
We happened to find a 4×4 model with the exact color and options we wanted at the local dealership near Marlene’s parents house where we would be building it out. Someone had special ordered this van from the dealership a year prior but couldn’t get enough for his trade in vehicle and backed out. It seemed too perfect to pass up this opportunity so we jumped right in.
We documented the buying process and a large part of our van build on our other channel (MaliMish). Even though the 4×4 was significantly more expensive, we knew that the resale value would be much better if we ever decided to sell it. From selling our Casita, F250 and Four Wheel Camper, we were able to come up with the $60,000 we needed to buy the 4×4 Sprinter van without taking on a loan.
You might be wondering why we decided to do a build this time around versus just buying a factory-built RV. The main reason is because there are 5 of us and there were no factory made Sprinter 4×4 vans that could accommodate this many people. Even if we could find one, we would have spent at least twice as much on it. It would not have been a good value. We would never recoup the cost if we decided to sell it in the future.
We built out 90% of the van in about 30 days and it was ready for us to move in. 3 months after we bought the van, we left California and headed to Baltimore to put in on a ship for Europe. 2 months after that, we found ourselves back in the van leaving the Belgium port city Zeebrugge to begin our adventures around Europe. Till this day, we are still making small improvements to the van.
It has proven to be the ideal vehicle for our time here in Europe. It is narrower than the F250, uses about half the amount of fuel and can easily be serviced everywhere. We have not had any serious issues with the van in our almost two years of ownership and was able to find a shop in Romania to perform a factory authorized service at the 20k mile mark.
We first thought we would blend in a little bit because of all the other Sprinters in Europe. But in reality, our 4×4 model is fairly rare, the color is unique and biggest problem of all is the California license plate. But I wouldn’t really call it a problem. Because we do look a little out of place, random people have come up to us just to chat. We’ve not really had this since the first few years of our life in the Airstream. Back then, Airstreams were still pretty rare and everyone wanted to talk to us when we would stop somewhere. I think this still happens to many Airstream owners but because of their massive rise in popularity in the last 10 years, people are very used to seeing them now.
From our first 2007 GMC diesel van to our 2017 Sprinter 4×4 van, we have come full circle. I hope this gave you some ideas of the reasons why we chose the RVs we did over the last 12 years.
I wanted to give you guys a thorough background on how we chose our RVs before we dive into how you can make the right choices to pick your own RV. That is going to be the topic for the next video and blog in this Adventure Mobile series.
A big special thanks to Bob and Toni who are our very first Patrons on the Freely Roaming Patreon account. You guys are amazing have been supporting us for a long time and we are thrilled to have you here with us. We could not have done this without your support.