Airstream camper at Bonneville Salt Flats

Six Things I’ve Learned from My Family’s First RV Trip

I never expected to be an RVer. I went camping exactly zero times as a kid. For most of my adult life, my travel tastes have tended towards cosmopolitan cities, boutique hotels and beach resorts—pretty much the opposite of rustic campgrounds.

Yet here I am, in the middle of a 6,000-mile RV (aka, caravanning) trip from California to New York and back. My husband, our two kids, our new (and only marginally trained) rescue dog and I are packed into a used 19-foot Airstream Bambi we bought about a month ago.

We’ve been on the road for about a week and 1,700 miles. Along the way, we’ve had a tire blowout, an engine malfunction, a jammed door, a flooded shower, and a 35-degree night without heat. Our learning curve has been steep as the cliffs of Dover. But we’ve also had some wondrous experiences along the way.

If you’re considering getting into RVing, here’s some of what we’ve learned.

It Can Take a LOT of Research

We were initially planning to rent an RV to travel from California to New York City to fetch my mom, who has been isolated in her house for the past seven months.  Then we tried a Cruise America rental for a weekend and found it uncomfortable—extremely loud and squeaky to drive, with hard seats and cushions.

We looked into renting a fancier RV on Outdoorsy or RV Share, but it seemed really hard to compare models. Plus, I was uneasy about having the kids (5 and 7) ride in the back of the RVs—especially in some of the older models. We started looking at Airstream trailers, which we could tow behind a separate car, and within a week my husband was buying a secondhand one from outside of Los Angeles. That turned out to be the easy part.

We needed to find a car that would comfortably sit six people, be able to tow the Airstream, and fit in our budget (and our driveway). We found plenty of SUVs that would fit everyone but couldn’t handle the Airstream, and lots of trucks that could tow the trailer but wouldn’t fit the whole family. We finally settled on a used Audi Q7. But that wasn’t the end of the process.

Next we had to work out how to connect the car and the trailer. We had to make sure the trailer receiver on the Audi (the thing on the back of the car) could handle enough weight. Then we had to buy the right trailer hitch (the thing that attaches the receiver to the trailer), then had to configure it—even bringing it to a local machinist to have a new hole drilled into the steel.

All told, the process took more than a month and lots of time doing online research, asking questions in forums, and calling RV experts. It was a much bigger time investment than we expected.

It Might Not Be Safer Than Flying 

We undertook this journey to keep my mom, who is nearly 80, safe from Covid-19. While the Airstream has allowed us to avoid airport terminals, taxis, restaurants, hotels, and public bathrooms, we’ve still come into contact with plenty of people along the way.

We’ve had to stop for supplies, gas and repairs. We’ve had to go into campground offices to check in. “Neighbors” in campgrounds have wandered over to chat. The dog has gotten loose and run into other campsites. In the U.S. not everyone—or every state—is taking the same precautions; people haven’t always been wearing masks or keeping their distance.

Though we’ve tried to be very careful, we weren’t prepared for all the unexpected encounters. If I had to start the trip over again, I’d be much more on my guard and plan so we could avoid getting near anyone.

It’s Awesome for Kids

This might seem like a no-brainer, but I spent most of my life in big cities and consider myself an indoors-y type. Before we left on the trip, I vaguely worried about how to keep the kids occupied when not in the car.

I guess I’d forgotten what it’s like to be a kid, because mine have needed little encouragement or organization. I’ve pointed out unfamiliar insects, flowers, and features of the landscape. The rest they’ve done themselves: throwing stones into a river, racing across a field, asking how to start a fire.

Then there are the learning opportunities. Before we left, I printed out some information about map skills and have been introducing some of those concepts along the way. I checked out library books set in some of the places we’d be traveling through, for them to read in the back seat or after breakfast. And we’ve made brief stops along the way at national parks and historic spots, using them to teach kids about everything from Civil Rights to geology. It’s been a bit of grab-bag of information, which has been hard for me to come to terms with—but they seem fine with.

Flexibility Helps 

Before we embarked on our trip, I mapped out our route, circled our stops, and researched the best campgrounds. Luckily, I didn’t make any reservations—because we would have blown all of them. Or, we would have gotten really stressed about making our planned destination each night.

We needed to stop unexpectedly for a car repair in New Mexico. In Oklahoma the kids begged to linger at a lovely campground on a lake. Some days we felt like driving for hours, others were just too tired to keep going. I’ve been booking campsites for the same night (sometimes one day in advance) from the passenger seat, relying heavily on Campendium, a site that aggregates information and reviews about public and private campgrounds. While we’ve stayed at a couple of borderline-dreary spots, others have been surprisingly delightful.

It helps that we’re traveling in fall—there were a lot of RVers packing campgrounds this summer. Also, we know that if all else fails we can overnight at a rest stop or empty lot. Happily, that hasn’t happened yet.

You Should BYOI (Bring Your Own Internet)

Unless you’re planning on unplugging while you travel, it’s wise to figure out your internet situation in advance. Almost every campground we’ve visited has promised Wi-Fi, and almost none has delivered—the connections have been agonizingly slow or nonexistent.

Some RVers buy satellite internet devices, signal boosters or hotspots that connect to their mobile plans. Right now I’m trying out Glocalme a pay-as-you-go roaming Wi-Fi device. Research your options before your travels, and stay tuned on how well this gadget works…

RVing Builds Your Resilience

I normally love to travel, but this trip made me nervous—our home felt comfortable and safe in a risky and unpredictable year. But it feels so good, not just to experience a sense of wonder again, but also to flex our resilience muscles.  

Our family has hit lots of challenges along the way—from that flat tire on the side of a busy highway to a freezing cold night to a puking kid. But every time we solve a problem (or three), I feel like our family gets stronger. In the end, that will be worth every mile.

Sara Clemence is a freelance journalist, formerly travel editor for The Wall Street Journal and news director for Travel + Leisure. She's the author of Away & Aware, a guide to mindful travel.