We did it. We survived three weeks in an RV with kids. And everyone is still alive. Only just though… We had a blast and saw so much. It was tough. It was intense. Talk about jumping in the deep end. There were plenty of times when we asked ourselves: “Why the hell didn’t we start with something more relaxing?” Three weeks on a beach somewhere for example - ease our way into our new nomadic lifestyle. I am telling you now, there were plenty of times when we wanted to give up and come home. I locked myself in the tiny RV loos – the only room with a lock – when the going got tough, biting the inside of my cheek not to scream. But with 2200 miles and four American National Parks under our belt I couldn’t be prouder.
Apologies. It has taken a while to update our blog .The US’ National Parks have the most humbling landscapes but do not boast the best connectivity. We have been documenting our adventures on Instagram quite prolifically though, WIFI permitting, so if you want to have a behind-the-scene, unedited peak of our road trip, do check us out @world_family_trip.
Waiting a few weeks to share our trip so far does have its advantages. It gives us time to reflect on what we have accomplished without the rawness...cheek is still sore. Nobody said it was going to be easy. Toddlers are notoriously fickle, and we have a true champion in that area. We have had tears, tantrums and levels of stubbornness I thought could not be reached. We have shouted, made up, threatened and bribed our way out of situations. But we have also had laughs, smiles and witnessed truly draw-dropping landscapes, making memories we will never forget.
Travelling in an RV is cost effective if you want to cover a lot of ground. But it still cost us more than we thought and our three-week road-trip tipped our US month 1 budget slightly over the £5,000 mark. As true RV rookies, we made mistakes so here are some tips, advice and information if you are considering undertaking a similar journey or just curious about how the hell we pulled it off.
Top Ten Tips for Stress-Free RV travel with Kids:
Book RV camping spots in National Parks well in advance. Some of the most popular ones sell out six months in advance. All campgrounds within the Parks need to be booked via the official government website . If you are going to visit more than two National Parks is it more cost effective to buy the annual National Park Pass at $80, as each Park will set you back between $20-35. You will struggle to buy it online before you go as you need a US address but you can purchase it at the first Park you rock up to.
Check whether you have full hook-up at RV sites. We had no real idea what this meant when booking up our RV spots in the National Parks 6 six months ago. Basically, if you do not have a hook-up, you are self-sufficient. You use the water in your tank and can rely on the generator for electrically items like toaster and microwave. Generator use is limited though at most parks to certain times of the day as they are noisy as hell. National Parks RV sites tend not to have full hook-up sites, although you can empty your grey water (sink, shower) and black water (you don’t want to know but it involves gloves) and fill up on fresh water.
Check out all the terms and conditions of your rental insurance before you head out. Sounds like a no-brainer but we needed to purchase additional insurance at the counter, as it transpired our package did not include third party collision. Also, be clear what is NOT included in the insurance. Despite us taking out all possible insurance for our RV, if you damaged the overhead cabin, bumper or the underbelly of the vehicle you would have to pay repairs. We ended up damaging the back corner of the RV during a particular stressful U-turn and fretting about it for the rest of the trip. In the end we paid a small $75 accident fee. I would recommend writing all the questions down before instead of trying to think on the spot during on RV pick up when you have a snotty toddler stuck to your leg.
If you are travelling with kids, plan a few nights at RV campgrounds with swimming pools. While you will rarely find them inside National Parks, breaking up lengthy journeys with more family friendly campsites with pools and playgrounds is so worth it. The pools made all the difference to the kids and we all let of steam in the water. KOA campgrounds are particularly family-friendly, although check prices before as some can be super pricey as we found out at Santa Cruz. Ouch.
Check out shuttle bus services in the National Parks before you head out. While some of the more popular National Parks like Grand Canyon have free shuttles services running most of the year others like Sequoia stop running at the end of the summer, which means you will need to get around daily in your RV…a hassle. And remember not all roads and parking lots in National Park are RV friendly.
Plan your supermarket stops and stock up on groceries way before you hit a National Park. Firstly, because convenience stores inside National Parks are even more pricey than your standard Walmart. Secondly, once you have parked your RV at the campsite - which can be an event in itself if you opt for a beast like we did - you will not want to go driving around with it daily to find shops. Good bets are Walmart, Trader Joe and the Family Dollar depending on your budget.
Be prepared to be without internet/phone access for days at a time. In the bigger parks, like Yosemite and Grand Canyon, you sometimes get access at Visitor Centres but most of the time you will be offline. Don’t rely on your phones for information and have change for payphones or ask nicely to use one at a store or campsite – they said yes both times I tried. Stock up on kids movies and e-books for road-trip screen-time before you set off when you have decent WIFI. #lessonlearned
Get the kids involved with Junior Ranger packs freely available throughout National Park Visitor Centres, but don’t get your hopes up they will probably only complete a third of it and never get their ranger badge. #boring
Bring travel anti-stain with you for when your toddler scribbles on the seats and other soft-furnishing and put your toothpaste to good use when you realised you have scratched the outside of the vehicle. It is great for attenuating scratch marks.
Snacks. Bring plenty to keeps hands and mouths busy while on the road. And never underestimate how many snacks you will need. Our favourites were Pretzel sticks, fruit pouches, Ritz cheesy biscuits - we went through a hell of a lot of those.
Three week US road trip itinerary:
California - Nevada - Arizona - California
Yosemite: Three nights. One night at Crane Flat Campground , two nights at North Pines Campground. Ideally we would have stayed three nights at North Pines as it is in the Valley where all the sights are but we only managed availability for two nights so stayed just outside the Valley for our first night. Cold nights - ended up all in the same bed. Patchy phone reception.
Sequoia National Park: Three nights at Lodgepole Campground. Shuttle bus stops running after US Labour day - literally a few days before we got there. Cold nights. No phone reception.
Death Valley: Three nights at Stovepipe Wells . Basically a hotel with outdoor pool as well as RV camp spots. General store and restaurant. No fresh food in the store though only tins and dried food. Check whether your RV rental will let you into Death Valley, as it is so hot some companies have date restrictions as the heat takes its toll on the A/C unit. WIFI near reception no phone coverage.
Las Vegas: Two nights at Sam’s Town KOA Campground with pool and free shuttle bus the strip. As we were with the kids we did not get the chance to gamble so we went to the Advenduredome instead. Check out if you can find any coupons for discounts in any of the local ad material to get reduced entrance fee. WIFIand phone coverage.
Grand Canyon: Three nights at Trailer Village RV Park. Decent supermarket not far and WIFI at main reception. Shuttle buses take you straight from the Trailer Village to the South Rim sights so no navigating the Canyon with your RV.
Los Angeles: Two nights at the Golden Sore RV Park in Long Beach pricey compared to some but near the water and has a pool. Quite a walk to the beach though. Good phone reception.
Pismo: Two nights in Pismo Coast Village RV Park great for kids with pool and playground. Beach within walking distance with swings on the sand. Restaurant and convenience store on site. WIFI and phone reception.
Big Sur: Two nights in Plaskett Creek Campround - very basic, no WIFI or phone reception. Not far from beach but long stairs down and up.
Santa Cruz: Last night in KOA Santa Cruz/Monterey Bay Campground , pricey, the most expensive RV park we stayed at but loads of great facilities for kids including pool, bouncy cushion, bikes and crazy golf. And was conveniently only a few hours drive to Oakland near San Francisco to drop off the RV.
Renting an RV
RV stands for recreation vehicle, basically a camper van. It is big business in the US. They have a huge country and they provide real convenience at relatively low cost if you consider the equivalent price of renting cars and paying for accommodation. We booked through Travel Nation the guys who helped us organise our world trip flights. They recommended Apollo RV – one of the bigger renters of recreation vehicles in the US and to be fair we struggled to find a better deal. We rented a 30 ft Winnebargo paradoxically called Minnie Winnie. It was approximately £2000 for three weeks rental. We opted for a Value Pack which included all the basics inside the RV and as well as unlimited mileage. We paid extra for unlimited generator use but probably could have done without as only rarely used it. It felt like we had to fill up the tank a lot and although petrol or gas is cheaper in the US we spent about £600 on petrol alone.
So there you have it, our road-trip in a digital nutshell. Travelling in an RV with kids is possible, with patience, snacks and plenty of wine.