$900 fill-up: High gas prices hit RV drivers more than most

By Matt McFarland, CNN Business

    (CNN) -- Gas prices may be skyrocketing, but Americans still love their RVs despite the fact that they often get 10 mpg — or less.

RV popularity boomed during the pandemic as travelers looked for safe ways to travel while maintaining social distance. Americans continue to turn to RVs even as they've grown increasingly comfortable flying and staying in hotels.

RV production in North America hit an all-time high in 2021, with more than 600,000 vehicles produced, according to RV Industry Association spokeswoman Monika Geraci. The association expects 2022 will be its second-best year of production ever. RVs are especially popular in the South and West.

Thor Industries, which owns popular RV brands Airstream and Jayco, said this month that its sales were up 34.6% in the latest three months, compared with the same period last year. Thor Industries says it still has a backlog of RV orders worth $13.88 billion.

RV experts say consumers are adjusting to high gas prices by taking shorter trips.

"If you live in Phoenix and were thinking of Yosemite in California, you might do the Grand Canyon instead," said Randall Smalley, who leads marketing and business development at Cruise America, which rents RVs.

Dane Lee and his wife Jenna sold their Dallas home in 2020 and bought an RV as their jobs became remote during the pandemic.

They've crossed the country twice in their RV, but will be staying closer to family in Birmingham, Alabama this year. Lee said their 150-gallon diesel tank can cost close to $900 to fill from empty. But they don't plan to go back to a traditional house.

"We had the house in the suburbs with a pool and a fence and that stuff. It got a little monotonous going to the office and going back home," Lee said. "The flexibility of having a new view every week is awesome. We've found where we want to be."

Jon Gray, CEO of RV Share, an online marketplace for renting RVs, told CNN Business that customers' average trip in May was slightly less than 350 miles, 9% shorter than in May of last year.

RV Share will be giving away $500,000 in gift cards to customers this year to compensate for increased gas prices on trips. Even with the high gas prices,last week RV Share had its biggest day of bookings this year, Gray said.

Jennifer Young, co-founder of the RV marketplace Outdoorsy, said that "near-cations" are a big trend, as many people stay within 100 miles of home. Young said the average nightly cost of an Outdoorsy rental has increased $5 from last year. Outdoorsy's rentals for the 4th of July are up 4% from last year, Young said.

The increased fuel costs of RVs may be more acceptable to travelers due to inflation across the economy, including more expensive airfare. RV costs may not look as daunting when compared to alternatives. RV travelers often bring their own food and cook, helping to manage costs. Many RV travelers drive exclusively on the first and last day of the trip and leave the RV parked the rest of the trip.

"RVs are not gas-powered vacations," Young said. "They look like they are because they have a steering wheel and four wheels."

RV experts say a growing industry trend is having an RV delivered to an RV site for a vacationing family to use.

Gray, the RV Share CEO, said 20% of his rentals involve the RV's owner driving the vehicle to a campground or destination and leaving it there for the renters. That way travelers can drive their own fuel-efficient vehicle to the RV's location. Then they can enjoy the benefits of vacationing in an RV — which can feel like having a hotel room whose door opens to some of the country's most beautiful places, like national parks — without ever having to fuel up the vehicle to drive it long distances. RV Share started offering the service early in the pandemic.

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