How can we make our first family RV trip awesome?
January 29, 2014 1:19 PM   Subscribe

I've always wanted to do an RV trip, and I've finally convinced my wife to give it a try. We're thinking about taking our two girls (1.5 and 5 yrs) to San Diego this spring and starting from there. How can we make it a fun experience for everyone?

It's something I've always wanted to do but never have. And now with two kids, it seems like it might actually be a way to have a fun short road trip, get away from Portland's "spring" weather, maybe even save some effort and money.

I'm thinking a 5-day trip with maybe 2-3 hours driving each day, sleeping in campgrounds or at large somewhere safe.

First, is this crazy? My wife and I are more the backpack-through-Africa types, but with young kids especially, travel has become more of a...burden. It's the transitions that kill you: hotel-attraction-car-restaurant-etc. This seems like a way to eliminate a few of those. And possibly save on hotels and restaurants, since we can cook some meals aboard. Right?

Then, where should we go? Sea World is out (*ahem*Blackfish), but maybe the zoo, definitely the beach, maybe the desert, or mountains...? Cool kid-friendly destinations near San Diego that won't drive parents bonkers?

I'm sure the girls will find the whole RV thing hilariously fascinating, but what's the optimal balance of driving to not-driving? They typically do fine on long car trips, and are otherwise very active. How can we make this as fun for them as possible, and also for us?

What should we bring? How big an RV should we rent, and from who?

And last, what are the hidden pitfalls with RV rental/travel we don't know about? Travel hacks? Insider tips?
posted by gottabefunky to Travel & Transportation around San Diego, CA (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I've always wanted to do an extended trip in a restored Westfalia.

I think the kids would love the pop top.

Bring a portable toilet for yer bizness, and perhaps wet naps for showers when you can't arrange something else.
posted by jsturgill at 1:34 PM on January 29, 2014

Wherever you rent from you really need to do a PRACTICE TRIP. I cannot stress how complicated setting up, living in, and breaking down an RV can be. Maybe just you and one of your buddies take a weekend to the local campground and suss it out.
posted by Gungho at 1:44 PM on January 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

Here's a tip for mealtimes -- do as much cooking outside as you can, rather than frustrate yourself with a tiny RV kitchen. Invest in a two-burner propane camping stove and cook your meals on your camp site's picnic table or charcoal grill. Make your lunches ahead of time so that you can eat at picnic areas or rest stops, because you want to do as little parking in restaurant parking lots as you can get away with.

In terms of driving, keep in mind that driving an RV is going to be more foreign and more stress-inducing than your family car. If your habit is to do five hours a day on a normal road trip, shave a couple hours off of that so that the driver isn't totally frazzled by the end of the day.
posted by mudpuppie at 1:50 PM on January 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think if you're going to do an RV trip, it should be a proper road trip and not something where you're based in one city. Otherwise, why not just fly to San Diego, book a hotel room, and rent a car?

As a kid I did RV trips with my grandparents. They took some very long trips, but with us kids we would mostly do something within a day or two's drive. Like, drive from our home near New Orleans to a Florida panhandle beach town, or New Braunfels, TX. We would camp at kitschy KOA campgrounds or state parks along the way if there was an overnight stop before reaching our destination.

Seconding the practice trip idea. Especially if you're not used to driving large vehicles.

My main memory of RV travel was the plates in the cupboards rattling constantly.
posted by Sara C. at 1:51 PM on January 29, 2014

I too thought an RV trip with a toddler would be fun, so my parents, brothers and I drove my then two year old daughter about 11 hours from Virginia to Indiana. Granted, we did the driving in a day or two, so we did a LOT more driving per day than you contemplate. But it was sort of hellish, for us.

First, the kiddo still needed to be secured into a child seat by law, and it was a pain in the ass to get it strapped into the narrow bench seats that surrounded a table in our RV. Then once it was in there, because it was so narrow, it was a pain in the ass to get the kiddo strapped in.

Second, when our daughter rides with us in a regular car there's no one in the back seat to entertain her, so she entertains herself. But when she was strapped into the dining table of the RV and surrounded by us and her grandparents, she demanded our attention constantly, so the trip turned into 11 non-stop hours of trying to entertain the toddler. We had brought lots of stuff for her entertainment, but still.

I was also surprised by how difficult it was to walk around in a moving RV. In movies it looks so easy! So steady! But it was more like trying to walk around on the deck of a small boat in rough water.

If your kids are easy you'll no doubt have an easier time of it than us, and again, it sounds like the trip you're planning is much shorter and more doable. May you have better luck than me, fellow traveller!
posted by onlyconnect at 1:57 PM on January 29, 2014

Just to clarify, you're doing a five-day trip that includes a round trip from Portland to San Diego that includes only driving 2-3 hours a day? Google maps shows 16 hours of driving one way, and that's a straight shot and probably bypasses some of the scenery that makes that trip so interesting. Sorry if I'm misreading, but the itinerary doesn't quite add up. What about a shorter local trip as your first try?
posted by handful of rain at 1:57 PM on January 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Sorry, to clarify: we're thinking of flying to San Diego, renting an RV, and then doing a 4-5 day loop out of there, not staying in the city the whole time.
posted by gottabefunky at 2:06 PM on January 29, 2014

As someone whose childhood was spent Rving around Australia with her family some tips.

Stop more often than you think you'll need, if something looks vaguely interesting stop, what the hell, that's the reason why you are travelling by RV anyway. Be prepared to be a little spontaneous.

That first caravan park looks like crap, try and find another one (in these days of GPS that will be so much easier to do than it was in my day).

Don't drive too much just because you can. It sounds like you have that covered as you are only planning on driving a few hours a day which sounds perfect.

Plan fun things to do at the campgrounds/caravan park, while it's fun to think you'll just sit and unwind it can get boring for kids. If you are boondocking, even more thought will need to be put into entertaining the kids.

Allow time to drop of grey water and waste etc, and make sure you can find the drop off areas easily. Again GPS makes this much easier.

If you are not used to RV's make sure the parks you book have drive through parking.
posted by wwax at 2:21 PM on January 29, 2014

As a kid my family took an RV from BC to San Diego and back several times. Our favorite place every year was a campground at Cape Blanco, possibly a KOA. I still think about running around the paths there. Highly recommended.
posted by Beardman at 2:25 PM on January 29, 2014

Yeah, per onlyconnect, I'd also add that you should really think of it as a vehicle that you can sleep/eat/hang out in comfortably when parked, and not as a moving living room. You can't really walk around while the RV is in motion, or use the kitchen. The bathroom is possible, but inconvenient. And probably not possible for a 5 year old.

My grandparents' RV had two sort of "captain's chair" style seats in addition to the dinette seating and the cab seating, and I think they would have been carseat compatible (they definitely had seatbelts). One thing that's weird about seating in an RV is that you find yourself sitting weirdly far apart during the actual ride. With my grandparents, it would be them up front in the cab, then two people in the "captain's chairs" (which are not as close to each other as seats in a car), then maybe a couple other people at the dinette, across the RV from the captain's chairs. You couldn't really have a sustained conversation or group activity. Traveling this way with a toddler and a very small child might be complicated.
posted by Sara C. at 2:27 PM on January 29, 2014

I did a brief trip with other adults in an RV a couple years ago. I would underscore onlyconnect's observation that it is like a boat. Specifically, you need to really secure loose objects in the way you would in a boat, because if you need to stop the RV suddenly, or even go around a curve, loose objects will go slinging around the cabin. Especially true for anything heavy that you don't want flying through the air. The RV cabin has magnetic locking cupboards for this purpose.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:44 PM on January 29, 2014

this sounds like a fun adventure! if i were you, i would make sure that i had a bunch of little surprises to make the trip feel more special. maybe one night is dressup night and everyone makes costumes out of the things they find around them. maybe there's a special movie you all watch with treats. there should definitely be glow-in-the-dark bracelets that come out at some point. or a disco ball on the ceiling that you shine a flashlight on. maybe you hang up a poster or a map, and glue cool crap that you find along the way on it. or maybe you turn the trip into a flip book or video, with crazy pictures.
if i was your wife, i would want you to hide the fact that you planned these special things, and then surprise me with them. i would think you were SO AWESOME.
posted by andreapandrea at 5:16 PM on January 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

How familiar are you and your family with San Diego? The most logical thing to do--once you've done your Balboa Park (that's the Zoo and museums) and Mission Bay/Pacific Beach trips--is go up the Coast Highway for as far as you so desire (I'm assuming you won't want to take it all the way to Oregon, but you could).

This Nat Geo road trip planner starts in Monterey but has some nice stops once you get to that point.

This isn't very clear from the outside, but you can actually start in La Jolla on the Coast Highway/101 and then it eventually turns into the real PCH/1 further up the road which takes you all the way up. Things get a little murky in LA, but once you get past LA you head into Ventura County and then Santa Barbara and things are beautiful again. You could literally take the 1/101 (they split and come back together again a couple of times) all the way almost to Portland, but I'm guessing you'd want a shorter trip.

In any case, were I (a San Diego native) to rent an RV in San Diego I'd do a Coast Highway/1 trip. That stretch between Santa Barbara and San Francisco is incredible and it's perfect for a car/RV.
posted by librarylis at 10:52 PM on February 1, 2014

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