RVing and Fuel Costs
What to Do?
By Warren Petkovsek
Ok, we all know that fuel costs are at a record high and operating our vehicles is painfully expensive. I’m going to stick my neck out here and predict that fuel will be even more expensive in the future so what do we do about it and how will it affect our RVing lifestyle? There’s no hiding from increased fuel costs. It impacts everything we buy because it all has to be transported by truck, train or airplane and that all uses basically the same type of distillate – diesel fuel or a variation of diesel fuel.
There’s no point in dwelling on the reasons for record fuel prices so let’s make this part brief. It is due to several reasons. Supply and demand is one. The Chinese got tired of riding bicycles and they all want to drive and burn fuel. Corporate greed is a popular opinion right now. Back in 1999 my dad said that mergers of many major oil companies would result in higher prices by eliminating competition. Our government broke up a monopoly which was Standard Oil Company of New York back in the 1920’s for this reason and now the government has let them all to get back together again. Companies have merged and prices went up almost immediately. Coincidence? You decide. Environmental regulations and controls have also played a part in price increases. It simply costs more to make fuel burn cleaner. The downside of cleaner burning fuel is that fuel mileage generally suffers. The fuel burns cleaner, but more of it must be burned to get the same results so, in reality, which pollutes more?
So what’s an RV enthusiast to do? I for one will continue to enjoy my RV and I’ll tell you why. Right now the RV is still the best bang for the buck for traveling. I have a friend who lives near me in Lumberton, Texas. He took a vacation to Maine with his wife in their fifth-wheel last year. He kept a log of expenses for fuel and camping fees. He didn’t count food because you have to eat at home anyway. The costs averaged $102.00 a day for the trip. ‘Not bad at all considering the cost of hotels and eating out. What’s that you say? Fuel has gone up 25% in the last year? I know that. Even if the entire $102.00 was for fuel (which it wasn’t) then the trip would cost about $127.00 a day this year. While this increase is painful it isn’t enough to keep me at home yet. Still, we must continue to find ways to stretch our dollars in order to afford to travel. Let me share my thoughts on this and I hope you find these ideas useful. Here we go.
Two ways to make RVing more affordable are to get better fuel mileage and to save money elsewhere in order to be able to afford the fuel. We’ll talk about fuel mileage first. Nothing affects mileage more than tire pressure except your driving style. I won’t even attempt to tell you how to drive. If fuel prices aren’t enough of a motivator for you then I won’t waste my time telling you about the benefits of lower speeds and gentler starts and stops. That brings us to tire pressure. The best analogy I can think of is a bicycle. We’ve all ridden a bike and we know how much easier it is to pedal when the tires are fully inflated. The same is true for your trailer and tow vehicle. You can’t feel it from the driver’s seat, but your engine is working harder and using more fuel if the tires aren’t inflated properly. You should inflate the tires to the maximum pressure that is stamped on the tire’s sidewall for maximum fuel mileage. Oh, the ride may be a little harder, but that’s not a bad compromise considering fuel costs. My one ton truck rides like a – well – like a one ton truck anyway so it’s maximum allowed tire pressure for me. Vehicle maintenance is obviously important for fuel mileage. New filters, oil changes and transmission and differential service all play a big part in fuel mileage as well as vehicle dependability and longevity. Make yourself a maintenance check list. Check tire pressures and fluid levels about twice a month and always before a long trip. Mark a calendar to remind yourself to do this. I keep a notebook in my vehicle glove box where I write down maintenance such as oil and filter changes. Be sure to include the date and vehicle mileage. This little notebook has also come in handy when it comes time to trade or sell the vehicle. A buyer likes to see that proper maintenance has been done.
What about fuel additives or gadgets that promise miraculous increases in fuel mileage? That stuff is generally all snake oil and isn’t worth the cost. There are a few exceptions. My diesel pick-up isn’t my daily driver so the diesel fuel stays in the tank for a long time. Since diesel fuel doesn’t age very gracefully I add the appropriate amount of fuel conditioner to the tank. This is cheap insurance and the additive hasn’t gone up in price nearly as much as the fuel. Diesel fuel is a funny thing. If you spill some in your yard it will kill the grass, but if it gets too old algae will actually grow in the tank. If you use your diesel truck every day then this isn’t a big issue for you, but if you are like me then I recommend using an additive. Pick one that is appropriate to the climate where you live. In Texas I find that I don’t need anything to prevent the fuel from gelling in cold weather. If your tow vehicle has a gasoline engine then stay away from premium or super unleaded fuel. Unless your owner’s manual specifically states that this premium grade fuel is needed (and I can’t think of a single tow vehicle where this is the case) you are wasting your money. Trust me. I used to make this stuff for a living and I know how it works.
What about high performance equipment such as high flow intake and exhaust systems or power chips and programmers? Be careful with chips and programmers. They may void your warranty if something breaks and for good reason. In diesel engines there is a very real concern with exhaust gas temperature (EGT). Those things can run all day at 1,300 degrees, but metal will start melting off of the ends of the turbocharger blades at 1,350 degrees. You should never reprogram your engine without first adding the appropriate gauges to monitor EGT as well as transmission temperatures. That brings us to intake and exhaust systems that improve flow. My thoughts are that it couldn’t hurt, but it won’t help as much as you think and it will certainly take a long time for fuel savings (if any) to make up for the purchase price. I did add an exhaust system to my truck mainly because it has greatly lowered my EGT. As for intake systems such as high performance air filters – well, I think that the only way for an air filter to flow more air is for it to filter less efficiently. ‘Not worth the risk for me. You can do what you want.
Cruise control is also the enemy of fuel economy. Your cruise control doesn’t care how much fuel is used. Its only job is to maintain the set speed. That means it will add fuel going up hills. You will get better mileage by slowing down on hills (traffic permitting) and regaining lost speed on the way down.
That pretty much uses up all the conventional wisdom about improving fuel mileage so now we are left with ways for an RVer to save money elsewhere in order to be able to afford the fuel. On a recent trip to Europe where fuel cost $6.00 - $7.00 a gallon in 2007, I noticed that many vehicles are equipped with manual transmissions. These get better mileage than automatics and when the fuel price reaches a certain level these manual gearboxes will regain popularity in this country. The vehicle purchase price will also be less and that is money saved that can be spent on fuel. We can also save money on camping fees by joining the Good Sam Club and camping at Good Sam parks where we can get a 10% discount. There are other camping clubs such as Passport America or Happy Camper where discounts could be as much as 50%, but some restrictions may apply. You will have to check them out.
Another way to save on fuel is to drive shorter and maybe stay longer. That works well for us, but the occasional long odyssey is still possible. Our son’s in-laws are very good friends of ours and they have camped with us in our fifth-wheel before so they will often go camping with us sharing expenses and driving chores along the way. This works great as long as it is agreeable to everyone and everyone gets along. Camping club discounts will also lower the cost of very long trips. We did the math and have found that, even with high fuel costs, pulling the RV and paying the camping fees is still much cheaper than flying, hotels and eating out. We are all now retired so time isn’t a concern and we can enjoy the attractions along the way.
In conclusion, high fuel prices have certainly had a negative impact on our RV fun, but it’s not time to push the panic button and give it up yet. A first time buyer may want to consider smaller campers and tow vehicles or even buy them second hand in order to save money that can be later used for fuel. Please don’t make the mistake of buying the wrong tow vehicle just to gain fuel economy. That mistake can be fatally dangerous at worst and hideously expensive at best. I’ve written another article on that subject and I would be glad to send it to you if you want to contact me and ask for it. In the meantime, do the math, figure out different ways to save money and fuel and continue to enjoy your RV. Happy trails!
Warren Petkovsek has been an avid RVer for over several decades. He lives in Lumberton, Texas with his wife, Myra. A former teacher, band director and professional musician, Warren is now retired from the petrochemical industry. In addition to being a freelance writer he is also a school volunteer, a Texas State Park volunteer and has been a Boy Scout Leader for many years. Warren would be delighted to answer any RV related questions that you may have and would be happy to send you some or all of his other articles. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .