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Fuel prices put a hitch in get-along for RVers

Source: The Sacramento Bee
Publish Date: Thursday, June 19, 2008
Summary: High gas prices are only causing enthusiasts to stick closer to home or stay in one spot longer than usual, according to industry experts.Even though sales of RVs are dropping, people are still RVing. "Rentals are up 20 percent and campground bookings are up 5 to 15 percent, depending on the region," says Kevin Broom, spokesman for the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association.

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Gina Kim

Jun. 19, 2008 (McClatchy-Tribune Regional News delivered by Newstex) -- Carol and Stanley Patrick still flip down the entry steps of their travel trailer, roll out the artificial grass carpet and plop down for a long weekend of friends, fishing and fun. But with gas prices sweeping to record highs, they hitch their 26-foot Keystone Springdale to their pickup about half as often as usual.

"We'll still try and steal away; we'll just have to save a little more to do it," says Carol Patrick, 55, as the Visalia couple set up camp last week at a KOA campground in West Sacramento.

The mushrooming costs of gasoline and diesel fuel are affecting the way we engage in leisure travel, the first area where people tend to cut back when budgets become tight. And with vehicles towing trailers or large motor homes swilling gas at a rate of 6 to 12 miles per gallon, that means enthusiasts are sticking closer to home or staying in one spot longer than usual, according to industry experts.

But even though sales of RVs are dropping, people are still RVing.

"Rentals are up 20 percent and campground bookings are up 5 to 15 percent, depending on the region," says Kevin Broom, spokesman for the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association. "RVing is still the most cost- effective way for a family to take a vacation.

"For a typical RV vacation, fuel prices would have to more than double what they are now for RVing to lose its cost advantage."

The California State Parks system has not seen a drop in reservations, and is actually breaking records, with campers often trying to get reservations six months in advance, says spokesman Roy Stearns.

Nationally, camping and RV bookings are the same as last year or even slightly ahead, says Linda Profaizer, president of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds.

Where the RV industry is struggling is in sales, which are down 5 percent to 8 percent in California, according to Skip Daum, executive director of the California RV Dealer Association; and 14 percent nationally, according to Broom of the RV association.

"You've got some big economic things going on right now," Broom says of sagging sales. "There are much tighter credit standards restricting people's ability to purchase RVs, there's a decline in housing values, the general consumer confidence is down, and then there are fuel prices."

The Patricks bought their trailer about four years ago. Active tent campers, they traded in their sleeping bags as they got older, says Carol Patrick, who works as a child-support officer for Tulare County.

Plus, there are the comforts of a mint-and-pink floral motif, real dishes, area rugs, a leather foot stool, two TVs and a shower.

"It's just like home," Patrick says. "I've got my refrigerator, my stove and my microwave."

The Patricks have generally used their RV at least two weekends a month, with an occasional weeknight trip to an RV resort about 30 miles from home. But with the high cost of gas, they're using their home away from home about once a month for now.

"You budget for (gas); it's part of RVing," says Stanley Patrick, 57, the director of a program for at-risk youths. "But does it make you think? Yes."

The Patricks originally reserved 10 spots at the West Sacramento campground for friends and relatives, but high gas prices prompted four parties to cancel, Stanley Patrick says.

"I think there is no doubt we will be down this year," says Mike Gast, spokesman for KOA, which has 450 campgrounds across the country, with RVs making up 80 percent of business.

But 2007 was a record-setting year for KOA, and this year is still projected to be among the best- performing years, Gast says.

The average length of stay is increasing, meaning that people are picking a spot and staying there longer, Gast says. And, the rental rates of KOA cabins, about 10 percent of business now, are also going up, meaning people are still camping without having to invest in the equipment.

"Camping and RVing is a real lifestyle choice," Gast says. "People will cut back in other areas, whether carpooling to work or saving money in other areas to preserve the fact that they can still go camping with their families on the weekends."

That rings true for Carol Patrick, who has already curbed her recreational shopping habits.

"Instead of buying a $5 bottle of hair oil, I might get something a little cheaper," she says. "(RVing) is still cheaper than flying to Mexico, getting a hotel and buying all your food. And you don't have to worry about someone knocking on the door to clean your room."

Newstex ID: KRTB-0178-26096359

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