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RV fans remain pumped: High fuel prices haven't deflated enthusiasm

Source: Reading Eagle
Publish Date: Saturday, June 16, 2007
Summary: It's what many consider to be the all-American vacation. You load your family into a motor home or large camper, pack it with outdoor gear and some food fit for grilling, and head out on the open road.

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By Mike Urban

Jun. 16, 2007 (McClatchy-Tribune Regional News delivered by Newstex) --

It's what many consider to be the all-American vacation.

You load your family into a motor home or large camper, pack it with outdoor gear and some food fit for grilling, and head out on the open road.

"With 16,000 campgrounds nationwide, it's a great way to see America," said Kevin Broom, a spokesman for the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association in Reston, Va.

But there is a drawback to those bussized motor homes and enormous RVs -- they require a lot of gas or diesel power. Motor homes usually get about 8 miles per gallon and trailers reduce the mileage of the large vehicles towing them.

So with pump prices hovering around $3 per gallon these days, are more RVs staying parked in driveways or dealers' lots?

Not at all, say industry officials and several Berks County RV dealers.

In fact, last year was the best ever for RV factory shipments to dealers, with 395,000 new units shipped, breaking the records set the previous two years, Broom said.

This year is only slightly behind that pace as people continue to seek the fun, freedom and flexibility that RVs permit, he said.

"And using an RV is still the cheapest way of vacationing," said Henry Shellenberger, owner of Berks Mont Camping Center in Boyertown.

That is because a stay at a campground is generally cheaper than a hotel room and driving is still typically less expensive than flying, he said.

"Nobody likes high gas prices, but relative to the cost of your vacation, the increase is not that much," Broom said.

Bob Heiner, a sales manager at Tom Schaeffer's RV Travel Center in Perry Township, reports his business is up this year.

"The economy sometimes hurts RV sales, but fluctuating gas prices generally don't," he said.

And since it can cost as much as $350,000 for a new motor home, those who make that investment certainly aren't going to leave it unused, said Michael D. Axman, a spokesman for AAA of Reading-Berks County, the local unit of the nationwide auto association.

"They have a lot of money invested in those things, and a higher cost for gasoline is not enough for them to stay home," he said. "Instead, maybe they'll save money by ordering pizza some night instead of going to a restaurant."

Paul Buckley, a sales manager of the Boat-N-RV Superstore in Tilden Township, agreed.

"Another $50 on vacation just means one less night out drinking, but it's not enough to stay home," he said. "People want to get away from their everyday lives. That won't change no matter how high gas prices get."

It's the economy

Shellenberger acknowledged that more of his customers are choosing medium or small RVs -- which can cost as little as $8,000 for a new pop-up camper -- instead of motor homes.

But he blamed the trend more on the economy than on gas and diesel prices.

Though national and state parks have reported a drop in visitors in recent years, it isn't because of higher fuel prices, which actually seem to be pushing RV users toward local parks and campgrounds, park officials said.

"We're seeing a greater number of RV users recently from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland," said Eric M. Brown, manager of French Creek State Park, south of Birdsboro.

Some of those visitors used to travel to more far-flung locations but are now staying closer to home, he said.

High fuel prices didn't scare Gene Everson of Muhlenberg Township from recently buying a 38-foot trailer that he plans to take to Florida and Iowa this year.

Then again, the mileage his pickup gets while hauling that camper is much better than the mileage he got in the motor home he traded in.

"Driving into the wind I sometimes only got 3 miles per gallon," he said. "That was part of the reason I got rid of it."

Pop-up campers

Several manufacturers are making more fuel-efficient RVs, such as the Winnebago View motor home, which gets 17 mpg.

But one local dealer said those advances came too late for him.

A few years ago, Ernie Kieffer, owner of Kieffer's RV Sales in Douglassville, stopped selling motor homes because of dwindling sales, which he attributes partly to high fuel prices.

Kieffer still sells smaller RVs, such as pop-up campers, which he said remain popular.

Two of his recent customers were Gordon and Deborah Joyner of Amity Township, who bought a leftover 2005 pop-up camper for $8,900.

Deborah said she doesn't expect that towing the camper will greatly reduce the gas mileage on their sport utility vehicle.

But even if it does, she said, vacations such as their upcoming week at Knoebels Amusement Resort's campground in Columbia County are still relatively cheap.

And RVs bring other advantages, she pointed out.

"At my age, I can't handle a tent anymore," the 45-year-old said with a laugh.

Newstex ID: KRTB-0172-17518073

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