Illusory freedom of the open road

To the extent that one of RV’s big attractions is the freedom to travel, when and where the heart desires, this year promises all kinds of unwelcome reckonings with reality.

First, of course, there’s the recent explosion of new RV sales that has overwhelmed many campgrounds, making it increasingly difficult to find a spot for the night without extensive advance planning. Not only does that dampen any sense of spontaneity, but all that jostling for space has put the squeeze on campground rates, transforming what was once a modestly-priced escape into an ever more expensive indulgence. It remains to be seen if that surge will continue, given recent developments, but the supply pipeline is already bursting.

And now, just as the camping season is ready to rip, RVers are having to factor in the recent surge in fuel prices. That increase was already underway before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but has since been turbocharged. Brent crude oil prices, which were at $69 a barrel before Christmas, started climbing thereafter and hit $96.48 on Feb. 14, before dropping back just a tad. Then the tanks started rolling and oil prices took off, hitting $133.15 on March 8–a 93% increase in less than three months. They have since fallen back to the vicinity of $100 a barrel, but will remain volatile for months to come.

What this translates into at the pump is, no surprise, a stiff increase in the cost of gas and diesel. The national average price of gas was $4.32 a gallon this week, although “average” prices can mask decidedly un-average costs, typically found on the West Coast: gas in California was averaging $5.74 a gallon. Diesel, meanwhile, which powers a significant proportion of Class A coaches and trucks pulling fifth-wheels, was at $5.20 a gallon on average–up $2.11 in just the past year. Meanwhile, an AAA spokesman told Yahoo Finance that gas prices will continue to rise, even if oil prices stabilize, because the market is easing into summer blends that are more difficult to refine and more difficult to distribute.

Prices have been higher in the not-too-distant past: $4.11 for gas and $4.84 for diesel in July, 2008–but $5.24 and $6.19 in 2022 dollars, after adjusting for inflation. But that’s hardly reassuring, given that the economy was then in the midst of the Great Recession, the entire campground and RV sector sliding into a 3-5 year period of doldrums. And it’s also scant comfort when RVers, already contemplating campground costs that have shot up 50% or more in the past couple of years, are spending more than $100 each time they fill up their gas tanks.

RVIA, the RV manufacturers’ trade association, estimates that the average RVer travels 4,500 miles a year in his rig. It’s a safe bet that this number will be a lot lower in 2022, if only because RVers will be looking for destinations far closer to home. That will benefit campgrounds within 150 miles of major metropolitan areas, but those farther out are likely to do less well–to the relief of more financially resilient campers who are looking for a little elbow room. If gas prices go above $5 a gallon, on the other hand, all bets are off: the AAA reports that’s the “pain point” for 75% of all drivers, beyond which they’ll make sharp adjustments in their driving behavior.

Author: Andy Zipser

A former newspaper reporter who worked at a variety of newspapers, from small community weeklies to The Wall Street Journal, I finished my "normal" work life as the editor of The Guild Reporter, official publication of the union representing newspaper workers. On retiring, I and my wife bought a campground in the Shenandoah Valley and--with the help of our two daughters and their husbands--operated it for eight years, first as a KOA franchisee and then as an independent family-owned RV park. We sold the campground in May, 2021, and live in Staunton, Virginia, a short walk from our grandsons' home.

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