RVing no longer for ‘regular people’?

“Priced out. Astronomical . . . fees. Rip-off.”

Sound familiar? For too many RVers, that could be the refrain arising from their recent excursions into the Great Outdoors by camping at an RV park. Long gone are the days of a $25 to $35 night with full hookups–in many campgrounds you’ll be lucky to get in for twice that, and rates of more than $100 a night are no longer unimaginable. Want to be assured you’ll get the specific site you reserved? Be prepared to kick in an additional $10 to $25 or more for a site-lock fee. Going to a campground with lots of amenities for your kids to enjoy? Pony up still more in activities fees.

That opening line, however, is not about campgrounds but the lead on a story in the San Francisco Chronicle under the headline, “Why Wine Country is no longer ‘for regular people,’ according to some Bay Area residents.” That report followed an earlier piece about an unusually slow summer in Napa and Sonoma, which apparently had kicked off a flurry of comments from readers who complained that they’d been priced out of the region. Higher tasting fees and a recent switch to a reservation-only model, blamed by the wineries on a labor shortage, increasingly deter visitors, according to the article.

“I remember going up there and there would be some $50 tastings, but those were your high-end places,” a San Jose resident who had been visiting Wine Country for more than a decade told the Chronicle. “Now everything seems to be a minimum of $40,” and wineries have become less likely to to discount or waive tasting fees with wine purchases.

But it’s not just the oenophiles who are suffering from sticker shock. Yahoo!sports, citing something called the 2021 Fan Cost Index, last year reported that the average cost for four people to attend a major league baseball game had risen to $253, chiefly on the backs of concession increases ($10 for a beer?); this year the index has risen to $256.41, with concessions holding the line but the average ticket now up to $35.93. Fan comments in response to the Yahoo!sports report could have been lifted from any RVtravel story about higher costs, from philosophical resignation (“The cost of everything is going up. Not hard to figure.”) to the disgusted (“Haven’t gone to a game in over 5 years. When players make more money in one at-bat than some make in a whole year, they lost me.”).

Broadway tickets now average between $120 and $189, depending on who’s counting. Movie tickets average $12 for an adult, although many theaters in large cities are at $15. Want to go skiing this winter? Putting aside the costs of travel and lodging, plan on spending $30 to $60 a day for skis, boots and poles, and $50 to $200 a day for lift tickets, per person. And don’t even think about a Disneyland or Disneyworld excursion unless it’s the only recreational outing your family is planning for this year.

To be fair, all these and other forms of recreation can be experienced at more reasonable prices–if you’re lucky, or can cut corners, or are willing to settle for less than marquee draws. Sonoma and Napa are not the only wine region in California, and others are less pricey. Skip the concessions (although four hours without anything to eat or drink may be asking a lot) and stretch your legs instead of parking at the stadium, and you’ll knock 40% off the cost of that baseball game–or go to a minor league game instead. Go to a community theater production or a movie matinee or a local amusement park and possibly have just as good a time without hemorrhaging money.

And, of course, there’s always a modestly priced mom-and-pop campground or a boondocking site for the frugal RVer. Somewhere. If you look long and hard enough.

Prices in isolation don’t mean much–what’s really relevant is how many hours you have to work to pay for something. The average hourly wage in 1964, for example, was $2.50–so the average working stiff would have had to work an hour to buy a ticket to a ball game, or three hours to see a Broadway show. Today? Fuggedaboudit! You can look at your take-home pay and do your own math and see just how much less recreation you can get for your labors.

RV camping, alas, is part of this same leisure-time cost inflation. The paradox is that even as sales of RVs are booming and campgrounds are overflowing, the opportunities for middle class families to get away for a reasonably priced camping weekend are becoming increasingly scarce. It’s happening everywhere, and across all segments of the leisure economy–and it’s sad thing to observe, because it means people’s worlds are getting much, much smaller.

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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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