Should I Purchase a Towable RV or a Motorhome?
Nothing beats the enjoyment of traveling in an RV. Driving, or towing, a small apartment on wheels is an experience like no other that many people are currently seeking. In fact, the summer of 2019 saw more people than ever purchasing RVs as both vacation mobiles and full-time homes. Amongst the RV camping community, one debate has always remained front-and-center. When purchasing an RV, which type is best?
So you want to buy an RV? There are so many different types of RVs to choose from though. The full list consists of motorhomes (class A, class B, and class C), travel trailers (including modern, vintage and Airstreams), and fifth wheels/toy haulers. Other considerations within each RV category include purpose, size, color, layout, and brand differentiation. All of this can be quite overwhelming for a first-time buyer. Selecting your perfect rig is a decision that requires lots of research and planning. Here, we’ve compiled a list of differences between drivable RVs and towable RVs to help you choose the perfect RV for you and your family.
1. Travel Days
The driving experiences for motorhomes versus trailers are vastly different. When driving in a motorhome, passengers have access to the bathroom, kitchen, beds, couch, and everything else in the RV, all without having to exit the vehicle.
With a travel trailer or fifth wheel, passengers travel in a truck while towing the vehicle behind them. If you need snacks or food, you must pack them before leaving, and stopping for bathroom breaks is less convenient. When deciding which type of RV you would like to buy, consider the distances and length of time you will typically be driving when making your choice.
2. Ease of Driving
Many find that towing a vehicle is easier than driving a large motorhome, but driving preferences will obviously differ depending on who you ask. The experience of driving a fifth wheel versus driving a travel trailer is vastly different. Fifth wheels are typically more easily maneuvered and tend not to sway, whereas travel trailers can be prone to sway at high speeds and/or on windy days. Sway bars make a big difference, but this is still something to be considered when choosing your rig.
There is also a large difference between driving a small class B or C motorhome and driving a class A. Driving a smaller motorhome can often feel like driving a small SUV, whereas driving a large class A can feel like driving a semi-truck. Wind is especially troublesome in a large class A, while it may not be as big of a challenge in a class B or C. When you add in the possibility of towing a vehicle behind the motorhome, this adds a new set of challenges to the picture. Some people do actually prefer driving the motorhome versus towing a trailer, but again, this will be different for each individual.
3. Off-road Driving and Boondocking
When boondocking and driving off-road, travel trailers/fifth wheels are often the better option. Even the largest towable rigs are fairly easy to maneuver on dirt roads, and most trucks are equipped with four-wheel drive. This makes getting to the best dispersed camping sites and out-of-the-way Harvest Host locations much
However, boondocking experiences are different in different rigs. For instance, larger rigs tend to have larger tanks. Some fifth wheels have huge tanks, and some class A motorhome have large tanks too. Smaller motorhomes and smaller trailers will also have smaller holding tanks. This issue tends to be less of a motorhome versus trailer issue and more of a big rig versus small rig issue.
If you plan to RV travel with children (full-time or part-time), many tend to prefer travel trailers and fifth wheels. With a trailer, when traveling from one place to another, each person has their own seat and seatbelt. This is often preferable, especially for families with children still in carseats. Motorhomes are often equipped with seatbelts in the dinette and/or couch, but it is still (arguably) safer to have an actual seat in a truck, versus a seat on a couch or at a table. However, if you do choose a motorhome with children, there are some major travel day conveniences. You can easily grab snacks from the fridge, and potty breaks are also much easier and less time-consuming.
Pets travel differently in motorhomes versus travel trailers. When towing an RV, it is not safe for anyone to ride in the trailer, so pets must ride in the truck. Cats and other small mammals will most likely need to be kenneled, and anxious dogs may need to be kenneled as well.
When driving a motorhome, anxious animals may also need to be kenneled. However, once all animals are accustomed to the moving motorhome, they are typically much more comfortable and can move around the cabin while en route. They can also have access to food and water, comfy places to lie down, and even their litter box (for the cats). Make sure to read our tips for RVing with dogs, RVing with cats, and our best RV pet hacks.
Setting up camp is different for each type of RV. In a motorhome, you must level the vehicle, hook up the water, sewer, and electric, and open the slides. If you have a tow vehicle, you must unhitch it and park it elsewhere. When towing a trailer, you must park the trailer first (which is arguably more difficult than parking a motorhome) and then unhitch the tow bar and safety chains before also leveling, hooking up utilities, and opening any slides.
One benefit of having a towable RV is that you can set up camp, then drive your vehicle around. Being able to leave the trailer behind and cruise around town without breaking camp is very convenient and perfect for stays that are longer than a few days. However, if you have a motorhome and tow a separate vehicle, it is also easy to set up camp and drive around town in a smaller vehicle. And the vehicle you are using to drive around town will typically be less bulky and better on gas mileage than a huge diesel truck.
All RVs require work and maintenance to keep them running smoothly. However, since a trailer does not drive, it requires less than a motorhome. Travel trailer and fifth wheel owners will still have to perform routine maintenance on their vehicles, as well as their trailer, but it is still less work than maintaining both a motorhome and its tow vehicle.
Motorhomes require routine maintenance, and if you tow a vehicle behind your rig, this will need maintenance as well. This is certainly something to keep in mind.
The upfront cost for motorhomes versus trailers is different. Trailers and fifth wheels are arguably much cheaper than motorhomes. However, if you need to buy a diesel truck and a trailer, you may be looking at a hefty sum. If you already have a truck, a trailer is a much cheaper option. However, the two options may be comparable in price if you need to purchase both a truck and a trailer. You also may consider an RV loan which can help you get into your RV faster.
This point is more relevant for full-timers, but it is still something to be considered for everyone. Vehicles often break down, and if your vehicle (your truck or whatever you are using to tow your trailer) breaks down, you still have somewhere to live (or stay while on vacation). If a motorhome breaks down and needs to go to the shop, the owners typically need to find somewhere else to stay. Trailer owners can sometimes end up with their trailer in the shop, but the work it may need is typically less extensive than engine work and can make a big difference. In addition, the work being done on a travel trailer is cheaper than any engine or mechanical work that would need to be completed for a motorhome.
9. Gas mileage
Gas mileage differs with each type of rig. Most motorhomes do not get great gas mileage (10-12 mpg for most rigs). However, large diesel trucks towing a big trailer also get low gas mileage. If you are looking for something that is good on gas, you are best off finding the smallest class B or C. Here, you will sacrifice living space, but you will save money in the long run.
10. Interior space
The interior of a travel trailer (especially fifth wheels) is often much larger than that of a motorhome. Of course, there are very large motorhomes and much smaller travel trailers, but if you are looking for the largest size rig possible, fifth wheels are often your best bet. Some of these even contain multiple rooms, with a master bedroom and a separate bunkhouse that is perfect for families with children. Fifth wheels without a bunkhouse tend to have a very large living area, which is also nice for those living and working from their RVs.
Finally, you must consider the RV’s purpose when choosing your future rig. For instance, are you planning to use it for occasional week-long trips, frequent weekend trips, or full-time? Will you always be on the go, or will you park in one place and stay there for awhile before moving on? Will you be driving long distances at a time, or will you mainly drive short distances? Who will be living in the RV? Is it just you and a partner, or are there also children and pets involved? Do you need to plan for RV storage? What is your budget? Do you already have a truck, or will you need to buy one, in addition to an RV? Your purpose and needs will make a big difference when making your decision, so be sure to consider all of these important points.
So, after all of this, which type of rig is best? Well, this will depend on the opinion and needs of each individual. As with most things in life, there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to choosing a rig. Your choice should depend on many factors, including who will be living in the RV, how often it will be used, how often you plan to stay in each location, how many separate rooms are needed, the amount of time you plan to spend driving, your budget, and much, much more. Plan to do lots and lots of research when choosing your rig. You can also consider renting a few different types of RVs for short-term trips before ultimately deciding to buy. And, as with all RVs, whatever you end up choosing is sure to bring tons of joy and memories for years to come.
What kind of RV do you have? How did you make this choice? Is there anything else you considered in addition to these points?
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Great article and I think it really hits all the points. I like to daydream about getting an RV or trailer but probably never will. We like car camping but I end up freezing overnight (August in the Adirondacks, NY) but our camping family buddies prefer as authentic an experience as possible with our combined 5 littles. I have fallen in love with the Lance trailer models though and thought maybe Disney trips might be cheaper if we had a trailer. We already have a Pilot and it SHOULD be within the towing capacity (1575 model is under 3000 dry weight, our Pilot can tow 4500) but I worry about combined weight with car seats and people and all. I love the idea of an RV but don’t want to have to take the whole “camp” with us on store runs or to see the town. Then again, if we have all food with us we wouldn’t need most store runs! Argh! Too many variables. I think we would rent something first for sure if/when we are seriously in the market for something. Thanks for the article again!
There are so many factors to consider! Highly recommend renting an RV (or several!) before making a decision. Best of luck to you!
For me a tt was the only way to go. I already had a truck and wasn’t sure if the family would use a trailer much. So for $6500 we got a 5 year old trailer. That was 13 years ago, and besides maintaining it, it’s been flawless. That’s $500 a year. Not many can say that.
Good for you
I followed your article with interest to see what your conclusion would be. We have owned every one of your RV items over the last 20 years. The only one missing for us is a Class C which I always thought would be interesting. The motorhome was so comfortable and much loved. However, when it needed repair we stood in line with the 18 wheelers and there were no hookups. We might have service at 3 am and hung out with the truckers in the coffee waiting room. When our truck needed service with the fifth wheel or bumper pull, we dropped it off at the Chevrolet or Ford dealer and stayed in the RV park. When the unit needed service we called the RV mobile repair people to come to us. So, I am of the opinion that motorhomes are way more difficult to deal with.
Yep, nothing like pulling a camper in a driving rain, then having to go. So after finding a place to stop, you get out of your vehicle, walk back to the camper, unlock it, use the facilities, then back out, lock the camper, then it’s back to your tow vehicle, all in a driving rain. No thank you. When I was growing up we had an outdoor toilet, until I was in the 7th grade. Didn’t matter what the weather was like, if you had to go, it was a trip outdoors. It ain’t fun. I’ll stick with something where I can leave the driver seat, go in back, then back to the driver seat, all without stepping outside.
That’s one of the many reasons why I love my motorhome so much! Travel days are a breeze. 🙂
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We have had all of the different RV’s. We like the 5 wheel as a large stable towed platform. Liked the TT for ease of boondocking. We now have a 42 Beaver which is traveling in a 5 star hotel. The most vulnerable time when parking in rest stops or boondocking is the time you leave the tow vehicle and walk back to the RV. So we are selling the Class A and moving to a Class C as better to boondocking. So all is relative to your needs. But just do it. RV people are great people. We have RV’ed for over 10 years. One stretch was 3.5 years. Would never trade one of those great years. Best of times. Enjoy
Thanks so much for your insight, Bobby! A Class C sounds great for your needs. Happy trails to you!
Our Mercedes Sprinter based Winnebago View gets about 14 mpg towing a small car. It has been my observation that it takes longer to set up camp and break camp with a trailer than with a motorhome. I think larger trailers and 5th wheels are more conducive to longer stays for that reason. Motorhomes are more conducive to shorter stays and keeping on the go.
This is a great point! I have had both types of RVs, and I keep on the go much more easily in the motorhome.
A better-than-most comparison. I just wanted to add that there are a couple of other advantages to towable solutions: it’s unlikely that both your housing and your propulsion will be out of service at the same time, which is inevitable with a motorhome. And trucks can generally be financed at a much lower rate (although for shorter term) than motorhomes or trailers, so it can help financially to have these as separate purchases.
Great insight, thank you Dave!
Thanks for your input looking for a motorhome also not being able to afford both truck and Rv.
Now I need to do my homework on which model ?
That’s the fun part! There are so many things to consider when choosing a motorhome. You can always consider renting a similar model to what you are thinking of to see if it seems like the right fit.
Why not both? I literally saw someone, today, who was towing his pull camper with a drive camper lol
Imagine one camper not being enough, and pulling an extra one behind the one you’re driving! Now if only you could engineer a way to have them connect together… that would be one roomy home away from home!
That sounds pretty intense! Thanks for sharing! 🙂
Pretty well written. One small thing, it’s legal to ride in fifth wheels in most states.
One big thing is the whole argument of motorhomes vs big fifth wheels. 5W gets about twice the fuel mileage and if you’re towing something behind the MH it kinda defeats the purpose.
Hey Howard! Even though it may be legal in some places, neither I nor many folks in the industry recommend it for safety reasons. I would also point out that towing a vehicle behind your motorhome makes it much easier to run errands or explore. Most travelers don’t want to drive the entire motorhome to each new location. Thanks for your comment! 🙂
Did not have a truck. So decision was motorhome because of total cost. Got a 32 foot class c for less than truck and trailer. New prices only. Happy with my choice.
That’s exactly how I chose my motorhome as well. It was cheaper for me to purchase a 36 foot motorhome than to purchase both a truck and trailer or fifth wheel. Glad to hear your happy with your choice!
You left out longevity. Trailers are built to last 10-12 years maximum. Just long enough to pay them off and are built from lighter thinner materials to save weight. They fall apart going down the road. Class A diesels will go 200,000 miles.
You’re right, I completely forgot about that! Thanks for the reminder. 🙂
One exception to your comment are Airstreams…. their longevity far exceeds any other mass production towable.
Yes, this is true! The longevity on Airstreams is exceptional. Thanks for the reminder!
Thank you for this article. Very informative and appreciated the comparisons.
Thanks so much for the compliment and the feedback. Glad to hear that it helped!
One subject more, I had a large class C and on my last birthday, I was 87. My old class C was getting more time in the shop than the campground, so I had decided to give up camping after 65 years. I still like to travel, but I need a toilet, and the larger motorhomes and the wind cause my hands to pain. A friend said try a small class B and it drives like you said, an SUV. So I purchased a Thor Sequence, 20 ft. long and it has a toilet. I plan to keep on keeping on.
This sounds like such a great option. Thanks so much for sharing. Happy trails, Hubert!