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Can't decide between a trailer or a motorhome? These pointers should help steer you in the right direction
Text by Jeff Johnston
Decisions, decisions. Before you get down to the nitty gritty of interior fabric color, AC-generator size, fixed dinette or freestanding table and many other choices you may face a much larger question: Do you buy a motorhome and tow a dinghy vehicle, or do you buy a trailer and a tow vehicle? Many current RVers or potential RVers almost have this decision made for them by way of personal preference, prior experience, traveling needs, existing equipment ownership and the like. Sometimes it's just not a question. If, on the other hand, you're not sure which way to go towable or motorized you're in luck! You have a wide world of choices before you.
There is a huge variety of RV sizes and prices out there, so making comparisons between towable and motorized units of different sizes could be a bit unreasonable. For the purposes of this story, we'll look at similarly sized rigs offering comparable living and storage spaces. For example, the comparisons can apply to a 32-foot motorhome towing a small dinghy car and a 32-foot fifth-wheel or travel trailer towed by a full-size 3/4 or 1-ton pickup. The RV function is similar in both cases, but the packaging and execution are very different. This is the kind of buying decision that can be truly perplexing to many people. What are the pros and cons and other considerations for making such an RV selection? The following details may help guide your quest.
With a motorhome and dinghy vehicle, the dinghy is towed by the motorhome on the road. Its on-the-road effects on the coach are minimal, in that the dinghy normally does not degrade the coach driving experience. When the coach is parked in the campsite, the dinghy is used for local errands, sightseeing and the like. This is far more convenient than breaking down the coach for travel, finding big parking spots near the intended destinations, and so on. The dinghy may also be the family car that's used for day-to-day transportation when the family isn't on an RV trip. A tow-rig-and-trailer combination likewise, in camp, has the trailer parked and the tow vehicle used for running around. In this case the tow rig may be a full-size pickup or SUV, or specialized tow rig, which many find not as convenient as a small car for daily driving chores. This is a matter of personal preference, and many users are perfectly happy in a pickup.
Almost any motorhome costs more than a comparably sized trailer. A motorhome not only has a living space, but it also includes a motorized chassis, and that adds tremendously to the price.
A dinghy vehicle can be fairly inexpensive, especially purchased used, and its cost of operation is minimal compared to the RV. It's possible that an existing family car can serve as the dinghy, saving the cost of that part of the RV package. It would take some investigation, starting with owner's manual recreational-towing information, to determine if the car is indeed towable four-down.
While a trailer can be considerably less costly, it takes a fair-size tow vehicle to handle a full-size trailer. Starting with a new investment, a sturdy tow rig adds considerably to the cost of the package. A high-end trailer, plus a high-end tow rig, can come really close to matching the price of some motorhome-and-dinghy combos. The advantage of the costly tow rig is that it can also serve as a family's daily driver, although it won't be as economical as a dinghy vehicle can be. A tow rig that's a pickup or SUV has a lot of other uses besides towing the RV, so the family can enjoy its boating, horseback riding, kayaking or whatever while using the tow rig to transport the other recreation toys.
Both motorhome and trailer setups are smooth, stable vehicles that are fun to drive and enjoyable to live with on long trips. The question of over-the-road comfort is a relatively small part of the shopping process.
Due to its design geometry, towing a fifth-wheel trailer is far more stable than towing a travel trailer, although a well-balanced travel trailer that's correctly matched to the right-size tow vehicle is also fine on the road; a fifth-wheel just gives you that extra edge in stability that many enjoy. When traveling in a motorhome, passengers can use the toilet facilities, get snacks from the kitchen and the like. It's necessary to stop and park if you want to reach the same equipment in your trailer.
The matter of moving around inside a traveling motorhome is a dicey subject. It's a law in many states that you must wear a seatbelt when a vehicle is in motion, and that would technically preclude anyone from moving around in a motorhome. Safety experts and other RVers will in many cases decry the practice of being unbelted in a coach, even for a short period. Despite that, many people still choose to be able to move around in a motorhome. In the end, it's up to the user to decide if that aspect of motorhome operation is important enough to sway the motorhome vs. trailer buying question.
Speaking from personal experience, it's sort of handy to have my spouse retrieve a snack or cold drink from the fridge while on a motorhome trip, but we keep such activities to a minimum on the road. Our usual practice is to set up a small portable cooler with necessities for the next leg of a journey, which saves any walking around while underway.
It's legal to ride in a fifth-wheel trailer in some states (see your local DOT regulations), provided certain equipment requirements are met. In truth, the practice is rare enough that the use of the RV facilities on the road is not seriously a part of the buying question.
This is where a motorhome wins hands-down. A lot of people find backing a trailer, either conventional or fifth-wheel, to be difficult and aggravating. This can be true even after years of happy and trouble-free RVing. Some people seem to be lacking the trailer-backing gene, and no amount of practice or training is going to change that. For them, a motorhome can be a godsend when it's time to throw 'er into reverse.
Backing a motorhome is truly no more difficult than backing a car. Turn the wheel, and the rig's rear end moves where you'd expect it to. Sure, there's the matter of size to keep in mind, but otherwise coach backing is easy.
The coach backing exception comes in when towing. A conventional trailer is tricky to back, due to the coach body length and the geometry of the equipment, but it can be done with practice. A dinghy vehicle towed four-down is virtually impossible to back up due to the steering axle geometry, which forces the dinghy's front wheels sideways as soon as the rig moves aft. It's necessary to unhook the dinghy should backing the coach become important. Today's extendible tow bars make the dinghy hookup and unhitching far easier than it once was, but it's still inconvenient in an unexpected situation, such as a dead-end drive-around behind a fuel stop in an unfamiliar place.
Fifth-wheel trailers are, according to most accounts, easier to back than travel trailers. This opinion is another frequent plus for choosing the fifth-wheel style of trailer. I'll go out on a limb here and state that I personally find it much easier to back a travel trailer than a fifth-wheel, but I realize that's far from a majority opinion. In both cases it's a matter of practice, and once you have the basics down, most people find backing isn't so bad after all. Campground designers have often made it as easy as possible on trailer owners. Many modern campgrounds have a number of pull-through sites in addition to back-in sites, and they often keep the pull-throughs available for trailer users, although motorhomes with dinghies can also be assigned to these spots.
Many users must, or choose to, store an RV for some period of time. This can range from a few weeks to an entire months-long winter season. The cost for RV storage is normally the same for a motorhome or a trailer of the same size, as the storage space is usually priced per foot. You'll probably be paying somewhat more for insuring that same-size motorhome, stored or otherwise.
Winterizing an RV in the fall and bringing it back to life in the spring will take somewhat more effort and be a bit costlier with a motorhome. You also have to take care of the motorhome's motorized chassis components in addition to the coach body systems.
Consider the overhead cost of having the RV stored when not in use. With a motorhome, you're paying to have that costly vehicle just sit, while a less-expensive trailer represents a smaller investment residing in the storage lot.
Both RV types have comparable livability features given the same general size and length. The availability of slideout rooms in most RV types means slideouts are "givens" now instead of being a yes-or-no availability matter. Both tend to have taller floor heights these days, so climbing a few steps for entry is standard. Headroom, square footage of living space and so on are likewise comparable.
Most motorhomes have similar floorplans with a main bedroom out back, a bath adjacent and the living and dining areas up front. Endless small variations exist, of course, but that's how most coaches are configured.
It may seem that a motorhome loses some parked living space to the cab area, but in many cases the seats can swivel around and add two more lounging spots to the living room.
Given similar square-footage areas, this is where a trailer really shines from a variety perspective. Travel trailers have their floorplans scrambled all over the place, with forward or aft or both ends as bedrooms, many different floorplans with units designed for couples or bunkhouse-style family models, and so on. Fifth-wheels follow more of a floorplan pattern with the bedroom up front in the gooseneck, a bath adjacent and the living and dining areas arranged out back. There are exceptions, of course, but the above fifth-wheel pattern is most common.
One very effective way to help make a purchase decision is to rent the RV type you're interested in and see if it's what you had in mind. Motorhome rentals are available everywhere, and while trailers are a bit harder to find, they can be had. Renting lets you experience RV travel and living without making a huge permanent investment up front. A rental is a lot cheaper than making a purchase that you might regret later.
You have a lot of decisions to make when choosing between a motorhome and dinghy or a tow rig and trailer. By reviewing all of the possibilities and paying close attention to your family's needs and desires, you can make an effective RV choice that will facilitate many happy adventures.