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Senior Correspondent

On the Road Again

With gas over $3 a gallon and the economy still sluggish, the RV hurrying onto the highway is a strange yet alluring sight. The dream of living on the open road still fuels the imagination, and it's giving the RV industry a much-needed boost.

RV sales plummeted in 2009. Manufacturers shipped only 166,000 units, compared to 391,000 units three years earlier. But this past year RV shipments bounced back to 241,000 units, and the $37 billion industry is starting to feel more optimistic.

RV manufacturers are counting on big future sales as several million baby boomers reach age 65 each year and start to retire. Already, baby boomers may be the most active users of RVs for weekend trips and summer vacations. For many older adults, the RV is a full-time home.

Phil and Carol White of Portland, Ore., hit the open road in their early 60s, an adventure that inspired them to write a book on life in an RV. (Photo used by permission of Phil and Carol White.)

Carol and Phil White of Portland, Ore., retired in their early 60s and embarked on a yearlong argosy with the intention of visiting every state. Carol worked for Lucent as a product marketer and traveled extensively in the U.S. on company assignments; Phil was more the homebody with little time to travel being the owner of a Portland menswear store.

Come retirement both Whites decided to bite the bullet, leave Portland and spend a year traveling in a RV. "We decided to live out our dream of seeing the U.S. while we still had our good health and a sense of humor," says Carol.

Living in RV is no longer the isolated phenomenon it once was. Just a decade ago, RV vagabonds were isolated from life back home. Without cell phones and laptop computers, they typically used services to forward bills, letters and phone messages. At best, it was a clumsy arrangement.

Nowadays, RV owners tote along communications equipment, which keeps them in touch with family and friends as if they were still living in their home or apartment, and in some instances RVers also work from their mobile homes. The Whites used their laptop and a small printer to do trip-related research, to communicate with family and friends, and to regularly update their website.

The Whites had never owned a RV or even spent time in one. Their first challenge was to acquire the right vehicle. "Neither Phil or I felt comfortable driving a big rig or pulling a trailer," Carol says. "We wanted something easy to drive and maneuverable, and which would get good gas mileage and could easily be serviced by a dealer. And of course we wanted comfortable amenities – a bedroom, bathroom and a refrigerator."

About the gas mileage: Smaller RVs the size of a Chevy Suburban average about 15 miles a gallon compared with larger luxury motor homes that get under 10 miles a gallon.

The Whites bought what they describe as a "gently used" RV for about $40,000, not a bad price considering some luxury RVs sell in the six figures. They resold it two years later for $30,000 after driving about 40,000 miles.

Prior to their yearlong trip, they leased their home, sold one car and a friend stored the other one.

"Our goal was to visit one state each week," Carol says. "We stuck to our plan even though our route changed due to weather, a car crash and breaking my ankle."

They maintained records during their trip. They budgeted $5,000 for gas, but spent $700 less than estimated, and they paid $2,000 for repairs and maintenance, $1,600 less than their budget.

Unlike some RV owners who tow a small car, the White's 19-foot RV doubled as their family car since it is similar in size to driving a Ford Excursion. They didn't want their bicycles stolen off the RV, so they rented bikes instead.

As retirees, neither White was considering a future career, but their adventure did create an entrepreneurial opportunity. They kept a website of their trip and updated it every few days.
During the trip, they were continually asked about their experiences.

"It seemed that everyone we met had a version of 'Oh, we'd love to do what you're doing, and how did you handle this or that matter?'" The list grew and it led to them to write a book, "Live Your Road Trip Dream," which they self-published. And the adventure inspired Carol to become a travel speaker and a consultant on RV life.

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