Beginning RVing: Our Florida Road Trip and Four RV Parks
Back home and time to reflect...
Well, we made it. To Florida and back, covering some 2,000 miles on our first RV adventure. We had fun and learned some important information we should have known before our trip. So we are sharing that information with you so you can be better informed should you follow us on this journey as new RVers. So read on and see what we learned on this trip and the best of luck to you on yours.
Safe travels, my friends.
Well begun is half done (or so they say)...
We purchased our first Recreational Vehicle (RV) several months ago and began planning where we would go, what we would do and what the cost would be. We joined the Good Sam RV Club and the KOA Campground Association and set out to plan our adventure.
When we began researching RV's we started with our vehicle and its pulling capacity. We took into account its age, quality and the ability based upon what we knew having owned it for six years and what its capabilities were based upon the specifications it had when it was new. We knew how much it was supposed to be able to pull, how it was wired and what we would need to do prior to pulling a trailer with it. We took that knowledge and began our search for our first RV.
Then when we found and purchased the RV, a 2016 27' Coleman Travel Trailer, this spring, the RV salesman told us that our Chevrolet Trailblazer extended length North Face Edition would pull the trailer with no issues. Its 4.2 L inline 6 cylinder engine had sufficient power to pull both the truck and trailer just fine. The weight would not be too much for it. As it fell within our specs, we believed him. And, to a degree, it can do just what he told us and the specs confirmed.
But at a cost, and that cost was vastly diminished fuel economy and power. I had the engine serviced the week before we left, a little earlier than required. We always take care of our vehicles and do our best to maintain them so this was nothing new. I have also inside the last year purchased new tires, performed a tuneup and other fuel saving and required operations such as replacing the fan clutch and water pump, several sensors and even taking apart the intake manifold and giving it a good solid cleaning. We have routinely gotten 18 to 22 miles per gallon (MPG) in our truck on the highway, with it getting 12 to 15 in town. I surmised we would get worse and planned for an average of 10 MPG while traveling and pulling the trailer, including the five days it was parked and we drove the area free of its encumbrance.
We averaged 8. That's E-I-G-H-T miles per gallon. This includes several hundred miles of having no trailer on behind it, with it stationary in the RV park in whichever city we were staying in at that time. I planned on traveling 1,900 miles on 190 gallons of gas while paying $2.00 per gallon. Now when I began planning this little jaunt, gas was going for $1.15 per gallon in my home town so estimating $2.00 a gallon was, to me, ample planning overage. On the trip we paid anywhere from $1.95 to $2.34 gallon.
There went the estimate! And when you factor in the vastly poorer (20%) fuel economy, the total cost for the trip in fuel went from $380 to just under $500. So, the lesson here is twofold:
1. RV salesmen are just like any used car salesmen, in that they will tell you what you want to hear and leave you to sort out the truth later on down the road after you have purchased the trailer and are stuck with it. Our SUV can pull the trailer but at a great cost in power and fuel economy. Remember: their job is to sell you something, so even if they appear to be your new best friend think things through on your own and do not let them talk you into something that may not be what you really need.
2. If you have already estimated and overestimated your fuel cost, add 25% more to your estimate just to be safe.
A First-Timer's Look at the Four RV Parks We Stayed at
Our plans had us staying at four different RV sites along the way. Two would be one night stands, a third would be two nights, and the fourth was to be five nights. I used the Good Sam network and their rating system, combining cost, location and amenities, to determine which ones we would stay in,
As you can see in the table below, the Space Camp RV Park in Huntsville had the worst ratings of the four parks. The other three were all quite nice according to the Good Sam ratings. But would they meet expectations? Would they be as nice as their ratings made them appear?
The RV Parks and their Good Sam Ratings
Tom Sawyer RV Park
West Memphis, Ark
Space Camp RV Park
Avalon Landing RV Park
Campground at Barnes Crossing
Tom Sawyer RV Park, West Memphis, Tennessee
We arrived slightly early for our site but found no issue with being early. The host was pleasant and quickly supplied us with the necessary information, a copy of our receipt (we had prepaid to secure it) and a map of the premises showing where we were to park. We were then led to our slot, #96 by a gentleman in a golf cart which ended up being on the banks of the Mississippi River, offering a magnificent view of this majestic waterway.
It was a pull through slot which made it nice for this first time RVer, no backing in required after our first day of travel. The pad was concrete and quite level and set up took less than thirty minutes start to finish. Both 50 and 30 amp electric is offered and as our trailer is wired for the 30 amp I had some concern as to what we could run at one time without blowing the breaker. The air conditioner pulls 15 amps on high, and if we used the microwave it could pull another 13 so with only those two items we were already pushing our limit. But even with a laptop, TV and DVD player going, a couple of lights, phones charging and electric drill charging we were just fine. One less item to worry about! I attached the surge protector prior to hooking up the trailer in order to verify the power was both sufficient and stable enough not to cause harm to our new trailer. It confirmed we were within the limits and then I hooked up the cord to the surge protector.
Our Rhinoflex sewer hose hooked up easily as did our water hose. We used a filtering system and a water pressure guage fitting to verify if there were any issues with too much pressure. None here are all, as the dial indicated medium low pressure available.
So, no issues with electricity, sewer or water. Concrete pad with spacious green areas separating each site from the next allowed for breathing room without encroachment from anyone. There were no trees nearby, but plenty farther from the banks of the river. I was informed this area was for those who stay long-term, and where we were was for those only remaining a night or so. Fair enough. The view more than made up for the lack of trees and it would only be for one evening anyway.
However, the bath/shower/washer/dryer house was quite a walk. We ended up using our SUV to transport everyone over to use the bathroom and shower. Here is where I felt the park was lacking: two bath/shower rooms, concrete and dark servicing over a hundred RV slots. The toilet was one designed for handicapped persons so that was good, but the room seemed dark and dank to me. They were air-conditioned, which was a plus but the threat of a flooded river prevents the owners from having a truly nice facility for our personal business and such. The river would have to be some thirty feet high in order to leave its banks and enter the campground so this will not occur very often; but if it does it will destroy anything not made of concrete, thus building the bathhouse out of a lasting material such as concrete a must. I understand their thinking here and approve, but a new coat of paint in a lighter color might make it more appealing.
Overall, this was a very appealing park, one I would highly recommend for someone staying the night. I would give a rating of 8/8/9 based upon the above rating system.
Space Camp RV Park, Huntsville, Alabama
Our next stop was in Huntsville, Alabama at the Space and Rocket Center's RV park. Our plans were to spend two nights here, seeing the various sights and relaxing a bit. This is a small RV park, perhaps twenty or so slots available. We were unable to prepay for the two night stay but did have a confirmation for them via a phone call prior to leaving home. The cost is a miserly $20 per night for full hook ups. Plenty of trees around the park give it a shaded and secluded feel even if it is just off the highway and next to a busy site like the Space Camp area is.
Our site, #11 was another pull through, although there are a number of back in sites available here. I believe these are for the longer termed people as these RVs did not move during our stay. One complaint I read about before we set up the reservation was that the front side of the park had Space Campers firing off model rockets at the edge of the park and it was "loud". We were situated within a couple of hundred feet of where these were being fired, even walking up to watch the rockets being fired off and we found it anything but loud. It was also a lot of fun watching these kids firing their rockets, never knowing how they would do; after all they were hand made!
Again, there was both 30 and 50 amp available and no spikes were occurring. Water pressure was roughly the same so no concerns there either. Sewer was easy to hook up to so all went well again.
The restrooms were in the same building as the office and were quite spacious. Three locations to go to the bathroom, two shower areas complete with a dressing area enclosed by a curtain for privacy, and a large counter/vanity area with three sinks. The huge mirror completed the room and made for a very nice location within easy walking distance from any campsite in the park. And while there was no air conditioning in these bathrooms, there was a large ceiling fan which moved the air around nicely and made for a cooler area than expected. If there were any clothes washing amenities present, I missed them.
Using the same rating system, I would give this park a 8/9/9 rating.
Avalon Landing RV Park, Avalon, Florida
We arrived mid afternoon on Sunday and visited the office for our campsite. This park features two separate camping areas divided by a waterway. Each has "water" view, camping and shower/restroom/washer/dryer areas. There are some 79 locations available here, all with 30 and 50 amp electric. Again, we found no issues with either the water, sewer or electric hookups and all fell within acceptable parameters required.
Our site, 45, was next to one of the dog walking areas and near the bridge which connects the two portions of the park. There were a few doggie doo doo piles left over from some irresponsible pet owners here and we had to watch our step a bit. While this park is nice, it feels a bit crowded with green space at a premium between sites. Also several of the sites in the middle of the campground are ones that will house two RV's, one behind the other. If both sites were filled there would be backing involved for one or both parties. The campsites were level gravel with a concrete surround, making it is easy to stumble when transferring between the two ground covers so watch your step. More on this in a later hub!
While there is water directly behind our site, it is brackish water which is dark and not really appealing to the eye. It does make it handy for those who have watercraft as they are able pull up to their campsite and beach the boat there, close at hand. The water leads out to Indian Bayou which in turn leads out to the Gulf. There have been fish such as Redfish, Spotted Weakfish, and Speckled Trout caught from the bridge and even a few dolphins seen in the adjoining water.
The bathhouse, which contains two shower/restroom facilities and two washers with four dryers is small and cramped; the entire building would fit inside one of the bathrooms at the Huntsville RV park easily. It does have a nice selection of books available for someone who is sitting and waiting for their clothes to dry. However, while we were there for five nights and six days the air conditioning in our building was not working and one of the two bathroom/shower rooms was out of order the entire time which made it a challenge to serve the 41 campsites it was designed to do; imagine one room which contains both bathroom and shower for up to eighty people for almost a week and you get the idea. Temps ran upwards of 90 degrees inside the bathhouse in the afternoons and it was just too hot to wait there for your clothes to dry. In addition the bathroom was so small that if one desired to they could set on the toilet, turn on the shower, reach the sink, see themselves in the mirror and have the hand dryer going all at once; there were times I set the hand dryer off just walking up to the toilet! It is fairly small and tight.
I had high hopes for this park as it looked very appealing online. The pictures were very nice and inviting, the adjacent water attractive and I felt this would be a good location to spend out vacation. It was a good park and the cost was reasonable at $45 a night but the shower/bath/washing area left a sour taste in my mouth. It had great possibilities but fell short of our expectations.
Based upon the rating system, I would give this park 7/6/7 in my opinion. It would have been better with a fully working restroom and more green space between the sites.
Campground at Barnes Crossing, Tupelo, Mississippi
The final stop on our trip was in Tupelo, Mississippi at the Campground at Barnes Crossing. It was roughly halfway between Pensacola and home and would provide a good location to spend the night and see a bit of Tupelo.
We arrived at the campground in mid afternoon on Friday July 8 and found something we had not seen thus far on our trip: a quaint, quiet secluded campground that was close to the highway and a number of restaurants, businesses and the old downtown of this southern city. The entry into the park off the highway is tight but manageable and we pulled up to the office to check in. This park is somewhat unique in that it does not accept credit or debit cards, only cash and check. We paid our $40.00 for the night and pulled into slot 22 which was just down from the office and facilities. One thing which wasn't a concern for us but might be for some was that our site was only 30 amp on the electric. I could have looked at it wrong but I don't recall there being 50 available at this site; there were several Class A RV's in the park so I have to think some had 50 for the big rigs.
The slots are close and moderately tightly packed, with our slot being one that would do double duty: one behind the other. I was concerned for if someone were to park in front of us and another beside us we might get blocked in. No one did so we were fine but I can see this being an issue if the park did get full.
There are a lot of trees in this campground and the area is hilly, more than at any other we had seen thus far; I can see trouble brewing in a rainstorm for a vehicle with less than aggressive tread on its tires. The area in front of the cabin-like office was filled with shrubs and bushes, flowers galore. Several birdfeeders kept songbirds flitting around and squirrels scampering from tress to feeder to tree. Trailer life is the theme as feeders and collectibles are here galore. A couple of easy chairs on the porch complete the scene, and it quietly screams comfort.
The bathrooms are designed to be like something from the 1950s and are again quite quaint. The showers, two each men's and women's, are well thought out, but the bathroom stalls could use a bit more leg room: very close to your knees when you sit down.
We liked this campground better than any we had visited on our trip as it was comfortable without being over the top. I would definitely stay here again should we be traveling through. I would give this campsite a rating of 9/9/10.
The Roads and Highways...
One would think that when traveling to the ocean one would be going downhill from the middle of the country, and eventually one does; but we seemed to go up and down constantly during our trip. We began at 1,300 feet above sea level and by the time we hit Memphis we had lost 1,100 feet. Then we went up again, down, up, down, up and down in a seemingly unending series of hills. Believe it or not, the middle of Alabama was considerably higher than Memphis! So our lesson here is to pick multiple points along your chosen path and check the elevation in order to be sure of how you will be driving and this will directly effect your mileage and the strain on your vehicle. Additionally we found that Memphis was terrible for two things: the signage on the highway and the highways themselves. I-55 was horrible on the bridge going east, old and tight and torn up. Then continuing east to join up on 72 was confusing beyond belief to me. I planned on traveling 55 to 240 East to 72, knowing that by the map 240 turned north just before reaching 72; so when I saw 240 North I thought that was what I needed: not so. I backtracked about five miles before finding what I really needed and lost close to a half an hour in the confusion.
Florida was another state that confused little ol' me. On 110 through Pensacola it seemed like every time I was in the outside lane it would either merge to the left or become a turn only lane: it could not just remain an outside lane. A new left lane was always coming into play forcing the right lane to be eliminated. And several times I found myself missing turnoffs because of poor signage, always too late to move into the proper lane. Some were literally within mere feet of the turnoffs! And when we attempted to go to the Naval Aviation Museum at the home of the Blue Angels we were forced to detour; no problem I thought. Then after a short distance the detour was detoured, then again until I found myself driving in a circle and ended up right back where I began. The entire detour drove in a circle! Crazy!!
One thing I found very interesting was the lack of semis on the southern highways. Being along the I44 corridor these big rigs are a part of the landscape, outnumbering cars easily; yet in Alabama, Mississippi and Florida they seemed scarcer than hens teeth. I was told by one of my new found RV friends (who is himself a truck driver) that the reason is that few items are trucked north from Florida and most do not desire to deliver then return home empty: no money to be made. Too bad, because for once in my life I would have been glad to see them; when I fell in behind one traveling the right speed my mileage increased dramatically. Drafting like a NASCAR driver I increased my MPG from 8 to 14, even 16!
In conclusion I found that even with hours spent detailing the trip, choosing the route, looking at Google Maps in satellite mode following the highways from home to destination was not sufficient to not make mistakes. Yes, I actually brought up the roads and highways in satellite mode, zoomed in tight and traveled every single mile multiple times, fixing in my mind the best route to prepare for this trip and it still proved insufficient to not make wrong turns.
I do not know how I could have done more, but I will try next time to mitigate such mistakes.
Well, there it is: our trip in a nutshell. There will be more hubs coming which provide more detail on what we saw, did and how much fun we had. Please be sure to find and read these as they arrive and Happy RVing to you all!!