Quarter 2 update






Second Quarter Update

We left Folsom for the last time on March 15th, 2016.  That makes October 15 2016 the six month anniversary of our new life on the road. We’ve started to settle into this life, much more so than after the first 90 days.  Here is our Q2 quarterly report.  The top 10 list is back by popular demand, but with more details below the top 10.

1. The East Coast offers more history, more towns and cities, and just generally more to do and see than the West coast – or the Southwest -but it costs more too.  Orlando in particular seems to be designed to remove money from your wallet at every turn.  Still, I enjoyed the east coast tremendously and am very glad we headed this way.

2. Traffic IS as bad in the Northeast as everyone said it was. Don’t go there in a MoHo. New Jersey is the most congested with the toughest roads, but eastern Massachusetts takes the nastiest drivers category award. No contest.  We’ve seen half of the states in the US so far, and Massholes are in their own league.

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3. Driving is a 2-person job. Especially in the Northeast. In fact it is exactly like rally racing, just happening at a much slower speed with a much larger vehicle. The navigator is just as important as the driver and at times more important.  The driver may hit the brakes before we hit the low bridge, but the navigator makes sure that scenario never even happens. Driving in the northeast is not at all a simple matter of pulling onto the freeway and driving a few hundred miles where we pull off to the campground right by the off ramp.  Oh no. Not like that at all.

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4. There is a big difference between full timers and weekenders. We’ve learned to adjust our expectations and read campground reviews carefully. Both groups coexist peacefully though!

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5. If we have reliable cell coverage, a level campsite, strong WiFi, satellite access, working sewer, and stable power, our expectations have been completely met.  Not being next to the highway – or the railroad tracks – Bonus. Pull through site?  Bonus. Concrete pad? Bonus. Nobody parked on either side of us? Bonus. Beautiful scenery?  Bonus. Easy access from highway?  Bonus. Quiet at night?  Bonus.

In spite of our rather low expectations, half of the time, our expectations have not been met. More often than not, we missed one or more of those basics I mentioned.

Generally where we have been disappointed in Q2 is in the campground condition or the lack of digital connectivity, but there have been other issues at times. Much more on the east coast than the west coast we found ourselves without one of my basic “features.”

Our roughest campground had no satellite, unlevel site, no WiFi most of the time, and the only sewer that ever backed up on us the whole trip. It was also priced over $50 a night and that was cheap compared to other options in the area.  In Charleston, at an otherwise very nice campground, the water had so much hydrogen sulfide that it was staining our plumbing!  And the rotten egg smell was awful. we wouldn’t drink it even though the campground swore it was safe. That’s the first and only time we’ve had “bad” water.

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6. East coast campgrounds, particularly the Northeast, tend to be heavily treed.  This makes satellite unusable, cell phones questionable, and wifi unreliable. In Q2, our dish has literally failed to find signal  2/3 of the time, and our mobile hotspots fail to work well about 1/4 of the time.  That’s a lot of money to spend on a service that usually doesn’t actually function (dish) or functions poorly (hotspot).  Likewise, campground Internet access has been very poor. It has taken me weeks to get this post posted.  ugh.

Don’t live MoHo in the Northeast and expect to stay highly connected to technology. In fact, if you plan to spend most of your camping time on the east coast, I wouldn’t even bother getting a rooftop dish.

7. Vermont is just the best. Love that place!  Last year, I wouldn’t have even been able to find Vermont on a map.  This year I felt like shopping for houses (but that winter…ugh).

Image result for love vermontMaine was pretty too – in a lot of ways even more beautiful than Vermont. Vermonters however seem more open to visitors than Mainers. Which is ironic since Maine hosts a LOT of visitors.  Still, Portland Maine is a truly great city and Camden is postcard beautiful. Plus we saw old friends in Maine which was very nice.

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9. Striking the right balance between seeing new lots of new places and stopping to smell the roses is tough.  We constantly try to schedule enough time to get a feel for a place without being rushed, but not so long that we get bored.  If our time is too short we end up just seeing the major tourist attractions and really miss out on the local flavor.  We also need some time to clean, go to Costco, read the news, etc.

It is hard to know just how long we will need in a particular place.  We extended Burlington VT twice and I could have easily stayed another month. On the flip side, after 5 days in Bellingham MA, I was ready to flee and we still had 7 days left on our stay.

This has an impact on our scheduling.  It is usually much easier to add time to a campground than to leave early.  We may have to move to another site if we add time, but we have so far always found a way to stay longer if we want.  On the flip side, if we leave early, the campground keeps our money.  Of course the downstream reservations need to get changed if we alter our schedule which is a pain. We don’t like to reserve too far in advance because that cuts our flexibility but we have been burned by not having holiday reservations.  If we don’t book major holidays at least a month in advance, we may find our selves staying at a funky 2nd tier campground that we didn’t want.

It does feel a bit like we’re always planning a 1 or 2 week vacation that’s only 1 or 2 weeks away. Over. And Over. And Over.  The idea that we can just wander aimlessly doesn’t match reality. And as I said before in Q1, the faster we go, the more time we need to spend planning but the less time we have to actually spend planning.  Its a catch 22. Also a first world problem. Life is tough.

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10. Staying fit and healthy is both easier and harder than it was before we setout to live MoHo. Sampling the local cuisine is a big part of the joy of travelling, and adds a lot of – ahem – ‘flavor’ to the trip.   It also adds a lot of pounds to the scale and expenses to the spreadsheet. In the South for example there is SO MUCH GOOD FOOD to try that its easy to really pack on the pounds and the budget dollars.

On the flip side, our lifestyle affords us much more time to enjoy walking and hiking and we’ve really – ahem – stepped this up in Q2.  Campground fitness equipment is generally always bad or non-existent, so we’re really left to our own devices when it comes to getting exercise.

OK – one bonus comment

11. Weather.  We pay a lot more attention to it than we did before.  Now in fairness this is because unlike Northern California, other places actually HAVE weather.

For example, one night in Bellingham MA our phones suddenly began blaring a flash flood emergency alert for our area. Weather radar showed a severe storm overhead. Were we in a flash flood risk area?  Our campground was down in a valley so it seemed possible. At 9:30pm I was outside in the pouring rain watching some of the campsites around us flood – wondering if we should unhook and Heather was on standby to pull in slides. Where would we go?  Water in some of the campsites got up to six inches deep, but fortunately ours stayed above the waterline.

bellingham-floodingOther nights, we have to unhook our water if the temperatures will drop below freezing.  Let me tell you the last thing I want to be doing late at night is unhooking water and the last thing I want to do in the morning is hook it back up.  But if the hose connector freezes the campground will make us pay for the damage.

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Those are my top 10 (11) learnings from Q2.  If you want some additional information, keep reading.



Budget:

The second quarter budget is starting to look a bit more like what I would expect out of a full year.  Q1 was full of startup costs, including paying for a year’s worth of insurance, getting our first MoHo maintenance done, outfitting the MoHo, and some other costs that were front-end-loaded.  I removed some of those costs from Q1 if they were truly one-time (like installing our Winegard Satellite dish) but left others in like our first maintenance and insurance that are annual costs.

Our budget might not look like yours – lifestyle has a lot of impact on the costs. But if you read our blog, you’ll have an idea about our lifestyle.

 

Category Q1 Q2 Change
Nightly campground fees $42.88 $52.59 22% increase
Average daily cost of diesel $9.46 $8.40 11% decrease
Daily “entertainment” (Orlando really hit this one) $22.24 $34.79 56% increase
Supplies $6.74 $3.96 48% decrease
Food $52.88 $64.58 22% increase
Vehicle (1st service in Q1 vs. nothing in Q2) $36.38 $2.45 93% decrease

 

Diesel: This is partly due to less miles driven and partly due to the price of fuel being a bit lower.

Entertainment:  If we took Orlando out of the calculation, costs would be very similar between Q1 and Q2.

We have used 14.7 gallons of propane in Q2, most of which was during the cold month in the Northeast.   Average price of propane has been $4.50 a gallon.

Bottom line: Food, campgrounds, and entertainment are our biggest cost items. However, considering that we’re basically in month 6 of a full-time non-stop vacation, I wouldn’t expect anything less. Compared to the cost of a hotel room every night for that same time, the MoHo is much cheaper.  And, our MoHo is equivalent to a 1 bedroom suite, not a Motel 6 room.

Still, I can imagine some of you are saying “but you can park on BLM land for free!!  Or stay in a $10/night parking area. Why pay $50/night for a campground? And what about state parks?  Oh, and I won’t go to those expensive tourist attractions, I will just sit by the lake for free.”

We’re not doing this so we can escape from the world in the backwoods while we play our banjos.  We don’t even own banjos. (Note to self: shop Amazon for banjos) We’re doing this to see cool places which for us includes a lot of cities as well as wild areas. And many of the attractions worth seeing do cost money.  If all we wanted was to sit on our porch by a lake we would buy a cabin and be done with it.

So for us commercial campgrounds have been the best choice.

For starters, because of our birdies we need 50amp power if it is going to be hot (air conditioners) or cold (heat pump and space heaters).  And I certainly don’t mind always being comfortable:-)

30amp is OK if we are in moderate climate. Otherwise, we’re running our generator non-stop and nothing says “peaceful nature” like the steady roar of a diesel generator droning on for hours.  Plus, the generator uses a lot of diesel so after 3-4 days its time to head back to get fuel.

Next, we need to dump black and grey tanks every 4-5 days. Finding a dump station is kind of a pain, and that costs money too. In addition, there isn’t a lot of that free BLM land on the east coast and what exists isn’t anything I would want to drive our 39’ bus on.

State parks are interesting. They range from completely unimproved parking spots with no hookups to near-resorts. Folsom Lake Beals Point state park remains one of the nicest places we have stayed with paved sites, full hookups, and awesome amenities. It was also nearly $60/night.

Most of the state parks we have seen with hookups are not really any cheaper than a commercial campground and generally harder to reserve. State parks also have a mixed reputation for big rigs. More than a few people have reported damage from untrimmed tree branches, large rocks, uneven roads, etc. at state parks.  I’m not saying that you should avoid all of them, just that you should do your research before planning to say at one in a big MoHo.

IF you would be content with a $10/night place or BLM land, however, you can reduce your daily costs vs. ours.   Add back in some additional diesel costs and dumping costs, so your free campsite will still cost you a few sheckels every day. But quite a bit less than an average of $50.

Routes and roads:

The east coast south of Washington DC is just like everywhere else we have stayed.  Roads are fine.  In fact, the drive from Houston to Jacksonville is one of the best stretches of Interstate around – easy to drive, not a lot of traffic. I-95 up the east coast from Jacksonville to DC is good too. Well, truthfully, I-95 is great until the North Carolina border where the pavement starts to get worse, and then it gradually deteriorates until about Fredericksburg VA.  North of Fredericksburg VA the roads get a lot worse in a big hurry.

east-coast-drivingWhat gets worse?  Everything. Everything gets worse.

Pavement quality turns bad with bumps, potholes, patches on top of patches that will shake your fillings loose, rattle your cabinets, and bash anything loose that isn’t tightly bolted down.

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Traffic intensifies dramatically, with roads congested at most times of the day and gridlocked during peak commuting times. Drivers are more aggressive too, especially north of Philly. In Massachusetts, they won’t think twice about cutting off a 35,000 lb MoHo and will force you to slam on your brakes and swerve like you are driving a sportscar.

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Routes become harder to navigate due to the large number of roads.  There may be 8 different ways to get from A to B and you’ll be left scratching your head about the best option.  Roads cross each other and merge in all kinds of crazy ways. Unlike the West where roads are more modern – and straight – many Northeast roads seem like they were laid down before the automobile existed. Because they probably were.

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Those low bridges we heard about?  They DO exist, and we saw plenty of them. You will have to be extra careful.  In some cases we had to go way out of our way to avoid low clearances.

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We got onto the Garden State Turnpike in New Jersey and only after we were on it did we see all the Low Clearance warnings.  Our GPS was screaming at us “height violation- height violation – height violation” and we had to drive in the middle lane to avoid hitting several bridges.  We are 12’11” in height and we drove under a bridge with the low side being 12’9” of clearance. Fortunately the high side was a bit higher. Talk about white knuckle!! There were 5 bridges in 7 miles we had to pass under, and we were sweating each one of them.

Some of these bridges have low weight limits as well, so even if you don’t have to drive UNDER them, you might not be able to drive OVER them either.

Pro Tip: Look for large 18-wheelers. If you don’t see any, you should start asking yourself “should I be on this road?”

If you don’t have an RV GPS and you plan to drive in the Northeast, you better get one.  Either than or a good paper trucker atlas.  Google maps or your standard Garmin GPS don’t know you are driving a 57’ long, 35,000 lb, 13’ tall MoHo and will route you as if you are driving a SmartCar. And you may suddenly come to realize just how dangerous that is. New York State alone reported over 150 bridge strikes last year. One notorious bridge was hit 9 times. Hopefully not by a MoHo.

Also, around Norfolk, Baltimore, Philly, Boston, Rhode Island, and other places the roads use tunnels to cross under rivers.  Propane tanks are considered hazardous materials and are NOT allowed in these tunnels.  In some places the signs are not obvious but you will get a large ticket upon exiting the far end of the tunnel if you drive through.  The propane tank in our MoHo definitely is not allowed, and we have to detour around the tunnel, sometimes 20+ extra miles or more.  Your RV GPS will know this. Google/Garmin will not.

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Lastly, the Northeast has a love for tollbooths in a way I’ve never seen anywhere else.  Just driving for a couple of hours 150 miles from NY state to Philly we spent over $60 in tolls. It actually cost more in tolls than it cost in diesel fuel.  Those toll booths usually offer a wide lane (almost always the right-most lane).  But not always.  In Massachusetts we drove through several toll booths that left mere inches on each side of our MoHo. Lots of lane shifts at those tollbooths too, which aren’t fun a MoHo.

Vermont and New Hampshire were fine.  Western PA was fine. Upstate NY was fine.  So basically, I would avoid the I-95 Corridor up to the NYC area and avoid the area between NYC and Boston.

Particularly Massachusetts.

They don’t call the drivers there Massholes for nothing.  Truly the worst drivers and worst driving we’ve had on the entire trip. I’m glad we went there but would never go back in the MoHo. Truthfully, I would think twice about going back there in general.  Vermont, on the other hand, was absolutely delightful.

Campgrounds:

Northeast Campgrounds tend to be older, more rustic, and more expensive than those in the West. $50 a night in the West gets a pretty nice campground and $75/night gets an absolute resort. Add $25 (or more) to those prices in the North East.  Expect to be close to your neighbor, parked on dirt or gravel, most likely an unlevel site, far outside a major city, and under a LOT of trees.  For this, you will pay more too! Also, campgrounds in the east use the word “resort” quite a bit more liberally than they should.  Having a wading pool that is closed 9 months out of the year and a 4-person hot tub does not make you a resort no matter how many times your marketing guy/cousin said it would.

In Philly we paid $63/night to park at an old truck loading dock that has been turned into a park-and-ride for commuters. Not even full hookup – no sewer.  But we were thrilled with the place!  We were actually IN the city and just a $8-$10 Uber ride from anywhere we wanted to go.  Parked on pavement. Satellite dish worked great!

I wish more cities would do this, because normally we are a 45 minute drive away from the downtown areas parked out in the woods.

philly-park-and-rideAround NC, trees start to become a real issue for satellite TV access. There are trees south of NC, of course, but they tend to be palm trees which don’t block the sky as much. Sometimes changing sites will help, but usually the whole campground is in the trees and there just aren’t any sites with a clear sky view.  Of the last 3 months, we have spent 9 weeks unable to use our dish at all. That’s a lot of money to spend on something we can’t use for a majority of the time.

We’ve also learned that there is a difference between full-timers and weekenders.  No judgement. But the two groups travel differently and are looking for different experiences.

Weekenders:

  • Arrive on Friday afternoon or evening and leave on Sunday morning (most places require 11am departure)
  • Usually families (mom-dad-kids)
  • Often arrive in a small caravan with several RVs
  • Almost always are pulling a trailer or 5th wheel. Some have MoHos, but they are the minority as far as we’ve seen.
  • Immediately unpack all kinds of crap. Folding chairs, large mats. Lights. Coolers. Water toys.  Bikes. Barbeques. Outdoor TVs. Hammocks. Awnings. Etc. Etc.
  • If fires are allowed, they immediately build one and sit around it.
  • Sit outside and loudly drink until very late on Friday night. Saturday night is usually – but not always – quieter.
  • For most of the weekenders, the RV campground IS the destination and they won’t leave the premises except to go get more beer. They want a “campout” experience under trees with firepits and a rustic experience. The further out of town the better. Preferably with a lake/river/pond adjacent to the property.
  • They don’t really care much if the WiFi is good, or there are a lot of cable channels, or if they have satellite access. Most don’t even HAVE a satellite dish. They are just here for a long weekend so what’s a few days with limited technology access?

Full Timers

  • Generally arrive midweek or on Sundays. Full timers try to avoid driving/arriving on Fridays if they can.
  • Typically an older couple (no kids, and retired).
  • Usually arrive solo unless they are attending a rally in which case there will be 20 of them.
  • Typically are in a Motor Home towing a Jeep Wrangler. There are full timers pulling trailers and 5th wheels, but they are the minority from what we’ve seen. And there are plenty of other tow vehicles, but the Jeep Wrangler is by far the most common (probably because it is so easy to flat tow).
  • Quite common to see them out walking laps for exercise, but they won’t be out Friday night drinking around a campfire.
  • They don’t unpack much at all unless they are staying for a month. They know that stuff will have to be packed back up when they leave again to go to the next campground.  When they DO put stuff out, it tends be personalization like little signs with their names painted on which are hung up around their RV or little yard art items.
  • They rarely build fires because they don’t want their RV smelling like a smokehouse.
  • They watch TV inside in the evenings – outdoor evenings are like mosquito feeding stations.
  • They tend to use the campground as a homebase for exploring the area and spend much of the day away from the campground itself. They are looking for a campground that has paved sites, limited trees, and easy access in and out.  The campground is NOT the destination, its just a place to park the house.
  • They care a lot about WiFi, satellite, and cell reception. All three are important to them. They don’t have a home to go back to with high speed unlimited Internet where they can download system updates, refresh apps, rent digital movies, and stream videos.

So when considering an RV campground – especially when reading reviews left by others – first consider what kind of camper you are and what kind of camper the campground caters to.  A person looking for a camping experience in the quiet woods would despise the paved parking lot in Philly, while a full-timer might think it was great (like we did).

Reliability: Settling down

You may recall that we had quite a list of problems to be resolved in the first few months of MoHo ownership.  Some minor, a few major. You may also recall that we battled a mysterious water leak over our passenger window.

I did 2 things after the last leak event.  First, I put silicone caulk around a small trim area that had a tiny gap which could have allowed water running down the rain gutter to enter the side of the MoHo.  Second, I taped a paper towel to block that same rain gutter.  I used blue painters tape and a regular paper towel.  Both have been holding for over 6 weeks and 2000 miles of driving. That’s pretty impressive!!  One of the two has fixed the problem. We have an appointment at the Fleetwood Service Center in Alvarado Tx in December which should finally get to the bottom of it.

Meanwhile, the RV is holding up well.  We had 2 LED light clusters start to go bad with flickering.  There are 12 tiny LEDs in groups of 3 in each light, and in both cases one of the 3 LED clusters was going bad.  I ordered replacements from Fleetwood for $12/each.  They were very easy to replace. A third light started to go bad so I just broke off one of the tiny LEDs in that cluster which stopped the flickering and now the light looks fine – just a tiny bit dimmer than the rest.  No big deal.  If any more go bad, I’m going to call Fleetwood and suggest they got a bad batch of lights.  So far though, the rest are working properly.

We did have a Cummins recall item to take care of, which we did in Burlington VT.  The shop was incredible, even though they did put a big scratch in our coach.

No other repairs to speak of. Knock on wood, but reliability has been good and our MoHo has certainly taken a pounding on the Northeast roads.  Which is great considering how much of a logistics challenge getting repairs can be.

Technology:

WordPress sucks. On anything but a Military-Grade high-bandwidth connection, it is very difficult to reliably upload photos to the site. Image uploads from the browser, from Android, from iPhone, and from iPad all tend to timeout.  Since we almost never have what I would call “fast” Internet access, it takes ages and multiple attempts to upload photos for the blog.  Very frustrating.

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WordPress itself is apparently designed for coders, because it is extremely complex to use without at least some HTML skills. And even with HTML skills, it takes far too much time. Oh, and their mobile apps suck too. On Android the multiple photo uploader fails 80% of the time. On iPad the app can’t even keep up with typing.

I’m looking for other options.

Wireless data continues to be an issue as well. We now have 54 GB of data between Verizon and AT&T, plus whatever we can get from the campgrounds. Which is adequate as a supplement to campground WiFi or even a complete replacement in a pinch.  When it works.

Campground WiFi ranges from non-existent to mediocre.  Only 2 places in the entire Q2 trip have had “good” WiFi. In many places, cell coverage is poor too. As I write this, we have no AT&T cell coverage, Verizon barely works at dialup speeds, and the campground WiFi ranges from bottom-tier DSL speed to completely non-functional.

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Several campgrounds have offered no wireless at all.  Or rather they offer it, but it is a private 3rd party service costing $10 per device per day which is a joke. We have 7 devices.  2 laptops. 2 iPhones. 2 iPads. 1 desktop iMac.  All of which need apps updated. It would cost $420 a week to put all of those devices on paid campground plans, so we don’t even try.

Overall, most of the east coast campgrounds not only lack any decent WiFi, what little they do provide is often blocked by the trees. And with many of the campgrounds being somewhat remote, cell service is not so great either.  Nobody can hear that Verizon guy saying “can you hear me now” at some of these places.

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Burlington offered only paid WiFi so we just used our mobile hotspots which worked fairly well until we ran low on mobile data. Two places in PA had no WiFi at all, and our cell phones didn’t work either. Florida AT&T barely worked, Verizon was pretty good. Charleston had free WiFi that worked most of the time. Norfolk had free WiFI that worked about half the time. Lake George had paid WiFi and very poor cell coverage so mostly we did without while we were there.  Maine had paid WiFi and decent AT&T coverage (Verizon barely worked). Washington DC had fantastic WiFi and we soaked up as much as we could updating every device before we left.

Streaming movies have proved to be impossible except at rare places like Washington DC. I’d say so far that about half of the time we couldn’t stream a movie over the cellular hotspots from either AT&T or Verizon even if we wanted to.  Speaking of those two, I can’t say one is better than the other.  AT&T was better in Maine, Verizon was better in Florida. Both were lousy in Massachusetts.

Temperature:

First, let me say we haven’t really ever been uncomfortable. However, in Q2 we used a lot more heat than AC. Once we started heading north, temperatures began to drop fairly quickly. The ACs were able to withstand 100 degree days with our MoHo in full sun, and the heat pump has been able to cope with temps down to about 45.  Below that, the propane heater will come on in the front (we run our electric space heater in the front all night).

Below 38 or so, the heat pump will not work at all and the propane heat runs in the back as well.  So for us, I would say 40 degrees is the lowest we would choose to be in.  Of course, we’ve spent many nights below that.  As I write this, temperatures are forecast to drop down to 28 degrees overnight.

I have already unhooked our water hose.

So overall, a great second quarter with a lot of learning about RV travel!