RVing Senior Citizens: Class A or 5th Wheel?
Which is the right RV to buy when you're a senior citizen? It’s so hard to choose and there are so many things to consider, including cost, safety, comfort, fuel capacity, drivability, size of household, camping styles (boondocker or glamper?), frequency of use, and how our age affects our RVing needs. Have you noticed that many people swap out their RVs like underwear? Nothing seems to fit quite right. Well, here’s why we exchanged our 5th Wheel and truck for a Class A and small car. Maybe it will help you when it’s time to buy your own rig...or make a change to what you are currently RVing in.
These reasons aren’t in any order of importance. You can rank them if you wish. But first, I want to mention that I did about a year’s research on Class A’s versus 5th Wheels before we first hit the open road with our new Jayco Seismic 5th Wheel Toy Hauler.
Our initial decision was largely based on two criteria that we felt were extremely important: cost and safety. I read that a Class A wasn’t as safe in a crash situation as a 5th Wheel pulled by a behemoth truck. Hit the truck and we might bounce a bit, but we’ll probably survive. With a Class A, you are sitting right up front with little between you and what you hit. We didn’t even consider a travel trailer, because they usually don’t handle as well at highway speeds and, in windy conditions, they can jackknife. Since my husband was 67 at the time, and I was 60, I thought we had better go with the safer vehicle.
Round One to 5th Wheel.
Cost was another deciding factor. We bought a new Jayco and a new Ram 3500 Dually, one that could pull over 30,000 pounds. Combined, that was around $140,000. All the Class A’s with good performance reviews were well over that amount. John wanted a diesel, so that drove the price even higher. And you have to buy a car you can tow behind the Class A. At the time, we had three vehicles. None of them were towable on the ground—which John also wanted.
Round Two to 5th Wheel.
There were several things that appealed to us in a 5th Wheel. The toy hauler room could be used as a sewing room or hold all the toys we wanted to buy—like an all-terrain vehicle. It also had two decks, one on the back and one on the side. At the time of purchase, we had Eli, an American Eskimo dog. He just loved being outside, and the deck allowed him to be out in the fresh air without being tied up or getting dirty in the mud--he was a white dog.
Round Three to 5th Wheel.
So we bought our Jayco Seismic, lived in it for two years, and were never satisfied with it.
Here are just some of the reasons:
The configuration of this toy hauler sounded great on paper, but for full-time living, it just failed to deliver. Our rig was on three levels, so it felt smaller because it was segmented. The toy room had extra beds, but it ended up being a junk room, filled with our toys, which ultimately only consisted of a peddle boat and bicycles. I also sometimes used it as my sewing room, but it was never a dining room, as per its design.
The living room was narrow, with seating for four in a row on a sectional sofa. This made it very difficult to entertain friends. There wasn’t anywhere to sit. Then you went up two steps to the kitchen, which resembled a sardine can because of the sink area that roped off your work space to about three feet. You had to turn sideways to open the oven.
You go up a third step to the bedroom. The bed was shorter than a standard queen. The first thing we did was add an additional mattress. Then we threw both out and put in a standard queen mattress. To make it fit, however, we had to remove the bedroom door and leave it off. You couldn’t open the door with the mattress in the room. Privacy issues or comfort? What a tossup.
Initially, we just loved the large residential refrigerator. Until we tried to dry camp—which we do now about half or more of our time. It just sucked up power, and the inverter couldn’t get us through one set of quiet hours. We also couldn’t use our microwave without the generator. In fact, we had to leave one campground because we couldn’t afford to turn all power off to the refrigerator.
In our Dutch Star, we have a smaller refrigerator, but it runs on shore line, propane, the generator, or the inverter—our choice. With the push of a button, we no longer have to listen to the generator drone on for hours, and we can sleep all night without the inverter beeping a warning. I should mention that the Class A has an 80-gallon propane tank, which can run the stove, heating system, fireplace, and refrigerator. We’ve installed a bank of four batteries in our new rig as well as 640 watts of solar. Over the next 24 days of travel, 20 of those will be dry camping. With a quick generator boost in the morning and at night, we can run everything except the air conditioning on the inverter.
We will know by the end of the year how much these changes will save us financially (both in fuel and campground fees), but there is no way to calculate the value of the peace and quiet that comes from not having to run the generator.
We’ve written about the learning curve before. It can be steep, especially if you’re not seasoned RVers. Here’s an important note— never buy an RV without putting all the slides in. We discovered after we took possession that we couldn’t get to the kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, or toy room if the slides were in. And there are some places where you can’t put your slides out fully, like a Walmart parking lot. We’ve fixed that problem, however. We’ve joined Harvest Hosts and are Elks. No more WalMarts for us. I don’t like being run off late at night…or worried that it will happen.
Was new the right move? No. The Seismic broke down just like a used RV. Even the truck had two major problems in the first year. Shoddy workmanship? You bet. We were constantly nailing trim back up and you couldn’t keep the refrigerator closed. We finally resorted to bunji cords.
Everyone warns you, but most of us don’t listen. You’ll probably not make the right choice on your first RV. We didn’t. You just don’t really know what you’ll need until you’ve been out on the road for a while. So let someone else take the big depreciation hit. Buy used.
So…we were at Quartzsite for the big RV show a few months ago and thought we would just see what we might buy in the future—maybe two or three years down the road. Well, you guessed it. We were talked into buying a Class A.
Against all our previous convictions, we bought a used Class A—one built in 2007 no less. A Newmar Dutch Star. And although she did require some work, and still does, it was the right move for us.
Older is not necessarily bad. In 2007—evidently—Newmar was concerned with quality construction. Hopefully they still are. I don’t own a new one, so I can’t say. Trim doesn’t fall off. The cabinets are solid wood, not thin laminate. Doors haven’t come off their hinges. The refrigerator doesn’t open going down the road, throwing eggs and orange juice all over the kitchen (that happened twice in the Jayco).
Older allowed us to afford a solidly built diesel pusher with only 75,000 miles, just what John wanted. It has an engine that will run longer than we ever will. Several mechanics have gone over it and assured us that we have a solid rig. We’ve serviced everything possible—no records were kept so we didn’t want to chance it. We’ve also had to fix a few things. The windshield wipers stopped working (that’s a big deal), and the stabilizing jacks failed (it needed a new motor).
The unit also comes with a separate washer and dryer, ones that are almost as large as I had at home. Our Jayco was only plumbed for a baby washer. I had to hang dry everything or find a laundry. Now, I will admit that our current washer seems to have blown the water pump. That happened a few weeks ago. We’ve ordered the pump, are having it delivered to the post office at our next stop, and John and I will install it.
The dishwasher needed a new motor. That was a simple DIY fix. I know this all sounds like bad news, but in the Jayco, I gave up the dishwasher so I could have cabinet space. The dishwasher was fixed in our Dutch Star soon after we bought it AND I have an entire wall of cabinets. Now I can work in the kitchen without bumping into anyone else.
Let’s talk layout in the Dutch Star. When you’re traveling down the road, you can get up and go to the bathroom. The driver has to pull over first, of course. No need to put the slides out. You can also access the bathroom and bedroom, as well as the kitchen. Want to take a nap on the sofa while going down the road? Go ahead! Or recline your front seat and put your feet up. I couldn’t do that with our Dodge truck. These are all important considerations, especially if you’re an older RVer, as we are.
Both my children are planning on having their own families. How would I rv with them in the truck? The dog got the back seat of the truck. I made hime a large doggy bed. Where would the grandchildren go? In the Dutch Star, they can sit on the sofa (with seat belts) or at the table. Both the sofa and dinette make into beds. The Dutch Star may not have beds for six extra guests like the Jayco (it sleeps three extra full-sized guests), but it can work for five if one is willing to share an air mattress. And we can sit and talk comfortably, with the front driver and passenger seats able to swivel. We also have sofa seating, as well as dinette seating.
What I’ve been circling around is something we forgot to consider, and it’s just as important as cost and safety—COMFORT. With the Dutch Star, if we arrive at a campground and it’s cold or rainy, we can just turn off the engine, get cozy, and set up later. In the 5th Wheel, if it rained, at a minimum we had to leave the truck and get into the RV.
With our 5th Wheel, just backing into the site was difficult. You have to turn the truck’s steering wheel in the opposite direction you would normally turn it to back up. With a shorter rig, that’s not a problem. But with a 45-footer and 12 feet of that behind the rear axle, it was a real challenge. One particular experience I will never forget is me standing out in the rain for THREE hours as we tried to get the 5th Wheel into a tight spot. It’s a miracle I didn’t get pneumonia.
Last week, however, was a true validation of why we should be driving a Class A. We were heading toward a boondocking spot, with only GPS coordinates as our guide. It turned us down a suspicious road (narrow, unmarked, dirt). We went up this road over a mile, through sharp turns, deep ruts, and obstacles like tree branches and drop offs. We had to stop when we ran into a gate, a stop sign, and a padlock. We had no choice but to back down that steep road.
This would have been IMPOSSIBLE in our 5th Wheel. But with the Dutch Star, we decided to try. So we unhooked the car and I backed it part of the way down the road. I then walked back up and directed John (with walkie talkies) on his turns as he backed up to the car. I then relocated the car further down and we repeated the process—several times. Thankfully, we were able to get out of this situation with only scratches on one side of the RV (evil trees). John didn’t fall over the edge of the road and get hurt, and I backed up without losing the car. Lessons learned—call for directions first, and don’t buy an RV you can’t maneuver with confidence.
Another comfort issue involves the anxiety of finding gas stations—and this is a big one. Our 5th Wheel was 13 feet 6 inches high. You can’t just go to any gas station. And the truck’s gas tank only took 30 gallons. At 7 miles a gallon, you quickly see that I spent most of our travel time trying to find gas stations we could fit into. Cost wasn’t such a big consideration because we were too desperate to be picky. I can’t recount all the times we struggled to get into tight places. Most of the pump overhangs don’t have the height marked, and when you ask inside, the standard answer is “I don’t know.” We used to carry an extra 5 gallons of diesel in the back of the truck for emergencies. Finally, we spent a small fortune adding an auxiliary 60 gallon tank to the truck. This allowed us to carry 90 gallons.
Our new RV carries over 120 gallons of diesel, doesn’t use DEF because of its age, is only 12 foot 9 inches tall, and only needs propane (which runs the stove, heating, and refrigerator) about twice a year. What a difference from waking up in the middle of the night because the small propane tank on the 5th Wheel ran out. We had a dual system, but it never worked, even from date of purchase, so you had to throw a switch to change tanks. That’s going outside in the middle of the night, in Ohio, in January.
Age is also a factor buyers must take into consideration—our age, not the rig’s. As we age, we need to simplify life, especially as full-time RVers. Purchasing diesel and propane less frequently are just two examples of how Class A’s make life more pleasant. Setting up and tearing down the 5th wheel was also complicated. We had a page-long set of steps for each. Some were physically demanding, like putting down the decks. Others were mentally challenging. Forget to disconnect the power cord between the truck and RV upon parking and you can run down the truck battery. While setting up or tearing down, if you did anything out of order, disaster could strike. For example, after a long day on the road and a difficult experience getting our Jayco into a tight spot, John needed to re-hitch and reposition the rig. In our frustration, we forgot to put the safety pin back in the hitch connection. In pulling forward, John dropped the entire front of the RV onto the bed of the truck, crushing the tailgate, denting the sides, and marring the fiberglass “nose” of the RV. It was a very costly mistake.
That can’t happen with a Class A. Our biggest concern is getting level, not destroying a truck.
Let’s talk cost. We’ve actually saved money with our Class A. By buying used, we still got a quality RV—in fact, a much better quality one—for less than our truck/RV combo. We traded the Jayco and truck in and now have a smaller note. We paid cash for our toad (the car we tow), a Honda CRV that we can tow with all four tires on the ground. It’s also easier than the truck to maneuver around town and in parking lots, and when we are exploring the country in the Honda, we get 24 miles per gallon. The Ram 3500 got 12.
Hooking up the toad is quite easy, and we can take it off the Dutch Star quickly if we are navigating tight roads and need to simplify. I then follow John in the car (turning the stereo up).
Our Newmar will last longer than the Jayco, which had two recalls on it when we traded it in. We tried for two years to get them addressed, but evidently, Jayco dealers are too busy to take care of emergency issues, like gas tanks that might drop to the ground. We did tell the dealership that took our Jayco of the issues and gave them the recall paperwork. Hopefully they can get those problems fixed before they sell it.
What about safety, one of our initial primary concerns? We’re actually not that worried. The Dutch Star doesn’t bounce around the road as much as the 5th Wheel and truck. It’s more stable. We have a greater line of vision than before, with better side mirrors and a back up camera that also shows the left and right side of the rig. It’s comfortable to drive, so we can go further with less stress. And the truck/5th Wheel combo did present safety issues we didn’t initially consider. The second time the truck broke down (remember, it was new) we were on the side of the road on the interstate. It was snowing and icy, and cars were sliding all over the road. We waited hours for a tow. They were all busy with ice-related accidents. We stayed in the truck rather than go into the RV because we couldn’t put out the slides. We could easily have been hit by a passing car. So safety has many facets.
Overall, for our specific ages and physical/emotional/family needs, a Class A was a better choice. We’ve started to decorate it, something we never did in the 5th Wheel, so obviously we’re nesting.
When we finish laying a new floor, I’ll post a blog about all the improvements. We started with new curtains and valances, replaced glass in cabinet doors with photos of our adventures, removed a glass wall and put up a bulletin board, and painted the bathroom. More to come.