Originally created 06/02/04

Some RVers steer clear of high gas prices with shorter trips, longer stops



HAMLIN, N.Y. -- After 10 days parked in bird-loud woods near the Lake Ontario shore, John Gerfen is pumping 75 gallons of gasoline into his motor home this Memorial Day weekend, driving to his retirement home in Florida and hoping to keep his wanderlust in check.

"We have no plans to move any place until gas prices come down," said Gerfen, 74, strolling around Hamlin Beach State Park while his wife, Muruvvet, napped. "At campsites, the three gripes I hear are fuel prices, the national debt and Iraq. Fuel prices are at the top."

Of all the motorists upset about high gas prices, recreational-vehicle owners pay a particularly heavy toll. Gerfen gets just 8 miles a gallon in his 37-foot-long behemoth - for years his solution to roving coast-to-coast in comfort and keeping property taxes at bay.

Only now, the gas needle is drooping left, and he's running low on cash.

The tenacity with which RV enthusiasts adhere to their freewheelin' lifestyle isn't likely to be shaken, industry officials say, because gas accounts for only a portion of their costs. In particular, those poised for a long-planned getaway probably won't change gears now.

But with pump prices peaking at a nationwide average of $2.06 a gallon, quite a few might rethink their summer schedule - perhaps by keeping closer to home, eating out less or even postponing a trip.

"If you can delay your trip to Aunt Minnie's house for six months, then you might as well because it'll maybe be better then," said David Humphreys, president of the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association, the $12 billion-a-year industry's trade group in Reston, Va.

Any RVers who have made advanced arrangements "will say 'By God, we're going,"' he said. "Some may make some minor adjustments but, for most people, it's not an issue."

Mention gas prices to Mario Gatti - proud owner of a 22-foot Allegro he bought in 1984 - and the Italian immigrant throws a look of disgust. "Re-ee-al bad! I fill it up - 200 bucks!" exclaimed the retired Xerox Corp. copier parts inspector.

Gatti, 72, who lives in nearby Rochester, burns 150 gallons driving to and from his favorite campground in Virginia Beach, Va., each summer, and he isn't backing out now.

"I'm thinking a lot of people say you stay home," he said. "If you enjoy, it's worth (it) to spend. It's $30 a day to camp. In a motel, you pay double."

Matthias Jentz, 54, a computer consultant in Bremen, Germany, has been crisscrossing North America in an RV with friends every two years since 1990. His latest five-week jaunt winds from New York through Toronto to Las Vegas, and gas markups aren't a concern.

"That can't stop you," he said cheerfully, his hand resting on his 32-foot rental. "Maybe we eat one steak less!"

Like a breed apart, road-happy RVers are hooked. "You can see a lot more things than in a hotel and, when you get in, you're at home," Jentz said.

Gerfen mortgaged his house in Utah to help pay for his $150,000 motor home. He's owned a half-dozen models over the last 30 years. Since 2001, he's been on the road 10 months a year, and he cuts expenses wherever possible.

Last month, during a trip to Madison, Wis., to see his wife's son - newly graduated from medical school - the couple ducked the usual $20-a-night camp fees by parking in a Wal-Mart lot for nine nights.

"I normally don't stay that long - the only camp site was ways away," said Gerfen, who served with the Air Force for 44 years, most recently in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. "With the price of fuel, we tend to stay off the road a lot. We stayed in one place three months.

"The working people, they want to get out and relax a little bit," he added. "They're the ones who really feel it."

Yet optimism about the economy will draw more Americans into their vehicles this Memorial Day weekend - the AAA expects 31 million to take trips of 50 miles or more, up from 30 million a year ago. With interest rates low and baby boomers finding more leisure time, RV sales are surging.

"The experience you have in this way of traveling is unique, and it's not just because it's cheaper," Humphreys said. "It's something we can't duplicate any other way and we're not giving it up."

For a 1,000-mile trip in a typical RV, "if the price goes up a dollar - and I think it's only gone up about 40 cents in the last year - we have a problem of $100," Humphreys said. "Is that going to put four people in an airplane or hotel? The history says no."

On the other hand, "if we have gas lines, watch out!" he said. "They stop buying, they stop going, they stop everything. Short of gas lines, I think we're going to be fine."

On the Net:

Recreation Vehicle Industry Association: http://www.rvia.com

American Automobile Association: http://www.aaa.com