If its your first time going to an RV show, you are stepping into an exciting new world and a wonderful community. No, seriously, becoming RV campers is one of the best things we have ever done. We truly enjoy traveling the country in our RV, seeing amazing sites and sleeping in our own bed every night.
But your first trip to an RV show can be a bit overwhelming. The options seem endless and the overwhelming variety of campers can become mind-numbing. And then there are the big questions: do you tow or get a motor home or camper van? How many people do you want your RV to sleep? If you are planning on towing, how much can your vehicle tow? And, most importantly, how much do you want to spend?
By doing a bit of prep work ahead of time, you can make your first RV show less overwhelming and a lot more productive.
We visited our first RV show back in 2016. We actually found the model of camper we bought at that first RV show. While we didn’t purchase at the RV show, it was nice to know exactly what we wanted so we could easily buy when we were ready.
In January 2023, we attended the Atlanta RV Show and we were quite surprised at the differences we saw in campers since we bought nearly seven years ago.
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Before You Go to the RV Show
My first piece of advice before you go to the RV show is to look for tickets online. They will very likely save you money. We saved $2 per ticket just by buying online.
My next piece of advice is to learn a bit about the types of RVs before you go. This will help you decide what to focus on as you walk around the show.
Types of RVs
If you are looking for an RV you can drive, there are three kinds: Class A, Class B (camper van), and Class C.
Class A RVs, often called motor coaches, are typically large (often 30 feet or longer) and are often built on a bus frame. These can easily cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and may, depending on your state, require a special driver’s license. Class As can often sleep up to eight, though many are best-suited for a couple.
Sometimes Class B RVs are better known as camper vans. These have been all the rage in recent years. With the advent of vans tall enough for most folks to stand upright without bumping their heads, this class of RVs has exploded in popularity, with many homemade models as well as polished production models on the market. Because of their popularity, the price of camper vans has skyrocketed and many cost as much larger Class A motor coaches. They are typically smaller, though, and most can park in a normal parking spot. Camper vans are typically designed for two people but we have seen some which can accommodate 3 or 4.
Class C RVs are halfway between a Class A and a Class B and are typically built on a large truck or van chassis with a large, boxy rear. They typically have an over-the-cab bed. Class C RVs are popular among rental companies, like Cruise America and El Monte, and vary greatly in length. Some get as long as Class A motor coaches while others can park in a regular parking spot. Class Cs can typically sleep at least four but many can accommodate significantly more.
Things to Consider About Motorized RVs
One of the biggest limitations in terms of how many people a motorized RV can accommodate while driving is how many seats with seat belts the camper has. While driving the camper, you can only have as many people in the camper as there are seat belts.
Another major limitation of a motorized RV is it has another engine you have to maintain. The engines of Class As, in particular, have expensive maintenance requirements. Since Class Bs and Class Cs typically have more common van or truck engines, service can be easier to come by.
Lastly, large motorized RVs are difficult to maneuver in tight spaces, meaning you will often need a towed vehicle (often called a toad or dinghy) to get around. Smaller Class Cs and, especially, camper vans can typically get around where larger campers can’t, negating the need for a towed vehicle. That said, it does mean you have to disconnect every time you leave your campground and reconnect every time you return.
Towed RVs allow taking your camper on the road with you anywhere you want to go and only have one engine to maintain. There are a great variety of towed RVs to fit just about any budget, making them a far more affordable option for campers.
That said, the size of your towed RV is limited by the tow capacity of your truck/SUV.
Pop-up campers are trailers that have a rigid bottom and a small profile for towing. When they are set up for camping, however, their roof pops up with a fabric enclosure that allows you to camp comfortably. Some have air conditioning, some do not. There are some which are fully hard-sided pop-up campers, with inventive ways of folding down. The advantages of pop-up campers are they are typically light and cheap. The disadvantage is they are small and have limited cooking and bath facilities.
Tear-Drop and Off-Road Trailers
Tear-Drop campers are small, aerodynamically-shaped campers that typically have an enclosed sleeping area and an outdoor kitchen on the back end. Some have an air conditioning unit but many do not. They are light, cheap, require little set-up and can be towed by even small SUVs. That said, there is not much indoor space for anything more than sleeping.
Off-road trailers are designed to be towed into backcountry campsites off rugged roads/trails. They typically have beefier tires and suspension systems, allowing for higher ground clearance to clear rocks and other obstacles. While some have an enclosed space like a tear-drop, many have a roof-top tent. These are great for using as a base camp while overlanding and, like tear-drop campers, are designed to be towed by SUVs and smaller trucks.
Travel trailers are basically small homes on wheels. They typically have a bed and a bathroom along with some sort of dining table or couch. They can range widely in size and can sleep anywhere from two to eight, depending on the model. We have owned a travel trailer since 2016 and towed it approximately 50,000 miles and camped in 43 of 50 states in it. Depending on the weight of your trailer, you can tow them with a beefy SUV with a tow package but most require a truck and many require a 3/4-ton truck.
Fifth-wheel trailers take travel trailers and elevate them to another level. These trailers are larger, heavier and require a special hitch located inside the bed of a truck. In nearly every case, you need a 3/4-ton truck or better to tow a fifth wheel. The benefits, however, are significant. You can find fifth wheels with residential appliances, comfy bathrooms, king-sized beds and washers and dryers. They are designed to spend long amounts of time on the road and offer all the comforts of a normal house.
Toy haulers are a special variant of fifth wheels and travel trailers (even a few Class As). These trailers are designed to haul big toys, as well as provide the comforts of home. Toy haulers have garage space at the back of the camper, allowing the owner to haul motorcycles, golf carts, kayaks, ATVs and even side-by-sides. These campers often have larger water tanks to handle being remote for longer periods of time and can often use the rear cargo ramp as a back deck. Many also have a fueling station to keep toys topped off while camping near the trails.
Things to Consider About Towed RVs
Towed RVs offer a bit of the best of all worlds. You simply tow your camper to wherever you want to camp for the night, set up and then can immediately move on your own with your tow vehicle. They are typically a lot cheaper than a comparable motorized RV and, since they do not have their own engine, they require less maintenance.
That said, the larger the trailer, the larger and more expensive the tow vehicle needed to tow it. When you get to fifth wheels and larger toy haulers, you are looking at heavy-duty trucks with longer beds and perhaps even double the wheels on the rear axle (called dualies). These trucks are not cheap, with their costs getting close to $100,000. They are also large, making campers less nimble when driving their towed vehicle.
Truck campers (also called slide-in campers) are campers which slide into the bed of a truck. These RVs allow truck owners to convert their existing vehicle into a small RV. Like a Class C and Class B, this makes you nimble but at the expense of space inside the camper.
Before you think about getting a truck camper, you need to make sure your truck can handle the weight. The weight of the larger truck campers can be substantial.
The next thing you need to know is what your tow capacity is or what you want it to be.
If you are planning on towing a trailer or a fifth wheel, you need to know what your truck/SUV can tow. Instead of walking you through the complicated process of calculating a safe tow weight for your vehicle, I suggest you download this app. This will do the calculations for you and tell you exactly what your vehicle can safely tow.
If you are planning on towing a vehicle as a toad (dinghy behind a Class A, B or C), then you need to know what the total loaded weight of your vehicle will be and add 20% as a safety margin. If you are planning on towing something that cannot be flat towed, you will need to factor in the weight of a trailer as well.
Why add the safety margin, you ask? Because you do not want to be at your vehicle’s max capability if you are towing over a high pass in the Rocky Mountains or through the Mojave Desert.
How Many People Do You Need to Sleep?
Note, I said how many people do you need to sleep in your camper? If you have two kids that will be traveling with you on most of your camping trips, you need comfortable places for them to sleep. Bunkhouse campers are great for kids. If you plan on traveling with an adult couple, you can look for a camper that has a second bedroom so they have some privacy (rare).
If it is just going to be you and your significant other most of the time, then I would look at finding a camper that focuses on your comfort and, perhaps, has fold-out beds for guests. Many campgrounds will allow you to erect a tent, so older children or friends who are visiting you can sleep outside.
Alternately, if you find the perfect camper which has a bunkhouse or an over-the-cab bed, you can look at turning that space into storage.
How Much Camper Can You Afford?
This is a very personal question and you need to know the budget you have ahead of time. RVs can vary greatly by price. You will find tear-drop campers costing less than $20,000 and Class As which run more than $500,000.
Another factor to consider is do you plan on financing your camper? Interest rates on RV loans are typically higher than auto loans and home loans. That said, the interest on an RV is treated like interest on a second home and can be tax-deductible if you have enough deductions to itemize.
It’s important when you go to an RV show to have a clear idea of what you can afford to spend. That will keep you from falling in love with a camper well out of your price range.
Pro tip: Buy your second camper first. Some folks who go shopping for an RV think they will buy something cheaper and smaller for their first camper to see if they like it and then upgrade later. Since RVs don’t appreciate in value (at least normally) you will lose money by buying a camper you don’t intend to keep for several years.
Once You Get to the RV Show
My first piece of advice for once you get to the RV show is don’t go hungry. While many will have some sort of food offered, the quality can vary and the lines can be long. Still, at our last RV show, we were able to eat a bit later and get some good tacos. That said, we still recommend taking some snacks and some water to drink. Quite simply, you need to be fueled up and ready to shop!
Next, once you get in, it can be a bit overwhelming. There will be booths selling all kinds of RV gadgets and campground memberships. Be sure to check those out for some good ideas but, if this is your first show, worry about a lot of that stuff after you get a camper. For right now, focus on checking out the campers!
I suggest picking a direction and using that as your jumping-off point for a systematic walk-through of all the vendors. Don’t feel like you have to go in every camper but do check out RVs of various types. You might be surprised. You might have had your heart set on getting a Class C but fall in love with a camper van or a travel trailer.
Compare Floor Plans at the RV Show
One of the big things to do at an RV show is look at different floor plans and how you like their amenities. As you keep looking, you will be able to eliminate features you don’t want versus ones you can’t live without.
Pay attention to the designations for the models. You will find each model number kinda tells you what to expect from the camper.
For example, if you see a 32BH, that often means the living space is about 32 feet long and the camper has a bunkhouse. Our camper is a 23RB. That means our living space is 23 feet long (our overall length is closer to 27 feet) and we have a rear bath.
Since we do not have kids, we started noticing many of the campers had two twin horizontal windows. We soon realized those were bunkhouse campers. Since we didn’t want a bunkhouse, we started skipping those models.
Pro tip: Once you find a floor plan you like, make a point to look at other manufacturers for similar floor plans with features that you like. You will find there are only a handful of configurations that really work in a given size, so once you find the floor plan you like, you will see other similar ones made by other companies.
Look at the Storage of the RV
Once you find something you think you like, be sure to get in the camper and really investigate all the nooks and crannies. Check out all of the storage. Does the camper have enough storage to fit everything you need?
Your storage needs will be different, depending on what you are using the camper for. If you are planning on just taking your camper up to the lake on the weekends, you don’t need as much storage as someone who lives in their camper for weeks at a time.
We looked at one lightweight travel trailer with exceptional solar capability and a really nice kitchen. We really liked it. Then we discovered it had no pass-through storage underneath. That was instantly a deal breaker for us. We use our pass-through storage to store tools, leveling gear, utility connection gear, our grill and our chairs. We would have to store all of that inside the camper while traveling and in bins underneath our camper while camping. Nope!
At this last show, I was really impressed with the storage capacity of some of the fifth wheels. Since we are considering going full-time on the road in several years, I was paying close attention to pass-through storage, closet storage, under-bed storage and pantry space.
Pro tip: If the bed has under-bed storage, get one that has gas struts (or ask the dealer to install them) so one person can lift it up and access the storage. It makes it a lot easier to access than what we presently have. In our current camper, it takes two of us, one to hold up the hinged shelf the bed is on and one to go through our gear, in order to access the under-bed storage.
Do Your Best to Really Test the RV Out
While you are checking out the camper, lie on the bed, sit on the couch, stand in the shower and sit on the toilet. Make sure you can fit comfortably in those spaces. I found an otherwise spacious fifth wheel that I could not walk through the bathroom door without turning sideways. My shoulders were simply too broad to fit!
Pay attention to the mattress in particular. Especially on cheaper RVs, the mattresses tend to be bad. Indeed, Bonnie lasted one weekend on our original mattress before we ordered a mattress topper. We have since replaced the mattress altogether. If the mattress is not great on the camper, use that as a bargaining point with the dealer.
Pro tip: Use your smartphone’s camera to take “notes” by taking pictures of all of the relevant information for a camper. Start with the model number and the specifications. Be sure to take a picture of the trailer’s weight, both loaded and unloaded, if you already have a tow vehicle. Then take pictures of all the things you like. When you start on another camper, start the same process over, keeping your camera roll organized by RV.
We have found some companies have gotten really inventive with how they store things. For example, we have seen some campers with laundry hampers or chutes, which is nice. We have seen some fifth wheels with an office that converts to an extra bedroom. We have seen a lot of clever ways RV manufacturers have made the most of the small spaces.
Still, the most important thing is your comfort. If you are not comfortable in any part of the RV, move on! You won’t get your money’s worth of it if you don’t like using it.
What if You Found the Perfect Camper at the RV Show?
So you found the perfect camper and you are ready to buy. You know what you want and you are ready to make a deal. Cool! The RV show can be a great place to find a deal, especially if you are willing to take one of the models they have brought down to the RV show.
Transporting an RV to a show takes time and money so you will find dealers willing to make deals if you are willing to take the model from the show.
That said, don’t feel like you have to buy at a show and, whatever you do, be sure to check prices online! You might be surprised by what you will find out there. When we bought our camper, we ended up driving 45 minutes away to a dealer in another city where we found a great deal.
Also, if you like a particular floor plan, look for a used model. Like cars, RVs lose value as soon as you drive them off the lot. If you can find a used RV, especially a late model of your floor plan, you can save a lot of money.
Before You Buy an RV
Regardless of what kind of RV you buy, be sure you figure out where you will park it before you actually buy your camper. That was another mistake we made. We bought our camper and struggled to find a storage spot (we lived in a condo in a downtown area). We had to park our camper in a friend’s driveway for a couple of nights until we could get into our storage spot.
If you are buying a trailer that weighs more than 3,000 pounds, you need to get a trailer brake controller installed. While our old truck had a tow package, it did not have a trailer brake controller. When we bought our camper, we had to scramble to get one installed before we could pick the camper up.
Our current truck has a max tow package, which I recommend for anyone who plans on towing a trailer. With this, we had a trailer brake controller built in.
Once you have bought an RV, be sure to check out our outfitting guide, which puts everything you need in one convenient article.
Final Thoughts On How to Make the Most Out of An RV Show
RV Shows are a great way to see a lot of different options in one place. It is also a great way to see the trends of the RV industry. At our latest RV show, we saw a lot of innovations on solar and most of the campers had very light interiors versus the darker wood finish that was prominent when we bought seven years ago.
RV shows are also really great for finding floor plans and options you really like or don’t like. For example, Bonnie and I will never buy a camper without a walk-around bed. We simply do not want to crawl over the other when going to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
While RV shows can be a long day, they offer a lot of opportunities if you are looking to join us in the RV community.
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We typically stay at Hilton properties, so we use the Hilton website. You can find good Hilton Honors discounts or AAA discounts for a hotel there. We make great use of our free night certificates from our Hilton Honors American Express.
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If there are no Hilton properties available, we use TripAdvisor to read reviews and book the hotel. We find we can get the best price that way.
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We use Vrbo for the times when we have rented a cabin for a weekend getaway, like this cabin in Townsend, TN, or needed to rent a house for a large family vacation. We had a great experience with them in terms of refunding deposits when COVID hit and will continue to use them.
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As a general rule, we book with Hertz for rental cars. We have had nothing but good experiences with them. Plus, we really like unlimited mileage and not worrying about crossing state lines. We have even rented from Hertz overseas in both Slovenia and Croatia.
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We have found some amazing prices booking a cruise through Cruise Direct. We have saved a lot of money on our cruises compared to what we found elsewhere, making a last-minute Bahamas cruise even cheaper.
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We highly recommend Outdoorsy for RV rentals. We rented a camper van for a week to visit Rocky Mountain National Park for the elk rut and Custer State Park for the Buffalo Round-Up and had a blast. The program was easy to use and we really enjoyed the freedom of having a camper van for that trip.
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We don’t often book tours. Typically, we like to do stuff on our own. That said, there are some experiences you just can’t have any other way. So, when we do want to book a tour, we always check Viatour first.
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We have had AAA as long as we have been married and it has more than paid for itself in discounts at hotels, aside from the peace of mind of having roadside assistance. Add in paper maps and the ability to get an international driver’s license and it is more than worth it for any traveler out there.
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