One of the big choices to make when choosing an RV is whether to go with a motorhome - a single unit of a vehicle and living quarters - or a towing setup with a travel trailer or maybe even a 5th wheel.
There is no right or wrong answer here. Each option has its advantages and disadvantages (as well as ways to overcome those). This post will go into the pros and cons in detail but here's the short version -
- Are easier to drive
- Can go faster (especially the smaller ones)
- Make it easier to access the living area while driving
- Are faster to set up in a campground
Towing a Trailer or 5th wheel Pros
- More choice in vehicles and trailers (mix and match)
- More choice in operational systems (such as generators)
- You can use the towing vehicle separately
- Travel trailers are usually cheaper to buy and maintain
There are other aspects and more pros and cons which we'll address further down the post, so if you're serious about your choice, do read on.
Motorhome vs. Towing a Travel Trailer
We've blogged about types of RVs. To sum up that post - there are many many types of Recreational Vehicles and they can be divided into two categories -
1. Motorhomes: A living area and vehicle in one inseparable unit
A motorhome is a self-propelled unit: Engine and home in one (that's what the name pretty much says!). There are several types of motorhomes, known as Class A, Class B, and Class C. The principle is the same in all of them.
Does that mean that if you have a huge Class A motorhome (the kind that looks like a bus), you have to move the entire thing whenever you want to go to the nearest town for some groceries?
Well, essentially yes, but there are ways around it.
What owners of motorhomes often do is keep an additional small vehicle with them. You can often see Class A motorhomes towing a small car behind. This is affectionately known as the "Toad" (as in "Towed"). It allows motorhome owners to park their big units in the campground and use the small car for errands and sightseeing.
With smaller motorhomes, a towed car may be too much but often one or two pairs of bicycles serve the same purpose. Or, they just move the entire motorhome whenever they need groceries (not that difficult to do with the smaller Class B and Class C units).
2. Travel Trailer: A living area that's attached to a moving vehicle
The second broad category is any combination where you have a towing vehicle and a separate living unit that's pulled behind it.
The towing vehicle is often a pickup truck but it can also be an SUV and even a sedan in some cases. The towed unit is one of the following -
- 5th wheel unit
- Travel trailer aka camper (including the small teardrop campers)
- Expandable/Folding/Pop-Up Camper.
We also put truck campers in this category. A truck camper is when you have a small camper unit mounted on top of the bed of a truck. While not towed per se, you can separate this unit from the truck once you reach a campground.
Motorhomes come in three classes (mentioned above) and all kinds of shapes, colors, and sizes. Arguably, putting them all in one comparable category is painting very different RVing solutions with a single broad brush.
And yet, some things are true of all motorhomes. This is why most people first decide on whether they want a motorhome or a towed RV, choosing one or the other according to their own needs and life circumstances. So, let's take a look at the advantages of motorhomes.
1. Motorhomes are generally easier to drive
So, again, there are many types of motorhomes, and clearly, for a driver with no RV experience, a smaller one will be easier to drive than a larger one. You could argue that towing a small trailer is no more difficult than driving a huge 42 ft Class A motorhome. However, assuming you're considering RVs of roughly similar size, we should compare apples to apples here. And when it comes to the actual shape and structure, motorhomes are just far more stable.
With a motorhome - of any class - you're driving a single "box" -
Sure, it's a big vehicle. It can be harder to drive than a sedan for other reasons too - check out our post about how hard it is to drive a pickup truck to see some of them. But when you move the steering wheel, you're directly affecting the entire vehicle. That makes steering and maneuvering relatively easy.
With any towing combination, you're driving two boxes with a space in between -
Driving while towing something that weighs more than your towing vehicle is harder. For one thing, whatever you do with the steering wheel has to be relayed to a separate unit. The same goes for accelerating or braking. Some hitches are smarter than others, relaying commands - including braking - electronically so that the RV actively participates in the effort. It's still more complicated than moving a single unit.
Then there's the sheer physics of towing a heavyweight. The dynamics of movement are such that given certain circumstances - wind, high speed, etc - your trailer may take on a life of its own. Trailer swaying is a real problem.
The bottom line: Size being equal, motorhomes are easier to drive - especially for the inexperienced.
2. Motorhomes can go faster
We just talked about how difficult it can be to control your towed trailer.
One way to overcome the swaying effect is to significantly reduce your speed. This means that driving a motorhome - and not having to deal with swaying - can simply be faster.
Jordan from Winnebago Life says:
Though I sometimes see others ripping down the highway with their trailers, we were never comfortable going faster than 62-65 mph – especially in windy conditions. In the Class C, we’re able to drive the speed limit, which comes in handy for those 75-80 mph speed zones you often find in less populated areas of the country. It makes a big difference over the course of a few driving days.
3. Using the "home" area while driving (or short parking)
We're a stickler for road safety. And it is definitely unsafe for people, especially children, to be moving around inside a box that's flying on the highway at 60 mph. Just because you technically have the ability to get up and move around, does not mean you should. It may even be illegal, depending on the state you're driving through.
Why mention it here then? Because you may not share our opinion on this aspect of RV life. While researching, we've found that many motorhome owners enjoy moving around in the motorhome - even while driving. That is to say, the driver stays seated, obviously. Other passengers move around.
For example, this is what Jeff Adams says, writing for Reserve America -
... in a motorhome, you don’t have to pull over for a bathroom break (except for the driver, of course!)… the potty is right down the hall. With a trailer, you’ll need to pull into a rest stop or gas station, or stop at the side of the road and run back to the porta john you’ve been pulling with you. In a motorhome, it’s easier to make snacks or take a nap. Everything you need is right with you (although take care moving about while you’re underway).
There is something to be said about the ability to hop out of your seats in the front to the back of the RV. You can always pull over, reach a full stop and just do whatever you want to do in the back. Especially if you're not relying on opening the slides.
You could do that with a travel trailer but with a motorhome, you literally don't have to step out of the vehicle. Which can be very convenient in harsh weather conditions or at night time.
Read more: Can you ride in an RV while it's on the move
4. Faster setup speed in the campground
In theory, all you have to do when getting to the campground with a motorhome is pull into your spot. New models have built-in stabilization systems, allowing you to get everything comfortably balanced without leaving your motorhome. Again, great if you happen to pull in during a spot of bad weather.
The advantage isn't huge. If you're only stopping for the night, you can pull in with a towable too. Yes, you'll have to step out of the vehicle to get to the trailer or 5th wheel but odds are you're going to have to step out anyway if you want to hook up to electricity, water, etc.
5. Safety from the surrounding environment
We just mentioned how you can move from the dashboard area to the inside of the vehicle in a motorhome without having to step outside. Which can be an advantage in poor weather conditions. It's also a bit safer if you're parked in a city and prefer not to step outside. If you're very worried about stepping out of your vehicle - for whatever reason - a motorhome has the advantage here, allowing you to do whatever you need while remaining in the safety of your RV.
5. The HUGE windshield in a Class A
A class A motorhome looks a lot like a new bus. Not only do you have no "nose" in front of you, but you also have huge see-through windows. Sitting high up there, you really can enjoy the view properly.
6. You can tow a small car
We already mentioned the "toad" when describing the motorhome option. The point here isn't that a towing setup can't have a small toad in addition to the trailer/5th wheel. It can. It's just that most people will just unhook the towing vehicle and use that instead.
That's not necessarily a bad option but some people prefer taking a small sedan around once they're situated in a campground.
Travel Trailers: The Pros
Let's see what the benefits of towing a travel trailer are. Most of these apply to 5th wheel RVs as well.
1. Mix and match
With a motorhome, you buy an entire unit. With a towing setup, you can be more flexible.
Pickup truck or SUV? Huge 5th wheel or a tiny teardrop trailer? You can create the setup that's perfect for your own needs, choosing the right vehicle for you as well as your preferred "home away from home". What's more, you can switch each of the parts separately. Love the trailer but fancy a larger truck? No problem. Love the truck but want to try a smaller camper? That's doable too.
2. Trailers and 5th Wheelers are Modular
It's not just the fact that you can mix and match towing vehicle and towable.
Motorhomes tend to come as a single unit with all its systems built-in. Trailers, on the other hand, are far more customizable. You can more easily add and remove systems, tweaking your RV just the way you need it to be. Not impossible with motorhomes, just usually more complicated (and expensive).
Marie from ArdentCamper tried both and says -
With a motorhome, a lot of the systems are built in. There is a built-in propane tank, and a built-in generator, for instance. With a fifth wheel or travel trailer, the propane tanks can be removed and swapped out, and it's up to you to provide your own generator.
3. All space is living space - not driving space
When you talk about RVs you usually think in feet. How long is "the rig" refers to the length of a motorhome, travel trailer or 5th wheel.
Let's compare a motorhome and travel trailer of the same length.
This is the floor plan of an Imagine Travel-Trailer 2150RB by Grand Design. A very popular Travel Trailer that's measured at 26'9" from hitch to rear.
Compare this to the Winnebago 27PE Vista Class C motorhome floor plan -
There's less "exclusive living area" with about 20% of the space taken up by the dashboard area. Now, having said that, you could opt to look at this the other way around. Once you factor in the towing vehicle, you end up with a total that's far longer (and cumbersome to drive around). Also, the seats in the front of a motorhome swivel around so they become part of the living space when the vehicle isn't moving.
Still, experienced RVers mention the "space factor" as an advantage in favor of travel trailers, so we included it in this list.
4. You can use the towing vehicle for sightseeing and errands
With a towing setup, you simply unhook your truck from the trailer and voila - you can drive it anywhere you want. For people who prefer to keep their RV camped in the same spot for several days or even weeks at a time, having a separate vehicle can be helpful. Of course, that's where the towed sedan comes into play for motorhome owners.
5. Travel trailers are generally cheaper than motorhomes.
The rule of thumb is that motorhomes are expensive. More expensive than an equivalent setup of a towable and towing vehicle. The average cost of a new Class A motorhome can easily run above $100,000. A new travel trailer of the comparable size usually costs less than half. Even if you factor in the cost of a truck, you'll find that the travel trailer option is at least somewhat cheaper.
6. Lower maintenance costs
Motorhomes are specialized vehicles that carry many complex systems on board. These systems are built-in and unique to the motorhome design. With travel trailers and 5th wheels, you have a standard towing vehicle - truck or large SUV - and a non-motorized towable unit which often has a modular structure where systems are easier to access from the outside.
Which basically means repairing either the towing vehicle or the trailer will be easier and thus cheaper too. There is also the added benefit of not losing your home when your truck is in the shop for repairs.
7. Trailers are easier to buy and sell
Possibly because they're cheaper or maybe because there are fewer inspections to be made on a non-motorized unit, trailers are considered easier to buy, sell or trade. There's more of a market for them and units more quickly.
Also, trailers and 5th wheels don't depreciate in value as much as an engine-driven unit will. Generally speaking, the odometer brings the value of a vehicle down. If a unit has no odometer, it's going to have a slower decrease in value. Which again, make selling your unit less painful.
What about a mini motorhome vs. a travel trailer?
Class A motorhomes, and even Class C units, tend to be very large. Many people find that intimidating, looking into smaller Class B motorhomes instead. These upgrades vans look something like this -
Class B motorhomes are easier to drive and can be more affordable. So, how do they compare to travel trailers?
Essentially, they are smaller. The right travel trailer to compare these to would be a small one, weighing under 5,000lbs. These smaller travel trailers usually sleep two people and have small living areas. Take a look at the floorplan for such a model by Dutchmen RVs
Other than that, there aren't that many differences between a small motorhome and a small travel trailer that go beyond what we have discussed so far in this post.
So, what's the bottom line? Travel Trailer or Motorhome?
There is no solution that's right for everyone. What's more, many RVers switch back and forth between types. You need to figure out your own specific needs and act accordingly.
Generally speaking, if you plan on using the RV for road tripping - i.e. covering long distances on every trip, without stopping for long in one spot, a motorhome could be a good option for you. It will be easier to drive and faster, and you'll be able to quickly set up for the night. You're not stopping in any campground for long, so no need to have a separate vehicle for your errands either.
On the other hand, if you're preferred way of RVing is to spend long periods of time in campgrounds, then a travel trailer is probably the better option for you. You'll be able to leave your camper in the campsite and drive along in your pickup truck while your home-away-from-home stays in place.
Try before you buy
In the end, nothing beats hands-on experience. Or at least first-hand real-life encounters. Buying any type of RV is a huge expense. The range begins with several tens of thousands of dollars, even for a used truck and smallish camper. Selling and buying an RV is like trading in a vehicle AND home. It's time-consuming and stressful. Not something you want to be doing too often.
The solution is renting.
Renting a motorhome
There are several agencies in the US where you can rent an RV for a weekend. Here are some of the more known ones -
Between them, you can find any type of motorhome you may want to experiment with. Granted, if and when you buy, you'll need to hone in on a specific model but these rental companies offer motorhomes of all three classes for you to try.
Renting a trailer or 5th wheel
If you already own a vehicle that can tow a trailer, you can actually rent just the trailer or 5th wheel. The way to do this in the US is by using RVShare.com. This is like the AirBnB of RVs where owners of recreational vehicles rent them out through the site. Just enter your location and dates to see what's available.
You can find anything there, from pop-up campers at $50 a day to luxury Class A RVs that will cost you $500+ a day. Conditions and stipulations change from one offer to another, as RV owners can determine what they want and how much to charge.
If you don't have a truck or large SUV, things get a bit more complicated. While you could easily rent a Chevy Suburban or Tahoe or even a Ford Expedition, most rental companies don't allow you to tow with them. Moreover, they're not equipped with a towing package.
While more and more rental companies now offer light-duty pickup trucks for leisure rental, these do not always come with hitching capabilities and what's more important, you're often not allowed to tow with them. This is in the rental contract too, so any insurance you have will be void if you do - that's dangerous and illegal too.
You could rent a pickup truck from U-haul with a low-end towing capacity of up to 6,000 lbs. Enterprise offers truck rentals which include both light-duty and heavy-duty pickup trucks. You can rent an F-350 or similar at just over $100 a day in some locations. The trucks come with hitching systems and you can definitely use them for towing.
So, trying a truck and trailer/5th wheel is doable even if you have neither - but it's going to be expensive and take some work to set up.
To sum this up
Do your research and if you can, try renting for a few days to get a feel of things before you go ahead and make a purchase - easier to do with a motorhome but possible with a towing setup as well.
Or just take the plunge like thousands have done before you! Get the setup that captures your heart's desires and try it out for a few months. Worst case scenario, you'll make a switch to the other side. Just staying in campgrounds, looking at other units and talking to experienced RVers may change your mind about your choice - and that's ok too!
If you own or plan to own an RV, we'd love to hear from you. Leave us a comment and let us know what your setup is and why! And please take a moment to fill in our quick survey here -