Top 12 mistakes of full-timers

In the past year, I’ve been getting a lot of requests from people for information about the full-time lifestyle.  Most of our lessons are covered in the Tour of America blog archives, but since not everyone wants to read through all 800+ blog entries, I’m going to summarize “The Top Twelve Mistakes Made By Full-Timers” here.   Hopefully this list will help a few prospective travelers to start off on the right foot.  In no particular order, here they are:

1.  Driving too much.  Everyone starts out with a bang — rushing away from home base to get to the first great destination.  Over the first few months, new full-timers seem to cover thousands of miles per month, and then gradually they calm down and begin to stop at all the great little things that they’ve been passing by.  That’s when they get into the rhythm of full-timing, and inevitably start to enjoy their travels more.

Tip: Slow down!  Stay longer, talk more, meet more people, explore the small stuff — and save money by traveling less and getting weekly rates at campgrounds.  Set a limit, like no more than 100 or 150 miles on driving days, and no more than two or three travel days each week.

2.  Keeping too much in storage.  This is a classic.  Ask any full-timer who has been traveling for more than a year, and you’ll get a story about how much stuff they left behind in storage, and how much they’ve come to regret it. Storage is expensive, but worse than that is the shock you’ll get when you come back and find all the stuff you paid to store that you didn’t even remember owning (or no longer want!)

Tip: If you plan to be out for more than a year, be aggressive about getting rid of the marginal items.  Sure, it’s still useful, but will you be happy to pay $10 to store a $5 item for a year?  Better to get rid of it and buy another one when you get back. Try your local Freecycle (on Yahoo! Groups) to get rid of low-value but useful items.

3.  Trying to keep a rigid schedule, OR not allowing enough time to explore.  Isn’t the point of full-timing that you can explore without a schedule?  Yet I have met many newbie full-timers who are rushing to keep up with their schedule, just like they did when they had jobs or kids in school.  When you hit a good spot you’ll nearly always find you want to stay longer than you thought, so if you must make plans, leave yourself lots of time and plenty of options.

Tip: Don’t make reservations unless absolutely necessary.  Remember, you’re a full-timer — you can wait until a space opens up. The exceptions are airline tickets (where prices go up if you wait), and really popular things that must be reserved months in advance.

4.  Being afraid to camp without hookups.  You can only see the country if you’re willing to get off the beaten path once in a while. Boondocking terrifies some people, but it’s actually fun, easy, and economical.  It’s in those rustic national park, state park, Bureau of Land Management, National Forest, and Corps of Engineers campgrounds that you’ll find some of the most memorable outdoor experiences in the USA.

Tip: Get to know the capacities of your holding tanks, and how long they will last.  This takes practice.  The best way to learn to boondock is to just do it.

5. Not carrying water.  This one amazes me.  People will advise you to carry less water in order to improve your fuel economy.  It’s a myth, at least for our rig.  If you are not climbing a mountain, 200 lbs of water (25 gallons) isn’t going to impact your fuel economy much.  With travel trailers and motorhomes on relatively flat land, aerodynamics play a larger role than weight. (But see Tip #7 before you decide.)

Not having water means you must go where the water hookups are, and you can’t stop spontaneously at a delightful spot along the way.  It also means that if you have a problem and can’t reach your intended destination, you’re out of luck for showers, cooking, and toilet.  Yet I constantly hear from other travelers that they recommend leaving the water tank empty and filling up only when they arrive.  That’s like leaving your gas tank on 1/4 all the time and hoping there’s a gas station every 50 miles.

Tip:  If you’re concerned about weight, just carry 10-15 gallons.  That’s enough to get you through a night with careful conservation.

6. Using the wrong mail forwarding service.  When we were looking for a new mail forwarding service, people advised us to “just use any UPS Store.”  Bad idea.  What if that little shop in the strip mall closes?  It just happened to a friend and fellow full-timer a few months ago, and he had a heck of a time moving everything to another address.

I recommend looking for an established mail forwarding specialist that has a succession plan in place in case the owners retire or the business has to move.  Also, look for a service that will give you excellent personal attention via phone and email.  It can work to have a friend or relative forward your mail, but ask yourself if that person will keep doing it reliably and regularly for a year or more.

Tip:  We use and recommend St. Brendan’s Isle.  Others use Escapees mail forwarding.  There are a lot of other services that specialize in RV’ers, too.  Do a Google search to find them.  USPS “change of address notifications”  are not a good choice — temporary mail forwarding is unreliable and lasts only for six months.  The USPS Premium mail forward service is better but too expensive.

Try to reduce the volume of mail you receive by using e-billing (see Tip #11), asking to be removed from mailing lists, and closing unnecessary accounts.  Ideally you should just get a few pieces of mail each week, so you can spend most of your time enjoying the travel experience.

Make sure whatever service you choose will forward your periodicals (magazines) — we get a lot of complaints from subscribers who paid for the cheapest service they could get and found out later that their magazines were getting tossed.  Ask if they will deliver urgent mail by FedEx if needed (at your expense).  Also, make sure you get a physical address, not a PO Box, or you may have trouble with banks and drivers licenses later.

7. Traveling overweight.  I don’t mean you, I mean your RV!  Hardly anyone ever weighs their rig, and yet everyone should.  Overweight travel means tire problems, premature brake wear, handling problems, hitching problems, and DANGER!  Don’t do it.

Tip:  Drop in on a CAT Scale (located at truck stops all over the country) and get weighed!  It costs just $8.  If your rig is approaching or over the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating on the serial number plate, start culling out the heavy stuff.  Traveling overweight is asking for trouble, and it’s the most easily prevented cause of accidents.

8. Deferring maintenance.  Oh yeah, we all do it.  But still, for a full-timer or long-distance traveler, it’s crazy.  You’re putting extra miles and wear on every system, and that means you need to think about maintenance as a preventative step, not as a response only when something breaks.

Tip:  Start at the bottom and work up. Think about brakes, tires, wheel bearings, axles, shocks, and hitch parts.  Then look at other things that can kill you, and the systems that control them.  Check for propane leaks, faulty appliances, batteries in smoke and CO detectors, date on the fire extinguisher, signals, tight bolts, lubricated parts, etc.

Everything in your rig came with an Owners Manual.  Pull ‘em all out and look for the parts that say “DANGER” or “CAUTION,” then act accordingly.  Then maintain the heck out of everything you own at least annually.  If you don’t want to do it or don’t know how, find a really good service center and plan on spending 4-5 days there every year.

9. Not understanding the rig.  If you go out on the road assured by the dealer that “you’re all set,” you’re going to have a nasty surprise someday.  A hitch part might break, a tire will go flat, an appliance will stop working, etc., and if you don’t really understand the systems, you’ll be at the mercy of whoever you meet who claims to.  AAA membership is not a substitute for having a spare and knowing how to use it.

Tip: (Shameless self-promotion here)  Get a copy of The Newbies Guide to Airstreaming.  For about $10, it’s the quickest, most reliable way to get up to speed quickly.  You can also get it from Amazon.com.   Or, you can spend six months reading contradictory and often uninformed opinions on Internet forums.

In general, try to learn how to change a tire, jump a flat battery, grease the hitch, find and replace the fuses (all of them including truck and trailer), lubricate the locks, check the tires, test for gas leaks, winterize, and logically troubleshoot other problems.  As Robert Heinlein said, “specialization is for insects.”

10.  Choosing the wrong state of residence.  Some states have lower income taxes than others, some have punitive residency requirements, some are very expensive for vehicle registrations, and a few have perks (like discounted state resident rates for theme parks).  Think three times before you choose a state of residence.  It’s easiest if it matches your mailing address, but that’s not always necessary.

Tip:  Look at the cost of vehicle registrations, income taxes, health insurance rates, vehicle insurance rates, and residency requirements.  Once you’ve got a state picked out, move all your accounts to your mailing address, and get a passport too.

11. Not using online banking.   A lot of people just love paper statements, but you’ll find that if you don’t use e-billing to get your bills, you’ll often get hit with late charges on your credit cards and other bills.  That adds up fast, and can affect your credit rating.  These days banks are narrowing the gap between when they send your bill and when it must be paid.

Tip: Get every credit card, utility, bank, and other recurring relationship to send you an e-bill, or get rid of that vendor Have all your small recurring bills (cell phone, etc) billed automatically to your credit or debit card, to reduce the number of bills you get. Save copies of the e-bills on your computer as PDFs so you can refer to them if you need to.  Use online banking to simplify your bill paying. It’s generally free and easy to use.

12. Relying too heavily on the GPS.  GPS is a great tool and we love it, but it is no substitute for a good map, or common sense.  The GPS database won’t tell you about all the things you’d like to see, either.  But it will send you down a one-lane (or non-existent) back road to save 10 feet on the route.

Tip:  Use the GPS as just one of several tools.  Keep and use a good road atlas.  Research things to do on the Internet and through local brochures before you plan your route.  When traveling in the west always have a supply of drinking water in the truck, and be sure to ask locally for information before going on any dirt road.  When approaching state or national parks, always follow the official brown signs rather than the shortcut your GPS is advising.

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine