In all our RV travels around the US over five summers and four winters, we never saw an RV caravan until we made a journey north to Alaska. It seemed to be a popular way to travel for many RVers making this trip.
If you’re contemplating whether to make the trip from the lower 48 solo or with a caravan, here are some observations:
— They never seemed to stay in any one place for very long. I always felt bad when I saw a caravan pull into a park one afternoon then leave the next morning. This happened in Palmer, AK — a place we spent a few days because there was so much to appreciate there — from a great farmers’ market to super restaurants — and it served as a great base camp for visiting Anchorage without having to stay in the city. Many caravans seemed to be in one place 1-3 nights. That doesn’t allow a lot of time to do many things — without exhausting yourself. To visit all the museums in Valdez, for example, takes the better part of one day. Want to hire a fishing guide? Take the ferry to Cordova? Drive out South Harbor Road to see the hatchery or watch the sea otters and seals in the bay? Can’t do that in three days (trust us).
If you don’t mind pulling out of a place before you feel you’ve experienced it, a caravan is a good option.
— Caravans follow a pre-determined route. Granted, when it comes to driving in Alaska there are only so many roads to choose from, but the route you prefer might not be the same one the caravan will follow. Many caravans drive the full Alaska Highway from Mile Zero. We chose, instead, to drive from Prince George out the Yellowhead Highway (Route 16) and up the Cassiar Highway (Route 37). We enjoyed it so much, we came back that way as well. The “mystique” of driving the length of the Alaska Highway just wasn’t enough to convince us we should drive what we’d heard was an ordinary highway instead of the scenic, more remote Cassiar.
We also opted not to drive the Top of the World Highway (through Dawson City), and when we met some RVers in Chicken who were traveling south, they were so relieved pavement was nearby I thought they were going to faint in the middle of the store. Here’s the description from “The Milepost (2013 edition)” (page 276): “The Taylor Highway is a narrow, winding dirt and gravel road with little or no shoulder south to Chicken, then chip seal and pavement (with many damaged sections) from Chicken south to the Alaska Highway.” Chip seal? A lot like gravel, if you ask me.
If you don’t mind someone else planning your route, which can mean missing places you’d prefer to spend time or take you along roads you’d prefer not to drive, a caravan is a good option.
— We like getting off the beaten path, if not in our RV, then in our toad. We prefer what others might call the lonely places, the less-traveled areas. Despite the harassment we underwent from the local mosquitoes, we still remember our forages down the Nabesna Road as some of our truest Alaskan adventures. We would not have experienced this — nor discovered a place where we could actually buy a post office if we wanted to — if we’d been in a caravan. Some Alaskan RV parks cater to the large caravans — it’s a big part of their business, and that’s understandable. One relatively small RV park was hosting three (yes three) caravans at the same time when we stopped by. What that means for you as an RVer in a caravan is that you’ll always be in an RV park when a lot of other people want to use the laundry, get on the (usually limited) wi-fi, and take a good shower. And one caravan of about five vehicles traveled so tightly when they even stopped for fuel at the same time. This meant that group spent time hanging around waiting as everyone made stop in the restroom and the shoppers among them browsed the gift shop.
If you like traveling in a group, over-nighting surrounded by other rigs, waiting your turn to shower or do your laundry, a caravan is a good choice. Bring plenty of patience. Or maybe a book of crossword puzzles.
— Regardless of the name of the tour company on the RV stickers, they seemed to have the same basic MOs: potlucks and get-togethers. I read their activities signs posted on whiteboards propped in or near the “host” rigs: “FREE DAY!!” As if being on your own was something to be celebrated, and maybe it is when you spend that much time with others. Another time I saw an announcement reminding caravaners about their “outrageous hat” contest that night. Let me tell you, if you need to invent that sort of “fun” in a place like Homer, Alaska, you’re in trouble. Honestly.
But… if you like invented fun, a caravan is a good choice. Or maybe I should say, “If you like socializing, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to meet and spend time with other RVers if you caravan.”
Okay, I’m starting to sound very biased, aren’t I? The truth of the matter is that caravans provide a great service to those who might need (or want) others with them when they’re on the road. If you worry you might break down and want help right away, a caravan can help ease your mind — though I have to add that we were never anywhere in our entire trip (not even on the most remote roads and highways) when we were so far from civilization that another vehicle didn’t come by without too much of a wait. It’s summer in the North — people are out and about.
If you have medical issues, you might prefer a caravan — again, to have others nearby in case of an emergency. Singles might prefer a caravan for safety reasons. We also saw a small caravan of about four vehicles comprised primarily of Europeans: non-English speakers might appreciate the benefits of a caravan.
But for the rest of us, caravans primarily offer a social experience. They’ll tell you they offer more, but this is essentially it.
Yes, they’ll make your reservations, book your sightseeing excursions, provide local information and history, and organize caravan activities, but in our case:
— We never needed a reservation on our entire trip — we did boondock one night down the road from a park in Denali because it was full, but we were able to check in the next morning. It didn’t alter our route, affect our scheduling (of course, we didn’t have a schedule…), or create an inconvenience.
— We’re not much on tourist-y attractions, but we did book a glacier and wildlife cruise. Yes, if we’d been with a caravan, they could have done that for us. But here’s the thing: I changed my mind at the counter about which cruise to take, based on our conversation with the attendant. If we’d booked through a third party, we would have ended up on a cruise we probably wouldn’t have enjoyed as much. Sometimes the convenience of having someone else do something just isn’t worth the results.
— As for information on the areas we traveled through, I had more than I could digest between The Milepost, free brochures, and info from the Web. The Milepost in particular has an amazing amount of information in it — from history to geology to where to spot wildlife along the road. Don’t leave for Alaska without it!
So, aside from health or safety concerns, people who choose caravans must do so because they enjoy meeting and traveling with others. Perhaps we’ll get there some day, but for now, this sort of entertainment just rubs me the wrong way:
We saw this commotion in an RV park as a caravan trickled in. I admit I don’t know the full story, except Alaskan RV parks are notorious for having very narrow sites (some were tight even for our one-slide, 30′ Class C, and that’s pretty tight). While the driver of the truck parking this fifth wheel pulled forward and back, inched in then out, shifted slowly to one side then the other to try to get into the assigned site, the other caravaners pulled up chairs, hollered advice and good-natured insults, and made entertainment out of this driver’s endeavor to get parked. Maybe because we’re still relatively new and parking can still be a challenge, this spectacle struck me the wrong way. Despite the laughter, it seemed a bit mean-spirited.
Finally, consider the cost of a caravan. I calculated one random tour to be about $200 a day. Remember, most RV parks don’t charge more than $50/night (even on the Alaska trip, this is a high-end price). It included a few extras, but mostly the money is there to cover the cost of the hosts. Other than the pot lucks and maybe an occasional group meal, none of your meals is included and in most situations you’ll be paying for your own tours and bookings separately. Of course, your fuel cost is still your own responsibility, as are your expenses for most meals and any souvenirs or purchases. With some tour companies charging around $6000 for a thirty-day or so trip, your total cost can end up being pretty high. Do your calculations *before* you book to be sure the expense is worth it to you.
Some caravans give you the route but you can move along at your own pace. Others travel tightly. Watching this caravan, I couldn’t help thinking of a classic Alaskan motto: “If you’re not the lead dog, the view never changes.” What view do you want?