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When The RV Travel Plan Blows Up
Make plan. Change Plan. Throw Plan in the Garbage.
After we moved into our RV full-time, we had big plans for major miles while we were still working remotely without a definitive end date. Within a few months, we traveled from Florida to Pennsylvania and back, and then out to California with stops in Las Vegas, Arizona, the Grand Canyon, and Texas. The “back-to-the-office” date was repeatedly changed and delayed, so we just kept hitching up and heading out on the open road. Tennessee, Virginia, Louisiana, Alabama… Everything was smooth sailing over thousands of miles… until it wasn’t.
I was driving in Alabama on a clear, blue-sky day on our way to Colorado. From the corner of my eyes in the driver’s side towing mirror, I noticed what looked like smoke coming from our back trailer tire. I pulled over to the side of the highway and woke up my passenger to bring him up to speed. The 60 second video below outlines the next 12 hours.
Our wheel bearing had seized, which resulted in small flames peeking out from the driver’s side rear tire when we investigated. While the smoke and flames resolved on their own, there was clearly still an issue that was a travel deal-breaker. Our insurance policy includes roadside assistance, so a tow truck was summoned from a neighboring town to the remote stretch of Alabama highway where we were stranded.
Oh hindsight….you finicky bitch. If only we could go back to that day and NOT have the tow truck driver raise our rear axle for towing using Alabama ingenuity and brut force… but alas; this one gets filed away under “Lesson Learned.” The tow-truck driver had never before towed a trailer like ours, and used a high-pressure winch connected to our axle to raise up the back tires. We know now that this action actually bent our rear axle which would create future problems, misdiagnosis, and SIX MONTHS of a stationary RV.
Our 40-mile tow to Red Bay, Alabama (the home of Tiffin!) led to new brakes and bearings installed and the introduction of some very…..unusual characters. Shall we call them quirky? Sure. Some quirky RV technicians. We were back on the road within 48 hours and continued on to Colorado for an amazing trip. Lingering problems would follow us home, but ignorance was bliss for a few thousand more miles.
This one experience afforded us so many lessons that you can learn vicariously through us! No need to reinvent the flaming wheel.
- Keep Calm and Trailer On. When I saw smoke in the mirror pouring from the side of my home, my instinct was to slam on the brakes. Keeping calm and slowly veering off to the shoulder of the highway helped us avoid making the situation much worse. The dynamics between my partner and myself allow me to be calm 95% of the time, knowing he worries and stresses enough for the both of us. If we both saw the glass as half-full all the time and trusted things will work out on their own, we’d still be on the side of the road in Alabama.
- Be familiar with your insurance policy. My uber-organized partner was able to instantaneously materialize our policy documents, roadside assistance phone numbers, and exactly what our policy covered when we were in trouble. Without exaggeration, I can say it would have taken me at least 45 minutes to start downloading the insurance company app (that may or may not be) where my documents live. With no service in middle-of-nowhere-Alabama, this would have been so frustrating and beyond counterproductive. Another point for preparation!
- Get Documentation when Anyone Works on your RV. We were so glad to find a technician that could work on our Grand Design RV on such short notice, so we said, “Yes, of course!” when the insurance company suggested our technicians as an option. Their operation was very informal, was cash-only, and repairs were made before they were discussed with us. This led to some extremely time-consuming conversations with our warranty team at the manufacturer for reimbursement, and also a general state of confusion in regards to what did you guys just do to our home? When we insisted upon a receipt, the shop owner wrote some notes on a napkin for us. Grand Design was amazing and covered the repairs we required, but some organized documentation would have saved us hours of time over the next several months. Stopping short of calling what happened mild extortion… formal documentation would have also helped us make data-driven financial decisions for our repairs.
- Persistence Pays Off. Six months after this incident, I can happily report that we are finally completely repaired. Our shiny new axle was just installed, and we’re road-worthy once more! Getting to this point required not hours, not tens of hours, but DOZENS of hours on the phone with the manufacturer and repair shops. It was really tempting to throw our hands up in the air and just get the repairs done independently as the months went on. Hang in there, wise reader! Keep calling. Your warranty agent (ours was Michelle who was quite lovely) will know your phone number by heart. You’ll hear the two-syllable “Hello?” morph into a three-syllable “He-lllll-o?” as your number populates their caller-ID each day. Keep calling! Eventually…. they’ll want so badly to get rid of you that they’ll fix your RV. We’re proof.
5. Contingency Funds are So Boring. Have one anyway. We had a little cash socked away when this journey started in case things went wrong on the highway. I’m so glad we did! I was not anticipating a cash-only repair shop 40 miles off the highway in Alabama as part of our Colorado trip reality. When problems arise, it’s already stressful enough without the added anxiety of wondering if you can afford to pay the man holding your home hostage on jacks. When possible, insist the manufacturer pay the repair facility directly if you’re still under warranty. (We could have insisted upon this, but for some reason chose to be accommodating to the repair shop which bit us in the behind for months.) Also… what happens if you’re driving and you happen to come across an antique red pickup truck that, if not for a mysteriously missing title, would have been the perfect addition to your family? (Still reliving this test drive and mourning what could have been.) Contingency fund.
When you choose to spend time on the road, whether full-time or on vacation, you need to roll with the punches. Sometimes your 4-night planned stay turns into 14. Sometimes you never actually reach your destination because you find something way better en route. Or sometimes… your tire catches on fire. I’m sure this is the first of many times we’ll need to adapt to what life on wheels throws at us… and I think we’re ready! Safe travels!