Along with budding maples and thawing creeks, spring brings thoughtsof hitting the road, seeing the countryside, hitching up the old RV.Luckily for folks contemplating the purchase of a motor home or travel trailer, it's a buyer's market, with a chance to pick up a new or used vehicle at bargain prices.

John Schmidt of Metro Campers Paradise in Finksburg says 1991 appears to be a good year for both dealers and their customers. While concern about the Persian Gulf war has made buyers somewhat cautious, sales have been brisk and interest rates remain favorable.

"This is nothing compared to the recession of '79 and '80, when we experienced both a gasoline shortage and interest rates as high as 20 percent," Schmidt says. "Today interest rates are better than theyhave been in years -- 10 to 10-plus percent with extended terms up to 15 years on some models. Also, because there have been no manufacturer's price increases for two years, buyers are getting the designs of the '90s at '80s prices."

In addition, Schmidt says, new energy-efficient recreational vehicle designs have counteracted the impact of gasoline price increases, nearly doubling gasoline mileage.

"Many old RVs got around eight miles per gallon," he says. "Now the manufacturers have made a tremendous leap in fuel economy with improved body designs, fuel injection engines and new chassis featuring overdrive.

"We've seen a 60 to 70 percent increase in fuel efficiency. On flat terrain, even many of the big motor homes can get as much as 14 or 15 miles to the gallon."

High attendance and brisk sales at recent RV shows prove that buyers are taking advantage of the favorable conditions. Dealers at the recent show in Timonium, Baltimore County,attributed some of their success to fears about foreign travel.

"People are more inclined to see the U.S. these days," one dealer said. "A lot of tourists are considering RV travel as an alternative vacation plan. With an RV you eliminate the hassle of airports, passports, customs, all that."

Schmidt, vice president of the Maryland RV Association, agrees with that assessment.

"RV rental business is upalso," he says, "proving that people are considering travel alternatives closer to home."

Another inducement may be that RVs have taken on a new image. Nowadays, an RV is a prestigious piece of "Wheel-Estate," a luxury vacation home on wheels. On the road, Mom doesn't leave behind her microwave, the kids don't have to give up their favorite TV shows and Dad can enjoy a hot shower, all without ever leaving the vehicle.

For retirees in particular, RVs have opened up a wholenew lifestyle; now it is possible for them to explore different parts of the country or visit far-flung relatives in comfort and safety.

Dealers cite several reasons why an RV has a definite edge over a vacation condo or second home: RV users are not tied to any one vacation area but can experience a variety of places; compared to the costof motels and restaurant meals, travel by RV inexpensive; the home-away-from home is right there in the driveway, ready to go at a moment's notice.

Campgrounds, too, offer more amenities than ever before. Many feature pools, playgrounds, rec halls, convenience stores and easy pull-in sites.

Schmidt laments, however, that Carroll County offers only one campsite -- Random Pines Campground -- to RV users.

Recently he and other Maryland RV Association members have made an effort to interest Gov. William Donald Schaefer in opening more stateparks to RVs.

"This would be a way to get revenue from the parks instead of having the taxpayers foot all the expenses," Schmidt says."Our people spend money out of state, but Maryland does nothing to generate RV revenue."

He points out that at many of the state parks, the necessary

amenities such as roads, electricity, water and sewerfacilities already are in place.

"It would not be necessary to put in a large number of sites to generate significant revenues," he points out. "Many RVers would choose a natural setting such as a state park over a crowded campground."

Whether state parks become available, it's obvious RV user's enthusiasm for their particular mode of travel will continue to grow. As one Carroll County retired couple putit upon acquiring their new motor home, "When we want to go places, we don't have to pack a suitcase or make a plane reservation. No matter where we go, our home goes right along with us."

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