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Germans, Americans love RVing for same reasons

Tracy Samilton
Dagmar Soulte and Heiko Seule, caravaning by the Rhine

Hitting the open road in an RV may seem as American as apple pie -- but in Germany, the activity known as "caravaning" is  -- well, as German as apple strudel.

Thousands of caravanners make their vacation pilgrimage to the Rhine River every year, a favorite destination. 

Whether it's a vineyard that's set aside semi-permanent places for customers who own RVs and trailers, or an overnight RV campsite that is little more than a parking lot - all boast a million dollar view, at a bargain price.

Costs for an overnight stay can range from $7 Euro to $35.

Dagmar Soelte and her husband Heiko Seule rent a lot year-round in a vineyard not far from home, so they can take weekend getaways whenever they like. 

On an early October morning, the couple sits on their little makeshift terrace, sipping hot coffee and watching the loaded barges and tourboats putter by not 40 feet away. 

The gorgeous view includes not one, but two castles.

"I love it," says Soelte. "To have my own bed, my own dishes, it's like my little home I can take with me."

She says it beats staying at hotels, and not just because hotels are expensive.  "This is more free.  You take one step and you are in the (outside) air."

The accommodation costs may be low.  But this lifestyle is not for the faint of wallet.  While a trailer can be affordable for people with modest middle-class incomes, motorhomes in Europe start at $50,000 Euro and go up from there.  

Credit Tracy Samilton / Michigan Radio
The Koehler family

Just up the road, Dieter and Tina Koehler pull their upscale little motorhome into a lot abutting the Rhine. They've been everywhere in this home.

"This year we went to France," says Mr. Koehler.  "Last year we did six months travel with this motorhome, to the islands (in the Baltic)....to Scotland."  

The Koehlers had the luxury of that six-month vacation because their son is not yet in school, and Mr. Koehler's business, experiencing a downturn during the recession, gave him the time off.

There are about 880,000 registered trailers and motorhomes in Germany.  The recreational vehicles sold here are tiny by U.S. standards, in part due to a combination of high gas prices and a modern road system that's had to accommodate a labyrinth of medieval-era streets. 

Back in the U.S. of A., caravaning has been super-sized. 

American Brian Crouse just bought a 40-foot RV for his family, and he's still in a state of embarrassed awe of the amenities.

The home has a master bedroom, a master bath, a kids room with a little bath, and three televisions.

"The kitchen has a full refrigerator here - with french doors," Crouse says as he opens up the fridge.  He laughs.  "My refrigerator is filled with beer, and bread."

Crouse is not just any RV owner. He's also President of Waldenwoods Resort in Hartland - a private RV campground north of Ann Arbor. It may not have the fame and history of the Rhine - but it does boast a million dollar view.

Credit Waldenwoods Resort
Waldenwoods Resort, a private RV campground in Hartland, MI

The campsite was set up on the east shore of the 145-acre Lake Walden, "so we can sit here and have the most spectacular sunsets every single night."

Crouse is a world traveler - he speaks three languages besides English. He's stayed in plenty of hotels. He's done the Disney trip with the kids.

But it's this kind of travel that's closest to his heart.  His most recent RV vacation was to South Dakota, a state that shocked him - in a good way - with its beauty.

"I love it. To see America - there's no better way."

Post-recession, RV sales in both the U.S. and Germany are on the upswing, as retiring and affluent baby-boomers seek the same thing:  a million-dollar view, in a beautiful land -- without having to leave behind the familiar comforts of home.