Thursday, March 14, 2013

Tips on renting an RV

Each year for the last four years, my wife and I have rented an RV and taken our kids to visit some of our national parks. In that time, we've logged nearly 6,000 miles and we've visited the Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce, Columbia River Gorge, Lassen Volcanic National Park, the Hoh Rainforest, and Olympic National Park. (Not to mention a number of wineries, parks, coastlines, and a bunch more.) This year, we're visiting Joshua Tree and Death Valley, and will swing back through Las Vegas on our way back to the Bay Area. It's safe to say that every year the spring break RV trip is one of the year's highlights.

Whenever we do this, friends inevitably want to know more about the experience. After collecting questions on Google+, Facebook, and Twitter, I'm going to try to cover what it's like, what we wished we'd known, and we've learned since we started.

First, let's do the numbers:

  1. Rental cost. This is almost always the first question. Our first year we rented from Cruise America; for the last two years we rented from El Monte RV, and this year we're renting from a local outfit that rents privately-owned RVs. For for the first two, prices ran about $100/day and included a set number of miles; you'll pay $.30-.40/additional mile. The local outfit is more expensive; I'll explain why we picked them over the others below.
  2. Gas. You should expect your RV to get somewhere around 8-10 mpg, so it should be relatively easy to figure out about how much you'll spend on gas by dividing your total trip distance by that number and multiplying by the cost of a gallon of gas.
  3. Lodging. We've paid as little as $20 for a night in an out-of-the-way RV park and as much as $65; I'd guess the average is somewhere around $40/night.

On a week's trip that might be 1500 miles, you might pay $800 for the RV, another $250 for the mileage, $700 or so on gas, and around $300 for lodging. All-in (not counting food, more on that in a minute) you're looking at around $2k. Not a bargain, by any stretch. But keep in mind that that's transportation and lodging; for us, the equivalent in airfare, hotels, and car rentals would easily exceed that number. (And it probably goes without saying, but if your trip doesn't involve as much driving, you'll save on mileage and gas costs, potentially significantly lowering that number.)

How big is the RV? What's "Class C" mean? "Class A"?

We've progressed: our first RV rental was a 25' Class C; the next two years we rented a 26' Class C with a slide-out, and this year we're renting a very small 30' Class A. (I say very small because a Class A could easily be 40' long (or longer).) Each of those links gives you a good feel for what the layout of the interior is; the difference between a Class A and Class C is whether the RV is built on top of a van chassis (Class C) or is a whole vehicle (Class A). Moving from the 25' to the 26' slide-out was a big step up; the increase in living space when you're parked for the night is a huge win. Believe it or not, the five of us (and our dog!) didn't feel cramped. (We did feel cramped in the 25' RV in that first year.) The boys often went to the bunk over the cab where they could read or play their videogames; my daughter often used the table to work on her activities or read.

We'd seen a version of the RV we're renting this year (the Thor ACE) at an RV showroom near our home, and decided that we'd try to rent it if we could. That led us to find SF Bay Area Private RVs; we liked the layout of the RV, the nicer appointments compared with what we'd rented from CA and El Monte, and the possibility of having a slightly quieter cab when we drive.

What's it like to drive?

I won't lie: the first hour driving an RV was a bit nerve-wracking. The RV takes up all but a few inches on either side of a highway lane. It's unnerving the first time you get out on the highway and realize how close to the cars and trucks you are. But it was really just about an hour; after that, you get used to driving with the mirrors and using turn signals well ahead of any turns. Turning on surface streets isn't particularly hard either: keep an eye on the side view mirror, and start turning once your back tire is even with the turn you're making. Once you learn those techniques, you're good to go. Length doesn't really matter: you're driving a big vehicle. The width is what's noticeably different; the rest is details.

You do not need a different driver's license to operate an RV.

How nice are the RV parks? Who stays there?

This was a big unknown for us. Our first year, we picked parks out of AAA guidebooks and did pretty well. After a couple nights, we started seeing the name Woodall's in each of the lobbies we checked into; that's the bible of RV parks around the country. We now travel with the Woodall's book whenever we're on the road. One of the real perks to traveling by RV is the flexibility: if you didn't end up getting as far as you thought you would, just find a closer RV park and stay there! (Even when we're within the cancellation window for an existing reservation, we've found most parks to be very relaxed, and they often waive the cancellation fees. Worst case, you're out one night's stay – $30-40 or so.)

The parks themselves vary in quality; if you're on vacation, you'll want to avoid parks that are mostly long-term residents. (Nothing against them, but the vibe is less "vacation" and more "keep it down, we live here".) Almost every park has laundry facilities, many have pools and exercise facilities, and it's pretty common to find game rooms (ping pong, pool tables, arcade games). While we generally don't spend a lot of daytime in the RV parks, they can be a nice place to hang out and let the kids knock around. We've met families like us traveling with their kids, we've met a number of foreign tourists visiting the US (renting an RV and seeing the national parks is apparently the thing to do if you're German), and a number of retirees.

The food

It didn't really occur to us when we started out how convenient the RV would be for eating while on the road. The fridges and freezers in the RVs can hold quite a bit, and operate continuously off of either your propane tank or electricity when you're parked. (See "a full hookup" below.) I think we knew we were hooked in our first year when we pulled up to an overlook on the Southern California coast, parked, fired up the stove and cooked Easter Sunday brunch while watching the waves crash on the beach below. Since then we've had countless meals in incredibly scenic spots. Sometimes we eat while driving, other times we stop and bask in the view. Having the food nearby is a huge benefit. Another perk that we hadn't realized when we started: we eat a lot less fastfood when we're on vacation.

A "full hookup"

Aside from cost, friends seem most interested in how much you're "roughing it" in an RV. Putting aside the RVs that can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars (be sure to check out Travel Channel's Extreme RV show if you're interested in those), we've found the experience to be surprisingly comfortable. The kids typically throw their scooters and a variety of toys into the storage bins, so when we show up at a new park, they can immediately grab a few of their things and get to exploring.

Each of the RVs we've rented has had a generator that can generate its own electricity (it uses gasoline from the RV's main gas tank as a fuel source, which means it won't run if the tank has less than 1/4 tank of gas), and a water tank and water heater so you have running water and hot water no matter where you are. That said, each RV park we've stayed at has had what's referred to as a "full hookup", which means they have electricity, water, a sewer line. Hooking the RV up takes about 5 minutes, and once you're connected, you can charge your phones/tablets/computers, watch TV, take a shower, etc. Though several parks also include coax cable for watching television, we've never used that. (DVDs for the kids, and Netflix on a laptop for us!)

Coupled with a fully stocked fridge and freezer, the reality is that we're always more supplied than when we were camping, and we generally have "our stuff" wherever we are. Compared to non-RV vacations where you've only got what's in a few suitcases, life in the RV always feels more comfortable and relaxed.

Oh, and if you are traveling with kids, don't overlook the tremendous win that is an always-accessible bathroom no matter where you happen to be!
Right... the sewage. How bad is it?

Not bad at all. I always keep a box of latex gloves in the cab, so that when we get to where we're going for the night, I can cleanly connect the sewer line. It's simple to connect, and in four years I've never been splashed with the "black water" (that's what they call the sewage; "gray water" is what comes from the water that goes down the kitchen and bathroom drains) when emptying it. We buy a package of treatment pellets at Walmart at the start of each trip; after you empty the black water tank, you drop one in the toilet and it eliminates any odors and helps break things down. (Let's leave it at that.)

We've spent nearly 30 nights in an RV so far over the last several years, and haven't ever once noticed an odor from the bathroom being on board. Non-issue.

But... will I be connected?

First things first: wifi at RV parks is often better than it is at hotels. That said, it's sometimes exactly what it is at hotels. I generally love being off the grid when we go on these trips. I turn on my out-of-office responder, turn my phone's sync feature off, and generally don't look at my work e-mail while I'm gone. That said, we frequently post pictures from the trip as we go, and often check in with family to let them know where we're at. As I mentioned above, we often watch a movie on Netflix or Amazon on one of our laptops after the kids go to bed.

While you can often count on wifi when you get to where you're going, one thing you often can't rely on is a cell signal while on the road. There were entire days on our trip to the Grand Canyon when we went without cell service. The lack of a data connection can be annoying if you're an e-mail addict, but if you were counting on Google Maps and your phone's GPS, the lack of a consistent cell signal will be a bigger issue. (Note that since that trip, Google Maps now has the ability to use the app in offline mode. More here.)

We invested in a handheld DeLorme GPS unit that came with a Spot Communicator, a satellite-based emergency beacon in case we were ever somewhere we needed immediate assistance. I'm ambivalent about both, as the DeLorme's interface feels like it was built by people who've never seen a modern phone UI (pretty sure this was their next project after creating the VCR clock), and the Spot is expensive for something we use once/year. That said, the combined safety and functionality are valuable, and they are not reliant on cell service. (I just noticed Spot has a new product, a satellite receiver that can pair over Bluetooth with your phone; let’s you signal an emergency as well as handle short data transmissions from your phone, which sounds like it might be a better option.)


When we're moving, the kids are always belted in. They may not need to be, but don't tell them I said that. I like that they can be spread around the RV – each layout will differ, but in general they can either be at a table, in a captain's chair or on a couch. They've each got their own area to spread out, can play games, talk with each other, or throw headphones on and play a video game or listen to their music. Unlike a car trip where they're on top of each other, this feels much less confining. And that's good for all involved! (I'll repeat: the convenience of the always-there bathroom is another thing to love about the RV.)

When we're driving, we have the option of running the RV's generator. That makes electricity accessible while you're moving, which means they can watch the RV's TV, their gadgets can be plugged in, etc. We generally don't drive with the generator on – fortunately for us the kids like to watch the world go by (that is, after all, one of the real benefits of traveling in an RV). But there's almost always some point in the trip when everyone needs the downtime, and it's a nice backup.

Our first RV didn't have a TV at all; each of the last several have had a TV and a DVD player. For as much TV as the kids watch, we don't actually watch much TV while on these trips. There was one point last year that it was raining at night, so we watched the Muppet Movie as a family. Made for a great night.

Maintenance/rental quality

Our experience with Cruise America was that the vehicles were in decent shape but a bit on the basic side. We are fortunate that El Monte's Bay Area location is just a few miles from our house, so it was easy to visit their building and see the various models first-hand. While we generally liked the vehicles we rented from El Monte, each of the last two years produced unwelcome maintenance issues.

With a slide-out, you have a section of the RV that extends from the main chassis. It makes sense that you'd want that section sealed so that nothing from the outside can get in. Much to our dismay, both of the vehicles we rented in successive years from El Monte had faulty seals, which meant that we ended up with water in the main cabin when we drove through rain. That made for a bit more excitement when driving than we would've liked, but in the end it meant that we used some towels to keep the floor dry. (And to El Monte's credit, they deducted a bit from our rental fee as compensation for the trouble.)

In addition to El Monte being local, we have a large RV showroom that's in the same town. In one of our visits there on a Saturday afternoon, we saw the Thor ACE – ACE stands for A/C Evolution, or a hybrid between a Class C and a Class A. The floorplan is a lot like a Class C (in particular the over-cab bunk where the kids sleep) but it has the overall design and approach of a Class A. We loved it.

Problem is, they're relatively new, and they aren't a popular rental model. Thanks to a Google search, I found SF Bay Area Private RVs. Curt runs the show there, and acts as a property manager for a bunch of private RV owners who rely on him to rent out their vehicles when they're not using them themselves. I like that we get an RV more suited to what we're looking for with less wear and tear, though it goes without saying that we're paying more as a result. (One benefit of going with El Monte or Cruise America: they're often located near airports, so you can fly to where you want to go, and then drive to your ultimate destination.)

You should try it

What we found once we took the plunge was that this was a wonderful way to get family time. It's definitely different and not without its own challenges, but the relaxed approach to travel, the convenience of better food, predictable accommodations, and space all make for a great experience. Though we have been fortunate to see some truly amazing destinations (and I expect both national parks this year to be equal to past trips), some of our fondest memories of these trips are from the journeys themselves. America still has some great road-side diners, and every once in a while there's a breathtaking vista that just materializes in front of you. Nothing beats pulling over and breaking out a meal to celebrate getting away from it all.

What did I miss? Anything else you want to know about the experience? I'll add to this if needed; thanks to everyone who asked for this!


  1. Excellent coverage on all points I had wondered about. Thank you.

  2. ... and are you sure you don't want to put an ad next to this post? :)I can see some high CPC ads :)

  3. Nice trip review. Crazy that you had faulty seals on a rig from El Monte two years in a row. What are the odds?

    BTW it's cool to see someone in the Tech industry blog about RVing :) I'm working on my own startup (RVzen dot com) and I hope to one day make it much easier for everyone to make informed decisions about renting and owning an RV. But I've got a long way to go :)