A recent article by The LA Times reported RV rentals are already experiencing a boom in popularity due to coronavirus. While many companies that rent RVs were forced to shut down for a period, they're coming back to long lines of customers who are rethinking what vacation means in the COVID-19 era. Planes, hotels, and cruise ships – these vacation staples of the past now seem like unnecessary health risks for families that just want a break from it all.
Renting an RV, though, is not as straightforward as it may seem, so I've compiled a guide to help you rent the RV that's right for you, as well as choose the right place to rent one from.
I happen to know a lot about the subject because of Neff Brothers RV, my family's RV rental business in Lorain, Ohio that my father, uncle, and cousin operate. I worked there myself in the summers during college, as well as helped produce the company's customer service and training materials, some of which I'll share in this guide.
It's Not Like Renting A Car
Renting an RV is not like renting a car. You can't just show up, ask for one to rent, and be on your way.
Booking an RV rental
RV rental companies usually require you book as far in advance as possible, and they require an initial deposit to hold your reservation. Some may also require a security deposit that you won't get back until you return the RV in satisfactory condition.
While most car rental agencies offer unlimited miles, RV rental companies do not. Some may offer a certain amount of miles included with your rental (Neff Brothers RV rentals include 150 free miles per day, for instance), but then charge a fee for any additional miles driven. They may offer you mileage packages, as well, where you can pre-pay for chunks of mileage based on how many miles you plan to drive.
RV rental fees
Lots of other fees may apply beyond the per-night charge to rent an RV and mileage fees. These could include things like charges for refueling, refilling propane, extra generator hours, excessive cleaning that's required, dumping fees if you didn't dump your tanks before returning, smoking fines, late charges, and, of course, damage to the RV that needs to be fixed.
Depending on where you rent from, you may also be able to rent things that make your trip easier like dinnerware, silverware, bedding, etc. Otherwise, you need to supply those yourself, which can make loading an RV feel like moving into an apartment.
RV rental insurance
Then there's the issue of insurance. Your personal car insurance may already include coverage for renting an RV. You should contact your insurance provider to ask. If your policy doesn't cover RV rentals, most RV rental companies can sell you insurance for your trip right there on the spot.
Driving an RV
Lastly, we've all driven a car before, but most people haven't driven an RV before they rent one, and no special license is required to drive an RV, no matter how long it is. RVs usually have very long rear overhangs and, in some cases, the driver is seated ahead of the front axle. So it's important to familiarize with what it's like to drive an RV before you and your family depart. Search for a place to rent from that provides some level of driver training, like this driver training and education video from Neff Brothers RV.
If you have more questions about the RV rental process, check out the Frequently Asked Questions section of the Neff Brothers RV website – I wrote it myself. Some answers will only apply to rentals from Neff Brothers RV, but the FAQ presents the full scope of what you should consider no matter where you rent an RV from.
Types of RVs
Let's begin with the basics: types of RVs. There are a lot of them, and they include motorized RVs, a.k.a. motorhomes, as well as converted vans, and trailers that range from itty-bitty in size to extra large.
These are the large motorhomes you see on the road with flat, vertical front ends. They look like buses, but they're not. They can range in size anywhere from around 25 feet in length to over 40 feet. Some are powered by gas engines, and others – usually the largest ones – are powered by diesel engines.
Class A RVs can usually sleep four to six people thanks to having tables and couches that turn into beds. Word of warning: Class As are the most difficult RVs to drive not just because of their size, but also because, in most cases, the driver sits ahead of the front axle, which is a very strange sensation to get used to. If it's your first time driving a Class A, plan for some extra time to familiarize yourself with driving one before embarking on your trip.
These are motorhomes with a van-style front end – usually a Ford Econoline – and bodywork that protrudes out over the cab. They're generally shorter than Class As in length, ranging from less than 20 feet to near 40 feet. While you don't get the same panoramic view while driving that a Class A offers, Class C RVs are easier to drive, cost less, and offer an extra bed for two above the cab. On account of the latter, they can usually sleep four to eight people.
This class of motorhome is entirely van-based, which means the platforms used are usually the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, Transit, or Ram ProMaster. Traditionally a Class B, also called a campervan, is when a manufacturer outfits a van's empty cargo hold with a full living space. Manufacturers may also start with a chassis cab version of these vans and build their own living modules on the back, or in some cases they might even mimic a Class C by incorporating a bed over the cab or have a pop-top roof with an extra bed above.
Class B RVs are a great combination of size, comfort, and efficiency. They're relatively small and easy to drive, can have every amenity their larger cousins do, and they consume considerably less fuel over long trips. They are, however, expensive, in some cases costing as much or more to buy than much larger Class A and Class C RVs. How come? It costs more to miniaturize.
While some campervans on long wheelbase platforms do manage to fit every feature a larger motorhome might have – including a full bathroom with shower – there are compromises. Sleeping is usually limited to two people, though some layouts allow for two more people in a pinch. Everything else is a smaller version of what you'll find in larger RVs: smaller sink, smaller refrigerator, smaller bed, smaller bathroom, smaller TV, smaller everything.
The upside is that Campervans can drive anywhere your car can. Some places might be a tight squeeze, but these little RVs can go right into a regular parking lot and fit between the lines.
Trailers are another rental option, but you'll probably find fewer of them available to rent than the motorhomes above. Insurance is the reason. It's relatively easy to insure someone, or to use your own insurance, to drive a motorized RV, but insuring a tow vehicle is another matter entirely and more expensive.
Still, should you have towing experience and know your way around the insurance obstacle, you can rent various kinds of trailers. Typical trailers may have one, two, or even three axles and vary greatly in weight. Lighter ones can be towed by small SUVs, while larger trailers require heavy duty trucks with serious pulling power.
Fifthwheels are a subset of trailers that are shaped to extend over a truck and attach to a special mount in the bed. Attaching this way allows a truck to tow more weight, and also makes turning easier.
Teardrop trailers, meanwhile, are growing in popularity and are the easiest to tow. These guys are basically tents on wheels. They're so small you can't stand up inside, and if they have a kitchen at all, it's only accessible on the outside of the trailer. Don't even think about a bathroom or shower – there isn't room. If all you're looking for is a dry place to sleep, though, even a car can tow a tear drop trailer because they're so lightweight.
Where You Can Rent RVs
1. Peer-to-peer RV rental networks
The latest trend in recreational vehicle rentals is peer-to-peer rental networks like RV Share and Outdoorsy. Just like Turo lets you rent out your car when you're not using it, platforms like these allow an owner to rent out his or her RV when they're not using it. This is a great tool for RV owners to help them cover some of the costs of RV ownership, and it can be the cheapest option for renters to try out RV travel.
There are, however, some potential downsides, the main one being way that your experience will depend entirely on how much effort a particular RV owner puts into making it a positive one. Yes, it's in their best interest to do so, but just like with Airbnb, some put in the minimum amount required in regards to customer service, which can potentially sour your trip.
Pricing: $$ ($-hidden fees)
This company is what most people think of when they hear the term "RV rental." You've no doubt seen a Cruise America RV on America's highways because they have the company's name prominently displayed all over their exteriors. This company does a lot of business, but it gets mixed reviews.
Customer service, RV education, and vehicle cleanliness can be hit-or-miss depending on the specific Cruise America location you're renting from. Also, while the pricing might look competitive, Cruise America is famous for charging a fee for everything, so read the fine print before finalizing your booking. Still, you can rent from Cruise America almost anywhere in the country, and they have a large selection of Class C RVs to choose from.
3. Local RV rental companies
Search "RV rental" on Google Maps and you're bound to find a number of Ma and Pa-size RV rental companies in your area that you never knew existed. While their fleet size and selection varies widely, these RV rental companies have the advantage of solely focusing on rentals as a business. Also, their level of service is generally the highest because their smaller size allows them to be more focused on each customer. They're the best choice for first-time RV renters, as they're most likely to walk you through the process, educate you on how to use an RV, and make sure you have a pleasant overall experience.
4. RV Dealerships
Most people don't know this, but many large RV dealerships also rent RVs. Their main business isn't renting RVs, but some operate with a small fleet of RVs available for rent. Be careful, though: dealerships are in the business of selling RVs, so if you rent one, they've got your info and will try to convert you from a renter to a buyer. Also, because renting is usually a side hustle for dealerships, their level of service towards renters can sometimes be lacking.
RV Rentals on RV Trader
RV Trader is best known as the largest marketplace for new and used RVs online. Recently, though, the site launched a platform just for RV rentals, and it's worth mentioning because it brings together high quality RV rental inventory from many RV dealerships and local RV rental companies around the country. You can visit the site, search for RVs to rent in your area or the region you plan to travel, and go from there. RV Trader vets the rentals available on the site and offers extra perks like 24/7 roadside assistance and technical support, which everyone needs at some point.
Glossary of RV terms
There are many new terms to learn for operating an RV, so here's a handy glossary of the most common ones. If you can think of any I missed, mention them in the comments and I'll add them to the glossary.
- Awning – a sun shade that extends from the side of an RV. Many RVs have awnings, some of which open manually and others automatically. It's important to remember to close the awning when it's windy and when you're ready to drive away.
- Black tank – onboard tank that stores waste from your toilet. Requires special toilet paper and will be damaged if any other material is flushed. Emptied at a "dump station" via a control center on the exterior of the RV, usually through a large diameter hose.
- Bunkhouse – a floorpan layout that includes bunk beds for kids.
- Coach battery – onboard battery, separate from a motorized RVs engine battery, that powers certain functions like interior lights. Can also be used to jump start your engine battery if the latter ever fails.
- Full hookup – when a campground provides a full complement of electrical, sewer, water, TV, and internet connections at its sites.
- Generator – a small engine onboard an RV that generates electricity. Used when camping away from shore power (electricity provided from an outside source via a cord and plug) or while driving down the road. Things like the roof-mounted air conditioner, microwave, and any 110-volt electrical plugs onboard will need the generator running to work if you're not both stationary and plugged into shore power. Generators get their fuel from the same gas tank as the engine, and require at least one quarter tank of fuel to run.
- Grey tank – onboard tank that stores waste water from sinks and the shower. Also emptied at a "dump station" via a control center on the exterior of the RV through a large diameter hose.
- Leveling jacks – Stands that descend from beneath an RV to both level and steady the vehicle on uneven ground. Usually operated from within an RV via a control power, leveling jacks need to be fully raised before you drive off.
- Shore power – what an RV hooks up to for electricity when it's stationary. Most campgrounds provide electrical hookups for RVs that range in power from 30 amps to 50 amps.
- Slideout – a motorized wall of an RV that slides out to create more room inside. RVs can have one, two, three, or even four slideouts, but it's imperative to remember to bring them back into the RV before hitting the road.
- Water pump – onboard pump used to pressurize an RV's water system. Needs to be on for faucets, showers, and flushing to work, but you need to remember to turn it off when those items are not in use.
- Water tank – onboard tank that stores fresh water used for faucets, showering, and flushing. Can be refilled via an exterior port or bypassed altogether when RV is connected to exterior pressurized water source via a hose.
Drive safely and have fun
The best part about renting an RV for a family vacation isn't that you'll be able to travel safely this summer by minimizing your contact with other people; that's only a recent perk. No, the best part is being the pilot of your own adventure, and seeing this wonderful country from the ground level instead of flying over it. RVs are the physical manifestation of that saying, "It's not the destination, it's the journey," so get out there and have an amazing journey this summer in an RV.