Recreational vehicle sales sagged during the Great Recession, but lately they have ticked back up, thanks to gas prices that have stayed below $3 a gallon for nearly a year. If you've thought about investing a small fortune in one of these mobile motel rooms, perhaps because you're contemplating a nomadic retirement, think about renting one to try out the lifestyle for a week or two.
A number of national chains rent RVs. A weeklong rental from Cruise America, for example, typically costs about $1,000, depending on where you rent and how far you drive (see our chart below for more details). Other national chains include El Monte and Road Bear. Renting is also a good option if you're looking for an affordable and convenient way to see the scenery on your next vacation.
First, the bad news. Let's get the driving part out of the way because it's pretty miserable. Most rental RVs are Class C motor homes: The cab and chassis of a full-size van are merged with a big box that houses enough beds to sleep up to seven, plus a kitchen, a toilet, a shower, a television and whatever other features the builder chooses to include.
For my recent RV excursion, taking my family to visit friends in Rehoboth Beach, Del., I rented a Coachmen Freelander 28DS from Ace RV in Herndon, Va. The Freelander is a Class C RV, and that means no matter how nicely appointed it is in back, the front is still just a regular work van.
Pull away from a stop and the engine labors loudly, joined by a cacophony of creaks and rattles as the rest of the vehicle slowly realizes that it, too, has to come along. Turning? Better swing wide (and check those mirrors). Backing up? If you're lucky, you'll have a rearview camera. Otherwise, send out spotters. Crosswinds? Two hands on the wheel at all times. Crosswinds on narrow, high bridges, such as the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which I had to cross to get to the beach? Now we're really sweating. As a friend of mine puts it, driving an RV is "like suddenly becoming very, very fat."
No special driver's license is typically required to rent an RV, but that belies the complexity of operating one. At the very least, pay close attention during the how-it-works tour of your vehicle because that's when you'll realize that you're not just checking into a cabin; you're ripping that cabin from its sewer, water and electrical lines and taking it somewhere. (Cruise America offers an instructional video for renters; you can view it on YouTube.)
If the goal of your trip is to scope out using an RV as part of your retirement plan, keep in mind that most Class C motor homes (average retail price, $89,000) don't measure up in size and amenities to the bus-style, Class A RVs (averaging $180,000) that retirees favor. If you want a taste of that life, pay the extra for a Class A rental. El Monte and Road Bear offer these for about $2,000 to $3,000 a week, as do many independents.
No bugs, no bears. The campground is where the magic of an RV's little cubbies, folding beds, tables, pull-out stoves and retractable TVs comes to life. My Coachman came equipped with "slide-outs" - sections of the RV that move outward to give you more space when you're parked. Pushing a button to make the entire kitchen move three feet is a stunt I had to pull over and over. But what wowed the five kids in my party was the bed over the cab, which struck them as the world's biggest top bunk. Three of them slept up there.
You can look for one of the thousands of campgrounds around the country with "full hookups" (electricity, water and even cable TV). Or you can make the RV a truly independent home-on-wheels, at least for a while: The gasoline-powered generator will make electricity for the air-conditioning, and propane will fuel the cooktop, power the fridge and heat the water for the shower. About those bathrooms: They're tiny, and the water flow is modest. If you're in a campground, you'll probably opt to use its facilities, except for middle-of-the-night bathroom needs, when rolling out of bed to use the onboard toilet sure beats scampering to the comfort station. No bugs, no bears.
That flexibility to camp pretty much wherever was a big part of a rental RV's appeal for Kristen Potter Farnham of Falmouth, Maine, who checked one out from Cruise America in Las Vegas to tour the Southwest with her husband, Bob, and three kids: twins Nick and Henry, 15, and daughter Audrey, 8. Normally a self-described "total type-A planner," Farnham made a reservation for only one night of their tour. "You don't have to worry about finding a restaurant; you have the RV," she says. "You don't have to worry about finding a hotel; you have the RV." The Farnhams also knew about the RV traveler's last-ditch option (though they didn't have to use it): Most Walmarts let you park overnight in their lot.
Plan ahead. Although having a roof over your head, no matter what, alleviates some stresses of traveling, the RV rental experience still poses demands. For example, there is air-conditioning and heat in back, but it's not just a question of punching the thermostat up or down. You need to think about where the power is going to come from. Are you plugged into a campground's juice, or will you need to use the generator? What if the campground has quiet hours that restrict generator use? You'll need to budget time to return the RV reasonably clean and with its holding tanks empty (which means finding a dump station), or face punitive fees.
You can cover a lot of terrain in an RV, but don't be too ambitious. "Some people spend too much time driving or setting up camp in a new place every night, instead of slowing down and enjoying their vacation," says Phil Ingrassia, president of the National RV Dealers Association. A week is usually long enough to get the hang of the vehicle but short enough to preserve the harmony among your traveling companions in close quarters.
Some rental companies, such as Cruise America and Road Bear, include insurance coverage as part of the price (with a damage deductible of $1,000 per incident). And some offer temporary coverage for an extra fee. With other rental outfits, you'll need proof that you're covered by your own insurance. But unlike a typical car rental, an RV rental may not be covered by your auto policy.
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