What's it really like to rent an RV? Our writer got behind the wheel and discovered the pleasures of a go-at-your-own-pace family vacation.
We were pulling onto the street in our rented RV to start a three-day excursion through New England. I had never driven an RV before. As I glanced nervously in the mirror to avoid clipping a stop sign, I felt as if I were maneuvering a hybrid minivan-Greyhound bus.
"Daddy," our 3-year-old daughter, Cleo, announced. "I have to go to the potty." I wasn't convinced. From the moment Cleo had stepped into the 29-foot recreational vehicle, she'd been fascinated by its features--the compact kitchen, the scaled-down sleeping areas, and especially the toilet. It made a satisfyingly loud whoosh when we flushed it, and what she really wanted to do, I suspected, was explore the sound some more.
And why not let her? After all, when the hassles of flying prompted us to consider renting an RV, what attracted us most was the thought of setting our own travel schedule. So, a mere 90 feet from our home in Pelham, New York, we took our first rest stop. Sally, my wife, settled Cleo onto the potty for a session that, indeed, turned out to be a false alarm. Meanwhile, I poked around the RV, trying to remember everything the rental agent had told me during my orientation session. The main thing to remember, he'd explained, was to crank down the roof-mounted TV antenna. We knew we wouldn't forget to retract the push-out walls, since they'd block our view in the mirrors. Otherwise, the appliances and the hookups for water, sewage, and electricity seemed almost foolproof.
Only one thing really concerned me, though: handling the rig (I did all the driving). Thankfully, this turned out to be far easier than I'd imagined. After about 15 minutes of constantly glancing in the mirrors to make sure I wasn't taking out road signs or drifting into the passing lane, I found my comfort zone. Soon, I had myself convinced that I could drive an 18-wheeler--provided I didn't have to back it up.
Easy Does It
We headed through the scenic Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts. Cleo stayed securely restrained in her car seat whenever the RV was moving, while Sally was buckled into a dinette seat across from her and behind me. (The same seat-belt laws for cars apply to RVs.) Chalk it up to the wide windows, the roomy environment, or the newness of the experience, but Cleo hardly fussed at all.
Eventually, we pulled in to the Normandy Farms Campground, in Foxboro, Massachusetts, south of Boston. The campground was vast, and we were directed to our assigned spot like an airplane pulling into the gate area. The wooded grounds included three swimming pools, a playground, and a well-equipped lodge--all great for families.
The next day, we drove the back roads of northeastern Connecticut and leisurely hunted for antiques. We knew that no matter how big our purchases were, we'd have room to get them home, and this insight made our pleasant pastime even more enjoyable (despite some rain). We ended up at Mystic Seaport, a historical 19th-century whaling village. There, we followed Cleo's lead as she scrambled in and around the tall ships and made crafts in the Discovery Barn. Then we headed to a nearby campground.
The rain kept us from experiencing much of the camaraderie that we'd heard is a big part of the RV experience. But we had fun anyway. At home, our lives had gotten so hectic that spending a lot of time together had become nearly impossible. "Here, in a nice way, we're forced to be together," Sally said. When it rained, we lazed about. I read, Sally experimented with gourmet dishes in the tiny kitchen, and Cleo held long conversations with her two favorite stuffed animals, Mia the Cat and Tape the Dog. When the clouds cleared, we took long walks through the landscaped campgrounds.
Weather aside, we did have a few concerns about the RV. For one, the only place to secure a forward-facing car seat properly was in one dinette seat. This meant not only that I
needed to remove part of the table assembly with a screwdriver but that we couldn't have traveled safely with more than one young child. Also, the bunk space over the cab was largely open. Before we'd let a child sleep up there, we'd need to attach a railing or netting. However, Cleo was bent on staying in the double bed with her mom, so I slept in the bunk.
As beginning RVers, we also found ourselves skipping a few attractions when we thought parking might be a problem. Likewise, we were tempted to pass up nearby activities once we'd set up camp. Driving anywhere meant disconnecting our hookups, including the intimidating length of accordion-like hose that ran from the RV's waste-water tank into the campground's sewage-disposal system. We quickly realized why RV owners often tow a small car. (For renters, bicycles might be the solution.)
All in all, however, the chance to enjoy a vacation that combines ever-changing scenery with the need to unpack only once has made Sally and me think we might want to go RVing again. As for Cleo? When we arrived home, she refused to take her nap unless she could do it in the RV--her personal playhouse on wheels.
Rules of the Road
Thinking about taking your next vacation in an RV? Here are the answers you need to get started.
Where can I rent an RV?
There are about 460 RV rental locations throughout the U.S. You can find them in your Yellow Pages or online at the Recreation Vehicle Rental Association's Website (www. rvra.org), which also has price comparisons. Two top RV rental companies are Cruise America (480- 464-7300, www.cruiseamerica.com) and El Monte RV (888-337-2214), both of which own outlets throughout the U.S. Look for a rental agent who will provide you with handling tips or take you on an orientation drive. (A regular driver's license is all you should need to rent an RV.)
What type of RV should I look for when I rent?
It depends on such factors as how far you're traveling, whether you want a towable vehicle or a motor home, and how much you want to spend. The most commonly rented RV is a "Class C" cabover motor home, which was our choice.
What does it cost?
This depends on the RV size, the season, and your location. Class C RVs typically cost from $68 to $200 a night. Cruise America's rental packages range from $470 in the spring or fall in the Northeast for three nights (including 500 free miles) in a 23- to 25-foot motor home to $1,565 in Alaska for seven summer nights (including 1,000 free miles) in a 28- to 30-footer. There may also be a holiday surcharge, and you might want to purchase additional insurance.
How much will gas be?
A midsize RV averages 8 to 11 miles per gallon. This means fuel costs can be significant--even startling--when you're filling a 55-gallon tank. For a three-day, 500-mile trip, plan to spend at least $92 on gas.
What other costs will I have?
There's food, of course. But by preparing your own meals, you're likely to save money. You'll also need to supply all your own gear--everything from cookware to linens--or rent them from the dealer. An amenities kit with kitchen and personal items is about $85. Or you can rent individual items, such as a coffeemaker or TV. If you bring your own housewares, don't forget the basics, such as cereal bowls and pillow cases. Buying replacements on the road can add up quickly.
Where should I camp?
There are more than 16,000 camping areas across North America. Large commercial RV resorts often include landscaped and lakeside sites, but you may be happier there if you want to socialize. Campsites on public lands typically have fewer services and may be little more than cleared spaces in a grove of trees, but they sometimes offer a more natural experience--for instance, the chance to wake up in a wildlife refuge. Even though many national park sites don't have RV hookups, they are major RV destinations, and they can be as packed and lacking in privacy as some commercial campgrounds.
What will I pay to stay at a campground?
Campground fees average $23 a night but can be as much as $75 a night or more at big, full-service, commercial RV parks. One rule of thumb: Don't pay for more campground than you need. You can also save money by skipping the sewer line and cable TV hookup and just opting for electricity and water. (You'll have to dump your waste tank periodically, which you can arrange at many RV parks.)
How far in advance should I reserve a campsite?
RV sites at popular destinations fill up quickly. If you wait until spring for a summer reservation, you may be too late (though you can always check for cancellations). At national parks, RV reservations can be made five months in advance, and spots are often filled the day they become available. One tip: Wherever you camp, ask for a pull-through space, so you won't have to back in.
Where can I get more information about RVing?
The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association has a video called Go RVing, which highlights the RV life. You can order it free of charge by calling 888-467-8464 or visiting www.gorving.com.