What to Ask Before You Rent an RV

By Elisa Williams
April 6, 2006
For comfort, space, and recreational opportunities aplenty, there's no beating an RV.

Why not just stay in motels?

The road-trip standards-motels and diners-are not as homey or reliable as having your own kitchen, bathroom, and beds. Traveling by RV, you can easily tote along bikes and other big toys, socialize or play cards on the road, and stay for cheap at spots where hotels cost hundreds. You can also spend the night at remote locales where hotels don't exist. "You're often closer to the attractions, so there's more time for activities," says Jim Rogers, president and CEO of the Kampgrounds of America chain. "In the evening it's like coming back home, with a barbecue and a glass of wine by the fire."

Which RV is right for me?

The Class C, or Cabover model, is the most popular rental and ranges from 22 to 31 feet long. The front end looks like a pickup truck (it drives like a pickup too), and the C comes with a double-bed loft above the driver's seat. The other option is the Class A (the Class B model is rarely ever rented), which looks and feels more like a bus. The A models are 28 to 36 feet long. The bigger rigs are roomier inside with more space devoted to sofas, eating areas, and the like.

How many people will it sleep?

Two to seven people, depending on the model. A 25-foot C, for example, has beds for three adults and two small kids. Travelers who like their space swear by the rule that you should take the vehicle's max and cut it in half. "If the attitude's OK, the more the merrier," says Bob Caldarone, spokesperson for Cruise America, the largest RV-rental agency in the U.S. "You can always put the kids in a tent if they get on your nerves."

Do I need a special license or extra insurance?

Your regular driver's license will suffice. And insurance works pretty much the same as with car rentals, meaning that most people are automatically covered to some extent through their credit card and/or auto insurer. Contact both before paying for additional coverage.

Where do I park?

More than 16,000 U.S. campgrounds allow RVs, and around half are on public lands. Nightly fees generally range from $10 to $45. At the low end, you get a parking spot and maybe a barbecue grill. For around $30, the RV park is more likely to have playgrounds, laundry areas, and something that's lacking in motor homes: spacious, hot showers with good water pressure. Most places also have hookups for water and electricity and a place to empty your sewage tank. (When you pick up the RV, an orientation guides you through these tasks, none of which is much more complicated than pumping gas.) A regional campground guide from Woodall's is a good buy. There are also places to park for free-rest stops often let you settle in for eight hours, and many Wal-Marts allow you to stay overnight in their lots. Go to freecampgrounds.com for advice.

How much will it cost?

The daily rate can start as low as $45, but the bottom line-after you add in taxes, fees, and miles (not typically included up front)-is more like $80 to $300 a day. At El Monte RV you can prepay for 300- or 500-mile packages for about $90 and $150, respectively. They'll charge you 324 per extra mile and won't refund unused miles. Cruise America charges a flat rate of 29¢ per mile after you've returned. Expect to get 7 to 11 miles a gallon. The drop-off charge for one-way rentals is usually at least $200. Most agencies also charge for not refilling the propane tanks or pumping out the sewage. To relocate their inventory, Cruise America and El Monte RV offer a limited number of special one-way promotions. For rentals this spring, El Monte knocks off 50 percent, throws in 1,500 free miles, and drops the one-way fee on trips from Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Las Vegas that end in Dallas.

Am I too old for this? Too young?

The stereotype is that behind the wheel of every RV is a white-haired retiree, but the average age for buyers is actually 49. The RV setup works particularly well for young families. "You have a bathroom, so you don't have to stop every 15 minutes," says Donna Wiss, 34, of Littleton, Colo. She rented an RV with her husband and two kids for a trip to Wyoming last summer. "It was easy to do naps and feedings with the baby. We tented the previous summer, but RVing is so much nicer and cleaner."

When do we eat?

Most RVs come equipped with small sinks, refrigerators, stoves, and microwaves, but it's best to keep the cooking simple. For dinner, make use of the campsite barbecue grill. Have disinfectant wipes handy for cleaning up after meals.

What else do we need to bring?

Plenty of charcoal, for one. But that, food, paper towels, and other necessities can be bought on the road. Agencies rent kitchen packs for about $85, with plates, pots, pans, cooking utensils, a broom, and a flashlight, and personal kits (around $35 each) with pillows, blankets, sheets, and towels. Or bring your own towels and sleeping bags, and invest in a set of campsite cooking gear.

Where should we go? 

Many RV-rental hubs give free transfers from nearby airports, and they're close to major recreation areas. The spectacular views of Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park are 90 miles outside of Washington, D.C. Or fly into Spokane, Wash., for access to Coeur d'Alene and the woods of Idaho and Montana. Pick up an RV near California's Oakland International to explore Lake Tahoe, the Monterey coast, or Napa's wine country. It's also possible to see Mickey Mouse by RV: Ft. Wilderness, a campsite inside Disney World, has RV spots with water and electricity hookups from $38 a night.

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Trips for Families With Babies

Allowing an 18-month-old to plan the family vacation sounds ridiculous. But that's pretty much what my wife, Jessica, and I let happen last summer. Our son, William, didn't pick the destination or book flights or anything. It's just that he factored so heavily into every decision that he was effectively calling the shots. There's a phrase that goes something like, "If the baby ain't happy, nobody is," and wiser words were never spoken. We considered a cruise or all-inclusive resort. Those work for a lot of people, but we preferred getting away from crowds, and it wasn't worth paying for extras--yoga lessons, rock-climbing walls--that we'd never use. All William really wanted was space to run, water to splash around in, and his mom and dad at his disposal. The classic beach house was in order. After looking into half the beach towns on the East Coast, I became intrigued with Oak Island, about an hour southeast of Wilmington, N.C. In photos, Oak Island appeared a little rough around the edges, with a nice but unremarkable beach and small, weathered bungalows. William certainly didn't care that the place didn't have swank appeal--and a few other features were far more important. Namely, the mellow waves were perfect for a person who had learned how to walk only a few months earlier. Through real estate agency Oak Island Accommodations I found a house that was within four blocks of everything we needed, including a beach, playground, and a few shops and restaurants (800/243-8132, rentalsatthebeach.com). Rental houses have names in this part of the world, and this one fit our simple mission: A Beach Cottage. I knew we'd done something right when we pulled up under the house (it was on stilts), and saw a bunny scamper into the bushes. Will gave the house a thorough once-over. His first discovery was that the coffee table was a couple of inches lower than ours. He was standing on top of it before I'd brought a single bag inside. Next he crawled under an end table and peeked through the bamboo shafts underneath. (We called this spot "jail.") Then it was on to the screened porch, which came with rocking chairs and a view of the ocean to the right. We established an easy, baby-friendly pattern early on: Have one parent wake with Will (usually around 5:30 a.m.), and get him out of the Pack 'n Play. Start him off with Cheerios, Craisins, milk, perhaps a bowl of strawberries or oatmeal. Look at dinosaur books, play chase around the coffee table, and watch The Wiggles until a more reasonable hour came, the other parent was awake, and we could have a proper breakfast. Cook omelets or walk to a diner for pancakes. Double back to a park for running in the grass and a few minutes on the swing set. Load Will up with sunscreen, put on his green hat, and hit the beach around 10 a.m. Set the kid free, his bare feet slapping loudly against the hard, wet sand. Watch him run and run, then stop, pick up a shell or a piece of seaweed, toss it or hand it over to Mom and run some more, giggling and baby-talking the entire time. Go back to the house for lunch, followed by a family nap. Jessica occasionally snuck off to the beach by herself for an hour. More beach in the late afternoon. Pick up supplies--charcoal, hot dogs, beer, ketchup, frozen pizza--at one of the nearby mini-marts. Whip up an easy dinner of burgers or chicken cooked on the $10 grill I bought down there and assembled in full MacGyver mode, using a potato peeler as a screwdriver. Put Will to bed, drink a cold beer or two in front of the TV, and head to bed ourselves. Repeat. It was a week of flip-flops, sunglasses, bed head, lemonade, and outdoor showers. It was wonderful--for all of us. During Will's usual beach reconnaissance on our last full day, he stumbled onto a series of puddles left behind by the receding surf. For more than an hour he bounced between them, splashing, digging with shells, at one point sprawling out on his belly and rolling around. We couldn't have made him happier with any water park or amusement ride. When the time came, I scooped him up and started for home, knowing there would be a battle. Sure enough, he let out a few yelps and curled his body into the shape of a boomerang, fighting to stay at the beach. By the time I reached the pavement, however, he was squinting contentedly up at the sun and licking the salt off of his fingers. That night, Jessica put William in a set of yellow foot pajamas--her favorites, with a flap on the butt that reads life is good. After our week at the beach, there was no need for the reminder.

Trips for Families With Teenagers

Teenagers, and especially teenage boys, don't exactly go begging to hang out with Mom for a week straight. So when my 16-year-old son Henry brought up the idea, I jumped at the chance to spend time with him and only him. Henry had just spent the year away from our New York City apartment, living with his tennis coach in Los Angeles and seeing if he had what it takes to compete on the junior circuit. It was a tough year for him; he was plagued with injuries and finally stopped playing. In the midst of disappointments on the court, Henry discovered a new passion: American history. Something clicked, and suddenly the struggles, people, and events he had been reading about seemed more than just stuff he had to learn for school. Henry wanted to find out more about the U.S., hence the request for a cross-country road trip on the move back home. Over the years, I had found it increasingly more difficult to connect to Henry than to his older sister, Wilson. We gals could yap away about clothes, relationships, or social justice, and laugh or fight with equal abandon, but Henry rarely seemed all that interested in sharing. "You wish you had two girls," he'd say when pushed about giving us the silent treatment. "Two chatty girls." In the hope of finding out more about my son--and scoring major points as a cool mom--I let Henry plan the journey. He researched the routes, chose whatever detours caught his fancy, and was free to blast hip-hop by Shyne and Jay-Z. Before entering his world, I made two requests: I wanted to visit my 90-year-old father in Durham, N.C., and for the duration of the trip, we wouldn't eat in a single fast-food restaurant. Henry had his driving permit and was excited to pilot our giant rented SUV, which we dubbed the Dinosaur. It got awful gas mileage, but was perfect for hauling home a year's worth of detritus. The day after school ended we hit the road, heading east with the Dinosaur full of dirty laundry, far too many sneakers, five tennis rackets, loads of books and CDs, and a not-so-miniature minifridge. The hillsides in the desert just beyond L.A. were covered with hundreds of high-tech white windmills. Their metal arms whipped in furious circles, and when we got out to switch seats, the wind they created nearly blew me off my feet. "The windmills are really cool," said Henry as he slowly navigated the dusty road. "My generation is going to face terrible shortages. I'm afraid we won't be able to drive or do anything because the resources will all be used up." I'd somehow forgotten how much I loved this kid. We arrived at Joshua Tree National Park as the sun began to dip. On a hike to a promontory that we called "the thumb" (Keys View on the park map), Henry ran ahead, arms and fleet feet pumping up and down rocks. I arrived on top a little later, catching my breath as Henry pointed out a tiny deer mouse eating seeds in the nook of one of the eponymous Joshua trees. The rest of the week unfurled with a mix of natural wonders, American kitsch, Southern cities, sunsets in the rearview mirror, afternoon naps in green fields, and snippets of conversation that added up to genuine discussions. We arrived at the rim of the Grand Canyon at sunset, and saw velvet-antlered elk the next morning. At a Native American swap meet, Henry dished a few tidbits he had learned in history class. "Our government herded 9,000 Native Americans into Fort Sumner in the 1860s," he said. "Can you imagine walking with your babies, animals, and all your possessions in this heat, without any water?" In New Mexico, we saw a drive-up liquor store. "I don't think that's such a good idea," Henry joked. He then opened up, telling me about driving a friend's car home--without a license--from a party because the friend had been drinking. I told him that all things considered I was proud of him for not drinking and for facing a difficult decision. At some point, Henry bought a tape of '80s tunes at a gas station. "Hey, Ma!" he said. "It was two bucks!" I sang every word to "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" and "Lucky Star" to Henry's feigned disgust. But soon enough he was singing along with me. In Texas we listened as someone on a Christian radio station proclaimed Harry Potter a dire danger to America's youth. After eating fantastic steaks at Cattlemen's Steakhouse on the outskirts of Oklahoma City's old stockyards, we waddled across the street to a shop where Henry found the perfect belt buckle: a huge gold and silver oval of a screaming eagle--"cowboy bling," in Henry's words. We hit 2,000 miles in Memphis and celebrated with a delicious rack of ribs at Corky's. Billboards on I-40 in Tennessee promised the World's Largest Fireworks Supermarket, a must-stop for Henry, especially with July 4th around the corner. In Durham, Henry told Grandpa that we'd been to the Grand Canyon. "The big ditch?" said Grandpa. "Is that still there?" I told my father that a lot of folks ask the same question about him, and we all laughed. We hit 3,000 miles at Washington, D.C., by which time I was singing "Pass my cash!" along with Shyne. The Dinosaur hit 3,251 miles on the odometer as we rolled into New York, with Journey crooning "Don't Stop Believin' " on the radio. And when we finally arrived at our apartment--totally exhausted, excited to be out of the car, with a blur of images in our heads--I knew we had plenty to talk about.

In Tight With the Locals

You learn a lot about a place based on what the people drink, and how they drink it. BT assistant editor (and former bartender) David LaHuta eagerly volunteered for a round of taste tests. How does each go down? David's face says it all. Italy: Sambuca Made with: Licorice and elderberries, along with a mix of herbs--anise in particular Best served: After dinner, in a small glass with three coffee beans--called con mosca ("with flies")--that symbolize health, wealth, and happiness. The anise aids digestion Tippling style: Sip it or drink it in one gulp Say cheers! Salute (sah-loo-tay) Brazil: Cachaça Made with: Fermented sugarcane juice Best served: With sugar and muddled lime in a tangy caipirinha, Brazil's unofficial national cocktail. Alternatively, aged cachaça, which tastes somewhat like a high-quality white rum, makes a nice aperitif Tippling style: An aged cachaça should be enjoyed slowly at room temperature Say cheers! Saúde (sow-ooh-juh) Russia: Vodka Made with: Wheat, rye, or barley malt; most Russian vodkas no longer use potatoes Best served: In shot glasses, poured from a bottle shared by friends (or strangers) Tippling style: Down it in a gulp. If you're with a group, everyone should toss it back at the same time. Say "choot-choot" ("just a little") for smaller portions Say cheers! Za vas (zah vahs) Greece: Ouzo Made with: Pressed grapes mixed with star anise, cloves, coriander, and other spices Best served: As an aperitif, with Greek-style tapas such as fried fish, cheese, and stewed vegetables Tippling style: Savor slowly in between bites and conversation. To lessen the drink's bite and potency, add water until the mixture turns milky white Say cheers! Gia'sou (yah-shu) Ireland: Whiskey Made with: Malted and unmalted barley, and yeast Best served: As a pre- or post-meal cocktail, the old-fashioned way: straight, at room temperature. Adding half a teaspoon of water helps release the honey-like flavor Tippling style: Sip and savor from a snifter or nosing glass Say cheers! Sláinte (slahn-cha) Japan: Sake Made with: Rice, yeast, and a mold called koji-kin Best served: With food that's not all that spicy. There's an unofficial rule about not serving sake with rice (it's rather redundant), though sushi of all kinds is fine Tippling style: Sip like wine. Tradition holds that glasses are to be refilled (by someone else) the moment they're empty Say cheers! Kampai (kahm-pie) Scandinavia: Aquavit Made with: Potato or grains, flavored with caraway, dill, cumin, citrus, and fennel Best served: Chilled, with smorgasbord Tippling style: It's usually served in a tiny, stemmed glass, and you can down the whole thing in one gulp or take your time. Have a beer handy as a chaser, to complement aquavit's strong, sharp, and sweet flavor Say cheers! Skål (skahl) Mexico: Tequila Made with: The fermented juice of blue agave plants Best served: Completo, meaning alongside sangrita, a spicy tomato-orange chaser. As for "lick it, slam it, and suck it" with salt and a lime? Leave that for spring breakers Tippling style: Wash around in the mouth and savor, like a good cognac Say cheers! Salud (sahl-ood) France: Absinthe Made with: Wormwood, anise, herbs, and flowers Best served: In a slotted spoon on top of a glass of absinthe, place a cube of sugar and pour water until the sugar's dissolved Tippling style: Take your time. Modern versions of the once-taboo drink are not hallucinogenic, but many still sport triple-digit proofs Say cheers! À votre santé (ah vote sahn-tay) Iceland: Brennivín Made with: Potatoes and cumin Best served: When you feel the need to prove you can drink (and eat) anything. The fiery liqueur, nicknamed Black Death, is traditionally served with hákarl, or fermented shark meat. Together they constitute the Icelandic "shark shooter" Tippling style: Polish it off in one gulp, and cross it off your list Say cheers! Skál (skahl)

On the Road Again, and Again

During long journeys across the country, the authors of two new memoirs searched (respectively) for down-home grub and a free ride. We asked them to give advice to anyone hoping to walk--or eat--in their footsteps. In Two for the Road (houghtonmifflinbooks.com, $24), authors Jane and Michael Stern reminisce about rodeos, state fairs, cheap motels, and more than 70,000 meals they ate while penning their bestseller, Roadfood. What do they look for? Restaurants open only for breakfast and lunch, because these are places where the locals come to chat 'n' chew. Old menus with gravy stains or barbecue-sauce fingerprints, because they've been used by the multitudes. Statues of cows, pigs, roosters, or crabs on the roof, because they're irresistible (and the food's usually terrific). A jukebox with Hank Williams songs, because the menu probably hasn't been modernized either, and you can count on country-comfort food. Based on his experience thumbing rides all over the world, including a recent cross-country hitchhiking adventure described in Riding With Strangers (ipgbook.com, $23), Elijah Wald advises would-be hitchers to: Smile and appear clean, like you're trying to get somewhere rather than wandering. Display a sign when appropriate; no ride is too short works particularly well. Choose your spots carefully, where you can be seen as far off as possible and drivers have plenty of space to pull over. Let the driver set the mood. Be quiet if the driver's not talkative. Pass on drivers who seem drunk or who spook you out for any reason. Another ride will come along.