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20 Things You Need to Know Before You Rent an RV

RVs are the perfect way to travel during a global pandemic—here’s everything you need to know to make your trip a successful one.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to turn vacation plans to Swiss cheese, many travelers are eager to go on an adventure that still feels safe and responsible. “Go camping!,” seems to be the vacation rally cry of 2020, but what if sleeping in a tent sounds to you like the seventh circle of Hell? Or what if you just want to try something fun and unique after spending the last six months on your couch?

The answer you’re looking for might be a recreational vehicle—more commonly known as an RV. It’s a cross between a bus and a hotel room, and it can give you the flexibility to road trip without putting yourself or others at risk. Here’s everything you need to know to make your RV trip a vacation to remember.

Need inspiration for the perfect road trip? Check out Fodor’s Best Road Trips in America.

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PHOTO: Courtesy of Outdoorsy.com
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Where to Get an RV

If this is your first time driving an RV, you’ll definitely want to start by renting. Fortunately, there are several great RV rental options from which to choose. Outdoorsy and RVshare allow you to rent directly from individual RV owners, while Cruise America operates more like a traditional car rental company.

The strength of Outdoorsy and RVshare is that you can rent from anywhere (like an Airbnb for RVs), whereas Cruise America has specific locations you must rent from. Outdoorsy and RVshare are also less expensive, as Cruise America tends to have hidden fees like mileage. Cruise America’s benefits are it’s a long-standing company and you have the option of an affordable one-way rental, in the event you’d prefer to fly home.

INSIDER TIPIf you’re trying to decide between Outdoorsy and RVshare, Outdoorsy has superior reviews and also higher insurance coverage. Both sites are worth investigating, though.

 

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PHOTO: Courtesy of RVshare
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Do You Want a Motorhome?

RVs come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The two main considerations in choosing the type of recreational vehicle are: the desired size and whether you’d prefer a detachable trailer (that’s pulled by a car or truck) or an all-in-one motorhome.

The benefit of a motorhome is that your bed, kitchen, bathroom, and living area are all inside the vehicle you’re driving. A motorhome also means passengers can utilize the comfort of the couches, beds, and tables during the trip—something not allowed in a detachable trailer.

Motorhomes come in three types of classes. Class A RVs are massive, bus-shaped vehicles that can be intimidating to drive on your first trip. Class Bs are also known as sleeper vans or campervans and—as those names suggest—are much smaller. This makes it more maneuverable to drive and offers better gas mileage, but the Class B doesn’t have the spacious interior of other motorhomes.

INSIDER TIPMany first-time drivers find Class C RVs to be the sweet spot. A 24-inch Class C is large enough to comfortably fit anywhere from two to six people. You might be nervous to drive it at first, but it’s nothing like that Class A tour bus.

 

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PHOTO: Courtesy of RVshare
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...or a Travel Trailer?

If you’re taking your RV into nature, a motorhome is perfect. If you’re driving it into cities, the size doesn’t disqualify a motorhome—particularly if you have a Class C—but it is worth mentioning the benefits of a travel trailer as an alternative. The major advantage is that trailers are detachable. You can leave it behind at your RV park or campsite and drive your smaller vehicle into town.

Another positive for trailers is that they are typically less expensive than motorhomes. This is complicated, though, because if you don’t own a car with the capacity to tow—be sure to check because you typically need an SUV—then the cost of renting a towing vehicle on top of the trailer can get expensive.

Travel trailers also come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Pop-up or foldable trailers are extremely compact but need to be physically unfolded each time you use it. Fifth-wheel trailers are some of the largest RVs on the market, but they come with towing challenges.

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PHOTO: Courtesy of Outdoorsy.com
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Get the Tour and Pay Attention

Regardless of which type of RV you decide to rent and where you rent it from, be sure to request a comprehensive tour of the vehicle by the owner. This is standard but pay attention. Unless you’re a pilot, it’s likely this will be the most complicated vehicle you’ve ever operated. Jot down notes during the tour, or consider posting sticky notes in key places to remind yourself of the functions of various buttons.

How do you operate the generator? How do you activate the water pumps? How can you tell if the clean water and wastewater tanks are full? How do you empty said tanks? These are a few of the many functions that make RVs wonderful—if you know how to use them!

INSIDER TIPThe tour will be overwhelming and there’s no way you’ll remember it all. Request the phone number of a contact you can call (usually the owner) as questions arise.

 

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PHOTO: Courtesy of RVshare
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Prepare for the Worst

You’re driving a very large vehicle a very long distance. It barely fits in a lane of traffic and there are parts sticking out everywhere. The chance of scraping up against something—hopefully an inexpensive something—is not negligible, so don’t be stingy when it comes to insurance. Get the best coverage that is offered. It’s not just peace of mind you’re paying for. You might actually need to use it.

INSIDER TIPIt’s also worth mapping out RV repair shops along your route. These are easy to find on Google Maps, but many close on the weekend. Locating a few 24-hour repair shops will give you a solid back-up plan on the off-chance something major goes awry.

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PHOTO: Courtesy of Outdoorsy.com
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Choosing a Place to Sleep

There are few decisions more important than where to park your RV for the night. When your hotel room is on wheels, you have flexibility, and your choices fit into three categories: RV parks, campsites, and the great outdoors.

Use FreeRoam or Google “RV parks” anywhere in America and you’ll be blown away by how many options are available. Some parks have cheesy themes (the Big Texan RV Ranch, for example) but you’re traveling in an RV so maybe it’s best to be less judgmental and embrace your inner-cheese. RV parks often have pools and a night’s stay typically ranges from $25-$75.

The huge benefit of an RV park is the amenities—namely electrical and water “hookups.” You can connect to electricity which means saving money by not running a generator that burns through as much as $20 per night in gasoline. You can empty your wastewater tanks and fill up your clean water tank, and you might even have an internet connection.

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PHOTO: Courtesy of RVshare
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Mix It up With Boondocking

As convenient as RV parks adjacent to the interstate are, consider branching out. The majority of campsites have spaces reserved for RVs, and many of those sites have the same water and electrical hookups you’ll find at an RV park ($30 is an average price for a campsite).

If you have hookups one night, though, take the opportunity to empty your wastewater and fill up on clean water in the morning before you leave. Now you’re ready to boondock!

“Boondocking” means to park your RV overnight for free. A full tank of clean water enables you to still take a shower, and as long as you have enough gasoline you can run the generator overnight so you don’t lose comforts like air conditioning.

Beautiful places to boondock include Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land. Less scenic places to boondock include most Walmart parking lots (use this app), truck stops, and even casino parking lots.

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PHOTO: Courtesy of RVshare
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Plan or Wing It?

Another consideration is whether you want to book your spot for each night in advance or figure it out as you go. RV travel can be slower than you’re used to so winging it might be preferred until you get a feel for how far you can travel in a day.

Boondocking makes flexible RV travel relatively easy, but it’s important to remember that a full tank of water might not last you more than a day or two (ask the owner). Also, many RVs will automatically shut down the generator when your gasoline gets to a quarter-tank so you don’t accidentally strand yourself.

Because of this, you’ll need to stay someplace with water hookups at least every two or three days. Campsites and popular R­V parks will often fill up on weekends, so those might be worth booking in advance. If you don’t, however, it’s no problem: most towns have multiple RV park options. You can book a spot through KOA or Allstays, or contact an RV park directly by phone or online. Many RV parks don’t allow same-day online reservations, but even if you show up after hours, most parks have clear instructions about which sites are available and how to pay in the morning.

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PHOTO: Courtesy of RVshare
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Bring the Comfort of Home

One beauty of RV life is that the vehicle becomes a home away from home. For those not interested in “roughing it,” there’s no reason to leave your comforts behind.

Bring your coffeemaker, bring your slippers for when you want to relax at night, and bring pillows, blankets, linens, and whatever else you need to sleep comfortably. There’s no reason not to—you certainly have the space.

Many RV travelers say they wish they had thought to bring earplugs with them. While parking in serene locations is often possible, you might find yourself in an RV park by the interstate or trying to catch a few hours of sleep in a parking lot. A pair of earplugs can help block out the noise.

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PHOTO: Courtesy of Outdoorsy.com
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Don’t Forget to Secure Those Comforts

There’s little better about having an RV than having a shower available to you at all times. You can bring your favorite soaps, shampoo, conditioner, and the rest of that flawless skincare regimen. But then you start driving. It doesn’t take more than a few turns before bottles of shampoo are rolling around on the ground and your favorite books and magazines are falling out of cabinets.

Have a plan on how to secure any loose items before you start driving. One tip is to place all toiletries into the tub and sink so they don’t fall off flat countertops.

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PHOTO: Laura Laweson Visconti via RVshare
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Keep the Dirt Outside

Whether you’re hiking trails or strolling city streets, your shoes are probably going to get dirty. The last thing you want to do is bring those dirty sneakers into your RV palace. That’s a recipe for a filthy floor.

Leave the well-worn shoes outside (or in an outer compartment) and slip into some clean flip flops. That’ll keep the dirt—and any unsavory smells—to a minimum.

It’s also worth bringing a small broom or brush so you can easily sweep out whatever dirt does manage to make it inside.

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PHOTO: Courtesy of RVshare
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A Little Privacy, Please

Ask the RV’s owner if the windows are tinted. If not, when you have the lights on at night, you’re basically in a fish tank for the rest of the world to observe.

Don’t worry, though, this is solvable. One makeshift option is to cover the window by taping a towel to its inside frame. A sun shield works for the front window, as well.

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PHOTO: Courtesy of Outdoorsy.com
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Bring Layers

It can get chilly in your RV at night when the air conditioner is going—even in the middle of summer. Turn the AC off, however, and things get stuffy fast. Bring layers of clothing at night (including sweatshirts) so you’ll be able to get comfortable at a variety of temperatures.

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PHOTO: Courtesy of Outdoorsy.com
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Take Your Time

You’re almost definitely going to drive slower in an RV than you do in your everyday vehicle. Part of that is because these things are large and they just move more slowly. You’ll also likely be nervous for your first day or two of driving it. Being cautious isn’t a bad thing as you acclimate. Build in time for this into your itinerary—one reason not booking reservations at RV sites can be a positive thing.

Be especially careful when driving on smaller roads and city streets. RVs are wide and you’ll have to more actively think about not clipping things like cars or signage on the side of the road.

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PHOTO: Courtesy of RVshare
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Fuel Up

Speaking of taking your time—prepare to spend a lot more of it at the gas station than you’re used to. RVs are not known for being fuel-efficient. The average motorhome only gets between six and 10 miles per gallon. A Class C gas tank typically holds between 24 and 55 gallons of gas. A Class A gas tank can hold as much as 150 gallons.

Not only does the poor gas mileage mean you’ll be filling up your tank more often, but the large gas tanks mean they take a while to fill. A 40-gallon gas tank can take 10 minutes or more. You’ll want to budget for that on your itinerary, as well as in your wallet.

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PHOTO: Courtesy of RVshare
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Prepare to Park

There’s a lot to consider when you’re trying to park something this big. For example, do you want to pull into a parking space in which you have to eventually back out, or should you try to find a spot in which you can leave more easily by driving forward? Most would say the latter choice is preferred, though it’s not always possible.

The main takeaway is that you should consider your exit strategy before you pull in. Try to make it as easy on yourself as possible. When you arrive somewhere with a parking lot, consider parking near the back or side where there aren’t as many cars around. If you’re someplace without a parking lot, things get trickier but you can usually find parking on a side street.

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PHOTO: Courtesy of RVshare
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How Tall Is Too Tall?

Make sure you know how tall your RV is before traveling. Most of us aren’t used to worrying about clearance issues while driving, but some RVs could be too tall for the bridges on certain highways or smaller roads. Drive-thru food stops also have height limitations. There are usually signs that indicate the maximum height allowed, but that’s only helpful if you know the height of your vehicle.

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PHOTO: Courtesy of RVshare
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Acknowledge Your Blind Spots

One of the more nerve-wracking aspects of driving an RV is getting comfortable with your mirrors. The most noticeable challenge is that your rearview mirror is almost useless as it only allows you to look into your RV’s living area—not to the traffic behind you.

As a result, you’ll depend a lot on your side mirrors. This wouldn’t be a problem except for the fact that the width of your RV will create some blind spots for you. Before you begin driving, it’s essential you have your mirrors where you want them so you have as much visibility as is possible.

Most importantly, take a good look into those mirrors before you change a lane. Ensure there’s no traffic sneaking up on you. Each side of the RV often has two mirrors to help eliminate blind spots. Use them both to be sure it’s safe to change lanes.

INSIDER TIPSome RVs offer a rearview camera so you can at least see behind you when you’re backing up or parking. It’s a helpful tool if it’s available to you.

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PHOTO: Courtesy of RVshare
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All You Need to Know About H20

An RV typically has three water tanks: your clean water tank, your “gray” water tank, and your “black” water tank (as known as your wastewater). Your clean water is what you use for things like showering, washing dishes, and flushing the toilet. Your gray water is the water that goes down any drain that’s not your toilet, while your wastewater is everything flushed down it.

Most RVs allow you to monitor how full the different tanks are so you won’t have to guess. It’s safest to empty the gray and wastewater tanks each day you’re at an RV park or campsite with a dump station.

For clean water, some users fill up their tank every morning they have a water hookup. The benefit is you’ll have plenty of water to use throughout the day (and into the next day if you’re boondocking). The downside is the more water you’re carrying in your tank, the less gas mileage you’ll get while driving.

INSIDER TIPIf you plan on spending the next night or two without a water hookup it’s very important you fill your clean water tank (and empty the others). If you know you’ll have a water hookup that night, give the nod to fuel efficiency by only filling up your clean water tank to the quarter or halfway mark.

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PHOTO: Courtesy of RVshare
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The Dump Station

This topic isn’t something you should talk about in polite company, but it is an essential component to operating an RV. It also tends to be the question that looms largest on a rookie RV user’s mind: What happens when you use the bathroom?

The answer is that it stays in your wastewater tank until you empty it. You should empty the tank every time you’re at a site with a dump station, because if you wait too long, it runs the risk of getting stinky. Also, treat your toilet with deodorizer to keep things smelling fresher.

Ask the RV owner to show you how to empty the tank. You’ll definitely want to use disposable gloves, and stay vigilant when you open the tank—there’s likely to be some unsavory leakage when you unscrew the cap. Finally, empty the gray tank after you empty the waste tank to help clean out your hose. Rinse the hose a final time with clean water from the site’s water hookup for good measure.

If you’re not staying somewhere with a dump station, many truck stops and travel centers also have them. You can also pay a small fee to stop at an RV park just for dumping services. Sanidumps.com, RVDumpSites.net, and RVdumps.com all offer a comprehensive list of available dumping locations.

And if this whole process sounds like the worst thing you’ve ever heard, an increasing number of RV parks and campgrounds are offering to empty guests’ tanks for a small fee. Give it a try yourself first, though. You can do it!

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