How to Rent an RV and Plan an Epic, Socially Distant Road Trip

There’s never been a better time to rent a rig.

RV parked near a scenic lake and mountains
Photo: Getty Images

These days we're all getting back to travel basics—that is, if you're traveling at all. Yes, my vacation-loving friends, that means keeping it domestic, thinking small(er), and going on road trips. Only this time, rather than piling into the back of your parents' station wagon, it seems as though everyone is looking to hit the road in a sleek RV or conversion van.

According to a recent travel report by TripAdvisor, travelers around the U.S. are looking to take shorter trips to destinations closer to home in an effort to stay safe from the coronavirus pandemic, while still feeling like they're getting away. Nearly half (44 percent) of respondents said they'd likely take a road trip this year. So it's little surprise that companies like RVshare have recorded their highest bookings ever in the past year. In fact, RVShare revealed in a statement that it saw bookings increase 650 percent month-over-month from April to May in 2020.

Excited at the prospect of hitting the open road in a souped-up rig? There are a few things travelers should know about before jumping behind the wheel of a newly rented RV or conversion van. To be fully prepared, we asked Jen Young, the cofounder and CMO of Outdoorsy, a peer-to-peer RV rental marketplace, for all of her road-tested tips.

01 of 07

Settle on an RV style and think close to home

According to Young, renting an RV and plotting out a summer road trip can be a much easier experience than you'd expect. The very first step is to think about what you want out of an RV—be it style (like a tricked-out old-school Westfalia) or more function (like a house-on-wheels-style Winnebago)—and search for it on rental websites like Outdoorsy.

Next it's time to think about where to go, but, as Young notes, you don't need to look far. "We're encouraging folks to use this opportunity to check out what's in their own [locale]," she says. "While it may be tempting to check the big, iconic national parks off your list, there are smaller national parks and monuments with less traffic, and in some cases, that are even more beautiful than the popular parks. You'll have an easier time avoiding crowds in those areas."

Avoiding crowds makes for a more pleasant and convenient trip experience, of course, but it's also more conducive to exercising safe social distancing protocol.

02 of 07

Get advice and reviews from RV veterans

"One of the beauties of being a peer-to-peer platform is you get to talk to real people, and we highly encourage renters to ask RV owners as many questions as they want in order to feel safer and more comfortable about their trip," Young says. "RV owners may have the best camping suggestions for their particular area."

Young also notes that websites like Harvest Hosts and Campendium are great options for finding dispersed camping locations around the country.

03 of 07

How much does an RV rental and trip cost?

Several factors contribute to the total cost of renting an RV—and your price will be unique based on your preferences, trip length, and personal budget.

According to advice from RV rental company Cruise America, you'll want to first take into account the cost per night, which varies by renter, season, vehicle type, and customer demand. Then figure out how many miles you'll be going (check out Google or Apple maps to calibrate your route's approximate length), since many rental companies charge a per-mile fee as well. Multiply the cost per night times the number of nights you're planning to go—and then multiply the per-mile cost times the number of miles estimated. Add those two numbers together for a basic estimate of the total. You may pay extra if your vehicle includes a generator, and a little more depending how often you use it (it's summer, so the AC will probably be in use, for example). You may be charged to have the rental company include items like bedding and kitchenware—but in many cases you can opt out of their additions and bring your own. Other fees include those for cleaning, gas, campground rates, rental insurance, and setup fees.

The Wandering RV did some research and reported ball-park estimates for the average RV rental price for renting from individual RV owners (peer-to-peer), like Outdoorsy. An average travel trailer costs anywhere from $50 to $100 per night, while a large, class A motorhome averages around $175 to $275 per night.

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04 of 07

Do you need a special license to drive an RV?

Nope. According to Young, you're good to go with your own driver's license. That said, it may be prudent to do a test drive with the RV's owner to make sure you know what all the knobs, bells, and whistles really do. By speaking with the owner you may get a few great insider RV travel tips, too.

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05 of 07

Pack light and smart

Though you'll have a bit more space than usual, it's still important to pack as lightly as possible for an RV vacation. Yes, there are the regular items you'll want to pack such as clothing, toiletries, and a first aid kit, but with an RV trip, you may have a few extras to consider. That's because your rig may or may not come outfitted with cooking utensils, linens, a propane tank, fridge or cooler, or even water. Before hitting the road, check to see what is and isn't included and make your packing list and purchases from there.

The best part about an RV trip? Your furry family members can come along. "Remember that one of the greatest perks of RV travel is that your four-legged companions can join for the full experience, so check with the owner if they allow dogs," Young says.

06 of 07

Check these details before signing on the dotted line

Getting down to the nitty-gritty all depends on the type of trip you're after.

"If you're going to be staying at RV parks or campgrounds throughout your trip, almost all vehicles on our platform will work for you because you'll be able to plug into power when you get to the campground," Young says. "But if you're planning to boondock—camping off the grid—you'll want to make sure the vehicle has a solar-panel or a standalone generator so you won't need to be plugged in to use all the vehicle features."

Other things to look for in a rig for longer trips include a bathroom, outdoor shower, water tank, stove, or backup generator. All of these things will help you stay off the grid (and socially isolated) for longer.

07 of 07

Have a general plan, but be open to spontaneity

Right now, we can't exactly hop on a plane to go on a vacation, but that doesn't mean our getaways can't be epic. And that's all thanks to the power of four wheels.

"The beauty of RV travel is that you're not restricted by a glowing seatbelt sign in seat 24B," Young says. "On the road, opportunity is at your fingertips and you can spend time exploring all hidden gems between Point A and Point B that you'd miss from the air. RV travel also offers you the flexibility to change your plans and pivot your schedule in real-time."

That said, Young says it's still a good idea to have a general plan of where you'd like to go. For example, she's heading out with Jeff, her Outdoorsy cofounder, this summer for a road trip through the American Southwest.

"The scenery will change from desert to mountains and we'll also get to visit a number of the 'bucket list' national parks," she says about her own itinerary. "What makes traveling through this part of the country great is you can do the route quickly, or if you're feeling adventurous and want to try a longer trip, spread it out to hit more landmarks along the way. But either way, you're guaranteed to see some of the most beautiful landscapes our country has to offer."

At the very least, a journey like this can be a special getaway, but at its peak, it can be life-changing.

"From the key exchange where you connect with the RV owner to that first night sitting around the campfire at your campsite, you are having an experience that pulls you out of your comfort zone and separates you from your normal daily routine," Young says. "You are, as John Muir so eloquently put it, 'washing your spirit clean.' By seeing everything that can't be seen at 30,000 feet, hearing every bird chirp, and breathing in the fresh mountain air, you are recalibrating how you think about yourself and the world around you."

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