Jeremy Puglisi, cohost, with his wife, Stephanie, of The RV Atlas podcast. The pair are coauthors of See You at the Campground: A Guide to Discovering Community, Connection, and a Happier Family in the Great Outdoors. TheRVAtlas.com
RVs have entered the fast lane in 2020, as people seize on the recreational vehicles as a vacation option conducive to social distancing. They serve as portable private homes, allowing travelers to avoid airports and planes, cruise ships, hotels, restaurants and even rest-stop restrooms. Rental options have expanded over the past decade, and gas prices are low this year, adding to the appeal of RV vacations, whether it’s a solo or couples adventure or a family road trip.
What you need to know for fun and safe RV travel now…
Where to Go
Two RV camping options…
Campgrounds and RV parks often provide amenities such as electric and water connections, bathrooms, showers and Wi-Fi. Some even have swimming pools, clubhouses, playgrounds and more, though these shared spaces were temporarily shut in many states this year because of the pandemic. $30 to $80 per night.
Depending on the size and design, some campgrounds can create social-distancing challenges. Before making a reservation, confirm that the campground doesn’t pack RVs close together. Anything less than 20 feet or so between RVs could be considered too close, and close confines can detract from privacy as well as safety. Look for a map on the campground’s website…view the campground on Google Earth’s satellite view…and/or call the campground and ask whether you can reserve a spot that’s at least 20 feet away from any other RV. Also ask whether the campground has a “contactless check-in process”—a good sign that it’s taking social distancing seriously.
Campgrounds on government-owned lands, such as state and national parks, tend to have more space around each RV than private campgrounds. You can find many of these through ReserveAmerica.com. Private campgrounds affiliated with KOA (KOA.com) or Jellystone Park Camp-Resorts (CampJellystone.com) seem to be doing a particularly good job adapting to social-distancing guidelines and keeping facilities sanitized.
Camping outside of official campgrounds—RVers call this “boondocking”—provides the freedom of being farther away from civilization…and allows for much greater social distancing. You could park in the wilderness with no one around for miles. It’s usually inexpensive or free. Doing this will put you “off the grid” so be prepared to live only on your RV’s batteries, generator and/or solar panels for electricity and its onboard tank for water.
Lands controlled by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM.gov) and US Forest Service (FS.USDA.gov) often are available for RV camping. Most of these lands are in the Western states. Permits and passes may be required. For more details about BLM lands open to RVing, visit BLM.gov/visit, then choose “Recreational Vehicles” from the Search Activities menu and the state(s) of interest from the Search Location menu. For more details about Forest Service lands open to RVing, visit FS.USDA.gov/visit/destinations, then select forest(s) of interest and “RV Camping” from the Activity menu. Call the phone number provided on these sites to confirm that the land is open for RV camping and to make a reservation.
You could park your RV on private property if you have the property owner’s permission. To find properties where you can pay to camp on private land, go to Hipcamp.com, which is like Airbnb for RV camping. Its offerings vary tremendously—some are in the wilderness…others are near popular cities. Prices vary widely.
Helpful: There are also businesses that allow RVers to park in their parking lots overnight for free, but these are rarely scenic—they’re appropriate when you need to take a break during a long drive to a destination. Example: Most Walmart stores allow RVers to park overnight. Call and speak to a store manager to confirm that this is permitted.
Fascinating locations: Enroll in Harvest Hosts, a subscription program that allows RVers to park for free in the lots of more than 1,000 wineries, breweries, distilleries, artisan farms, museums and other businesses that can be fun to visit. Harvest Host members are expected to patronize these businesses in exchange for the free overnight parking, assuming that local quarantine rules allow it. ($79/year, HarvestHosts.com)
Important: Check the latest state rules with regard to COVID-19 at RV.RunsWithToGo.com (click “RV Living,” then search for the article “State-By-State Updates for RV Camping During COVID-19.”)
Where to Rent
Traditional RV-rental firms work much like car-rental companies—they own fleets of RVs and operate rental facilities across the US. These include Cruise America (CruiseAmerica.com)…El Monte RV (ElMonteRV.com)…and Road Bear (RoadBearRV.com).
A newer breed of RV-rental firms operates more like Airbnbs—they connect renters with RV owners willing to rent out their RVs. These include Outdoorsy (Outdoorsy.com) and RV Share (RVShare.com).
Each system has its advantages—“peer-to-peer” rentals offer a much wider range of RVs and locations…while traditional rental firms offer greater reliability when it comes to RV maintenance, condition and cleanliness. Don’t be scared off by the phrase “peer to peer”—the two companies listed here provide excellent 24/7 customer support if you have a problem. If you rent through a peer-to-peer firm, pay close attention to the ratings and feedback that previous renters have posted on the rental website. It’s also worth asking whether anyone will be using the RV immediately before you…and/or whether it will be cleaned and sanitized between renters. The rental companies have posted cleaning policies on their websites.
What You’ll Pay
RV-rental prices vary depending on where and when you want to go, how old the RV is and the size of the RV. They typically range from $50 to $150 per night for a compact “travel trailer” that you tow behind your vehicle…$150 to $250 per night for a Class B “camper van” that sleeps two and a similar price range for a Class C motor home that can accommodate four to eight, depending on the model…or between $175 and $300 per night for a bus-size motor home called a Class A that sleeps two to eight people and includes lots of living space and a larger kitchen and bathroom than other RVs.
You often can save money by renting an RV for a week or longer—this might get you one day per week for free, though discounts vary. Fuel cost is another factor in planning your RV adventure, ranging from 11 miles per gallon (mpg) to 22 mpg in a class B…8 to 14 mpg in a truck/SUV towing a travel trailer…7 to 16 mpg in a class C…or 6 to 12 mpg in a class A. Some motor homes take diesel, others conventional gasoline. Diesel engines tend to get 20% to 35% better mileage than conventional gas engines…but diesel recently cost nearly 20% more per gallon, and it’s sometimes difficult to find a station selling diesel.
Before renting, check whether your auto insurance will cover the RV rental and/or how much insurance costs through the rental company…whether pets are permitted…whether road-side assistance is included…and what extra fees and costs you can expect beyond the per-night rate. Optional added costs might include per-mile fees…per-hour fees for generator use…and/or charges for bedding or kitchen wares.
To get a sense of what you like, it’s worth renting first even if you’re considering buying an RV. Join RV-oriented Facebook groups in your state before buying, and ask other group members about their experiences with local RV dealerships—you’re likely to get useful advice about which dealerships are trustworthy.
What to Rent
If you have a vehicle with a hitch capable of towing a trailer—and you’re comfortable driving with a trailer—a travel trailer could be a good place to start. Travel trailers are easily the most popular form of RVs, accounting for more than 85% of sales. They usually contain all the amenities that motor homes do, including beds, bathrooms and kitchenettes—they just don’t have their own engines and drivetrains.
Travel trailers have a few significant advantages over motor homes. When you reach your campsite, you can disconnect the trailer, then explore the area in your vehicle without having to drive around in a big motor home. Renting a travel trailer tends to be less expensive than renting a comparable motor home, and there are almost never mileage limits or fees when renting these. The smallest and least expensive to rent are “pop-up trailers,” which include tentlike walls and might cost as little as $50 a night. This is the most rustic of trailer types since it’s essentially a raised tent, and only some include even modest toilets and kitchenettes, so read the description carefully.
If you don’t want to or can’t pull a travel trailer, and/or don’t have experience driving very large vehicles, choose a Class C that is no more than 30 feet long or a Class B. A Class C is roomy enough that you won’t feel cramped if you’re stuck inside on a rainy day. Driving one is similar to driving a U-Haul van. Example: Jayco Greyhawk (Jayco.com).
If only one or two people will be using the RV…and you don’t expect to spend many waking hours inside…you can also consider a Class B. Rental prices for Class B motor homes are similar to those for a Class C despite their smaller size because it takes more sophisticated engineering to squeeze everything into the smaller space…and class Bs often are built on more advanced chassis. But that small size and better chassis will make these more enjoyable to drive and far easier to maneuver through towns and cities—they drive almost like large SUVs. A Class B has a bathroom and kitchenette, although both are quite compact. Example: Winnebago Travato
If you have experience driving large vehicles, such as a bus, and you want lots of space and greater luxury, consider a Class A motor home, which typically offers full-size amenities in the kitchen, bedroom and bathroom.
But unless you win the lottery and seek a permanent mobile home, you might want to skip the $2.5 million Furrion Elysium, which includes a rooftop hot tub, retractable helicopter pad and three 75-inch TVs.