Tips for Renting an RV

RV trips can be memorable. But do your research before climbing behind the wheel of what's probably the largest vehicle you'll ever drive.

The coronavirus pandemic made the year 2020 a tough one for travelers. Instead of checking into hotel rooms, many chose to rent a recreational vehicle and take the room along with them.

“RV dealers across the country could not get new RVs fast enough to fill the need,” says Mark J. Polk, who runs the website RV Education 101. “Used RV sales figures were through the roof, and RV rental companies reported all-time highest rental figures in 2020.”

For those who’ve never been behind the wheel of an RV, there’s a lot to learn. But Polk thinks it’s worth it. “Renting an RV is a great way to travel and see the country, especially right now,” he says. “You can go where you want, when you want, without standing in lines and being exposed to crowds of people.”

If RV camping is something you want to try in 2021, here are some tips.

What to Know About RV Camping

Make advance reservations for your rental, especially for holidays and special events. In 2017, my family rented a RV at the absolute last minute to drive to Idaho to view the total solar eclipse. We were lucky — someone canceled a reservation. But we had to accept a larger RV than we hoped for.

Know your route and where you can park for the night. RV parks offer amenities such as swimming pools, WiFi and groceries, plus utility hookups. Some stores, such as Walmart, allow RVs to park on their property overnight, but you lack the perks of a dedicated RV park. And for a more rustic feel, consider parking in a national park where allowed.

Types of RVs

“Recreational vehicle” is a broad term. These are the five most common types.

Motorhomes

Motorized RVs come in classes based on size. “Type A motorhomes are the ones that look like a bus,” says Polk. “Type B motorhomes look like a large van, and Type C motorhomes have a cab-over section extending over the roof.” Most first-time renters tend to rent Type C motorhomes or travel trailers.

Fifth Wheel

These are large towable trailers with a raised forward section. Saskia Boogman, director of public relations for Kampgrounds of America, notes these require specialized hitches and a truck for towing. Boogman adds they are “generally not a rental unit due to the required equipment.”

Fifth Wheel RVMCCAIG/Getty Images

Travel Trailer

Conventional travel trailers offer a range of floor plans and sizes. “Travel trailers range in size from 15 to 37 feet, and there are floor plans available for two people or a family of eight,” Polk says.

Small Camper Van

A camper van is a smaller vehicle that provides transport and sleeping accommodations.

Pop-up Trailer

A folding camping trailer with canvas sides that extend. These are easy to store and lightweight for towing.

How to Know Which RV Is Best for Your Trip?

There are so many options. Here are some things to consider before an RV trip.

How Long Is Your Trip?

“I usually tell people if they are going to one destination and staying there, a travel trailer is a good choice,” Polk says. “If you plan to travel cross-country, a motorhome would be a better choice.”

Are You Towing?

Towable RVs require a vehicle capable of handling the weight of the trailer and set up to tow it. That usually means a vehicle with an optional towing package.

Think About Size

The size of your rental depends on how many people you’re traveling with and your comfort driving a large vehicle. If you’re new to RVs, start small.

Where Can I Rent an RV?

“The best way to find a rental is just a quick search online,” Boogman says. “There are a number of companies out there including Cruise America, El Monte, Outdoorsy, and RVshare.” The latter two are peer-to-peer rental companies, meaning an RV owner rents out their own RV when they’re not using it.

RV Rental Tips and Mistakes to Avoid

Here is more advice to better ensure a fun adventure.

Educate Yourself

“My first and most important tip for renting an RV is to get educated about RVs prior to renting,” Polk says. “The more you know about how RVs work, the more enjoyable your rental experience will be.” Polk sells online courses on his site, and also offers free videos and articles.

Get the Right Size RV

Ask yourself: Are you comfortable driving a vehicle larger than a typical automobile? Are you comfortable towing a trailer, if you have a vehicle capable of safely towing the weight? Is there more than one person in your party willing to drive such a large vehicle?

“Select a type and size RV that you are the most comfortable with because you will be driving or towing it a lot,” Polk says.

Don’t Clog Things Up

Be prepared to deal with the dreaded “black water tank” — that is, the tank that collects waste from the RV’s toilet. Your rental company should be able to explain how to drain it. Tell your fellow travelers to use only septic-safe toilet paper and never flush baby wipes or other items.

“Gray water tank” refers to the tank that collects the water from sinks and the shower in your RV. Don’t throw food down the kitchen sink — you’ll be sorry when it comes time to drain the RV water tank.

Know What You’re Signing

“Read the rental contract prior to signing on the dotted line,” Polk urges.

You’ll want to know if you pay extra if you exceed a certain mileage or put more hours on the RV’s generator. You also need to know what happens if you damage the RV. If you pay a deposit, be sure you know exactly what is required to get the deposit back.