Rent an RV, hit the road and save gobs of money on your next vacation.
Really? Maybe not, even some advocates concede, according to Jane Engle, travel writer for Los Angeles Times.
“You could probably pack four people in a car, eat at restaurants, stay in hotels, and I imagine it’s about the same cost,” said Chuck Woodbury, editor of RVTravel.com, a consumer website offering tips and tricks for RVers.
But consider the intangibles.
“The real advantage of the RV is that the family’s together, and you can cook and eat healthy meals,” Woodbury said. “There’s something about being in a little house that’s very appealing. Sitting around a campfire at night is a lot more fun than sitting around a hotel room and watching TV.”
Pauline Frommer, creator of the Pauline Frommer’s Travel Guides series for budget travelers, said she was won over by her first-ever family RV trip last year. (And, yes, “we probably spent exactly what we would have spent if we went on a car road trip,” she added.)
I priced a hypothetical one-week vacation trip for a family of four from Los Angeles to South Lake Tahoe and back in July by rented RV versus going in the family car and staying at a hotel. Excluding food, the cost was about the same. But because it’s typically cheaper to make your own meals than to eat out, the RV won by a nose. (I priced a 25-foot Class C RV rental with a KOA campground stay and used a standard AAA calculator for driving costs of a medium sedan, with some tweaks.)
But why spend more than you need to? With that in mind, I gleaned tips from Woodbury and Frommer on how to save.
Rent the right size. Many people overestimate what they need.
Frommer’s family of four rented a 30-foot RV to tour the West. But in Sedona, Ariz., she said, “we realized we couldn’t drive it to a trail head. It was too big to park anywhere. So we turned out having to rent another car.”
Next time, she said, they’ll rent a smaller unit or even a pop-up camping trailer, which Woodbury said often rents for a fourth of what a regular RV costs.
Scout out free or low-cost parking: On my hypothetical trip, it cost $69 a night to park my RV with full hookups.
“You picked the high season and a very popular spot,” which boosted the price, Woodbury said.
Many private and national forest campgrounds charge less than $25 a night, he said. Cheaper spots don’t come with hookups or may just have water and electric. So consider doing without for a night or two, Woodbury said; rely more on battery power and siphon waste into a dump station.
You can park free on some public lands, he added, and many Wal-Marts will let you pull into their lots and spend the night — not exactly a nature experience, but OK in a pinch. For tips on cheap parking places, check out websites such as FreeCampgrounds.com.
Don’t write off private campgrounds, such as KOA, which may cost more but provide a resort-like experience.
“KOA is great for kids,” Woodbury said. “They’re in heaven. Many KOAs have swimming pools, game rooms, pancake breakfasts, movies at night and ice cream socials. It’s safe. There’s a store for supplies.”
Vacation off-season. By avoiding summer, the peak time for RV rentals in most places, you’ll pay less. Cruise America, which claims to be North America’s largest RV rental company, was recently giving 25% off rentals between Sept. 10 and Dec. 15.
Grab a one-way special. Rental companies sometimes need to move their inventory around, and if you help them, you can get “incredible deals,” Woodbury said.
Cruise America, for instance, was recently offering one-way autumn rentals from Carson, Calif., to Phoenix for $24 a night, with 1,000 free miles and no dropoff fee. By comparison, when I priced the 25-foot RV for my hypothetical trip in July, the company quoted $169 a night, plus 32 cents a mile.
Three Rivers RV has partnered with Cruise America RV Rentals & Sales as the sole representative of the Cruise America line of RV rentals for the St. Louis region.
Through the partnership, Three Rivers began providing RVs for short-term rental in October, according to the Alton (Ill.) Telegraph. The RVs are available in 25- and 30-foot lengths that can accommodate five to seven people.
Cruise America ranks as the nation’s largest RV rental firm. For more information, visit www.threeriversrv.com or call (618) 254-8856.
The Teton County (Wyo.) Board of Commissioners filed a lawsuit last week alleging the owner of Flat Creek Inn in Jackson, Wyo., and businesses that have been renting recreational vehicles there are violating county regulations.
The suit follows an order commissioners issued in June telling Flat Creek Inn owner Carl King to stop the pickup and drop-off of Cruise America RVs from his property, according to the Jackson Hole News and Guide. King owns Flat Creek Inn and Mart, a 72-unit motel and convenience store one mile north of Jackson.
The lawsuit also names Cruise America and Eagle Rentals. King also owns a house and acreage on the hillside just above the motel.
Teton County commissioners and Teton County Planning Director Jeff Daugherty brought the court case against King last week alleging he was violating land-development regulations by allowing the motel and the residential property to be used as part of a commercial enterprise for RV pickup and drop-off.
The county maintains the RV rentals violate regulations for the business conservation district, which was originally approved to allow the continuation of commercial uses that had sprouted in locations planners later considered unfit for such use and therefore subject to expansion limits.
The county says it has exhausted its administrative efforts to stop the rentals before going to court. Officials held a two-day hearing in June, found King was violating land-use rules and ordered him to stop.
King’s attorney, Ken Cohen, filed a lawsuit against the county in July, asking 9th District Judge Nancy Guthrie to reverse the cease-and-desist order and to determine if King was really in violation of land-use regulations.
The county’s lawsuit, filed last week, asks Guthrie to order that King stop delivering RVs to guests at his property. It asks that commissioners be granted the authority to stop the illegal activity “by any and all means necessary” and that commissioners be allowed to have the property periodically inspected to ensure King has stopped.
It also requests that Guthrie grant commissioners the authority to fine King for the ongoing activity back to 2007 when he first started renting recreation vehicles at the site. The suit doesn’t specify the amount the commissioners would fine King.
Comfort and relative affordability are two reasons why some travelers and RV renters say rentals are up this year over last year, while RV sales are down in the sluggish economy.
About 5 percent of the nation’s 3,100 dealerships nationwide have closed in recent months and about 10 of 105 U.S. RV manufacturers have stopped production, according to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA). Sales are expected to be down 40% from 2008, the RVIA said.
But rental activity will be up about 12% this year, according to the Fairfax, Va.-based RV Rental Association (RVRA).
Businesses that sell and rent RVs in the Reno, Nev., area say they are seeing more rentals, especially around holidays such as the Fourth of July and next month’s Burning Man counterculture arts festival, for which local dealers have been booked for months, according to the Reno Gazette Journal.
“Yes, the economy has slowed down, but people still take vacations,” said Veera On Ta, owner of El Monte RV in Reno. “Our rentals are up 10% from last year.”
Cruise America in Reno has seen a 10% drop in business from last year, manager Wes Johnson said, but he expects things to turn around with a mid-season surge through September.
“The last few weeks have been great,” Johnson said. “We have eight units here, and just one has canceled, so its not doing too bad.”
And Classic Adventures RV Rentals is seeing brisk business, general manager Erik Schultz said.
Standing outside the RV he rented Thursday (May 21) for a family Memorial Day weekend trip from his home in Shipshewana, Ind., to Ohio, Matt Oxender was all smiles, according to WSBT-TV, South Bend.
The RV fit the bill perfectly, he said.
“You have all the luxuries of home right there. It has a nice full size refrigerator, so you don’t need to run to town for dinner or anything. There’s plenty of space for the kids. And you’re right there with all the action. You don’t have to go to a hotel room and drive back and forth,” he said.
It all comes for about $800 for the long four-day weekend.
It’s not cheap, but it’s better than the alternative, Oxender said.
“By the time you figure out renting hotel rooms each night, this comes out to be about the same. And it’s a convenience. It’s all about the convenience,” he said.
And it’s a convenience that’s suddenly skyrocketing in popularity.
Just ask Rick Slusher.
As the head representative for Cruise America RV Rentals at Techworks in Elkhart, Slusher has seen the down economy’s effects on rentals recently. He’s also seen a sudden upswing.
“We have nothing available. Nothing on the lot,” Slusher said. “All of our RVs are rented for the holiday weekend.”
It’s a far cry from just two years ago, when rentals were sluggish.
“We were down to maybe one or two calls a day (for RV rentals). Now, we’re up to maybe a dozen every day,” he said.
Rentals are up, too.
“We’re up 13% from last year. And, last year, we were up 100% at this time. So, we are up 13% over that hundred as of last year,” Slusher said.
He thinks there’s a simple reason why.
“I think it’s a money thing right now. People want to save money. People don’t have a lot of money like they used to (for vacations). So, they’re going the cheapest and best way they can go,” Slusher said.
It’s quickly becoming a national trend.
Across the country, rentals and sales of RVs are on the rise over the last few weeks.
Experts say it’s another encouraging sign for the hard hit RV industry.
“The kids can play, rest, and relax in there if it gets too hot outside,” Oxender said.
After all, the most valuable part of the whole deal is time spent together as a family. It’s so valuable, that Oxender says he’s considering buying an RV of his own.