The Beginner’s Guide to Renting an RV

Sam KemmisSeptember 9, 2020

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As air travel remains a distant dream, roadside motels feel especially unappealing and gasoline prices hit record lows, this year might be the perfect time to hit the open road in a recreational vehicle.

Yet for beginners, the world of RV rentals can seem strange and overwhelming. What’s a “Class C” motor home? Do you need a generator? And how does insurance work? In this article we’ll break down the basics of renting your first RV.

Where to rent an RV

Many online RV rental agencies let you compare prices, dates and models. However, unlike car rental companies, which all provide the same basic services in similar ways, the RV rental world is more of a Wild West, with different companies offering different pricing and mileage rules.

Here are three popular options, including the pros and cons of each.

CruiseAmerica

You’ve probably seen CruiseAmerica RVs on the highway, covered in gaudy advertising. This ubiquitous rental agency likely owes its success to one important factor: simplicity. It offers only three motor home options (small, medium and large, plus a truck camper alternative), making it a good starting place for daunted beginners.

This simplicity applies to CruiseAmerica’s pricing policy, too, which is relatively straightforward (compared to some competitors). That said, keep an eye out for “gotchas” — including generator fees, state taxes and even fees to rent basics like bedding and cookware — which can quickly balloon the cost of a trip.

Pros 

  • Simple: Choose small, medium or large, and receive an upfront mileage estimate.

  • Ubiquitous: 129 locations across the country.

  • Pet-friendly.

Cons 

  • Fees for basics like bedding and cookware.

  • Limited selection.

Outdoorsy

Outdoorsy is a peer-to-peer RV rental platform, making it more like Airbnb than a traditional rental service. This means it offers tremendous selection, from brand-new motor homes to funky vintage vans.

However, it also means that the products, terms and fees vary from owner to owner, requiring more comparison shopping and fine-print reading than a traditional rental. For example, some owners don’t allow pets (at all), while others do (with variable fees).

Pros 

  • Diverse selection.

  • Wide price ranges.

Cons 

  • Variable rental terms and fees.

  • Confusing insurance coverage.

RVshare

Similar to Outdoorsy, RVshare offers a platform on which owners list and rent vehicles. You’ll find more traditional motor homes here than on Outdoorsy, and fewer #vanlife-ready ones.

Given that peer-to-peer platforms like RVshare depend on trust, it’s surprising how opaque and unhelpful its review system is. Almost all vehicles seem to have a five-star rating, but the number of actual reviews isn’t listed:

However, RVshare does provide clear fee and policy descriptions for each vehicle, and offers more straightforward insurance options than many competitors.

Pros 

  • Straightforward vehicle and insurance pricing.

  • Huge selection of standard motor homes.

  • Clear rule and fee breakdowns (including pet and cleaning fees).

Cons 

  • Unhelpful rating and review system.

How much does it cost to rent an RV?

Like any travel expense, the cost of renting an RV will depend on several factors, including seasonality (with summer rentals being more expensive), location and mileage driven. That said, you can expect to spend at least $100 per night for a small RV with few bells or whistles.

This baseline cost might sound appealing compared with the price of, say, renting a car and staying in budget hotels. But the real cost of an RV trip includes many more line items, including:

  • Fuel. RVs consume a lot of gas. The standard CruiseAmerica vehicle gets 10-12 miles per gallon, so a 1,000-mile trip will require 83-100 gallons.

  • Mileage fees. Unlike rental cars, it’s rare to find an “unlimited mileage” rate for an RV. CruiseAmerica charges $0.35 per mile for most rentals, which likely adds more to the total price than fuel — a 1,000-mile trip costs $350 in mileage fees alone.

  • Generator fees. Generators provide power to air conditioning, appliances and electrical outlets. They also cost extra on some rentals. Some vehicles include a flat per-rental fee, while CruiseAmerica charges $3.50 per hour of use.

  • Camping fees. You might think RV living means the freedom to camp anywhere, but usually you’ll want to stay in a campground or RV park to take advantage of the amenities. The cost of these facilities can vary widely depending on the facility, from $5 to $50 per night.

  • Cleaning fees. Most RV rental services expect you to return the vehicle’s interior in the same condition you found it. Failing to return a clean vehicle can incur a fee — $250 for CruiseAmerica.

  • Extras. Camping equipment, bedding, cookware and dozens of other road trip essentials are often provided as “extras” for an additional fee. For example, CruiseAmerica charges $110 per “kitchen kit” and $60 per person for sheets and pillows.

  • Insurance.See below.

Overall, while it may be cost-effective depending on your needs, renting an RV certainly isn’t cheap. It’s a fun, different way to take a road trip, but it’s generally not a great way to save money on your next vacation. Being realistic about these costs ahead of time can help determine an overall trip budget.

Do you need insurance for an RV rental?

The short answer is yes — but that’s where the simplicity ends.

Your existing auto insurance policy might provide some coverage for an RV rental, but this varies from insurer to insurer (and state to state, and policy to policy). We recommend calling your insurance company before renting an RV and asking specifically what is covered, what isn’t, and what you’ll need additional coverage for. Write down any terms you aren’t familiar with, and don’t be afraid to call your agent back with follow-up questions — this is what you’re paying them for.

Each rental company offers its own coverage for vehicles, usually running from basic to premium. More premium coverage will include lower deductibles and greater liability thresholds. The right plan for you will depend on:

  • What your current auto insurance covers.

  • Your risk tolerance.

  • Which vehicle you rent.

Note: Although some credit cards offer auto rental collision damage insurance, many (including the Chase Sapphire Reserve®) exclude motor homes from this coverage.

Should I consider buying an RV vs. renting one?

Depending on how much you love the RV life, it might be a better investment in the long run to buy an RV outright. Add up the costs above that you’ll pay to RV rental companies like cleaning fees, mileage fees and those “extras” (do you really want to get charged $110 for a kitchen kit every time you hit the road?). Multiply that by how many times you anticipate an RV trip in your lifetime, and those costs might start to make you feel carsick.

In that case, you might find it cheaper to buy your own RV to avoid the pesky fees. Plus, if you buy your own RV, you can fill it with whatever cookware you’d like.

Whether you rent or buy, there are some costs you’ll have to pay either way, including:

  • Campsite rental fees.

  • Fuel.

  • RV insurance.

  • Vehicle generator fees.

If you rent, you might find yourself on the hook for other fees to the rental company including:

  • Fees per mile driven.

  • Items for rent inside the RV, including cookware and bedding.

  • Additional fees like environment fees.

That said, if you buy, you’ll still be subject to some other expenses, including:

If you want to buy outright and you intend to finance your RV purchase, our RV loan calculator is a straightforward way to estimate how much an RV will cost you over the course of the loan:

If you get bitten by the RV bug and find yourself road-tripping multiple times a year, you may find it better to own your own RV.

The bottom line

Whether taking an epic road trip, getting into nature for a long weekend (but not too into nature) or testing the waters before buying your own, renting (or even buying) an RV can offer a fun escape. Just don’t necessarily expect it to be cheap or simple.

We covered the basics of finding and insuring an RV in this guide, but we didn’t touch on the practical aspects of RV life, such as finding dump stations, learning to back up and maintaining ventilation. Make sure to familiarize yourself with this know-how before hitting the open road. It’s always a good idea to ask a seasoned motor home veteran for their hard-won practical knowledge.

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