My first experience in renting a recreational vehicle recently taught me a few unexpected lessons for the road. The most important: Make sure your purpose matches what the RV does well. They provide lodging and leisurely transportation for a vacation. But as a moving van — and as a vehicle for a too-fast, non-stop, cross-country trip — an RV may not be the best choice.
The occasion was not a vacation, but the need to move my 85-year-old mother from Arkansas to Florida. We thought the 2,300-mile round trip would be more comfortable in a roomy RV, rather than in a car. And the RV would also have storage space to bring her personal items and small pieces of furniture.
I went online and priced rental RVs. The daily rate was fairly consistent, but the per-mile charges weren't, from 18 to 40 cents a mile. I ended up using a private dealership that had a handful of rentals rather than a major rental company, like Cruise America, which has 10 locations in Florida alone.
We got a 2006 Jayco Escapade with about 43,000 miles on it. The front part was a heavy-duty Chevrolet van, with a 6.0-liter V-8 engine. At the back was a queen-sized bed. There was a shower, a bathroom, an electric generator, a refrigerator and freezer, a stove, a microwave, a dining table and a couch, plus plenty of storage areas, both inside the RV and underneath it. The Jayco was a "Class C" motor home. Class A is the largest — bus-sized — and Class B is the smallest, more like camper vans. Even within classifications, sizes vary, and at about 30 feet, this particular Jayco was a very long RV.
On the road, the Escapade accelerated slowly, and you must fight the tendency to floor the accelerator, because that torpedoes fuel mileage. I wasn't prepared for the grim mileage I got: between 6 and 7 miles per gallon. I spent more than $700 on fuel, close to what the entire rental would cost.
From Friday to Monday, I would pay $400 for the rental itself, with 500 miles included. After 500 miles, I'd pay 20 cents a mile. I was guessing the trip would be 2,000 miles total, which would have made the rental $700, plus $49 in tax. I also paid a $500 damage deposit, and a $100 cleaning deposit. Had we taken pets, it would have been another $250 extra deposit. The deposits would be returned later, less expenses — your use of the generator and propane is extra; you are charged $50 if you don't "dump" your waste water, and there was my extra-mileage costs. I also opted for the insurance, which was $78.
What I learned: RVs are no fun when you are in a hurry. Fuel mileage will always be low, but the more leisurely your trip, the better the mileage. I also would have opted for a smaller "Class B" motor home, which was $200 more to rent — little ones are more popular — but it would have been easier to drive, and I would have made that $200 up in better gas mileage.
Would I do it again? With total costs for this weekend trip topping $1,500, no. But I'd love to try an RV for a trip to the beach — keep the drive to less than 500 miles, and the $100-a-day rental seems reasonable. And there was an undeniable relief at being able to say at any point in the trip, "I'm tired," and five minutes later, you're at a rest stop stretched out on the bed. Yeah, that part I liked a lot.