Costs can add up when renting an RV

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.

The drive

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.

The lessons

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.

If you rent

Compare apples to apples: Some RV rental contracts may include items that others charge extra for. Ask: Is insurance part of the price? Is there an hourly fee to use the generator? Is propane use included?

Calculate your mileage in advance: On websites like mapquest.com, it's possible to get a very good idea of where your trip will take you, and figure out how many miles you'll drive. Generally a certain number of miles is included, and you pay extra for overages.

Rent from someplace nearby: For my rental, I got 500 miles included, and had to pay 20 cents a mile over that. The place I rented from was a 150-mile round trip from home, so I used up 150 of my miles before we ever started the trip.

Rent what you need: A bigger motor home won't necessarily be more comfortable, but it probably will get worse fuel mileage.

Check own insurance before renting: Insurance is available at a reasonable cost from the renter, but you may have coverage on your policies.

If you have never rented an RV, consider getting it a day early: Driving a big RV takes practice. Though the renter will give you instructions on how the equipment works, it could be worthwhile to pay extra to rent the RV early to allow you and your family time to get comfortable with it.

Check out resources:

The website howtorentanrv.com is helpful, as is rvra.org, the website for the Recreational Vehicle Rental Association. cruiseamerica.com also has detailed information.

Costs can add up when renting an RV 10/21/10 [Last modified: Thursday, October 21, 2010 5:30am]

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