One thing is certain: a trip in RV is like nothing else. It requires you to be prepared for what’s coming and learning very quickly a lot of new things to make the most of it and avoid the easy traps that can quickly transform your holiday in a nightmare.
Ever since a friend told me an RV road trip was the best holiday he ever had, i was obsessed with the idea (challenge?) of trying it for myself. So I started to learn about it and found it was such a project that it’s not something you can improvise last minute. We took a family road trip to the national parks from northern California (see trip below). Over 2500 miles of driving in 9 days. So better get ready.
I also realized the second i started to speak about it around me, that everyone was incredibly curious and intrigued about it, like discovering a new religion or a remote planet. RV tripping is an incredibly viral meme. As a matter of fact so many friends asked about my experience that i decided to write about it and share the details i wish i knew upfront.
Tip #1: Don’t be afraid, learn a little and jump
I was scared to death at first. The way i got myself accustomed to the idea i was going to drive a monster automobile which is also a home where many things are handled differently (water, sewage, electricity..), was by reading tons of material on the matter. I found Youtube and Quora to be incredibly resourceful in providing tips and insights. Here are some good channels and links. Rick Klau @ Google Ventures has a great post about how to handle a vacation in RV. Don’t be afraid to read several times the same material. Your memory muscles will help you remember all the details you need to know when you need them
Eventually is it worth it? TO-TA-LLY.
Don’t get me wrong: an RV trip is incredibly demanding: lots of driving, logistical stress, getting accustomed to a small(er) space,... It is a good stress test for life. But what you’re going to experience is well worth it. You will discover places in a totally different way, you have a great sense of freedom and flexibility, sleep and eat in incredibly 5 star scenic sites even the best hotels can’t provide…
Tip #2: To find your RV rental search and check in situ
There are many options to find the right and rent RV. Curiously no one has built a simplified Expedia for RV rental (yet), so you ll have to spend a lot of time on this [You can use RVshare but honestly i did not find the site well done]
For your first rental(s), what i recommend is that you try to find a place close to where you live where you can *see* the RV and find the model you want to use. I am not the type of person who likes camping or second-hand hotel rooms and was not ready to compromise on comfort. One of the leaders in the market is CruiseAmerica.com (you see many of those on the road) but i did not like what i saw.
I was ready to pay more for something that looked better and was built better. I finally found a place that rented recent RV privately owned and went for a Class A (looks like a mini bus) vs class C (the typical truck-like model). I found the class A design more elegant, more spacious, and the huge panoramic windshield was a killer when driving in scenic roads (really feels like a real life IMAX on steroids).
Do not compromise on quality and size: you need to enjoy your holidays and spending a week in a house on wheels is something that can quickly frustrate you. For 2 adults and 2 kids we found that 24" size was ok but i wish i picked the 30" instead. After i came back i saw the difference and it is huge. I also recommend you pick an RV that can slide out (becomes wider at parking). It makes a huge difference.
Tip #3: for your first RV trip rent close to/drive from home
One of the questions i had: should i rent closer to where we’re traveling (eg in UTAH) vs renting close to our place (northern California) and drive to your destination(s).
For our first trip we chose to rent close to our home. Why? i wanted to have the ability to learn the driving here (stress reduction) and not on the spot but i also thought it would be easier to offload our travelling gear from here, rather than flying somewhere and getting everything set up, not mentioning the necessity to buy everything again (night kit, kitchen kit…) because as you rent you realize the RV will be provided empty of utilities and food.
Driving from California to UTAH/ARIZONA is a huge pain but overall i am glad i made this choice because it was more convenient to organize (and cheaper also overall)
Power tip: Don’t get trapped by the timing: allocate a good 2/3 hours to load/set and off-load clean your RV with your stuff. In many cases you will find the RV is not provided clean and you will need to clean it.
Tip#4: prepare carefully your road trip ahead but be flexible
Unless you plan to go and stay in one spot only, an RV trip is not something you improvise last minute. You need to prepare carefully and pay attention to driving distances, stop-overs….. Here is what i did to prepare my trip: i used Roadtrippers.com which is a godsend to help you get things in order. It is incredibly resourceful to find spots to visit, stop-overs and RV park (the place where you park the RV to connect it to water, electricity and sewage). Everything is well designed, very visual with great mapping, documented and has a handy mobile app to use on the go [here is the trip we did]
Don’t even consider any other option. I tried them all this is by far the best. You will not only save time but also optimize your trip with the best options because everything is clearly reviewed and rated. Many users recommended the Woodall book [not the site] (the bible of RV parks) but honestly i found this site to be a lot more useful
One of the advantages of the traveling in RV is that your don’t have to stick to a plan if weather or timing plays against you which is impossible otherwise. A few days before our trip the weather completely changed and forced us to change our plan. I don’t know how i could have handled that with a plane and hotels. Most RV parks are only 30/50 USD a night. So even if you cancel and don’t get a refund (which usually is not happening) you don’t loose much
Power tip: one thing i wish i had was a travel assistant concierge down the road to ask for tips. The closest i found was operator (but not even that)
Tip#5: be ready for an offline life but ….
While on the road in remote places most of your apps on your phone will be useless because you don’t have data connection (or electricity). Here is the most important tip: Use Google offline maps options (spot a map and download it on your phone). It will save you many trouble. You can still use a paper map, but good luck with that at night when you’re tired and stressed driving a mini truck (and others are sleeping and can’t help you)
Also most RV parks have very poor wifi (when they have some), so prepare ahead of your trip or reset each time you find a good wifi spot.
I suggest you use Maps.me and AllTrails to be able to navigate offline. Also bring lots of extra-Batteries for your phone/ipad/flashlights
Tip#6: Finding an RV park
Technically speaking, you don’t have to park every night in an RV park. an RV is autonomous enough to run water, electricity for at least a couple of days at reasonable usage, but you will have to hook your RV at some point to refill water and dump your tanks (sewage — which is not the most fun part of the RV life). I found Roadtrippers.com to be helpful i also used a few more apps to spot an RV park on the go close to the sites we were visiting.
The process of booking an RV park online is incredibly painful (you’ll quickly realize the RV industry overall is not the most “modern” out there…): know that. Most of the RV parks have poor websites, sometimes with unreliable performance (often crash), mobile unfriendly, ask for lots of information in clunky booking forms and are not built for the XXIst century.
Unless you prepare ahead of time, make sure to have their phone number with you to complete the bookings on the phone (this is where the Woodall guide may be useful). It’s way faster to call than booking online while on the go. [KOA has a good network of campgrounds with a well produced booking site but you may want to camp in other places as they don’t always have the best spots]
Some RV parks are in very high demand (eg in Zion national Park) and you need to plan well ahead of time (especially in high season). My tip is to book the first few nights before you hit the road and accommodate based on your drive speed, weather…etc etc.
A cheaper solution (10/20 USD a night) is to land in a campground with not individual hookup (electricity, water, sewage, and wifi): they usually have a common dump and clean water refill which is useful on the way out.
An even cheaper solution is to park (for free) in a Rest Area or a Walmart parking. But so much for the landscape…This is more of a last resort than a first choice.
Wifi: Many RV parks have wifi, but most of them are of very poor quality. Don’t expect Netflix streaming to work well…For me Wifi was a must but there was no way to know how good would the wifi be before i get there (i got many bad surprises)
Oh and careful: Some RV parks don’t welcome pets and sometimes even kids (not joking). Check ahead of time to avoid bad surprises!
Finally, I recommend you check http://www.campsitephotos.com/ to *see* actual pictures of the park you’re going to be in and read reviews here http://www.rvparkreviews.com/. Many pictures you’ll find on the websites of the RV park are not accurate or of bad quality. You’ll get a better feel ahead of time.
Tip #7: buy peace of mind
I will not lie: i was scared to death to drive this thing and rightly so. It is huge and heavy: nothing like a (normal) car. The first hours on the road i was super stressed and to make things even worse it was pouring rain when we hit the road (later we even had a snow storm!). There is no shortcuts to get rid of this problem: you have to start driving and be (very) constantly careful.
You car insurance should cover you partially for an RV rental but it may not be enough (usually is not). Buy an RV specific insurance. This is a huge psychological relief.
You don’t need a special permit to drive an RV but i totally recommend you ask your rental company to take you through a driving test. If they don’t naturally offer it, ask for it. Insist. Really.
And whatever road assistance you have bundled with your rental i also recommend you have a AAA membership. They are unbeatable for road assistance
Obviously learn your RV before you hit the road: Most rental companies will give you a walk-through on how to use the generator, utilities, dump the tanks, fill the water, manage the battery, all the buttons, lights, basic repair and troubleshoot, run regular checks…..
Power tip: find a PDF of the RVmodel you re renting (easy to find on any manufacturer site) and download it to your phone. Just in case!
Tip#8: control your budget
I was surprised, but renting an RV nothing close to cheap. All inclusive (mileage, insurance, rental, rv park, gas and extras) you should allocate anywhere between 200 to 400 USD a day but if you go for an expensive RV it can quickly go north of 500 USD a day. But consider you’ll never need to go to the restaurant or buy a plane ticket. What affect the rental cost is : a. the type of RV you rent (cheap = cruiseamerica.com ), the mileage (usually excluded from the rental), and the gas (the RVs tanks are huge and consume a lot).
Avoid any bad surprises and build your budget before your travel. Again Roadtrippers will be useful there to calibrate gas cost.
I also strongly recommend you use GasBuddy to find the cheapest options for gas. Power tip: Refill even when half empty. Beyond the peace of mind of having your tank always filled up, you will realize while driving a lot prices can quickly change from place to place (eg Nevada vs CA) and you can quickly save hundreds of $$ by respecting this method. Google maps has also a great feature to find stations on the road (tap the search icon on your itinary and press “gas stations”)
Finally read very carefully the rental contract: Whatever the price of the rental, you will end up paying more than the first total you will be given. Make sure to be aware of what you get charged for extra mileage on top of what they provide [100/200 miles a day] (Eg in this case i would have paid an extra 500 USD on top of the rental for the distance we made ), for extras like propane, generator and return conditions, in particular your deposit (usually 1000$) which can quickly go away if you don’t take care of your RV (eg cleaning bugs on the Windshield).
Power tip: take pictures of your RV inside out when you pick it up so you have a record of what you have — and share them with the rental company the day of the pick up
Tip #9: If you plan to visit national parks buy a year pass
Each national park you will visit pass cost 20/30 USD. It is well worth investing in a National Park Pass : pay once and you’re set. It cost only 80$ and it covers most of the great parks you will visit
Tip#10: Travel Gear, Nootrobox, Snacks and Gloves
Even though you can make your own coffee in your RV, bring Nootrobox GoCubes with you. I need a lot of coffee but on the road you don’t always want to stop. Nootrobox is a great little cube that will provide your coffee dose while driving.
Same with snacks if you’re hungry and don’t want to lose time on lunch break to arrive before nightime (i hate driving at night)
Why gloves? see below why at tip #12
Pinterest is a great resource to find things you need to think of for your RV trip (follow this link)
Tip#11: Prepare for a long drive
That means you will be seated a lot driving a lot. RV seats are clearly more comfy than most cars (more like a business class seat) but i did not want to take a chance and that thing literally saved my ass
Buy one of those
Tip #12: Tanks
Here is the worst part of having to handle an RV. you need to regularly empty the “gray” and “black” water (the soft expression for you sewage). This is very uncomfortable to deal with when you’re not used to it but nothing you can’t handle eventually. Here is my tip: do it in daylight *only* [they won’t tell you that..], wear plastic gloves and on top any old glove. Then do it and pray for the best (just kidding)
After you’re done (unless your RV rental provides it) buy toilet and sink pellets (i found those on amazon). And constantly wash your hands.
Finally, many RV companies will ask you to return the RV tanks empty (if you don’t they charge you an extra)…which means you need to find a dump before you come back, and usually it may not be empty (i will let you guess why…). Use this service that will help you find a good spot while on the way back.
Alternatively, spot an RV park/Campground on the way back close to your drop off location and do it there.
Power read: here is a good “how to”
Tip #13: your smartphone is your friend
I found a good selection of apps can cover most of your needs while on the go. Here are the apps i recommend you use while traveling with your RV
> Google maps/Waze
> Gasbuddy: find cheap gas around
> Roadtrippers: prepare your trip.
> Maps.me: get offline maps. just in case
> RV locations: see above
> iExit: find what’s worth at every exit while on the road (gas stations)
> Sanidumps: find dumping stations
> Operator: this one was useful so you can ask a concierge to do things for you. Useful when you don’t have full access to your computer (ticketing, booking, …)
> Dark Sky: best weather app to find out what’s going to happen at your exact location.
> Alltrails: all the maps (offline) for your hikes
> Automatic: your RV is likely not very “high tech”, Automatic will make it more digital and app connected (where you parked it, gaz alert,..)
Also check http://www.allstays.com/apps/ which has a good collection of hiking and RVing apps (unfortunately with poor design)
Oh! and you’re going to enjoy your return to normal life. Your house will feel like a giant luxurious mansion. Your shower will feel like the best shower in the world and driving your car will feel like playing the violin but without box gloves.
That’s it. Enjoy!