Insider's Guide to Getting Behind the Wheel

The sheer scale of unexplored remote wilderness is mind-boggling—more than 100 million acres are protected under the National Wilderness Preservation System. With 388 national parks here in America, and more than 40 across the border to our north, there is enough pavement to clock some serious Road Runner hours. Here is our guide to fueling up, buckling up, and setting your sights on the horizon—where to go, when to go, and how to get there (safely).
By Cheryl-Anne Millsap
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Nova Scotia, Canada
THE BEST SEAT IN THE HOUSE: RVing Along Canada's Nova Scotia Coast (Hannele Lahti)

Perhaps it was born of the freedom to explore the vast expanse of land separating the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, or the terrain between the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico, but setting out in a recreational vehicle is a uniquely American pastime—a breed born of passion for the outdoors and the bond between a family. For 100 years, we've been rigging homes on wheels to take us into varicolored mountainsides, next to coasts with dazzling blue waters scratching the horizon, and through city skyscrapers and puzzle-piece roadway systems. Generations have grown up with memories of camping at national parks, along vast prairie lands, and by rivers and lakes.

Today, despite the sour economy and the threat of rising fuel prices, experts say that RV sales and rentals are rebounding and more Americans anticipate getting in the driver's seat of a home on wheels. It is a concept with deep appeal—no crowded airports, no delayed flights, no pat-downs by the TSA—and, most importantly, less strain on the budget. It's just you, the family (maybe the dog), and the open road.

If renting an RV has been on your radar, here are a few things you'll need to know before starting the engine.

The Rental Process
Renting an RV isn't as simple as booking a car from the rental agency on your way out of the airport. First, you need to determine which type of rig is best for you. If you're planning to tour Glacier National Park's Going-to-the-Sun Road, some larger Class A vehicles may not be the best choice for those narrow mountainside bends. Likewise, if your trip will consist of sun-up to sun-down driving, you might prefer a cushier ride with plenty of room to combat cabin fever. Whether you want a house on wheels or are looking for something lightweight to hitch up and take along determines both cost and convenience.

There are seven basic types of RVs—three motorized, four towable: Class A, Class B, Class C, fifth wheel, travel trailer, truck camper, and pop-up. Of the seven, there are four that are the most common.

Class A
This is the largest, most luxurious, and generally most expensive motor home. Constructed on a specially-designed chassis, Class A models are 24 to 35 feet in length and are usually as whim-indulgent as a complete vacation home—recliners, a king-size bed, flat-screen televisions, and a plethora of other upscale amenities that bring along all the comforts of home. Depending on location, Class A motor homes can rent for as much as $500 per day.

Class B
The Class B "camper van" is a cargo van that has been customized for camping, with bed(s), an eating area, and possibly a toilet or shower. Of the three types of motorized RVs, camper vans are the smallest, sleeping two comfortably, four maximum. Those who want to be flexible—perhaps sightseeing during the day and returning to the campsite in the evening—will want to consider this option. Class Bs handle just like a regular van, with more maneuvering capabilities than expected. Rental rates are, depending on season and location, $120 to $220 per day.

Class C
The Class C motor home is built on a van frame 16 to 30 feet in length. Outfitted with a queen-size bed, folding dinette/bed combination, double stove, and over-cabin sleeping loft, the Class C is a flexible and affordable rig for larger families. Six to eight campers can fit comfortably, so it's a great option for bringing the whole brood. Since Class Cs do not require elaborate setup, they're also a great option for seniors. Depending on the season, Class C motor homes rent for $150 to $330 per day.

Fifth-Wheel Trailer
It's outfitted with all the luxuries of a Class A or C motor home, but the fifth-wheel trailer is towed by a pickup truck equipped with a gooseneck hitch in the bed and is meant to be detached and left at a campground while off exploring the area. The fifth-wheel helps control stability and creates a better center of gravity, minimizing the amount of sway while towing. Fifth-wheels are the most luxurious of towable campers, with full-size appliances, a king-size bed, and sometimes bay windows and fireplaces. Fifth-wheel trailers can rent for $200 to $350 per day.

Other RV options include the travel trailer, which is good for those whose vehicles have towing packages. It is equivalent to a Class A motor home but without the engine and is often capable of sleeping up to eight people. The pop-up camper is a lightweight, collapsible, and/or folding unit that is towed, sometimes even by a mid-size car. The truck camper is a model that sits in the bed of your truck. These easily mounted campers are popular among weekend campers and parties of no more than four.

Those who are heading to warmer weather for the winter season, or families who want to maximize their vacation time by flying into or out of a destination, will want to consider a one-way rental. One-way renting is a bit trickier in the busiest travel seasons—generally June through September—so be sure to give yourself plenty of time to finalize booking.

As with most things in life, RV rentals are not exempt from fees:
-Some rental agencies tack on an additional fee for a one-way rental.
-Rental fees may include a security deposit, cleaning fee, and pet deposit.
-It is not uncommon to have to agree to a cancellation fee in your contract.
-Know which party is responsible in case of a mechanical breakdown and the process by which you'll get reimbursed.
-In cold temperatures, many RV models must be winterized, meaning all water will be drained from the tanks. If you choose to de-winterize once you are on the road, many rental agencies will require you to pay a re-winterization fee upon return of your rig. Make sure you fully understand all rules and regulations before signing anything!
-Many of the larger rental agencies offer the chance to rent "extras"—barbecues, lawn and beach chairs, bike racks, GPS, child seats—to avoid having to buy and pack your own.
-Many rental agencies offer military discounts.
-Most rentals are allotted a specific amount of mileage per day. Be clear about what you are allowed and watch the odometer. Additional mileage fees usually run around 50 cents per mile and can get quite costly.
-Generator usage is also commonly restricted. Try to find a rental with unlimited generator hours or one that offers pre-paid hours. Overusing your generator hours comes with a fee upwards of $2 per hour.

The Logistics
In most U.S. states, you're not required to get a special license to drive the majority of RV models, although some states require one for the larger Class A vehicles. Check your state's Department of Motor Vehicles website for more information. If you already have auto insurance, your RV rental could potentially be covered—but don't just assume. Call your insurance provider to make sure you don't need to purchase additional RV coverage or add an RV rental rider to your policy. The fact that most RV renters are not regular RV drivers makes purchasing additional coverage a good idea. Furthermore, driving accidents are not the only potential setbacks to concern yourself with. Leaving an unattended RV at a campground is always a risk—cover yourself against theft and property damage.

Published: 18 Feb 2011 | Last Updated: 24 Mar 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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