Renting Versus Owning — A Pro and Con Report
By Paula Loehr, R.N.
Until last spring, renting a recreational vehicle was not on my family’s to-do list. We really didn’t need to consider it. My husband Dennis and I have owned RVs of one type or another since the early ’80s, when our first child was born. Pop-ups, a travel trailer and two motorhomes have served us as roadworthy second homes for as long as we care to remember. None of us can imagine our driveway without an RV parked in it.
Apparently, my family of five is not alone in our enthusiasm for RVing. The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) estimates that more than 8 million American households currently own an RV. As for prospective owners, more than one in six US residents who have never owned an RV say they would like to buy one in the future. When you consider that there are 16,000 public and privately owned campgrounds nationwide, the possibilities for RV adventures seem almost endless.
If you factor in the statistics for folks who rent RVs, the number of Americans with an interest in RV camping totals 30 million. In fact, the RVIA reports that the recreational vehicle rental business is a thriving $350 million industry, with 460 outlets in the United States alone.
My family’s initial interest in RV rentals came about when four of us decided to spend July 2010 camping in Australia. Renting was our only practical option, since our current Class B RV couldn’t possibly travel Down Under with us. Our oldest son Ross (who had camped in Australia three times before), convinced the rest of us that renting a motorhome was the only way to go. So we set out to do just that.
As compared with camping in the United States, touring internationally in a motorhome certainly differs in lots of ways. However, from a big picture perspective, the essential RV ownership versus rental experience is much the same, no matter where you travel.
Here’s what our recent RV rental taught us about owning/renting pros and cons.
As with any camping excursion, a trip taken in a rental RV requires plenty of advance planning. Ask for recommendations from other RVers to find a reputable rental company. Be sure to familiarize yourself with your chosen company’s rules and regulations, particularly in the areas of reservation deposits, assessed fees, mechanical breakdown policies and reimbursements for cancellations. Print out a copy of the entire rental agreement. Keep in mind, too, that a last-minute switch of vehicles (in which the RV you ordered becomes unavailable and is replaced by an alternate rig) is a possibility.
As an RV owner, you’re comfortably familiar with your rig’s assorted features, size, shape and functions. But the learning curve is steep when you’re orienting to a totally unfamiliar rental rig. Fortunately, RV rental companies recognize this fact, so they offer renters helpful advice, hands-on instruction and supervised test drives to promote safety and confidence.
RVing is RVing is RVing
There are lots of common expenses built into the camping experience, whether you’re traveling in a purchased RV or a rental unit. For example, the costs of food, fuel and overnight camping are essentially the same for owners and renters of similar RVs.
Considering Cost Effectiveness
RV ownership is a major financial commitment, no matter how you approach it. It usually begins with an initial down payment or cash sale, followed by somewhat predictable ongoing costs such as loan payments with interest charges, maintenance/repair bills, insurance premiums, and seasonal storage fees.
While RV rental expenses are substantial, they are self-limiting. Early reservations generally result in optimum rental rates, and special discounts are available, too, so remember to ask for them. Prices vary, based on geographic location, season and general demand. Reservation down payments, security deposits and general rental fees are standard. Extra fees related to taxes, reservation changes, actual mileage driven, generator use, one-way drop fees, late return fees and such are added. Proceed cautiously by reading the entire contract before signing. On the favorable side, your financial responsibility for a rented RV stops when your contracted time frame ends.
Only you can do the appropriate math to determine whether RV ownership or rental is your best individual course of action.
Playing the Field
Before you take the plunge into RV ownership, it’s sensible to sample a variety of rental rigs of all types, styles and sizes. A series of diverse rentals might help you identify the ideal rig that you want to purchase someday.
Here, There and Everywhere
How far you want to travel and how long you want to stay on the road can also help determine whether you should purchase or rent an RV. If your long-range plans call for lots of long-distance travel and extended stays on the road, chances are RV ownership is right for you.
One advantage of renting an RV is the ability to secure a one-way trip reservation, with vehicle pick-up at one location and drop off at another. Inquire about one-way drop-off fees, which are sometimes prohibitive, before you sign an agreement.
RV Sweet RV
Signature touches are what turn the rig that’s registered in your name into a one-of-a-kind hideaway. Customized features, from handcrafted coffee mugs to a state-of-the-art sound system, to your family portrait on the refrigerator door, encourage the sense that you’re really at home in your RV. Although rental units are generally cozy and decked out with all the latest conveniences, they lack the personalized appeal that comes with equipping and decorating your RV just as you like it.
Who’s in Charge?
Let’s face facts. Ultimate freedom and flexibility come when you hit the road in your own recreational vehicle. You can choose where to go, when to go, and what to do without paying too much attention to your calendar. Except for the looming rig return date, a high degree of open-ended fun is all yours in a rented RV, as well.
When it comes to RV insurance, a little research goes a long way. If you’re renting an RV, ask your standard auto and/or RV insurance policy provider if your current policy adequately covers an RV rental. If additional vehicle insurance is recommended, it can usually be obtained through your RV rental company or your standard insurance agent. Optional coverage’s offered by large rental companies such as Cruise America may include expense reimbursements for mechanical breakdowns, payments for accidental damage to a rented vehicle, and/or supplemental liability insurance.
It’s important to ask your rental company if kitchen supplies and linens are provided for free, for a fee, or not at all. You probably don’t want to pack duplicates of items already available in a rental rig, but neither do you want to discover (at bedtime or dinnertime) that there are no sleeping bags, pillows, kitchen pans, dishes or utensils in your closets and cabinets.
Keeping Things Ship-Shape
Simply stated, you’re responsible for everything, including all kinds of maintenance, when you opt for RV ownership. In case of a mechanical breakdown, a safety net such as Good Sam Emergency Road Service can help keep you confident, secure and rolling down the road.
RV rental companies generally provide 24-hour emergency assistance, as well. Ask about it up-front. Renters are responsible for routine maintenance that’s required while traveling, such as fluid level inspections, tire air pressure checks, fuel tank fill-ups, general cleaning, and, of course, holding tank emptying at the close of the trip.
Planning for Pets
There’s no debate about your pet hopping aboard if you own an RV, but is a pooch or kitty welcome to join the family fun in a rental motorhome? That depends on the individual company, so research with care if your pet is a member of your RV rental party.
Tow, Tow, Tow Your Boat
You can tow whatever your dare (and whatever’s legal) with an RV that you own. But what’s the towing policy for rental establishments? Just as with pets, towing regulations vary by company. Cruise America allows towing (with weight restrictions) on motorhomes equipped with receiver hitches, but customers must provide their own tow bars. Daily towing fees apply, but insurance coverage related to towing is not provided.
Are There Exclusions?
Here’s a word to the wise … When preparing to sign an RV rental contract, read all the fine print, and read it again. The remote area of Alaska that you want to explore or Manhattan’s sparkling cityscape might be out-of-bounds, depending on the rental company you choose. So ask pertinent questions about off-limit roads or regions before you complete your contract.
How does John or Jane Doe view an RV owner versus a renter? If our interactions with Australian travelers can be generalized to Americans, there’s a heightened sense of curiosity about campers who are renting. For example, if your RV bumper or windshield features your rental company’s logo and website, you can expect a heaping helping of rental-related questions. “How much does it cost?”, “How far are you traveling?”, and “May we please see the inside?” were common queries we received. While we also meet inquisitive people when we’re driving our own Class B back in the States, it seemed like the numbers of RV-interested parties soared when we took to the Australian roads in our rented KEA motorhome.
After many years of RV ownership and one very positive rental experience, my family’s view is that RVs are a wonderful way to travel, no matter how you obtain them. While we’re likely to remain RV owners for a very long time to come, we applaud rentals as great alternatives — for new RV enthusiasts, for those who plan an occasional short camping trip, for former RV owners who haven’t purchased their new rigs just yet, and for RVers who like to camp internationally.
For more info about RV travel visit the Good Sam Club Trip Planning section where you can route your RV trip, read interesting RV travel articles, learn about points of interest, find RV campgrounds and print out RV checklists.