Thinking about Renting an RV? Don't until you read this.
So you’re thinking about packing up the family and taking a COVID induced road trip across the country in a recreational vehicle (RV)? You’ve got images floating through your head like a Hollywood slow motion montage of nature, hikes, lakes and all the beautiful scenery America has to offer. Your family is smiling, the birds are chirping, the sun is shining and there are no annoying neighbors, face masks, social distancing lines or politics intruding to ruin it all.
You have the same American dream that launched Chevy Chase in Vacation and the potential for a glorious, epic family vacation.
I’m totally there with you. There’s some things to consider though before you plunk your hard earned cash down on a RV that looks more like Christmas Vacation than a Rockstar Crib.
How do I know? I’m moved my family (and my FFL business) from Texas to AZ this summer. When factoring in us, pets and some of the more “personal” items we wanted to transport vs ship: we also had the “great” idea to rent an RV. Now we had a unique twist that limited our choices on who to rent from (and I’ll tell you why this matters) since we were looking for a one-way trip vs round trip. We searched several sites and settled on Cruise America. Mainly because some of the other options and certainly those that in retrospect may have offered more variety; did not do one way rentals.
The Rental Process:
We rented a 25 foot Class C through Cruise America and let me describe for you the experience in hopes that for you; fore armed makes you a road warrior instead of road wearier.
Firstly: we went online and selected a local pickup location (there was only 1 choice) so I didn't so much choose as surrender. We were routed to the Cruise America affiliate nearest us. Although we initiated the reservation online, it required a follow up phone call to the 1800 number. *Sigh its 2020 but OK fine.
Here’s the first red flag that I shouldn’t have ignored, however I didn’t have any other choices or options. When you make the reservation through Cruise America: you’re locked in. There is a very limited grace period for cancellation. Now: their policy says they will allow you to cancel outside 7 days from your departure date; UNLESS it’s a one-way rental or if “areas where special events occur (Burning Man, Musical Festivals) if you cancel with 45 days you forfeit your down payment”. What is considered a “special event” is vague at best. With Covid there is some additional leniency, but be warned. In some cases; they may (or may not) allow you to shift the dates, this may require cancelling (plus any fees) and re starting a new reservation.
The second red flag? They will also charge you substantially (the daily rate plus fees) if you return later than planned. This forced us to reserve extra days just in case we faced any unanticipated delays. Do they refund the money if you return early? Of course not. That’s crazy talk. So again: plan carefully and measure your confidence that you’ll perfectly time your trip. If you don't; you're going to be penalized for extending.
With a short trip of 3+days, we paid over $1700 for the RV rental. This included the daily fees, taxes, “one way charge” [which I’ll get to the scam behind that later] and other preparation fees. We did opt for the insurance because, well you know. We didn't add anything addition (no gear, prepaid fuel, prepaid propane etc) and I recommend you don't either as they are unnecessary and over priced.
When we went to pick up the RV we got another fun surprise. Even though we were renting in one of the 5 biggest cities in the US, we were directed to a hole in the wall, lot downtown that looked like it could have served as anything from a mechanic shop, to a off season Christmas tree lot or maybe a vehicle impound yard. You know those U-Haul rental “stores” that are attached to gas stations? Picture that.
Now I’m not knocking any of those businesses. I’ve used each and every one of them purposefully or because, well you know. But they aren’t where I want to drop $2000 and rent an $80,0000 RV.
About as friendly as a DMV employee, the delivery person told me I could come anytime I wanted as long as it was between 10am and 12pm. They would be closed immediately at noon. Once I got there they were efficient and helpful-as long as you’re partial to chain smoking and limited information [see 12pm above]. They did their job; which apparently was show us the RV and shuttle us out of the lot as quickly as possible.
The RV itself was the typical 25 foot white fiberglass box Class C labeled as offensively as possible that it’s a rental and you’re a noob. I’ve owned RV’s and spent alot of time in both motorhomes and towables, so I’m familiar with the ins and outs of an RV. It had the basic equipment needed like power cords to connect at a camp site, dump hose, chemicals for the toilet and water hose (no filter though) etc. The exterior had a few scratches where someone clearly misjudged a turn, but nothing concerning.
The interior…a whole different story.
The front seats, both passenger and driver were so dark, I wasn’t sure if it was just wear and tear road grime or left over stains from a crime scene. The dash was the cheapest and most outdated that Ford makes. There was no bluetooth, let alone apple play or any other modern features. You may think I’m being pretentious, but you try navigating a few thousand miles looking down at Apple Maps playing on your phone because there is no where to put a phone on the dash. I didn't take photos as I wasn't planning an article, but trust me I've described it accurately.
The rest of the RV wasn’t much better. There were stains on the floor, dining cushions and counter that were permanent fixtures. But overall it looked serviceable.
The 18 mile drive to my house revealed what we were in for during the rest of the trip. The gas stove (you never want one of these if you can avoid it, get an electric flush mounted stove) bounced, rattled and clanged with what can only be described as audible ferocity. 35 year of shooting guns and riding motorcycles did not damage my hearing but 30 minutes in the RV left me temporarily deafened. That wasn’t it’s only assault. The dining window refused to stay shut and bounced open as I went down the road adding it’s vocals to the stove. This RV either had no suspension left or it had been removed by malicious gremlins because every small imperfection in the road bounced the RV like I was off roading in Moab. This of course pleased the stove and dining window which repeatedly celebrated the uneven road in joyous abundance.
You’ve probably got your hands firmly planted on your hips, your head shaking reproachfully and are wondering; “well if you were so dissatisfied and it was sooooo terrible, why didn’t you call Cruise America and complain or refuse it?”
Yep, good question. We did. I called and emailed Cruise America. Left a voicemail [see 12pm above] and got no response. We were scheduled to leave in 36 hours to travel across 3 states and move into a new city. We didn’t have the luxury of “refusing it” or rescheduling. They had no others on the lot.
Unless it failed to start, we were stuck with it.
My wife and I, our two pets and the remaining personal household goods set out for a scenic drive across Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. All in all the trip itself was uneventful and at least pleasant in so far as seeing some beautiful (and flat) areas of the western U.S.
That’s not to say it wasn’t miserable. It was. The ride was so rough and so loud we were constantly yelling at each other to be heard. Portions of the road (which were surprisingly few) that were smooth as glass felt almost orgasmic due to the reduced noise. We discovered the following additional list of things wrong with the RV:
The windshield leaked…water…all over the dash (rainstorm in New Mexico)
It also leaked from an unknown source, but probably the water tank- all over the kitchen floor and outside under the RV
The stove was not only loud, but broken in 2 places and dismounted from the gas line. This likely would have caused a fire if we lit it or attempted to use it.
The dining table was broken and refused to stay in place while driving (stripped screws)
The propane gauge was broken (could lead to overfilling if we were on a longer trip or used the stove [see above]).
The exterior storage locker refused to lock requiring us to rig it so it didn’t fly open during travel.
The transmission went into an emergency mode twice during mild to moderate hills even though it was in Overdrive as instructed.
Good news: toilet worked appropriately. Small miracles do exist.
If anything: the best part of the RV’s complete and utter failings is that it created an excess of appreciation when we arrived at camp, parked and had complete interior silence. We and our pets slept incredibly well on those couple nights.
Of course we woke with auditory PTSD for what we knew the next several hours of driving would require.
One Way Scam:
In returning the RV in Phoneix I was treated to a much different [better] experience. The return location was a large bustling, well organized center for Cruise America with dozens of units parked to head out, some for sale and some returning.
The team was fast, efficient and friendly. When checking out I gave them an abridged version of my experience and the empathetic associate knocked a few hundred off our rental [still cost me in excess of $1500]. Let me be clear, this was not enough, but I just wanted to be miles away from that RV and didn’t want to abuse the nice 19 year old handling the return.
But heres what I learned. Cruise America charges you an outrageous fee for a “one way” rental. Presumably because there is some administration in shuffling it or another RV back to the departure location. What really happens is when you rent a one way unit, they assign you the crappiest, run down, wrecked unit that is scheduled to retire and charge YOU extra to drive said piece of crap to the hub for them.
Suddenly it all made sense. We were given the nastiest, last leg RV, charged extra and then drove it for them to their hub where it’s either wholesaled, retail sold or dismantled. Don’t think this only happens on one ways though; they will do the same thing and rent a round trip unit, charge you full price and then trash the RV once it comes back.
If you’re near a hub, I highly recommend you go by first and validate the available units and condition. I didn’t have this option. Cruise America would only guarantee the size, no other details. The delivery location had none for me to preview or see until my day of rental.
You may chalk this up to one bad experience, but I challenge you to dig a little into the location you chose to rent from. Don’t go by their website (many sites manipulate their reviews) go to independent sources. Check google reviews, travel sites (that aren’t sponsored) and blogs where you’ll hear real life experiences.
What’s the point?
I offer this story so that you can make informed decisions, ask questions and prepare for an amazing trip with your family. Exploring the amazing United States in an RV can be a life changing experience. It allows you to disconnect from the hustle, breath deeply, mediate unconsciously and stirs the soul. I want you to have that experience.
Here is my short list of tips:
Be crystal clear on the reservation policy, deposit, cancellation dates and every specific fee.
Make sure you have complete confidence in your dates with little or no variation as changes will cost you
Drive by and visit the delivery location before renting. Look for cleanliness, professional operation, example units, availability etc
Demand validation of all the core features and don’t assume. Validate bluetooth, apple play, whether linens are included, dishes, chemicals etc.
Everything is negotiable. Negotiate when you make the reservation and when you return it if needed.
You can probably ignore the “return condition” guidelines if it’s a hub. They aren’t going to check that you just flushed the black tank, refilled water or propane etc. If it’s in serviceable condition and not either completely full (or empty=propane) they aren’t likely to charge you.
Check for alternates to Cruise America and Go Rving. If you’re in a larger city or near a recreational area; there are probably alternate sites that are like AirBNB for RV’s. They will get you a MUCH better RV for the same price.
Plan to bring your own personal gear like linens, eating equipment (disposable is better) and any comfort items.
Bring some basic tools, screw driver, duct tape, wrenches and a hammer. You may need one of them before the trips over.
Happy traveling and enjoy.