A caravan, camper, or, as it is most commonly known in the USA, an RV (Recreational Vehicle), is a term used for a motorhome. In the following lines, I would like to share with you the experiences we gained during our three-week trip in a rented vehicle in the Southwestern USA. We traveled in the smallest type of RV, a 19ft vehicle for 2-3 people; some details may vary for larger categories.
RV Rental in the USA: Ordering, Vehicle Delivery, and Rental
We booked our vehicle through the internet via Cruise America in Los Angeles about four months in advance. Booking early certainly pays off. Small RVs are in demand, and besides, you can save several thousand. The base price per day was $64, with additional charges for equipment, generator use, miles driven, transportation from/to the airport, etc., all according to your needs and discretion. The formalities are similar to renting a standard vehicle.
Furthermore, the rental company will send instructional videos so that everyone can become familiar with the RV’s operation at home. It is definitely worth paying attention to these, as you have time at home, peace of mind, and you won’t be stuck at the depot while receiving the vehicle.
It’s worth noting that in the USA they won’t rent you an RV on the day you arrive from overseas. You need to check in (preferably at a hotel near the airport), stay overnight, rest, and only the next day can you pick up the vehicle. There is no way around it, the rental company verifies this.
We had to present our driver’s license plus an international driver’s license according to the 1949 convention. The second type of international driving license under the 1968 Convention is not valid in the USA.
There is a special surcharge for an additional driver. The minimum age for renting a motorhome in the USA is 25 years.
The physical handover of the vehicle to us and back was quick; everything was prepared, demonstrated, and a standard protocol was written. Interestingly, some minor flaws and defects were discovered only during our use and were therefore not included in the handover protocol (malfunctioning drain valve, missing gasket on the water hose, etc.). These were minor, but we had to solve them ourselves during use, sometimes improvising, and so I pointed them out when returning the car. To our surprise, the rental company paid us $70 as compensation. I cannot but write that they were very professional.
RV Equipment and Interior
Living in an RV is modest, but you’ll find everything you need – a bedroom, kitchenette, dining area, shower, and toilet. Everything is compact to fit. The living area and the car cabin are not separate. RV 19 has only two full-size car seats, with a third passenger traveling in the living area. This will be similar in larger, multi-passenger RV types. The seats in the living area have seat belts but lack head restraints; some are positioned sideways to the direction of travel.
For sleeping over the cab of the vehicle, you have to climb up onto the double bed. The vehicle has heating, air conditioning, plenty of lighting, privacy curtains, and mosquito nets. There is a fridge, a microwave, and lockers.
There is an extra charge for kitchen and sleeping utensils, towels, or camping furniture. You can order them, but it’s not mandatory. Personally, I recommend renting everything; it’s hassle-free, you get packages with everything you need and can return it at the end.
RV Service or What Is “Dumping”
Having your own shower, toilet, and sink necessarily involves having water tanks, both clean and waste. The pumping of water and the dumping of waste are done at designated stations, called Dumping Stations. These are generally inconspicuous locations (always present in RV parks and can be used for a fee even if you’re not residing there) or specially marked areas on the side of the road. There is a utility water stand and a sewage sump. Your RV comes equipped with all the necessary hoses. You simply connect, open the valves, and pump in and out.
Operation is not complicated. There is a control panel inside the RV where you can see how much water, gas, waste, etc., you have. There are completely free stations; elsewhere, you pay around $20.00. The SaniDumps.com website was helpful in finding the free ones, or I simply typed “free dumping” and location into a search engine.
If you wish to camp for free outside of campgrounds, be aware that RV water supplies are somewhat limited. If you’re not conservative, you will find yourself without water in the evening, even though you pumped a full tank in the morning. We were water frugal and made do with our own water supply for about 3 days. If you don’t want to cut back, you have to use the paid RV campgrounds (see below) where there is the option of hooking up to campground water, sewage, etc.
I would like to point out the danger of freezing temperatures. Many U.S. national parks are at high elevations, and during our stay (in May!) the temperature dropped to -7° C at night in Bryce Canyon (2,600 m). Therefore, beware of potential damage to the RV due to freezing temperatures.
The RV has its own generator, which is operated by a single button inside the vehicle, and a backup battery. The fridge runs on LPG when everything is off.
If something serious breaks down, contact the rental company. Even replacing a tire, as we are used to doing, is not recommended.
RV Driving and Parking
Driving an RV certainly requires some driver experience and caution, especially in strong crosswinds… after all, it is essentially a house on wheels. Although it does not possess a 4×4 drive, it does have a powerful engine and a high chassis, enabling us to drive virtually anywhere, even on unpaved roads.
Our RV consumed approximately 20 gallons of Regular every 100 miles, including the generator.
Particular attention should be paid to the vehicle’s height, for example, when parking under trees (speaking from personal experience). While driving through the tunnel in NP Zion, we were alerted about its lower height and the need to drive through the tunnel’s center.
Driving in the USA is slower and more considerate than here. The roads are wide, but we were unpleasantly surprised by their uneven surfaces in some areas. It’s definitely worth tidying up before driving an RV and not leaving loose items, dishes, etc. around, for safety reasons and also due to the uneven roads.
We didn’t encounter any issues with parking. There was an abundance of parking spaces everywhere, even for RVs. However, this situation may differ during the peak tourist season. Americans love RVs and often travel in campers the size of giant buses, with a car, boat, etc. attached. There were no issues with parking areas along the highways; we even managed to park peacefully right in downtown Las Vegas behind a casino. RVs are quite prevalent in the USA, with RV parks and RV campgrounds widespread. Moreover, the advantage of an RV 19 is that, with a bit of skill, you can park it in a spot for a personal car.
Parking prices at paid parking lots can vary. While it cost $20.00 to park a personal car in downtown San Francisco, we had to pay $65 for half a day for an RV. Overnight parking, that is, parking at night, is prohibited by signs in many places, and trust me, there will be someone checking.
RV Parks and RV Campgrounds for a Fee
I estimate that about 95% of RV users frequent RV parks, most of whom are Americans.
Staying at paid campsites is not inexpensive. The notion that traveling by caravan and staying at campsites will result in lower accommodation costs is entirely misguided.
The cost for an RV campsite with full hookup (an RV site with water, sewer, and electric hookups) starts at approximately $50–$60 (2017 shoulder season). The KOA campgrounds network, which most RV rental companies recommend, has even higher prices.
A standard RV campsite (basically overnight parking without water, etc.) starts at about $20.00. Many RV parks do not even offer these basic sites. Besides the hookups, the advantage of campsites lies in their infrastructure – showers, laundry, sometimes a pool, etc. However, some do not offer any facilities.
On the downside, for us at least, aside from the price, is their appearance. Usually, they are expansive areas, often paved, where one RV is parked adjacent to another, and there are dozens of them. They resemble a giant parking lot like Tesco’s. Of course, there are better options in the lush greenery of national parks, but even there you will be looking at your neighboring RV up close. Even during the off-season, many places were filled to capacity.
Free RV Camping or How to Make It Cost Nothing
When I examine the price lists for RV camping, like probably every average tourist, I question why I should pay so much simply to arrive in the evening, stay the night, and depart the following morning.
Some people resolve this issue by spending the night in Walmart parking lots, but these are not available everywhere, and I saw the mandatory no overnight parking signs at the ones we visited along our journey. There is also the option to spend the night in the RV at highway truck rest areas. None of these options is very romantic, though.
That’s why, before the trip, I searched for ways to fulfill our dream of camping in the great outdoors. I managed to achieve this through the website FreeCampsites.net.
Of course, you need to have internet access (available at fast food joints, Walmart, or via a 400 MB data package). Their app did not work for me. The site contains a plethora of information, including maps that not only show paid campsites but also free campsites in a given location. These are typically locations on state land (forest, pasture, meadow, desert) set aside for these purposes. You can legally camp here, with an RV, under a tent, or in a car. There are no facilities, but the terrain and fire rings are the only indicators that you are in a campsite.
Everything is absolutely free, and most importantly, you are almost on your own. Occasionally, there may be someone else, but they will be at a reasonable distance. When camping at these RV sites, you need to rely on your own water supply, generator, etc. If you are camping, you might not mind stepping behind a bush. And there’s no need to be scared. It’s up to each individual to decide whether they prefer a full campsite or solitude in the woods. We felt completely safe in the countryside. It was just romantic, pure nature. You can see what such camping looked like in my photos. It’s all about finding the right place, navigation pays off, sometimes we searched even after dark, but always with success.
The aforementioned website also proved to be very helpful when we were figuring out where to camp during our visit to San Francisco. It recommended parking at the viewpoint right by the Golden Gate Bridge. I would never have imagined that we would be sleeping in an RV under a bridge with such a prestigious name.
As recommended by this website, we embarked on a 24-day journey, covering a distance of 3,790 mi, traversing 12 national parks, and witnessing countless other scenic views and landmarks. We paid for camping only three times, due to a lack of alternatives, for instance, in Monument Valley and in Los Angeles near the airport before concluding our trip. We camped amid untouched nature and stunning landscapes. If my calculations are correct, we saved at least $1,350 that would have otherwise been spent on paid camping. That’s a decent saving for future holidays.
We were absolutely exhilarated by our RV trip. Don’t anticipate luxury, it’s a bit austere, yet absolutely delightful. There’s no need to pack luggage when you move, no setting up tents, no time wasted on these activities. Your own toilet and bed are always conveniently nearby, regardless of whether you’re in Las Vegas or at the Grand Canyon. You arrive at the RV and can stretch out in bed. It’s like carrying your house on your back.
I genuinely hope you find our experiences and insights valuable. Give it a shot, travelling by caravan is definitely worth it.
The author of this article is Renata Tunová. You can find her other exceptional photos from her travels not only in the USA on RenataTunova’s Instagram.
Photos from a Road Trip in an RV Across the USA