A First-Timer’s Guide to an RV Road Trip

The RV rental market is exploding, and now anyone with a valid driver’s license and a hankering for the open road can take one for a spin. Not sure where to start? Here’s what one family of motorhome newbies learned on their 10-day 2,300-mile journey.

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Photo By: Sunny Seagold

Photo By: Sunny Seagold

Photo By: Sunny Seagold

Photo By: Sunny Seagold

Photo By: Sunny Seagold

Photo By: Sunny Seagold

Photo By: Sunny Seagold

Photo By: Sunny Seagold

Photo By: Sunny Seagold

Photo By: Sunny Seagold

California Dreamin’

My grandmother turned 95 this year, and my husband and I wanted to take our two daughters, ages 5 and 7, to see her in Southern California (and sneak in a visit to Disneyland at the same time!). But after pricing out airfare, car rental, and hotels from Portland, Oregon to Los Angeles I had a crazy idea: what if we drove and saved the cost of airfare? Even better, what if we drove something we could also sleep in? Neither one of us had ever driven anything larger than an SUV, and the longest stretch of time that we’d all spend in the car together was three hours, but the promise of a new adventure was too much for us to resist.

Find the Right Ride

You can now rent an RV through sites like RVshare—an Airbnb-like platform where owners rent out their RVs—for about the same cost as a decent family hotel. There are four main categories, or classes, of recreational vehicles. Class As are the biggest. They’re those huge buslike rigs you see barreling down the road, the ones that have more in common with a 2-bedroom condo than they do a car. Class Bs are the smallest RVs, basically a large van with a kitchenette and a small bed pallet (and/or loft). Class Cs are what RVshare calls the "Goldilocks Rig" of motorhomes, not too big, not too small. Then there are trailers, which my husband and I knew we didn’t want to deal with—even RV pros admit that it can be tough to get the hang of hauling a trailer. We went with the smallest Class C we could find, a late-model 25-footer with a clean, streamlined interior that other renters reviewed as easy to drive.

Practice, Practice, Practice

As a first-timer there will be a learning curve when you get behind the wheel of a motorhome—even a relatively small one like the Winnebago View we rented. The height requires extra mindfulness when it comes to tree branches (lest there be scrapes); the weight means it takes longer to brake; and the length necessitates wider turns. The rental process at RVshare includes a face-to-face training and test-drive with the owner, and my husband and I spent more than two hours with the person we rented from, including about 15 minutes each behind the wheel. We also planned an easy three-hour freeway drive for our first day, so we could get even more comfortable behind the wheel.

Pack the Right Stuff

Most owners on RVshare stock their rentals with basics like RV-safe toilet paper and basic kitchen utensils. Our Winnie also came with towels, bedding and even a small charcoal grill, so all we had to bring were our clothes, food and toiletries. There were a few extra items that made our trip more comfortable: Dramamine (at highway speeds, the back of a motorhome can sway like a boat); ear plugs (in case of snoring family members or loud neighbors); and air freshener—even a newer RV like the one we drove, the bathroom can generate funky smells after you flush or when the waste tanks get full. We also fell in love with a pair of Vaya Drynk travel mugs that literally kept our coffees hot for six to eight hours—having hot java at our fingertips was an unexpected luxury.

Map Your Trip

I stumbled upon the Roadtrippers planning website a few years ago and fell in love with the intuitive interface and easy-to-use tools. Just type in starting and ending points for your trip, and it helps you find campgrounds, restaurants and interesting stops along the way—like the parking lot of the Trees of Mystery redwood park, where huge statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe, his blue ox, live. Roadtrippers has a free version, but I think the full-feature site ($29.99 a year) is worth it for a long trip like ours. Rand McNally also has a similar, free trip planner.

Don’t Write Off RV Parks

One night there was unfortunately a (somewhat belligerent) young couple squatting in the water-front camping spot at a state park that we had reserved. It was already 9 p.m., they wouldn’t leave, and the camp hosts were nowhere to be found. We needed a place to stay quick, and ended up at the adorable, friendly little park (Ashland’s Creekside RV Park) pictured above. I had made some negative assumptions about RV parks, but don’t write them off! Just read the reviews closely and make sure the place you stay is your style.

Gas Up

The RV we rented ran on diesel—which was great, because it got better gas mileage. But not every gas station sells it, so we had to make sure diesel would be available when we pulled over for a fill-up. We used a free app called GasBuddy to point us to the stations that had what we needed (bonus: it also shows price, in case you’re looking for the cheapest fill-up.)

Bring Your Sense of Adventure

One of the main things I was worried about before our RV trip was the sewage issue. Some owners on RVshare will empty the tanks for you for an extra fee, but at the last RV park we stayed in we decided to do it ourselves. The hooking-up itself was pretty straightforward—insert this tube here, create an airtight seal by turning that thingie there, and the owner had given us a thorough training. My husband and kids seemed to kind of enjoy the process, but I have a weak stomach and one whiff of what was going on sent me running away...to be sick. Next time I’ll know to give the whole situation a wide berth.

Get Good Insurance

You’ll need supplemental RV insurance, since most personal policies won’t cover a recreational vehicle. Your insurance company may issue a special rider for you and temporarily increase your coverage, or you can buy a policy from another company like the ones RV rental platforms work with. But read the fine print! No matter how careful and conscientious you are, accidents do happen—see the damage I did while trying to navigate a tight turn in San Francisco, above—and the policy we got had a $1,500 deductible. I’d also recommend having a conversation with the rental company—or in the case of a peer-to-peer platform like RVshare, with the vehicle owner—about what’s considered normal wear-and-tear, and to snap a picture if you notice anything broken or amiss with the vehicle while on the road. Unfortunately, we didn’t do this and had to get RVshare customer service involved to mediate some disputed damages (which they did, beautifully).

Enjoy the Ride

Going on a road trip this epic, in a vehicle this big, was a big step for our family. Ten days in an RV with our two young kids? We half expected it to be a nightmare. But my husband and I agree that this was one of our best family vacations ever. We experienced the nooks and crannies of Oregon and California in a way we never could've by flying or even by driving our own car and staying in a new hotel every night. I don't know when we'll get the chance to do it again...but we sure want to!

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