The open road is calling your name. The allure of spending time in nature, traveling easily from one place to another, changing plans on a dime, not renting hotel rooms, having a home on wheels … it sounds too good to be true!
It might be if you don’t plan accordingly. While renting an RV for a trip provides opportunities, you need to be prepared for a million different things.
Check out the 15 mistakes below to help ensure your trip doesn’t get derailed.
1. NOT PICKING THE RIGHT RV
Picking the right RV for your trip is all about balance. Determining what you need and what you want are essential. More space means more amenities and comfort, but also means a bigger rig to drive around. Plan to research your options ahead of time to make sure that you will feel comfortable with the vehicle both in terms of driving and living on it for your trip.
If you plan to go off-roading or even utilizing a campground, it is important to know your RV’s approach and departure angles so you don’t end up scraping the bottom, front, or back of your vehicle or even getting stuck. You may need a different type or size to accommodate the trip you want.
2. NOT READING THE FINE PRINT
Seriously, read EVERYTHING. Take notes. Read it again. Looking at pictures is great, but make sure to read all the descriptions, amenities, policies, procedures, everything. Check that every one of the amenities you want is physically listed. Check the cancellation policy. Check the insurance, mileage costs, tank capabilities, cost if something breaks, etc. Understand the check-out procedure. Some campgrounds let you rent a site with a camper that stays there which is a great option, but not if you expected to hit the road with it. Read reviews if available to ensure that you are going through a reputable renter and glean insight from other people’s mistakes or misunderstandings.
Make sure you understand the details of all of these. Make sure you know what your rights and responsibilities are when it comes to renting the vehicle. And make sure you fulfill the duties that are expected of you. Not reading the fine print can almost certainly set you up for disappointment at best, and fees, damage, or even potential accidents at worst.
3. NOT ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS
Whether you are renting from a company, an individual, a campground, or through an app, make sure to communicate with the renter and ask questions. Many places plan to simply hand off the keys with a short tour of the vehicle. Be up front and honest if this is your first time renting an RV and ask for a longer orientation with the vehicle. A good renter will want to have this conversation with you versus having you damage the vehicle because you didn’t ask. Take notes and ask questions to make sure that you won’t have issues down the road trying to figure it out. Make sure you know things like how to check the different tanks, what the tank levels mean in reality for common activities, and how to use everything. What if there is an accident? What if you pop a tire? What if the solar panels or generator aren’t working as expected? Are you expected to do a deep clean of the vehicle before you return it? Does it need to return with a full tank? Are you charged based on the miles driven? Never assume anything.
4. NOT TEST-DRIVING THE RV
If you have never driven a vehicle as big as your RV, make sure you have a chance to test it out before officially hitting the road on your trip. Even if you have driven something this big before, every vehicle is different. If possible, find a big empty parking lot to try everything out a little. Try parking. If you can get some orange cones, use them to test your boundaries. Set up your mirrors to reduce and eliminate blind spots. Make sure you know exactly when you should see something in your mirrors. Trust me, you’d rather test the boundaries with flexible orange cones than breaking something on the road. You may not be able to test highway or tight city driving ahead of time, but make sure you know the vehicle and its boundaries before you pull onto the highway or busy city traffic. That way, you can focus on those factors and not adjusting your mirrors or worrying about when you will actually hit something.
5. UNDERESTIMATING YOUR TRAVEL TIME
Any trip requires planning, but an RV trip will require a bit more than you might expect at first glance. Not all roads will be able to accommodate RVs. Make sure to plan your trip out ahead of time. Know your stops and the time you will need to get there.
Plan for extra time. Handling an RV will often be different than driving your normal vehicle and therefore you will often take longer than you would in your car. If you miss a turn and have to turn around, you may have to go further to find an accessible turning area. Some turns and areas may not be an option with your vehicle, requiring you to find a space that is accessible and then making your way back, possibly on foot. If this is your first time driving a rig this big, you often won’t feel immediately comfortable going the posted speed limit, especially on highways or winding roads and it may not even be safe for you to do so in your rig.
While you may not have to stop the vehicle for things like meals or bathroom breaks, you will need to stop for refueling so don’t forget about that!
All of these things and more can cause delays so don’t just assume that general time estimates will work out in reality. Always plan an extra 1-2 hours than you think you will need to get to somewhere time-sensitive. You may want to just hit the road to your destination with everything you need on the RV, but this will surely set you up for issues.
Things will not go according to plan and you will have to figure things out as you go. Planning ahead will help make sure that those issues are reduced and hopefully avoided.
6. MISUNDERSTANDING ACCESS TO LOCATIONS
Research, research, research ahead of time. Plan your stops effectively. Know where you will be spending the night. While the RV provides some flexibility, you can’t generally just pull over on the side of the road for the night. Call the campgrounds and ask specific questions so that you know as much as possible before you pull in. How close is it to town if you want to do some sight seeing, etc.? If you do go into town, where are RV accessible parking spots? How close are these to where you want to go? How accessible is the campground for your size of vehicle?
7. TRUSTING GOOGLE MAPS
In general, Google Maps will be helpful for general planning, but will not be able to tell you details such as low bridges, narrow roads, unpaved roads, etc. The travel time will also be inaccurate. Consider an app or service such as RV Life/ RV Trip Wizard, Togo RV, or Roadtrippers which provide RV safe GPS and route services especially if your RV is large, which brings us to our next point. Using services like these or doing your own research will help ensure that you don’t have to replan your route on the go due to inaccessible roads.
On a related note, make sure to download any routes if possible so that you can access them when your devices are out of service. Paper maps are always a good back-up as well.
8. NOT KNOWING YOUR RIG DIMENSIONS
Know your exact dimensions for your height, width, and length (and don’t forget about those slide-outs if applicable). Make sure to confirm if the dimensions provided are exact or used for more general marketing/ sorting purposes. Take a measuring tape with you to make sure. Listed dimensions often don’t include things like ladders, solar panels, or antennae, so make sure you add those on as well.
When you see a bridge coming up, you need to know if your vehicle will fit under it or not. These can be very deceptive on both sides of the spectrum if you are simply eyeballing it. It may feel like you are going to graze it even though it can easily accommodate an 18 wheeler or you may be overconfident and end up causing damage. Many campgrounds also have maximum size restrictions so you need to know if your vehicle will be accepted. And you need to know your approach and departure angles to determine how much off-roading you can do. Knowing all your dimensions backwards and forwards is essential to ensuring you return the vehicle without damage or cause other issues.
9. NOT CALCULATING YOUR FUEL EFFICIENCY
Even smaller RVs will typically not get the mileage of your personal car/ truck. Make sure you know your mileage and use it to calculate your route stops. You will need to stop more often to refuel and don’t want to be caught in an area devoid of gas stations. I still remember a “Last Gas Station for 100 miles” sign on a road trip in the Western part of the country back when I was a child. While they typically try to tell you when situations are that drastic, the distance between exits on a highway/ turnpike with gas stations that can accommodate a vehicle of your size may be much further than you are used to. Knowing good exits to stop ahead of time is crucial and it’s better to top-off at a good gas station than find yourself running on empty with no exit in sight or only tiny Mom and Pop gas stations with tight entrances, exits, and corners.
10. SETTING EXPECTATIONS TOO HIGH
Know what you are getting into. While many RVs are quite luxurious, it is not the same as staying in a hotel or simply doing a road trip in your personal car. You will not have turn down service. You may not have all the amenities that a hotel room would have. You probably won’t be able to change your plans at the drop of a hat, despite how idealized RV ads and marketing might set it up. Go over the amenities very carefully. Know what you are getting into to help make sure you are not disappointed in the RV or the trip.
Even in a luxurious motorhome or fifth wheel, it is still closer to camping than staying in a hotel, typically.
- Don’t forget those bug sprays and sunscreen for spending time outdoors.
- Have materials to start a fire if you are at campgrounds that will let you. Even if you are adept at starting a fire, it’s always a good idea to have matches, lighters, and even FireStarter Logs with you if you want to build a fire. Recent rain defied our attempts to build a fire on the first night despite the fact we both had been camping before and had Scout outdoor training including building safe fires.
- Make sure you have enough food to cover you (especially if plans change and you end up arriving at your destination later than expected) but know how much space you have available by checking the dimensions of provided kitchen amenities.
- Fridges on RVs are typically smaller than your fridge at home so make sure all your perishable items will fit and confirm storage space for your non-perishables.
- You may need to provide dishes, cutlery, etc. While this is unusual, don’t assume anything will be provided. Always confirm.
- Pack plenty of fresh water even if your RV has faucets with running water. Many of these are not suitable for drinking or cooking so ask ahead of time and plan to have plenty on hand.
- Pack toiletries, dish washing supplies, even laundry supplies. Again, you’re not at a hotel and these items may not be provided. Ask ahead of time if it is not listed and consider bringing your own just in case. If the RV does not include laundry facilities, you will need to use a laundromat.
- Make sure to pack appropriate clothing, towels, and bedding for your locations. Layers are always a good idea. Your RV may not have AC or heat (again confirm ahead of time) and nights can be particularly cold or hot when you are in a vehicle instead of a house depending on your destination and time of year. Make sure to confirm what size bed the RV has and confirm that your sheets match up. We had confirmed the bed size on a recent trip, but I grabbed a set of sheets from the closet that were of a similar set to the ones currently on our queen size at home without checking the tags. When we arrived and started making the bed in the RV, we realized they were actually twin sheets. We MaGyvered a solution but ultimately purchased new blankets after a colder than expected first night.
- Make sure to have some emergency supplies/ tools and know what emergency supplies are already on the vehicle. Is there a spare tire? Where is it and the jack? Is there a first aid kit already on board? Are there any non-standard first aid supplies that you should bring with you? If something comes loose during the trip, do you have a basic screwdriver or other tool to do a quick fix? Is there a fire extinguisher? Do you have a gas can in case you run out of gas and need to find a way to bring gas to the vehicle?
- Having all of these supplies before you set out on your trip or arrive at your campground is vital. Recently, we made a trip to a camper campground and expected to be able to get into town a little easier as we did not confirm campground details for our vehicle ahead of time. This meant some stressful driving in order to do a last minute supply run before dark and we still needed to run out again the next day as we forgot a few items. And while you can usually do supply runs without too much stress, adding unnecessary trips to the store can add up monetarily and take up time that you had planned for driving your route or doing something fun.
- Plan ahead and always double-check a camping-inspired packing list to make sure you are covered.
12. MISSING THE BALANCE BETWEEN TOO MUCH AND TOO LITTLE
This goes for everything:
- The size of the vehicle
- The type of vehicle
- How much you pack
- The frequency of stops/ length of driving in a day
- Time at the campground versus in the city/ town
You often want enough to cover you even if things don’t go to plan, but don’t go overboard. Think about what you really need versus what you want. Pad the things you can like giving yourself extra time to get somewhere.
However, what are those things that you really want that can help turn a day around? Might be worth getting a certain amenity in the vehicle or adding that special snack. If there is a city you really want to spend a day in to explore, make sure to plan for it. Driving an RV around a city is not fun and it may even be impossible to go in certain areas. (You may also need to go into town to have service/ wifi to do work. If so, make sure you are able to balance and plan for that.)
13. NOT MAKING A RESERVATION
Again, having an RV for a trip does provide some flexibility, but not necessarily as much as you might assume. Many campgrounds can get booked up ahead of time. Don’t assume that you can simply roll up and get a spot. Some may not take reservations, but operate on a “first come, first served basis.” If you have a bigger RV or want a site with something extra (i.e. water and electricity hook-ups, a fire pit, extra space, etc.), those spots are often premium and may get booked out quicker than other spots.
Call the campground ahead of time and confirm what the procedures are and the best way to secure your spot. Getting a hold of them on the road may be difficult due to your service or their busy schedule running around the grounds. Many campgrounds also still have a check-in/ check-out time and procedure. Knowing all this ahead of time and following the procedures will help ensure there are no unexpected surprises when you pull up.
14. NOT LEVELING THE RV OR SECURING ITEMS
It’s a home on wheels, which is great, but you normally don’t have to worry about your house moving around. The RV should be equipped with ways to secure your items. Make sure you understand those options available on your vehicle and utilize them. Otherwise, on your first decent turn, acceleration, deceleration, incline, or decline, things will go flying. This applies for things you may not think about as they are smaller and not breakable. While it may not be the end of the world if your soap dispenser goes flying, it’s certainly good to avoid.
In addition, most campgrounds are not perfectly level. Do your best to park in a way that is decently level without one wheel higher or lower than the others. However, what may seem like a level area upon parking, may reveal itself when you crawl into bed and feel off kilter or take a shower and all the water pools in one corner. Consider bringing a level to double-check when you park. Absolutely bring leveling blocks with you to adjust each wheel when necessary.
15. NOT ALLOWING WIGGLE ROOM IN THE BUDGET
Always budget a little higher for everything. Costs add up on a trip like this, especially if you are figuring a few things out as you go. You don’t want to break your budget on an extra supply run or refuel. Costs may be more than you expected either due to higher costs of living in different areas or an unexpected upcharge for a premium campsite.
Plan to have an emergency fund to dip into so that you are not caught by surprise. While you might be able to cut back on things like food near the end, you can only do so much. Make sure that you have ready access to those funds and that your bank is aware of your trip to avoid being cut off from your money due to fraud suspicions.
Sarah Hoffschwelle is a freelance writer who covers a combination of topics such as science, self-development, art, and societal commentary. In the past, Sarah worked in educational nonprofits providing free-choice learning experiences for audiences ages 2-99.