Thursday, May 28, 2020

RV Rentals

Renting an RV isn't cheap, but if you've never had one before, it might be a good idea to rent one before you buy one.

RVing isn't for everyone - and oftentimes it makes little sense, economically.  The whole business started out in tents.  People went camping, up in the mountains, or down by the sea, and brought their tents, sleeping bags, camp stoves, and later on, cots, and tables, and chairs and so on and so forth.

Some clever fellow got the bright idea of putting all this junk onto a trailer and towing it behind their car, as it got to be too much to carry in the car.  Besides, if you had all your "camping gear" in a trailer, it was easy to hook up and go - less packing!   Well, from that, some other clever fellow quickly figured out that, hey, maybe we could set up the tent right on the trailer and not have to camp on the ground.   Why not attach the tent to the trailer so it just "pops out"?   And so the pop-up trailer was born.

That was quickly followed by the camper trailer.  Why have some flimsy tent, when you can have a flimsy trailer instead - with "solid" walls and windows - a regular home-on-wheels?   Taking that a step further, people put homes on old truck or bus chassis and the motorhome was born.  RVing took off from there.  (Of course, none of this is true.  RVs didn't exist until ten years ago when Millenials "invented" something called "tiny homes" and discovered the Avocado).

Some of the early pioneers are still with us today, albeit in different forms - Airstream, for example, or Serro Scotty.   But since those early days, we've taken the whole concept to new and crazy levels. Professional bus chassis are used on million-dollar motorhomes, which were originally designed for touring rock stars and NASCAR drivers - people who had to travel long distances between gigs or races, and needed a place to relax and get work done while on the road.

Pretty soon, the average weekend warrior decided they needed one of these, and if they could not afford one, the industry would build something that looked like one. Motorhomes went from the dorky looks of the mid-60's Winnebago (now considered a classic) with one door in the middle, to the "bus motorhome" look, with one door in the front.   While these look like the rock-star buses, they are just a styling effect, just as the ten-speed bike you bought at Western Auto in 1976 was hardly the racing machine they used on the Tour de France.  It's all a style statement.

Nevertheless, prices have crept up and up, and you can easily spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on RV equipment, which is a lot of money to go camping.  Some people "justify" this expense by "full-timing" in their RV, which means they live in a park in Florida for six months of the year, and spend the rest of the time in a park "Up North" in the summer - travelling between the two.  I've heard more than once, a "full-timer" justifying the expense of a half-million-dollar coach with "It's our only home!" which is a line I first read in The Good Sam magazine, Highways, which is now little more than an advertising supplement.   Of course, the largest dealer of motorhomes in the United States has no vested interest in helping you justify blowing your life's savings on a rapidly depreciating asset.   Funny how that works - from consumer advocate to shill for the industry, in less than a decade.

But even if you buy a "lesser" rig, and spend "only" $50,000 to $100,000 on it (and maybe a tow vehicle) you are still spending a lot of money.  And if you buy one of these "on time" you may find yourself "upside down" on the loan for years - even a decade - which gets sticky if you need to sell the unit, say, because you lost your job due to a pandemic or something.  Placing yourself in financial peril for the sake of a recreational toy is never a good idea.   Doesn't matter if it is a motorcycle, RV, Boat, or hobby car, my philosophy is simple:  If you can't pay cash for it, forgetaboutit!

Even paying cash, the depreciation on these things is murder.  Anything with a motor on it depreciates pretty linearly - 50% every five years.  Sure, there are some things with "low" depreciation - only 40% every five years - or "high" depreciation - 60% every five years.  But there are no motorized vehicles and toys that don't depreciate over time, simply because motors wear out, better ones are made, and it makes no sense to pay as much for a used item as a new one, particularly when new items have warranties and don't have half their useful life used up.

This is why I am big fan of the travel trailer, as I discussed before.  We bought our Casita 15 years ago for $8375 and sold it last year for $7500.   No motor - no depreciation!   Meanwhile, we went through two vehicles to tow it - the X5 and the Nissan - both of which depreciated like cars do.  but since you have to have a car anyway (or at least some people do) this is not an additional motor vehicle to own and pay for, in terms of depreciation.  And its not an additional motor vehicle that sits for months on end, unused, which is death for most internal combustion engines.

But again, all that being said, maybe you don't like RVing, so if you buy a travel trailer and decide you don't like it, well, you are probably going to lose money in the transaction, as even with "low" depreciation, trailers still depreciate, particularly brand-new ones.

My neighbor decided to rent an RV for a week to see the Blue Ridge and try out this camping thing.  They saw our trailer in the driveway many a time, as we loaded it up to go North, and thought, "Maybe that might be fun!"

They came back after two days of uncomfortable sleeping, constant bickering, and not having funGood thing they didn't drop a hundred large on a new 24' Class-C!   Renting an RV can be a good idea before you buy.  Granted, a rental RV isn't quite the same experience as owning one.  Most rentals are motorhomes, not trailers (although trailer rentals are on the rise).  And most rental RVs are configured very slightly different from those sold to consumers (although used rental RVs are often sold to consumers - sometimes with the consumer not being aware of it!).

If you see an old Class-C motorhome with no awning, a huge cargo compartment (for all the Germans' luggage) and no retractable step (but rather a lowered door) chances are, it may be a former rental.  If it is branded with the nonsense brand "Majestic" then it is definitely a former rental RV. Some folks have bought former rentals and not realized it until gassing up late at night under the florescent lights and seeing the faded outlines of the decals that once graced the side of the coach - "RENT ME!"

Used rental motorhomes are not a very good deal, much as used rental cars are not a great deal.  A horrific deal?  Not necessarily.  A great deal?  Rarely.  Most have high mileage put on them in a short period of time.  And since they started out as rentals, the resale value will be affected accordingly.  Yet, the sales prices at the rental places are sort of "meh" - we looked into buying one (with 80,000 miles on it) for $18,000 and decided it was easier to buy a unit from an original owner that had only 20,000 miles on it - for $2000 more.

But getting back to rentals, what do you rent, where, and from who?   Well, as I noted above, there are a number of different types of RVs, starting from "pop-up" trailers, to "tow-behind" camper trailers. van-type "Class-B" motorhomes, slide-in truck campers, chassis-van-based "Class-C" motorhomes (the kind with a bed over the cab, that looks like a motorhome is consuming a van) to the boxy-type "bus"-style "Class A" coaches.   The letters mean nothing - not a rating system, but just an arbitrary nomenclature identifying different motorhome types.   But that being said, the "Class-C" motorhome is usually the worst of the lot - often handling poorly, constructed poorly, and rattling and bumping going down the road.  Unfortunately, the Class-C motorhome is the most commonly rented RV - they are cheap and flexible, and thus popular with the rental companies.

I am limiting my discussion to the USA for the most part, but rentals are available in various parts of the world, including Australia and Europe, where RVs are often called "Caravans".

I noted before that trailers aren't rented often, but seem to be on the rise.   If you are in the military, check out the rentals available at the local military base as part of the "Morale, Welfare and Recreation" program Some military bases keep (or kept, anyway) small pop-up trailers for servicemen to rent.  We saw several of these in the Keys, I believe they were from the naval air station there.   A low-cost and easy way to go, but limited to those in the military, and perhaps stationed at that base.

Dan's trailer rentals,in Woodland California, rents Caistas and Scamps, which can be easy to tow.

There are places that rent RV trailers, but usually these are local outfits.  For example, this guy advertises on Craigslist, renting out small Casita and Scamp trailers, which are pretty easy to tow for a mid- to large-sized SUV.  Back in the day, U-Haul used to rent such trailers, custom-made for them.  Today, they are somewhat of a collector's item, although they are fairly small.

Larger trailers aren't often rented.  There is more to towing a trailer than just "hooking up" - you may need a brake controller in your tow vehicle, plus a weight-distributing Class III hitch head with a 2-5/16" ball.  The 1-7/8" or 2" ball you use on your jet ski trailer and the Class II hitch on your minivan ain't cutting it.   And you may need a sway controller, too.  In fact, it may take you a few weeks to sort out the "lashup" of a larger RV trailer and tow vehicle, if you don't want to dump the whole works by the side of the road.   I think that is why you don't see a lot of trailer rentals out there, other than pop-ups and smaller trailers.

There are also peer-to-peer rental places, such as Outdoorsy or RVshare, that allow individuals to rent out their RVs to other people, much as the peer-to-peer car rental model did (how did that work out?).  Myself, I am not sure I would get involved in that from either end.  I would feel nervous about renting my RV to someone, as they might damage it (and would insurance cover that?) or just not come back (trailers can be fairly easy to steal and alter the ID numbers on - or be turned into hunter's camps after being dragged deep into the woods).  I would also worry that something would break or go wrong and the customer would be unhappy. I tried to rent a car this way - through Turo in California.  It didn't work out, and frankly, it seemed just as expensive as the local car rental agencies.

More and more places are renting "Class-B" vans which are easier to maneuver but a little tight for more than two people.

Class-B vans are becoming more and more popular, as the larger Mercedes/Freightliner/Dodge "Sprinter" chassis was employed to build these.  Today, Dodge (now called "Ram") uses a "ProMaster" chassis which is made by Fiat, and Ford has its larger Transit line - both of which are also used for Class-B motorhomes.  These may be harder to find, but I think the "Big-3" nationwide rental places are starting to get into Class-B territory, too.

Sometimes, maybe you don't even need a Class-B!

If you are more adventurous, and don't need even a Class-B to rent, there are places which rent small vans - usually a Dodge minivan - with a platform tent bolted to the roof, and a small kitchen that opens up from the rear hatch.  Juicy Van Rentals is one such place.  No bathroom, of course, but many people end up staying in campgrounds with communal bathrooms.

Five Ways Wicked Camper Rentals Can Ruin Your Holidays | WanderWisdom
Not sure I want to rent this van...

There are others, too.  Another place has similar vans for rent that are "decorated" with spray cans - often having nasty slogans painted on the sides of them.   If you are trying to fly under-the-radar, maybe that is not an option.  There are other companies that offer funky paint jobs that are not obscene.

The Class-C is the most common rental unit.

There are a number of nationwide or regional RV rental companies - Cruise America (and Cruise Canada), El Monte RV, RoadBear are three of the largest.  Some rent nationwide, although even the nationwide places usually are located in areas that are popular with tourists.  Some, such as RoadBear, seem to specialize in renting to Germans.  Most of the big-3 specialize in renting Class-C motorhomes, although in places like Alaska, they often rent slide-in truck campers on 4x4 pickup truck chassis - an interesting alternative to the Class-C rental.

Saw a few of these in Alaska - not so much in the lower 48

Some of these larger nationwide rental places also offer Class-A motorhomes, too.   One gag that the big rental places like to play is to upgrade your rental to the next larger size.  Like car rental companies, they often don't have the size RV you want in stock, and thus reserve the right to "upgrade" you to the next larger size (or even larger) for the same price.  And  yes, like car rental companies, they might even try to charge you for this, if you are particularly passive about it.

Small RV Rentals - Class C
CruiseAmerica (and CruiseCanada) is probably the largest of the nationwide camper rental companies. Sadly, when they sell these units, they take off the full-body wrap and then re-label them as "Majestic" motorhomes.  Let's face it, the body wrap looks a lot better!  Note the lack of awning and retractable step, and the huge "German luggage locker" in the rear.

For example, we rented an 18' motorhome (Class-C) - about the smallest you can get - as we wanted something maneuverable.   After we arrived (after flying out to California) we were told that the 18' and 21' units were sold out, and were offered a 24' unit instead.  It wasn't so bad, but it wasn't as easy to drive, to be sure.  And some Class-C motorhomes go up to over 30' in length.

RV sewer connections are nothing like this.  In fact, I beleive Robin Williams is holding a clear plastic dryer vent hose in this picture.

A reader writes asking about RV rentals and how to work all the gadgets in the RV.   I think I know where they are coming from - fear of the dreaded sewer tank, which is the subject of inaccurate folklore throughout the ages by non-RVers.   In movies like the Robin Williams comedy "RV" they make it out like there are pumps and switches and valves and hoses and all sorts of complexity that a mechanical engineer would have trouble figuring out (but of course, rednecks instantly understand).

Relax. It's pretty simple - one hose, two valves.   Buy a box of rubber gloves.   There are two systems - grey water for the sink and shower drain water, and black-water, for the toilet.  Why not one?  It works that way at home, right?  Well, in the olden days, you could drain grey water on the ground legally (not so much anymore - I would not advise it) so it made sense to have two tanks.  If you took a long shower and had only one tank, you might be chagrined to discover you could no longer use the toilet until you dumped!  While it is possible to fill the grey water tank in a day or two (particularly with a family aboard) the black water tank can - if you use water judiciously - go for a week without dumping, depending of course, on your tank sizes.

This really couldn't happen in real life.

You hook up the hose to the RV at one end (simple bayonet fitting, 1/4-turn) and put the other end in the dump-station drain.   Put a rock over that or have someone hold it down with their foot, lest the water pressure cause the hose to pop out and dump all over.   Pull the "black water" valve and dump that.  When it stops running, close it and open the "grey water" valve and let that drain.   When done, rinse the hose with the water tap provided (do NOT use that tap for your drinking water, nor use the "potable water" hose provided by the campground to rinse your sewer hose) and put everything back and go.  Don't put the sewer hose in a compartment with your luggage or other possessions.  Sadly, most rental places do not provide separate sewer hose storage compartments. Bring a black trash bag.

Now, some folks have tried to make this more complicated than it needs to be.  Some manufacturers like Airstream, combined the grey and black water tanks on some models. Others use a "macerator" and a garden-style hose to evacuate the tanks.   Why?  Just stupid complexity and more stuff to break.  Oh, and the macerator probably would spray you with poop as shown in the picture above.  Gravity feed is a lot simpler - and safer.

Some folks will spend an inordinate amount of money and time ripping out all the plumbing and putting in a "hippie shitter" - the so-called "composting toilet."   Just avoid unnecessary complexity for the sake of complexity.  And avoid people like that.  You meet someone tries to tell you the composting toilet is a great invention, just keep on walkin'.

Woman arrested for DUI after RV gets stuck in Taco Bell drive-thru ...
Motorhomes and drive-through windows are not a good mix.

Driving a motorhome isn't too difficult, but it is a large vehicle with huge overhangs.  While on Vancouver island,we watched in horror as a German family pulled out in a 26' Class-C rental, and turned sharply, scraping the entire rear side of the coach against a tree.   The damage wasn't as bad as it could have been, but I suspect he might not get his deposit back.

We talked with the salesman when we briefly thought about buying a used Class-C from a rental place.  He told us stories about smashed-up Class-C motorhomes.  A typical scenario is that Hans, from Germany, decides to fly the family to America and rent a motorhome and do "Route 66" and the national parks and "See America!"  One thing they want to experience is the drive-through window at McDonalds, which of course, has an overhang that tears the roof off the vehicle.   The salesman told me they sometimes cut the rest of the body off and put a flatbed on it and sell it, or even send it back to the factory to have a new body installed (they can do that?).   Needless to say, watch your overhang, and watch your height.   A dream vacation can turn into a nightmare if you destroy the RV.

But that is why smaller is better.  Our old Casita was small enough to pull anywhere - and turn around even on a narrow road.  Our new trailer, only four feet longer, seems like a whole new world - you have to plan more where you are going.  With the larger rigs - 30' and up - you have to really plan, and many of the "big boys" in the large motorhomes, towing a car, get very, very nervous travelling more than a mile from the Interstate.  If you are towing a car on all-four wheels, you can't back up, at all.  What's the point of that?

The rest of the RV is pretty self-explanatory.  Modern refrigerators either work or they don't - and automatically switch from propane to electric when you plug in to shore power.   The hot water heater is pretty much the same deal, although you may have to turn it on (with a switch).  The rental companies try to make these things as mindless as possible, hence many order units with no retractable step or awning (two less things to worry about).  But they do go through the whole rig when you pick it up, and show you how everything works.  You can also download instructional videos from their website, before you even get there.

Water isn't hard either - you either use the water tank (usually about 20-40 gallons) by activating the water pump (whose switch, like the water heater, is on a central control panel) or attach a hose to the campground site water connection.   Usually the rental places will sanitize the tanks between rentals.  Just a smidgen of bleach (less than 1/4 cup - often far less) in the tank will kill off germs, mold, and mildew.  As an owner, we do this once ever few weeks on the road.  As a renter, you probably don't need to deal with it.  But like with any travel, foreign water can cause digestive problems.  At $4 a case, purified bottled water may not save the environment, but it may save your intestines.

Is renting an RV a good deal?   Well, it can cost hundreds of dollars a day.  If you have a small family, it might be cheaper than hotel rooms, and provide the added ambiance of camping.  Then again, a lot of commercial campgrounds leave a lot to be desired - some little more than parking lots.  It helps if you can ask someone about where to go and things to see - someone who has been there.  But like anything else, if you are willing to be a risk-taker, you may see cool things and have novel experiences - but have to accept that every day in an RV is not a continuous Disney orgasm.

Our neighbors who rented their rig, splurged on a whole week - and returned after two days.   Unless you are coming from overseas, you might want to try a shorter trip - and mid-week might be cheaper, too.   You might decide, after two days, that this whole RV thing is for the birds - and I get that, too.  Sometimes, you do wonder why you are dragging around a house behind you.

Then again, other times, not.   Particularly when traveling, it is nice to always have a bathroom no more than 20 feet away.  A clean bathroom, at that.   And it is nice to know you never have to worry about where you are going to sleep at night - there are plenty of free places to stay, if it comes down to that - such as Harvest Hosts, which allows you to stay overnight at a winery, brewery, farm, or museum.   It all is a matter of using your imagination.