The Ultimate Guide to Renting a Campervan or Small RV
Traveling the country in an RV is a dream for many of us. However, owning a campervan or RV comes with significant financial costs and time commitments. Have you considered renting instead?
We’ve all made aspirational purchases that were going to change our lives for the better… which we then didn’t use as much as we anticipated for one reason or another. With an item that requires such a commitment of capital, time, and physical space, we decided it would be best to try renting before buying.
This summer we did a month-long campervan trip. Based on months of research followed by a month on the road in the vehicle we chose, I’ve compiled a list of seven questions you should ask before renting a campervan or small RV for the first time.
Key Considerations Before Renting a Campervan or Small RV
A Series of Tradeoffs
Before we dive into specific variables to consider before renting a campervan or small RV, it is worth making a key point. It is nearly impossible to discuss any one of them in isolation. Almost every decision is a series of tradeoffs.
Want a more spacious vehicle? Expect to pay a higher rental rate, have more expensive campsites, get poorer gas mileage, and more difficult vehicle handling.
Is having a bathroom a must? Expect to spend time and effort cleaning it and have less space for other things.
Even the choice to limit ourselves to campervans and Small RVs was a tradeoff.
Smaller tow behind options are cheaper and allow you to leave your home on wheels at a campsite while you get out and explore. But they can require a greater learning curve to tow, park, and maneuver and more effort to set up and teardown.
Large RVs provide more spacious and luxurious living. But they come with a larger price tag, worse fuel efficiency, more planning and expense to camp, and in some instances a special license to drive.
As you consider the following variables, realize that each decision impacts others in a series of tradeoffs.
Are Campervans or Small RVs Hard to Drive?
Driving considerations should include:
- Driving and handling,
- Fuel Efficiency.
Our trip grew out of a desire to see family on the other side of the country while being able to avoid crowds when traveling during a pandemic. A quick search on Google Maps revealed our round-trip mileage would be 4,000 miles before adding additional sites and adventures.
So our first consideration was finding a vehicle that would be easy and cost efficient to drive.
Driving and Handling
We ultimately chose a Ford Big Sur converted Camper Van. I was confident that this particular vehicle would have a short learning curve.
I was less confident after the first 30 minutes driving in rush hour traffic. It quickly became apparent to me how reliant I am on my rearview mirror when switching lanes. It was useless in this vehicle.
Once I got comfortable in the campervan, our rental was equally easy to drive in cruise control on interstate highways, navigating city traffic, and negotiating windy mountain roads. It also had good clearance on unpaved roads to trailheads and in campgrounds.
Consider where you will be driving your rental RV and whether it will be up to the task.
Related to driving is parking the vehicle. When on the road you’ll inevitably have to make stops at gas stations, rest stops, restaurants, grocery stores, tourist attractions, and ultimately campgrounds.
Consider how and where you will be able to park your vehicle. Also consider how comfortable and competent you will be maneuvering your rental. Otherwise you’ll limit where you can go or incur extra charges to pay for damage to your rental RV because you failed to do so.
I doubt most people consider this advice. In the walkthrough before leaving the lot, our relatively new, low-milage campervan was noted to have multiple scratches, scrapes, and dents. Out of curiosity, I quickly scanned the other vans in the lot and found this was the rule rather than the exception.
We were lucky to return our van in the condition we took it. But that was not without a close call squeezing the van into a tight space between trees as required to back into one of our campsites.
We’ll discuss this more in the section on cost to rent a campervan or small RV, but it is worth mentioning here as well because of the potential environmental and financial impacts associated with your decision.
The importance of fuel efficiency will obviously be greater if you will be driving long distances vs. doing a weekend getaway to your local state park.
How Much Does it Cost to Rent a Campervan or Small RV?
There are a number of direct and indirect costs to consider when renting a small RV. They include:
- The base rental fee
- Mileage allowances/ overage charges
- Add on features/rentals
Base Rental Cost
The first cost is straightforward. You can easily search a number of RV and campervan sites on the internet. Most have transparent pricing for rentals.
If not clearly stated, inquire if there is discounted pricing for off-peak or more extended travel. Both may be possible, and even more desirable, for early retirees, semi-retirees, or others with flexible work arrangements.
We couldn’t get a discount on the base rental fee with demand soaring at the time of our rental. We were able to get a bunch of extras like a kitchen set, camp chairs, and bedding thrown in for no charge.
Taxes on rental vehicles vary by location and can be expensive. When determining the true cost to rent your RV or campervan, remember to factor this expense in.
As an anecdote, we rented our campervan from a national company with locations in multiple states. The representative we worked with informed us that if we could start our trip from their Denver location rather than Salt Lake City we would save a couple hundred dollars due to differences in taxes.
This wasn’t a reasonable option for us. It may be worthwhile if you can start your itinerary in a more tax friendly state.
Mileage Allowance/ Overage Charges
The next cost that should be considered is whether there are limits to how far you can drive the vehicle before incurring extra fees. In our case, we had an allowance of 100 miles per day built into the rental price.
Any overage was charged a rate of $.33/mile. Conversely we would have been reimbursed at the same rate if we drove less than our allowance.
We were aware of this charge. I mapped out our planned itinerary on Google Maps prior to booking our rental and had a reasonable estimate to budget for.
We paid about $1,000 extra upon returning our vehicle. I’m happy we planned and budgeted for this expense. Don’t make the mistake of having this be a surprise to you.
The next cost was a surprise to us. When we booked our rental, we were offered the option of buying insurance for damage incurred to the vehicle and third party liability.
I have never paid for supplemental insurance on a rental vehicle. I didn’t intend to start with our campervan rental. We have insurance on our personal vehicles which extends some coverage to rentals.
We also have a number of credit cards that we use for travel rewards. A common perk of the cards is additional insurance coverage for rental vehicles paid for with the card.
The rental company encouraged us to buy supplemental insurance. The agent informed me that both individual policies and credit cards typically don’t cover RVs and converted vehicles.
It felt like a sales pitch and was off putting. Luckily, I didn’t trust my gut and I decided I better double check our coverage.
Indeed, I was informed by our insurance company and representatives from three different credit card companies that our benefits did not cover RVs or converted vehicles.
Buying insurance added several hundred dollars of unanticipated expense to our trip. Be sure to check before assuming you have coverage. Be prepared to pay this cost unless you’re willing to go with only the minimum coverage legally required to be provided by the rental company.
After paying the rental company their base fee, mileage allowances, and insurance, you’re ready to get on the road. But your expenses don’t end there.
You have to fuel the vehicle. Your overall fuel expenditure will depend on gasoline prices and how much driving you plan to do in your rental vehicle.
Before committing to a rental, particularly if you’ll be driving long distances, consider the fuel efficiency of vehicles you may rent. Also check gas prices where you’ll be traveling.
We were pleasantly surprised that the converted Ford Big Sur campervan we rented averaged just under 18 miles per gallon on our trip, consisting primarily of highway driving.
I was surprised how much gas prices varied from state to state on our trip. Budget accordingly.
One of the perceived advantages of RV travel is not having to find and pay for hotels while on your travels. However, you do have to find a place to park your home on wheels each night. This can be equally challenging and quite expensive with RV popularity soaring.
The cost to park a campervan or small RV for a night can be as low as $0. This can be accomplished with dispersed camping on public lands that allow it. Realize that you won’t have convenient access to amenities like running water and bathrooms that are expected at campgrounds if you choose this option.
A number of companies allow you to park and sleep overnight in their parking lots for free. The website Boondocker’s Bible provides a helpful list of companies that are friendly to RVers.
However, even though corporate businesses allow this as their national policy, local ordinances may forbid the practice. It is always wise to ask at the specific location before planning to stay there.
According to longtime RVer Mary of Reflections Around the Campfire, RV campground site costs vary considerably ranging from around $30/night to upwards of $150/night. Factors that influence cost include the campground location and amenities, time of year, and whether you want or need a back-in vs. a pull-through site.
We didn’t need water and electric hook ups and could easily fit our campervan into back-in sights. In fact, a few campgrounds allowed us to rent a tent site.
Tent sites are about half the price of RV sites at most campgrounds. We just parked our van there and slept in it rather than having to set up a tent.
Cheaper camping can offer considerable savings over the course of a trip. This is an advantage of renting a campervan or smaller RV over a larger one.
A final expense to consider are items that you may have to rent or buy to use with the camper van. These items may include
- Bedding and pillows
- Kitchen items (Pots & pans, dishes, silverware, etc)
- Propane canisters or tanks
- Camp chairs
If you’re renting from near your home, it will likely be cheaper and may be more comfortable to bring your own items. If you are flying to the destination where you’ll start your rental, it may be impractical, or even impossible, to bring some necessary items.
Consider what you will need once you’re in your rental RV. If renting items is necessary, add that into your budget.
Is it Comfortable to Sleep in a Campervan or Small RV?
Your campervan or small RV will serve as your home on the road. So you need to consider several things to ensure you sleep comfortably. They include:
- Bed size and comfort
- Static vs. Conversion set ups
- Ventilation considerations
- Pillows and Bedding
Bed Size and Comfort
There are countless options for beds in small RVs. You’re limited only by your imagination.
Options I’ve seen when perusing campervans and small RVs online included a standard mattress, inflatable mattress, seat cushions that fold down to become a bed, and even using climbing crash pads placed side by side.
Having comfortable sleeping arrangements is one of the most important decisions to having an enjoyable RV experience. It is worth taking time to think about, and if possible check out in person, your bed options in advance.
In our case, we actually went to see a few campervan and small RV options in person. We actually set up different beds and laid down in them to make sure they seemed comfortable and spacious enough for our needs. This isn’t always possible, but if you can do this I highly recommend it!
Static vs. Conversion
Having a full-time dedicated bed vs. a set up where the bed folds down is a trade off.
A full-time dedicated bed gives you the best options for the most comfortable sleeping surface. It also means you don’t have to set up your bed, possibly at the end of a long day when you would just like to go to sleep. This setup can also include a large storage area under the bed in higher vehicles.
However, this means sacrificing space taken up by the bed when you’re not sleeping. It may also mean trying to use a smaller mattress than you otherwise would to free up that space.
A conversion set up allows you to use the same space that your bed takes up when sleeping for other things when you’re not. For example, the set-up we rented had benches on each side of the camper van with a table in the middle.
The table was easily removed, the benches extended, and the cushions spread out to create our bed. This allowed for a spacious and comfortable sleeping surface that easily fit my wife, our 8 year old daughter, and me.
The biggest downside of this setup was spending a few minutes at the end of each day we were on the road to set up our bed and put on sheets. On days when we were trying to cover a lot of ground, this was often done in the dark when we were all tired.
One thing we didn’t consider at all before renting our van was ventilation. After a month sleeping in a campervan, we realized this was a major oversight.
The campervan we rented did not have roof ventilation. We lucked out by having only a couple very hot nights while traveling in June. Sleeping was uncomfortable those nights.
We rented a window screen product called a BugSoc that allowed us to keep our windows open while keeping bugs out. I don’t believe the company that made those is still in business. The Skeeter Beater is a product that works using a similar concept.
These window screens helped, and if you don’t have roof ventilation I highly recommend them. But they didn’t provide enough ventilation on the hottest nights.
A campervan or small RV with a roof vent and fan is highly preferable for sleeping comfort. It also makes eating meals and hanging out inside the vehicle on hot buggy days more comfortable.
The other issue with not having a roof vent and fan is that it required leaving our windows down to have any ventilation. This is no different than sleeping in a tent, so we were comfortable with this arrangement in formal campgrounds.
We did not feel comfortable having to leave our windows open for ventilation at night when boondocking at pitch dark trailheads or in public parking lots. We opted to just crack the windows and lock the doors.
At roadside campgrounds, we did leave the windows open for more ventilation, but weren’t entirely comfortable.
Consider where you will be sleeping in your campervan or small RV and whether you will feel safe and secure sleeping in your home on wheels.
Pillows and Bedding
Having comfortable pillows, bedding of the appropriate size, and blankets or sleeping bags appropriate to the temperatures where you will be camping are all vital to having a good experience in your rental campervan or RV.
If you’re flying, consider how you will get relatively large items to the location of your rental. If bringing your own bedding, make sure it is the proper size to fit your bed.
It may be simpler to just rent these items if they aren’t included with your rental. If you take this option, factor that into your expenses.
Should our Campervan or Small RV Have a Bathroom?
It is worth considering the convenience of having the following amenities in a campervan or small RV:
- A sink
- A toilet
- A shower
You can find campervans and small RVs with all three features… or none of them.
As with most everything else discussed thus far, your preference is a matter of tradeoffs. In this case is it worth the convenience of having these amenities vs. the space they take which could be used for other things… or eliminated completely?
Another consideration is whether you want to spend your time dealing with raw sewage, gray water (water from your sink and shower drains), or whether you prefer to skip dealing with this aspect of RV life and rely on public and campground amenities.
Our rental campervan had a sink. We used it primarily for brushing our teeth and cleaning up after meals. It had a small gray water tank.
A sink is a convenient feature to any campervan or small RV. Managing gray water, at least in warm weather conditions when we didn’t have to worry about freezing, was a minor inconvenience at worst.
We cooked and ate a number of meals at rest stops and local parks. Having the sink enabled easy and convenient clean up.
It was also nice to have a place to brush our teeth first thing in the morning and at the end of a day, regardless of where we were staying. We would definitely look for this feature again if renting another campervan or other small RV.
Kristen Bor has an excellent resource for anyone who would like to do a deeper dive on campervan water systems. Her article is detailed and more appropriate for those considering campervan build outs than rentals, but it also is an excellent resource to learn to appropriately dispose of gray water.
We went back and forth on whether we would want an RV with a toilet. After a month in our rental campervan, I’ve formed pretty strong opinions on a lot of things related to RVs. Having a toilet is one I am still torn on.
There is definitely an argument to be made for having a toilet… particularly when nature calls in the middle of the night… and particularly for females.
However, not having to dispose of raw sewage or dump and clean a portable toilet is a pretty compelling argument for forgoing having a toilet in your RV.
Kristen Bor also covers the best campervan toilet options and what to do if you don’t have one in far more detail than I care to. If you want to dive more into this issue, check out her comprehensive article.
We didn’t give any consideration to a campervan or small RV with a shower. Wanting to have the smallest, most fuel efficient, easiest driving vehicle possible was much more important to us.
After a month traveling and living out of the campervan, we didn’t regret this decision. We spent time in campgrounds, with family and friends, and a few nights for free in hotels utilizing credit card travel rewards points.
The only time we lacked access to a shower was when boondocking, but we didn’t find it a major inconvenience. Your mileage may vary.
Is it Easy to Cook and Eat in a Campervan or Small RV?
Having a place to cook and eat while on the road is one of the best perks of traveling in an RV. It can save money and time while enabling healthier eating compared to relying on restaurant food.
Considerations when renting a campervan or small RV include:
- How and where you will cook
- Where you will eat
- How you will store perishable food
There are a variety of stove options. The most common rely on a camp stove with combustible fuels. These are small and easy to use. However, you should also have good ventilation to use them safely inside the vehicle.
There are also electric cooktop stove options for RVs. They tend to be safer for cooking inside the vehicle.
The kitchen in our rental campervan (stove, refrigerator, sink, and prep space) were all in the rear of the vehicle, requiring having the back doors open to use them. It was a nice set up in ideal conditions, giving Kim and I a lot of space to cook and clean up together.
However, we learned that having a set up that requires keeping the doors open in areas that are buggy is a major design flaw. The bugs were hard to kill or shoo out of the van making sleeping miserable those nights.
If possible, I would choose a kitchen set up that allows you to cook and eat fully contained in the vehicle. Using a combustible stove outside while keeping the van closed up is another reasonable option. But having access to the refrigerator and sink without having to open the doors would be very important to me if going places with mosquitos, flies, or other annoying bugs.
Having a table inside your campervan or RV is a nice feature. It allows you to eat in comfort out of the elements without making a mess of your vehicle.
The ideal size of the table depends on how many people will be using it. A table can be permanent, but most fold down in some way to save space when you’re not using it.
Our campervan had a really nice table set up. We had long benches on either side, which easily fit the three of us during our meals or for card games.
The table top easily popped off and the post supporting it was removable, creating a large space for our bed.
Prior to renting our vehicle, we became accustomed to using a cooler for road trips and car camping. A refrigerator provides convenience and savings over having to repeatedly stop, dump water, and buy more ice .
A refrigerator can also be conveniently built into the vehicle to free up space for other things. Our refrigerator was a drawer unit.
I was skeptical when I first saw it. After a month in the campervan, I was pleasantly surprised by how much we were able to store and how cold it kept our food and drinks.
One drawback of our setup, as noted above, is that we had to open our back doors to access the refrigerator. This isn’t the biggest deal in the world, but if I had the option I would prefer being able to access the fridge from inside the vehicle.
Getting a drink or snack without having to pull the vehicle over is a nice convenience. It is also preferable to not have to keep opening the door and letting bugs in every time we forgot something at meal times… which we learned over the course of our trip happens a lot!
Do Campervans or Small RVs Have Adequate Storage Space?
When renting a campervan, it is important to think long and hard about what to take. Even the biggest RVs will force you to be somewhat of a minimalist.
That said, with creative designs, a campervan or small RV can allow you to neatly store clothes, food and kitchen supplies, along with recreational equipment.
Our original idea was to use both a roof cargo box and our bike rack, because we have a variety of gear intensive outdoor activities that we like to do including biking, climbing, and stand-up paddleboarding.
After further consideration, we found it made more sense to focus on hiking and climbing on our trip, as we could do these activities with minimal equipment.
After all, adding a couple feet to the top and back of our vehicle and a couple hundred pounds of extra weight kind of defeated the point of seeking a smaller vehicle that was more fuel efficient and easy to drive and park.
It is worth checking out the storage options, either in person or in photos, for any campervan or small RV you consider renting.
That said, there’s only so much you can do with limited space. If storage seems woefully inadequate, it may be a sign that you should reconsider what you need for an enjoyable trip before considering a bigger RV.
After a month on the road, the three of us brainstormed on the homestretch of our last day of driving. The items already discussed are the universal considerations everyone should think about before renting a campervan or small RV.
However, there are a few other things that are worth thinking about.
When thinking about the considerations outlined above, factor in when and where you will be going. Is it likely to be especially hot, cold, wet, or buggy? If so, some of the factors outlined may be more or less important than others.
For example, the van we rented was absolutely perfect for us when we were in the Black Hills of South Dakota. There it was dry, cool at night, and there weren’t many bugs. So the biggest drawbacks we noted had minimal impact on our experience.
In contrast, we spent three days of our trip in Tennessee in June where it was hot, humid, buggy, and raining much of the time. Luckily, the third day was a planned hotel night. If not, we would have made it one anyway. That campervan setup was getting pretty miserable in those conditions.
Kids & Pets
Traveling with kids and pets may lead to other considerations.
In the case of pets it is wise to confirm if this is even allowable. If so, check if there are extra fees. I noticed pet policies varied considerably from company to company when researching rentals.
Special considerations for kids include having adequate space to be comfortable both while traveling and sleeping. If you’re spending a lot of time on the road, having something to keep kids entertained is essential.
At the very least, most people have options for entertainment on their phones. Make sure you have what you need downloaded, are aware of how you can connect your devices in your rental RV or campervan, and that you pack or rent appropriate accessory cords.
Hit the Road
I spent a lot of time researching campervans and small RVs prior to our trip. Still there were things we never considered until we were on the road.
Despite all of my research and a month on the road in a campervan, I still consider myself very much a novice in the world of campervans and small RVs. I wanted to create a resource to help others considering a campervan or small RV rental, and one I can return to when we do it again, while these items were fresh in my mind after our trip.
I know we have some experienced RVers in our audience. If there is anything major I missed, let me know in the comments. I’ll update this post as I continue to learn so it hopefully lives up to the title.
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[Chris Mamula used principles of traditional retirement planning, combined with creative lifestyle design, to retire from a career as a physical therapist at age 41. After poor experiences with the financial industry early in his professional life, he educated himself on investing and tax planning. Now he draws on his experience to write about wealth building, DIY investing, financial planning, early retirement, and lifestyle design at Can I Retire Yet? Chris has been featured on MarketWatch, Morningstar, U.S. News & World Report, and Business Insider. He is also the primary author of the book Choose FI: Your Blueprint to Financial Independence. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
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