We're such snobs when we're young, you know what I mean? Besides buying into that "never trust anyone over thirty" business, I distinctly remember detesting the very sight of hulking RVs cruising the highways when I was in my salad days. Sadly, that was before I ever blew out a knee or developed a herniated disk, back when I actually thought sleeping with half an inch of lightweight foam between me and the rocky soil was fun.
As we get older, we get wiser: months of spending three nights a week in a two-man tent pretty much soured me on extended camping trips, and even the Ms - whose tent it was I wore out in a field season or two - has likewise grown weary of damp ground and stiff muscles in the morning. Really, though, the deciding factor was the dogs - have you ever tried to keep a 95-pound Labrador out of a tent? It's even harder than keeping one in a tent! And if you have two of them, well... All this means that back- and tent-camping trips grew fewer and farther between, even though we both still craved the solitude of a postage-stamp-sized high mountain lake or the crooked, falling trill of a canyon wren. The good places, we long ago learned, just aren't next door to motels. They aren't even next door to campgrounds, but then we've never been afraid to hike a bit to get away.
Several years ago we toured a small chunk of Europe in a rented wohnmobil - a miniature motor home built on a front-wheel drive Fiat frame. And we had a heckuva good time! So for our first vacation after returning to the Midwest, we decided to try renting a motor home again, this time for a tour of North Carolina's Outer Banks. Some googling, surfing, and a few 800-number phone calls later we'd made our choice: Cruise America, which is probably the most recognizable name in RV rentals in the country. Here's what we thought...
Begin at the Beginning: Initiating the Rental
Cruise America will be happy to make your acquaintance either by telephone (800 671 8042) or on the web (at www.cruiseamerica.com ). I used the web to research the cost and availability of renting - visitors to the website can get an estimate without having to supply any identification or a credit card. I also telephoned to make a small change to our reservation, which was quickly handled without problems.
Getting an estimate on the web is downright painless with Cruise America: you choose departure and return dates and locations and pick the vehicle you want to rent, and the computer spits out estimated costs in just seconds. I tried different date and place combinations to optimize travel time vs. cost, then finalized the reservation online by providing a credit card number (with SSL encryption, of course). I received a confirmation email almost immediately, and within a day Cruise America had emailed me a renter's guide and FAQ handout.
Where and What Can You Rent?
The company has 129 rental centers in the Continental US, and six in Canada. Locations span the continent, although there are currently none the upper Great Plains and Northern Rockies (ND, SD, NB, IA, KS, MT, ID) and a handful of other states (AR, MS, ME, VT, NH). Most - but not all - rental centers will accept one-way rentals, or you can follow a loop on your vacation. The center where we picked up and dropped off our camper doubled as a Budget truck rental site, which is apparently common. If you're testing out the website, you can find a map of the locations or choose from a list of states and cities where you can pick up and drop off.
Three sizes of mobile home are available at most rental centers: a 22-foot pickup camper (which lacks walk-through design), a 24-foot Class C Recreational Vehicle and a 29-foot Class C Recreational Vehicle. Class C motor homes are built on a modified pickup or van frame with a regular truck cab that opens into the living quarters. All are cab-over designs with a queen-sized bed mounted above the driving area. Some rental centers have a mid-sized (26-foot) Class C, and a very limited number also rent Fun Movers: these are motor homes with a rear-mounted "garage" for carrying motorcycles or ATVs, or perhaps extra gear. Fun Movers have a lift-gate rated for 1600 pounds and integrated wheel chocks and other stabilizing equipment mounted in the floor of the "garage."
Some locations also rent motorcycles and ATVs; the place where we did business (Durham, NC) did not. The company doesn't rent any Class A motor homes or luxury coaches (the big ones built on bus frames).
We rented a "compact" RV, which sleeps six. The Thor Industries Four Winds 5000 had about 20,000 miles on it in its first year, though it had been reasonably well-maintained. Much of this location's business seems to arise from tailgaters at local universities (Duke, NC State, Wake Forest, and UNC) or trips to NASCAR events at nearby race tracks.
By the way, after a vehicle has 90,000 miles, Cruise America refurbishes them and then sells them to the public. There are links to the sales department on the website.
What Does it Cost?
Cost is determined by several factors: the size of the rental vehicle, the location, and the season. Our trip in a standard RV (the smallest Class C) was technically off-season, falling in mid-November. That rental cost $72/day - though in mid-summer the rate can easily double. You're also responsible for mileage charges ($0.29/mile) and fuel charges; you are required to pay for 100 miles/day in advance but any overcharges are cheerfully refunded upon your return. Cruise America picks up any maintenance costs including oil, and also has a $3000 trip insurance policy in case an RV breaks down in the middle of the trip. Cruise America also has a fuel cost protection program that might save a few dollars off your overall costs.
Liability and collision insurance are included in the rental cost - but check with your insurance agent just in case.
Booking well in advance can often get you a discount, and there are always "hot deals" on the website for people to drive vehicles to the company refurbishment sites in Phoenix and Elkhart, IN during the off-season.
Pickup and Return?
Pickup and return hours are somewhat limited: most centers aren't open on Sundays, for one thing. Returns are accepted only in the morning and you can only pick up in the afternoon. At pickup time the local agent will give you a walkthrough to show the controls, demonstrate appliances, and give a spiel on maintenance and your obligations about cleaning the vehicle before it's returned. There's a video, too - and, happily, each RV also has a printed guide that has the same instructions within.
When returning, you need to have the waste tanks empty and the propane and gasoline tanks full. If the inside and outside aren't clean, you'll be liable for additional charges.
Any Hidden Costs?
Depends on what you mean by "hidden": when you check out the vehicle you're given a "menu" that tells you what cleaning charges are - a flat $50 if you don't empty the waste tanks, and similar charges - but we didn't have any problems with those. In fact, they didn't charge us for the propane we used; perhaps because we left the thing about twice as clean as the average renter (the Ms can be compulsive).
If you're driving somewhere to pick up an RV - as we did - or picking up one close to home, you'll want to bring your own kitchen utensils, linens, and miscellaneous supplies yourself. Otherwise, be prepared to pay $35/person for linens and $80 for a kit with kitchen and cleaning supplies (and you don't get to keep them). There is no television in the RV, though it is wired for cable if you bring your own. Ours had a CD player in the cab with speakers in the living quarters.
A hidden benefit is the KOA card that accompanies your rental (on request). You'll save 10% or so at KOAs along your route (which, unfortunately, seem to be a tad overpriced as a rule).
So, What's it Like Renting an RV?
All in all, our experience was very positive. Making the reservation was painless, and the rental guide they sent in advance was most helpful in planning. We found the staff on the phone and especially in Durham helpful and friendly, and they got us on the road quickly and with minimal fuss. Our return was just as painless. The motor home itself was clean when we picked it up, in good repair, and didn't have any of the lingering odors the Ms was half expecting. All the motor homes Cruise America rents are pet-friendly; a good thing since we were taking two hundred pounds of pooch. All of the vehicles are also non-smoking, and previous tenants seemed to have obeyed this rule even though Durham is a tobacco capital.
The RV proved to be conversation piece of sorts, too: since it had big Cruise America stickers on the sides, curious passers-by often approached us for information about renting one themselves. That's not to mention that every time we left it sitting in a parking lot somewhere our two labs ended up sitting in the front seats looking out the windshield - which also attracted lots of attention.
So I guess the main question is, "Would we rent from Cruise America again?" and the answer is a resounding "Yes!"
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