14 common mistakes to avoid when renting an RV, from someone who just did it for the first time
About 20 minutes into my first time renting an RV with a friend, I almost lopped off the top of the motor home while going through a tunnel that didn’t have enough clearance.
An hour later, I found myself at a gas station trying to fix a loose side-view mirror.
At 2 a.m., I finally crawled into bed after having arrived at my campsite hours later than planned, and spending too much time figuring out how to turn the dinette into a bed because nobody told me and I never asked.
Those were all mistakes that I could have easily avoided.
So you don’t make the same errors, I’ve compiled 14 common mistakes novice RV-ers make — including a few of my own — and how to prevent them.
Not picking the right RV is a rookie mistake.
Choosing the right RV for your trip depends on a variety of factors, such as how many people are traveling, how far you’re going, and the sort of roads you’ll be driving on.
While a van might be a great option for a couple or solo traveler, my friend and I knew only one thing for sure: We wanted a bathroom with a door. We also wanted to rent the smallest RV possible, as we had never driven one before.
We ended up with a “compact RV,” a Class C motor home not much longer than an SUV, and not too wide, that made driving easy but still had a kitchen, bathroom, and two beds (one was for kids, but at 5’4″ I fit comfortably).
Don’t make the mistake of renting a flashy Class A motor home for your first time. It may be super spacious and comfortable, but it would be difficult to drive.
Not asking questions will mean you have to look for the answers yourself later.
It turns out, renting an RV is a lot like renting a car. As first-time RV renters, we were surprised to simply be handed the keys to the motor home after a five-minute explanation of the vehicle.
I scribbled down some notes, and my friend nodded along as the rental agent was talking, but neither of us felt all that confident as we drove away.
Although we eventually figured everything out as we went — and the RV came with a rental assistance guidebook — we should have asked more questions right off the bat.
Setting up camp with an RV was a lot more intuitive than I thought it would be, but I wish I had asked more questions about the tanks and their capacity. This thought occurred to me on day one of our trip, after taking a quick shower that flooded the bathroom and kitchen.
Not knowing your measurements poses a major risk when driving.
Before leaving the lot, you should know exactly how long and wide your new vehicle is — and, most importantly, how high.
We had a terrifying experience barreling through a tunnel that said it had a 9’7″ clearance — turns out, the RV was 12 feet tall, so while I’m not entirely sure how that worked out I’m glad it did.
Not planning your route ahead of time will only cause you stress.
As our near-death tunnel experience taught us, not every road is RV-friendly. While Google Maps will take you from A to B as quickly as possible, you also have to factor in the height, weight, and length of your vehicle.
And though highways are generally fine, it’s the roads leading to and from them that can get tricky. You don’t want to run into excessively steep or windy roads that are hard to navigate, or end up in front of tunnels, overpasses, and bridges that don’t have enough clearance for your rig. We were also told not to take any underwater tunnels because of the propane tank’s flammability and pressure.
There are apps, such as RV Life, that specifically deliver RV-friendly routes, but I personally found researching routes myself just fine, since our RV was not all that big.
Planning to drive too far in one go also adds unnecessary stress.
RVs are not exactly the fastest vehicles out there, so it behooves you to add a few hours to every route you look up. Take it from someone who arrived at her first campsite at 1 a.m. on day one, after almost eight hours of driving.
My biggest regret was not taking more time for my trip, and not planning more stops. We ended up spending more hours driving every day than we would have liked. If you can, plan more stops and fewer hours on the road per day.
Not making reservations ahead of time could be a big mistake.
Sure, road trips are all about the journey, not the destination, and you want to live that easy, breezy RV-life — but don’t wing it.
Depending on when and where you go, campgrounds could be full, especially the lots with water and electricity hookups for RVs.
While I had the first three nights at two different campsites booked in advance, we decided to see where the last night would take us. While it worked out OK, I spent a few stressful hours trying to find a campsite that was both on our way and not booked out, all the while struggling with spotty Wi-Fi, campsites not picking up the phone, and helping my friend — who was driving — with directions.
You’ll regret not securing your stuff as soon as you start driving.
If it’s not nailed down, it will end up on the floor. We learned this on day one, when the soap, water, and plastic cups on the counter ended up on the floor alongside my backpack and all of its contents.
Not leveling the RV when you park at a campsite can quite literally throw you off balance.
If you’re parking on uneven ground, you should try and get as level as possible (apparently, you can buy leveling blocks to help with this). If you’re parked at an angle, you’ll feel it when you’re sleeping tilted to one side, or, as we found out, when you shower and the water pools in one corner instead of draining.
Not downloading maps or bringing a paper map is a surefire way to get lost.
You will find yourself without internet and phone coverage at some point on your trip, so make sure you know how to get where you’re going.
Not packing as though you’re going camping means you’ll spend most of your time going shopping.
RV life is a lot like camping, so I think it’s better to pack too much than have to buy a bunch of extra gear you forgot.
Despite thinking we were prepared by bringing things such as dish soap, a sponge, dish towel, paper towels, and an ice-cube tray, we found ourselves sitting in the dark, getting eaten alive by mosquitoes, and unable to make a fire in our fire pit until we purchased candles, firewood, matches, and bug spray.
You also need to be prepared for all sorts of weather. You’ll want layers if it gets unexpectedly cold, or a rain jacket for wet weather.
And I wish I’d brought some basic tools: Our side-view mirror was so loose it kept flipping inwards, so we had to stop at a gas station less than an hour into our trip to fix it.
Not bringing enough food could mean going hungry if you’re late to your destination, but too much might not fit in your fridge.
Fridges in RVs are usually small, so don’t buy too many perishable items. However, do have enough food in case you roll into a campsite later than expected, or find yourself unable to go into a nearby town or restaurant because you can’t park your massive RV there.
Not bringing fresh water is a classic mistake.
I didn’t expect to be able to drink from the tap, but was surprised to see signs in the kitchen warning against using the tank water for cooking and cleaning produce.
Realizing that you can’t park everywhere might put a damper on some of the city stops you have planned.
While our goal was to spend time in nature at Acadia National Park in Maine, we planned stops at towns such as Portland and Kennebunkport on the way, because we’ve always wanted to see them.
However, we quickly learned that you can’t park your RV just anywhere: Not all parking lots allow RVs, not even ones that you pay for, so driving into a city for a quick lunch or stroll is easier said than done.
Not budgeting properly might make for a mean surprise.
Renting an RV is expensive. Aside from the actual RV rental, as well as a whole bunch of extra rental fees such as insurance and mileage, you should keep in mind that the RV guzzles gas, you’ll probably face higher tolls than a regular car, and that campsites aren’t free.
The four-night, five-day trip ended up being way more expensive than I thought it would be, despite us mostly eating the food we packed.
This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).
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