MT asked how I wanted to celebrate my birthday. Without thinking, I said, “I’d love to rent an RV and drive to the Grand Canyon.”
Two hours later, we had reserved an RV through Cruise America.
Estimated reading time: 12 minutes
Table of contents
- Pros & Cons of Renting an RV from Cruise America
- Which RV model to rent?
- OK, what does it cost to rent an RV?
- You’ve reserved your rental RV, now what?
- Pick up your RV
- Pack up and hit the road
- Stay at a nearby campground and call ahead
Pros & Cons of Renting an RV from Cruise America
There are two main reasons we chose a Cruise America rental RV:
- They’re everywhere. That meant we could rent an RV from the Chicago-area location less than half an hour from our house.
- Value for the price. We didn’t know it beforehand, but our rental period (9/26 – 10/11/19) just happened to be when Cruise America was offering discount rates.
There are 126 Cruise America locations across the US and Canada. Because of that, we figured we’d be in good shape if we had trouble with our rig or needed to swap with another one while on the road. Fortunately, that was never an issue.
After we made our reservation, Cruise America’s generous cancellation policy allowed us to do some additional research. We quickly discovered they’re the least expensive option for renting an RV, even at Cruise America’s normal rates.
However, Cruise America rigs are also the most bare-boned. So if you’re looking for luxury, you’ll have to go with an RV dealer. You could also check out Outdoorsy or RVshare to rent an RV directly from a private owner.
Which RV model to rent?
We considered the 20-foot Compact model, but they appeared to cost the same or more than the Standard model. And the Large 30-foot model was just too much rig for us.
UPDATE August 2021: Cruise America has added another model to its rental lineup, the 21-foot Compact Plus. It has the same 7.5-foot width as the Compact model, but is just a bit roomier. The Compact Plus is currently available at only a few locations as they roll out this unit.
Remember, it’s not just the people or pets. Everyone’s stuff is also along for the ride, so choosing the right size for your family’s comfort and needs is crucial.
In the end, we chose to rent the 25-foot Standard model. It was perfect for the two of us and our dog, Nola. Cruise America says the Standard can sleep 5, which is also the number of seatbelts. However, I wouldn’t want to test that on a 2-week trip unless everyone gets along really well.
Visit your Cruise America rental location and bring a tape measure
To help you decide, we recommend that you visit your Cruise America rental location in advance. Bring a tape measure. Walking through the different rental RVs beforehand allows you to take measurements, notes, photos, and video. These will help you choose the right model for you, and also plan for your trip. Two weeks before our trip, we called our rental location, The Truck Shop near O’Hare Airport, and asked if there was a good day to visit when it wouldn’t be too busy. When we arrived, there was only one Standard model on the lot, and it was waiting for repair parts.
That rig was in rough shape! We were told that it was three years old and that Cruise America only keeps rigs in their fleet for about three years before they’re sold or refurbished. I don’t know how many miles that rig had on its odometer, but it had been well used. Even so, we decided we could live with a rental unit like this for two weeks, provided that everything was in working order.
Incidentally, we asked whether we could improve our chance of getting a newer model, such as picking up on a certain day or bribing someone. (No, we didn’t bribe anyone.) We never got a clear answer on this, but we did choose a Thursday pickup. We also arrived early, which may have helped us get a Cruise America RV that only had 21,680 miles on it and was manufactured a mere 6 months earlier. Everything was super clean and nothing was broken. Whew!
OK, what does it cost to rent an RV?
Cruise America’s RV rental rates fluctuate by season and location. Here’s what we paid:
- $75/night for 14 nights
- $.17/mile (3790 miles = $644.30)
- The normal rate is $.35/mile
- $10/night for the Zero Deductible Plan
If you think about it, that’s about what you’d pay for most hotels/motels on a driving trip. But with an RV, you don’t have to unpack every time you stop for the night.
Wait, what about gas?
Cruise America doesn’t advertise the mpg ratings of their rigs, probably because they don’t want to scare anyone. We kept a trip log and found that we averaged 7-9 miles per gallon. Why so low?
- RVs are not aerodynamic.
- RVs are heavy, especially when you’ve topped off the tanks.
- 40 gallons of water = 333.6 lbs
- 55 gallons of gasoline = 343.75 lbs
- Plus the contents of the 24.5 gallon sewage and grey water tanks
- Cruise America only offers gas RVs, and they get worse mileage than Diesel RVs.
- The Ford V8 and V10 chassis are designed to pull a lot of weight, with little concern for efficiency.
Ultimately, we spent around $1,100 on gas alone. Your mileage will, of course, vary.
Save money by bringing your own stuff
Cruise America offers two provisioning kits that include things like kitchen supplies, sheets, and towels. We didn’t use these because we were able to pack our RV at home. However, they could be useful if you have to fly somewhere to pick up your RV.
How to save on campground fees
Finally, there are campground fees. These vary quite a bit from place to place. We paid as little as $10 and as much as $55. Price is a factor of location—whether it’s a federal, state, or private campground—as well as the type of hookup, full or partial. A “full hookup” includes Electricity, City Water, and Sewage.
On our trip, we dumped the black tank (sewage) and grey water tank (sinks and shower) every 2-3 days. I’m sure we could have gone longer than that, but we were trying to shed weight whenever possible.
With that in mind, we could have saved some money by choosing “partial hookup” campsites that didn’t include sewer hookups. That’s because most campgrounds have a dump station at the entrance/exit. Partial sites with electricity and city water are great if you need to run the air conditioning, or if you want to take a shower.
Choosing where to camp is a subject for another post, but we recommend visiting KOA, Good Sam, and especially RV Parky. KOA offers a Cruise America discount.
You’ve reserved your rental RV, now what?
Start planning your journey. This will help you make decisions about packing and other logistics. If you’re planning to visit a major destination such as the Grand Canyon, make your campground reservations as soon as possible. And be sure to allow plenty of travel days to reach that destination.
Start thinking slow
Traveling in an RV is slower than in a car. Period. Everything just takes longer. Go ahead and plot your journey in Google Maps. Then, for every 3 hours of estimated travel time, add another hour to allow for “RV Time.” There are a lot of factors that go into this:
- On interstates, you’ll want to join the trucks in the right lane and travel about 5 miles under the limit. Sure, you can go 75-85 miles per hour, but it’ll be miserable for everyone and your gas mileage will suffer greatly.
- If it’s windy, you’ll have to slow down and you’ll get tired faster.
- You’re on vacation, right? You’ll want to stop and see stuff along the way.
- Stopping to get gas always seems to take at least half an hour.
- You’ll eventually discover that driving on slower/smaller highways is a lot more fun!
We figured out that driving roughly 250 miles per day was a good target. Keep in mind, though, that MT never drove, only I did. You may be able to cover more distance per day with a second driver.
Learn as much as possible about your RV
This could also be an entire post, but there are some great resources on the Cruise America site to get you started. I recommend watching all their videos now, and then watching them again just before your trip.
Be sure to also install the Cruise America app and download the videos in the app. As of this writing, the app itself isn’t terribly useful, except for those orientation and troubleshooting videos. You may find yourself without good cell service on your trip, so download those videos in advance in case you need to reference them.
Of course, here’s the answer to your biggest question: How to Dump the Tanks of your Cruise America Rental RV.
There’s also a Renter Assistance Guide that you can download as a PDF in a variety of languages. This guide will also be provided in your RV and it’s handy when you’re trying to figure out how the refrigerator operates.
Pick up your RV
You’ll need to call 3-5 days in advance to schedule a pick-up time for your RV. Arrive early and allow plenty of time. You’ll have to watch the Orientation Video again and sign a lot of paperwork. So that you can focus, we recommend that you not bring pets or small children along.
You’ll then be walked out to your RV, which may be wet and gleaming from the truck wash. Our technician had the engine running and the air conditioning going at full blast. He walked us around the RV, noted any existing damage, and quickly explained how things worked.
Take a video of the walkaround and ask lots of questions
On the second day of our trip, we discovered some damage that hadn’t been noticed during the walkaround. However, we reviewed the video that MT shot and sent screenshots to Cruise America to prove that we hadn’t caused the damage.
Take a breath and start driving
After about an hour of orientation, you’ll drive off the lot and into traffic! Go slow, take your time, and don’t be embarrassed if you have to pull over to take a breath. If you’ve never driven a moving truck or other large vehicle, you’ll need time to adjust to turning corners and to learning how tall and wide you are. As the orientation video says (in an Australian accent), “You’ve got a second story to think about.”
We drove back home so we could pack, and planned a route through Chicago that would keep us on wider thoroughfares as much as possible. When we reached the narrow streets of our neighborhood, I just kept reminding myself of all the UPS trucks and garbage trucks and moving trucks that traverse these avenues on a daily basis.
A tip I learned for staying centered in a lane is to keep scanning the side-view mirrors. Because of the height of the truck, your tendency will be to stay too far away from vehicles on the right side of your RV. You’ll learn to trust that you have more room than you think.
Cruise America does not provide back-up cameras, but we didn’t find this to be much of an issue. You’re going to be backing up less than 1% of the time, and you will always have assistance from a family member or campground host. Also, many campgrounds offer pull-through sites.
Pack up and hit the road
A great place to start is with our post about 5 Things to Pack for your Cruise America Rental RV. Make a list in advance of everything you think you’ll need or want on your trip. Then go through that list and note the items you could live without. If you leave those extra items at home, you can save both weight and storage space.
Also be sure to watch Ep 6: Organizing Tips for Your Rental RV. MT shows you all the little real-world organizing tips she developed on our first trip. Hint: cubbies and bins!
Stay at a nearby campground and call ahead
Our only remaining piece of advice is to aim for a nearby campground to stay at on your first night. We didn’t hit the road until around 6:30pm, which meant driving through Chicago rush-hour traffic. We finally reached our target campground in Iowa at around 11pm, so it would have been smarter to choose a campground closer to home.
Luckily, we’d called ahead to reserve a spot, and explained it was our first-ever RV trip. The Rock Island KOA gave us a great pull-through site that was easy to locate in the dark. We only used the fresh water and electric hookups because we knew we’d hit the road early the next day.
I slept well that first night, despite fighting a cold. Pro tip: pack some cough medicine.
Thanks for reading! And be sure to check out our related articles and videos below:
*NOTE: We have no connection with Cruise America or any other company mentioned in this article. We’re just happy customers.
Questions about our rental experience? Scroll down and leave a comment.
I didn’t realize until I read this, that maybe what’s missing in my life is an RV road trip…! This is a great post: all the questions that popped in my head were answered (and very honestly!) and you immediately take what can be very overwhelming and make it very manageable/reasonable. And it’s truly about the journey – and enjoying what opens up in front of you… Looking forward to more pictures and more stories, advice and encouragement to embark on this one-of-a-kind adventure.
Thanks, David! I have at least 4 more posts planned to cover other aspects of the journey. Driving a small apartment across the country really does change how you look at things. 🙂 Happy New Year, and hope to see you soon!!!
Very informative (and a little daunting). Drove a similar size rental RV w/friends for a fishing trip but didn’t sleep in the vehicle. This has also been on my wish list so I look forward to future posts. Thank you.
Thanks, Paul! My family camped and fished when I was a kid, and we later had a boat on Prince William Sound in Alaska, but I always enviously watched the RVs driving down the highway!
Hope Cruise America uses your story in their promo. Alice
I saw a comment from “David F.” and thought to myself, “Hey, when did I leave a comment?” Turns out, I hadn’t.
Love this! Thanks!