In September of 2019, MT asked me what I wanted to do to celebrate my 50th birthday. Without much 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. There are two main reasons we chose them:
- They’re everywhere, which for us meant we could rent an RV out of the Chicago area location that’s less than half an hour from our house.
- Value for the price. We didn’t know it ahead of time, but our rental period (9/26/19 – 10/11/19) just happened to be when CruiseAmerica was offering discount, end-of-season rates.
There are 126 Cruise America locations across the US and Canada, so we figured we’d be in good shape if we had trouble with our rig and needed to swap with another one while on the road. Fortunately, that was never an issue.
Cruise America’s generous cancellation policy allowed us to do some additional research after we made our reservation, and we quickly discovered that 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, or check out Outdoorsy to rent an RV directly from a private owner.
Which RV model to rent?
In the end, we chose to rent the 25-foot Standard model, which was perfect for the two of us and our dog, Nola. Cruise America says the Standard can sleep 5 (also the number of seatbelts) but I wouldn’t want to test that on a 2-week trip unless everyone gets along really well.
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.
To help you decide, we recommend that you visit your Cruise America rental location in advance (we went two weeks ahead of time). Bring a tape measure. Walking through the different rental RVs ahead of time allows you to take measurements, notes, photos, and video—anything that will help you choose your size and plan for your trip. We called our rental location, The Truck Shop near O’Hare Airport, and asked if there was a good day and time to stop by 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 to get it back on the road.
That rig was in rough shape! We were told, though, 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 and the interior showed it. Even so, we decided we could live with it for two weeks, provided that everything was in working order.
We also tried to find out if there were any ways to 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, and we arrived early, which may have helped us (more on this in a minute).
OK, what does it cost to rent an RV?
Cruise America’s RV rental rates seem to 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.
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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
- Gas RVs get worse mileage than Diesel RVs (Cruise America only offers gas RVs).
- These are built on Ford V8 and V10 chassis that 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.
Cruise America offers two provisioning kits that include things like kitchen supplies and sheets and towels. Since we were able to pack our RV at home we didn’t use these, but they could be useful if you have to fly somewhere to pick up your RV.
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, depending on location, whether it was a federal/state or private campground, and whether we chose full or partial hookups. A full hookup would include Electricity, City Water, and Sewage.
We dumped our black tank (sewage) and grey water tank (from the sinks and shower) every 2-3 days and I’m sure we could have gone longer than that, but we were also trying to shed weight whenever possible.
With that in mind, we could have saved a bit by choosing more campsites without sewer hookups, since most campgrounds have a dump station at the entrance/exit. But it’s really nice to have electricity and city water hookups, especially if you want to take a shower.
You’ve reserved your RV, now what?
Start planning your journey, which 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.
Traveling in an RV is slower than in a car. Period. Everything just takes longer. So, when you plot your journey in Google Maps, 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 speed limit. Yes, you can go 75 or 85 miles per hour, but it’ll be miserable for everyone and your 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.
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.
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 and noting any existing damage and quickly explaining how things work. One of you should take a video of the walkaround while the other asks questions. On the second day of our trip, we discovered some damage that hadn’t been noticed during the walkaround, but we were able to review the video that MT shot and send a couple screenshots to Cruise America to show that we had not caused the damage.
We were thrilled to 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!
Take a breath and start driving
After about an hour, you’ll drive off the lot and into traffic to start your adventure! 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, having 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
We’ll cover packing and living and traveling in your rental RV in future posts, along with tips for returning your rig. Our only piece of remaining 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 some Chicago rush-hour traffic, and we finally reached our target campground at around 11pm.
Luckily, we’d called ahead to reserve a spot, and we explained it was our first-ever trip. The Rock Island KOA gave us a great pull-through site at the end of a row that was easy to locate in the dark.
Despite fighting a cold, I slept well that first night. Pro tip: pack some cough medicine.
Questions about our rental experience? Leave them in the comments.