Value proposition of RV vacations

My wife and I have never traveled in an RV. We kind of tossed the idea around, maybe next spring taking an extended vacation to a few national/regional/state parks. Kind of like camping without having to rough it.

I started pricing this out at Cruise America, just as an example. A daily RV rental for a medium-sized model is about $250/day. They also charge 35¢ per mile. I looked at KOA to see what they charge for sites. At the closest park to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, their shoulder season rate is about $75/night (over $100 in July, down to $45 in Dec-Jan-Feb). So for three weeks up and down the East Coast, that might work out to about $335 per day. That doesn’t include insurance, or gas–I imagine these things get about 12 MPG.

You can get a pretty nice hotel room for $335 a day. I stayed at the Bellagio for about that.

Maybe if you own one, and you take all your vacations this way, it might be worth it. But I don’t see the value in renting. Yet people do it. What am I missing?

I agree that in the east of the country they aren’t a good value proposition, because you’ll usually be in the range of a hotel that would be just as good for the same price. (Well, these days it might be a value proposition because you’d be safer staying away from the hotel.)

But out west, sometimes there aren’t any hotels in a reasonable range of the outdoors, and in addition, there are more National Forests and other types of land where you can stay for free in unimproved spots, which are definitely calmer and occasionally offer better nature opportunities than organized campsites.

At its maximum, I’d consider it as good a buy as a good hotel room: mid $200 to stay in an uncrowded location with great nature all by yourself. At its minimum, I wouldn’t: mid $300 to stay in a nondescript location just as loud and bustling as a hotel room.

Sidebar: If you’re going to be staying near Smokey Mountains, consider renting a house for a week. Lots of nice, modern houses to be leased, usually cheaper than a hotel. We’ve done it four or five times, now, and been pleasantly surprised each time.

I’ve done the same 3 time in Estes Park near Rocky Mountain National Park and have also never been disappointed. My only complaint was one of the times, the loft was too loud since I wanted to get to sleep early and the rest of the party didn’t and there was no wall to shield me from the noise. But that cabin was one that you could just walk into RMNP from and doing so was pretty neat.

I don’t know how much the first ones costed but the other two were definitely cheaper than a mid range hotel. The last time was a 3 level condo with 3 1/2 bedrooms for a week for mid-$1500, which, considering the amenities, was a lot cheaper than 3 rooms in a hotel.

We did that a few years ago with a family of four and had a great visit. We stayed in Lake Junaluska.

Three words: Joey’s Pancake House! We’ve stayed in Maggie Valley, but Junaluska is lovely. I suspect the closer you are to, i.e, Sevierville or Cherokee or one of the other bigger, touristier :crazy_face: towns, the more expensive a rental house will be, if you can find one. The rental companies we’ve done business with have gone above and beyond the call of duty every time we’ve gone.

End of sidebar.

Those are definitely higher rates than what I’ve seen in the past. I think part of it is that camping and RVs are one of the safer ways to pandemic-travel, so rates have gone up recently.

We have considered doing it. It’s not really a cost savings over hotels, but it’s (hopefully) a convenience and time savings for us. We have two small kids. Hauling everything in and out of hotel rooms, setting up the travel crib, trying to clean and wash vegetables and fruit in hotel bathroom sinks so they don’t just snack on crackers and potato chips all day, returning to the room after lunch for naps, etc. really eats into your day.

With the RV most of that stuff doesn’t have to be moved, we always have a naptime bed with us, we can put blackout curtains on the windows so they’ll actually nap in the afternoon and not become total assholes by bedtime. It’s worth it even if it costs more than a hotel room.

It’s what they call their Standard, second largest. 25 feet long. It says it sleeps 5, but that’s one queen bed with a bunch of others that kind of drop down or fold out or whatever. Even though it’s just two of us, we wanted to have plenty of space. The next size down is only a few dollars a day cheaper and requires reconfiguration for sleeping. The next size down from that is basically a camper mounted on top of a pickup truck.

Don’t think of RV travel as the ‘cheap alternative’ to other travel. Rather, think of it as an entirely different way to vacation. Rather than being stuck on airline schedules or having to find hotel/motel rooms, with an RV you can just go where you want, when you want. If you want to cut your vacation short or extend it, no problem. If your destination sucks or gets weathered out, you can choose a new one and just go.

This is not as true if you are restricting yourself to RV sites with full service that have to be booked like hotel rooms. But lots of RV’s have the ability to ‘boondock’, or stay in unprepared sites while providing the power you need for cooking, air conditioning, etc.

I don’t know if they still do, but Walmart used to allow RVs to park in their lots overnight without charge. So if you are driving cross-country, you can just pull into a Wal-Mart when you’re tired and sleep there.

That said, The ‘value’ proposition for RVs goes way up if you have a large family. Our neighbors had five kids. A traditional vacation by air was out of the question for them. Hotel stays required booking two or three rooms. Even restaurants were expensive for them. So an RV that sleeps 7 was a godsend for them, giving them the ability to travel anywhere in North America for reasonable cost.

One note of caution: Make sure you can actually book the RV site you want before you commit to renting the RV. My understanding is that COVID has made it nearly impossible to find decent RV sites with hookups, Some places are booking a year or more in advance.

I’m not saying the rates are wrong. I’m saying that when I looked at renting RVs a year or two ago, the rates were a lot lower then. So part of the reason the value proposition of RV rental right now is pretty bad is that there’s a lot more demand for it and basically static supply.

I don’t remember exactly what the rates were, but I know that I looked at buying a used CruiseAmerica RV less than a year ago, and you could get that model (the 25-foot one) 3-4 years old, with ~120k miles on it, for $27-28k. They are currently listed for $35k. Pandemic pricing. Wouldn’t surprise me if the rentals have gone up by an even greater factor because the increased demand to rent an RV this summer is going to be even higher than the increased demand to own one, as many people who aren’t that interested in RV trips in general are more interested right now.

I have to look around and find it again but some places like wineries will allow free overnight RV parking although no hookups. I guess the idea is you would buy something from them. Its some sort of network you buy a membership for. I guess some casinos also offer free overnight camping. Of course the idea is you will gamble there.

Oh, that was clear, and I hope I didn’t come across as defensive. I just wanted to share what I was seeing. For all I know I picked an expensive option as a benchmark. I just looked at the first thing that came in up Google.

That seems like a lot of depreciation but also a lot of miles. What is the life expectancy for one of those?

I’d second the “style” of holiday
We had one for 2 weeks in winter and loved it.
Travelled 3/4 of the length of NZ visiting family.
Loved that coffee and snacks were easy, you could buy takeaways and eat while looking out the back window at a lake etc etc.,
We didn’t use the shower - still booking parks in what was the off season, but sleeping in a rest area or similar is always an option.
And here, you don’t HAVE to book a powered site at an RV park to get access to the bathroom and shared kitchen facilities.

Is there a way to find out the actual mpg for the Standard when passengers and their personal supplies are on board and tanks are loaded?

I just now found this site:

“Gasoline is another significant cost factor. The largest class of RV, a Class A, can get as little as 6 to 8 miles per gallon. Cruise America RVs average 6 to 10 miles per gallon.”

Second generation RV-er here: @Sam_Stone covered this pretty well. Although I’m speaking as an owner instead of renter I’d put it this way. We don’t RV for cost savings any more than fishermen buy gear to save on groceries. It’s a completely different way of traveling, and supremely well suited to the US National Parks. In the RV, you’re inside the park and evenings revolve around campfires and Coleman lanterns. You simply cannot do this in a hotel. Here is the view from RVs in Monument Valley.

The other advantage is traveling to different outdoor destinations without packing and moving in and out. My fridge, closet, bed, medicine cabinet and entertainment center travel with me. With experience, we can arrive at a park, and be set up onsite and grilling burgers faster than most hotel check ins.

I have no idea, but I’m comfortable buying high-milage vehicles in general, especially ones that had a professional managing fleet maintenance schedules. My impression was that they were at a decent price point last fall, but not great right now. I’m sure there’s seasonal swings too. Lots more people want to buy RVs in the spring and summer.

A well cared for RV can easily go 200,000 miles or more. Sprinter van based RV’s with diesel engines have been known to go 400,000 miles. Generally, most of their mileage is easy miles on the highway, and thry are based on truck chassis with heavy duty components.

That said, a terribly maintained RV can become a piece of junk very quickly. If you are buying used, get a very good inspection.

There are other RV rental places. I know some owners rent out theirs (at least in non Covid years)
Try a Google search, I know there is a YouTube video on RV rentals.


This. While the vehicle will be generally quite heavy duty, the living area and living equipment (bathroom, dishwasher, cooking equipment, carpets, cabinets, drinking/flushing water pump, yada) have a very hard life and things wear out and break unexpectedly. Owning an RV is like having a backyard pool: it must be maintained and something is often broken or about to break, and you don’t use it as often as you’d imagined.

Also this. If you can find a private party willing to rent to you, you can get a decent price below what the big companies charge. Check out craigslist, big dealers that sell RVs. RV storage places (where all the idle RVs will be located). Ask around.