Planes and trains can transport us farther and faster, but there’s a unique allure to a road trip. The shifting landscapes along straight arrows of highway; the breeze of new places tangling your hair; the spontaneity of pit stops, detours, and road snacks — what could be better? Well, the ability to not only drive but also sleep in your vehicle is pretty great. That’s probably why the popularity of camper van travel has surged in recent years.
That said, not everyone is down for the cost and responsibility of owning a camper van. Many of those who do own their own rig are now offsetting the costs by renting it out, making RVs, camper vans, and travel trailers more accessible to more people across the country.
Whether you’re testing out #vanlife or taking a weekend trip to the closest national park, an RV rental offers a unique and exciting way to travel. But it helps to be prepared with the basics, so we tapped some camper van experts for tips on everything you need to know for a smoother ride.
Select your rental source
First, consider whether you want to rent from a professional fleet of rentals or a peer-to-peer marketplace where you’ll be renting from the owner. It’s like the difference between booking a room at a boutique hotel versus an Airbnb. Each offers variety and has its own perks — it just depends on what you’re looking for.
“When you rent from a private owner, you’re getting a van from someone who loves to travel,” says Jamie Cattanach, a former nomad and writer for RVShare. You can find just about any make, model, and style of camper van at peer-to-peer marketplaces like RVShare, Outdoorsy, and RVezy.
A big plus is that you know you’re getting a professionally built or refurbished camper van from these companies, and the larger ones often offer more flexibility in where and how far you can go — including one-way options. Fleets are also more likely to specialize in a specific type of vehicle.
- Escape Campervans offers three models of Ford vans, emblazoned with bold, custom murals. They have 14 locations across the U.S. and Canada.
- Lil’RV specializes in extra-compact options and micro-RVs (a lightweight trailer RV) that are decked out with everything one needs to hit the road. Locations in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and San Francisco, with pop-up locations coming soon to Denver and Portland.
Rental prices can range from $50 per night for some of the more basic pop-up campers to $450 per night for Class A motorhomes (considered the gold standard of RV travel). But the options become more affordable when you opt for a long-term booking — or if you’re a savvy negotiator. You can generally expect to pay more when renting from a professional fleet compared to a peer-to-peer service.
When budgeting for your trip, try to think about other costs that may come up with your rental. This includes the cost for RV campgrounds, cleaning fees, setup, and delivery fees, gas, taxes, rental insurance, and a security deposit. Most rental companies will charge you price-per-mile which means that you’ll be charged a certain amount (usually 35 to 50 cents) for each mile you drive.
Choose your rig
“First, make sure the vehicle is adequate for the adventure you’re embarking on,” says Luke Farny, co-founder and designer of Rossmonster Vans, a custom-build van rental company based in Colorado. “How many people are coming? What kind of gear do you want to bring? Do you need a bike rack?” Consider these questions when determining how much space and storage you’ll need.
Since camper vans and RVs are often custom designed, many come outfitted with a wide variety of creature comforts. Some might include a shower and toilet. A table with seating is a nice perk for meals on a rainy night. A front passenger swivel seat can make more interior space for a family to hang out inside of the camper van. Farny says, “We outfit our vans with fine linens — we really want to make sure that it’s starkly different than getting in a sleeping bag.”
Pop-up campers are collapsible, lightweight trailers that often fold out into tents and fold back up for easy towing and storage. They’re usually best for two sleepers, but some models offer additional sleep space. Most come with a small stove, sink, and refrigerator.
This is a traditional van that has been outfitted with interior sleeping accommodations. Camper vans are usually great for up to two sleepers and often come with a small stove, sink, and refrigerator.
Travel trailers vary widely by length, weight, and sleep accommodations. The amenities range from the basic combo of sink-stove-refrigerator to roomy bathroom facilities and slide-out living spaces that can resemble a small apartment.
These large trailers are quite spacious but require a larger tow vehicle and a special hitch, which can be inconvenient when renting.
Toy haulers are a type of RV featuring a “garage” in the rear with a large ramp door for access. These work great for people who want to bring along golf carts, motorcycles, bikes, 4-wheelers or other motorized toys. However, what you gain in storage space you lose in sleep and living space.
RVs are graded by class, with class A being the biggest (and usually most expensive), class B being the smallest, and class C being somewhere in the middle. Class B are panel vans that have been converted to motor homes, often with compact restrooms, cooking areas, a bed, and plenty of storage space.
Class C motorhomes can accommodate two to six people, with space for a small bedroom, living area, kitchen, dining table, restroom, storage space, and bunk-over cab.
Class A (also known as the big guys) are the roomiest and most luxurious RVs on the market. They have potential for added amenities like motorized awnings, automatic leveling systems and robust entertainment slide-outs.
Vintage camper vans like Volkswagen’s iconic Westfalia and bus models are popular for their aesthetic, but they come with smaller interiors. A pop-top version will give you room to stand up, but only when you’re staying put and set up the extra headroom.
Mercedes-Benz Sprinters, Ram ProMasters and Ford Transits are all popular models of newer, larger camper vans. The biggest: The Sprinter 2500 High Roof 170 Extended Wheelbase, with over 16 feet of interior space.
If you’re looking to venture down dirt roads without cell service, you’ll want something with full-wheel drive, like the Sprinter 4x4.
Map your route
Spontaneity is part of the game, but knowing your intended route has some major benefits.
Mind your mileage
Many rental services vary on how many miles you can drive before being charged extra. Save a little money by using a trip planning service like Roadtrippers, RVTripWizard or the RV-friendly Copilot app to estimate how many miles you’ll be driving between destinations. You can also get a GPS system made specifically for RV travel.
Meeting your basic needs
The facilities and space included in your camper van will influence how much you’ll rely on resources provided by the destination. For example, if you don’t have a toilet in your van, you’ll probably want to seek out campgrounds that do.
Conserving time and energy
“Deciding where to go when you have so many possibilities can really drain you,” says Lisa Jacobs, a full-time van-lifer and nomadic life coach. “I recommend planning your trip around specific stops. That gives you a good base so you’re free, but you still have direction.”
No one wants to find themselves driving down dark dirt roads looking for campgrounds at night — especially at the start of a trip. Jacobs advises setting out with your first stop planned — and, even better, booked, as popular campgrounds are booked out months in advance during peak season. She recommends iOverlander for finding van-friendly camping options.
Ensuring a warm welcome for your fluffy friend
If you’re bringing your dog along for the ride, it’s especially important to know your intended stops. National parks are popular destinations for RV renters, but many do not allow dogs. Another thing to remember is while your van might feel more like a home than a car, it is still a vehicle that warms up quickly, and you should never leave your dog unattended inside it.
Make yourself at home
If it’s true that it’s the journey and not the destination that matters most, why not make the trip as comfortable as possible? Your camper van or RV will have plenty of room for whatever brings you joy. “Your running shoes, your surfboard, your bike, all of those things. Being able to pack for a bunch of activities is so unique to this form of travel,” says Farny.
“There’s nothing like rolling into a campsite where there’s no internet connection and just sitting there, actually reading a book without checking your phone every six minutes,” says Cattanach. “So bring a good one — or five.”
Cattanach always brings her own pillow, which she says “can make a huge difference” for sleep comfort. Be sure to bring along anything that you deem essential to your bedtime routine. Whether it’s a room spray, a special blanket or a sound machine.
Jacobs likes to have fairy lights and a little speaker for music. “You want a good vibe in your van,” she says.
The unknowns of a first-time van rental might be overwhelming, but Farny says that van rental companies do their best to make it easy. Rossmonster labels every feature and mechanism inside of the van and provides training for drivers before they take off.
Once you’re on the road, relax, and enjoy the ride. “You’re not in a car,” says Jacobs. “If you run into traffic, just pull over somewhere and relax until it passes.”