For summer vacationers, RV-sharing is revving up

Washington Post

John Flynn and his family won't check into a hotel on their next vacation. Instead, they'll roll to their destination in a Fleetwood Jamboree, a 31-foot recreational vehicle that sleeps six.

And not just any RV. Flynn won't own this motor home, and neither will a traditional rental company. They'll RV share through a site called Mighway.com, a peer-to-peer service that brokers rentals between RV owners and travelers.

"My wife and I love RVs," says Flynn, who lives in Moraga, California, and works for a food-services company. "We've considered buying an RV. The problems with owning one include storage, depreciation, maintenance, and insurance. It's a lot cheaper and more convenient to rent when we need one."

Until now, if you wanted to hit the open road behind the wheel of an RV, buying was your best -- and sometimes your only -- option. But now there are new ways to get into an RV. The question is, does an RV share make sense for you?

RVs are not for the faint of wallet. The average motor home costs $127,514, according to the RV Industry Association (RVIA), a trade group. The actual cost of ownership is higher once you factor in fuel, insurance, maintenance and campground fees. Unless you're recently retired and living in a motor home full-time, ownership might be a little pricey.

RVIA conducted multiple studies that found the cost of an RV vacation is comparable to that of a traditional getaway. "Taking a vacation in a rental RV costs about the same as fly-drive-hotel vacations," says RVIA spokesman Kevin Broom.

Sure, you can lower the cost. Grant Sinclair, a high school teacher who blogs about traveling in his RV on his site, Wanderfilledlife.com, has spent the past two summers in a modest 27-foot travel trailer. He estimates that he and his wife have saved about 30 percent compared with traditional accommodations, spending an average of $40 to $45 per night on their accommodations once they factor in fuel and fees.

The Sinclairs also save money on food. "Since our camper comes with a fridge, we buy and cook our meals," he says.

Still, unless you want to rough it, you probably won't save money by switching to an RV on your next vacation, especially if you have to buy one.

"Traditional rentals are notoriously expensive," says Leigh Wetzel, the co-founder of Campendium.com, a rating service for campgrounds.

RV rentals have existed for years, but haven't caught on with travelers the same way car rentals have. As Flynn explains it, "Commercial rentals are stripped to the bones and made as damage-proof as possible."

RV sharing may be the solution. New peer-to-peer services, such as the three below, promise their customers all the conveniences of a privately owned motor home at a fraction of the price.

Campanda: With more than 26,000 RVs for rent in more than 42 countries, it appears to have the most international inventory.

Outdoorsy: Claiming to be the largest rental site of its kind, it promises that rates on its class A motor homes, the largest size available, will save you 10 to 45 percent compared with other upscale vacation travel options.

RVshare: The longest established sharing site says you can save up to 57 percent on vacation costs by sharing an RV, compared with other forms of travel.

Mighway, the company through which Flynn found his RV, is a hybrid. It launched earlier this year in California as a partnership between THL, the world's largest RV rental operator, and Thor Industries, the manufacturer of Airstream and Jayco.

"On other RV sharing platforms, we noticed a major lack of service and trip protection that left RV renters vulnerable," according to Dave Simmons, Mighway's chief operating officer. So it doubled down on phone and roadside service for customers and added $1 million in liability coverage.

If this looks like a road race to become the next Airbnb for RVs, that's because it is. More than 10 million American households own RVs, according to RVIA. The association expected the North American RV rental fleet to grow more than 12 percent last year. (Final numbers are not yet available.) Whoever wins this one will rule a massive rental fleet.

"It is an interesting time in the world of RV rentals," says Dan Wulfman, founder of Tracks & Trails, which arranges self-drive RV camping vacations for U.S. and international travelers. "The recent advent of peer-to-peer networks is shaking things up."

This summer could be the right time to try an RV share. But before you do, run some numbers. That's the advice of Janet Groene, author of "Living Aboard Your RV," now in its fourth edition.

"Consider total cost, including insurance, fuels, cleaning fee and campground rates," she advises. "Nightly rates at campgrounds can often be higher than the rate for a double room in a Motel 6. Resort campgrounds cost more."

State parks, on the other hand, can cost less. And the best deal is "Boondocking" -- a camper term for squatting anywhere it's legal, such as some truck stops and Walmart parking lots.

Read the fine print on your rental carefully for service and cleaning fees, too. For example, I found a Cabover Style C22 RV on Mighway.com "starting at $107.55 a night" -- a decent rate. But on closer examination, the site charged a mandatory $35 "service fee" that covers roadside service and a $100 "cleaning fee." It also tried to upsell me on insurance for "peace of mind," or I could check the box that I was a "risk taker" and take my chances. Either way, I'm covered by Mighway's $1 million insurance policy but the deductible on a claim is higher. No pressure!

Another reason to RV share: If you're thinking of buying someday. "Rent before you buy, please," advises Susan Shumsky, a writer who has lived in a motor home since 1989. "That will help you decide if you like the challenges of limited water and electricity that go with traveling in an RV."

Shumsky says people have a romantic view of living and traveling in an RV. They shouldn't.

"It's not romantic," she says. "It's not fun to have to dump the toilet water, fill the water tank, check the water in the batteries, and other tasks that aren't fun," she says.

"No matter how luxurious your RV is," she adds, "you will be roughing it."

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