HOLMDEL, N.J. If you've never vacationed in a recreational vehicle, your first reaction might be "I can't afford to rent an RV" or "They're too large to maneuver."
Or maybe even "I don't want to end up like Robin Williams," who not only had trouble driving one in the movie "RV," but also had a run-in with the septic tank.
But RV dealers and rental companies are not going to hand you the keys without some preparation. I rented an RV for the first time last summer, and I didn't head out on vacation not knowing what I was doing. A tutorial before you drive the RV off the lot is the norm.
And while gas prices have made it more expensive to take road trips in any kind of vehicle, RVs do come in many different models and sizes from truck campers and towable trailers to motor homes and even sport utility RVs. There's one for every budget and family type. Winnebago Industries Inc., the largest maker of motor homes, unveiled a 2009 ERA (a class-B motor home model) that gets 22 miles per gallon, while the largest motor homes get about eight miles per gallon, according to industry data.
Courtney Robey, public relations manager for the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, says RVs can also be a good deal for families. Despite gas costs, "a family of four can travel much more cheaply in an RV than by flying, where you'd have to buy four tickets. And you're not going to be eating out at restaurants three times a day. You're going to be cooking in the RV. You also don't have to pay for a hotel room. So a family can save money in the long run."
Cruise America www.cruiseamerica.com or 800-671-8042 is the largest RV rental chain in the U.S. Expect to pay about $1,000 a week for a class-C motor home that sleeps up to seven. Class-C motor homes may also have a queen-sized bunk over the cab that sleeps two more.
Luxury rigs run $90-$200 per day; more modest travel trailers run $28-$85. Multiday deals are usually available. You pay gas plus a fee for the number of miles you drive (some companies sell miles as a package). Most rental companies also offer inexpensive packages with sheets, towels, dishes and pots and pans so you don't have to pack all that.
As with summer house rentals, RV rentals often go early. Many dealers have their fleet rented by early spring for summer travel. The RVIA Web site www.gorving.com or 888-467-8464 can help you find dealers, manufacturers, campgrounds and general information.
The tutorial you get before driving away will likely include how to use the generator, water pump, water heater, furnace and liquid-pro- pane tank; how to fill the freshwater tanks, dump the black-water (toilet) and gray-water (sinks and shower tanks); when to start electricity and which modes (battery or AC) to use; and when to run the refrigerator on gas or electricity.
Bob Caldarone, a spokesman for Cruise America, says rentals do not usually include a test drive, but he stressed that if you've rented a U-Haul or something similar in the past, "driving a class-C motor home is no different since the truck chassis are the same, except all rental RVs have auto transmission."
I booked a Midwest trip through KOA (Kampgrounds of America) www.koa.com or 888-562-0000. Some RV camps charge a family overnight rate; others charge per person or per child. I found a campground in South Haven, Mich. www.covert-southhavenkoa.com near Lake Michigan. We paid $42 a night to stay there, and stored our RV at the campground for $5 a night, while taking a sightseeing trip by rental car in South Bend, Ind., and Chicago. We called the KOA campground with a return date and time, and the owners not only removed the RV from storage but set it up at a drive-up campsite complete with hookups, folding chairs and campfire ready to go.
There are more than 450 KOA franchises in the U.S. and Canada. Most sites cost $25-$40 per night. You can order a KOA Directory (P.O. Box 30558, Billings, Mont., 59114, $4 shipping, or online) or pick one up free at any KOA.
The KOA Value Kard Rewards program ($24 for a year) saves you 10 percent on KOA stays, provides a Web site where you can track your travels and rewards points, and mails you a KOA directory each spring.
Other resources for finding RV campsites include Yogi Bear's Jellystone Park Camp-Resorts, www.campjellystone.com, 800-558-2594, $30- $50 a night, about 70 locations; www.reserveamerica.com, which lists private and government park campsites; and www.recreation.gov, which lists campsites in federal recreation areas. Camping in a national park typically costs less than $20 a night, not including park admission fees.
Woodall's North American Campground Directory www.woodalls.com lists more than 14,000 private, independent campgrounds, service centers and attractions, including maps and rules of the road for each state and Canadian province. Go Camping America www.gocampingamerica.com also lists private parks and campgrounds nationwide. A business called Tracks & Trails www.tracks-trails.com prepares customized self-drive itineraries for the Western U.S. and Canada that include RV rentals and reservations.
A few things to keep in mind before you go:
• DRIVING: Get directions for the straightest, easiest route, and practice parking. Don't speed; you'll need extra room to stop. Learn to use your side-view mirrors (and rear camera if there is one). Most motor home generators automatically turn off just before the fuel tank is completely empty. There will still be some gas left to drive on, but you should gas up immediately.
• ARRIVAL AND DE- PARTURE: Lower the jacks when you arrive at campsites to balance and stabilize your RV, and raise the jacks before departing. Also, when leaving campsites, lower the TV antenna and close outside door steps, the canopy and slide-outs (walls). Apply the parking brake when stopped and release it before departing.
• INSIDE: When the RV is in motion, all passengers should be belted and you shouldn't try to cook. Bring a 30/15-amp electric adapter and an outdoor long heavy-duty extension cord, plus a cable wire for the TV. Bring marine toilet paper, which degrades easily, and disinfectant for the toilet. To conserve water, shut the shower off while soaping up.
• THE SEPTIC: Don't be intimidated! The black tank (sewer waste) and gray tank (water waste) are located beneath the RV. A panel in the galley displays tank levels. Wait until tanks are at least three-quarters full before you empty them; otherwise they won't drain properly. Dump contents of the black tank first so the soapy water from the gray tank can clean out the hose. Put a tray of ice cubes down the toilet into the black tank after pumping out, but before hitting the road. The jiggling ice can help clean the tank.
And remember: Robin Williams made it look harder than it really is.