Renting out Roxanne is more of a hobby than a business. We meet some interesting people and hear stories from the road, and bring in a little extra cash to cover our own travel and improvements to our sticks-and-bricks house. For the more entrepreneurial or handy set, rentals can be a full-time living. For us, it’s much more of a side hustle. So we can be very choosy about who rents, and we are.
We started renting through Outdoorsy as a means of bringing in extra income and getting better use out of an asset that just sits in the driveway a lot of the time. We’ve also accepted the attention that comes along with being a young(ish) family driving a cherry-red Winnebago van. We’re forever giving tours at campgrounds and in parking lots, and we’re happy to. After all, we enjoyed our first RV rental trip that we bought our own not too long afterward. We’d love to see other families do the same.
Most of our rental experiences have been just great. We have seen photos of other people having fun on the road, and have learned some things about how our van works from renters. On the other end of the spectrum, we had a rental last year that resulted in some minor damage. I had the cost of getting this fixed, the loss of income from a rental I canceled while it was getting fixed, and a less-than-ideal rental experience for a couple who took it before I could get it fixed. This was on top of the stress during the rental itself.
I am not thrilled with the idea of another period of days with all-caps text messages, multiple phone calls and general worry about my prized vacation-home-on-wheels on top of working full-time and being a parent, spouse and homeowner. Outdoorsy has taken some of the bite out of situations like these by offering roadside assistance that includes 24-hour technical support. Meanwhile, I’ve gotten much better at asking questions and sharing information before I approve a rental.
To that end, here are my five best pieces of advice for a first-time renter. Following these would make us more likely to approve your rental, but will also give you better peace of mind and a more fulfilling vacation.
Before, during and after your rental, communicate with us. If you inquire about dates during a busy part of the year (typically summer), follow up quickly. By leaving a conversation hanging for days or even weeks, you make it more likely that we will award the dates to a competing request or simply cancel yours. Likewise, speak up early about who is traveling. I’ve turned down rentals with too many pets or too many people — first, because I want renters to be safe. I won’t rent to a party of more than four because there aren’t enough seat belts. But even four can be a pinch if they’re all tall grownups and they’re bringing a dog (or two) along. I’m going to recommend a bigger rig in that case. But if I can’t reach you to confirm what you want before we’re even doing business together, I don’t have high hopes for communication during the rental.
Speaking of, I almost never get tired of hearing from renters when they’re on the road. (See rental horror story above for exception.) You’re out there, you’re enjoying yourself, you’re being one with the present moment and hopefully not focusing too much on people who aren’t on your trip with you. But a picture or an update every so often is very comforting. If a problem comes up, even with the roadside assistance, I want to hear about it before you come back.
When you return, give us a full picture of what you liked and what you didn’t. We’ll stay in touch over the next couple of days regarding any extra charges for mileage, cleaning and dumping tanks. I’ll refund some or all of your security deposit and give you a rating on Outdoorsy. Keeping each other up to date throughout this process is key.
I’ve had some of my favorite communications after the rental ended. One renter was kind enough to buy my daughter a t-shirt during her trip. Another emailed me weeks later to say that she’d finally downloaded her photos and wondered if I’d like any of Roxanne in Canada and Maine. Of course I would!
Driving an RV is a great way to go on vacation. In our book, it tops hotels or vacation rentals for cost and the convenience of having your own bed and kitchen close at hand. It tops sleeping in a tent because, well, it’s not a tent. It tops imposing on friends and family for a night or two. But it also puts more of a burden on the vacationer than any of these forms of travel. You’re managing your own water supply and disposing of your own waste. And you have your own miniature spaceship full of furniture, appliances and buttons to figure out.
Most vehicles come with a tiny owner’s manual in the glovebox. A Winnebago Travato comes with a robust accordion folder full of manuals for every little system that’s built into the coach. And if you’ve never operated an RV before, you are going to have a lot to learn, very quickly. My run-through takes about a half hour. Our last renters taped it on their phone so they could go back to it for reference. But long before pickup, and these days even before approval, I insist that first-time renters watch a video tour of a similar vehicle and read my blog post about how to dump the tanks.
One of this year’s renter couples took the research theme to extreme and came up with an idea I absolutely love. They had planned an elaborate, long-distance trip for 10 days that would take them over the Canadian border and back, but wanted to get more comfortable in Roxanne. So they rented her for just one night a few weeks before their big trip, camping at Cherry Hill Park just 20 minutes away from here. They emerged with enough experience to make their summer adventure a success. This is an approach I’m thinking about requiring before all newbie long-distance trips.
Another thing I’ve learned to tease out before making a rental decision: as detailed a travel plan as possible. Serendipity travel is a neat concept, but it’s out of the question if you’re first-timers in someone else’s RV on a limited schedule. I’m going to want to know where you’re going and how you’re getting there, and where you plan on staying along the way. This will help me show you the features and controls most relevant to your trip. It will also give me peace of mind that you won’t call me to ask why the power outlets don’t work when you’re staying overnight in a Wal-Mart parking lot. (I learned this the hard way myself the first time I did it — you need an electric hookup or the generator for them to work.)
The other part of a good travel plan: I can advise you based on what’s worked for the other renters and for us. We know how much driving is comfortable for a day and when it’s too much. We’ve learned a lot about staying in different environments for the night and even how to get around cities. I can offer you the benefit of this knowledge and ease your learning curve if you have a solid plan.
The utmost in research and planning will make your trip successful, but not 100 percent predictable. Road construction, bad weather and issues with the RV will come up. It’s all about how you react when they do. If perfection is your goal, or you’re seeking the kind of hands-off reliability and ease of use that comes with a luxury hotel or Airbnb rental, please do not rent my RV. You will be nervous and likely disappointed.
One of our recent renters had trouble opening the sliding side door from the outside. She was enthusiastic about her vacation and was looking to purchase an RV someday soon for retirement travel. She texted me about it from the road, I poked around the Travato Facebook group for a fix, but she and her co-pilot simply opened the door from the inside until they got home. Wasn’t about to ruin her trip. Knowing about the issue made for much less of a surprise when Lindy and I encountered it a couple weeks later on our own trip. (I was able to find some debris inside the door track and move it out of there. Problem solved.)
When your tiny house is on wheels, things are going to rattle and roll. One of our first renters had the refrigerator door come off in transit. What a scary experience! We’ve added a hinge modification and an earthquake strap, and we advise everyone not to put heavy things in the door.
Beeps, warning lights and even the occasional sewage spill will happen during your trip. (I’ve thankfully never had one of the latter, but still.) Be ready. Adapt. And you’ll be fine.
What an amazing experience it is to travel around the country by RV. With a small RV like ours, you have the flexibility of going into town for an errand or a meal without having to worry too much about how and where to park. You can sleep when you’re tired, eat when you’re hungry and enjoy the company of a companion or two or three — human or otherwise.
None of these tips should take away from the joy of the journey. I’m not trying to throw cold water on anyone’s romanticized RV dreams. But a renter who communicates, researches, plans and adapts will have a better time of it than someone who dives in unprepared. Think of it like a scuba dive or a bungee jump. It can be the thrill of a lifetime, as long as you’re ready.
(This post also appeared on Winnebago’s GoLife blog.)
Also published on Medium.