On the road in the big RV

For most first-time RV renters, the conversation often goes like this: ``I can't afford to rent an RV.'' ``They're too large to maneuver.'' Or maybe even, ''I don't want to end up like Robin Williams,'' who not only couldn't figure out how to drive one in the movie RV, but also had a run-in with the septic tank.

On the road in the big RV

For most first-time RV renters, the conversation often goes like this:

“I can’t afford to rent an RV.”

“They’re too large to maneuver.”

Or maybe even, ”I don’t want to end up like Robin Williams,” who not only couldn’t figure out how to drive one in the movie RV, but also had a run-in with the septic tank.

Don’t sweat it. RV dealers and rental companies aren’t going to hand you the keys without some prep time.

I learned this first hand last summer when I rented my first RV. Because I was leaving from my home in suburban New Jersey, a technician actually came to my house and gave me a personal tutorial. The demonstration included how to use the generator, water pump, water heater, furnace and liquid-propane 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; when to run the refrigerator on gas or electricity.

Not all companies deliver RVs and tutors to your door, but a tutorial before you drive off the lot is the norm, I learned.

And despite the high price of gas, I discovered, an RV vacation can be affordable, with a week’s rental for four to six people priced around $1,000 plus gas and modest campsite fees.

”A family of four can travel much more cheaply in an RV than by flying, where you’d have to buy four tickets,” says Courtney Robey, public relations manager for the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association. “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.”


Here’s how I arranged my trip:

• First, I went to the RVIA website (www.rvia.org, 888-467-8464). Then I called with my itinerary for help in choosing an RV and arranging delivery.

• I then booked a stay in South Haven, Mich., 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. 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 the Midwest. 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.

• Those same tools you use for any driving trips came in handy. I used maps and directions at the Automobile Club of America’s website (www.aaa.com) for setting my route, and planned the least expensive gas stops through www.gasbuddy.com.


And now that I’m a veteran, a few lessons learned:

• 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 departure: 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.

Robin Williams made it look much harder than it really is.


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