by Holly Johnson, Forbes Advisor
There are many different ways to pull off a fun but socially distant summer road trip, whether you decide to drive your car to multiple destinations for resort stays or visit remote (and affordable) camping spots as you sightsee around the U.S.
If you really want to do something different, you can rent an RV or travel trailer. Doing so lets you see the country with your own portable “home,” and it may not be as expensive as you think.
My husband and I just did exactly this over the second half of June and the first part of July 2020, although our RV rental only lasted for eight nights of our summer road trip. For this portion of our social distancing vacation, we opted to rent a Class C RV model, which is the type you drive, though RVShare.com—the “Airbnb of RV Rentals.” Over the course of eight nights, we camped near the West Gate of Yellowstone National Park and enjoyed a riverfront camping spot on the banks of the Salmon River in rural Idaho.
I wouldn’t say our trip was cheap by any means, but the money we spent was a good value—especially when you consider that gas prices are at multi-year lows right now. Most importantly, we had a ton of family fun with our two daughters (ages 9 and 11), and we got the opportunity to make plenty of memories without breaking the bank or enduring possibly unsafe crowds.
Renting an RV: Breaking Down the Costs
An important detail to note about RVShare.com in particular is that, since this platform lets you rent RVs from individual owners, rental fees can vary widely. We wanted a Class C RV since we knew it would be big enough for our family of four but not so big my husband would need a special license. Fortunately, we found one through RVShare.com with pickup in Idaho Falls, Idaho that would be perfect for our trip.
In total, we paid $2,155.09 for an eight-night RV rental. This amount includes the rental agreement for eight nights, taxes, a cleaning fee, a service fee and insurance for the rental, which I thought was very fair. After all, around $270 per night is pretty reasonable for a portable hotel that sleeps six and comes with a full kitchen, a bathroom and some basic supplies.
Of course, renting an RV is a novelty of sorts, so I was willing to pay slightly more than usual for the neat experience of driving around Yellowstone in an RV.
When you rent an RV, it’s important to budget for the other aspects of your trip. After all, you’ll have to pay for gas, and RVs are notorious for getting an awful 10 to 15 MPG—even on the highway. You also have to pay for camping spots and, in the case of an RV, for full water and electric hookups. Pricing can vary a lot for RV camping sites, and we mostly booked ours based on location and not price. If you plan to rent an RV, you should research this part ahead of time. We found campsites near Yellowstone that cost anywhere from $30 per night to $150 per night, which makes a huge difference in what your vacation will cost.
Ultimately, we drove our RV from Idaho Falls, Idaho to Yellowstone, then from Yellowstone to North Fork, Idaho, then back to Idaho Falls. We also had our car along, so we went sightseeing in our own vehicle, mostly so we didn’t have to “unhook” the RV and pack up our campsite every day.
Here’s what we spent on camping and gas charges during our eight-day trip:
- $309 in gas for the RV
- $88 in gas driving in our own car around Yellowstone and in rural Idaho
- $264.60 for four nights at the Wagonhammer RV Park and Campground near North Fork, Idaho
- $526.48 for four nights at the KOA West Gate in West Yellowstone, Montana
Keep in mind that you can absolutely spend less on campgrounds if you want. Heck, some state and national parks let you “dry camp”, or go off the grid, for free. You also don’t need to elect campsites with electrical and water hookups. We chose our stops based on destination and amenities since we had two kids along, and I thought both of them were a good choice for our family and a good value overall.
Other Expenses to Watch for When You Rent an RV
Other than our RV rental cost, another major expense from our trip was food. Fortunately, renting an RV makes it incredibly easy to save money in this category if you want to. Our rental RV had a full kitchen, a decent-sized refrigerator and plenty of room for drinks and snacks.
I didn’t keep an ongoing tally of food spending for the eight nights we rented our RV, but we cooked all but one meal in our RV or outside over the campfire. We made grilled fish, hot dogs for the kids, baked potatoes and veggie burgers along with basic sides every night we camped out.
For lunch, we packed a cooler in our car and dined at various picnic spots within Yellowstone National Park. In one case, we ate lunch on the side of the road in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone with gorgeous open fields and 50+ bison as our mealtime companions.
Other than that, we didn’t spend much at all. The cost to take a single vehicle into Yellowstone National Park was only $35 for the week, and that was an excellent value since most sights in Yellowstone are free. Once we got to rural Idaho, we mostly sat on the shores of the Snake River, watching our kids tube by over and over again.
But that’s our trip, and yours could be entirely different. My advice: When you’re budgeting for an RV trip, do some research to find out what activities you want to do and how much they cost, then add that to your total trip budget along with an estimated amount spent for food. You may have to do some guessing, but estimating travel expenses is often a big guessing game. At the end of the day, you’re a lot better off if you do some research and plan ahead for spending vs. just waiting to see how it works out.
Other expenses to watch out for with a rental RV include:
- Mileage fees: Our rental RV included 100 “free” miles per day but charged a per mile rate after that. We stayed within our allowed mileage, so we didn’t have to pay this fee. Watch out for mileage limits when you rent an RV, and know how much you might end up paying in additional charges for the route you want to take.
- Generator or fuel fees: You may be asked to pay extra to use the generator for heat or air conditioning, or to pay for diesel fuel you used during your rental. We were charged an additional $19 fee for diesel fuel after we returned our RV.
- Insurance: Our rental RV included insurance in the rate, although it was separated as a line item on our invoice. You’ll definitely need to pay for insurance for your RV, so make sure you know how much.
- Extras: Some rental RVs will come with bedding and pots and pans, while others ask you to pay an extra fee for these amenities. Make sure you know either way so you can pay or plan accordingly.
How to Earn and Use Rewards When You Rent an RV
It’s possible to use credit card rewards to pay for some parts of a summer road trip, and this can help keep our costs down by quite a bit.
In this case, my Hilton Honors Aspire Card from American Express* normally comes with a $250 resort credit good for select Hilton resorts each year. Due to COVID-19, however, American Express is allowing this credit to be used toward dining at U.S. restaurants. I used part of our $250 credit for restaurant meals on the road on our way out to Idaho to pick up our rental RV, then I used $81 of the credit for a really nice meal (and our one dinner out) in West Yellowstone, Montana on a night it was raining and we didn’t want to cook outside.
I also used Chase Ultimate Rewards points for our roadside hotel stays during the 30-hour journey to Idaho (and back) to our home in Indiana. I actually covered four hotel nights directly with rewards from my Chase Sapphire Reserve®, and because we stayed in a Holiday Inn Express or Comfort Inn all four nights, each stay set me back less than 10,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points.
On the “earning” side of the equation, my husband and I both used our Chase Sapphire Reserve credit cards to pay for gas. While this card normally offers 3 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent on travel and dining and 1 point per dollar on other purchases, Chase recently announced the addition of some temporary bonus categories through the end of September, 2020.
These extra categories include 5 points per dollar spent on up to $1,500 in gas station purchases from July to September 30, 2020 and 10 points per dollar on up to $1,500 spent on select streaming services during that same timeframe. We were able to fill up a few times and earn 5 points per dollar to help recoup some of the points we spent on this trip.
This is on top of the 5 points per dollar spent on groceries the Chase Sapphire Reserve offered on up to $1,500 in supermarket spending per month in May and June of 2020. We were able to take advantage of this bonus rate twice during our RV rental when we stocked up on groceries for campsite meals.
How can you save on an RV rental for your summer road trip with a rewards credit card? Here are some strategies to consider:
- Cover travel expenses with flexible rewards. Pick up a flexible rewards card like the Venture® Rewards from Capital One®* to cover various travel expenses you encounter when you rent an RV, like hotel stays or campground fees. This card starts you off with 50,000 miles worth $500 when you spend $3,000 within three months of account opening. You also earn 2 miles for each dollar you spend, and you can redeem your rewards for one cent each toward any travel expense you want.
- Build up cash back or flexible points to pay for gas and food. Cash back credit cards and flexible rewards cards are perfect for racking up rewards to use to cover incidental expenses like gas and food as well as campground charges. The Citi® Double Cash Card is a good option since you earn 2% back for each dollar you spend—1% when you make a purchase and another 1% when you make payments on your card.
- Earn bonus rewards on gas purchases. Make sure you are earning maximum rewards with the right gas credit card. Or, through the end of September 2020, note that you’ll earn 5 points per dollar on up to $1,500 in gas station purchases with the Chase Sapphire Reserve. You can also earn 3 points per dollar on up to $1,500 spent on gas until the end of September with the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card.