Socially distanced travel? Consider renting an RV
Recreational vehicles were gaining in popularity before the pandemic. Now, with travel restrictions loosening, a surge of travellers is drawn to the relative solitude that RVs offer, writes Elaine Glusac of The New York Times
published : 27 Jun 2020 at 04:00
newspaper section: Business
Since selling their home in Fort Collins, Colorado, in September 2018, Tom and Mona Mesereau have logged 18,000 miles through 30 states in their 32-foot Class A recreational vehicle, running their public relations business from the road.
"Starting out in an RV is a little like moving into a new house," Tom wrote in an email, listing tasks such as hooking up to power and water sources. "It is somewhat daunting at first, but it gets easy quickly. After the first couple of times setting up and breaking down, your trip will just get better."
That's some encouragement for the anticipated surge of new RV travelers who are turning to these homes on wheels as a way to travel safely and maintain social distancing.
RV rental companies are reporting huge increases in summer bookings after the industry virtually shut down because of pandemic-related travel restrictions. Although many states were still locked down in May, Airstream, the retro trailer brand, saw retail sales climb 11% compared to last year. RVshare, an RV sharing site, said the number of days booked via its site has more than doubled year-to-date compared with last year.
"When you rent an RV, you're getting a rental car, hotel and more direct access to where you want to go," said Jon Gray, the chief executive of RVshare.
Tom and Mona Mesereau in front of their Winnebago.
You also usually get a private bathroom, which is helping drive interest in RVs, according to a survey of 4,500 households in the US and Canada by the private campground company Kampgrounds of America (KOA). About half of respondents said having a private bathroom in a cabin or RV was very important.
With borders in the US and Canada closed to foreigners, predicting traffic is tricky. Pre-pandemic, about 40% of bookings at Cruise America, the largest RV rental company on the continent, with nearly 5,000 vehicles, was international, largely from Europe.
Business remains down because of international falloff, but if present trends continue, the company expects to sell out of its RV rentals by the end of summer.
"Right now, domestic demand is through the roof," said Randall Smalley II, the assistant vice president of global marketing and business development at Cruise America. "We're fortunate to provide vehicles that offer control of your vacation."
Rent a vehicle or share one
Since buying an RV can set you back anywhere from $10,000 to $300,000, it makes sense to rent. Rental options range from companies that own their rooms on wheels, like Cruise America, or marketplace platforms like RVshare and Outdoorsy where you can find someone else's RV to rent.
"RVshare brings together two groups that make sense: People who want to go on an RV trip but don't own one and people who have one parked in their driveway 50 weeks a year," said Gray. "In a world where social distancing is at a premium, the ability to take your bathroom and sleeping arrangements with you positions RVs very nicely."
At Outdoorsy, where it's easy to find vintage, pet-friendly or budget vehicles, the owners of its roughly 200,000 vehicles on the site offer local travel advice.
Tom and Mona Mesereau run their public relations business from their Winnebago.
"They are bringing great recommendations to the table," said Jen Young, the co-founder of Outdoorsy. "That's going to become important as people focus on in-state and local travel to have that expertise spread across the country."
Like booking through Airbnb or other peer-to-peer sites, the platforms work as marketplaces for renters to meet owners and they don't oversee the cleaning of the vehicles.
To address the hygiene issue associated with the sharing economy -- borrowing a vehicle with someone else's germs -- Outdoorsy is encouraging owners to let their vehicles sit empty for 48 hours between rentals.
RVshare recommends its owners follow cleaning guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) before renting -- including using disinfectants with 70% alcohol, and washing linens on the warmest settings -- and is working on offering professional cleaning.
The company also has a partnership with TaskRabbit through which owners can find cleaning services (with additional fees included in the rental agreement).
Cruise America disinfects each vehicle between uses, and the company says it exceeds the guidelines established by the CDC.
Whether you rent from Cruise America or via a marketplace, vehicle rates are often just the base of the bill. Pricing RVs follows "the old car rental model," said Smalley, noting charges for mileage and not emptying sewage.
Cruise America vehicles typically cost between $60 and $160 a night depending on size and season before gas, which can be a major expense even in these times of low fuel prices (the RVs get 6-10 mpg). Bedding ($60) and cookware ($110) are additional.
RVshare said its average rental is less than $1,000 for a week, excluding gas. Outdoorsy's average rate is $135 a night.
Nervous about driving?
If you're nervous about driving a 25-foot-or-longer vehicle, you have a few options.
RVshare and Outdoorsy offer remote delivery, in which the owner drives the vehicle to and from a campsite for a fee, usually between $30 and $150 (fees and distance limits vary and are set by the vehicle owner).
At some of its 525 private campgrounds, KOA offers "glamping accommodations" -- or furnished lodgings, from train cabooses to teepees, including Airstream trailers replete with showers, kitchens and Keurig coffee makers -- at a few of its properties from Maine to California.
In Northern California, AutoCamp resorts operate Airstream trailers on forested grounds near Yosemite National Park and on the Russian River in Sonoma County, offering access to outdoor recreation as well as food service from midcentury-modern designed camp centers (from $289 a night).
For a high-end upgrade, Abercrombie & Kent is offering custom road trips -- think Los Angeles through the Southwest or Chicago to Montana -- for which guests may opt to travel by a guide-driven RV.
Van life gets an upgrade
On the small end of the spectrum of RV models, camper vans are the tiny houses of the road, tricked out to accommodate a bed, kitchen and amenities like wall-mounted TVs. Most camper vans lack bathrooms but have cachet, as celebrated under the hipster nomadic Instagram hashtag #vanlife.
Before it was a social media darling, it was a way of life in Australia, where Omar Bendezu, the owner of the 13-van rental company Ondevan in Miami, got the idea to bring the concept stateside in 2017. An engineer by training, Bendezu remodeled his vans, including kitchenettes and queen-size beds, with the help of a carpenter and got muralist Muta to paint the early vans.
"I saw the opportunity here to give people the means to explore by themselves," he said, noting that up to 60% of his business, pre-virus, was international, primarily from European travelers visiting the US.
Ondevans cost about $100 a day and the company encourages drivers to stop at local campgrounds, farms and shops highlighted on a supplied map that Bendezu said is designed "to build community with other small businesses".
Jucy camper vans, painted in signature green and purple, are ubiquitous around New Zealand, where the company is based. But its North American operation, reliant on foreign travel, is struggling this year, especially with the postponement or cancellation of major events, including the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and Burning Man.
"Since those and other festivals are not happening, our business has been seriously impacted," wrote Hiron Menon, the general manager for North America at Jucy, in an email.
Based in Oakland, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, Jucy rents Dodge minivans, retrofitted with kitchenettes accessible from the hatchback and often with a tent that pops up on the roof; they run from $20 to $150 a night.
In late May, the category got an upgrade with Seattle-based Cabana. The startup offers 10 Ford Transit vans retrofitted with queen-size memory foam mattresses, toilets, flat-screen TVs, mini-refrigerators and showers supplied by onboard water tanks.
"I love getting dirty hiking in the mountains and I also love taking a hot shower and sleeping in a comfortable bed," said Scott Kubly, the chief executive and founder of Cabana, who describes the vans as "everything you would get with a hotel but crammed into a van using every cubic inch like a game of Tetris."
Pre-pandemic, the company was envisioned as an affordable and flexible urban alternative. Costing $200 a night, rentals are handled through an app, which unlocks the vans parked on city streets in Seattle rather than at a central depot. Cabana simplifies its pricing by including mileage and not charging guests to pump out the holding tanks. But if you're heading out of town and want a stove installed, that's an extra $30 a day, or $300 maximum.
Dodging the crowds
Most RV companies say the biggest demand is around coastal communities and national parks in the Western US, although states like Michigan and areas like New England surge in summer.
In an April survey of 354 customers, RVshare found that an overwhelming majority, 93%, expressed an urge to avoid crowds -- up 70% since the pandemic began.
Spontaneity and freedom are key attractions to travel by RV. But this summer, potentially with more vehicles on the road and COVID-related capacity constraints in parks, some advance planning is required.
"Although Tom and I have traveled quite a bit, making last-minute park reservations depending on whim, this is not the year to wing it," wrote Mona Mesereau in an email from New Mexico where regulations limited RV park capacity to 25% occupancy during the state's phased reopening. "Plan where you will stay each evening."
In addition to apps like AllStays, the Mesereaus use Harvest Hosts, a network of more than 1,000 wineries, breweries, attractions and farms that allow RV parking overnight (annual membership costs $79). Members are encouraged to spend a minimum of $20 at the host business in exchange.
"You could easily plan a winery tour in California or a farm tour in New York, stopping occasionally at places with hookups to dump your tanks and replenish your water," Mesereau said.
Extreme social-distancing seekers may opt for boondocking, or camping without power and water hookups, which is often free in national forests or Bureau of Land Management areas. Sites can be found using Frugal-RV-Travel.com and Ioverlander.com.
With batteries and water tanks, "all RVs are built for some degree of boondocking," said Anna Maste, the co-founder of Boondockers Welcome, a website that lists RV parking on private property accessible to members for a $50 annual fee.
"The traditional term meant a wilderness setting, but RVers are an inventive bunch. It has come to mean any number of things including Wallydocking, or parking in a Walmart parking lot overnight."
Boondockers Welcome connects RV travelers to about 2,300 enthusiasts in the US and Canada who offer free hosting for a night or two. Locations range from a driveway north of New York City to a Florida compound with room for five RVs and a firepit.