Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, families increasingly turned to the outdoors (and the open road) for recreation and family vacations. As a result, recreational vehicles (RVs) gained a surge of popularity. In fact, 56 million Americans planned to take an RV trip this summer. And according to recent data from the RV Industry Association, this boom in RV travel isn't slowing down any time soon. But when is a rental the best value? Or is purchasing a recreational vehicle a better investment?
The biggest impact on whether you rent or buy an RV is how you plan to use it. "What are your goals?" says Paige Bouma, EVP of RV Trader. "Is it a lifestyle? Or do you just want to go on vacation and see what it's like?" Bouma has more than 15 years of RV experience, and she says answering this question is one of the best ways to approach RVing, whether that's deciding where to go, which type of RV to choose, or whether to rent or buy.
Renting is an excellent short-term commitment for people who are new to RVing, unfamiliar with different RV types, or not planning a long-term vacation. Buying is a likely choice for those who want a true home-away-from-home and are looking to take many trips. But you should consider a variety of factors when considering what's best for your situation.
Courtesy of RVshare
1. Past Experience with RVs
For those new to RVs, renting is likely the best choice. For starters, renting allows newbies to discover if they like the RV lifestyle before committing to it. Second, it's easy to learn which vehicle is right for you and your family. "Renters can try out different types of RVs and find what they like most," says Maddi Bourgerie, spokesperson for RVshare. Bourgerie likens renting to an extended test drive and says that 30% of RVshare bookings are renters testing before buying.
2. Comfort and Familiarity with RVs
If you're looking for a home away from home, buying lets you maximize comfort and customize everything from the interior design to the firmness of the mattress. Owning an RV also means there's only one unit to learn; you'll be more confident driving, setting up, and living in a vehicle you're familiar with. Alternatively, renting is like starting over with every outing. "You have a limited knowledge of a unit you're renting because it changes every time," says Bouma. It's not just new amenities, like a stovetop, but also hookups, connections, and how the unit drives.
3. Current Availability
RV availability is one of the biggest reasons people are renting right now, according to Monika Geraci of the RV Industry Association. "Inventory for RVs to purchase remains low at dealerships across the country," she says. "There's a chance that right now you wouldn't be able to purchase one. If you want to be one of the 65 million Americans taking an RV trip in the next year, but the one you want isn't available, it makes sense to rent in the meantime."
4. Timing and Length of Travel
Did your weekend suddenly open up? Is there a great deal at an RV park you'd like to visit? Extremely high demand since the pandemic began is forcing renters to book far in advance for both RV units and campsites, making spur-of-the-moment travel difficult for renters. According to RVshare, the average trip is 5-7 days, though Bourgerie says the pandemic has seen trips lengthen to 7-10 days. Renting for longer periods is both costly and harder to accommodate when planning around other RV reservations.
Owning an RV skirts some of these limitations. Although still subject to availability at campgrounds and parks, RV owners have more flexibility to travel when they like, shortening or extending trips as desired without fees or the barrier of someone else's schedule. "Probably the best thing about buying versus renting is the freedom to go where you want when you want," says Geraci. "You just go to the grocery store, fill up with perishables, and you're ready to go. Renting is not quite as spontaneous."
5. How and Where You Want to Travel
An undeniable advantage of renting is that you can pick the best RV for your trip, whether that's securing the comfort of a drivable unit for long distances or prioritizing the ease of day trips by choosing a detachable trailer. Renting is also more practical for some situations. For example, Bourgerie notes the popularity of flying to bucket-list destinations, such as national parks and distant locales like Alaska, then renting an RV to explore the area. Plus, Bourgerie says that many people like to use an RV as a place to stay rather than as a method of transportation. RVs can be delivered to sites for exactly that purpose. And when it comes to big-ticket destinations, this gives you more quality time at the site than on the road.
On the other hand, owning an RV is an excuse to travel. It encourages you to get out and see new places and have new experiences, says Bouma. However, she also notes that owners are more limited about how and where they travel based on the type of RV they own, which impacts things like available routes and campsites.
6. Maintenance, Upkeep, and Storage
One of the joys of renting an RV is that at the end of the trip, you can more or less just turn over the keys. Renters don't have to worry about where an RV is stored, how it looks, or what maintenance is needed. Owners, however, must stay on top of—and pay for—all maintenance and upkeep. Storage of an RV and associated equipment is also a concern. Factors like available space and homeowners association rules could deter some people from buying.
But owning an RV gives you a built-in place to store your RV necessities; this small perk makes you less likely to forget something, says Bouma. It also means you can hit the road faster when you're already mostly packed.
7. RV Costs
If you want to travel by RV frequently, it's likely more cost-effective to buy. Both renters and buyers can expect to pay standard fees like campground rates and fuel. But renters have additional daily rates as well as admin fees. Bouma likens renting an RV to using Airbnb. Plus, with the increased demand due to COVID-related travel, rental prices are also higher right now. These costs add up and quickly become more expensive than buying if you rent often or for extended periods.
According to Geraci, many RV purchases generally range from $20,000 to $60,000, though they can be much higher or lower. "RVs can be financed for up to 15 years," says Geraci. "So a lot of monthly payments are around $200 a month, depending on financing." A $200 monthly payment is much less than the costs associated with a single rental trip.
Yet buying has its own challenges. Bouma compares buying an RV to purchasing a car: It requires significant upfront spending as well as predictable sustained costs. It can also require dealing with lenders. Initial fees include a down payment and outfitting a unit with all the necessary supplies, while maintenance, insurance, monthly payment installments, and storage costs can contribute to long-term spending. These costs mean renting might be a more feasible option for some who can't count on a sustained income source or who plan to travel infrequently. It's also worth noting that owners have the option to offset some of their costs by renting their RV when not using it themselves—there's certainly a strong market for it.