Peer to peer RV rentals might be one of the few sharing economy services that benefited from the pandemic. Lots of people turned their travel focus to driving vacations. With an emphasis on spending time out in nature. And for many folks, RVs are ideal for these vacations. They’re Covid safe, self-contained homes requiring no contact with other people. And you can take them to campgrounds to enjoy some time outdoors.
I had never rented an RV. But I was intrigued by the smaller, van-style class B campers. Especially the newer Sprinter-like models that are tall enough to stand up in, but short enough to handle well on the roads and get decent gas mileage. What better way to try this out than a rental?
Where to rent an RV?
Near me there are a number of small commercial RV rental companies. And of course there’s Cruise America, but they don’t carry vans. I also found a lot of nearby listings on the two largest peer-to-peer rental networks: Outdoorsy and RVShare. There’s also some overlap: a few of the smaller independent companies list their vans on these networks.
A commercial RV rental isn’t all that complicated. You decide what type of vehicle you want and the build outs are standard. There may be a few options that differ between vehicles but it’s pretty consistent. A peer-to-peer rental of a Sprinter van is entirely different. These vans don’t come with a standard RV build. They are passenger (or commercial) vehicles that are customized aftermarket. Buyers decide on the details of the conversion. The range of options is fun, but also a bit overwhelming. How do you decide which one will be best? After fixing on a few basic requirements, and spending a lot of time looking at the many options, we saw a super cute van with a tile backsplash, and decided that was the one.
The winning van was listed through GoCamp, a small peer-to-peer network that partners with Outdoorsy. And it was available in Portland, so I mapped out an Oregon coast vacation to minimize driving time and maximize fun in nature.
Take 1: The rental was initially scheduled for the week of smoke and fires. The campgrounds shut down, and air was dangerous to breath. Not ideal. Fortunately, our van host was super easy to work with. And GoCamp got in touch to offer a refund or re-booking due to the fires. We booked new dates with the same van a few weeks later. High marks for communication and ease of working with GoCamp and the van owner.
Take 2: Good weather, minimal fires. We drove to Portland to meet up with the van owner and swap our car for the RV.
How does a peer-to-peer rental work?
RV rental networks take care of the background logistics. They verify drivers, offer insurance for both the owner and the renters, and deal with payment processing and paperwork. That gave me a lot more confidence since I was renting from some random person I’d never met.
In the case of this particular rental, the reservation was run through the GoCamp website, pending approval of the van owner. Much like Airbnb. The driver verification, insurance, and payment was all processed through Outdoorsy. I ran into a bit of a snag with Outdoorsy. Due to a technical problem on their end, the automated drivers license verification didn’t work for me. It took 18 emails and a few phone calls to figure out the problem. The Outdoorsy support system is less than ideal. Every single email goes into a pool to be answered by whoever gets to it first. That means there was no consistency or followup. I kept getting the same (useless) responses over and over. Even though the history was right there in the email thread for their reference. I hope Outdoorsy works on their operations in this area. That was more than a bit frustrating.
GoCamp communications pre-trip were excellent. I got information connecting me with my van owner and other details via email. And my van owner was also super responsive to questions. On the day of the rental we met up where the van was parked. I had already confirmed with the owner that we could leave our car there for the 5 days we’d be away. She spent about an hour walking us through the van, explaining all the features, and how everything worked. And she stressed that we should feel free to contact her at any time with questions, even the middle of the night. It turned out, this was important.
What did we think of the van?
The van was super easy to drive, with a remarkable turning radius. The inside was nicely decorated and really comfortable for such a small space. There was plenty of storage for all our clothes, toys, and food. And the bed to table conversion was simple, elegant and very comfortable.
I found the kitchen well designed. Our van had a fridge, sink, two burner stove, and small counter. The owner had stocked it with everything we could possibly need for cooking and eating. I brought all the food we needed for the entire trip. And I enjoyed preparing meals in there every evening.
Most van rentals include a fixed number of miles per day. Ours had 125 miles. Since I wanted to minimize driving time, this was enough for a leisurely trip down the coast, with stays in state park campgrounds. We actually might have gone slightly over the allotted mileage, except we never made it back to Portland to find out.
What happens when something goes wrong with your RV?
Our RV rental went very smoothly for almost the entire trip. The first day we couldn’t locate the control for the lights. But we just reached out to our van owner and she told us where to look. After that we didn’t need any more help. Until the last day.
On the final day of the trip, I was driving back to Portland in the rain. It was to be a 4 hour drive back. But about an hour into the drive a check engine light came on. I immediately sent the van owner a message asking what we should do. We were pretty much in the middle of nowhere. She asked if we could drop it at the mechanic in Portland when we got back. So we carried on driving. I soon noticed the power steering was out and again texted the owner. And wow, power steering is an important innovation in modern cars. But it was still safe to drive, just a serious workout to make big turns. Another 30 minutes on the highway and all the engine lights came on. At that point we were out of cell range.
A few minutes later, as we drove through the tiny town of Drain, I noticed the van was overheating. I managed to park out of the way in the corner of the gas station parking lot. And then we began the hunt for communication. The gas station attendants informed us that Drain has no cell service and also no WiFi. It’s a very small town.
I did manage to get very weak and intermittent phone service in the parking lot of the mini mart. And from there I reached out to our van host. She reminded me that we had purchased the mandatory insurance through the rental company. And she gave me their contact info: Coach-Net. I borrowed a phone from the mini-mart and called. All the service folks at Coach-Net were very nice, but they were also very slow. And they insisted they had to call me back several times. They had no process to deal with situations where customers don’t have cell service. As a result, it took three hours for Coach-Net to authorize service and find a tow truck. And another half hour for it to get to us.
In the end, the owner of the van drove to Drain to pick us up. And then drove us another two hours back to our car in Portland. She was super helpful and apologetic through the whole ordeal. And she worked with GoCamp to offer us a partial refund for the hassle. Overall we were lucky: we just lost 4 hours on a day when we had no plans, and the trip was basically over anyway.
If I was renting from a commercial company like Hertz, and their vehicle broke down, I’d expect Hertz to either pick me up or send me another car. I definitely wouldn’t expect to be stranded somewhere and paying my own way back. But when the van broke down we started planning as if that was going to happen. We figured we could get the tow to Eugene, the closest city. And from there we might have to work out our own way back to Portland. So we were super grateful when the van owner drove four hours from her home to pick us up. In retrospect, I think this is a reasonable expectation. But I don’t know if it’s standard. In the future this is something I will ask peer-to-peer rental companies before booking.
If you want to try out Outdoorsy, use my referral link for $50 off your first rental.
Or use my link to join RVShare for $25 back on your first rental.