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Many people prefer to explore the national parks in an RV -- a motor home, truck camper, or camper trailer -- especially in the warm months. One advantage to this type of travel is that early morning and early evening are among the best times to be in the parks if you want to avoid crowds and see wildlife. Needless to say, it's a lot more convenient to experience the parks at these times if you're already there, staying in one of the park campgrounds.

Carrying your house with you also lets you stop for meals anytime and anyplace you choose, and makes it easy to take care of individual dietary needs. RVing also means you don't have to worry about sleeping on a lumpy mattress, and you won't need to spend time searching for a restroom -- almost all RVs have some sort of bathroom facilities, from a full bathroom with tub/shower combination to a Porta Potti hidden under a seat.

There are disadvantages, of course. If you already own an RV, you know what you had to pay for it. And even if you rent, you may not save a lot of money. Depending on the rate you get (and the cost of fuel at the time), renting a motor home could end up costing almost as much as renting a compact car, staying in moderately priced motels, and eating in family-style restaurants and cafes. That's because the motor home will go only one-quarter to one-third as far on a gallon of fuel as your compact car will, and they're expensive to rent. Some of the fancier private campgrounds now charge as much for an RV site with utility hookups as you'd expect to pay in a cheap motel.

Other disadvantages include the limited facilities in national park campgrounds (although they are being upgraded to the point where camping purists are starting to complain). Even in most commercial campgrounds, the facilities are less than you'd expect in moderately priced motels. And parking is often limited in national parks, especially for motor homes and other large vehicles. However, since most people are driving in the parks between 10am and 5pm, the solution is to head out on the scenic drives either early or late in the day, when there's less traffic. It's nicer then, anyway.

If you'll be traveling through the park in your RV and want to make it obvious that your campsite is occupied, carry something worthless to leave in it, such as a cardboard box with "Site Taken" clearly written on it.

Many national park campsites are not level. If your RV does not have built-in levelers, carry four or five short boards, or leveling blocks, that can be placed under the wheels. You'll discover that not only will you sleep better if your rig is level, but your food won't slide off the table and the refrigerator will run more efficiently.

You might consider purchasing Frommer's Exploring America by RV (John Wiley & Sons, Inc.), by Shirley Slater and Harry Basch, which includes five road trips in the West (including one in Alaska) that pass through many national parks. There are also chapters on RV basics that people renting a vehicle for the first time will find useful.

Renting an RV

If you're flying into the area and renting an RV when you arrive, choose your starting point carefully; not only do you want to keep your driving to a minimum -- you'll be lucky to get 10 miles per gallon of gas -- but rental rates vary depending on the city in which you pick up your RV. Do some research before you commit to a starting point. Rates are generally highest, between $1,000 and $1,500 per week, in midsummer. The country's largest RV rental company is Cruise America (tel. 800/671-8042; www.cruiseamerica.com), with outlets in most major western cities. RV rentals are also available in many western states from El Monte RV (tel. 888/337-2214; www.elmonte.com) and Camping World (tel. 877/297-3687; www.rvrental.com). Information on additional rental agencies, as well as tips on renting, can be obtained online from the Recreation Vehicle Rental Association (www.rvra.org).

Tips on Renting an RV -- Shirley Slater and Harry Basch have been traveling the U.S. and Canada in their RV (and writing about it, authoring Exploring America by RV and RV Vacations For Dummies [John Wiley & Sons, Inc.]) for years; here, they offer some tips on what to look for, and where to look if you're thinking of renting an RV for a national parks trip. Harry and Shirley say:

A great many rental RVs are booked by European and Australian visitors to the United States who want to see our national parks, or drive along the coast of California. The most common unit available for rental is the motor home, either the larger type A or the type C mini-motor home, which accounts for 90% of all rentals. Prices begin at around $975 a week.

Use of the generator is not usually included in the fee. You would need it only for operating the ceiling air-conditioning, microwave, and TV in a place without electrical hookups. The dealer will know how much time you've logged by reading the generator counter, usually located by the on/off switch.

If you're looking to rent a travel trailer (which you pull behind another vehicle), you'll find they usually require that you furnish your own tow vehicle, hitch, and electrical hookups on the tow vehicle.

Some companies offer a furnishings package with bedding, towels, dishes, cooking pots, and utensils for a flat price of around $100 for kitchen needs and $50 for bedding per trip. Other add-on kits are those containing power cords and hoses, plastic trash bags, toilet chemicals, and a troubleshooting guide. Remember to get a detailed list of what furnishings are included in your rental so you'll know what necessary items you have to supply. It may be easier to bring things from home than to spend vacation time searching for them on the road.

Be sure you're provided with a full set of instruction booklets and emergency phone numbers in case of a breakdown. The best thing to have is a 24-hour emergency toll-free number in case of a problem. When in doubt, ask fellow RVers what to do. They're always glad to help, but sometimes hesitant to offer for fear of offending. No matter how much you bustle around like you know what you're doing, the veterans in the campground can spot a goof-up a mile away.

Before setting out, be sure the dealer demonstrates how to operate all the components and systems of your unit. Take careful notes and, just as with rental cars, check for dents and damage from prior use before leaving the lot.

Another important detail you need to take care of when you rent/before you leave: Make sure your rental vehicle is insured. Normally, insurance on a rental RV is not covered on your personal automobile insurance, so ask your agent for a binder that extends your coverage to the RV for the full rental period. Many dealers require the binder before renting you a vehicle.

Once you've made arrangements to rent an RV, if you're flying into the region to pick up your RV, many rental companies offer free airport pickup and return, if you notify them ahead of time.

Finally, if you fall in love with your rental vehicle (as we did our first one), you might be able to negotiate a purchase price that would subtract your rental fee from the total. If the vehicle is a couple of years old, the price should be even lower, since most dealers get rid of vehicles after 2 or 3 years.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.