May 22, 2020
For many cooped-up travelers yearning to explore again, hitting the road in a recreational vehicle (RV) seems like the safest bet for a summer vacation in 2020.
RVs certainly supply one of travel's closest approximations of cloistered self-sufficiency. In an RV, you have your own private bubble for transportation, accommodations, and meal preparation. What could be more socially distanced?
Because of these perceptions, RV rentals have been booming. Reps with marketplace site RVshare told me that bookings are up 1,000% compared to last year at this time. Primary competitor Outdoorsy also reports a huge increase in recent rentals.
And traditional RV rental agencies have experienced the same spike in demand. "It feels like everyone wants to go camping," reports Gordon Hewston, senior vice president of El Monte RV and corporate sibling Road Bear RV. "There’s been a massive surge."
The industry insiders I spoke with all say that they're getting more first-time RV renters than ever before, and customers are opting for longer rental periods, jumping from the usual average of 5.5 days to over 8 days for most bookings.
And those drivers apparently want to hit the road as soon as possible. While the average time between bookings and rentals in past years has been two months, today these companies say that most travelers are renting just 3 to 5 days before picking up the vehicle.
In short: "Summer vacations are still largely happening," as RVshare CEO Jon Gray puts it.
But vacation plans are changing, shifting from airports and metro areas to less crowded, more controlled environments. Says Gray: "[According to company research], 78% say they want a drive-through vacation; 92% want to stay away from crowds. RVs are perfect for these types of travel."
The question is, how reliable are perceptions of RV safety with regard to hygiene? What should potential renters consider if they want to stay healthy this summer?
If you're new to this type of travel, I recommend taking a look at our first-timer's guide to renting an RV. That article contains useful information on rental companies and websites, the types of vehicles available, and more.
Cleaning Policies of Rental Agencies
Unless you buy your own RV, you'll need to rent one from either a traditional rental agency or directly from an individual owner via an online marketplace like Outdoorsy.
There are pluses and minuses to both options (discussed in our rental guide), but the most significant factor this summer may be that going with a rental agency will provide more transparency about cleaning procedures.
El Monte RV, for example, has created rigorous protocols in response to the pandemic.
"We’re making sure we disinfect the full unit," says Hewston. "We are making sure the cleaning products are the right ones for the virus. They are sprayed throughout and then left for the required number of minutes. Once the unit is fully disinfected inside and out, then we do our usual cleaning of it, plus servicing the engine and laundering the soft goods to CDC specifications. After that the entire unit is disinfected one more time.”
Both Cruise America and El Monte promise a minimum 24-hour blackout period between rentals of each vehicle to allow for sanitization.
Cleaning Policies of Online Marketplaces
When renting from an individual owner via an online service, on the other hand, cleanliness guarantees get squishier.
"We have worked through the list of CDC recommendations and put together a set of guidelines for our owners," says RVshare's Gray. "A big part of what we do is touchless because the bookings are online. We’re going to advise the owners to make [transactions with customers] as touchless as possible. If there’s a door to open, they’ll ask the renter to do it. [We’re also suggesting owners] post videos about how to use their RV rather than doing personal walk-throughs of the vehicles, which used to be standard."
RVshare is also recommending blackout periods between rentals.
But as Gray warns, "We’re a platform for tens of thousands of vehicles. We have no way of checking out every RV."
Gray notes that he is working on possible partnerships with cleaning companies and makers of cleaning products to "allow our owners to purchase great cleaning materials." But those partnerships are not yet in place.
The situation at Outdoorsy is similar. In addition to setting high cleaning standards for owners, company cofounder Jennifer Young told me that Outdoorsy is recommending a 24-hour blackout period between rentals.
But as with new hygiene policies adopted by Airbnb and other vacation rental sites, online RV rental marketplaces put the onus on individual owners to carry out the guidelines and on the traveler to report issues.
"We have a solid rating and review system in place," says Young of Outdoorsy. "Every vehicle has to go through a walk-through that includes key exchange. And then the renter will have to submit a review. To ensure our cleaning standards are being met, our trust and safety team monitors reviews, and if we start to notice a negative pattern, we work with owners and renters to get a feel of the situation and [they] can delist folks if there becomes a problem."
Does this mean that individually owned vehicles are markedly less safe than those found through a rental agency?
Not necessarily. With the blackout periods, dangerous droplets may become less of a factor. And both Outdoorsy and RVshare contain listings from individual RV owners as well as professional rental companies, so you could always go with one of the latter if you'd prefer a more standardized cleaning procedure.
And especially nervous renters can always scrub down surfaces inside their RVs before driving off.
On this front, opting for a rental through Outdoorsy or RVshare might be the better bet.
Cancellation policies vary by owner, but officials from both sites told me that since the pandemic began, they have strongly encouraged RV owners to issue refunds for cancellations whenever requested. In cases where that didn’t happen, the platforms themselves have issued refunds or credits for future travel.
What's more, RVshare says that the site will be giving more prominent placement to RV owners with flexible cancellation policies. Users can already filter results by cancellation policy.
Outdoorsy is considering allowing the same function. "We are encouraging all of our owners to offer flexible cancellations," says Young. "They’re very dependable, nice people, and we think most will."
As for the traditional rental companies, Cruise America's cancellation policy states that "you may cancel your reservation up to 7 days prior to the pick-up date and you will be refunded your reservation down payment." After that, you forfeit your deposit.
With El Monte RV and Road Bear RV, travelers now have the option to cancel 30 days in advance with no penalty.
But since developments with the coronavirus have been jumbling travel plans with less advance warning, the company's Hewston told me, "We will make exceptions based on an individual’s circumstances and individual states’ circumstances.”
Let's hope the company's managers get that memo.