RV Driving In The East -> Tolls, EZ Pass & Low Clearances
Pre Post Note/ THANK YOU for all the lovely comments on my last post! So nice to hear from y’all and read your feedback. It makes this journey of ours aaaaaall the sweeter.
Those of you who follow the blog already know we’re currently parked just outside of New York City, but I haven’t talked about how we got here. Paul actually planned this drive for weeks and the time he put into it really made a difference to how smoothly the trip went. While I was stressing about the cat (I become a basket-case in these situations), he took all the stress out of planning but doing the leg-work to figure out the route and all the various issues that might crop up along the way. Quite a sweet-heart he is.
You see as you go East there’s several things that come into play which us West-Coast RVers don’t worry about most of the time. One is toll roads, which can be both complicated and expensive to figure out. Another is tunnels & low clearance passes which are ALL OVER the place, and can be downright dangerous in an RV if you don’t know where they are before you drive through.
Thankfully we didn’t have to figure it ALL our from scratch. Our friends Technomadia wrote about tolls on their blog some time ago, and we stole their ideas right away. Plus blog readers and other RVers have written good tips about low clearance. What I didn’t find much detail about however, was how and where to get an EZ Pass for an RV, and we actually ended up making some mistakes there. So, for this blog we’re going back a few days in time to talk through it all. Hopefully it’ll help other RVers who end up passing this way for the first time.
Toll Roads & Figuring Toll Pricing
We hit our first toll road the very day we left Michigan. It was the Ohio Turnpike, the main road that would take us through Ohio into PA the next day. This particular toll road is actually pretty easy. If you don’t have an electronic pass (EZ Pass) you just pick-up a paper ticket at the entrance booth and pay at the exit booth, either by credit card or cash. Easy peasy.
Once we got into NJ/NY however things got more complicated. Some of the toll roads are cash only, some are electronic only (they mail you a ticket) plus the toll pricing can vary enormously depending on time of day or even which direction you’re driving.
Of course you CAN work out each of the tolls individually if you use the various official state websites (like THIS one), but they’re so darn complicated & user-unfriendly that you’ll likely feel less pain by hitting your head against a brick wall. A MUCH better alternative is to pay a few $$ for an app that does all the calculating for you. We downloaded two apps both of which calculate tolls for your entire route, anywhere in the country. They also provide up to 3 alternative routes for each trip as well as specific RV support (for an added price):
Toll Smart – Covers USA & Canada. $3.99 base price (passenger car only, will show up to 3 alternative routes for each trip) PLUS $2.99/mo if you want to add specific RV/truck support. Available on iTunes and Google Play.
- Toll Calculator – Covers US Only. FREE for passenger car, but this will only show you ONE potential route. Add $1.99 (1 year) to show alternative routes, PLUS $3.99 (90 day subscription) for RV/truck support. Available on iTunes.
Both are fairly easy to use, but we’ve personally found Toll Smart to be somewhat more detailed and configurable, including giving you discount info for EZ Pass (if it’s available). Both will work though. Thanks to Chris & Cherie for this tip!
Getting An EZ Pass Transponder
The next step to carefree toll life is getting an EZ Pass.
EZ Pass is a snazzy electronic pass system used across 15 Eastern States (Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia,West Virginia and North Carolina). The way it works is that you get a little electronic transponder that attaches to the inside of your windshield. Then when you travel thru an E-ZPass toll plaza, an antenna reads your transponder and your account is automatically debited for the toll. All the billing is handled online so no cash, credit or anything else is needed.
We decided early on that we wanted one of these, for multiple reasons. First of all it allows you to use ANY lane on the toll entry booths. There’s nothing as stressful as trying to swing your 40-foot RV + tow over to the cash lane when you suddenly realize you’re stuck in the EZ Pass only lane and about to get a ticket for it. Secondly we discovered many of the NJ/NY tolls only accept cash (no credit card) and since we rarely travel with much cash that’s another hassle we didn’t want to go through. Thirdly there are certain toll roads (especially around New York City) that don’t take cash at all. They mail you a bill later, and that’s yet another hassle we didn’t want to deal with.
All that to say that’s it’s waaaaaay easier to get an electronic transponder IF you can actually figure out how to get one.
The short answer on how to get a transponder is that you can get it at any of the 15 participating EZ states either through their website or wherever they sell it locally. The tricky part is that some of the states charge you for it, either an up-front charge and/or a monthly maintenance charge. Plus figuring out which transponder to get, how many you need (do I need a separate one for the RV and the car?) and how long it takes to activate can put a wrench in your well-laid travel plans. Through our process we made some mistakes which you thankfully don’t have to repeat:
Buy Your EZ Pass In A State With No Fees – Did you know that if you get your transponder in NJ you have to pay $1/mo maintenance fee whereas if you get your transponder in Delaware or Illinois you pay no maintenance fees at all? We didn’t either until we started looking into it! You can legally buy your transponder in ANY state (and use it in any other state), so unless you’re planning on spending extensive time in a given spot (local transponders typically get you extra discounts on local toll fees) you should try and snag one with minimal or no fees. To see fees in various states check out THIS site.
- Buy It Online Ahead of Time – One of the mistakes we made was not buying our EZ Pass ahead of time. Had we done that we could have gotten one from a state with no fees and had it activated and ready to use before we ever even saw a toll road. You’ll need 7-10 days to get an EZ Pass by mail, so plan ahead if that’s what you want to do.
- Specify Your Type of Vehicle & Use – Some states have different transponders for multiple axle vehicles (RV’s) versus passenger cars or they require you to buy and register a separate transponder for each. Make sure you specify what type of vehicle you’re using it on when you buy your pass and check details of your particular chosen state before you buy.
POST-EDIT NOTE – Blog reader Mike pointed out in the comments section that if you buy an EZ Pass from North Carolina (NC Quick Pass) it will work across ALL the EZ Pass states AS WELL AS in Florida (which uses Sun Pass) and Georgia (which uses Peach Pass). So, with a single transponder you can basically access all the eastern states. This is a fabulous tip which I didn’t discover anywhere in my own research, so I wanted to add it into the main post. Thank you Mike for that!!
Buying An Ohio EZ Pass On The OH Turnpike
Given that we messed up buying a transponder ahead of time we decided to buy one at one of the Service Plazas on the Ohio Turnpike on our way East. Not only could we be able to get the pass right away, but 4 of these plazas offer separate RV parking areas with electric hookups for only $20/night. Plus we’d be able to dump & fill water (free), stream a Netflix movie (free WiFi), fill up on gas/diesel and get a Starbucks too. This would allow us to split up the drive into convenient buckets and get everything handled in one place at one time. Super easy & efficient, right?
The overnight parking & purchase went smoothly enough, but we ran into a few details we didn’t expect when we activated the pass:
$3 to Buy, 48-Hours Activation Time And $0.75/mo Maintenance Fee – We paid $3 for our transponder, registered it online and then realized we had to wait 24-48 hours before we could use it (24 hours for tolls within OH, 48 hours for any tolls out of state). Thankfully not a big deal in our case since we weren’t scheduled to hit the NJ tolls for 2 days, but a little surprise we didn’t expect. Ohio also charges a $0.75/mo maintenance fee, again not a big deal but something we didn’t quite expect either.
- Weight & Axle Limits – The other confusion we ran into was that our transponder showed up as “2 axles, 4 tires, up to 7,000 lbs” when we registered it online despite telling the shop we specifically wanted it for our 33,000 lb RV. A little calling around confirmed that we could still use it as long as our RV only had 2 axles (which is does). Not sure what you do if you have a 3-axle RV?
- Only One Transponder Needed – One of the unexpected upsides about OH EZ Pass is that you can register 2 vehicles on the same transponder online. As long as both vehicles are registered it will automatically count & calculate the toll for both when you are towing. Also, you can move it back & forth between RV & car as needed if you are driving either one individually (we bought a suction cup holder to make that process even easier). Nice bonus!
So far the transponder has worked great. We’ve used on two NJ toll roads in RV (while towing) and twice in NY with the car (not towing) and it’s registered without a problem each time. The only issue being that it takes 2-4 days for any out-of-state tolls to post on the online account. Not a biggie and sooooo worth the hassle-free travel of electronic tolls.
Avoiding Low Clearance Passes & Tunnels
The last little piece of our Eastward travels was figuring out how to avoid low clearance passes & tunnels. This can be a serious problem in an RV and not a situation you don’t EVER want to find yourself in, so it’s a part of the planning that needs to be rock solid.
If you happen to have an RV GPS (such as the Garmin RV760 ) you can enter your RV size into the system and it should automatically route you around any low clearance passes & tunnels. The Garmin has been on our top 5 wishlist for years and is a very decent option, but we’ve just never gotten around to buying one. We use Google Maps for all our road travel, and apart from low clearances (which you cannot specify) it’s worked really well for us.
But going East we needed more. So, we decided to check out other options, both for ourselves and for our blog followers. In the end we found 3 alternatives, each of which had its own upsides and drawbacks:
Truckers Road Atlas – Call us old-fashioned but we never travel anywhere without paper maps. They’re useful both for general planning and for finding boondocking spots (especially out West). We have a 6-year old RV road atlas that we’ve used for years, but it was torn and tattered and overdue for an update. So, we decided to spring for the laminated, ring-bound Rand McNally Deluxe Truckers Road Atlas hoping that would add-in low clearance info too. The good news is that it does. The bad news is that it’s not nearly as easy to use as we’d hoped. All the low clearances are listed by state & route in the front, referenced by grid coordinates. So you need to switch back and forth between the map & the front to figure out if your route has any limitations. Why don’t they just color code them directly on the map??? Argh!
Our Verdict? This is a nice, general planning map but it’s tedious to use for low clearances.
Low Clearances.com – This is a basic POI database of low clearances all across the USA. It’s comprehensive and for only ~$15 it’s inexpensive too. If you have a compatible GPS device you can load the POI into your GPS and it will automatically alert you as you travel through low clearance areas. Pretty nifty. For those of us without a physical GPS device, however, it’s a little more limited. We loaded the POI into Google Maps which allowed us to plot a route overlay through the “My Maps” function, but there’s no “alert” system this way. So we had to physically zoom in on the map and check if any of the POI points intersected along our proposed route. Do-able, but not ideal.
Our Verdict? It’s not bad and we found it useful as a planning tool, but without a GPS you need to zoom in and eyeball the route manually.
CoPilot RV USA App – As a last ditch effort we decided to try an app-based GPS that we’d seen reviewed by other RVers on various forums. It costs some $$ ($59.99, free trail available) but it’s also the most complete tool we tried, with a few caveats. What we loved about the tool was that you can input RV height/length/width/weight and it will automatically route you around ANY problematic low passes or clearances. Sweet! We also really liked the “route demo” option which allows you to “drive” the entire route before ever getting on the road. Paul used this to preview the road into downtown Jersey City including every turn and exit, so that he wouldn’t have any surprises along the way. Nifty! Lastly we appreciated the speed limit notification (for roads), the navigation cues while driving (not quite as good as Google, but decent nonetheless), and the fact that you can use it offline. The main thing we found frustrating? Entering addresses and destinations. You need to input city or zip code first BEFORE you can search for a specific address which, if you’re coming from Google Maps, seems rather antiquated. This limits its use as a general planning tool, but doesn’t detract from it’s usefulness as a driving tool. Available on iTunes & Google Play.
Our Verdict? We found it limited as a planning tool, but it’s by far the best active driving tool we tried! If you don’t own a RV-specific GPS this may be the next best thing.
POST-EDIT NOTE – SEVERAL blog commentators mentioned the AllStays app as another great (and inexpensive) alternative for planning routes & tracking low clearances. We haven’t tried it ourselves, but thought it noteworthy enough to add it as a tip to the main blog post. For those interested in more check out the comment section below. Thank you everyone who mentioned it!
That ended up being waaay longer than I thought it would be, but hopefully it was helpful. Any good tips I missed? Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below!