As summer approaches, many people are considering alternatives to domestic flights and hotels for their travel plans.
With COVID-19 still very much a factor, camper vans are becoming an increasingly alluring proposition for those seeking an affordable, socially-distanced vacation with limited social interactions.
There are many different types of camper vans offering a compact, economical alternative to large motorhomes, with more comfort than you’ll find in traditional camping.
Read more: The best RV rentals
As summer fast approaches, and the COVID-19 pandemic surges on, the travel landscape continues to wait in limbo.
With plenty of risks associated with both boarding a plane or booking a hotel, many people are pausing plans. However as states start to reopen, travelers are turning to alternative ways to vacation close to home.
A motorhome rental is one such way forward. After all, your wheels, lodging, and dining are all relegated to one controlled space. However, RVs (recreational vehicles) tend to be difficult to drive, sometimes too large for many campgrounds, and pricey when it comes to fuel.
For those looking for an equally convenient way to travel with more flexibility, consider the camper van.
Like larger RVs and motorhomes, camper vans offer travelers increased levels of control over their environments. The best-equipped camper vans are self-contained living pods with sleeping, washing, and cooking facilities all onboard. They also allow easy access to remote spots in nature and socially distant campgrounds. They’re also easier to drive, better on fuel, and can slip into most campgrounds without problems.
“Camper vans are the perfect option for those wanting some extra comfort during their road trip without having to break the bank,” says Carley Clegg, spokesperson for Escape Campervans, a company founded in New Zealand but that now operates US locations. “Camper vans are small enough to fit into most tent sites and large enough to fit a bed inside and a simple, efficient kitchen. It’s the perfect middle ground to soak in the outdoors.”
Adds Hiron Menon, spokesperson for fellow New Zealand transplants Jucy RV Rentals, “If you are not used to a big RV, it can be very intimidating to drive. A camper van drives just like a car and is an easy way to get into the camping world. Camper vans are also more economical and are not gas guzzlers like the big RVs.”
Indeed, it seems the traveling public is coming around to camper vans as a viable option this summer. “We have already seen an increase in inquiries/bookings,” says Kirby Sandberg, spokesperson for Montana-based rental company Campervan North America. “Many inquiries are for more nights than we typically see from the domestic market. I have the feeling that people are itching to get out and travel, and a camper van rental offers them a great way to socially distance in the great outdoors.”
Types of outfitted camper vans
Motorhomes and camper vans both generally fall under the definition of RVs. A motorhome is usually larger, built on a bus or truck chassis, and has a divider between the driver’s cab and the living quarters, which include comfortable sleeping, cooking, and bathroom facilities.
Camper vans are generally smaller, typically with no divide, and usually more basic. Many were not originally built to be self-contained living quarters and have been specially adapted and fitted to serve this purpose.
Converting or outfitting vans, and even living in them has become a phenomenon, with #vanlife now one of the more celebrated hashtags on social media.
Customers can choose from a range of outfitted vehicles, some with very basic facilities and some with rockstar levels of comfort, but all offer flexibility, economic benefits, and control over the traveler’s own environment. It is tricky to specify exact fuel economies for each type, but for average-sized camper vans, around 20 miles per gallon is a good working average.
“Camper vans offer great gas mileage and can access the more restricted roads (that might be unavailable to larger motorhomes),” says Kirby Sandberg. “They also offer great maneuverability and visibility when driving, and you’ll save big by having the option to camp instead of booking into hotels.”
Basic outfitted/converted vans
These are general use vans such as the Ford Transit that were not built for camping, but which have been converted. Additions usually include at least basic sleeping quarters and storage for camping or biking gear, with more upscale models including a small kitchen or galley area with a refrigerator, sink, and running water.
Composting toilets and propane-heated shower attachments for outdoor showering are also possible. These vans typically contain few factory-fitted amenities that are directed towards camping, and most of their additions are due to conversions, fitted after the vehicle has been purchased.
Purpose-made outfitted camper vans
These vehicles are usually a newer-generation product built intentionally to be sold to travelers. These camper vans tend to be more luxurious with upgraded fixtures and fittings, made from comfortable materials, and feature nicely integrated electronics and plumbing facilities.
The upper echelons even have dining rooms and full bathrooms with showers. Some of the more popular brands include Winnebago, Volkswagen, and Airstream, a company more usually identified for their classic vintage trailers, but who now produce state-of-the-art camper vans, too.
High top outfitted camper vans
These vehicles typically come with a higher roof that has either been factory-fitted on the original vehicle or extended as part of a conversion.
Think of this space as an added ‘attic” space on the design that can be used for sleeping quarters (opening up the back of the camper van for larger living space, more passenger seats, or more amenities), storage space for camping, or adventure gear. Some variations of this type of van include pop up, semi-rigid tops, or offer space and components to set up what are essentially tents on the van roof for overnight stops.
Important information for first-timers
It’s vital to check that you can park your specific rental vehicle at the campground that you intend to head for, and check on what facilities they have there.
Booking ahead will be key this summer with increased demand. Overnight campsite and park fees with ‘hookups’ (electricity, water, bathrooms, and/or sewage disposal) typically range from $30 to $50 per night or more for the best quality grounds. Some older camper vans may not be suitable for roads with steep inclines, so check your proposed routes with the rental company at the time of booking.
Outside of campgrounds, it is also possible to find places to park (usually for limited amounts of time) without any facilities, either in remote areas or at designated spots. This is called ‘dry camping’ or ‘boondocking’ and is usually free of charge. You can find these locations on the website for the United States Forest Service or Campendium. This option is much easier for camper vans than it is for huge motorhomes.
There are other obvious preparation tips, such as having a full complement of water (some camper vans do not include running or potable water onboard), groceries, and other essentials. Many of the rental companies listed below have regularly-updated blogs and online resources that are well worth looking at if this is a first-time trip, and are all experts in their regions, and can help with suggested routes and campgrounds.
Camper van Rental Companies
These are some of the best companies for camper van rentals that we’ve found based on reputation, customer satisfaction levels, specialties, all-around value, and fleet offerings.
Quotes below are for a 45-year old driver for a two-week rental during high season, booked two months in advance, picking up and dropping off at the same location (as stated), and without any extras unless listed.
Check very carefully what amenities your camper van comes with at the time of booking. Fuel and mileage costs vary depending on the vehicle, but for fuel economy, an average of 20 miles per gallon is a fair estimate.
Company info and locations: Founded in New Zealand in 2003, the company opened in the US in 2008 and now has 12 locations and 600 vehicles. Locations include Denver, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Miami, New York, Phoenix, Portland, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Seattle, Calgary and Vancouver. Their vans have funky, painted exteriors and range from Jeeps up to large Newport campers.
COVID-19 policies: Enhanced, 80-point cleaning and detailing policies, facilities meeting CDC guidelines, minimizing customer contact (a contactless option will be offered from June 2020), flexible cancellation policies.
Typical rental costs: The Escape Mavericks package includes a camper van sleeping up to five people, priced at $35 per day for unlimited mileage in a Ford E-150 or Transit, with kitchen (stove, refrigerator). The price quote is for traveling out of Miami.
Pros: A well-established company with a good number of locations and excellent customer service.
Cons: Some relatively older rental stock, but vans are regularly maintained.
Company info and locations: A family-owned business that has operated since 2007. Locations in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and also Salt Lake City (seasonally). The company bills itself as the budget option, and rents out mainly Dodge Grands and Ford E350 vans.
COVID-19 policies: Enhanced cleaning policies under CDC guidelines, minimizing contact with customers.
Typical rental costs: Wanderer camper van sleeps two people, from $83 per night, rentals include unlimited mileage and roadside assistance. The vehicle includes a full outdoor kitchen including stove and ice chest. The price is for traveling out of Los Angeles.
Pros: One of the cheaper rental options on the market.
Cons: Just two year-round locations. Entry-level vehicles are relatively basic.
Vintage Surfari Wagons
Vintage Surfari Wagons
Company info and locations: This company has been specifically renting out vintage camper vans for over 14 years, and is based in Costa Mesa, California. Their fleet is exclusively restored VW camper vans from the 1970s and 1980s, with some less iconic but more modern vehicles as well, all with revamped interiors.
COVID-19 policies: Enhanced, stringent disinfecting procedures, particularly for ‘high touch’ points.
Typical rental costs: 1984 VW ‘Lime Cello’ Vanagaon sleeps four passengers with two sleeping berths (one a pop-top on the roof), from $169 per night, mileage conditions to be outlined at the time of booking. The vehicle includes a propane stove and refrigerator/icebox. The price quote is for traveling out of Costa Mesa.
Pros: The place to rent from if retro-chic appeals to you, with some truly special vehicles in their fleet. The company is exceptionally knowledgeable and will happily help out with suggested itineraries.
Cons: The age of some of the vehicles means there are some restrictions on parts of the fleet in terms of range (some 100 mile per day limits) and restricted roads (some cannot drive up very steep inclines). There is just one location to rent from.
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