For those who aren’t familiar, camper van travel means to travel by van — a van that you will also eat, sleep and you-name-it in along the way. The van is your home for the extent of your travels. It’s meant to be a fun, cost-effective way to indulge your wanderlust.
Though you’d think this form of travel would be the ultimate cheap summer getaway, my camper van vacation was one of the most expensive trips I’ve ever taken. This was because I wasn’t properly prepared and I made every mistake in the book.
Here’s how to avoid my follies and make your own camper van trip an unforgettable — and affordable — experience.
Click to read more about costly mistakes you don’t want to make while traveling solo.
Classic Budget Mistakes
I’m not alone in blowing my camper van budget. I chatted with Mat and Danielle, creators of the Exploring Alternatives channel and authors of the “Guide to Van Life” e-book, and they had similar issues. They’ve road-tripped across North America in their own camper van, and through Iceland and Australia in camper van rentals.
“One of our main mistakes with camper van travel was assuming everything was going to be cheap or free,” said Danielle. She outlined a few costs that she and I (and many others) underestimated.
- Costs for serviced campsites with water/power
- Firewood at campgrounds (usually quite expensive)
- Grey and black water tank dumping fees
- Propane tank refills
- RV toilet paper (single ply/septic-safe) and black water tank chemicals
- Oversized vehicle fees: from campgrounds to ferries to parking garages, you pay extra if your campervan is tall/long
In addition to those classic mistakes, I made others.
I planned a six-week camper van trip across Australia. Not only did I grossly underestimate distances involved, but I also lost my shirt every time I refilled the gas tank, which happened often. Every mile driven will cost more than you’re accustomed to in a car, so remember that just because you’re mobile doesn’t mean you have to move all the time. Think strategically about your fuel use.
Too Hot/Too Cold
I didn’t anticipate how cold I’d be at night, so I had to buy extra blankets and clothing. “In a camper van, you’ll either be incredibly hot or incredibly cold. It’s rare to be perfectly comfortable, so plan for both scenarios,” said Danielle. If packing space is tight, she suggests a hot water bottle to stay warm at night. If it’s hot, park in the shade and use the roof vent often.
Once bugs get in, they don’t leave. Remember, you’re camping. They’re part of the territory. “Ensure your camper van has screens on the windows,” said Danielle. Bug spray and mesh bug jackets help too.”
Propane tank refills (mentioned previously) are expensive, so cook judiciously. I was also surprised that cooking basics (salt, pepper, spices, oils, etc.) weren’t in my rental camper van. Pack your own seasonings and condiments to save money.
More on the Cost of Travel: How Much It Costs to Visit these Must-See Tiny Towns in America
Money-Saving Camper Van Tips
Here are some tips to ensure your own camper van vacation stays on budget.
“There are lots of unconventional places to park that allow you to save money. Some stores like Walmart and Cabela’s, and many casinos, allow you to park for free overnight,” said Danielle.
Websites to help you locate budget-friendly overnight spots include:
- AllStays.com (for Walmart locations, campgrounds, rest stops and truck stops — with showers.)
- Couchsurfing.com (to park in local hosts’ driveways)
- iOverlander.com (for campgrounds and services like water, propane, etc.)
Think Outside the Box: Save Money on Your Next Trip With a Home Exchange
Research Service Stations Nearest to Your Rental Location
Camper van rentals require you to return your fuel/propane tanks full and waste tanks empty. According to Danielle, knowing where you can do this pays off. “We wasted hours driving around trying to find a station that filled propane tanks,” she said.
Confirm Rental Amenities
“Find out if the rental includes sheets, pillows, blankets and kitchen amenities (dishes, pots/pans, etc.),” said Danielle. Knowing this will save you an expensive surprise.
Click through to read more about the best ways to save on summer travel.