The thought of touring a country by RV can be a romantic one. You and your best pals trundling along a meadow-flanked lane, pulling over into a scenic turnout to toast the sunset before bunking down for the night. But is traveling by camper as good as it sounds?
Andrew Ditton has been touring motor homes and caravans his whole life, and seven years ago gave up stationary life to live permanently on the road in his Airstream Trailer with his faithful dog Dougal. Having reviewed and lived in a variety of vans for over 20 years, he knows a thing or two about van travel, and how much of the Instagram-fuelled veneer (#VanLife) actually translates into reality.
Here he lifts the lid on what a camper vacation actually entails, providing answers to the big questions that may plague budding motor home mavens – from queries over costs to anxieties over lavatories – so you can make an informed decision about whether camper travel is right for your next trip.
Which countries are best for a camper vacation?
There’s a wide variety of destinations that are perfect for exploring by van. For many, the primary reason for selecting a country for camper travel is the abundance of beautiful outdoor vistas, but other things to think about include the availability of vans for rent, costs (sometimes more expensive countries are more appealing to travel by motor home as you can skip hotel fees – more on this later) and, crucially if you’re a little nervous about driving a larger vehicle, the quality of roads.
In general, first-timers can’t really go wrong in New Zealand, Canada or the USA. The roads here are wide and smooth, van travel is common and the camping options are bountiful. If you are happy driving a smaller van, or comfortable driving wide vehicles on narrow roads, then Scotland is a perennial favorite, while more adventurous campers flock to the serene, wintry landscapes of Iceland – just remember to pack your thermal underwear.
What size camper van should I hire?
Once you’ve selected your destination you’ll want to think about your van. Broadly, there are four styles of campers, each with their own pros and cons.
These are the smallest campers to rent, often little more than SUVs where the seats fold down and convert into beds. You might have a few pieces of camping gear included so you can brew up outside under the tailgate but, in general, you’ll either be relying on campsites, or roughing it in the wild. New Zealand bans such vehicles from free camping sites without toilets – no prizes for guessing why. They’re great for the budget-conscious and adventurous, but not the most comfortable on longer trips.
This is the archetypal, VW-style vehicle most associated with this style of travel. In such machines you normally get a small fitted kitchen, sometimes an extendable roof hosting a roof bed, and a bench seat "downstairs" that also converts into a secondary bed, giving you four berths in an easy-to-drive van. A small loo is often secreted in a tiny cupboard, which needs to be hauled into the middle of the floor to be used. A high level of intimacy with your traveling companions is required.
Generally speaking, this is where comfort meets autonomy, as a washroom is normally included, with a private toilet and a shower compartment. Longer and higher than a camper van, the van conversion starts impacting your freedom as you start approaching something you’ve never paid much attention to in the past – the wretched height barrier.
Also known as RVs, motor homes are the big beasts that can resemble apartments on wheels. For what they lack in cool, they more than make up in comfort. There’s nothing like being cramped in a camper during a wet week in Wellington to make you wish that you’d sacrificed that cool VW badge on the grill for something a bit more spacious and warm, even if it does have all the aesthetics and allure of a margarine tub.
The bigger you go with your van, the more living space you have to enjoy, but the more challenging it can be to reverse down a single-track road when you meet a convoy coming the other way. Size also impacts the "go anywhere, do anything" freedom that a smaller camper van can offer you (though bigger vans can transport other modes of transport, such as bicycles). It’s also worth keeping in mind that rental costs typically increase with the size of van.
You might be surprised to learn that you can drive fairly large motor homes with a regular car license. In the UK, you can drive a vehicle with a gross weight of up to 3.5 tonnes, which covers most vans on the rental market.
Where can I stay in a van?
Spending the night alone in the wilderness is one of the quirks of van travel that captures people’s imagination. In reality, the legality of where to sleep in a motor home can be tricky.
In most of Europe you can park up for the night in "camper stops" (which sometimes include facilities like drinking water and chemical toilet water disposal) for free or for a nominal charge – providing you are sleeping in the vehicle and not setting up camp. These sites exist in Spain, Portugal, France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Norway, among others.
Meanwhile, in the UK, Motorhome Wildcamping provides a list of over 1800 pubs that are happy for campers to use their car parks overnight, on the understanding travelers frequent the establishment during the evening. New Zealand and the USA also offer dedicated spots for RV travelers to stay.
Then there’s so-called "freedom camping": turnouts and rural parking spaces. This is where the waters begin to muddy. Though it’s highly unlikely anyone is going to notice a camper van using a parking spot for one night and disappearing without trace the next morning, opting for this style of overnighting means you could find yourself being moved on (or even fined). Be smart with your parking choices (go with quiet rural car parks; not spots already being used by campers) and, crucially, remember to leave no waste behind. Research the laws in your chosen destination before you travel to make sure you know the rules around overnight camping.
To keep things simple, you can always opt to stay on a campsite, which offer facilities such as bathrooms, showers and sometimes even luxuries like wi-fi – often for very good value. There are some truly beautiful campsites out there, which take a little bit of finding but are worth the research. Cool Camping is a good place to start in the UK. While in New Zealand, the Camping NZ app by Rankers will keep you sweet, and in the USA, the KOA group offers over 500 campgrounds nationwide.
What’s it like to live in a camper?
Van life can be serene. There are times when it’s just the most perfect way to be. I love doing what I want, eating what I want, and being where I want. I’ve looked out over Lake Taupo from the lounge of my motor home. I’ve enjoyed a campfire on the beach outside my van in Scotland. Some of my happiest times have been on van holidays. However, the longer you spend in a van, the smaller it gets. Cabin fever really is a thing.
With this in mind, think about the weather in the destination you’re planning to visit. Car campers and camper vans work best when you can spend time outside, relaxing in the sun, or parked up on a campsite, toasting your toes at a campfire on a crisp autumn evening. Add wind and rain to the scenario, or incessant scorching sun, and things can turn quite grim. Where are you going to dry damp clothes? Where are the muddy wellies going to go? And how are you going to sleep in that roof bed when the wind is howling all around or the sun is turning it into an oven?
Typically, camper travel works better when the weather is playing ball. But for longer stays when there is every chance of extreme conditions, consider a larger van or motor home with a decent heating or air conditioning system (plus more space to minimise the onset of claustrophobia).
How much does a camper van holiday cost?
The price of camper van travel can be high. The cost of renting a van, especially during peak season, can take your breath away. While you will be saving money on hotels and B&Bs, you will still end up spending money on fuel and, presuming you opt for them, campsites. That said, if you go off-season and hunt around for a good deal, you can net yourself a superb escape that won’t break the bank.
When choosing your van, consider the optional extras. Beware of artificially low "lead-in" prices that don’t include essentials. Some rentals include everything you need from comprehensive insurance to crockery, others include nothing. Also remember to check if the van has heating or air conditioning as appropriate, and if a second gas cylinder is included.
Like most things in the world of travel, the experience can be as cheap as you make it. If you rent a dilapidated people carrier with fold-down seats, avoid campsites, shower in restaurant sinks and eat only crisps and jerky, it will be a relatively cheap experience. But for your average two-week trip, the savings are not drastic.
Is camper van travel right for you?
There is nothing quite as delightful as being able to pull over at a beautiful spot, fling open the side door, and make a brew. Taking your kitchen, your washroom, and your standards with you wherever you go opens up a whole new level of freedom and spontaneity.
But be honest: are you the type of person who starts to get antsy on long car journeys? Someone who appreciates a little luxury when they travel? And, as much as you love your family, friends or partner, would spending a week in such close proximity with them drive you a little crazy? If so, van life might not be for you.
That said, in my opinion, renting a camper is a win-win scenario. If you’ve seen the highly-stylised Insta pics and always wanted to give it a go, what have you got to lose? If you love it, great, welcome to the club. If you hate the experience and go rushing back to the nearest boutique hotel, you’ve just saved yourself a bucket load of heartache and cash by not buying a van.
Whatever life on the road throws at you, whatever the weather, and whatever happens along the way, you can be guaranteed that a camper vacation is a real adventure. It’s an experience you’ll never forget.
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Article first published in October 2019, and last updated in July 2020