For Harley Sitner of Peace Vans, van travel means “optimizing magic over efficiency.” His advice? “The first day is going to be a (madhouse), where you don’t know what to do or how things operate. Just stick it out. The second day gets easier, and the third gets easier yet. After the fourth night, most people are already looking for their own van.”
If you’re renting a camper van for the first time, it can all be a bit overwhelming. Luckily, there are plenty of options and resources to help you get started.
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What to expect
Gas prices might be rising, but the cost of renting vans has remained relatively stable, according to April Cumming, a public relations manager at the peer-to-peer RV rental platform Outdoorsy. Many renters try to stay somewhat local, maybe going to two or three different parks over the course of their vacation, and they may not even go through an entire tank of gas on their trip.
You can generally expect to pay between $100 and $350 per night for a van rental, which includes 100 to 150 miles per day of driving. From there, fees typically run between 25 and 50 cents per mile. Most companies also charge a cleaning fee at the end of the trip. Most companies have a 3- to 5-night rental minimum.
Be sure to look for what accessories are included. Many van rental companies include basic essentials such as pots, pans, dishes, linens, and more, but others might charge an additional fee.
If you feel overwhelmed with the number of choices, Moterra Campervans and some other companies will prepare your entire itinerary for you (for a fee, of course). Peace Vans offers deals with several local campgrounds that reserve spots just for customers.
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Where to look
Renters can choose between standard rental outfitters like Moterra or Peace Vans, or peer-to-peer rental companies like Outdoorsy, RVshare, RVezy, or Vancation.
Specialty van rental companies like Moterra, Voyager, Peace Vans, and others have newer, fairly standard vans. Voyager builds out each of its vans while Peace Vans offers a vintage VW fleet, so you know exactly what you’re getting. If you plan a long itinerary and rent from a company with multiple locations, you can save time by flying into and out of different airports.
Peer-to-peer rental companies give you more options, allowing you to rent a van as basic or as luxurious as you need, but the service you receive from the actual RV owners can vary. Cumming says the company will step in if needed; if the van breaks down or another unexpected mishap occurs during your trip, they’ll do whatever they can to get you back on the road safely.
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Ask the rental agent or owner to walk you through the features. Don’t assume you know how everything operates, especially if it’s your first time. Pay attention, but don’t stress over knowing how every little thing works. Nearly every van rental company has robust training materials online, and Voyager even places QR codes next to the van’s most confusing buttons and gadgets, allowing you to pull up a troubleshooting article or video immediately. If you need additional help, many companies have a 24/7 hotline.
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While you’re there, don’t hesitate to ask the rental agent questions, not just about your van, but also about your destination(s). Moterra’s Trevor James says most employees love sharing their favorite destinations, and the company gives lists of campgrounds and outdoor activities to every renter.
Driving a van
If renting a van and visiting a far-off destination is on your bucket list, Cumming suggests doing a shorter trip closer to home first to get a feel for the van and how to best travel in it.
Some travelers may be intimidated by driving a large Sprinter van, especially if they’ve never driven anything that big before, but James says the nerves usually go away after the first day. Modern vans have plenty of safety features, including blindspot alerts and backup cameras, that make piloting the van a piece of cake.
If you’re driving a tall van, consider using an RV GPS (like Togo RV) that will navigate you away from low bridges and tight tunnels. Likewise, avoid parking garages and drive-throughs with low barriers. When it comes to driving speed, remember that a lead foot leads to buying more unleaded gas.
Getting to the campground
If you’re new to the outdoors, stick to established campgrounds until you feel more comfortable. Campground reservations tend to go fast these days, so book as early as possible. After you gain more experience, dispersed camping in national forests and Bureau of Land Management areas are a great way to save money and experience lesser-known parks.
Most renters fret about whether to splurge on a van with a toilet or shower. If you plan to stay at an established campground, both Voyager’s Grady Linder and Vancation’s Steve Dietrich suggest forgoing both. Dietrich says some owners on Vancation will include a disposable, portable toilet in case of emergencies. For those who are venturing off-grid, a toilet may be worth the splurge.
If you’re planning to stay at a campground with hookups, make sure you can plug your RV into the 50- or 30-volt outlet. If you’re planning to forgo hookups, look for a rental option with solar panels that will help keep your devices charged.
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Overnighting in a van can take some getting used to. More compact than even the tiniest hotel room, it does take some adjustment, especially if you’re traveling with family or friends, but most of the kinks are usually worked out by the second or third day. Most renters spend the bulk of their time outside, not in the van.
Van rental companies in the U.S.
Outside of the well-known peer-to-peer RV rental platforms, here are some specialty van rental companies serving the U.S.
- Locations: Jackson Hole, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, and Whitefish
- Pro: Luxurious, fully equipped 4×4 camper vans
- Con: You’re paying a premium for a premium van
- Pricing: $339 per night, with 100 miles per day included (additional miles are charged at 25 cents), plus a cleaning fee
- Types of vans: Each 19-foot, 4×4 Sprinter is converted by Field Vans (formerly Sportsmobile West)
- Locations: Seattle
- Pro: Choose between a modern Mercedes Metris campervan or a vintage VW Westfalia
- Con: Vans are a bit smaller than other available options
- Pricing: $265 per night, plus mandated insurance and a $150 cleaning fee; 125 miles per day included, with each additional mile charged at 35 cents
- Types of vans: Mercedes Metris or VW Westfalia
- Locations: Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and San Francisco; coming soon to Denver and Seattle
- Pro: Out-of-office pick-ups and returns are available at select locations, and free unlimited miles
- Con: Somewhat outdated interiors, basic features, and not pet-friendly
- Pricing: Quotes vary but daily rates are typically under $200 with free unlimited miles. Insurance costs between $10 and $24 per day. There’s an additional one-time fee of $45 for linens, pillows, duvets, cooking gear, and chairs.
- Types of vans: Dodge Grand Caravan and Chevrolet Express Campervan
- Locations: Nationwide
- Pro: Thousands of different options for virtually every budget and need
- Con: Thousands of different owners, each with their own rules and costs
- Pricing: Varies by owner
- Types of vans: Varies by owner
- Locations: Austin, Minneapolis, and Nashville
- Pro: Some vans include bike racks. If you fall in love with your vehicle, purchase options are available.
- Con: Van builds may be a bit basic for folks who expect the height of luxury
- Pricing: Rates start out at $99 per day with 125 miles per day included (30 cents per mile after) and a $60 cleaning fee
- Types of vans: Built-out Dodge Ram ProMaster