Driving a campervan for the first time is exciting, particularly when you’re racing 4000kms up the Australian East coast. You can most certainly get carried away and find yourself describing it to your friends using phrases such as ‘a boyhood dream,’ though you probably first dreamt of it only last year as a twenty something career junkie. However, due to this enthusiasm, and being a highly excitable traveling newbie, I didn’t think of the nitty gritty, the small print and the everyday realities of driving a van.
What I Learnt Hiring A Van:
Here, then are 7 pointers aimed at making your trip as smooth and bump-free as possible. This is what I have learned over a period of approx. 2 months hammering up the East coast of Australia, though much of it was learnt in the first day!
1. Different types of van
You really need to think what you need from your van, so huddling up and writing down a list of everyone’s requests will help prevent you getting lost in any sales pitch. All types of vans should offer gas cooking, food preparation areas and storage, but the standard and extras will improve with each increase in van size.
Budget converted vans (2-3 people):
Cheaper and easy to handle, they will offer the basic van improvements over a car. However, the cramped feeling will kick in earlier, you will constantly be rearranging your luggage and items such as surf boards may not fit in.
Ideal Trip – Short, 2 weeks max really, driving around cities and perhaps staying at the odd hostel.
Budget Flip Tops (2-4):
Similar to the small converted vans, they are also converted from people carriers but the top flips open to a tent, actually giving the van the capability to fit 4 people in. However, this will only be achievable with minimal luggage, so most people only have 2/3 people in these.
Ideal Trip – Short to medium (1month) if you only have 2 or 3 on board. Can handle cities easily as well, but the flip roofs offer you better luggage storage below.
High Top (2-3):
These are more like the size of a work man’s van. The high top offers upstairs and down stairs sleeping so you can sleep separately and there is an inside table/kitchen/ eating area. More luggage can be carried ,as well as surfboards, comfortably, and it is more insulated than the tents on a Flip Top.
Ideal Trip – Short to long (2months) but cities present more challenges as does driving. Trips with a lot of gear and surfboards.
Anything Bigger :
Bigger campervans become essentially small Lorries. People underestimate the sizes and costs, and I saw an embarrassing car parking incident purely brought about by a misunderstanding of the dimensions involved. These are best left alone by travellers as they suit more structured, family holidays.
2. Car Parks
Having set off from Sydney at a boundless charge in a high top, we spared little thought for the small detail of parking. Inner city car parks in Oz are often multi-story, and therefore out of bounds for this sort of van. If you want to shack up in a hostel for a change then many will not be able to fit a van in due to barriers as well. There are obviously ways of getting round this in certain locations, but will you be able to locate the rare parking opportunities when you arrive there at night?
As mentioned above, hostels are sometimes limited in their parking provisions for vans. Budget vans will have more options, but even for high tops staying at a hostel can sometimes actually be a great idea. Rates will be lower for you if you sleep in the van instead of one of their beds, and if you are unsure about the local parking restrictions, hostels are likely to be cheaper than campervan parks.
4. External Agency Hire
Exercise extreme caution when hiring from external agencies, particularly outside of Australia. In Sydney, under the belief we had hired a sat nav this proved to be incorrect. Extra little costs like this can hit you when you are planning your budget. Then, at the drop off we were told we had to fill up the tank with petrol, something we also thought was covered when we paid for extras in England such as Gas canisters and camp chairs. It may be that there is more of a sales pressure in England because they know you can arrange it all in Australia instead. Either way, if you hire in Australia, you are more prepared for paying for all costs within your budget, you can also deal with people face to face rather than chasing up international calls across ridiculous time differences.
Everyone we met along the route who had a van had seemed to have received a different quote. Therefore, shopping around is likely to save you money, particularly in competitive tourist stops and if you combine other bookings to get you a package discount.
I’ve already touched upon this but the danger when driving a van is that at certain times it is very similar to a car which can lull you into a false sense of ease. Multi storey car parks are obvious, but some open plan car parks will have the odd roofed area or suspended height bar that can collide with your van. The step to access the back of the van is also prominent, so reversing and parking can be hazardous. Also, cross winds will have more effect, and Australia has some exposed sections of motorway which means slowing down when you normally wouldn’t can help you a lot.
7. Free Parking
There may be official restrictions, well there probably most definitely are, to where you can park your campervan in Australia. However, this changes from state to state, as does the desire to enforce the rule changes from person to person, or ranger to ranger. Without fooling anyone, very few travellers are going to consult state laws when they cross the boundary between one Aussie state and another. So here’s a list within a list, of tips to boost your chances of getting away with sleeping for free:
- Local Knowledge: Australians are very friendly, so enlisting the help of local hotel concierges, bar tenders or shop workers will tell you where the local work force parks for free, and for how long.
- Set your Alarm – armed with your local knowledge, you should now know when the parking attendants start work in the morning. Get up before them and nip round the corner to escape a ticket. This can get you the best parking spots in the best locations, such as the beach front.
- Residential Streets: A controversial one, but if you pick wide, quiet roads away from the main streets you increase your chance of staying overnight without angering residents. Don’t throw van parties and definitely DON’T use the surroundings as a toilet. Basically, you’re banking on good will, so try to not impose and stay just the one night.
- Outdoor Car Parks: If there’s no sign, then you can plead ignorance, but no sign may even mean it’s fine to park there. Make sure someone’s fit to drive though because private security attendants may give you a warning that is followed by a fine if you don’t leave within an hour
- Paid Car parks: Some car parks allow an overnight stay for lower prices than camp sites. Controversially, and I don’t officially endorse this, but some people wait till the car park attendant goes home for the night, and then exit through the entrance gate which will have been raised. This can be done after parking there for a couple of days solidly, therefore avoiding a hefty fee.
Author Bio: Matthew is a lifelong keen traveller and has added some awesome locations to his portfolio this year, completing 3 Flights to Australia . Next year, he has already started planning his travels and has been looking at villas in Majorca