Holy cow. Car rental prices have skyrocketed in the United States. One of my favorite parts of traveling in Europe is how easy it is to get just about anywhere using public transportation. In the US, its much easier to have a car to get yourself around.
While deciding where to continue my US National Park trek, I felt defeated and almost cancelled my plans while trying to secure a car rental. Prices in the the thousands of dollars IF they were available at all. Then, I discovered a company called Campervan North America.
The kind people at Campervan North America responded so quickly and even amended my quote multiple times the same day for my indecisive ass. As luck would have it, the van I wanted was available for my travel dates starting and ending in Denver.
KNOW WHAT’S INCLUDED AND NOT INCUDED IN YOUR RENTAL:
This was a piece of cake thanks to the detailed quote I received. Things like bedding, towels, kitchen supplies, bathroom, mileage, insurance, fuel are typically not things you need to be prepared with when staying at a hotel and renting a traditional rental car.
With this rental, for $60, I was able to add on the “All the Basics” kit which was perfect. It included a kitchen kit, bedding, towels, a cooler and cookstove. In hindsight, I only really needed the bedding towels and cooler, but with better planning I would have used every piece of that kit.
I also learned that supplemental insurance for “RV’s” is different than car rental insurance. Typically, I would just decline added coverage and use benefits from my credit card, or in a pinch my personal vehicle insurance. The folks at Campervan North America gave me additional information on purchasing some affordable coverage for my trip. This cost about $100 for the week.
A lot of camper van rentals will charge for mileage over 300-ish. Lucky for me, there was a promotion for the vehicle I rented (Edelweiss) which was $30/night for unlimited miles. I knew this was going to be a huge driving trip, so I added that on.
My vehicle did not include a bathroom. For the most part, this was never an issue. Except in the middle of Wyoming with no gas stations, restaurants, stores for MILES. Spoiler alert: I had no accidents (of any type)
For this trip, my total cost for the rental and add ons was around $630 for 7 nights. I have no idea how much I spent on gas, but this little beast could go 500 miles per tank.
FIRST STOP: GROCERY STORE:
I do this on most road trips I take. Before hitting the road, go to a grocery store and stock up on the essentials. I always pick up a case of water, ice, snacks, and some quick easy meals. This is a fabulous budget trick so you don’t spend your well earned money on overpriced park café meals, and fast food.
DO YOUR RESEARCH ON WHERE YOU CAN PARK OVERNIGHT:
When I booked my van, I had the best of intentions to research and plan where I would stay and how many miles I would drive each day. Totally out of character for me, but I said %&@* it, and went with the I’ll just wing it approach.
There are so many benefits to this approach. You can leave your itinerary totally open and drive more or less depending on how your days play out.
Of course this approach goes out the window when you travel during the busiest season for National Parks (perhaps EVER, thanks COVID). On this trip, I visited 5 National Parks (Badlands, Wind Cave, Mesa Verde, Black Canyon of the Gunnison and Great Sand Dunes) The only park that had camping availability in the park was Mesa Verde! Also, this was my favorite campsite and favorite park of the trip.
With the boom of van-lifers in the past year and a half, a lot of places are cracking down on where you can and cannot park overnight. In a bind, most Walmart’s are open to overnight parkers, National Forest land and BLM land is also another good go to. Plenty of influencers are also open to sharing their top free spots. Being a solo traveler, I felt more comfortable this trip staying in actual campgrounds.
There are tons of apps and websites that can help with finding camp spots. I really like the Roadtrippers App. I use this when planning just about all my road trips. This helped me find all my stays during my trip. Full disclosure: when I wanted a really good shower, I stayed at a Hilton one night, and I did use the ole faithful Walmart parking lot one night also. The award for super clean and safe feeling stay went to Cool Sunshine RV Park in Alamosa, CO. I believe this is a fairly new facility. There were gate codes for the entrance, the common area building, the bathrooms and the walking path to town.
Next time, (there WILL be a next time) I think I will plan my stays better. I think I relax better under a little more structure.
AVOID DENVER INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT:
Ok, so I know that this is not necessarily van related but this was my third time to DEN and I have never had a great experience there. My flight arrived (delayed) at 1:30AM. No hotel shuttles running. My only two options were Taxi and Uber. I did research this during my delay, so I know it wasn’t a random demand price increase, but either option you chose to get pretty much anywhere outside of the airport grounds will cost you $60. My ride was 15 minutes, it hurt a little. TSA is VERY busy so arrive early! (thank god for TSA Pre ✔) Also, DEN has tons of weather related delays year round.
BRING A PAPER MAP:
I know, this is so 15 years ago. Very often I found myself with no cell service. This never ended up being a problem for me thanks to my OCD about filling the gas tank when it hits 1/2 tank (Thanks, Dad). Along my route I would drive for hundreds of miles, with no idea where or when the next town would pop up. A paper map would’ve been helpful. (insert “I told you so” from Miller here)
I generally choose not to drive at night when I am by myself and not familiar with the area, but one night after an early evening visit to Carhenge in Nebraska, I had 150 miles to my evening accommodations and my tank got to 1/4 before I found an open gas station. I could have driven another 150 miles on that tank, but I don’t like playing gas light chicken.
EMBRACE THE GREAT OUTDOORS:
My favorite thing to do when I parked the van was to open as many doors as I could to let the fresh air roll through. In this van, the back doors opened and locked open, and you could open the two sliding doors on the sides for optimal breezes.
In the Wall Drug parking lot, I opted to use the installed fan instead of the open door technique as I took a quick nap before heading to Mount Rushmore. In one RV park, I opted for one slide door and the back two doors open to keep the creepy neighbors to the left blocked off while the friendly dog people to the right made me feel like I was camping with their group. You can almost always trust dog people.
Van life allows you to access and snooze in some of the most beautiful places in all the lands. Take the roads less traveled, just make sure you never miss an opportunity to fill your gas tank!
I hope this post will inspire you to give van life a try. I loved the flexibility this smaller van rental gave me. I didn’t need to worry about not being able to fit into certain areas, parking was never an issue, and I felt completely in control driving this vehicle the 2300 miles I drove on this trip!