Car or camper van? What you need to know before you get behind the wheel

A camper van holiday is a bucket-list dream for many people. But it's not always the cheapest option.

A camper van holiday is a bucket-list dream for many people. But it's not always the cheapest option. Photo: Getty

For some, camper-vanning is a bucket-list goal. Others are lured by the practical advantages – which range from saving money on accommodation and meals to the flexibility of being able to customise your own trip.

There’s plenty of quality time with your co-travellers, and the freedom to follow your whimsy.

But does it all sound a bit too rose-coloured?

The downsides of a camper van include the driving itself, living in a cramped space (which can lead to the occasional tiff) and the stress of finding somewhere to park and stay within the constraints of local laws.

Then, there are those unromantic visits to the dump station.

Fortunately, planning and preparation can avoid the negatives and help you craft your dream adventure. Just be aware, the camper van option might not be as cheap as you think.

Here are our top tips for making your road trip a smooth ride.

Get appy

Free apps geared to the camper are indispensable. Among other things, they provide handy info on campgrounds, holiday parks, petrol and dump stations, toilet stops, maps, attractions and more.

If you’re traveling in New Zealand, check out the free Campermate app. Within Australia, WikiCamps (available for IOS, Android and Windows at $7.99) is useful.

Those travelling without on-board bathroom facilities will find the Flush app (available for Android and IOS) valuable. It lists 190,000 public toilets globally.

Gee up the GPS

Given the amount of driving you’ll be doing, make sure your vehicle has a well-positioned, on-board GPS.

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Some destinations lend themselves to a camper-vanning holiday much more than others do. Photo: Getty

Choose your destination wisely

Some countries (such as New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the US and much of western Europe), seem to be made for camper-vanning.

Those lacking good roads, safe, inexpensive places to camp, or interesting roadside scenery, may not suit the drive-it-and-park-it-yourself holiday quite as well.

Get the right vehicle for your needs

Consider your driving abilities, comfort level, space requirements, bedding configurations, the season you’re travelling in, where you plan staying and going, and what fittings and extras you’ll need.

If the idea of exploring harder-to-access locations grabs you, opt for a 4WD van. If you’re planning to free-park, you’ll need a motorhome with kitchen and bathroom facilities, and if travelling in winter, diesel or gas heating.

Those staying at powered camp sites or holiday parks can get away with less complex set-ups.

Know the law

Each country has different road rules and regulations about where you can and can’t camp.

Making yourself aware of these can spare you a fine, or the stress of trying to work out the rules while away. To make matters more complicated, such laws often vary between districts or states.

In New Zealand for instance, so-called “freedom campers” – travellers who park on the side of roads or near beaches with no proper camping facilities – have become quite a contentious issue.

Plan your campsites

Have some idea in advance of where you plan to stay. Driving late at night in unknown territory while looking for a suitable stop with a hungry belly and whiny kids in the back isn’t fun.

If you want to keep it flexible, at least chart out possible stops.

Have a meal plan

Websites and books on camper-friendly cookery abound.

Healthy snack foods that don’t require cooking, such as nuts and fruit, are a godsend. For more substantial meals, wraps, sandwiches, granola, omelettes and tinned soups are tasty and nutritious and can be put together with minimal prep and washing up.

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The key is all in the planning – from journey to meals to where you will stop.

Dump stations

Toilet waste and grey water need to be emptied at least every two days – easily the most unpleasant task of motor-homing.

Devise some democratic process for sharing the load. Know where the dump stations are and factor them into your schedule.

Also, do your dumping in daylight to avoid splashing yourself, or something worse, in the dark.

Get the blue stuff

Unless you have anosmia (the inability to smell), use the blue, odour-defusing toilet sanitiser recommended by the hire company.

Use space wisely

Give time to planning and setting up your space. It can be time-consuming rearranging belongings, if you decide, for example, to swap beds.

Designate specific areas for categories: foods, fragile items, valuables, clothes, charging stations and so on, to avoid wasting precious time trying to find things.

Having somewhere to dry wet clothing and towels, and to put shoes, is particularly valuable.

Get out of the van

Regular hiking or cycling trips can enhance your experience. Bathing, snorkelling, horse-riding and sports are other ways to get active outdoors.

Bring a torch

A torch is essential for night-time visits to campsite facilities or the loo.

Water and waste hose connections, power socket and gas mains are located on the exterior of motor homes – another reason you might be tramping about in the dark.

Travel with the right people

Living with others for extended periods within a space smaller than many kitchens can bring out the worst in everyone. Now is not the time to trial a travel buddy. The wrong combo can ruin your trip.

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Ultimately, the choice between car or camper van comes down to much more than just cost. Photo: Getty

Do your sums

A common conception is that camper-vanning is less expensive than hiring a car and staying in hotels. But, how true is this?

Recently, campervan, motorhome and RV Site, Hit The Road studied its bookings data to try to answer this question.

It compared the cost of a two-week, 2730-kilometre coastal road trip from Sydney to Cairns by two people in either a van or car.

Using middle of the range options, and based on 2018 prices, it found hiring a two-person camper van for the trip would cost $835 less than doing the same journey in a small car and staying in hotels.

The campevan trip included $1642 in total hire costs, $535 in fuel and $315 to stay in powered sites every second night. The car hire/hotel option was based on 14 nights of accommodation at $120. Fuel costs were calculated at $252, car hire $1367, and accommodation $1680.

Food needs to be factored in, too. If you lack kitchen facilities, eating out will bump up the cost.

Key points to note here: it’s generally more expensive to hire a motorhome than a sedan, and petrol will also cost you more. Where you save is accommodation and, potentially, food costs.

However, as everyone’s comfort levels differ, you need to research what is going to be cheaper for you.

For example, when driving by car, choosing cheap accommodation such as hostels and cooking your own food can reduce your costs to camper van levels.

Another big factor is the type of vehicle you choose. A luxury, new motorhome such as the Maui 2 berth Freedom might cost $150 a day while a basic van without kitchen or bathroom facilities might only be $40 a day. Remember, you get what you pay for.

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