Things You Need to Know Before Hiring a Campervan in Australia
Road tripping is without a doubt some of the most fun you will ever have but there are a few things you need to know before hiring a campervan in Australia. Getting to grips with van life is a bit of a learning curve but once you do, you’ll want to spend all your travels on four wheels. I’ve put together this Aussie edition camper van survival guide featuring everything I learnt, and wish I knew, as I embarked on the adventure of a life time.
1. Pay more for a van you can stand up in
Having driven four different models, I’d never rent anything but a high-top again. The converted people carrier style vehicles are all well and good but eventually your neck will ache and you’ll get tired of having to move all your stuff onto the front seats (then back again in the morning) before you can go to bed. A van that you can stand up in, ideally with a kitchen in the main cab rather than the boot too, is well worth the extra dollars.
2. Save money by freedom camping
Make up those dollars you spent on the snazzier van by freedom camping. It is legal across Australia as long as you are not trespassing or just trying to sleep on suburban streets in normal parking spaces. Use WikiCamps to search by ‘free’; no you won’t have showers or wifi but it’s so much more fun than being packed like sardines in to an overpriced campsite, most of which are around $25-45 a night for an unpowered pitch. You also won’t be subject to campsite opening hours; trying to rock up at 7pm and finding them all closed for the night was how my love affair with freedom camping began.
3. WikiCamps is your new best friend
Lots of people will vouch for the free ‘Camper Mate’ app but, having used both across Australia and New Zealand, I’m firmly team WikiCamps. It’s worth the fiver. The app will show you campsites – paid and free – all across the country, you can see what facilities are available, read reviews, see photographs and filter by amenities.
4. Shower for free at the beaches
Of all the wonderful things about van life, it’s notoriety for glamour is not one of them. Just because you’re not paying for a campsite doesn’t mean you have to smell like a goat! Australia is covered in beaches and a lot of them have showers. Often they’re cold but it really doesn’t matter when you’re baking under the Aussie sunshine. Using shampoo and shower gel etc is a little frowned upon but in reality, sometimes needs must and I never had anyone say anything. Do a bit of research and you can even find ocean-safe products!
5. Book your van via RatPack Travel
This one is filed in ‘things I wish I’d known from day one’. I spent a lot of time trawling the internet and comparison sites to try and find decent vans. A couple of times I even booked, only to be contacted a few days later to say it wasn’t actually available. It’s a lot of hassle, especially when you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for or what you should be paying.
RatPack Travel are essentially camper van brokers; they’ve got shit-hot relationships with all the major rental companies as well as some cool, family-run versions. You let them know what you’re after, they’ll help to advise you on what would be best suited, compare rates and forward you suitable options. Then they do all the leg work involved in booking to ensure you get the best deal and service possible.
On the road you’ll have friendly WhatsApp support (rather than having to ring an often-unavailable premium number if you have any issues or questions) from Sammy and his team. He’s a Brit turned Byron Bay dweller and he’s well and truly been there, done that and bought the van life t-shirt. There’s little he doesn’t know about road tripping across Australia (25,000 km covered in total!) and New Zealand.
The best bit? They guarantee to beat any direct rental quote so it will always be cheapest to book with RatPack. Use ‘BETH10’ to let Sammy know I sent you! You can even WhatsApp him on +61450381801 to get the conversation started.
6. Take out your own vehicle insurance
Rental companies charge you a fortune for insurance. It’s astronomical but your only alternative is to put down a fat deposit and pray you don’t cause any image. That’s exactly what I did on my first two trips down the Great Ocean Road and across Western Australia.
Then, as I was about to head from Cairns down to Sydney, I came across separate, significantly cheaper, rental insurance. I took it out with Car Hire Excess and paid around $150 for just over 2 weeks, compared to the $50 ish a day that the rental company wanted! Yes, you still need to be able to pay a bond of a few thousand dollars when you pick up the vehicle but you’re safe in the knowledge you’re covered.
7. Rent a van with a proper fridge rather than an esky
That’s a cool box, for those of you not down with Aussie slang. If you follow my advice in tip number one then you’re almost guaranteed to have a proper fridge anyway. It’s an absolute non-negotiable on my list of requirements. Having used an esky for the first Great Ocean Road trip I can report that they’re just a bit of a pain in the bum. They lack space, they’re hard to grab something out of without unloading everything and you’ll spend $5 a day on ice. Which will then slosh and rattle around as it melts. The fridges charge themselves as you drive off of the house battery, just remember to turn it down at night and up again in the morning.
8. Fuel is really cheap in Australia compared to the UK
Which is just as well because you are going to cover some miles!
9. Make sure you’ve always got a full tank when you’re driving cross-country
In the outback you will drive for hours without seeing another soul, let alone a gas station. It’s a good idea to fill up whenever you get the opportunity and perhaps even carry a spare canister if you know you’re going to be rural.
10. Download the LinktGO toll app
There are toll roads around some of the cities. If you forget to pay the charge, your rental company is going to hit you with a huge bill. Instead, download the LinktGO app as soon as you pick up your van, register the license plate (the ‘reg-o’ if you’re truly embracing the Aussie life) and attach a bank card. Using GPS, the app will automatically track and pay any tolls you pass for you. Just don’t forget to disconnect it when you return the van!
11. Get a local SIM card
You can pick up a pre-paid SIM from the supermarket for less than $20 including a load of data. It makes life really easy because you’ll have constant access to Google Maps, to your web browser and you’ll be able to make local phone calls without racking up a crazy bill.
12. McDonald’s $1 Frozen Coke is life
It’s basically how I measured the fluctuating exchange rate; did it cost me 52p or 56p for a large FroCo? Maybe the most important of the things you need to know before hiring a camper van in Australia! Kidding. Kind of…
13. Pack or buy a USB charger and an AUX cable
Take one with you or look in the supermarket as opposed to at gas stations where they’ll be four times the price.
14. Buy some seasoning and spice
Chances are you’ll eat a lot of pasta. Having salt and pepper, chilli flakes and pre-chopped garlic helped to liven things up!
15. So, about spiders…
I’d like to say you’re well and truly hidden from them in your home on wheels but that would be a bit of a lie. The Huntsman – harmless but a big, hairy fucker nonetheless – notoriously likes to hang out in vehicles. They’ve been known to freak out drivers or alternatively, unsuspecting campers as they bunker down for the night only for something the size of a fist to scuttle across the bedding. True story. However, what I will say is that in two months in Australia, it was the one single one we encountered. Sods law it was in the bed in a confined space!
16. Prepare for changes in the weather
I spent a night Googling nearby motel rooms whilst parked in forty degrees in the South Australian outback and another shivering up in the Blue Mountains, all in the same month.
17. Major cities do not have camp grounds or places to legally park
I learnt this the hard way when assuming there would be somewhere to camp – even a paid site – near Sydney. It turned out the closest site was out at Parramatta. Cue dropping the van off early and forking out for an Airbnb!
18. Watch out for kangaroos and koalas after dusk
There really is wildlife everywhere in Australia, it’s one of the major joys. Watch out for kangaroos and koalas, especially around dawn and dusk. They don’t look before they cross the road and not only will you injure or kill the animal, a roo can write off your vehicle or cause a serious accident.
19. Check to see if there are any relocations available
You can move a camper van from A to B for as little as a token $1 a day. Rental companies need them shifting to other depots, so all you’ll pay is your fuel cost! The downside is you often have a limited time frame in which to reach the destination. Search for camp van relocations in Australia and see if one fits your route!
20. There isn’t a sense of freedom quite like it
There’s something so liberating about living minimally, surrounded by nature, with the ability to pick up your home and move it wherever you like. Prepare to want to buy and renovate your own van before living on four wheels for eternity!