I rented a camper van in Hawaii for $119 a night. It wasn't worth it, and it didn't save me money.
I had issues driving and staying in the van and finding legal spots to park it overnight.
I wouldn't stay in a camper van on a Hawaiian island or in an overcrowded community again.
Renting a van includes the risk of last-minute changes.
Stays in mobile dwellings may be subject to changes that you wouldn't face when staying in permanent structures like hotels.
The van I rented needed last-minute repairs, and I was informed the night before my reservation that I'd need to collect it an hour away from the original check-in location.
Fortunately, the new pickup spot was close to where I was camping, but this could have majorly inconvenienced me.
Finding legal places to park overnight was a challenge.
After booking the camper van, I started searching for places to park overnight. This was more challenging than I'd expected.
First, I looked into RV parks and campgrounds on the North Shore and the southeast side of Oahu.
An RV park would have been an ideal space for the van, but they all required a three-day camping permit. Since I planned to stay for only two nights, each in a different part of the island, this didn't seem like the best option for me.
Related video: How one couple turned their pickup truck into a DIY camper
Most of the campgrounds were fully booked, but they didn't offer vehicle camping anyway.
The only place I found that allowed vehicle camping and had a campsite available was Malaekahana Beach Campground, so I booked one night there for $8.37 with my kamaʻāina (Hawaii resident) discount.
There was no user manual with the van, so I had to inquire about a lot of things.
After I picked up the van, I realized there was no user manual anywhere in the vehicle or on its Airbnb profile.
I had to keep messaging my hosts to ask about countless things, including potential maintenance issues and how to work certain aspects of the rig.
With a rental, you're on your own for any cleanliness issues.
Unfortunately, with rentals, you don't always know what you're going to get.
In my opinion, the van I rented could've used a proper cleaning before the keys were given to me.
I certainly was not anticipating a five-star-resort experience, but I was disappointed that basic cleaning protocols didn't seem to have been followed. The pillows and towels looked dirty, trash was in the van's nooks and crannies, and the cooler reeked of fish.
Unlike at a hotel, I couldn't request a new room or fresh towels. I was on my own.
Maintenance issues can be high stakes when your mode of transportation is also your temporary home.
There are various risks unique to renting a van, including the risk of maintenance issues. If something happened to the vehicle, my trip would be derailed because I'd be out of a place to sleep and a way to get around.
I'm grateful that nothing catastrophic happened, but even small things worried me throughout my trip. For example, dim headlights made it difficult to drive at night, and the brake lights were stuck on, so I didn't feel safe driving until my hosts confirmed it wasn't an issue.
Maneuvering the van was nerve-racking.
I've driven a van before; I'd traveled in a 2022 Mercedes-Benz Storyteller Overland Beast Mode 4x4 a few months before this trip.
But being behind the wheel of this van felt different because it was much older and lacked state-of-the-art technology.
Even just driving 10 minutes up the road after picking up the van felt uncomfortable. At some points I rerouted because I was nervous the camper van wouldn't fit on narrow roads or bridges.
Parking such a big rig was challenging, especially when technology failed me.
After the van's backup camera stopped working during my trip, I was extra nervous. Without it, it was virtually impossible to see out the back of the van, which made reversing hazardous.
Without the camera or parking sensors, I knew the likelihood of hitting one of the surrounding vehicles was high if another human wasn't guiding me.
At one point I had someone stand nearby and yell directions to help me pull out of a crowded parking lot. After that, I sought out lots with angled stalls, spots that I could pull straight into, or areas with plenty of open space.
In some cases I adjusted my travel plans to suit the camper van and my safety concerns.
Eventually I learned that safely parking and driving the van required a bit of strategy. I wanted to avoid narrow roads, for example.
I also didn't end up taking the van to Honolulu because it was too tall to fit in the city's parking structures and I was concerned about my safety.
For one, I was anxious about driving there, since it can get crowded. And though Honolulu is relatively safe, there were reports of more than 600 car break-ins from late July to late August. The large van would certainly have stood out on the city streets, making it a potential target.
On my first night, I arrived at the campground late and got locked out.
The day of my reservation at Malaekahana Beach Campground, I called in the afternoon to let the front desk know I would be arriving after hours. They said I would be fine and cut the conversation short.
Little did I know that I would end up being locked out of the campground.
I wondered if there had been some miscommunication over the phone. Perhaps they thought I'd be arriving after office hours, which ended at 4:30 p.m., not after the gates closed at 7 p.m.
When I arrived closer to 9 p.m., I found a phone number with instructions to call security and have the gate unlocked for $20 (more than double what I had paid for the campsite).
Another visitor advised me to stay in the parking lot overnight.
A visitor sitting outside the office advised me not to call the security guard, saying he'd be upset if I contacted him and likely wouldn't help me.
Since it was too late and dark for me to find a different place to park, the visitor suggested I leave the van under the parking-lot lights and lock the doors while I slept.
I decided this would be OK since I had a permit and management was expecting me to park and sleep on the property. Still, I woke up before the gates opened to avoid any trouble for my makeshift campsite.
The next morning I realized my van would have been too tall to access the campsite anyway.
In the morning I walked back to check out the campground and discovered I would have needed to pass through a tree tunnel with a 6-foot clearance. My rental van was closer to 8 feet tall.
Even if the gate had been open when I arrived, I wouldn't have been able to get to my campsite.
Fortunately, my second campsite was quite enjoyable and easy to find.
For my second night, I booked a parking space at Sun Farm Hawaii through Hipcamp. It was a pleasant experience.
Locating the farm was simple, and I was given clear directions to find my designated parking spot. The property had an outdoor shower, abundant fruit trees, and friendly occupants who were there on more of a monthly basis.
The property was gorgeous, and the owners and guests were welcoming.
I was greeted by a manager who gave me a tour of the space, which included an outdoor lounge, a communal kitchen, paid laundry facilities, toilets, and, my personal favorite, an outdoor shower.
The farm also had plenty of fresh produce for sale. Offerings change based on availability but may include coconuts, papaya, eggplant, zucchini squash, various herbs, and local flowers.
My van didn't have a shower or toilet, so I was excited to use those amenities in this campsite.
I have an affinity for accommodations with outdoor bathing, so naturally I indulged in an al fresco shower. The water was a bit chilly, but it was refreshing after a long day of being in the hot Hawaiian sun, and I truly felt like I was one with nature.
The communal areas also served as hubs where guests crossed paths. Everyone I met was kind and welcoming — I only wish I could have stayed longer to form deeper connections with them.
During my last morning with the van, I finally figured out how to operate various things that I'd thought were broken.
I went nearly the entire trip thinking the interior lights and sink didn't work, because I didn't see a faded note that labeled buttons to control the water tank, inverter, and refrigeration.
The checkout process was frustrating because I wasn't given sufficient instructions for where to leave the van. After bringing it to a storage unit, I had to ask the front-desk employees to show me where to park it.
In a hotel, the check-out process is simple and self-explanatory — you leave your key in a box or at the front desk.
Better communication from my hosts about the van or clearer instructions might have saved me a lot of stress.
Overall, renting the camper van cost way more than I'd thought it would.
A common reason people turn to van life is to save money on travel or living expenses. But it's a myth that van life is a cheaper alternative.
The hidden costs of my stay in the camper van included Ubers before and after the reservation, campsite booking fees, and gas.
The rental itself was $362.89. I also spent $149.18 on rides, including tips; $67.37 on overnight parking; and $75.34 on gas.
This made for a total of $654.78, before factoring in food and activities.
It would've been cheaper to book a more traditional stay and rent a small car.
Before my trip, I wanted to see how much it would have cost if I'd booked the cheapest accommodations and transportation I could find for the same weekend.
I found a room in a two-bedroom, one-bath apartment in Honolulu on Airbnb priced at $251 for two nights, and a two-day Porsche rental through Turo for $176.
Had I booked these instead of the camper van, I would have spent about $427. Assuming gas would have cost the same and I'd still have needed to order Ubers to and from the airport, it's likely the trip would have cost about $562.34.
If my calculations are correct, I could have saved almost $100 if I'd booked a more traditional stay.
I'll never stay in a camper van in Hawaii again, and I wouldn't recommend it either.
I do not recommend this method of travel in overcrowded communities.
I believe I'm relatively low-maintenance, and I don't mind leaning into budget travel when needed, but this experience dropped well beneath an already low bar.
Plus, there are a few legal issues with this form of travel in Hawaii. For example, Oahu is cracking down on short-term rentals outside "resort-zoned areas" like Waikiki. Maui County is also working on plans to heavily regulate or ban "mobile vacation dwellings" to mitigate overcrowding.
And people coming to the islands to live in a van for an extended period are (often unintentionally) exacerbating various environmental and socioeconomic issues. These include the destruction of land and vegetation, congestion due to overtourism and population increase, and price inflation and a subsequent housing crisis preventing native Hawaiians from being able to afford living on their ancestral land.
For the sake of Hawaii locals and your vacation, don't try this on your next visit to the islands. Stick to designated tourist areas like Waikiki and explore through guided local tours.
Read the original article on Insider