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By The Way
Detours with locals. Travel tips you can trust.
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The Instagram vs. reality of #vanlife: My two-day journey in a camper van

Hawaii has a rental car shortage, so I rented a van on Airbnb. There were highs and lows.

Reporter Natalie Compton tests out the van life in Maui. (Ryan Siphers for The Washington Post)

You may have heard that the country is facing a rental car shortage. It’s driving travelers into desperation, with some people paying exorbitant rates for standard reservations or booking U-Hauls as a last resort.

It drove me to sleep in a van.

I’ll back up. A month out from a trip to Maui, I was combing through the dregs of Airbnb trying to find locally owned accommodations in my budget. My options weren’t great. With tourism surging in Hawaii, rental car prices and hotels rates were exorbitant. In between listings for camping equipment and dark studios near the airport, I spotted a big, white Chevrolet Astro from the 1990s, outfitted with a bed and some drawers.

For $149 a night, plus an insurance day rate of $16, I could have a bed to sleep in and a car to drive all in one. Convinced this was a great way to explore #vanlife with no real research, I booked the Astro for the last two nights of my trip.

The expectation was to have an Instagram-worthy, remote-work experience meandering around Maui in my van — parking by the ocean for a swim, exploring off-the-beaten-path parts of the island. My reality was not that.

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Expectation: #VanLife will be rejuvenating.

Reality: #VanLife is only good with air conditioning.

After nearly a week of staying in a brick-and-mortar accommodation, I was full of excitement and hope on my way to pick up my van. I pictured myself driving around Maui, all of my belongings in tow, working efficiently from my home/ride with the wind in my hair.

I would have wind in my hair, all right. In the first moments in the van, I discovered it did not have air conditioning. (Not to mention the van died right away, but we will get to this later). The van was obviously built to have such a feature; I could see the knobs and vents in place, but they didn’t work.

“Imagine watching the sunrise from the comfort of a queen-size memory foam bed, enveloped by sounds of the ocean and cooled by a warm Maui breeze," I remember the Airbnb listing had described, not realizing that meant no air conditioning.

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A surprise to no one who has ever been in a hot car during the summer — let alone a summer in a tropical climate — the breeze was not enough to cool me down.

By day, I felt like a wet dog sweating through my clothes. I would show up to places drenched, having just baked in the scorching sun on my drive over. I used whatever I had on hand to wipe the torrential downpour from my face, i.e. one of my (clean) socks from my luggage.

By night, with the windows and doors sealed for protection from people and bugs, the wet-dog feeling continued. The van came with a few small fans that I held centimeters from my head until I remembered that I was a woman sleeping alone in a van. I worried the hum of the fans would drown out the footsteps of the people who would inevitably come to murder me, so the fans were out. I poured water on one of my shirts and put the wet cloth over my head, which provided enough relief to fall asleep.

Lesson learned: Know exactly what amenities you will have in your van. Does it have air conditioning? Flashlights? Automatic transmission? Find out crucial essentials beforehand.

Expectation: I can improvise a van trip

Reality: You need to plan van camping in advance

Before my trip, my Airbnb host told me that it was fine to park along the ocean where I had seen plenty of other campers and van dwellers post up. But the more people I talked to on the island, the more I learned that such camping is not legal — it’s just something people get away with regularly.

I had to figure out where to park the van to sleep on the fly.

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The first night, I parked on a friend’s jungle property, an incredibly lucky last-minute option. As previously mentioned, it turned out to be scarier than expected (and I slept at a haunted house alone last year). I kept peering out the window to see if anyone was coming. There wasn’t.

The van was facing tall grass at the edge of the property, and I wondered if I needed to turn it around and face the exit in case I had to spring into action to drive away. My fear was not enough to overcome my exhaustion, and I fell asleep in all of my clothes before I could muster up the energy to get back in the driver’s seat.

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By the second day, I had done more homework on where I could park to sleep and found a campsite for the night. Camp Olowalu was near, but not on, the ocean, and it had showers, bathrooms, a coffee shop and a gated perimeter, which felt safer than just being out in the woods. I was just happy it was legal.

I parked my Astro and admired all of the surrounding van campers and felt safer having them around. They looked like they were doing it right, with tents on top of their vans and camping chairs and friends to share the experience. They had planned for this and appeared to be having a better time accordingly. Like the night before, I was too tired to reflect much on my day, my shortcomings as a van camper or how hot I would be with just a few windows cracked. I fell into a hard sleep, once again fully clothed.

Lesson learned: Before your trip, make sure you have a legal, safe place to park your van, or at least a game plan in mind.

Expectation: Camping in a van will make life easier.

Reality: Camping in a van will not make life easier.

An hour into my van adventure, I went to start the car — it would not. The battery was dead, and I felt like a failure. I texted the Airbnb owner who happened to be nearby, and he quickly came to rescue me give the van a jump. He didn’t know if he left a light on when he dropped the van off or if I didn’t shut a door hard enough or what. Either way, the mechanical hiccup took time out of both of our days.

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The van was functional the rest of the trip, thankfully. But my time in it was not smooth sailing. While the van drove easy and had plenty of space for all of your travel gear, trying to sleep and work in it came with many tiny hassles that added up.

For example, I had to crouch and creep around while inside to get dressed, find my things and get ready for bed. To get my pants on, I had to lay flat on the bed or stand outside (pending no one was around to watch). The van was a cavernous space without a ton of light, so even during the day I struggled to locate my belongings.

Lesson learned: Be prepared to improvise. Traveling in a van — like any kind of travel — is unpredictable. Find out if you have help like roadside assistance to save the day in times of need.

Throughout my days in the van, I tried to appreciate the palm trees, the sound of the ocean waves crashing in the distance and the wild chickens roaming the campground. I did, sometimes, but I mostly focused on trying not to waste more time and energy.

By the time I rolled into the parking lot to drop off the van, I was in worse shape than when I had picked it up in the first place. I had slept poorly, and my body was heavy with stress. I didn’t feel like I’d gotten a taste of van camping; I felt like I had road-tested a reality where I was locked out of my house for a few days but still needed to work.

The van trip wasn’t exactly a success, but it did remind me of an important lesson in travel and in life: Don’t believe everything you see on social media. Not all #vanlife posts tell the whole story.