If you’re planning an awesome Aussie road trip, you’re probably dreaming of wide open roads, blue skies, red earth and turquoise seas. You can see yourself driving a classic VW Camper from beach to beach along the east coast. Or cruising past kangaroos in a top of the range Winnebago through the Australian outback. Planning a road trip can be amazing fun but at some point you will probably either have to lower your expectations, win the lottery or rob a bank. Once you’ve aligned your road trip dreams with your even decreasing budget, it’s time to decide if you are going to hire a camper van or buy one. We did both during our time in Australia and wanted to share our experience with other travellers..
Buying a Camper Van
If you are going to be in Australia for longer than three months it will work out cheaper to buy your van rather than hire it. A quick search on Gumtree reveals camper vans starting at around $1000. However, these cheap vehicles will be in need of serious attention and may not be roadworthy. Around $5000 should get you a van that is in much better shape. The problem with buying privately is that most people buying a camper van have no idea what to look for. Many people end up paying over the odds for their vehicle and find all kinds of problems that were not apparent in the beginning. Unless you are a mechanic, it is important to get a second opinion before agreeing the sale.
We bought our camper van from Wicked Campers as an ex-rental. We knew any vehicle within our budget was going to have some issues. We also knew we had no idea what to look for when checking out a van. We were worried about being sold a turkey and being stuck with it. We were searching on line before we arrived in Australia and noticed Wicked were advertising their old vans for sale. They were $4000 and came with a roadworthy certificate and a 3000 km/three month warranty. Wicked allowed us to place a $1000 deposit on the van with the condition we could have a refund if we weren’t happy when we picked it up. It was actually a really good way of buying a camper van. The warranty gave us the extra piece of mind we wouldn’t have got with a private sale. Like the other vans we had seen on line, the van had done over 400,000 km. Most private sale vans in our budget were Toyota hi-aces from the 1980’s, our van was from 2003 meaning it was much more economical and up to date.
The staff at the company also helped us to organise vehicle registration, and gave us a few tips on driving in Australia. Our buying experience was good and we felt happy with the van. We got to know the vehicle during our travels and learnt the best ways to look after it.
Just as we were coming to the end of the warranty period we broke down. We had travelled from the Gold Coast up to northern Queensland and were on our way to Undara when we began to have some engine problems. We ended up having to get towed two hours to the nearest town and wait all weekend for the garage to open. Luckily we had taken out comprehensive roadside assistance so our tow fee and accommodation were covered. We realised then that our trusty van might not get us all the way around Australia. We decided that travelling the east coast in our van would be fine as there are more towns and people around. When we got to Adelaide in South Australia, we sold the van and used the cash for an organised tour of Uluru and to hire a more reliable van for the west coast. The moral of the story when buying a camper van is to purchase roadside assistance, without it a breakdown could cost more than you paid for your vehicle.
Hiring a Camper Van
There are plenty of companies out there offering camper van hire. They all have good and bad points and their prices vary hugely depending on a variety of ever changing criteria. The only way to ensure the best deal is to frequently check all of the companies, changing your search parameters until you find the best deal. Our van rental was from Darwin to Perth over three weeks and cost around $1000 with Cheapa Campa from Apollo. Some companies were charging $4000 for the same trip and strangely if we began in Broome, almost half way into our trip it would have cost us twice the price with the same company.
There are some hidden charges when hiring a camper van. Bedding, towels, outdoor chairs and gas are all extra and added on when you pick up the van. We paid for the gas canister as we needed it but decided to buy some cheap bedding from the supermarket which worked out to be more cost effective. Apollo also tried to charge us over market value for a full tank of petrol, which we politely declined. One add-on which you may consider is the additional insurance, which amongst other things covers stone chips. We had driven our own van for almost a year and never got one stone chip, during three weeks in our hire van we managed to get three and ended up having to replace the whole windscreen. In hindsight the extra insurance would have worked out cheaper, but it is hard to speculate if you will need it before the journey begins. As budget travellers, even after forking out for a new windscreen, we would still decline the extra insurance if we were to hire another vehicle.
Most travellers have heard about camper van relocations, where a company charges $1 a day for you to drive a vehicle from A to B in a short space of time. A relocation is a great way to get from one place to the next, but if you want to see anything on the way, it might not be for you. Time frames for journeys can be tight and the cost of extra days can really add up. We did a relocation from Darwin to Alice Springs, it cost $16 for three days and we even got $100 fuel allowance. It was ideal for that stretch of our journey as there wasn’t much we wanted to see and we needed to get to our destination quickly. Doing the relocation also helped us with our decision to rent a van for our west coast trip.
One huge consideration when renting or relocating a camper van is the security bond. Each company is different, charging different amounts and returning it at different times. Our experience with Apollo was pretty bad. We had to pay a security deposit of $1000 for our relocation, we were told this would be returned to us after three weeks. Every person we spoke to at Apollo told us a different version of this, some said three weeks, some 20 days, some had no idea at all. The reality is it the deposit is returned on the 21st working day after you return the vehicle. This means if you return your camper van on Friday 1st you won’t get your cash back until Monday 1st the following month. A whole month is a long time to wait for such a large amount of money to be returned. Despite complaining about the misinformed staff, we had the same issue with our west coast trip, we ended up explaining to Apollo staff that they were giving out incorrect information. The deposit was around $3000 for that trip, we had no choice but to put it on a credit card and accrue the charges whilst we waited for it to be returned.
The real benefit of hiring a camper van is the reliability. Both of our rental vehicles well in good condition and well looked after. We also had piece of mind that if there was a problem it would be down to the hire company to fix it, not us.
There are positives and negatives involved in buying or hiring a camper van in Australia. Every situation is different and travellers require different things from their road trip. When talking to other travellers, our experiences are pretty typical, we met a few people with horror stories of unreliable vehicles and some people stuck in places waiting for their security bond to be returned. Hopefully our story has given you an insight into buying or renting a camper van and you can decide the best option for your trip.