Your one-stop guide to finding the best road trip vans for your adventures around the USA. Includes what to look for in camper van rentals, as well as some useful suggestions.
I’m sure you’d agree with me when I say that the USA is the number one road trip destination on earth. From visiting amazing National Parks to witnessing natural wonders like the Grand Canyon first hand, it’s no wonder why!
After converting and living in my own van in Australia, I was itching for a short-stint van life opportunity in the USA.
So, I did some research. I compared all the best options and finally landed on the perfect van for my own epic road trip through Southwest USA.
To save you the same trouble, I’ve now compiled this resource to help other aspiring van lifers plan your own adventures. I’ve included a list of what to look for in road trip vans, outlined the best camper van rental companies, and included tips to make the most of your travels to see this amazing country.
- Hiring Road Trip Vans in the USA
- What to Look For in a Camper Van Rental
- Deciding on the Perfect Road Trip Camper For You
- Best USA Road Trip Van Rentals
- More Tips & Things to Know
- About the National Parks Pass
- Ready For Full Time Van Life? – Converting Your Own Van
- Road Trip Inspiration: Read More
Hiring Road Trip Vans in the USA
So, are you planning that Great American road trip of a lifetime? Is this your first time embarking on a road trip or renting a van?
You’re not alone. The van life movement is exploding globally, and hiring a camper van is one of the absolute best ways to hit the road and have the time of your life with family and friends.
Again, this resource is mostly dedicated to those who are van life curious, or simply want an amazing, one-off campervan road trip experience without buying or building their own rig.
Therefore, most of the tips in this article involve the in’s and out’s of camper van rentals. Here are some quick things you’ll want to know before we get any further.
- There are lots of travel van rentals to choose from in the USA
- You can drive anything that is Class B certified with a regular driver’s license.
- Most good camper van rentals are set up as road trip vans, with everything you need to cook, clean, live, and adventure out of!
- These vans are much easier to drive than huge RV rigs. This gives you more flexibility of where you can actually go.
- There are some limitations on where you can take the vehicle (dirt roads etc)
What to Look For in a Camper Van Rental
Depending on your budget and expected comfort level, there are lots of variations on what you might be looking for in a van for your road trip.
However, there are some things that most vans should all have as a basic requirement.
Must-Have Inclusions For Road Trips
When planning your trip and looking for the perfect van, make sure it includes the following. It’ll make your experience a much more enjoyable one!
1. Adequate Storage Space
Storage is by far one of the most important aspects of choosing a van. Trust me, you’re just not going to enjoy your road trip if you’re living, cooking, and sleeping in a pile of your own clothes and gear.
Every van should have storage compartments for the essentials including;
- All of your clothes (think bulky jackets)
- Food (pantry space)
- Dirty clothes items like hiking boots, sneakers, wet jackets
- Cooking items (pots, pans, cutlery, kitchen utensils, etc)
- Backpacks, day-trip bags, suitcases
2. A Fridge
If you’re going to be living out of a van, you’ll need a fridge.
Don’t worry, this is something that’s a standard inclusion in most vans for hire. A small, 20 gallon 12V fridge is more than adequate for life on the road.
3. A Comfortable Bed
Okay, you probably won’t find camper vans with orthopedic mattresses. But that doesn’t mean you want to be sleeping on cardboard either.
If you’re going to enjoy your adventures on the road, look for vans with good reviews on comfort.
There are several bed-layout designs that work well in a van. Depending on the size, you could find fixed beds with under-bed storage, or fold-down double beds (best for smaller vans), that convert into a table and living space during the day.
4. Adequate Electrical System
These days, a battery setup and van electrical system that’s capable of charing your devices is really not too much to ask for. If you’re considering renting a van without a separate house battery, forget it. You don’t want to have to pay for a campsite every night just to charge your phone.
These van electrical systems can vary greatly, from huge inverter setups that run induction cooktops, to basic, 100 amp hour batteries with 12V and USB connections.
As a basic starting point, you’ll want;
- USB outlets
- 12V lights inside. These should run off the battery and work off-grid
- Enough power to run the fridge
5. Two Water Tanks
What, why two tanks?
You’re going to want one water tank for fresh water and one for gray water. Let me explain the difference.
You’ll use a freshwater tank to store and access clean water for drinking, cooking and washing dishes. The size isn’t too important, as you’ll almost always find freshwater taps and clean drinking water in the United States.
A gray water, or sullage tank, is where the dirty water from your dishes runs into. Avoid choosing vans for a road trip without a gray water tank, as you might have issues in National Parks and State Parks if you simply dump your dirty water on the ground.
The gray water tank should have a dump valve underneath the van. It’s safe and environmentally friendly to dump this water down the drain or at dump sites once you’re back in a town (it’s just food with water and a bit of soap in it). Just don’t dump it in National Forests.
6. Cooking Appliances (ideally inside)
You don’t want to have to eat at Denny’s or McDonalds every day. Cooking your own food on a road trip should be easy and part of the experience.
All good camper vans should have cooking appliances to allow you to do this. If you’re on a budget, a small butane camping stove might be adequate.
However, for the best experience, try to pick a van with a built-in gas stove. Speaking from experience, being able to cook inside comfortably when it’s bucketing down rain is a lifesaver!
For safety’s sake, the gas cylinder should be located in its own compartment. Furthermore, you’ll want to make sure you can turn the valve to off when you’re driving.
A microwave is also very handy when on the road. However, keep in mind that most rental campers require you to hook up to the grid (at a campsite) to run the microwave.
Tip: Make sure your van comes with all the kitchen utensils, cutlery, and appliances you need.
7. A Reliable Engine
This goes without saying. While most good camper van rental companies will offer roadside assistance if you break down, the truth is that you’re just not going to get that time back.
If you choose the cheapest, oldest van, the chances of an issue occuring are much higher.
But, that doesn’t mean you can’t find a budget road trip van that is also reliable. Read reviews, check the mileage, and make sure the company doesn’t charge you for breakdowns that are their fault.
Tip: Diesel vans are the cheapest to run in the USA, get the best mileage per tank, and are the most reliable.
8. AC & Heating in the Driver’s Seat
Okay, every car should have heating and AC these days. However, you’d be surprised just how many rental vans have issues with this basic feature.
When you pick up your van, you’ll want to check that this is working. There’s nothing worse than driving 400 miles through Utah in summer without AC!
9. SPace For the Crew
From going on a solo road trip to packing in the whole family, this last essential is a no-brainer.
Make sure there is a bed and seat for everyone tagging along! That might mean picking larger RVs if you’re bringing more than three people.
10. Camp Chairs & Other Outdoor Basics
Camper van road trips are all about experiencing the outdoors! Most good rental companies will include camp chairs and a small portable camp table for your picnics and downtime in the outdoors.
11. Roof Hatch or Vent
If you’re traveling around the USA in a van, you’ll want a decent roof vent. Most good camper vans come with a vent that opens up and has a fan attached to it. This is excellent for ventilation while cooking and sleeping in hot weather.
The above eight features should be standard in any camper van rental, especially for a long road trip.
You might not think you’ll need some of them, but if you’re going to be spending more than a week living out of the van, my advice is to treat the above as a must-have checklist.
Now, what about things that aren’t really necessary, but can make the road trip experience more enjoyable?
1. A Toilet Or Port a potty
The truth is, having a toilet in a camper van is usually an unnecessary (not so luxurious) luxury.
While it is nice to be able to do your business without stepping out of the van, most people simply don’t want to squeeze out a number two in front of their sleeping wife or kids. But, if you’re planning to rent a larger van for the whole family, picking one with a separate bathroom, can be quite handy.
With that said, if you’re traveling in the USA, there’s no shortage of gas stations or public toilets where you can do your business. That’s why I’d say that a toilet is usually not a must-have.
2. A Hot Shower System
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a camper van rental in the USA that includes an inbuilt hot shower. Truthfully, this is something you probably don’t need if you’re going on a short road trip.
Many campsites and campgrounds in the USA have showers. If you’re hard-pressed for one, you can also shower at gas stations and truck stops like Flying J’s.
Alternatively, many great rental companies include a solar shower. Or, you could just buy one cheaply and bring it with you. These are great when camped up for the day and cost less than $20!
Some companies offer this for an additional charge, but it’s often cheaper just to buy your own.
3. Other Bells & Whistles
While van life looks glamorous on Instagram, morning espressos and central heating is not what road trips are about.
Okay, a few creature comforts go a long way if you’re living in a van. But, if you’re driving around the country on a road trip with family or friends, there’s really no need to go overboard.
Some of the bells and whistles, that you might see, but probably don’t need include;
- Oven – a nice touch but hard to find in a rental van
- In-van AC – you won’t be able to run this unless you’re hooked up to the grid anyway
- TV & antenna – if you really need your fix, just download Netflix movies on your phone or iPad
- Internet boosters – this is a bit over the top and a bit of a gimmick in my experience
Ask yourself. Do you want to do this trip to get out of your comfort zone and experience the simplicity of life in the outdoors? If it’s a yes, you don’t need the fifth-wheeler with an attached ensuite and king bed.
What About Solar Panels on a Road Trip Van?
Solar panels aren’t usually going to make or break the deal when looking for a van to rent. Of course, they’re going to be a nice bonus as you’ll be able to stay out of paid campgrounds and be more self-sufficient.
Solar power gives you the flexibility of being able to keep your fridge running, even if you’re out in the middle of nowhere! This can also save you money as you don’t need to pay to hook up to the grid.
But, in saying that, many vans are set up so that the electrical system inside the van charges while you drive. If your van doesn’t include solar panels or a solar power setup, it’s best to ask if the house battery charges while you drive.
Deciding on the Perfect Road Trip Camper For You
So you know what to look for, and what you might not really need.
Now’s the time to decide, what kind of camper van do I need for my road trip?
A common mistake is to simply base your rental decision simply on budget. What I mean is that even if you have an unlimited budget, do you really want a massive van with all the features? This will be hard to maneouver (especially for first timers), and you won’t be able to get down some unsealed roads in the National Parks.
Instead, ask yourself these questions when wondering what type of van is right for you;
- How long is the road trip?
- Where do I actually want to go?
- Which season & time of year will I be going?
- How many people are coming?
- What kind of road trip am I doing? Am I going from city to city, or spending a bunch of time in the outdoors & small towns?
- What kind of extra gear am I bringing? Do I need bike racks or rooftop storage?
The above questions, combined with your budget, should help you out on your mission to narrow down the perfect road trip vans for your trip.
Best USA Road Trip Van Rentals
To make the decisions even easier for you, I’ve narrowed down the top three road trip camper van rentals below.
My Favorite: Travellers Autobarn
Their designs and layouts have proven to be very successful in these harsh environments and have now made a move to the USA (currently West Coast). This is great news for people searching for the perfect camper, because (spoiler alert), Travellers Autobarn offers the most bang for buck on this list.
This hightop Chevrolet Express accommodates 2-3 people and features;
I’ve lived in budget camper vans in New Zealand, as well as my own fully-kitted out Ford Transit van home in Australia.
Verdict: After driving around the Western United States in a Travellers Autobarn van, I was pleasantly surprised at just how comfortable and practical they are for the size. They fit in all spaces in all the parking lots I’ve visited, which is a huge thing for campers! In my opinion, Travellers Autobarn offer the best vans for road tripping in the USA.
Currently Travellers Autobarn have pickup and drop-off locations in Las Angeles, San Francisco, and Las Vegas, with additional locations like Denver and Seattle coming soon.
Outdoorsy (Rental Platform)
Outdoorsy is an alternative option for renting camper vans in the USA. Instead of a traditional rental model, think of Outdoorsy as the van life AirBnB.
The perks of renting on Outdoorsy is that you can sometimes find great deals on awesome, luxury road trip vans, larger RVs, and niche van life setups. Also, since you’re hiring from van owners, not a company, there is more flexibility in terms of pickup locations. You can even have the van delivered to you (for an additional cost)!
If you like the sound of Outdoorsy, some of the best vans to look for are:
- Mercedes-benz Sprinter Van (Sprinter Cargo Van)
- Ford Transits (or the smaller, Ford Transit Connect)
- Dodge Ram Promaster
However, keen in mind that you most likely will often need to drop the van off at the same location you picked it up in. This makes longer road trips a bit more tricky.
Also, there are additional charges, fees, and insurances that are required when renting from private parties.
Verdict: Outdoorsy is a great platform, especially if you’re looking for a niche van. However, there are some pitfalls, like availability, pricing, and insurances.
Escape Campervan Rentals
The third and final road trip rental van company is Escape Campervans. You most likely would have seen these vans around, since they’re notoriously hard to miss!
Escape camper van rentals offer four vehicle options, and are mostly catering for the budget crowd. Their vans are typically smaller (and shorter), than Travellers Autobarn vans, but often feature rooftop tents.
Their Big Sur vans are their best rig and feature:
Escape offer decent budget options. Their vans are clean and offer a no-frills, simplistic approach to van life road trips.
Verdict: In my opinion, one of the most crucial parts of renting a campervan is space. Unfortunately, Outdoorsy don’t offer hightop campervans like Travellers Autobarn at a similar price point. Therefore, if you’re looking to rent a camper in the regions Travellers Autobarn offer pickups, I’d choose them over Escape.
You’ll find Escape Campervan rental locations across the USA, including the East Coast, Pacific Northwest and some Canadian locations;
- Calgary, AB
- Chicago, IL
- Denver, CO
- Las Vegas, NV
- Los Angeles, CA
- New York, NY
- Orlando, FL
- Phoenix, AZ
- Portland, OR
- Salt Lake City, UT
- San Francisco, CA
- Seattle, WA
- Vancouver, BC
More Camper Rental Options
The above three should have most people covered and spoilt for choice. But, to make this the most comprehensive guide, I’ve included more options below.
More Tips & Things to Know
Before you depart, here are some last essential tips.
- You need a credit card on file for all camper van rentals in the USA
- Careful of insurance add-ons and plan for this extra charge
- Of course, stick to the speed limit
- Prepare for toll roads
- If you are flexible, there are much better deals in the low season (winter)
About the National Parks Pass
It’s no secret that renting a van and going on a road trip is the best way to see North America’s amazing National Parks.
As a little tip before you hit the road, make sure to pick up an America the Beautiful Annual Pass. This only costs $80 per vehicle, and will definitely save you money if you’re planning to visit three or more parks.
Ready For Full Time Van Life? – Converting Your Own Van
I’ve given you the low-down on road trip vans for rent. But, if you’re ready to step it up a notch and convert your very own van for full-time van life, check out my comprehensive van conversion guide.
This is the most detailed, free guide to converting a camper van you’ll find online. While it features my build in Australia, the truth is you can apply this resource to any van (not just Ford Transits), anywhere in the world.
Road Trip Inspiration: Read More
I hope that this guide to road trip vans in the USA has helped you pick the perfect camper van rental for your next road trip through the USA.
While you’re still here, make sure to check out some of my other articles. You’ll find loads of up-to-date inspiration for your trip, as well as some detailed guides to help you make the most of it.