Between July and September 2018 we spent 3 months driving around Australia and New Zealand in a camper van. At this point we can honestly say that we had enough adventures to be able to pass on a few valuable tips!
A new way of traveling for us
My husband and I were pretty adventurous when we were younger and without kids. However today we have 3 little people who count on us for being responsible parents. So when we were planning our stays in Australia and New Zealand, our priority was for them to be ok and comfortable, but possibly not go bankrupt in doing that!
For this leg of the trip, considering how pricy these countries can be, we decided to try an alternative type of lodging: the camper van!
We were inspired by our own post Tips on driving up the WA coast, dedicated to the first part of our travels in the west of Australia by car. We decided to put together some important information that we only learned through our experiences. We learned a lot about camper van life during our 3 months traveling in 4 different camper vans!
First of all I need to clarify though that Mass and I NEVER traveled on a camper van before coming to Australia! We both did some short stays with friends but never on our own for so long! This was a new experience for us and our kids. It was a true adventure!
1. They drive on the opposite side of the road
Coming from the United States, the one thing you really need to remember is that both Australia and New Zealand drive on the other side of the road! This can be a bit challenging to get the hang of at the beginning. In my case I was always thinking twice before turning for fear of getting on the wrong side of the road!
Luckily we had a bit of practice with a regular car, while driving up the West Coast of Australia before renting our first camper van. Imagine how much more complicated it gets, if you go on the wrong side of the road with such a big vehicle! It isn’t as easy to do a simple U-turn or squeeze on the opposite side of the road!
2. Be aware of the wildlife crossing the road
Just because you are bigger doesn’t mean that a kangaroo won’t put a big dent in the camper van! I also doubt that any of you want to have a death on your conscience!
We were told repeatedly to avoid driving at dusk or at dawn to avoid these encounters. Unfortunately we were in Australia in the winter, so the days were shorter. At times we didn’t make it at the campsites before dark. We have had our fair share of kangaroos jumping on the road!
The most amazing street crossing though was a huge koala. He crossed just as we were driving up a hill and the sun was in our eyes. I still cannot believe that Mass was able to see him!
On the other hand in New Zealand this problem really doesn’t exist. No animal ever crossed the road. We were able to relax and drive freely also at night. I must admit I did miss not being alert for the kangaroos…..don’t tell Mass though!
3. Read all the information the rental company gives you about the vehicle
Don’t think that you know it all, or that it is all obvious information. Also if you are experienced with camper vans, they are not all the same. There might be some extra information that you don’t know about, specific for that brand. Remember to read it before you leave, this might help you avoid useless and embarrassing phone calls to the assistance, when there actually isn’t an issue!
On our first camper we were heading to Uluru and stopped for lunch on the road. Once we went to charge my phone the electrical wasn’t working! We started freaking out because it was cold at night. What were we going to do without the heater on?! We called the assistance and they explained that the electrical socket works only when the camper is plugged into the electricity. It was the first tip on your information paper! Ops why did I not read that?!
4. Learn space-sharing
Campervans come in different sizes, but the space is always limited compared to a regular house. It is the type of place where your patience is put to the test very often, specially when you are living in it with more than one person.
You have to learn to share a very small space with all the other humans in your family. Some times it can be a bit challenging, specially if you are trying to have some “alone time” in one little corner of this house on wheels!
I will be honest though, for us this space sharing wasn’t as negative. Most of the times it was actually wonderful! For example, one morning we all snuggled up together in one bed, started reading our books all together, while Luca was snoring away. However there are also those moments when you are trying to write a blog post and toys are flying across the kitchen and kids are yelling. My solution? I kick them all out!!!
5. Limited luggage space
When booking a camper keep into consideration how many bags you are traveling with and the sizes. Sometimes also if they are big vehicles, they have very limited storage. In Tasmania we had to leave our bags at the office because there was no room in the camper. The stroller could barely fit! Instead in New Zealand we had to keep the master bed always made because the bags were all on the floor.
All of our rentals, except Tasmania, were picked up in one city and dropped off in another. Imagine how challenging it would have been if we had to share the limited space with the luggage too because we couldn’t leave it in the office! Luckily Mass is a real master at squeezing everything in, so we were able to fit!
6. Camp set up
Whatever time of the day or the night you arrive at a new campsite there are a few tasks that you must take care of before you can relax. For example: connect the electrical if you have a powered site. Connect the water if you have a direct attachment or fill the water tank if you don’t. You do not want to finish the water while you are washing dishes or taking a shower! In the middle of a chilly night you don’t want to have to go out and take care of that!
Mass would park, jump down and get everything set up, while I would start making dinner. If possible we would send the kids to the playground (lots of campsites have them) or give them some tv time.
Also when you leave a campsite you have things to take care of: empty the toilets (every 2/3 days depending how much are being used), empty the water tank, different countries have different rules. In Australia you can release while driving, in New Zealand absolutely not!
When you are planning your arrival and departure time, keep this in mind!
7. How did we find our campsites?
In order to find a campsite to stay at, we relied mainly on a few apps: the Apollo app, (we rented a few campers with them) and Campermate. However a few times we simply searched on the map for nearby campsites based on where we were in that moment.
Sometimes you can book directly through these apps. Anyhow in my opinion, it is better to call instead of relying on them. In Brisbane we booked a site only to find out once we got there that the place was all booked and there was a glitch in the system. They honored the booking because they felt bad about it, but we had to sleep in front of a garage going downhill for 2 nights!
8. Book in advance in touristy areas
Depending on the time of the year and area you are traveling to, you might want to book or call in advance. Otherwise you might not be able to find an available powered site or unpowered as well!
When we went to Uluru apparently it was high season. Once we got to the only campsite in the area, we had to stay the first night without power. Of course we had not booked in advance! Luckily the following night they moved us to a powered spot. Otherwise we would have had to leave the area before we had planned to. In fact our battery was not going to handle another day without power.
Oh boy, Wifi has been a nightmare in Australia!!!! New Zealand was a bit better but still challenging!
In Australia, most campgrounds were in the process of “upgrading” so magically it didn’t work when we were there. In some cases they gave you only 250 or 500 megabyte which lasted 5 minutes with what I need do, or had none at all!
UPDATE: After months of traveling and most of all after facing WIFI issues in more countries, we finally bought a travel router. Huawei E5577Cs-321 4G LTE Mobile WiFi Hotspot (4G LTE in Europe, Asia, Middle East, Africa & 3G globally) Unlocked/OEM/ORIGINAL from Huawei WITHOUT CARRIER LOGO (Black) is now our best friend wherever we go! We buy a sim card with data as soon as we arrive in a new country. We insert it and we finally have the freedom to be connected wherever we are without having to rely on the place we are staying at. I wish we had done it sooner, specially in Australia and New Zealand!
10. Campsite pricing and rules
Campsites have all different prices and conditions since there is no rule or regulation. Some charge you only for the camper van. Some charge you based on the number of people plus the campervan. Some prices are based on the size of the lot. Some have keys or codes to access anything. Some don’t even have a gate! Some are open till 10 pm and some close as early as 4pm. Some charge you a fortune for using the laundry mat and some are really cheap.
Every campsite is a new adventure and considering that we have been changing almost every night, it was a constant surprise!
11. Limited free camping
Both in Australia and New Zealand there are areas where you can free camp as well as were you cannot. We learned though that unless you have the greatest generator ever, which a rental of course does not have, you cannot free camp for more than one night. However if you are very good at saving your battery and water maybe you will make it for 2 days. With 5 of us though, the battery went down real fast!
Luckily the Camper will recharge while you are driving. Once you stop though there are different appliances that will use up your battery, such as: lights, TV and fridge. Another issue is that if you are traveling in the winter, like we were, you might really want to turn on the heater. For that you will need a powered site.
12. Parking a campervan
All our campers were pretty big, so parking could be challenging. Specially when we were in big cities, such as Sidney or Auckland! We would usually take at least 2 spots in length and a bit of the side as well.
In some areas we found specific parking lots for campers. However we also had to park on the street more than once or in regular parking lots with many more cars. At times it took a while to find the right spot.
13. The joys of a house on wheels
The convenience of having your house always with you is that you can change plans and have everything with you all the time.
For example in Sydney we went to dinner to a friend’s house on the opposite side of town from where we were staying. This meant a 50 minute or more drive both ways depending on traffic. Since it would have been a long drive back to our campsite and we were tired, we decided to park close to their house and sleep there!
In Wellington we took the kids to see a show. At the end we decided to avoid getting a campsite for the night. We put our kids to sleep and drove 200 km. At one point we found a side street in a little town and went to sleep. The next morning we walked down the street for breakfast!
Another great aspect of this type of accommodation was that our kids could do their school work anywhere they were, also while we were driving!
14. Freedom to explore
Traveling with a camper van gives you the freedom to stop wherever you want for dinner or lunch.
We stopped: for lunch in the desert during a wind storm, on the beach in front of a playground, on a busy street at rush hour, in front of a lovely river. Our kitchen was always with us so we could easily cook anywhere we were and enjoy a meal without having to look for a restaurant all the time.
15. Surrounded by nature
It is pretty amazing to be surrounded by nature. You never know who you will see when you open your window in the morning. Or who you will meet on your way to the camp bathroom. Luca had breakfast with a colorful parrot. We all walked to the bathroom and had a close encounter with some very big kangaroos!
One night I stayed up late at the camp kitchen (only place where the wifi worked). Once the lights went off, who knows how many animals were around me, but from the sounds I heard I know there were plenty!
16. Team work
It becomes a team effort to keep everything clean and tidy.
Simply preparing the beds for the night was a family effort! Since we are 5 people, we used every bed space available. The top bed had all the kids stuff on it during the day. At night it had to be moved so they could sleep there. The bed in the back was always set up. However it needed to be made every night because the kids would play on it and fill it with sand, crumbs and who knows what else! Finally the “dining” bed had to be made and taken apart every morning before we could sit down and have breakfast. We all worked together in getting set up for the night and packed up for the day! I have never seen so much cooperation between us as during this time.
17. Special moments
This small space has gifted us with some very special little moments that we cherish…..During our time traveling with our house on wheels we learned to simplify our life even more.
We shopped only for what we needed, due to the limited amount our space. We cleaned up as soon as we were done eating. So we could enjoy the space in other ways. We learned to work together to live better in this little space. We enjoyed each others company even more since we were always “so close”.
Months after our time in the camper van, I can say that we truly enjoyed this experience and miss it dearly to this day…… that is why we decided to travel through Ireland as well with a camper van!
Check out who we rented our camper vans with MotorHome Republic!