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  1. #1

    Default Merits of Different Vehicles for 45-Day Road Trip

    Hello, all. I'm a new member on the site, but I've been lurking for several days, reading up. I have not yet found a thread that exactly addresses my question (but if someone can refer me to one, that would be fine).

    I am planning to take a long road trip in late May, probably lasting until the middle of July. My route is still developing, but trips up portions of the East and West coasts are probably going to be included, as well as visits to Montana, Colorado, and New Mexico. All in all, I am expecting a trip of between 15,000 and 20,000 miles. I have a budget for the trip, including the cost of the vehicle, of $15,000, though I could spend somewhat more if there were justified expenses that would dramatically increase the quality of the trip.

    I will purchase a vehicle specifically for this trip (and likely resell it afterwards), and I'm weighing the options. For background, I'm a 37-year-old, American citizen, male engineer with good technical skills but very little experience working with cars and no significant camping experience. Assuming my realistic budget for the vehicle were $8,000-10,000, here are my thoughts at the moment. But these are preliminary thoughts, subject to any advice you can offer.

    Option 1: A purpose built camper van, such as the ones found on The Samba website and others I've seen recommended on RTA.

    Pros: Bed included, some kitchen services included, spacious, aesthetically interesting, room for travelling guests (some legs of the trip will have company along), easy to keep tidy due to installed storage spaces, comfortable. Well suited to the slow, ambling pace through rural America I am interested in experiencing.

    Cons: Large and less maneuverable. Gas-hungry. High up-front cost; one in my price range would probably be older, and perhaps more mechanically unreliable. I have no experience dealing with these vehicles and there could be unexpected difficulties/costs that I am not anticipating. From what I've read, trying to sleep in your vehicle is dodgy; there are different rules state by state, and it can often be hard to find a safe and legal place to overnight. Specialty product that I may have to drive two states over to purchase. Tough resale market.

    Option 2: A factory-standard minivan, stationwagon or SUV

    Pros: Space for gear allowing use of any suitable camp site. Newer options available in price range with great safety features. Purchase and resale more convenient, due to market and availability. Room for sleeping in the back if opportunity presents itself. Could be modified with road-trip specific features (such as better bedding or installed storage) without too much difficulty, either by myself or by a contractor. Space for friends to ride along. Less gas consumption than a camper van.

    Cons: Not going to be a really comfortable living space. Harder to keep tidy and squared away. Still-high gas consumption. Would need roadside services for getting cleaned up, preparing meals, changing clothes, toiletry activities, etc. Would probably spend a larger portion of the trip staying in motels/hotels, at additional expense.

    Option 3: Typical sedan or hatchback.

    Pros: I've been driving these all my life, including several long road trips (3000+ miles). Will do much better on fuel. Fewer logistical surprises. Just settle on staying with friends or in motels and be done with it (logistical simplicity). Easy to maneuver in cities. If I like the car, I can just keep it afterward as my regular car. Lower insurance costs. Lower purchase costs, even with late-model safety features. Simple.

    Cons: Sleeping in the car would be essentially a stuck-in-the-middle-of-nowhere-with-no-other-options situation, not comfortable. Difficult to keep tidy week after week. Could be space and storage issues, especially when friends ride along on legs of trip. Would be very dependent on roadside services for sleeping, eating, showering, etc. Prices could compound. Boring.

    Option 4: Pickup truck with camper back or general purpose van

    Pros: Inexpensive options available; blank slate could be modified with living accommodations similar to option 1 for $1000-2000. Therefore similar pros to option 1, in theory.

    Cons: I would be taking on more workload, since I'd be responsible for customizing the vehicle. Costs could get out of hand. I have a lot of project management experience but this would be a type of project I've never undertaken. Cons are simply unknown, which is scary. As I plan to hit the road in about a month and a half, I may not have time to fully customize.

    Option 5: ??? What am I not considering?

    So those are my current thoughts. Obviously, even within each option, there are dozens of reasonable vehicles I could consider, so please feel free to offer specific recommendations. If you think any of my pros or cons are unrealistic for any reason (optimistic or pessimistic), please chime in. I'll be posting elsewhere for suggestions on camping, on helping plan the route, and on packing gear and supplies, so other than regarding storage issues, I hope none of that is too relevant to this discussion.

    I'm looking forward to seeing what folks think about this, and I'm glad to see such a vibrant community on this site.

    PS: If you have any advice on other places to post this question, either elsewhere on RTA or elsewhere entirely, feel free to offer that as a suggestion! I'm probably going to post something about this on Reddit, for example.
    Last edited by saburai; 03-22-2015 at 01:12 PM. Reason: Added a PS

  2. #2
    Join Date
    May 2011
    Southern California


    Welcome to RTA!

    This is a very well-thought-out list of vehicles, pros and cons. You have gotten the main ones for every vehicle, that I can think of. My husband and I have traveled in sedans and vans (staying in motels and with family), have owned two pickups and towed both pop-up trailer and 5th wheel (5W), and considered putting a real camper on one of those pickups.

    We have a "camper shell" on our current truck, and at one point, considered throwing a piece of thick foam rubber and some sleeping bags in there to sleep on trips. We decided against it for three reasons: we would have had to do the customization that you spoke of, in order to have room for our suitcases and other equipment while trying to sleep in there, and (2) ventilation. Many pickup "camper shells" don't have anything but a couple of little windows, plus the back door, to give you much air at night. A third reason was the lack of a bathroom.

    We decided against the actual truck camper after PRICING them. Ye-gads, at $25K for one cheapie that we wondered how long it would stay together, or $35K for one that was a little more solidly built, we realized we could buy a lot of overnights in motels.

    Sleeping in a sedan would NOT be conducive to a good night's sleep.

    As for storage issues: well, frankly, that's what finally made us give up our trailer. If I had somewhere cheap to store it, we'd probably go back to RV ownership of some type. We started out at cheap storage in local RV parks, but then they both realized that they could be making more money off storage, and kept raising the price. Local storage places were even higher than they wanted. We weren't willing to fork out over $2000 year just to store the rig, and so we sold it. (It was getting old anyway and needed more repairs.)

    Yes, older rigs will cost you more in mechanical problems. What was not included in our 2014 trip's costs (linked below) was about $2500 worth of repairs to a 1999 pickup truck. For the first repair, we didn't lose any vacation time because it was repaired while we were visiting family. The second repair caused us to lose a day, so we decided not to visit that place and just "forge on". Someday, I'll get back there.

    Here is a link to the final expenditure thread for our 40+ day trip around the US in our pickup truck, this past summer. As I said, it doesn't include the vehicle repairs. Within that thread is a link to the trip itself. Of those 40+ days, about 12 nights were spent with family members across the country whom we had stopped specifically to see and visit with.


  3. #3


    Thanks, Donna! I'm going to read your expenditure thread and get back to you after going over it carefully. And thanks for all your other thoughts.

    I am not interested in getting a pulled camper or other trailer solution, mostly because it would make the vehicle much harder to maneuver and I'm not dedicated to that living standard of comfort. My concern with RV camper trucks is pretty much the same as yours: they cost a blooming fortune.

    That said, a camper van seems like an affordable solution, if I'm willing to settle for a 1985 van with 250k miles on the odometer. That might be reasonable, but I have no experience to compare good vs bad bargains or to anticipate the inevitable mechanical headaches.

    I hadn't really thought of ventilation as an issue... it seems like if you crack a window that should be sufficient unless it's very hot (for example, I wouldn't do that here in New Orleans after April), but I don't have a lot of experience with this, so perhaps someone else can chime in. What external overnight temperature allows comfortable in-vehicle sleeping without a dedicated ventilator?

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Dec 2008
    Melbourne, Australia

    Default A conversion van??

    You don't mention a conversion van, which would be a very good choice for living in for 45 days, and maybe future trips as well. Mine is in storage for at least six months every year, sometimes longer.

    You might be interest6ed in checking out this thread. I have now made three six month long trips in it, and it has become a very comfortable little home on wheels. Spending most of my nights at truck stops, BLM campsites or similar **free** overnight stops has saved me a fortune.

    Of course, nothing is **free**. It is courtesy to give the owner of where you are staying, and whose facilities you are using, your business. Eat in their restaurant, fill your tank or similar.

    Ventilation has never been a problem for me. I have never seen any condensation. Cars are not airtight. On top of that, I leave the windows which have insect screens open all night, and have small battery operated fans sitting in front of them. On very hot nights I run the engine and A/C for 15 mins before retiring.


  5. #5
    Join Date
    May 2003
    Green County, Wisconsin


    Honestly, you're "only" going to be on the road for a month and a half, then I'd be looking at the most practical vehicle, that will require the least amount of customization, repairs, or other work. Don't get me wrong, 45 days is a great amount of time for a trip, but in the bigger picture - including the life of a vehicle - it's a drop in the bucket, so keep it simple.

    Any customization you do is going to come out of your budget, and you're not likely see any of that money back when you sell it. Depending upon what you end up doing, it's quite likely that the costs of such work would far outpace what you'd end up spending on a handful of extra hotel rooms. Lifey's gotten 18 months of use out of her van already, and it's just a lot easier to make customization worthwhile when you'll get a couple of years of use out of it, versus a month and a half.

    Similarly, if you have any repairs, that's going to cost you more time and money. Time really isn't something you have a lot of. You've said you want to do 15-20k miles in your 45 days - that's an average of about 400 miles a day - which is actually a bit of a problem in and of itself (it's hard to see much, when you are driving for 7+ hours every day). If you have repairs that take you off the road for 4 days 10% of your available time is gone!

    So based on that, I think I'd be looking at a minivan. In that $8-10k range you should be able to get the most bang for your buck - with a reasonably new and reliable vehicle, with plenty of storage, and enough space to stretch out in, should you decide to pull into a truck stop for a night of sleep. A conversion van could also work, but I don't think I'd be considering a campervan with the amount of time/money you have available. As you mentioned, in that case, you'd have to settle for something that's 30 years old, with a quarter million miles on it, that is nearing the end of it's usable life, with things that will almost certainly need to be repaired on the road.

    Finally, one more idea for you to consider that you haven't mentioned yet: Renting a car. We actually find a good rule of thumb is that you have to be on the road for at least 2-3 months for a car purchase to actually be a better deal than renting when you factor in all the costs of car ownership. If you price it out, and factor in all of the costs - including taxes, registration fees, insurance, potential repairs, the comfort/safety of driving a nearly new car vs. something 10+ years old, depreciation and costs of buying at retail and selling wholesale, not to mention time - renting a car is probably more affordable that you might think.

    Edit: Thanks Lifey for catching my typo!
    Last edited by Midwest Michael; 03-23-2015 at 06:06 AM. Reason: Fixed Mistake

  6. #6
    Join Date
    Dec 2008
    Melbourne, Australia

    Default Some other thoughts.

    As for my van, it was thirteen years old, had 62.000 miles on the clock and was in excellent condition. Complete with insurance, registration and all encilliary costs it was $10K. None the less over the 75000 miles she has given me, she has required more than half that again in repairs.

    Another place you may think to look is on some of the 'vandweller' websites, where you can see what folk have done with anything from a VW Beetle to a Box delivery truck, to make it suitable to spend time in.... some for roadtrips; some for permanent occupancy. Several of those sites have great forums which might help you decide what will work for you.

    As an aside, I spent almost 6 months in a Dodge Caravan in 2009. Took me to Alaska and back. Seats removed; camping mattress on the floor and my luggage next to that, for one it was ample big enough, but I could not stand up. The conversion van has that advantage, as it is a hi top.

    BTW: I think Michael meant "We actually find a good rule of thumb is that you have to be on the road for at least 2-3 months for a car purchase to actually be a better deal than renting when you factor in all the costs of car ownership."


  7. Default

    Got to agree on the renting option, even though it seems like money thrown away. For £6000 you could even rent a Cruise America! That's without looking for deals and vouchers and one way delivery rentals.
    Renting gives you the option of a dual center, East Coast and West Coast, flying between, saving you time and money. That is a true option for minivan hire as well. If I remember rightly FL and CA major car rentals do not charge for using different drop off places, though other States do (don't ask me why). It would even allow you to rent cheap and standard with good gas mileage for 'easy places' where it is warm at night and with plenty of black top then swop it for a 4x4 for some off road areas, like the Mid-West.
    Driving a standard car doesn't stop you from slinging a tent in and camping in those big open spaces. I have also seen plenty of people bivvying under the stars in many State Parks and of course no one will interfere with sleeping outside on National Forest and BLM land

  8. #8


    Quote Originally Posted by Lifemagician View Post
    You don't mention a conversion van, which would be a very good choice for living in for 45 days, and maybe future trips as well. Mine is in storage for at least six months every year, sometimes longer.

    You might be interest6ed in checking out this thread. I have now made three six month long trips in it, and it has become a very comfortable little home on wheels. Spending most of my nights at truck stops, BLM campsites or similar **free** overnight stops has saved me a fortune.

    I think this was a misunderstanding on my part; the vehicle you're describing is what I meant by my option 1; I thought these vehicles were designed as such, and didn't realize they were after-market conversions. This would actually be my most preferred option, except for the cons as described above. Does that clarification change your advice?

    Also, I read the thread you recommended (in which you acquired your van) previously, and found it very encouraging. It was part of the reason I listed a live-in van as my number 1 option.

  9. #9


    Edit: This is in response to Midwest Michael's comment; that doesn't appear to be clear from the post display.

    Thanks for these very illuminating comments. I should point out that 15-20k miles is a very preliminary figure, and also that I can easily extend my trip out to as much as 60 days: I'm time flexible as long as the costs don't snowball. Of course, it's possible that spending so much time on the road, I could just get sick of it and want to sleep in my own bed... that's something of a separate concern, of course. I agree that trying to do 400 miles in a day would be problematic for both logistical and aesthetic reasons. I'd prefer to do something closer to 300 miles a day, at most.

    Is there a reason you'd prefer a minivan over, say, a stationwagon or SUV?

    As for renting, here's my experience:

    In 2013, my girlfriend and I rented a Chrysler 200 and drove from New Orleans to Savannah to Washington DC to Baltimore to Philadelphia to New York City and then essentially nonstop back to New Orleans (where we live). The trip was about 10 days, with long stops in Savannah and DC. So that's definitely something I've done and something I'd be willing to consider... here's why I didn't mention it among my options:

    1. I looked at renting a truck camper, and it was prohibitively expensive unless I specifically set out to ONLY live in the camper. For one person, especially, it seemed excessive (for a family, it could make sense). I never saw conversion vans for rent anywhere, but if they exist, let me know!

    2. If I was renting a car, and it was the sort of car I really liked, it seems to me that I might as well just buy it and use it as my car in the future. I don't know exactly how the economics works out, but it isn't obvious to me that renting is more economical if I'm actually going to keep the road trip car as my permanent vehicle. I am not sure how to go about calculating that, but, for example, if I am buying a new car I can use my existing car for its trade-in value (it's a nice old car, but I have no confidence that it would go 15k miles without some major problem).

    3. Honestly, I haven't done the item by item by item comparison that you recommend, and if I did do it, I'd probably do it somewhat wrong. Can you refer me to some resources that would help me compare apples to apples for a multi-month 15k mile rental?
    Last edited by saburai; 03-23-2015 at 12:58 PM. Reason: clarify subject of response

  10. #10


    In response to Lifey, I wrote you something but I got a message saying it would have to be approved before it would show up... I hadn't seen that message before and I don't know how long that takes. Hopefully we'll see it in a few minutes here.

    Edit: The comment is now up.
    Last edited by saburai; 03-23-2015 at 01:30 PM.

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