I stayed in a camper van in Hawaii for $119 a night, and it was a trip from hell in paradise filled with hidden costs and issues

I stayed in a camper van in Hawaii for $119 a night, and it was a trip from hell in paradise filled with hidden costs and issues

Waking up on the beach in Hawaii may sound like a dreamy respite, but my recent stay in a camper van on Oahu was the opposite.

the writer posing in front of a large grayish van

I rented a camper van in Hawaii and regretted it.

Ashley Probst


During a recent trip to Oahu, I decided to try renting a camper van through Airbnb instead of booking a hotel and renting a car.

Though I was born and raised in Hawaii, I’d never tried this before.

Ultimately, despite the van’s overwhelmingly positive reviews, my trip was far from what I’d imagined.

Here’s what my experience was like and why I would not do this again.

Renting a van includes the risk of last-minute changes.

The writer with a bun standing on the van

My hosts messaged me the night before my reservation about a major change to our pickup arrangements.

Ashley Probst


Stays in mobile dwellings may be subject to changes that you wouldn’t face when staying in permanent structures like hotels.

The van I rented needed last-minute repairs, and I was informed the night before my reservation that I’d need to collect it an hour away from the original check-in location.

Fortunately, the new pickup spot was close to where I was camping, but this could have majorly inconvenienced me.

There was no user manual with the van, so I had to inquire about a lot of things.

A wooden tray with a remote, fire alarm, and basic items in the van

Since there were no instructions in the Airbnb listing, I expected there to be a user manual in a conspicuous place, like this tray.

Ashley Probst


After I picked up the van, I realized there was no user manual anywhere in the vehicle or on its Airbnb profile.

I had to keep messaging my hosts to ask about countless things, including potential maintenance issues and how to work certain aspects of the rig.

With a rental, you’re on your own for any cleanliness issues.

towels with brown-looking marks on them

Some of the pillows and towels supplied in the van looked dirty.

Ashley Probst


Unfortunately, with rentals, you don’t always know what you’re going to get.

In my opinion, the van I rented could’ve used a proper cleaning before the keys were given to me.

I certainly was not anticipating a five-star-resort experience, but I was disappointed that basic cleaning protocols didn’t seem to have been followed. The pillows and towels looked dirty, trash was in the van’s nooks and crannies, and the cooler reeked of fish.

Unlike at a hotel, I couldn’t request a new room or fresh towels. I was on my own.

 

Maintenance issues can be high stakes when your mode of transportation is also your temporary home.

Dashboard with arrow pointing to the brake light, which is on

The parking-brake light was stuck on.

Ashley Probst


There are various risks unique to renting a van, including the risk of maintenance issues. If something happened to the vehicle, my trip would be derailed because I’d be out of a place to sleep and a way to get around.

I’m grateful that nothing catastrophic happened, but even small things worried me throughout my trip. For example, dim headlights made it difficult to drive at night, and the brake lights were stuck on, so I didn’t feel safe driving until my hosts confirmed it wasn’t an issue.

Parking such a big rig was challenging, especially when technology failed me.

a fuzzy blue back up camera in a van

The backup camera stopped working when I tried to park the van for the first time.

Ashley Probst


After the van’s backup camera stopped working during my trip, I was extra nervous. Without it, it was virtually impossible to see out the back of the van, which made reversing hazardous.

Without the camera or parking sensors, I knew the likelihood of hitting one of the surrounding vehicles was high if another human wasn’t guiding me.

At one point I had someone stand nearby and yell directions to help me pull out of a crowded parking lot. After that, I sought out lots with angled stalls, spots that I could pull straight into, or areas with plenty of open space.

In some cases I adjusted my travel plans to suit the camper van and my safety concerns.

views from one of the campgrounds

I strategically parked in places with angled stalls to easily enter and exit.

Ashley Probst


Eventually I learned that safely parking and driving the van required a bit of strategy. I wanted to avoid narrow roads, for example.

I also didn’t end up taking the van to Honolulu because it was too tall to fit in the city’s parking structures and I was concerned about my safety.

For one, I was anxious about driving there, since it can get crowded. And though Honolulu is relatively safe, there were reports of more than 600 car break-ins from late July to late August. The large van would certainly have stood out on the city streets, making it a potential target.

On my first night, I arrived at the campground late and got locked out.

an empty field surrounded by grass and greenery

I was supposed to park in this spot for my first night in the van, but I couldn’t access it.

Ashley Probst


The day of my reservation at Malaekahana Beach Campground, I called in the afternoon to let the front desk know I would be arriving after hours. They said I would be fine and cut the conversation short.

Little did I know that I would end up being locked out of the campground.

I wondered if there had been some miscommunication over the phone. Perhaps they thought I’d be arriving after office hours, which ended at 4:30 p.m., not after the gates closed at 7 p.m.

When I arrived closer to 9 p.m., I found a phone number with instructions to call security and have the gate unlocked for $20 (more than double what I had paid for the campsite).

 

Another visitor advised me to stay in the parking lot overnight.

a closed off road with a stop side and a cone

The entrance gate was locked when I arrived at the campground.

Ashley Probst


A visitor sitting outside the office advised me not to call the security guard, saying he’d be upset if I contacted him and likely wouldn’t help me.

Since it was too late and dark for me to find a different place to park, the visitor suggested I leave the van under the parking-lot lights and lock the doors while I slept.

I decided this would be OK since I had a permit and management was expecting me to park and sleep on the property. Still, I woke up before the gates opened to avoid any trouble for my makeshift campsite.

Fortunately, my second campsite was quite enjoyable and easy to find.

suncamp with stools, a bar stand, open air grass

I booked a parking space at Sun Farm Hawaii through Hipcamp.

Ashley Probst


For my second night, I booked a parking space at Sun Farm Hawaii through Hipcamp. It was a pleasant experience.

Locating the farm was simple, and I was given clear directions to find my designated parking spot. The property had an outdoor shower, abundant fruit trees, and friendly occupants who were there on more of a monthly basis.

The property was gorgeous, and the owners and guests were welcoming.

sidewalk path lined with flowers and a small coral building

The property was covered in fruit trees, tropical flowers, and other plants.

Ashley Probst


I was greeted by a manager who gave me a tour of the space, which included an outdoor lounge, a communal kitchen, paid laundry facilities, toilets, and, my personal favorite, an outdoor shower.

The farm also had plenty of fresh produce for sale. Offerings change based on availability but may include coconuts, papaya, eggplant, zucchini squash, various herbs, and local flowers.

My van didn’t have a shower or toilet, so I was excited to use those amenities in this campsite.

out door shower, wood doors with trees above

The outdoor shower.

Ashley Probst


I have an affinity for accommodations with outdoor bathing, so naturally I indulged in an al fresco shower. The water was a bit chilly, but it was refreshing after a long day of being in the hot Hawaiian sun, and I truly felt like I was one with nature.

The communal areas also served as hubs where guests crossed paths. Everyone I met was kind and welcoming — I only wish I could have stayed longer to form deeper connections with them.

 

During my last morning with the van, I finally figured out how to operate various things that I’d thought were broken.

an arrow pointed to a yellow note with faded handwriting above an outlet

I didn’t see this faded note with instructions until the morning I was scheduled to check out.

Ashley Probst


I went nearly the entire trip thinking the interior lights and sink didn’t work, because I didn’t see a faded note that labeled buttons to control the water tank, inverter, and refrigeration.

The checkout process was frustrating because I wasn’t given sufficient instructions for where to leave the van. After bringing it to a storage unit, I had to ask the front-desk employees to show me where to park it.

In a hotel, the check-out process is simple and self-explanatory — you leave your key in a box or at the front desk. 

Better communication from my hosts about the van or clearer instructions might have saved me a lot of stress.

Overall, renting the camper van cost way more than I’d thought it would.

an airbnb receipt

Renting a van isn’t always cheaper than staying at a hotel.

Ashley Probst, Airbnb


A common reason people turn to van life is to save money on travel or living expenses. But it’s a myth that van life is a cheaper alternative.

The hidden costs of my stay in the camper van included Ubers before and after the reservation, campsite booking fees, and gas.

The rental itself was $362.89. I also spent $149.18 on rides, including tips; $67.37 on overnight parking; and $75.34 on gas.

This made for a total of $654.78, before factoring in food and activities.

It would’ve been cheaper to book a more traditional stay and rent a small car.

the inside of the van with seat covers and a big wheel

The van experience was unique, but it was not perfect.

Ashley Probst


Before my trip, I wanted to see how much it would have cost if I’d booked the cheapest accommodations and transportation I could find for the same weekend.

I found a room in a two-bedroom, one-bath apartment in Honolulu on Airbnb priced at $251 for two nights, and a two-day Porsche rental through Turo for $176.

Had I booked these instead of the camper van, I would have spent about $427. Assuming gas would have cost the same and I’d still have needed to order Ubers to and from the airport, it’s likely the trip would have cost about $562.34.

If my calculations are correct, I could have saved almost $100 if I’d booked a more traditional stay.

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