The truth about van life (from people living the dream)

Facing the rising costs of living and housing – and yearning for freedom and a simpler existence – these Aussies decided to hit the road and experience nomadic ‘van life’. This movement has exploded in popularity, with travellers taking advantage of flexible work arrangements to live at a reduced cost while experiencing the best life has to offer on their own terms. 

We take a look at the realities of van life and this alternative way of living.

Sasha Rebekah and Stefano Desideri are nomads living the van life.
Sasha Rebekah and Stefano Desideri

Sasha Rebekah and Stefano Desideri are an Aussie couple currently travelling through Central America. Image supplied

Sasha Rebekah and Stefano Desideri

A Pilates instructor and barista currently travelling through Central America.

VM: Why did you decide to pack up your lives and hit the road?

S&S: We met at the end of the pandemic lockdowns on the Gold Coast and spent many weekends away camping in our 4x4, cooking pancakes on the beach for breakfast, surfing and enjoying coffees at sunrise from the back of the car. We thought, 'Why not make this our whole life, instead of just our weekend?'

With the rising cost of living and stagnated wages, we decided to get out and explore the world. The recent popularity of van life and seeing others living the way we wanted to helped us see ourselves there too. 

VM: You renovated a bus yourselves and travelled in it. Can you share a little bit about that?

S&S: With a love of travel and freedom, an architecture degree under Sasha’s belt and a lot of delusion, we decided to build our bus with YouTube as our learning resource. It took 10 to 12-hour build days over the course of 90 days to complete our bus, which included a bedroom, kitchen, hot water shower, toilet, overhead cabinets, a sitting area and full solar, electrical and plumbing systems.

We sold the bus after a couple of months because it was too big for us to comfortably drive around. We downsized to our current vehicle – a 4x4 truck with a Lance Truck Camper on top – because we knew we needed something smaller for the narrow, curvy roads of Central America. It's a great set-up, because we can be off-grid or plug into campgrounds for power. 

VM: What sort of planning and budgeting was involved for making this trip a reality?

S&S: We saved and worked extra jobs for 12 months, sold our cars and all of our belongings to embark on this adventure. 

We recommend buying, renting or borrowing a van for some time before committing to living and travelling in one full-time to make sure that you really like this lifestyle.

It's also important to know what you're getting into in terms of how much power you'll need, how big a water tank you’ll need, what type of vehicle is best for you, what kind of insurance you need and how to stay safe – and keep your belongings safe – on the road. Being educated and confident before taking the leap is definitely going to pay off and save you money.

During our travels through Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, we spent the majority of our money on fuel. To save costs here, you can travel slower over a longer period of time. 

VM: What are the best and worst things about van life?

S&S: The best thing is waking up in forests, fields, on sandy beaches or next to blue waterfalls and freshwater rivers. The part that we also really love is tracking our footprint and consumption. You can create power from the sun and gather fresh water from rivers to wash your dishes and bathe in. 

The worst thing is needing to constantly manage your resources, like power and water. Some days, in countries like those in Central America that are not set up for this type of living, it can take a big chunk of your day being in survival mode – trying to save water, trying to find water, not using up all of your power on cloudy days and finding somewhere to sleep for free.

VM: Sasha, you are running your business from the road. How does that work?

Sasha: I have an ethical holistic wellness brand, Luna Active, which I launched on a backpacking trip to Central America back in 2019.

It has been more challenging than I anticipated, trying to manage a business from a country on the other side of the world. We have Starlink satellite internet (a common #vanlife staple), which means we get internet anywhere, even if there is no mobile reception. 

This is imperative to allow me to keep running my business on the road. It means that I can work from my camper on the beach instead of needing to constantly go to cafes and spend money on food and drinks to use their internet for hours.

Mark, Rosie and Sam Hutton are living the van life in Australia
Mark, Rosie, and Sam Hutton

Mark, Rosie and Sam Hutton have been travelling around Australia since 2022. Image supplied

Mark, Rosie and Sam Hutton

Family of three from Queensland travelling around Australia since July 2022.

VM: Why did you decide to pack up your home and live a nomadic existence for the past year?

RH: In December 2021, we sold our beloved cafe of eight years and took off on a six-week camping road trip from the Sunshine Coast to Stanage Bay, north of Yeppoon. On that trip, we decided we’d buy a caravan and travel Australia. It was the perfect opportunity for us to explore our beautiful country, spend quality time together and reconnect as a family. 

In July 2022, we hitched the van up and set off on our adventure with no itinerary, but just a plan to follow the sunshine and warmth.

VM: Tell us about your van.

RH: Our van is not your standard caravan. We have a Bruder EXP-4, which has a kitchen set up at the back, with a fridge and a gas cooker. There is ample storage, an outdoor shower hose and diesel heating. It is a real comfort and breeze to tow and live in. 

We added another fridge and a freezer in the car. This enables us to stock up and freeze anything. We love cooking and make most of our meals, so only every now and then do we treat ourselves to eating out. We also have an inverter, so we can make smoothies and soups. Being coffee lovers, we use our AeroPress and buy beans along the way. 

VM: Do you work from the road?

RH: We had savings when we started our trip, so we’ve mostly been fortunate not to have to work on the road. However, we did have to top up the kitty. Our first job was in Karijini National Park, Western Australia, volunteering as camp hosts in exchange for a camp site. Our second job was in Dunsborough, Western Australia, at Meelup Farmhouse as a restaurant supervisor [Rosie] and an event manager [Mark]. We lived onsite. 

VM: What does van life look like with a child in tow?

RH: Having already experienced life as solo travellers before Sam, it is a different experience with a six year old. What we have learnt is, what we think is amazing and fun isn’t necessarily the same for him. 

At the end of the day, kids just want to do kids’ stuff. Most of the time, they’re happy playing outdoors, climbing trees, swimming, playing with their toys and being with other kids. Plus, Sam is the only child and has no siblings to bounce off.

We keep our travel days short and sweet. Long drives are draining and the last thing we want to do is be in the car all day. Regular stops to stretch are a great way to re-energise. Sam gets carsick, so he doesn’t use any devices other than to listen to music. He also plays with his favourite toys and looks out the window, so there are a lot of conversations going on! Gee, he can chat [laughs].

VM: What do you look for in a camp site?

RH: Deciding on a campsite – whether that be a free camp or caravan park – we always look for location, cleanliness, facilities, costs and the vibe. If it doesn't feel right, trust your gut and move on. 

Recommendations from other people and WikiCamps are our go-to guides.

Most of our stays have been off-grid and free camps. We only stay at caravan parks if we need to do laundry, food shop, power up and clean the van. And also, for Sam, so he can hang with kids.

Kiera Blaney travelled around north Queensland in her van.
Kiera Blaney

Solo traveller Kiera Blaney says she made friends very quickly among the #vanlife community in Australia.

Kiera Blaney

Solo female traveller. 

VM: You’ve travelled a lot in a van throughout Australia. Can you share a highlight?

KB: I attempted to travel in my van from the Gold Coast to the northern tip of Queensland a few years ago, but due to the rainy season, I couldn’t reach the Cape [York]. Instead, I spent my days exploring Cairns and the surrounding areas, waking up to swim in waterfalls and finishing each day on the beach, cooking dinner at the back of the van with a view. 

The #vanlife community is great in Australia. You make friends very quickly when you park up with other vans. 

VM: Tell us about your upcoming van tour of Italy.

KB: I’ll be renting a VW Bulli van from locally run FreewayCamper to explore the Dolomites in Northern Italy. When exploring multiple regions in Italy, I suggest getting a van, because you can easily visit less touristic places and save money on eating out and accommodation. 

The best part of hiring a van when travelling a new country is that there are no tour transport costs, accommodation costs and even food costs are covered, because you’ll be able to cook breakfast and other meals yourself. 

In the van, I plan to travel around the Dolomites and find some lesser-known areas to hike. I’ll also be driving up to Lake Garda to explore the region and to Venice, before embarking on a bicycle adventure from Venice to Athens.

VM: What sort of planning is involved for making this dream trip a reality?

KB: Before travelling Europe in a van, you need to research a good company to hire from. To save money, I recommend renting from smaller businesses like FreewayCamper, which only operates in Italy, Poland and Germany. Bigger car and van rental companies will usually be available in most cities throughout Europe; however, it’s a different experience and costlier than renting from a smaller company. 

There are also van-swap websites and opportunities to relocate a van from one city to another for a company at no cost to you – so you get a free van!

For driving, you will need to apply for an international driver’s licence while you’re still in Australia. When you hire the van, ask the company for the best insurance to ensure you’re covered for accidents. Other options include checking if your travel insurance covers hiring a van.

For budgeting, think about the cost of petrol and unexpected fees like tows, breakdowns and insurance. Definitely have an emergency fund in case things go wrong.

If you are going for an extended van trip overseas, look into the cost of buying a van already kitted out and then selling it at the end of the trip. 

VM: Any tips for making the funds last longer?

KB: Shop locally! Look for farmers’ markets so you can stock up on produce, cook from scratch and avoid pre-made meals. I only eat out maybe once or twice a week and cook as much as I can when I’m travelling in the van to lower costs, because petrol is already a high cost.

There are also lots of opportunities for long-term travellers, such as pet or house sitting through sites like Nomador, living and learning on farms through WWOOF, or volunteering through Workaway. These sites give you a break from moving around, so you can save some money.

Ready to take the leap into van life?

When you have a savings account on the Virgin Money app, you also have access to Lock Saver - our feature that lets you lock away your money and stay accountable for your savings goals so you can make your dream holiday happen sooner.

Find out more about Lock Saver