The latest luxury getaway: a van trip.
Attracted by Instagram images of a free-spirited, simpler way to travel, older consumers are turning to vans for their trips, while adding the high-end spin they can afford. Forget the beat-up Volkswagen bus: These travelers are shelling out for custom-fitted Mercedes-Benz or Ram ProMaster vans for their life on the road.
“The thing I like so much about van life is the simplicity,” says 55-year-old John Kennedy, now on his first big road trip, to California, in his $75,000 revamped Ram ProMaster. Mr. Kennedy, owner of a window-cleaning business in Aspen, Colo., bought the van last summer and two months ago picked it up from a conversion specialist, now outfitted with a double bed, stove and custom maple cabinets. The one thing his van doesn’t have: a bathroom, which means using public facilities.
That is a small price to pay for freedom, he says. “It’s being able to go down a road, stop and pull over to sleep, and start again when you’re ready.”
The van life—or #vanlife—phenomenon began on social media several years ago with photos of twentysomethings peering out at beach and mountain vistas from vans decorated with flowing drapes and colorful quilts. The images took off on the internet and caught the attention of older consumers who not only can afford luxury setups, but are also at a point in life when they can take extended, if not permanent, time off.
Owners of van conversion shops say business is booming, thanks in large part to empty nesters and semi-retirees who can afford a custom van that, all included, can cost $100,000 and up. Blue Ridge Adventure Vehicles in Asheville, N.C., says its business has increased each year in the last three years. More than half of the customers at Vanlife Customs in Denver, are retired or semi-retired, owner Dave Walsh says.
“They’re getting rid of their giant motorhomes and doing this,” says Erik Ekman, owner of Outside Van in Portland, Ore. His business has doubled from a year ago, he says, thanks largely to consumers in their 50s and 60s. “That’s when you have the freedom, the mobility and the money,” he says.
For that freedom, van travelers give up some amenities that other vacationers would see as a dealbreaker. The spaces are tiny, especially for two people, and life with a portable toilet isn’t for everyone. And while vanlifers bypass travel expenses including lodging and restaurants, gas prices this summer are expected to be the highest in years.
Retirement experts say the van life reflects a new way that people want to retire. Rather than work straight through until a certain age, more people are spreading out their leisure time, whether it’s between jobs or working a few hours a week as they travel. “Boomers are reinventing retirement and saying ‘I get to live my life the way I want,’” says Jaye Smith, the 63-year-old co-founder of Reboot Partners, a consulting firm that specializes in retirement and career breaks.
For some people, sleeping in the van at night can take some getting used to. “As soon as the sun sets, I get petrified,” says Lauren Costantini, a 48-year-old former chief executive of a medical-device company who is semi-retired. “I put the window coverings up and I feel better.” She recently returned home to Boulder, Colo., after a successful four-month trip across the country on her own.
Edward Lawlor two years ago bought a custom remodeled Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van from Outside Van for $130,000, which he takes out on the road with his wife Betsy for three to five weeks every few months. The former dean at Washington University in St. Louis is semi-retired and teaches on a flexible schedule. The couple has traveled in the van through New England and Nova Scotia in the summer and to New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast in the winter.
The idea for the van came in the summer of 2012, when the couple rented an RV. The vehicle’s size and battery-power limitations meant the Lawlors would take it to campgrounds at night to plug into electricity for air conditioning and the microwave. “We hated it,” says Mr. Lawlor, 63. The campsites were typically crowded and noisy. On the road, they had met couples who converted cargo vans into smaller, more nimble setups. “I decided this would be our ticket,” he says.
The Lawlors’ van conversion includes three 12-volt batteries that power the living amenities when the van is parked and turned off. (The batteries recharge by way of an auxiliary power system while the van is running and can last for four days without another charge). The van has a separate heating system, a roof vent with rain sensor that can shut automatically, an induction cook top, refrigerator and microwave oven. A 20-gallon tank supplies water to the kitchen and the shower. Thetford Corp.’s Curve Porta Potti serves in lieu of a built-in bathroom. An aluminum-framed bed sits three feet over the floor, allowing for storage beneath.
“It’s close quarters,” Mr. Lawlor says. “But you learn little tricks to stay out of each other’s way.” One tip: Don’t try to pass by when someone is cooking.
Like many Vanlifers, the Lawlors like that they can park most anywhere overnight with their van, which is about 19 feet long and 8 feet wide and fits snugly into most parking spaces and roadside nooks. He uses a cellphone app called Allstays that provides information on camping and parking restrictions, and hasn’t yet had a problem with overnight stays.
“We aim to do all the active things that Vanlifers do,” Mr. Lawlor says. “It’s not for young people alone.”
Melody Shapiro, a 74-year-old retired psychotherapist in Hood River, Ore., says her Sprinter van, purchased six years ago, offers a private retreat wherever she needs it, whether it’s a mile away by the river or at her son’s house in Monterey, Calif. “I just park it at the house. I can sleep in it, have my coffee in the morning and I don’t wake everybody up.”
Still, things can go wrong. In the first two weeks of Ms. Costantini’s cross-country trip, a leak developed in the ceiling while it was raining in California. “That was the most stressful time. I pulled out my pots and pans and was filling them,” she recalls. At a service station in Las Vegas, a $140 repair involving silicone caulking did the job.
Things can also happen back at home. During the Lawlors’s five-week trip last year, there was a power outage at the apartment in St. Louis. “Our freezer leaked and damaged the floor,” Mr. Lawlor says. Fortunately, the landlord was forgiving.
Write to Anne Marie Chaker at email@example.com
IS VAN LIFE FOR YOU?
Try it first: Before forking over the cash for a revamped van, it’s worth considering trying one. Converted vans can be rented by the day from sites such as Outdoorsy.com, where individuals rent theirs when not in use. (A converted Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van in Washington, D.C., that can sleep three is listed for $439 a night in the summer.)
Sizing it up: Popular models for Vanlifers include the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, Ram ProMaster and Ford Transit. Cargo area—or the living space behind the front seats—typically ranges from 10 to 16 feet long by four to six feet wide. Ceilings are often just over six feet high.
Conversion specialists tell consumers to consider what is important to them. Do they need a cook top? Would they rather have extra counter space and barbecue outdoors? Do they plan on being on the road much of the time? A bathroom may be worth considering. How important is additional storage?
Find a specialist: Car companies recommend that consumers use conversion specialists who are familiar with weight and structural limits. “If someone is building a space inside, it’s important that they’re not overloading a vehicle,” says Dave Sowers, head of Ram commercial marketing.
Camp smart: Popular places for Vanlifers to park include the 245 million acres of public lands managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management, mostly found in 12 western states. People can park or camp in most locations for up to 14 days before moving on, says Larry Ridenhour, an outdoor recreation planner with the agency.
Use common sense, experts say: Keep the doors locked, and keep food away from hungry animals. Kevin Broom, spokesman for the RV Industry Association in Reston, Va., suggests travelers keep a paper map in case their cell phone runs out. “Know where you are and where the closest ranger station or phone is,” he says. Make sure you add the vehicle to your insurance policy and consider signing up for a roadside assistance program, he advises.
Park smart: When it comes to parking lots, check on the rules. Some welcome van travelers: “We allow them in our parking lots,” says Walmart spokesman Charles Crowson, though individual store managers have the final say. “If they need provisions, it’s right there at the store.”