Thoughts after our first vanlife experience
Vanlife is a way of travel that became more and more popular during the last years. Especially during the pandemic when international travel was nearly impossible, numerous people started building their own vans to live out of while travelling trough their home country.
Since we love everything related to travel, we naturally were not ignorant to the trend that had surged and started debating wether this way of travel could be a possibility for us or not. So when we decided to book a trip to the Algarve, we decided it was time to put all these imaginary scenarios of us living in a van to the test and see for ourselves if this travel style would actually work out for us in reality.
So this post is a little different from our usual travel guides. Here, we wanted to share what we learned from our first vanlife experience and how this trip influenced our debate on wether this travel style is something for us or not. If you are in a similar position where you would like to find out if vanlife is for you, we hope you will find this post helpful!
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Keep in mind though that we ourselves were new vanlifers on this trip. So we do not have the insight of someone that lived in a van for years. And who knows, maybe someday we will change our mind. But right now these are our thoughts after our first vanlife experience!
After landing in Portugal, we got picked up by our rental company from the airport. After an introductory tour of the van, we were good to go on our own. The beginning of our first vanlife experience! And this is when we first felt this feeling of excitement – mixed with a little fear since we had never driven a van before and were now on our own with one in a foreign country. But ultimately excitement won the upper hand because we were absolutely free, free to go wherever we wanted to. We had no idea where we would sleep that night or which area we wanted to go to even.
In our head we had a vague idea of what we wanted to see during our trip but no set route. So we chose our next destination based on the weather and our mood. If it rained in one spot we drove a little further to a spot where the weather was slightly better. If we did not like a place, we were free to just leave and go somewhere else since we were not tied to any prior bookings. This spontaneity is a huge plus for us that we did not experience in any of our travels before.
You always have everything with you
This spontaneity is also closely tied to the fact that you always have all your things with you. In general while travelling, instead of changing locations every night, we prefer to choose a base for a few days and then explore the area from there. We adapted this way of travel because for one we realized that it is cheaper to travel like this. But also we do not like to pack and unpack every day. With vanlife this problem does not even exist in the first place. You unpack at the beginning of the trip and don’t have to pack until the end. And if you decide spontaneously that tonight you would rather sleep somewhere else this is no problem! Because your things are all with you and you can just park somewhere else.
It is also rather convenient to go to the supermarket since you can put everything in the fridge immediately in the parking lot when exiting the supermarket.
Good way to disconnect
We found that living in a van is a great way to disconnect from the outside world. We had no Wi-Fi and so we spent little to no time on our phones. During the day we explored and in the evenings we played card games, read books and talked a lot. If you live in a van more permanently this will change since you are probably going to have Wi-Fi then. But for our week-long trip, this was quite a nice feature.
Either way you live closer to the exterior and therefore closer to nature which we liked a lot. This is however not always a positive thing. In the next few sections, I will delve a little more into the less glamourous sides of this travel style.
More exposed to the weather
Like I mentionned in the previous paragraph, you live closer to the exterior. This is super nice if the weather is great. But if it rains, like it did on our trip for quite some time, you always live with the wet and cold right next to you. In Aljezur quite a big part of our van was occupied by muddy shoes and wet jackets. This is also were you will notice how small the space is. In general it is definitely not impossible to keep the van tidy, however you constantly need to clean up and put stuff away.
Also daily chores do occupy some of your headspace. You need to regularly check if there is enough water and power or if the graywater tank needs to be emptied. And then find places where you can do all of these things. For us personally this was not a huge drawback, but it is something to keep in mind.
The endless search for parking
However, the seemingly endless search for appropriate parking options was rather stressful to us. Since the Algarve has somewhat strict rules now on where you can camp overnight, especially inside their natural park, it was not that easy to always find a good spot. Finding a spot was definitely something that lingered in our heads all day everyday until we knew where we would stay.
Daytime parking was the same. When driving towards a city we usually looked up some parking lots beforehand, where we knew vans would be accepted. We did encounter parking lots where vans were not allowed at all. Especially in the regions around Benagil and east of Portimao. In these regions there were some towns where you really felt like you were not welcome when arriving in a van. Other areas like Sagres were absolutely no problem in terms of daytime parking though.
However, in Sagres parking overnight was not so easy. It seemed to us like knowing what is accepted and what not in terms of overnight parking is somewhat of a gray zone still. There is a huge parking lot in front of the fortress of Sagres where overnight parking is not allowed, if you believe all the signs around the parking lot. But from what we saw, there were still at least 20-30 campervans that stayed there every night. So I guess the parking situation highly depends on the area you are in and what you are willing to do or not.
If you are planning your first vanlife experience, the following advice might be helpful. Do not trust Google Maps blindly when navigating. There are some narrow roads that Google Maps tried to send us to that were impossible to pass in a van. So after a few of these instances we usually tried to stick to the main roads as much as possible. Even if that way we sometimes lost a few minutes. But ultimately this saved us from some stressful turn-arounds.
It is more expensive than you think
For some reason, vanlife is always portrayed as this affordable way of travel. You only need to rent the van and then that’s it right? Well, after doing the math on our expenses after our first vanlife experience, we realized that it is actually quite a bit more expensive as we first thought. If you wish to see our expenses in more detail, go to our post about our Algarve Route and Travel Cost.
There are a lot of hidden fees everywhere. You first of all pay rental fees for the van. These are already not that cheap compared to what the rent for another accomodation would cost. But I guess you take that into account since you don’t just rent an accomodation, but a way of travel and a lot of spontaneity. Then the fun starts! Since the Algarve is now very strict on where you can park overnight and where not, most places to park cost money. You pay for these parking spots in addition to the rental fee you already paid. Then there are still parking fees for daytime parking, gas, road tolls, laundry, sometimes fees for showers etc. So if you are not careful, costs add up quite fast.
We did manage to keep those extra fees quite low, except for the overnight parking spots. But then again we were only there for a week and everyone travels differently. I guess the important thing to do is to always put these expenses in relation to what the same money could buy you if you travelled differently. For some people the money is worth the perks they get from vanlife, for other people this is not the case. This is where you have to be honest with yourself and know what you want and what not.
For us right know vanlife is not the way we wish to travel. Financially speaking, buying or building a van would be way to expensive for us. With the limited days we have right now between work and studying, we would never be able to make the van profitable. And even if we had the time to do so, we would probably prefer to use that time to do more exotic trips right now.
If we leave out these external factors and focus solely on vanlife itself, we don’t hate it. But we are also not nessessarily head over heals for it. And don’t get me wrong, there are some real perks of doing vanlife! And we totally see ourselves doing some trips in a rental van in the future, if it is the best way to see a country! However we are probably also not going to go out of our way to make a trip in a van happen when other means of travel are a better option.
Like I said before this is our opinion after our first vanlife experience. I hope these thoughts were helpful to some of you!