With a myriad of labels used to describe vehicles for the independent traveler, such as Campervan, Camper, Motorhome, Motor Home, Winnebago, RV, Combi, Kombi, Class-A, Class-B and Class-C to name a few, choosing the right kind of vehicle can be confusing from the outside.
The common terms used in New Zealand are Camper or Campervan, Motorhome and Sleeper Van. Campers are vans that have been converted for independent travel and contain similar features to their larger cousin the Motorhome. A Fiat Ducato or Ford Transit style of van is popular for these conversions and the finished product is a modern, easy to drive vehicle.
Motorhomes on the other hand have a cabin built on a van or light truck chassis. Typically constructed from fiber glass, with alluminium skin over plywood traditionally used, the cabin is wider than the chassis base making Motorhomes more spacious. Driving is reasonable straight forward and the models available for rental only require a standard driver's license.
Motorhomes and Campervans are self-contained and support you with the comforts of home, albeit miniaturized. Self-contained vehicles have a sink, hob or cooker, fridge, toilet and shower. The level of self-containment varies but there is a New Zealand Standard (NZS 5465: 2001) developed by the New Zealand Motor Caravan Association (NZMCA), a body that represents private motorhome owners. The rental motorhome companies are starting to take their vehicle although the certification process and it is worth enquiring about this as you research rental options. The essence of the self-containment standard states a vehicle must be designed to completely meet the ablutionary and sanitary needs of the occupants for at least three days, being equipped with water storage tanks for drinking and cooking and have waste water holding tanks.
A Sleeper Van is a Camper that does not meet the self-containment criteria. Beware that this definition is not industry wide and it is not uncommon for a Sleeper Van to be referred to as a Campervan, simply because the vehicle is a van rather than a car. Purpose built Sleeper Vans are frequently constructed from people movers, such as Toyota's offering, and from station wagons. Because of the type of vehicle used in construction it is uncommon to able to stand. Sleeper Vans can have some elements of self-containment, such as a cooker and small refrigerator allowing lunch or a light meal to be made while out on the road. Sleeper vans, like campers, are easy to drive.
What makes for the best independent traveller vehicle comes down to personal preference and a balance between cost, comfort and the type of holiday you're after.
Perhaps the best place to start is deciding where you want to overnight, as this impact on the type of vehicle that will be suitable and also affects the budget. There are four options for overnighting in New Zealand.
1) Native Parks – is a network of rural properties and businesses that welcome travelers. You can stay on these properties free of charge, meets the local people and see a bit of their lives. A great way to see NZ beyond the beautiful scenery and they are not crowded. There's a real mix of people involved from large wineries to small artist plus action and adventure like diving, limestone caving and horse trekking. You do need a self-contained motorhome / campervan. Check out www.nativeparks.co.nz .
2) Campgrounds – there are a large number of campground that follow a traditional format. In recent years the number of campgrounds has been in decline, so they can get very busy in peak season (Christmas they are at capacity through to the end of February), so it is advisable to book ahead. The following sites may help www.topparks.co.nz or www.familyparks.co.nz .
3) DoC Campground (Department of Conservation) – typically have fewer facilities than other campgrounds, so a self-contained motorhome / campervan would make life more comfortable. They are often in very scenic locations and cheaper than privately operated camping grounds. Same situation occurs after Christmas as with other campgrounds. See [http://www.doc.govt.nz/Explore/003~Huts-Cabins-and-Campsites/Conservation-Campsites/index.asp]
4) Free / Wild / Freedom camping – just parking up wherever. Rarely permitted in much of NZ, though you can get away with it if you're sensible. Rules on freedom camping vary from district to district. The Native Parks guidebook highlights what's permitted in each district. In general terms do not overnight in "No Camping" areas or near established camping ground. It is advisable to be at least 10km from the urban boundary of any town or city. To freedom camp a self-contain motorhome / camper is a must.
If you prefer staying in camping grounds, but do not want the hassle of a tent a Sleeper Van may be a good fit. Do bear in mind that an established camping ground costs between $ 30 – $ 40 NZD per night for a couple, so it is possible for a Sleeper Van to cost more than a self-contained vehicle with the use of some of the options above on the odd night. If you do want to get away from it all, or you're looking for more comfort, a self-contained vehicle will be the way to go.
Past the obvious vehicle rental costs things to consider are wherever extra charges for one-way rentals apply, what are the insurance options and if road road user charges for diesel vehicles are included.
The easiest measure of comfort is size, though it is not the full story. There are many other considerations for comfort and again it comes down to personal preference. Do you need to make up the bed each night? Is there space to have some time out from your traveling companion (s)? Is there an awing to provide shade? How about appliances like microwave and air conditioning (NB power hungry appliances only work when the vehicle is connected to mains power)? These can be found in smaller vehicles so size should not be the only criteria when it comes to measuring comfort. If you are tall do ask about the ceiling height.
So there are a number of things to consider when determining what will be the right vehicle for your holiday. As with any purchase it is worth seeking out a company that backs up their vehicle with service and professionalism. These will not be hard to find, but if you are looking for a starting point there are a few suggestions on the Native Parks website.