How to (Not) Rent a New Zealand Camper Van

In 2013, we completed a 4,000 mile, 3-week long RV-powered US road trip, but despite the miles and hours navigating the freeways and scenic byways – even valet parking at Las Vegas’ Bellagio Hotel – we always knew we were the exception, an anomaly, on the road. We slowed other traffic, had to get very creative – sometimes sneaky – regarding parking and camping spots. We rarely saw another RV apart from the RV parks, and some of those land yachts hadn’t moved in years; they were permanent.

In New Zealand, on the other hand, camper vans were everywhere. Thirty minutes after leaving the Auckland airport, we pulled into a shopping center in search of something warmer to wear than Samoan flip-flops and t-shirts, and camper vans were scattered throughout the car park – and this in the middle of the Southern Hemisphere winter. Minutes later we were standing in a rented Maui camper hosted by an Australian on holiday. A frequent camper-vanner, he couldn’t sell us enough on the experience. Prior to arriving in New Zealand, we thought we might want to rent a camper van and tool around a bit, but after just s few hours on the ground, we knew we wanted in!

So, what did we do, we waited.

We headed for what we hoped would be comfortable (and inexpensive), lodging at the LDS Temple in Hamilton. We would go there for a few days, look for Hobbits, do some research, make a reservation. Easy.

A couple of problems with our plan. One, our Hamilton lodging had no WiFi and our mobile signal only worked by driving to the top of a nearby hill. Additionally, New Zealand’s school break was right around the corner and those in the know had already reserved practically all of the island nation’s campers. We didn’t know this, however, and ignorance is bliss. And we were blissful, alright. Have you been to New Zealand? IT. IS. MAGNIFICENT.

A couple of days later, we got serious about #vanlife. We’d seen scores of camper vans on the roadways and plentiful signs – special parking areas, “holiday parks”, roadside signage, and the like – that camper vans were part of the Kiwi culture. We absolutely wanted a Kiwi house on wheels. Still without reliable connectivity, we did what any vagabond family would do, we headed for McDonald’s and their free Wi-Fi.

Our search began with Skyscanner which is my favorite site/app for finding inexpensive flights and rental cars, and upon arrival in New Zealand I noticed that camper vans are also available! I love this place! After a few empty leads, however, it became apparent that we might have a challenge finding a family-sized camper for the dates we wanted – our proposed trip landing in the middle of the aforementioned NZ school holiday. A few tweaks to dates and pick-up/drop-off locations, though, and Skyscanner gave us a WINNER. I clicked through and completed the reservation form on Motorhome Republic, hitting “Reserve” and heading for Pak n Save to stock up on supplies – and by supplies, we mean frozen meat pies and Cadbury Chocolate.

A couple of hours later, however, I read the Motorhome Republic “confirmation” email which informed me they were unable to secure the reservation I thought we had, but instead I could choose from “…the following alternatives”. And by alternatives, they meant mostly 2-to-4 person campers. Not gonna work, I’m afraid. Turns our Motorhome Republic doesn’t actually have their own campers, but instead brokers reservations between customers and suppliers. Their site is solid and customer support was as helpful as possible; just not exactly what I thought we were getting when I first clicked.

Motorhome Republic, however, lists the names of each underlying supplier, so I Googled the names and came up with a list of phone numbers and started dialing them directly. Several “No’s” and “Do you know anyone that might have a camper?” led finally to a “Yes”! Finally, victory from the jaws of defeat! We quickly packed up – having spent the whole day holed up at McDonald’s, and headed back north to Auckland. A family-sized van available for pick-up the next day and returnable nearly 3 weeks later in Christchurch. Perfect.

The next morning we turn up at Kiwi Auto Homes in Auckland to find two gorgeous campers parked in front, and Paul with the necessary paperwork. What a beautiful sight! (Did I tell you NZ was stunningly beautiful…?)

“Not so fast, my friend!”

The good news: There were two campers. The not-so-good news: Neither camper – despite assurances via phone the day before – was available for the number of days we requested.

“That’s not going to work for us.” We say.

“Oh…” Paul says.

This is not our first rodeo. Our love of travel and disdain for plans. (Research, yes; plans, no) has given us ample opportunity to participate in these types of negotiations. We can handle this, or rather Becky can, she’s a relentless negotiator. Besides, this guy is a mustachioed grandpa-type with that kiwi accent. He could call our children ugly, insult our intelligence and make fun of our choice in fashion (we did), and we’d still think it was a lovely conversation; to the American ear, the kiwi accent is like audible sunshine.

We waited. The tension then evaporated with an offer to “…let me see what I can do.” Many, many phone calls, however, were incapable of improving our situation. There just weren’t any campers available once the school holiday kicked off. Bummer. All was not lost, however, we could have the camper for almost the number of days we wanted – we’d just have to get a rental car and hotels for the last two days we planned to spend in the South Island. In consideration of the difference in expense Paul discounted our rate. All was good.

If you get the opportunity to camper van in NZ…can we come with you?!?! Not kidding. We will count the days until we return. But we’ll be sure to reserve our van from Kiwi Auto Homes well in advance!

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Camper van and the Milky Way. It doesn’t get any better!

*Note: I realize Kiwi Auto Homes is mentioned repeatedly above…see, I did it again, but other than a discount for the misunderstanding regarding our reservation, we received no further consideration from Kiwi. Paul, Keran and Allister are just great to deal with and gave us a great product at a very fair price. Give them a call and see if you don’t agree.

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