Camper van rentals: A socially distant way to road trip in the American West

Did you miss your staycation summer road trip around Alaska?

As the temperature drops, travelers are looking to the national parks in the Lower 48 for some more socially distant holidays.

Two companies are designing rental fleets in different ways to appeal to these travelers — many of whom are younger than your traditional RV travelers.

“We have more than 650 camper vans in our fleet,” said Eric Fullerton, marketing director of Escape Campervans.

“We build each of our vans in L.A. We paint them and name them,” he said.

Up until this year, most of Escape Campervans' renters were Europeans. But as international travel evaporated, the company looked to U.S. travelers who wanted to go camping but didn’t want an RV.

“All of our camper vans fit in a regular parking place,” Fullerton said.

[As summer shifts to fall, Alaskans remaining in ‘staycation’ mode have plenty of options]

The company offers three models of Ford vans, set up to sleep between two and five travelers (with an optional rooftop sleeper). There’s also a “Jeep Camper” setup for two.

Vans are available in 10 locations around the U.S., including Seattle, Portland., L.A., Denver, Phoenix and Las Vegas.

“We’re always positioned next to airports,” Fullerton said. “People fly in and then drive away on their adventures.”

The locations in the southwestern U.S. are close to clusters of national parks in Utah, Colorado and California. But there also are wide swaths of state parks and BLM land waiting to be explored.

“We’re seeing more home-schooling families and more remote workers take advantage of our vans,” Fullerton said. “Lots of them just want to get out of the house.”

Prices vary by season and availability. Fullerton just started advertising a $99 weekend special in San Francisco and L.A. Starting Nov. 1, the special also will be available in Seattle.

Although it’s called a weekend special, it applies to any three- or four-day trip ($33 per day) that does not include Friday, Saturday or Sunday. The special includes a “Maverick” model, which is a full-size Ford van. Travelers can upgrade to a “Big Sur” model for an extra $10 per day.

There are several extras included in this special: a kitchen kit, bedding kit, up to five camp chairs and an electric kit, plus two propane bottles. Mileage and insurance charges are not included, and can be purchased separately.

Escape Campervans loads up plenty of information on its website, including itineraries for national parks in Utah, tips for traveling with kids and lots of how-to ideas.

Additionally, frequent renters monitor a couple of Facebook groups. First, I "liked” the Escape Campervans Facebook page. Then I requested to join the exclusive-deals private group to start seeing the last-minute and short-term specials.

Jonathan Distad started his RV rental company, Blacksford, in a different way. “I had a terrible experience trying to rent an RV for my family,” he said.

The episode caused him to problem-solve his way to an enjoyable family experience.

Blacksford offers all-inclusive pricing on brand-new Winnebagos. The RVs have a bigger footprint, between 19 and 26 feet long.

Distad called me from Bozeman, Montana, where the company has an in-airport location. It closed for the winter, but the Las Vegas location (also located in the airport) is open year-round. The company is planning to open in the Denver airport next spring.

In Las Vegas, Blacksford rents several RV models by Winnebago. The Class B Solis model sleeps four — it’s 19 feet long, from $249 per day. The Class C cab-over Porto model also sleeps four, from $199 per day. It’s 26 feet long.

Blacksford’s prices are all-inclusive. “Everything’s included: unlimited mileage, bedding, dishes, camp chairs — even a national parks pass,” Distad said. Mandatory insurance (about $30 per day) is extra, as are taxes.

Distad’s background as an IT consultant means the company is “all tech, all the time.” The company is open seven days a week. The website is easy to navigate and offers lots of information on the RVs themselves, as well as itinerary-planning questions, dog-friendly policies and special kids provisioning packs.

Because Blacksford is located at the Las Vegas airport, the staff will greet you at the gate when you fly in and walk you to your RV. If you get in late, they can assist you with overnight accommodations with a pick-up the next morning. The company also can arrange to provision your RV with groceries prior to your arrival.

The Las Vegas location is convenient for national parks and other outside adventures in Nevada, California, Utah and Arizona. You can plan your own itinerary, or Blacksford’s staff will assist you with campsite reservations and activities. There’s a $99-per-day fee for the “Guidepost” service.

Eventually, Blacksford plans to grow to more locations. “Our expansion plan is around national parks and airports that support us,” Distad said.

Whether you’re working remotely, home-schooling the kids or you just want to stretch your summer out a little longer, perhaps there’s a Lower 48 road trip in your future.

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