Free? Huh? I bet you saw this post title and wondered how it was possible that we got a FREE campervan rental!? Well… let me go back to August 29th. So there we were in Cairns, Australia, saying goodbye to our good friends, Marty and Ann, and totally unsure of what was next to come. James and I didn’t have any upcoming plans set in stone, but we were thinking of heading down to Brisbane at some point soon, and we were trying to do it as cheaply as possible.
Fortunately, we had heard from some fellow travelers back in China (in April) about getting FREE campervan rentals all over Australia and New Zealand, so we spent some time thoroughly researching these options and closely following rental websites. To our surprise, there actually are quite a few websites and companies that offer FREE CAMPERVAN AND MOTOR HOME RENTALS! Awesome! Why are they “free” you may be wondering? Well, technically these rentals are actually “relocations” – where the company has an excess of cars/vans/motorhomes in one city, but is lacking vehicles in other cities. Believe it or not, it is actually more cost effective for the company to have a resident or tourist drive their vehicles from point A to B then if they had to ship or drive the vehicles themselves. Some companies also offer free insurance, gas, and some even offer travel expenses as well! Incredible, right?
The catch: only certain cities and routes are offered on pretty sporadic dates, so you have to be flexible and/or not completely rely on getting a free rental. In addition, you often get a limited time period to deliver the car… so you mostly are go-go-go on the road and don’t have a lot of extra time for longer stops in any of the cities along the way. Also, the petrol (gas) in Australia is pretty expensive, so it’s often more cost effective to just take a quick flight instead.
[**SIDE NOTE** I realized that some of these websites actually offer TRANSFERS IN THE UNITED STATES AS WELL!! Most of the routes are from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, San Francisco, and Arizona. I was surprised I had never heard of this before, and I think we’ll definitely have to look into it in the future!]
For weeks before we even entered Australia, I was stalking the website www.transfercar.com.au, watching the different routes we thought we might want to take throughout Australia: Cairns to Brisbane. Brisbane to Sydney. Sydney to Melbourne. Melbourne to Adelaide. To my excitement, there were actually a LOT of cars available on many different dates for these routes! I was told by several Australian residents that most tourists tend to drive from southern to northern Australia, so the fact we were doing the opposite meant there were a lot of cars “stranded” in the north that needed to be driven to the south. Perfect for us!
We applied for a campervan online at one of these websites for the Cairns to Brisbane route, which was a bit over 1,000 miles. Surprisingly, only hours later we received a phone call from the rental company asking us for more details about ourselves and what our plans were for the rental… and we were very quickly approved! But we said we needed a little time to think about it, and IT WAS GOOD THAT WE WAITED, as we soon realized we totally pulled a ROOKIE MOVE: We applied for—and almost accepted—a rental that included NOTHING for free: no insurance and no gas! We did the math and calculated that it would cost us around $300 in gas for the Cairns-to-Brisbane route, plus who knows how much more in insurance. No wonder the woman called us right away: I’m sure nobody else wanted to pay to relocate that particular van!
We scoured the websites looking for other possibilities, and got turned down for the next van we applied for—darn! We spent an extra day or two in Cairns, waiting around for another company to get back to us, and we began to think that we might end up just having to splurge on flights instead. But then— a bite! The rental company, Apollo, had a campervan that needed to be driven to Brisbane from Cairns in four days and included insurance AND $250 of gas!! We were accepted, picked up the van on the morning of September 1st, and were on our way! Weeee!
We were both SO PLEASED, also, that the van seemed very new, clean, and had a lot of amenities in it! We had totally expected to get some kind of old junker van, or maybe a barely-running “hippie camper.” NOPE! Instead, we had a two-person campervan with an amazing back area which included: a sink with running water, a gas stovetop, a refrigerator, decent quality dishes, utensils, and pots, a cushioned seating area with table, an extended ceiling top (so you could actually fully stand up in the back area of the van!), and the ability to convert the whole seating area into a bed!
We set off from Cairns in the morning, after filling up our fridge with a ton of healthy foods for breakfasts, lunches, and dinners for our driving and camping adventure ahead. We basically had three and a half days to cover 1,050 miles on mostly two-lane highways down the coast of eastern Australia. As a comparison, that distance is about the same as the distance from Milwaukee, WI to Denver, CO, and pretty much the same as Los Angeles to Denver as well.
DAY ONE, September 1st: Cairns to Airlie Beach
We both were riding pretty “high” our first day, excited that we were on the open road, driving in a foreign country, bound for who knows where! [See a video of our excitement, driving on the open road here.] James quickly eased into driving our huge van, along with adjusting to driving on the RIGHT side of the car, on the LEFT side of the road! Yea… pretty fun 🙂 We plugged in my ipod to the stereo (what a treat!!) and cruised along to some lovely music and chatted about life and our grand adventure.
We whizzed by Kangaroo, Koala, and Cassowary crossing signs and pondered how strange it would be to see any of these creatures in person, on the road. Pretty much this whole route down through Queensland is all a basic, two-lane highway… one lane going either direction on each side. There are occasional passing lanes, but it’s not like the grand 2-3 lane freeways we have in the U.S. Because of this, we knew that the journey would take a bit longer… about 20 hours over 3 1/2 days to be exact. And keep in mind: we didn’t have any internet on our phones on the road; no google maps, no browsing web pages for information of places to visit. I was just us, the van, a road map, and the open road.
The song “Free” by Zac Brown Band came on my ipod as the sun was setting and the sky began to turn a pretty yellow and pink color. The whole experience of all these senses at once TOTALLY summed up our feeling the day: truly amazing. You MUST listen to the song now… even when I listen to it now, I can feel myself back there again… http://youtu.be/KZKaD6Gn9cc
Anyway, so we “hustled” to try to make the seven-hour drive that day to reach Airlie Beach; a cute little beach town where backpackers often hang out. It’s also the launching point for any Whitsunday Island cruises. Back in 2010, my friend Julie and I stayed in Airlie beach and really loved it!… hence the reason I wanted to come back through the cute little
town with James. We arrived around 7:30pm, and I got to work in the back of the van, chopping up ingredients for a lovely salad. We found a nice picnic table area right down by the water, and enjoyed our dinner as we listened on to LIVE MUSIC that was playing in the area. We were so fortunate to actually have a small band playing outside near us that night! The UNfortunate part of this story, however, is that we hadn’t really secured a place to camp for the night. We had searched online ahead of time for FREE camping areas along our route (which there are quite a few of them—but they are usually in more secluded “in the middle of nowhere” areas), but we hadn’t found anything for free or cheap in Airlie Beach. We ended up spending a great deal of time trying to figure out if we could just park along the road somewhere, and we even drove a little out of town to see if we could just park in a lot in an industrial park area… but we were WAY too worried about getting in trouble with the police for “camping” in an area that we weren’t supposed to. After a bit of struggle, we finally gave up and paid a damn 25 DOLLARS!? just to park our van in a loud, crowded back lot area of a special car/hotel park–which is honestly a ridiculous price, because this GEM of a place was in the middle of a bunch of bars and didn’t even include ANYTHING—no electricity, water, food, or internet. We could have just stayed at a hostel for a little more money! *SIGH* Oh well… that’s what happens when you don’t PLAN!
DAY TWO, September 2nd: Airlie Beach to Somewhere?
We woke up after a surprisingly RESTFUL night’s rest… the fold out bed in the back of the van was actually very comfortable!! And with our eye masks and ear plugs, we slept like babies. We had our breakfast in the van and then set out to walk around town and explore Airlie Beach a little. We admired the town’s amazing man-made “lagoon” and then laid on the beach for awhile and enjoyed the sun while we could. Then it was back on the road!
At some point along our route, we stopped at a McDonald’s to attempt to get free WIFI. Something to know about Australia: good and free WIFI is astonishingly hard to come by, and most of the time it hardly works! McDonald’s is pretty much the ONLY chain company that always has free WIFI in Australia, so it often became our go-to place to try to hook into the internet.
We searched online for campsites for the night, and then set out on a HUGE drive for the day, hoping to arrive to a free camping area we found that was close to Hervey Bay. I was really interested in visiting Fraser Island, so we figured if we could get as CLOSE to Hervey Bay (one of the main launching points to get to Fraser) as possible, then we would have less driving in the morning. We had a very non-eventful drive down the coast that day, stopping only for dinner in a gas station parking lot (again, having that back area of the van was priceless!) As before, we admired all the scenery along the way, which was mainly open plains, some mountains, and a lot of bush fields. We never DID see a Kangaroo in the wild, but we sadly saw some on the side of the highway as roadkill 🙁
We managed to cover TEN HOURS of driving that day!.. and arrived to the free campsite close to midnight. We were very pleased the parking/camping area wasn’t too hard to find, but we felt a little bad rolling into the lot with our BRIGHT headlights flashing onto all the other campers so late at night!
Since we covered SO much ground our first two days of driving, we established a whole extra day to explore! Again, we had hoped to visit Fraser Island, so we got up early from our free campsite and drove the hour or so to Hervey Bay and began to search for an information office to find out more details. To my complete dismay, we were quickly informed that THE LAST TOURS TO FRASER ISLAND FOR THE DAY JUST LEFT FIFTEEN MINUTES AGO!!… AND, it really was NOT recommend to visit the Island on our own without an all-terrain vehicle (which was incredibly expensive and fairly dangerous). Doh!! I was crushed. We weren’t sure what else to do for the day, since we had nothing else planned and no easy access to internet. Once again, due to lack of planning (which is not normally “me”), we were disappointed and left with nothing to do.
We set out to search for a McDonalds so we could get free WIFI. Fortunately, we found a HUGE location with decent internet, and then ended up spending almost THREE HOURS doing research! We realized we needed to figure out where we were dropping the van off tomorrow in Brisbane, we needed to find a hotel or hostel in Brisbane, James needed to send emails regarding his upcoming job in South Africa, we needed to figure out where we were camping for the night, and of course—what were we going to do for today!? Tell me: HOW IN THE WORLD did people travel before the internet!??
I was bummed that we got SO wrapped up in the internet for so many hours, as we now didn’t have much time to do anything else that afternoon. The sun would be setting around 5:30pm, and we wanted to try to reach our next campsite before it got too dark.
After randomly driving around, we managed to find the site we were looking for, paid our $15 entry free, plugged in our van to electricity, which we NEEDED (both of our laptops were dead and our cellphones pretty low), and decided to just try to stay positive for the night in order to “wipe away” the disappointment of the lack of activities and excitement from earlier in the day. We cooked up a nice meal together and shared a bottle of wine, and just celebrated our fun little camping adventure together. It actually was a great end to a somewhat crappy day.
DAY FOUR, September 4th, Brisbane
We only had a couple hours driving to reach Brisbane, so it was a very easy driving day. We managed to find the Apollo van drop-off location, went through the return process, and got $250 of gas from our trip refunded back to us from the company. Since James was leaving the next day for South Africa, we decided to visit an Australian animal sanctuary in Brisbane, not only so we could have a nice last day experience together, but also so that James could actually SEE native Australian animals in person! We went to the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, and it was truly wonderful! We talked to many interesting birds including Kookaburras, watched Tasmanian devils being fed [see the video here], watched Koalas SUPER close up [see a video of Koalas here], and we even got to HOLD a Koala! We ended our zoo experience in a HUGE field of Kangaroos, petting and playing with them, which was a really cool experience.
Overall, it was a lovely day, and a lovely three-day driving and camping adventure together!
In total, we had spent around $350 in gas for our little camping adventure and got $250 refunded from the van company (we were mostly over in price because we took side trips and such), and then spent $25 for the initial van booking fee, $17 in extra insurance, and $40 for campsites. That brings our 3 1/2 day and 3 night camping adventure to a “whopping” total of $182 AUD! That comes out to $164 USD, which is $28/per person per day. NOT BAD for a fun little driving and camping adventure together down the Australian coast! Not bad at all!
To see a fun video of us driving our campervan in Australia, click here.
To see photos from our camping adventure, click here.
To see photos from the Brisbane animal sanctuary (and other photos from Brisbane), click here.
If you are interested in knowing more about car/van/motorhome relocation, here are a few websites/companies I found:
Imoova.com (this is the site we actually booked our van through… we had to pay a $25 booking fee though. bummer.)
Apollo (this is a rental company that we actually got our van through, and apparently they have their OWN page for relocations. Guess we could have booked through here to avoid the darn $25 fee on Imoova.com)
Drivenow (another car relocation site. never used them, but they look good)
Vroom Vroom Vroom (a website that finds car rentals from various companies… we used this to book any rental cars we needed in Australia. Apparently they have their own page for relocations… although it seemed a bit outdated.)