Experience #Vanlife on the Cheap With a Minivan

From my comfy minivan, I camped on the beach in Mexico for $7, and enjoyed views like this one of the Sea of Cortez by opening up the rear hatch— for my own version of #vanlife on the cheap. (Photo: Starre Vartan)

If you search the hashtag "vanlife" on Instagram, you'll see that it's used more than 6.5 million times — and that number just keeps clicking up. As someone who followed various vanlifers for years, it seemed like a big commitment though; many of the people had sold their homes or let their leases go and were living full-time in their vans, traveling around taking glorious pictures. Most common were couples with photogenic dogs and abs to kill for. I have neither of those things, and my partner of a decade definitely wasn't going to give up our lease and sleep in a van. (He's the luxe-hotel type.)

But I figured out a way to have a little vanlife of my own, without giving up my home, adopting a cute dog (tempting!) or convincing my partner to come along on an adventure he has no interest in. Here's how I did my own version of vanlife on the cheap.

View of Las Ventanas beach in Baja, Mexico.
For years, I had dreamt of my own solo #vanlife trip to Baja, Mexico. And one morning, I woke up to this view of the beach at Las Ventanas from the trip I had imagined for so long. What a reward!. (Photo: Starre Vartan)

Making the vanlife dream my own

Some of the earliest vanlifers customized vans themselves, often making the conversion of the vehicle — ranging from old vans to brand-new ones — a part of their story. But these days, you can buy pre-built camping vans, or you can hire experts to upgrade your Vanagon or other Eurovan, or even rent a camping van from a regional company like Peace Vans that's ready to hit the road.

But I didn't have the time or the money to buy a van or retrofit one, and since I wanted to do my trip solo, renting a van would be over my budget. (Though it's such a great idea for a small group!)

I had a specific travel plan for my #vanlife fantasies: I really wanted to complete a dream I'd had for years: to drive the entire West Coast of the U.S. from Seattle to the tip of Baja. I wanted to take a month to do it (which would also be pricy to do in a rental) so I could continue working a few days here and there along my voyage, since I'm a freelancer. I wasn't working full-time, but I also didn't just have a month off with no commitments, either.

A minivan is a van, too

My dream came together in a bit of a roundabout way: This past spring, I had to transport some furniture from Connecticut to Washington state. I had originally planned on renting a UHaul van to do it, but when I researched it, I saw that a one-way rental was over $3,000. (Vans are only for local moves, so that was the price for the smallest truck — and that cost didn't even include gas.) So, I got creative and figured I could buy an inexpensive minivan, take the seats out, pack it with my stuff, make the drive, and then sell it when I got to the West Coast.

Starre Vartan driving through the northern desert in Baja, mexico.
I love a good solo roadtrip, but Seattle to the tip of Baja was an epic one, even for me. Driving through the desert in the north of Baja was both beautiful and a little unsettling as there were no facilities or gas stations whatsoever through long stretches. (Photo: Starre Vartan)

I did just that; with the help of a good friend, Jim Motavalli (who wrote about that part of my adventure here), I found an 1998 Pontiac TransPort van with 119,000 miles that had only had one owner for $850. When I got the West Coast, I realized the trusty old van (which had been kept very clean by the previous family who had only used it for roadtrips), would be perfect for sleeping in — just the thing for my long-imagined Baja trip. So I took the seats out again, gave it a good vacuuming, a fresh oil change, and set up the back of the van with an extra-thick mattress topper I'd stored away, a sleeping bag and pillow, and a fluffy old duvet.

As I laid in the back of the van before my trip began, testing out the comfort of my "bed" (verdict: shockingly comfortable), I realized I had made my own little, inexpensive #vanlife dream come true. I was going to Baja.

Playa Cocos, one of the many beaches you can camp on for a nominal fee in Baja, Mexico, along the Sea of Cortez.
Playa Cocos, one of the many beaches you can camp on for a nominal fee in Baja, Mexico, along the Sea of Cortez. (Photo: Starre Vartan)

The epic vanlife roadtrip

I didn't sleep in the van every night of my trip, but probably about a third of them, saving lots of money on accommodations, which allowed me to splurge a couple of times too, including staying in a refurbished Airstream trailer in Ensenada on my first night in Mexico and a lovely converted sugar mill with a to-die-for pool in Todos Santos.

A minivan was perfect for one person on a long trip. I was able to use the passenger seat to keep all my food and snacks at arm's length (another easy way to save money and avoid junk food on my roadtrip, which I'm now a pro at). Just behind the passenger seat I kept all my emergency supplies, like a small first-aid kit; a gallon of extra gas for Baja because in certain areas, gas stations are few and far between; and chains for my tires for mountain passes in California, Oregon, and Washington, which are required in the winter.

Behind my driver's seat and stretching all the way to the back hatch-door was my extra-cozy bed, and next to my bed, all my clothes. I brought plenty because I needed winter-to-summer wear and didn't need worry about doing much laundry. (Why not? I had plenty of room for them.)

A sunrise over the Sea of Cortez.
Enjoying a sunrise like this one over the Sea of Cortez from the comfort of your van is peak #vanlife. (Photo: Starre Vartan)

I slept in the van in the cold of an early winter night in Ashland, Oregon. (My sleeping bag and duvet combo was so warm I actually almost got too hot in the middle of the night!). I did the same at the incomparably gorgeous Big Sur campground at Limekiln State Park. There I fell asleep with moonlight streaming into my window, gently blocked by the van's rear tinted windows — and woke to the Pacific Ocean just feet from my van. I stayed with friends in Los Angeles and for my first few nights in Mexico but honestly, I missed sleeping in the van, and enjoyed a number of inexpensive ($5-$7 per night) nights on beaches that had hot showers and bathrooms nearby.

And as you can see from the pictures here, I enjoyed the vanlife camping on various Mexican beaches on the Sea of Cortez, each different from the one before, all inexpensive, and most with great little cafes with WiFi and plenty of hot water for showers and with bathrooms nearby.

A curvy road with the Sea of Cortez in the distance in Baja, Mexico.
Miles of road — most of them entirely empty and with incredible views — make driving in Baja a joy and a pleasure. (Photo: Starre Vartan)

The trip was everything I had hoped it would be, and I had an incredible time — and yes, I drove all the way back, too!

I couldn't have done the trip without holding onto a travel dream for years, the help of an old friend as well as some wonderful Mexican strangers. (I had to replace my fuel pump and got an oil change at one point on the trip and everyone could not have been more helpful.)

And of course it never would have happened without a funny old green van — her name is Ethel — who carried me and sheltered me safely as I slept. #Vanlife indeed. Or maybe that should be #minivanlife?