People go on road trips for all sorts of reasons. To see things they’ve never seen before. To re-live or pass on childhood memories and experiences. To emulate those of an era or a culture different to their own, and connect themselves to that time when things were different.
To escape their day jobs and their sensible, linear lives for a while. To embrace the pioneering spirit of Americans just heading out and seeing what adventure they encounter.
Or – and we realize this is somewhat shocking – to actually go from one place to another, either as an experience or to attend some event or other at Point B.
The nature of the road trip, the exploratory journey from where we were to where we’ll be, takes in a whole lot of the social history of America, both inspiring and deeply troubling, and it’s certainly at the heart of the development of the America we know today.
And when the wanderlust calls to you, whatever you want to get out of the journey, you want a supercool van in which you can make the trip.
In trying to find the 5 best vans for road trips, for short and long-term travel, we’ve gone for a mixture of vans that speak to moments or experiences and vans that are just incredibly good at the job of getting you from A-B in a degree of comfort and style.
We’ve stuck to vans in the traditional sense though, rather than sneaking in RVs, winnebagos, or any of the ultra-buses that are available in the 21st century. It’s absolutely true that in any of those, you’ll travel across America in comfort and style, but we’ve stuck to actual vans to stay true to the spirit of the road trip.
Want to see our 5 best vans for road trips?
Here you go.
The Volkswagen Microbus
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You want an iconic road trip van, they don’t come more recognizable than the Volkswagen Type 2 – otherwise known as the Volkswagen Microbus.
Although it was launched in 1949, the Volkswagen Microbus achieved its highest point of fame in the 1960s as part of the hippie movement, and it retains that sense of freedom, exploration, open-mindedness and counter-culture.
Which, when you’re looking for the perfect van in which to escape your day-to-day life and hit the highways and back roads, feels hugely appropriate and in tune with your goals.
Although it has a length of just 14.5 feet, and a wheelbase of 7 feet, 10.5 inches, the weird key to the success of the original Microbus was that it could transport lots of people in relative comfort.
These days, you can get them in comfortable four-berth versions, and there’s nothing quite like the look and the face of them, meaning you may well get admiring looks as you pass other drivers (or more likely, they pass you).
If you’re wondering, we’d recommend shorter road trips in the Microbus – or at least, if you’re going to go longer, take the occasional day off traveling so you can stretch and breathe.
For a touch of pure 60s road trip class, the VW Microbus is unsurpassable. The patchouli, free love and flowers in your hair are between you and your van-mates.
Just to round the VW Microbus option out, despite not being made new since 2013 (and then only in Brazil), from 2023, the van will be available new again, this time in a distinctly hippie-friendly electric version.
The electric VW Microbus – surely the perfect road trip van for anyone with climate change on their minds.
Also Read: Best Road Trip ideas to Nashville
The Compact RV
Another design classic, the Compact RV is arguably the other iconic shape of van people immediately think of when they think of road trips.
With a vibe that speaks more to the traditional nuclear family than the VW Microbus, it was one of the first real home-away-from-home vehicles that could let Americans see great swathes of the country without being tied to motel chains.
One of the reasons it caught on in droves, to the point of almost defining our image of an early RV, is that while it felt like a basic concept, it worked really well, especially for small family groups.
Nothing’s ever changed that, and probably, nothing ever will. Sure, there are now super luxury RVs, but the Compact RV established what a real family road trip should feel like, and there’s a tinge of compression about that experience which you lose the more expansive and comfortable your RV gets. It should always feel like camping – but on wheels.
The Compact RV will always feel like camping on wheels, and that’s absolutely the attraction of having a road trip in one, even in the 21st century when technically, better options are almost everywhere. Road tripping in a Compact RV has an extra dimension of nostalgia that comfort can’t give you, and which is – perhaps bizarrely – so very worth it.
The Volkswagen California Ocean DSG
Yes, it’s a second Volkswagen. Because if there was to be a World Series of road trip vans of distinction, Volkswagen would win it twice as often as any other manufacturer, that’s why.
The California Ocean DSG is more or less a perfect synthesis of the spirit of the Microbus (including the pop-up roof) and the 21st century desire to be actually comfortable, rather than just notionally comfortable.
It can sleep four people in comfort, even on longer road trips, and Volkswagen has done a lot of work on the interior, meaning things are cunningly designed to maximize the useful space.
Does it have the same vintage vibe as either of our first two choices? Well, no, because it’s the 21st century and this is a van that was designed to reflect the reality of that.
But it has the same flavor as the first two – the idea that it’s a van that exists just so you can break with the ordinary and the everyday, hit the road, and live a mostly normal life.
The upgrade on that idea is that in the 21st century, what many people are prepared to agree constitutes a mostly normal life has advanced quite some way, so you get the significant upgrades in the latest model.
Let’s be clear here – we’re comparing the California as though it’s just rolled off the production line in the last two weeks. Volkswagen has been making the California for roughly a quarter-century.
So, while it might not have quite the nostalgic chops of the Microbus or the Compact RV, this is not some wet-behind-the-ears van with all its clumsiness still yet to work off. It’s just that the California is still part of the Volkwagen refinement operation, so it had a major upgrade in 2015, and then a subsequent, pretty significant redesign in 2019.
And with each re-think, Volkswagen uses the California to upgrade and evolve what a modern van for road tripping can include, should include, and does include.
Right now, it’s probably the first van everybody thinks of as the modern go-to for road tripping. Again, it hasn’t achieved that overnight, but it has achieved it through almost constant cycles of tweaking to meet ongoing road tripper needs.
By this point, it’s practically the Faberge egg of modern campervans, evolving further and further away from its source, the Volkswagen Transporter van.
Now it looks, if never quite as cutesy and up-for-hippie-mischief as the Microbus, then certainly like it has a personality all of its own – ready for the road, and whatever adventures lie along it.
1963 Ford Econoline Van
It’s a soft rule in our world that if a vehicle is cool enough to have had a song written about it, it deserves our respect. Thank you, Nanci Griffith, for immortalizing the Ford Econoline.
The 1963 Ford Econoline van is an oddish-looking creature, but it has the appeal of a faithful old family dog – and what better to take on a road trip than the faithful old family dog, right?
While on some levels, it seems to have the adoring eyes of that pet pooch, the 1963 Econoline is no slouch, and while, like others on our list, you’d struggle to fit an extended family in it comfortably, it has a degree of iconic, vintage status that makes it worth trying.
You could happily take either a long or short road trip in a 1963 Ford Econoline van without feeling particularly cramped or put-upon, which is where the Econoline surprises you – it has the look of a converted van for hauling vegetables down the interstate, but it’s surprisingly comfortable day after day for smaller groups, meaning you get used to living in it quickly.
Bigger than you think, and with a reliability inherent in classic 1960s engineering, the Ford Econoline only still exists on this planet for the sake of that surprised smile it will draw from you when you start road tripping in it. Literally, that’s all it’s for now, that smile.
Plus, the bonus is you get to play Nanci Griffith on a loop and it never gets old. You’ll never play the song again once you get home, but for the length of your road trip, it will be perfect.
What happens when a Compact RV and a monster truck love each other very much?
You get an EarthRoamer XV-HD, that’s what.
Probably the closest thing on our list to an actual 21st century pimped-out RV, the EarthRoamer still gives a respectful hat-tip to the Compact RV in its shape, if not in its size.
Almost palatial in its interior luxury and the quality of its design, this is the kind of van you’d get if the Compact RV won the lottery.
That said, it’s a chunky road warrior and you kind of have to be confident in your ability to handle its size and power to get the most out of it. But as a road trip experience, it’s by far the most luxurious piece of mobile real estate on our list – and it still would be if we included another five fans.
Of course, there’s a phenomenal, somewhat heart-stopping difference in the price you’re paying for an EarthRoamer, which has only the hat-tip of nostalgia value, compared to something like the Ford Econoline or either of the Volkswagens.
But what you get for that is a lot more self-sustaining and a lot more potential. With a massive rooftop solar panel, there’s no need for propane heaters or separate power generators.
It’s available in a range of floor plans, so you get much more of a fundamental say in what the van looks and feels like than you would in any of the others on our list.
With massive tanks for both fuel and water, you can technically drive the EarthRoamer from coast to coast and hardly ever notice a glitch in your quality of life from when you were at home. Except of course you get to wake up somewhere new every day and embrace the adventures of that new environment.
One for those who plan on investing in some long, long, lonnnnng road trips over the course of maybe the next 20 years, the EarthRoamer lives up to its name – equipping you for the big trips while never compromising on the quality or comfort it delivers on a daily basis.
Not by any stretch of the imagination everybody’s favorite van, but for a positively 21st century luxury experience before graduating to the kind of rockstar tour bus you’ve heard about, the EarthRoamer VC-HD is where you’d want to live longer term.
Honorable Mention – The 1986 Fleetwood Bounder
Wait, what? The campervan from Breaking Bad? Sure – it’s not exactly the prettiest van on the roads of America, but it has some pretty iconic styling – and it had it before the show aired!
Again, there’s an element of nostalgia about the more U-Haul shape of the van, but it certainly has ample space in the van to house a larger family or group of friends in comfort for medium to long road trips.
Plus, with its fame from the show, you’re likely to get many an appreciative honk on the road. Just… make sure it’s only appreciation, rather than people looking to score some of Walter White’s finest…