Please help us find the right vehicle for a cross country trip.
February 24, 2007 12:39 PM   Subscribe

My fiancee and I are planning to drive cross country and back for our honeymoon. Please help us find the right vehicle for such a trip.

The plan is to leave sometime mid to late spring from New England, travel to the west coast and back. Neither one of us has made this long of a trip over such a short period of time, though we've done the length of Interstate 95 various times. She'd like to sleep in the vehicle we travel in, but would prefer to not have an RV. We own a 2000 Honda Civic DX, which is too small for the two of us to sleep in comfortably for a couple of weeks. Ideally, we'd like to borrow or rent something slightly larger, but given that we'll be putting over 6,000 miles on the vehicle, buying a used cargo van or VW bus is potentially more economical. We've also considered smaller, more economical vehicles like older Saab hatchbacks and Volvos since either would provide us with a much needed second vehicle.

We're happy to keep clean along the way at America's finest truck stops or the occasional hotel. The point of the trip isn't so much luxury as it is exploring. Furthermore, we're equally happy to use the facilities at gas stations along the way. Therefore, running water and a lavatory are items we're not looking for. We are, however, looking for something that's reasonably safe to sleep in at truck stops or rest areas, something that provides a modicum of privacy, and something that is large enough to comfortably call home for a couple of weeks.

What vehicles will yield the highest combination of reliability, safety, comfort, and economical cost for our purpose? Our budget is rather flexible, especially if we're buying a second vehicle to use beyond this trip. Lastly, in case we've overlooked something obvious, what other issues should we consider in our selection?
posted by sequential to Travel & Transportation (24 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I should also add that we'll be traveling with a significant amount of valuable electronics: a laptop, digital SLR with related equipment, satellite radio equipment, gaming devices with related equipment, and so forth. Most of the devices will be plugged in for a majority of the time we're traveling, so I'll likely need to add at least a second battery to handle the extra load comfortably, preferably inline with the alternator. In addition to needing to make this slight modification, I'd like to find a vehicle that's not as easy to break into as the Civic. Thieves broke into it without damaging the car, ripped out my stereo system, and politely locked the door when they left. Perhaps there's no car that is perfectly safe against the properly motivated criminal, but it would be nice if the car wasn't an open invitation to thieves.
posted by sequential at 12:58 PM on February 24, 2007

Consider a truck with a shell on the back. The bed of a truck is the perfect size for two people to sleep in.

As far as trucks go, you can't go wrong with Toyota. Used ones might be a little more expensive, but they hold their value (obviously) and are solid little trucks. Combine that with decent gas mileage (on the 2wd at least) and you've got yourself the perfect cross-country, comfortable-sleeping vehicle that is actually useful back home too.
posted by nitsuj at 12:59 PM on February 24, 2007

I have a Rodeo, and wouldn't mind sleeping in the back of it, as the back seat folds down flat to make one big cargo area. In fact, this is one of the reasons I chose it over the Ford Ranger, having a waterproof sleeping/storage area. The other reason was being able to be the designated driver when my friends are drinking.
posted by bilabial at 1:06 PM on February 24, 2007

Best answer: My wife and I did a 3 week drive around the western US in our old Saturn SL1. We made it through the southwest up to Colorado, up through Yellowstone and deep into Idaho, before heading back through Utah and Nevada to Los Angeles.

The car was a small 4 door, front wheel drive model. With the rear seats down, we had space for luggage, a cooler for food, camping gear, and even firewood. Tight, but it all fit.

We never slept in the car, but did camp out quite a bit. My suggestion is to considering camping at national/state parks or KOA campgrounds rather than sleep in your car. Cops don't hassle campers, they do hassle people sleeping in cars.

We enjoyed the nightly campfire, cooking outside, and 'snuggling' in sleeping bags nightly.

As for the car, you might consider a good heating/AC system and a car 12V power to 120V AC converter to allow recharging of phones/laptops/etc.

I swear by Saturns as great cars, dealerships run by nice people. My current car is a Prius, and we have camped with it. Plenty of space and great gas mileage.

Have fun. My wife and I had the most wonderful time on our honeymoon traveling together. I wish you the best.

If you make it to LA, beers are on me. My email is in my profile.
posted by Argyle at 1:07 PM on February 24, 2007

Seconding the sleep-in-tents idea.

After driving from Toronna to Vancouver (through the US) late last summer, I would observe that after all day in the car, the last place you want to sleep is, uh, in the car.

If you do want to get a second car, I highly recommend the Saab 9-3; we have a 2001 hatchback that we adore. It ate up the 5000 km road trip without a complaint.
posted by docgonzo at 1:11 PM on February 24, 2007

Did a shorter stint in a Subaru wagon. Two weeks would be a long time, though.... camping is probably a good idea too. But check out the Subaru! You can probably find an older one for not too much - we've put over 100K miles on two different ones without major problems.
posted by dpx.mfx at 1:22 PM on February 24, 2007

Response by poster: Excellent suggestion, Argyle. We had considered the camping option, but since most of our intended stops will be in major cities, we were worried about camping options. Given that we have three season camping gear and love to camp, this might be the best solution with a little bit of planning. We'd still need a vehicle, though. The Civic is our commuter vehicle, has no AC, and has not been the most reliable vehicle I've owned. That said, if we don't need to rely on sleeping in the vehicle, we'll have a lot more options when it comes to choosing a vehicle.
posted by sequential at 1:23 PM on February 24, 2007

Sorry, I can't help with the car question but I'm dittoing Argyle's KOA suggestion. I drove cross-country from FL to Los Angeles (so if you make it out here, I'll buy the second round) in a *very* small Geo Tracker. Slept at KOAs most of the way across; I'm not much of a camper so I sprung for the cabins, which were $40/night most places. If you've got a tent I'm sure it's cheaper. They're clean, well-run, inexpensive, and safe; you can also book online with <2 4 hours notice, so it's pretty flexible. they have campgrounds near most major cities, it>
Congrats, good luck, and have fun! (And I highly highly recommend the KOA at Carlsbad if you head down south. See the Caverns!)
posted by fuzzbean at 1:46 PM on February 24, 2007

What about a (Ford) Taurus or (Mercury) Sable wagon? I have a '99 Taurus that I like a lot, and I've heard good things about the wagon. Tauruses lose value quickly; mine was under $5k when I bought it a couple of months ago. I imagine that the wagon would be more expensive, but I think it would probably be worth looking at.
posted by rossination at 2:08 PM on February 24, 2007

I'd also suggest the KOA, they are nothing fancy, but for a couple bucks you get access to showers in many of them and they seemed somewhat safe last time I did the cross country drive (sleeping mostly in a 4 door rental sedan most nights, too cramped in the car and frankly was sick of being in the car so much). Some of them have small cabins which are a nice compromise between sleeping in the car and motel room. KOA has a booklet containing all the KOAs (w/ maps) in the country, we'd look and see which was the closest one when we felt we had to stop, there almost always was one nearby. Slept in rest stops a couple times, and didn't sleep very well, too much noise and movement and a general feeling of exposure.

Since you plan on travelling with what sounds like a good chunk of change in electronics, having a real trunk to leave things in will give you more peace of mind while exploring. Leave nothing in view in the visible part of the car (chargers, inverters, ipod to radio adapters)

It got a lot colder than we expected during some nights (frost on the car even when it was 100 degrees during the day) so I'd recommend a couple extra blankets / sleeping bags. THe metal of the car doesn't do much for insulation.

Make sure you have a couple sets of the car keys, and a good routine
aka "Who has the keys? I have the keys!", getting locked out of the car in the middle of nowhere stinks. You only do it once.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 2:12 PM on February 24, 2007

Best answer: First of all, the economical approach is to keep your car and either camp out or stay in motels. It takes an incredibly long trip (or really expensive motels) for the cost of motels to exceed the cost of a new vehicle. But you know that already, and you are also saying that you may want a second vehicle anyway. But consider carefully which use (driving around town, or sleeping in the back) you will do the most over the lifespan of the vehicle, and purchase accordingly. Do you really want to drive a 18-foot cargo van every morning on your commute?

If you do buy, the biggest question will be whether it is a vehicle you will keep, or one that you will sell after the trip. If it's just for the trip, you can buy the funkiest, funniest, weirdest car in the world, enjoy it, and then sell it. If you are planning to keep it for years, and drive it to work every day, you need to be a bit more realistic about the thing.

The seats in a Honda Element fold flat-ish (flat enough to sleep on, anyway). If it isn't raining you can pop out the skylight and change your clothes standing up. But with all four seats flat (to make two beds), there isn't a lot of "extra" room for stuff, so you will need to pack pretty light if you go this route, just like you will if you buy a stationwagon or SUV. (A Suburban with the rear seats removed might work pretty well, too.)

A full-sized pickup (not a small Tacoma, but at least a Tundra, if not a bigger American model) with a large cap on the back will be more spacious, but fuel economy will suffer compared with a car (this is less of an issue if the truck has a diesel engine, but then you pay more to buy the truck in the first place, so savings may be minimal, if at all). You can buy them with "camper" and "tow" packages which have upgraded charging and cooling systems, which you will appreciate.

Older VW vans have really nice form-factor, especially with camper conversions. But they are expensive, not so great in crashes, and of so-so reliability. (And slow on the uphills, too.) If you get a good deal on one, though, you could drive it for 6000 miles and sell it for what you paid afterwards. The people who like these are really rabid in the love, so I'll let them tell you how wonderful these vans are. I like them for sleeping in, but I find them terrifying on the road. YMMV.

The best modern equivalent is probably a Sprinter Van (built by Mercedes, sold in the US as a Dodge). Nice diesel engine for efficiency, very reliable, available in a variety of lengths and in low and tall roof heights. You could buy a bare-bones cargo one and throw a mattress in the back, or buy or rent one that is set up as an RV, with supplemental batteries, AC units, etc installed. But this is pretty pricey, certainly a lot more than buying a twenty year old cargo van and roughing it. If you want a second vehicle for sleeping in and bringing home huge quantities of building materials, this is a great way to go; not such a good idea if you want a commuter machine.

All vehicles are easy to break into. Keep the electronics out of sight and hope for the best.
posted by Forktine at 2:20 PM on February 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm not on board with the KOA-love fest. The ones I've stayed at were expensive, full of people and screaming children and lots of noise. Very family-friendly, which is great, if you also have a batch of energetic kids. Not so great for sleeping. (I was in a tent, not a "Kabin," so that might be much more pleasant.)

I'd suggest national parks for camping (although you are going to be pretty early in the year for anything up north or up in elevation) --- with just a little looking and luck, you can have quiet campgrounds at a fraction of the cost. (Horror stories abound, of course, so ymmv, and of course pay attention to keeping your food away from the wildlife.)

Non-chain motels, especially in unrestored buildings from the '40s and '50s, can be cheap and fun, or can be cheap and yucky.
posted by Forktine at 2:27 PM on February 24, 2007

Rent a conversion Van.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 2:29 PM on February 24, 2007

Honda Element .
posted by ilsa at 2:35 PM on February 24, 2007

The early 90s Volvo 700 and 900 series are nearly bulletproof if they have been taken care of well, have heated seats which are wonderful after cold weather outdoors adventures, and my 940 is the only vehicle I have ever been able to sit in and drive for half a day without getting some kind of cramp or discomfort - the front seats are an ergonomic dream. However, the rear wheel drive is not the best option for bad weather or roads and you will have better luck getting a domestic or Japanese car repaired in case of a break down. Are you going through the Rockies or around through the south? This has a significant effect on your optimal vehicle choice.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 2:43 PM on February 24, 2007

Egads, whatever you do, do not buy a VW van for a 6,000 mile trip. A 60 mile trip, maybe, but these cars are all very old by now, and terribly unreliable. Plus they're murderously slow and offer very little crash protection.

I'd also resist the urge to get an old Volvo or the like from the 80s or even early 90s. That is, unless you'll have some time with the car before the trip to really verify its roadworthiness and catch up with the last owner's deferred maintenance.

If you are a mechanic, and repeated breakdowns from old hoses and belts and gaskets would be something you'd consider part of the adventure, then you may feel free to disregard the preceding advice. But as a hobbyist mechanic myself, I can say I've experienced road trips with newer, less cool cars, and with the VWs and Volvos, and can tell you the former was much less stressful.

You can also rent a car point-to-point. Elements would be great to sleep in but hard to find as rentals. But Ford Escapes, Minivans, that sort of thing would be readily available at your local rental joint.

Have a great trip, and if you want the car to smell nicer, skip the fast food!
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 5:15 PM on February 24, 2007

If you're coming this far south, email me.
posted by ColdChef at 5:34 PM on February 24, 2007

96-01 Dodge MiniVan. Cheap like borch. Comfortable upright seating position, car like ride with good view of the road. The 3l in shortys is good on gas with sufficent power while still having the reliable 3spd transmission. Better privacy than a car (even better if you paint over the rear windows with black poster paint which is easily removed at the end of your trip). Comes stock with second 12V outlet in the rear. Large alternators because of the extreme capacity A/C. Even the SWB models have lots of room to sleep unless your side job is with the NBA.

I'd take out the easily removable bench seats from the back and build a box platform the size of a double mattress for secure storage. Or a bunch of plastic rubbermaid style containers and a sheet of plywood. Rubbermaid action packers are durable and lockable.

No car is is even remotely secure because a thief can always break a window. Keeping things out of sight is usually the best you can do.

I'd avoid a truck with a cap. Access is poor and you have to exit the vehicle to access things or to get to your mattress. Plus water tightness is hard to obtain.
posted by Mitheral at 6:32 PM on February 24, 2007

I like the minivan idea, a lot. They have decent gas mileage, good safety stats, and handle really well (unlike most SUVs, cargo vans, and pickups). With the rear seats out, they have huge space --- most can hold a 4x8 piece of plywood flat, so you will easily be able to sleep in there. Plus, and this is good from the point of view of security, minivans are pretty much invisible. They look "normal," like regular family vehicles, not like something full of hipster electronics.

Personally I'd spend more and get a Toyota or Honda minivan over a Dodge or Ford, but any will probably work just fine.
posted by Forktine at 6:40 PM on February 24, 2007

Avoid any vehicles conceived in the Detroit, Michigan area if you catch my drift (and I think you do).
posted by wfc123 at 7:12 PM on February 24, 2007

A Subaru would be great for this trip. Though, any wagon-type vehicle would also work well. I would mix up tent camping, sleeping in the car, hostels (many of which have private rooms for couples these days) and regular hotel rooms. If you have a general idea of when you will be in an area you should plan ahead and look for what forest district or national park you will be near and book a campsite in advance--for instance on the Oregon coast all of the really great campsites are booked for every weekend for the entire summer so if you happen to end up there on the weekend you'd be out of luck. I've lived out of my car/truck many times so please email if you have more questions. Have a great trip!
posted by fieldtrip at 7:27 PM on February 24, 2007

Egads, whatever you do, do not buy a VW van for a 6,000 mile trip. A 60 mile trip, maybe, but these cars are all very old by now, and terribly unreliable.

There are the older vans, of course, but the VW Eurovan was actually manufactured from the early 90's through a few years ago (I'd say 93-03, IIRC), so there are recent models that aren't terribly old. I've never owned one, so I can't say anything about reliability, but I have to admit I find myself thinking the weekender models look absolutely perfect for wandering either by oneself or as a couple.

For years I drove an 85 Nissan Sentra Hatchback/Wagon thing that wasn't bad for this kind of stuff. You could put down the seats and have a just short of 6' cargo area. It was pretty handy in pinch to sleep in, and I did so probably a few dozen times while traveling around the West. Two people would have been possible if they were very cozy. I suspect the Subaru wagons would be about the same. The Forresters might be even better -- they look like they have more vertical room, and that comes in handy if you think you're going to try change your clothes in the car, which is a pain in just about any vehicle short of a van.
posted by weston at 10:19 PM on February 24, 2007

On posting, this:

would mix up tent camping, sleeping in the car, hostels (many of which have private rooms for couples these days) and regular hotel rooms.

is really good advice. It's nice to be able to just stop where you are and sleep in your vehicle. Staying in your vehicle constantly will get old.
posted by weston at 10:36 PM on February 24, 2007

With its very easily removed back seats taken out, the Honda Element provides plenty of room for two to sleep. It's a very lovable little SUV.
posted by Lizzle at 3:46 PM on February 25, 2007

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