Sleeping in Car

Rental cars are great for getting a person from Point A to Point B. Rental cars are usually less desirable as accommodations for the evening, although we will continue to remain intrigued by the concept of Tesla Model S camping. We'll publish an article about that experience once AutoSlash founder Jonathan springs for a Model S. And while sleeping in a rental car isn't the most desirable situation, Chris and I have experiences using a rental vehicle as an alternative to a hotel. Surprisingly, the experiences have ranged from dreadful to quite good! 

A Jucy Minivan that's Technically an RV -- Michael 

This example doesn't count within our listing of "sleeping in a rental car", as Jucy minivans are converted to RVs. In fact, the Jucy RV conversion doesn't even count as a rental car in California. The upshot of not counting as a rental car? The vehicle is not subjected to California's various rental car taxes! However, the experience in the Jucy RV brought my attention to an important concept that I had to manage each evening:

It's illegal in many cities and regions to sleep in a vehicle (of any type) unless one's driving an 18-wheeler. Even with the property owner's permission, any law against sleeping in a vehicle might still be applicable. Even Walmarts in California restrict parking.

In the report Housing Not Handcuffs, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty mentions many of the laws that have been written to "prevent" homelessness by making the act of sleeping in a vehicle illegal. Ignoring the legality of whether it's permissible to sleep in a rental car (but bringing the issue to the attention of our readers), below are our experiences of sleeping in rental cars. In two of the three cases, it was actually a planned decision to overnight in a rental car. 

Not the Renter's Fault and a Horrible Experience -- Michael

In 2015, I won airfare to Pointe-à-Pitre, France (PTP) and had booked a home through AirBnB. I arrived on the island and the AirBnB host -- who had already been paid -- refused to respond to my messages or give the address of the home. I drove to each of the hotels on the island and found that there was "No Vacancy" anywhere. So I'm in the French Caribbean, out the cash for a prepaid home, and nowhere to stay.

And even though it's December, it is hot and humid. After finding some street food at about 1 a.m., my first night in PTP was spent in a new Suzuki Swift at the bus terminal. While the bus terminal was well-lit, it was also popular with homeless persons who approached me sporadically to ask for money (I did have a car). This was my first experience with AirBnB. And while I am a strong advocate of the sharing economy in general, I've not risked another attempt to use the service -- the company denied my request for a refund despite having the series of attempted communications with the AirBnB host on their own server and a recent login shows that my negative feedback on the host has been removed ...

Making the Best of a Bad Situation -- Michael

I worked for an organization where my secretary was not the most competent individual but I was not permitted to fire her. In early 2014, I found myself booked to give a speech in El Paso, Texas (Mountain Time) one evening and a different speech in Kansas City, Missouri (Central Time) the next morning. The logistics failure was profound -- there was only one flight that left El Paso after 8 p.m. -- a Southwest flight to Austin. And there was only one flight that left Texas early enough to get back to Missouri early enough to give the speech -- a 6 a.m. flight out of Dallas-Love Field. My overnight would involve giving the speech, praying that the flight to Austin wasn't canceled, driving a one-way rental from Austin to Dallas overnight, and catching the flight from Dallas. My car selection when I got to Austin and looked at National's Emerald Aisle? I went straight to a Dodge Grand Caravan with Stow 'n Go seats for space; that was going to be my only means of getting a tiny bit of sleep while waiting for the National location at Dallas Love Field to open at 5 a.m.

The Renter's Choice and a Positive Experience -- Chris

The Grand Caravan experience isn't unique to me -- Chris has also made the choice to sleep overnight in a rental car and ended up in a Grand Caravan. In Chris' story, he didn't book or choose a Grand Caravan -- he booked a "Thrifty Wild Card" reservation (compact or higher). However, that translates in the rental car industry to "a manager assigns you any vehicle with too many examples on the lot". And he was on a mileage run to Hawai'i, earning frequent flier miles and status points in the days when any cheap flight counted toward status renewal. Sleeping in a car was part of his plans to keep costs down for the day.

"We rented a van (on a Thrifty Wild Card reservation) in KOA way back in 2009. We picked up the car probably about 11 pm and grabbed a late plate lunch at the bowling alley (the only thing open that late) and then headed out. I think we napped somewhere near the summit of the saddle road. Stow 'n Go seats plus a Thermarest make for surprisingly comfy accommodations!"

Chris' note had two different pro-tips:

  • If sleeping on the floor of a rental car is in your plans, bring a Thermarest.
  • If you're going to sleep in a rental car, Hawai'i is much better than Dallas. 

Indeed. We can never advise a renter to sleep in a rental car but it's clear that one of these situations was much better than the others!

Tips For Successful Car Camping

Napping in a car doesn't always work well, though. With an eight-hour drive ahead of him to catch a flight, Chris also had the experience of trying—and failing—to snooze for a couple of hours on a long-ago trip to Florida (note: the 2007 Ford Mustang Convertible is not a comfortable vehicle to recline in). He was barely half an hour from the airport when the caffeine and adrenaline gave out and he had a surprise experience with the rumble strip. Successfully getting some shut-eye might literally be a lifesaver.

If you do find yourself in the situation of crashing in your rental car to avoid crashing your rental car, here are a few helpful tips from the AutoSlash team:

  • Choose the right vehicle. If you're embarking on a road trip with plans to sleep in the car, a larger vehicle can help you stretch out. Minivans with seats that fold into the floor (like most Chrysler products) are the best option, but SUVs can work, too. In a pinch, a sedan with rear seats that fold down can give you a little extra room to stretch your legs into the trunk area.
  • Park in a safe place. Highway rest stops are generally not recommended, since crime does happen (though Florida and Mississippi have rest stops with a 24-hour security). The best places to consider are busy and well-lit —light and traffic help deter criminals. Truck stops work well (and many have showers), and some Walmarts tolerate overnight parking—you'll often see a cluster of RVs in the corner of the lot.
  • Bring an eye mask (and maybe earplugs, too). Parking in a busy, well-lit area means that light and noise can disturb your slumber. If you have extra room in your suitcase, a folding sun shade can help to block both light and curious onlookers.
  • Plan for comfort. For cool areas, a good jacket—or better, a lightweight sleeping bag—can significantly improve sleep. In warmer climates, lightweight sleepwear can keep you comfortable and your clothes fresh. If you'll have room to stretch out, a Thermarest or similar thin air mattress can do wonders for sleep quality.
  • Don't run the engine. Carbon monoxide poisoning is a real issue. It also uses up gas (about half a gallon per hour) and can irritate others (and violate no-idling laws). If it's hot, crack the windows a small bit. If it's cold, run the engine and heater only when you're awake.

While we hope it's never necessary, we also hope these tips will help you wake up as refreshed as possible if you do have to snooze in your vehicle.

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