Shifting Gears to Share Van Life Adventures in Maui
Story and photos by Heidi Siefkas

A couple stuck in their new home in the Hawaiian Islands pivots to a new tourism business that comes with unexpected obstacles.

Maui Van travel story

As we waved back at family, embarking on our Route 66 journey from the Midwest to California in a used Town and Country minivan, we didn't know what lay ahead. This was the start of our move from the East Coast to Maui. With images of the tropics fueling our road trip, we were hoping to leave the winter temperatures and snow behind us, especially because the minivan didn't have heat. We bundled up with multiple layers and extra socks and foraged on. Where we were ending up, it wouldn't matter.

Even on this Southerly route across the States, however, we encountered flurries and chilly temperatures from Missouri through Kansas and Oklahoma, in the high elevations of Flagstaff, Arizona. We arrived at Joshua Tree National Park to find it covered with almost a foot of snow. The Park rangers told us that it had been a decade since snow had fallen in Joshua Tree. Lucky us, I guess, to have this rare experience while traveling in and old van with no heat.

We made the best of it, turning snow into a snowman. Warm beaches were waiting in our new home.

joshua tree in the snow

Plan A to D

Our Plan A was to cross multiple states within a week. Most people suggest a two- to three-week trip along the Mother Road to take in iconic sights such as the St. Louis Arch, the Kan-o-Tex filling station in Galena, Kansas, and Cadillac Ranch in Texas. We skipped most because of time but made a couple necessary detours to satiate our curiosity. We stopped to explore caves in Missouri and take a glider flight outside of Albuquerque.

We never strayed far from Route 66, however. Our GPS was set on Long Beach, California to ship the minivan to the Valley Isle by boat. After, I would return to South Florida to tie up professional and personal loose ends, sell a house, and pack up a pod. Meanwhile, my other half Brian would fly to Maui to start a new position in aviation in the medical field and pick up the van.

What we did not anticipate was a global pandemic that forced plans to be postponed and canceled. Covid-19 put many wrenches into the move to Maui, making us pivot to Plan B, C, and D. However, nearly a year and a half later, that same minivan on Maui has driven the Road to Hana with its 620 curves and 59 one-lane bridges. It has also summited the Sun Gate of Haleakala National Park countless times.

For the majority of those adventures, we have not been behind the wheel.

Out of the Driver's Seat to Address Hawaii's Rental Car Problems

roadtripping in HawaiiNot only has the van, nicknamed the Aloha Van, helped us cross country and explore our new home, but it put us on the road to embracing a new side of tourism. Once jetsetters—I a tour guide in Cuba and my partner a helicopter tour pilot—we shifted gears from traveling for work and driving the open road for leisure to sharing the adventure of the open road with other travelers. While remaining in place, we embarked on an endeavor that combined our local knowledge, marketing skills, and troubleshooting. We became Airbnb hosts of our camper van on the Valley Isle.

As with many industries during the pandemic, the travel and tourism one was hit hard, especially in the Hawaiian Islands. Because of this, many people and businesses needed to reinvent themselves and adapt to the changed landscape. In 2020, the rental car companies decided to ship vehicles to the Mainland and sell all they could. However, as Spring Break '21 and the summer holidays enticed those vaccinated or those with a negative Covid-19 test to visit Hawaii, the new shipment of rental cars hadn't arrived to serve them. It was a supreme lesson in supply and demand.

This turned out to be an opportunity for us. With a shortage of rental cars (and national media stories about $1,000-per-day rates for those who could find one), we looked at the Aloha Van in our cul-de-sac as a solution for other adventurers.

Well before the Mother Road journey, my partner had customized the Aloha Van by ripping out the back seats and inserting a wooden bed frame with ample storage space below. It wasn't fancy, but it certainly was ideal for storing camping supplies, bicycles, and a cooler. The Aloha Van is a two-for-one vehicle. It provides transportation as well as a place to sleep. Because of this unique and trendy combination, as well as our fondness for Airbnb stays and experiences, we placed the Aloha Van up for rent.

Within two days, we had our first booking, ironically from two women from Florida. After driving thousands of miles and traversing the Pacific Ocean, the Aloha Van's first adventurers were from the Sunshine State, the very state in which it was purchased. It felt like kismet.

Maui van rental

Since, the cast of characters (a.k.a. guests) has been varied. Plus, we added another vehicle into the mix, the Shaka Van, which can accommodate up to seven passengers all the while having foldable seats and an air mattress. Eventually, with the concept tested and proven in the market, we bought another van and retired the aging original.

As the months went by, we hosted groups of friends, families, couples, and solo adventurers. The majority of guests are coming from the Western U.S.; however, we have had reservations from as far as Australia. We have been the choice for many a celebration. We have had not one, but two honeymoons. We have hosted a babymoon for a local couple from the Big Island. There have been countless college graduation getaways. Probably the most notable event thus far is a marriage proposal between a couple from Idaho.

Along the way, we have turned guests away. The most memorable was a request to quarantine in the Aloha Van. This woman and peer Airbnb host from Oregon got the wrong result from her Covid-19 test to enter Hawaii. At the Maui airport, they mandated her to quarantine for her entire stay. Her booking at a local hostel wouldn't do. So, the airport staff suggested she book through Airbnb to quarantine in a mother-in-law (ohana) suite or condo. However, this woman contacted us to quarantine in the van to see the sights. Although I give her credit for thinking outside of the box, we put a quick, veto on her request.

But, we've been canceled upon too. The list of excuses or reasons is almost as long as a CVS receipt. There have been many sick dog tales, several wrong Covid tests stories, health scares, and budget problems. After the first cancelation, very last minute, leaving us with no way to fill the reservation, we altered our cancelation policy to allow for some flexibility, but not to be canceled upon last minute with lame "the dog ate my homework" excuses.

Of course there have also been guests we would like to forget. Sometimes you know he or she is going to be a problem by the endless questions or haggling on pricing. So far, the worst was a Midwestern college graduate. She was prompt in pick-up and polite until checkout. Knowing that we had a reservation later that day, not only was she late, but she brought the van back smelling like a locker room. The entire van was covered with sand and the air mattress busted. Although her online guest reviews were good, her behavior was more like a vandal. Her good reviews ended with us. Lesson learned, we instilled a steeper security deposit on top of the existing cleaning fee for future guests.

shaka van rental maui

Thankfully most of our guests have been respectful and grateful for the opportunity to explore with a bit more freedom than a standard rental car and at a more economic price.

Van-Ex Needed for Customer Service Issues

Although the pluses of sharing the sleeper vans with others are still outweighing the minuses, there have been quite a few hiccups. Primarily, since both our rental vans have been mature vehicles with high mileage, we have had a couple of maintenance problems. We have done our fair share of battery replacement, oil changes, alignments, new brakes, and suspension repairs. To say that both my partner and I have gotten an education in van maintenance and repair is an understatement. One morning after a near-midnight message from a guest about a dead battery, a bottle of over-the-counter medicine appeared atop my laptop. Written on it in black Sharpie was Van-Ex (a play on Xanax).

So, I'll admit there has been some anxiety—or van-xiety. Renting out a van or two sounds like a simple task, but the logistics of managing a calendar, in and out times, and maintenance were more than we anticipated.

Because of maintenance or scheduling snafus, just like with rental car agencies, we can't always provide the vehicle requested. So, we have a back-up van that isn't the same, but will do in a pinch. To stick with the Hawaiian theme, it is the Hula Van. Regardless of which van is rented, it will come with Leilani, a dancing hula girl, with a lei for each guest.

In spite of the maintenance issues or a dead battery upon occasion, more likely than not the hiccups have been because of the guests. Anyone who has ever worked in hospitality or has been a landlord knows that dealing people can be the toughest part of running a business. Not everyone is as smart as they look. Nor are some people punctual. Or tidy.

That dead battery that generated the midnight call was the guests' fault it turned out. They had left a device plugged into the cigarette lighter for hours and the tailgate open, which meant the interior lights were running. At least they were smart enough to use the jumper cables provided with the van to start it up themselves. Yes, we have implemented tools for our guests to solve their own problems, including extra batteries for the air mattress pump, quarters for vacuuming the van, solar lights, and a lockbox for storing the key while surfing or snorkeling.

 maui west coast

Maui Driving 101 and Lessons from Guests

With bookings solid for the next three months as I write this, we are becoming masters of detailing, vacuuming, washing, and teaching a refresher course on Maui Driving 101. Having learned to drive in rural Wisconsin with hills, wintery conditions, and much 4WD experience, I can say I'm very competent driver. My partner is a transportation specialist by trade so he can drive anything almost blindfolded. The majority of drivers renting from us don't have a lot of experience with mountain driving, however, which is essential for summiting Haleakala's ten-thousand-foot incline, as well as the descent.

Although we place a "tips and tricks" sheet about the van, best practices in Maui, and a laminated map on the dash, I always reiterate necessary advice about using lower gears to avoid engine overheating as well as brake issues. So far, our driving refresher course has worked. We're keeping our fingers and toes crossed.

We get lots of questions about Maui adventures and highlights that we are now ready to answer. We are also learning about Maui from our guests. With restaurants still at 50 percent capacity, we don't eat out unless it is mid-week or a special occasion with reservations. For locals like us, the Covid-19 restrictions make it more hassle that its worth. However, our guests eat out two to three times a day. In fact, we have gotten fabulous food truck and restaurant reviews from our foodie guests from San Francisco and Los Angeles. Slowly but surely, we will eat our way around the island, uncover more hidden gems, and continue to host until it becomes a bit easier to travel off island, perhaps crossing paths with our favorite guests on their turf.

Heidi SiefkasHeidi Siefkas is an author, TEDx speaker, and adventurer. Her books include Cubicle to Cuba, With New Eyes, and When All Balls Drop. You can learn more about Heidi's adventures and books at

Related Features:
Reminders of Home in a World Away: the Rougher Side of Maui - Heidi Siefkas
Kauai Footprints: the Dark Side of "Hidden Hawaii" - Michele Bigley
Hula is Life: The Legacy of Hawaii - Michele Bigley
A Lucky Dog Road Trip from Mexico to Maryland - Camille Cusumano

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