When it comes to boondocking in the city, I vote for truck stops!
Workers at truck stops (or travel stops or travel centers, as most of the chains now refer to themselves) are accustomed to seeing vehicles parked in their lots at all hours of the day or night. From big rigs to delivery vans to motorhomes to U-Hauls to sports cars, people park their vehicles at truck stops while they get some rest, often overnight. Delivery drivers ahead of schedule can pass some time at truck stops. Folks on cross-country moves or vacations road trips can stretch their legs at truck stops. Of course, the businesses cater to truckers who need to refuel and/or take mandatory rest breaks.
In my early days of van travel, I’d always call ahead to make sure my van would be welcome overnight at a particular truck stop. Over the course of multiple trips across the U.S.A., I was only turned down a handful of times. The attitude of the person I talked to on the phone was usually Why are you asking me this? Of course you can park here overnight!
If anyone at a truck stop figures out a person is sleeping in her van, it’s unlikely to seem strange.
Another great thing about truck stops is that they’re open 24/7. Increasingly, I find Wal-Mart stores (even the supercenters) are closed for a few hours each night. A closed store makes a nighttime bathroom emergency problematic. Also, a vehicle parked overnight might stand out if customers aren’t coming and going at all hours. No such problems at a chain truck stop, since they’re always open.
What I love about truck stops is that everything I could want or need is right there. Fuel? Check! Restrooms? Yes. Showers? You bet. Hot coffee and most other beverages? Yep. Pizza at 2am? You know it! Video games? Well, yes (if that’s your thing). A selection of gadgets to make trucker life (and maybe van life too) easier? Yes. Snacks, maps, and souvenirs? Of course.
Some TA travel centers even have motels if you want to splurge on a night out of your rig. I’ve also encountered a couple Pilot travel centers with free internet access.
Different truck stops have different amenities. I try to stick to truck stop chains. Flying J is my favorite, followed in descending order of like by Pilot (which merged with Flying J some years ago), Love’s and TA. I’ve been in some dismal truck stops that weren’t part of chains. I’ve seen filthy showers, barely stocked coolers, and one place that I’m pretty sure had no fuel to sell. My experience with chains has been a lot better, although not every location is great. And while not every location really has pizza at 2am, the bigger the truck stop, the more amenities offered around the clock.
I’ve done laundry in truck stops, and it’s been hit or miss. Not every travel center has washers and dryers, and most that do have them only have a couple (maybe three) of each. Usually the cost is a little high, and on at least one occasion at a Flying J, I’m convinced my clothes were dirtier when I pulled them out of the washer. However, if your clothes are dirty and you’re at a truck stop with laundry facilities anyway, it can be a great convenience to be about to wash, dry, and fold in the middle of the night.
In the past, truck stops have had a bad reputation as dangerous places. However, the corporations seemed to have tried to clean up their images in the last few years. I think that’s part of the reason for the shift from “truck stop” to “travel stop” and “travel center.” If Mom and Dad and Sis and Brother feel safe stopping at these businesses, the businesses can reap the benefit of making money off average travelers too.
I’ve never once been harassed, propositioned, or hassled in a truck stop or in a truck stop parking lot. No one’s ever tried to sell me drugs (or anything else) or buy sex on truck stop property. No one’s knocked on my van or tried the handles while I’ve been parked at a truck stop. I’m not saying such things couldn’t happen, but none of them have happened yet. (Knock wood.)
Of course, I keep my guard up wherever I’m spending the night. I’m polite (but bland) if someone speaks to me, but I don’t initiate conversations in truck stops. I don’t smile, wink, or bat my eyes at men. I don’t dress provocatively. (My typical style of long hippy skirts and loose shirts doesn’t tend to make men think I’m looking for sex–either for free or for a fee.) I walk with my head up, aware of my surroundings, but I’m not out and about in the parking lot at all hours of the night. When I’m inside the truck stop (waiting for a shower or for my laundry to wash and/or dry), I keep my nose in a book (or my notebook) or look busy on my phone so I don’t invite conversation.
I’d rather spend the night in a beautiful natural setting or with friends, but if I can’t get to either of those places, a truck stop will be my next choice.