We’ve been roving across Europe for over 3 months now and have learned a fair bit about traveling in Europe by RV. Here are some of things we’ve been experiencing.
Our vehicle (affectionately known as the S&M Motel) is a self-contained recreational vehicle (RV) known in England as a camper van and in Europe as a camping car.
S&M Motel on a foggy morning
An RV is a self-powered motor vehicle and is different than a trailer (known in Europe as a caravan), which is towed behind a motor vehicle.
Campgrounds in Europe are generally known as campings, but this may be spelled differently in different languages. They are usually privately owned and operated, but some may be run by government institutions like municipalities.
A trip by RV shares many common aspects with other European travel, so the usual things need to prepared in advance and brought along (e.g. passport, travel insurance, suitable clothing for the season and intended activities, electric plug converters, first aid kit, etc.)
After one has obtained a European RV with suitable insurance (thanks Sue and Martin!), it is necessary to make sure that it is appropriately equipped. In addition to the typical personal and household items (clothes, toiletries, bedding, cooking and eating utensils), you must have the things necessary to operate and maintain the vehicle (e.g. water hose and electrical connectors, wheel ramps for leveling, toolkit, common replacement parts like light bulbs, cleaning supplies, etc.). Also essential is the superset of safety items mandated by the various European countries for cars or RVs (e.g. reflective vests, warning triangles, snow chains, spare vehicle bulbs, large reflector for rear bike racks, etc.) Having an awning, portable table and chairs to extend the living area outside is strongly recommended to prevent cabin fever. It’s useful to carry bicycles enabling flexible transport between cities and campgrounds, which are often on the outskirts of town. In addition, it’s a good idea to have the following for communication and recreation — laptop, European cell phone, books to read, cards and other games, sporting equipment.
Driving in Europe is even more of a challenge with an RV. The freeways are the easiest routes to drive, but are not scenic and often have tolls (see Driving in Europe). Secondary and scenic routes are far more interesting, but some are not navigable by RVs due to height, width, or weight restrictions, limitations which are virtually indeterminable in advance. It is necessary to be constantly vigilant about height limits when going under bridges and overpasses, and always on the lookout for overhead obstacles (trees, branches, cables, signs and balconies that extend over the street).
The challenges of driving on narrow streets and finding parking are exacerbated when you’re in an RV. Some old cities have streets so narrow that the RV won’t even fit down them. Most street parking spots are fully delimited to restrict both the length and width of the vehicles that can use them, making them impractical for RVs. Many parking lots are off limits because they are underground or they have height-restricting barriers to prevent trucks or RV’s from using them.
Making a U-turns, legal if many places in Europe, and sometimes indicated by our GPS navigator, can be difficult due to the larger turning radius of an RV. Although the U-turn might be legal, making a three-point turn in an intersection probably isn’t. When backing up and parking an RV, it is highly recommended to have someone outside the vehicle to provide guidance.
Finding a Campsite
We have a couple of guidebooks that help us locate commercial campgrounds. Both books are incomplete (i.e. they only have a small subset of the campgrounds in Europe), so it’s better to have several. Many campgrounds close in the off season, so we often don’t know of any open campground in a place that we want to stay. In these cases we try to look online if we can get Internet access or ask at the tourist office in the town when we arrive. Getting to the tourist office can be challenging as they are often located in the town’s main square, airport, or train station, places that can be difficult to drive to or park an RV. If we’re desperate we might look in the GPS itself to try to find a campsite by searching for an address with the word “camping” in it. For a variety of reasons this usually doesn’t work (e.g. the time late at night in Berlin when it took us to a camping store rather than a campground).
When we have a specific campground in mind, it can still be a challenge to find it. Entering a street address into the GPS is sometimes problematic because of different spellings, the use of abbreviations, or out-of-date GPS information. We once spent almost 2 hours one night in a pouring rain storm looking for a campground that was less than 2 kilometers away (our GPS had out-of-date maps and it got us stuck in an infinite driving loop that it couldn’t get us out of). It pays to always have the latest GPS updates before beginning your trip. Sometimes Diane needs to work at it a while, trying different methods to find the campground in the GPS (e.g. looking it up by postal code rather than city, different spellings, etc.) Where we have the numerical GPS coordinates for a site, it is almost always preferable to use them. They are far easier to enter and rarely give us trouble. Campgrounds are usually marked and once we get close we can just follow the signs.
The campsites continue to impress us with their services. Huge buildings full of clean, white toilets, showers, and sinks. All have nice shared cooking and dish washing facilities. Fresh water fill-ups and chemical toilets (to empty your RV toilet) are included. Electric hookups are also available but you may need to pay extra for this. Many have stores, restaurants, Wi-Fi, laundry facilities, bike and boat rentals, etc. The reception area staff usually speak English, and many provide great services like tourist information, buying transit tickets, free shuttle to the nearest bus station, and even ordering fresh bread for the following morning. Unlike Canada, none of the campsites have fire pits. Presumably trees are in far shorter supply here. All in all, they have more and nicer services that we would expect in a commercial campground in Canada. The disadvantage is they tend to be small and quite open, with very little space or privacy between us and the next unit.
Check out time is usually noon. It’s important to leave in time or you may find yourself locked in. Most campgrounds have gates that close at night. But they often also close them in the afternoon for a couple of hours, usually beginning at noon or coinciding with the normal lunch break or siesta time. If you don’t leave in time, you’re stuck for at least a few hours and may end up paying for another night.
As we’ve been traveling in the shoulder and low season for camping, the campgrounds that are open are not busy. Because school is in session there generally haven’t been a lot of children about. Some of the campgrounds are clearly set up for kids though, with playgrounds and activities in season. We’ve stayed in two places that had sad petting zoos right in the campground. There has been no need to reserve in advance, although we have had to squeeze in a few times during holiday periods. Reserving is more important in the summer if you want to stay in a particular place.
Many campgrounds cater to long-stay clients who leave their trailers in place all season or perhaps all year. They may even live there. A lot of campgrounds also offer permanently situated tents, bungalows, or mobile homes for rent. Some campgrounds are mostly filled by these types and have very few short-term rental spaces. In our experience these tend to be less friendly places as most people are “regulars” not inclined to get to know the people passing through.
Electricity in Europe is 220 Volt. There is a standard electrical connector for RVs in Europe, round with 3 large pins and a cover to protect the end that locks it into place when connected. In some campgrounds, they use the normal European plug (round with 2 smaller pins), so it is necessary to carry an adapter. Often the electrical service is limited to 10 amps or less, sometimes as low as 2 amps. In these cases, we need to turn off our electric water heater, and may only be able to run the refrigerator and limited lights.
Potable water has been available at every campground we’ve been to except one. We’ve encountered 3 different size tap nozzles, so adapters are required. It’s a good idea to let the water run a bit before filling and make sure the hose is clean before you fill, especially if it’s anywhere near the toilet emptying area.
Most RVs in Europe have toilets with cassettes that are designed to be removed and emptied into chemical toilets (larger versions of regular toilets) by hand, rather than emptying them into a sani-dump via a drain hose as is common in North America. The capacity of each cassette is limited to what a person can lift and carry, but this method does provide the option of having more than one cassette and swapping them when full for additional capacity. They are self-sealing to contain the smell, but you’d have to find a place to store the full ones (uuck!).
Food is easily available at supermarkets, city shops, and outdoor morning markets. In the suburbs of some large cities you can find mega grocery stores (as big or even larger than a Walmart Supercenter). We’ve developed a fondness for a discount grocery store chain from Germany called Lidl which has approximately 10,000 deep-discount department stores and no-frills supermarkets across Europe. Each has a limited selection (only about 800 items vs. 120,000 in a Walmart or Carrefore Planet), but it’s as cheap (or cheaper for many items) than grocery stores in Canada. The contents of Lidl and the other grocery store chains in Europe does vary by country to reflect regional cuisines and tastes.
We always eat breakfast at the S&M Motel. We normally pack a picnic lunch (or occasionally a picnic dinner) and we usually eat one meal out every few days. We try to taste as much of the speciality regional food as possible, and Diane makes meals using fresh local ingredients whenever she can, often in the style of the region we are in (very impressive considering that she has no cookbooks and usually no Internet access).
Diesel is a more popular fuel in Europe than in North America. Most RVs here use diesel rather than gasoline. Diesel is usually listed first on the gas station signs (though it goes by different names in different countries), along with the prices for many other types of fuel. There are typically 5 or more prices displayed on the large street signs so it can be a bit confusing. They also offer premium diesel which costs more and probably isn’t required. Diesel has cost us between 1.30 and 1.56 Euro per litre ($1.87 to $2.24 per litre in Canadian dollars). The S&M Motel is a relatively small RV but still costs about 100 E to fill from empty (about $145 Canadian). It has a range of 700-800 kilometers on a full tank depending on the type of driving.
Campgrounds usually charge a certain amount for the vehicle and an additional amount per person. We have paid between 22 and 42 Euros per night ($32 to $60). In most campgrounds an electrical connection is optional and costs 1 to 5 Euro extra per night ($1.50 to $7). A few campgrounds have charged for showers, presumably to avoid people wasting water, and typically cost 0.50 to 2 Euro (75 cents to $3). Wi-Fi (wireless Internet access pronounced ‘wee fee’ here) is included for free about half of the time, but when it is charged it can cost up to 8 Euro for 24 hours ($12). Wi-Fi may be accessible throughout the campground or you may have to go to the reception area or restaurant to get access.
Traveling by motorhome requires many activities similar to an extended camping trip. There is the regular effort of shopping, cooking, and doing dishes. The setup and takedown of the bed and bedding each day. The constant filling (diesel, drinking water, and toilet flush water) and emptying (grey water and toilet cassettes) of various fluids. Daily cleaning of the interior and occasional cleaning of the exterior of the RV. The awareness and periodic maintenance of the vehicle systems (e.g. the toilet, electrical system and batteries, heating and hot water, gas re-filling, security system, etc.). And finally, resolving the inevitable problems that occur with so many moving parts.
Traveling by motorhome is different than staying in hotels or hostels. One difference is that we don’t get to relax when traveling from place to place, as we would if going by train or bus. There is no napping in transit. Similarly we can’t use our travel time to read or write. But we have enjoyed listening to local and ex-pat radio broadcasts and the occasional podcast from our iPod. Overall there doesn’t seem to be as much downtime, as there is always something to research, plan, buy, make, clean up, fix, or communicate. Of course, the pace is what we make it, and we always have the option to take a day off and hang out.
We haven’t met as many people as we did when traveling in the developing world. We don’t spend as much time in hotels, restaurants, or on transit where other travelers hang out. Also, there isn’t the same sense of camaraderie you find in the 3rd world, where travelers share information and fellowship partly out of necessity and partly out of desire.
Overall, travelling by RV has been an excellent way to see Europe. We would recommend it. We’ve learned a lot that we think will make our next trip even better.