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Traveling by RV in Europe

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.

Picture of the S&M Motel on a fogy morning

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.

Other things

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.

Driving in Europe

I’ve been driving around Europe for over 2 months now through 8 countries and finally feel ready to make some general observations about driving in Europe. Here is a taste of what we’ve been experiencing.

Route Planning

Once we’ve decided where we want to go (an entirely different process), we need to plan how to get there. This usually involves a choice between taking a freeway (if one is available), a secondary road, or a scenic route.

The freeways are the most direct and the fastest. The use of tunnels seems much more common here, and freeways tend to go straight through mountains rather than up and over. Speed limits on freeways are higher than in Canada, typically 120 or 130 km/h. However, extra payments to use the freeways are very common. In some countries this is handled by purchasing a ‘vignette’ (a sticker) that must be displayed on the vehicle window and that allows use of the freeways or roads for an entire country (e.g. Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia). They typically cost $5 to $15 for 7 to 10 days and they can be purchased for longer periods. In other countries tolls are paid roadside (e.g. Italy and France). These tolls can be very expensive, from $5 up to more than $30 for each segment of road, so being conscious about which road you are taking is important.

The secondary roads are generally more interesting and enjoyable. They take longer, often much longer. But if there are tolls on the freeways, the extra fuel cost is usually balanced off by the saving of the toll. The driving on these roads is more challenging as they are often narrow (with no shoulders), windy, hilly, or traffic congested. Scenic routes, usually along the coast or through the mountains, are more beautiful and the driving sometimes even more challenging. Despite these trials, we recommend taking the secondary and scenic routes where possible.

On the plus side, the distances in Europe are not great compared to Canada. We drove from Munich to Berlin in about 6 hours on the freeway, which is about half the distance from the northern to southern end of continental Europe. If you could drive all the way on freeways (which isn’t always possible), you could drive all the way across Europe in under 2 days.


Navigation seems to be more of challenge here than in Canada. Perhaps it’s because there is a plethora of roads in densely packed Europe relative to the sparse hinterlands of Canada. A GPS (‘satnav’) navigation system is essential. Even with this, it is a challenge to drive and navigate at the same time. I recommend that the driver have a co-pilot/navigator at all times to plan the route, refer to maps, help with the GPS, and also to watch for signs, lights, and hazards.

Our borrowed GPS (Thanks Lee!) seems to be fairly accurate when estimating travel times on freeways. When taking the secondary roads, it usually takes us longer than the GPS predicts (sometimes much longer). Occasionally, like in Germany, the narrowest cart path will have a high posted speed limit, which fools the GPS into thinking it is a viable option, when in fact we’re only able to average about half of the posted limit.

A great feature of the GPS is that it allows you to avoid things like toll roads (a money saver in France). Depending on the device you have, it can also be used to locate a wide variety of points of interest like parking, gas stations, tourist information offices, grocery stores, etc.


I find driving to be both more interesting and more challenging in Europe. I’ll leave aside for the moment the fact that I’m driving an RV with right hand drive (i.e. the ‘wrong’ side in countries where people drive on the right as we do in Canada), and with a manual transmission (which requires shifting with the left hand). I’ve pretty much got these things mastered now.

The road signs are different in Europe than in North America. The only two that seem to be the same are Stop (Red Octagon) and Yield (the inverted triangle). The signs here follow an international standard and are generally consistent throughout Europe. It took some time to get used to them. Also, it seems that there are many more road signs here. Perhaps it is because at home I can view and process most road signs almost subconsciously, whereas here it takes a more conscious thought process. But I suspect that there are just more of them. For example, there will often be very short sections at a particular posted speed. The speed might increase for just a couple of hundred meters, and then drop back down again.

Standard warning sign with exclamation point and unknown description of hazard below "Debardage"What’s unnerving is that although the signs here are standardized, the descriptions that accompany them usually aren’t. This is most troublesome on warning signs other than the common ones that have their own standard and understandable images (e.g. slippery when wet, wildlife, falling rocks, etc.). The standard warning sign here is an upright triangle and usually underneath it are some words to describe the hazard, which are of course in a language we usually can’t read. One then needs to be hyper alert, on the lookout for any and all possible hazards – you never know what it could be.

On the German autobahn, there are sections with no posted speed limits. It is common for cars to pass at astonishing speeds (150 to 200 km/h or more). On the autobahn, I always drive in the right hand lane, venturing out into the second lane only when I need to pass. I never drive in the leftmost lane where cars come out of nowhere from behind and have to brake hard to avoid colliding with anyone going less than 150 km/h.

It is common to have no shoulders on roads, even on highways. Secondary roads are sometimes so narrow that they do not have a dividing line (even though traffic is two way). In these cases the sharing of the road with oncoming traffic is a negotiable matter, often decided by an elaborate game of ‘chicken’, where oncoming vehicles try to dominate the center of the lane moving aside only at the last moment. Some roads are not wide enough for two cars to pass abreast (e.g. in Saxony and Tuscany), requiring one to pull over somewhere to allow the other to get past. We’ve been on streets so narrow that we had to fold in both parking mirrors to squeak through the parked cars. We’ve also been on small roads so steep and with such corners that 1st gear is required to make the turn.

Unlike Canada, most countries in Europe don’t use different colours of painted road lines to indicate traffic going in opposite directions. So, unless you saw a sign when you entered a multiple lane roadway, you can’t tell if it’s one-way or two ways by looking at the lines on the road. As a result, it isn’t always clear if you are about to change lanes and about to pass. If in doubt, I always drive in the right hand lane!

It’s annoying that there are often no stop lines at intersections. If there are, they are sometimes very far back from the light to allow trucks to turn on the narrow streets. In most countries, the street lights are not hung above the intersection, but sit on a post on the right side of the road before you enter the intersection. This means that if you advance too far (due to the lack of stop lines), or once you’ve entered the intersection to make a left turn, there are sometimes no lights visible to the driver. There are also no secondary lights on the left side of the road on the opposite side of the intersection (as we have in Canada), which are essential when you’re in the intersection making a left hand turn (when all the other lights are behind or above you). In these situations you have to ‘go by feel’ as to when the light has turned green (to proceed) or red (to complete your left turn). It’s helpful to stop well back of the intersection to avoid the first problem, but the second seems unavoidable (unless one doesn’t advance on the green when preparing to make a left).

In Europe it is not permissible to make a right turn on a red light, unlike most of North America. So, if the light is red, one waits. Sometimes there is a special green arrow indicating that you can turn right or left, but not drive straight through.

Traffic circles are very common. Some of them are huge in diameter and may have as many as three lanes going around, with optionally one cutting across the center (in Spain) and/or bypass routes around the outside. There may also be traffic lights within in the circle. Knowing in advance which exit you’ll be taking is key (information provided by a good GPS with accurate maps). A nice feature of traffic circles is that if you’re not sure which way you’re turning, you can keep going around until you figure it out from the signs or GPS. Traffic circles work well when the traffic is light. When it gets really busy (like in rush hour traffic) they tend to clog up and it is difficult to both get in and out of the circle.

In the cities (especially in the Northern countries of Europe), bike lanes are common. When turning right, it is important to check your right side mirror because there is often a nearly imperceptible bicycle lane running down the right side of the road (or even down the sidewalk) and there may be bikes in it that are going straight through. They have the right of way as the bike lane is considered the rightmost lane of traffic.

In some countries (especially Italy) there are a lot of scooters and motorcycles piloted by aggressive drivers. They often split lanes (i.e. pass between two cars) or pass on the right. At stop lights, they weave their way through the cars to get to or near the front. When the light turns green, they beat the cars off the line and use the distance created to change lanes or turn in the intersection across the path of the cars coming behind them. It is necessary to look for motorcycles and scooters on both sides of the vehicle before changing lanes or turning.

There are a greater variety of vehicles on the road here. In addition to the many motorcycles and scooters, we’ve seen three-wheeled cars, motorcycles with twin front wheels (3 in total), and motorcycles with roofs (fairings that go all the way over to the back of the bike). In some countries they also license quads for the street. They’re only allowed off-road in Canada.


Parking is often a challenge. In congested cities with narrow streets, it is very difficult to find a place to park. There are very few large, open, free parking lots like in North America. In most cities, every available inch of space is used for parking. Because of the narrow roads, in many places it is expected that you will park partially on the sidewalk…

Sign showing car partially on the street and partially on the sidewalk

Sign showing to park partially on the sidewalk

or fully on the sidewalk, which is tough to do with a larger vehicle.

Parallel parking spaces are delineated on all sides to make sure that people don’t stick out too far into traffic. In tight spaces, it is essential to fold in your parking mirrors or they will be removed for you by a passing car.

Roadside Services
Emergency telephones are common on the side of major roadways, providing a way for people to seek assistance in the event of a problem. In the age of cell phones they’re perhaps becoming obsolete, so we’re unlikely to see them in Canada any time soon.

Rest stops on the freeway are often elaborate affairs, far superior to what we have in Canada. In addition to being much larger with room to park 50 or more semi-trailers, they are often equipped with public bathrooms, gas stations, food stores, and nice restaurants (not just fast food). Sometimes they even have hotels there, accessible only from the freeway! In Germany, these elaborate rest stops occur much more frequently, about every 20 kilometers or so.


Many fines for traffic violations in Europe are levied on-the-spot, which means you must pay the police officer immediately at the roadside (“with that be cash or charge?”). Although this probably has the greatest deterrent effect by closely associating the violation with the penalty, I can’t see how this could possibly result in anything but more corruption.

The allowable blood alcohol percentage for driving varies across Europe. Some countries (e.g. Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Hungary) have zero tolerance (0.0%) and others (e.g. Sweden, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) have percentages so low (0.01 or 0.02%) as to be effectively zero. This means that after only one drink, you’d better not drive until the following day. In most countries, the allowable limit is lower (or zero) or the consequences of a violation more severe for younger drivers. Most countries have fines that begin at 0.05 percent with greater penalties and driving bans at 0.08.

Radar use by police for speed control seems less common than in Canada. Radar detectors are illegal in most countries. Radar cameras are more common (we no longer have these in British Columbia) and there are a lot of signs warning about electronic speed controls. Interestingly, in some countries it is illegal to use the feature in your GPS navigation system that warns about upcoming radar camera locations. If the goal is to get people to slow down, does it really matter how it is achieved?

The Costs of Driving

Fuel is expensive here, over $2.00 per liter. More cars and vans use diesel than in North America, but it costs almost the same as gasoline. With the added costs of tolls and vignettes, the overall costs of driving are higher. However, when the costs are shared among 2 or more people, as opposed to buying multiple separate train or plane tickets, it becomes more practical.

Renting a vehicle can be done for a reasonable price, especially if done for a longer period of time (a week or more). If you purchase or borrow a vehicle, it can also be difficult or expensive for foreigners to get motor insurance and this definitely needs to be arranged in advance.

Benefits of Driving

Outweighing the challenges and costs are the many benefits of driving in Europe. With our own wheels, we can go almost anywhere, seeing things that most tourists do not. We can stop virtually anywhere, whether to take a photo, make a purchase, or stretch our legs. Overall, the benefits greatly outweigh the challenges (some of which are exciting in their own way!)