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Motor Homing in Europe

The Best Way to Meet Your European Neighbors

Motor homing in Florence, Italy
A young camper savors Florence's delights from the backdoor of her family's motor home.

I have completed an 8-month trip across Europe by motor home. As a former tour operator, I have traveled just about every way imaginable. I found motor homing hard to beat. You pack once; you travel where you want when you want; you have no worries about where the next hotel room will be, and you have to try hard not to meet people.

If you are traveling to Europe on a short 2-or-3-week vacation, a motor home may not be ideal. Some wrong turns on unfamiliar roadways, and this can cause problems for people on a tight schedule. But for a family exploring Europe for the summer or a retired couple with plenty of time, it’s ideal. So why didn’t I meet more Americans in over 8,000 campgrounds throughout Europe?

First, let’s look at the basics. There are three ways to acquire your camping van or motor home: rent, lease, or buy. The least expensive way to go on a long trip is to buy. You may want to buy from an outfit that will guarantee to buy back your rig at the end of the trip. For optimum savings, consider a good used motor home with low mileage. I contacted an outfit in Amsterdam recommended to me by an experienced RVer and made my arrangements over the phone. When I arrived, my camper was ready and waiting. I even shipped several cartons of supplies in advance and they were stored in the motor home until I arrived. There are some technicalities regarding insurance and registration, but these are handled by the outfit that sells you your camper.

I met a number of Americans traveling in Europe who had considered motor homing but decided against it because they were afraid of being stuck with the motor home at the end of their trip. The buy-back program resolves this dilemma. Many companies will agree to sell your camper on consignment at the end of your trip, but I found most people wanted the security of a guaranteed buy-back. Buy-backs vary but usually average around 65 percent of the purchase price. Needless to say, the longer you travel, the cheaper the cost per day. Reasonable used motor homes and camper-vans ideal for touring Europe range between $13,000 and $35,000 depending on size, year, and condition.

Europeans love to camp and there are campgrounds just about everywhere. They range from complete destination resorts with swimming pools, tennis, entertainment, bars, restaurants, and grocery stores on premises to more rustic campgrounds with few extras. Almost all campgrounds have basic necessities such as bathrooms, showers, dishwashing facilities, electric hook-ups, and chemical toilets for waste. Many people find a central location they like and take day trips using the campground as a base until they move on.

Costs

If you take the cost of your camper (minus buy-back or anticipated resale price) insurance, registration, campground fees, and gas you can get a good idea of your costs. My costs over 245 days, traveling an estimated 16,500 kilometers, were 1,678 euros for gas, 1,452 euros for insurance, and 932 euros for registration. Campgrounds averaged 15 euros per night for one person, electric hook-up, and camper. Add five to eight euros per additional adult and three to four per child. My low was eight euros and my high 28. Some people save money by free camping (camping in truck stops, beaches, and along the road) but I did so only in an emergency and don’t recommend it as a standard practice. Besides, you miss one of the big advantages of camping Europe. When you’re in a campground, it’s hard not to socialize and meet people. Fellow campers will be intrigued by the fact that you’re an American camping through Europe. I can’t count the number of times I was invited over for a glass of wine and conversation. And if you are traveling with kids, you’ll be amazed how they communicate through body and sign language as if talking really didn’t matter.

Another way to add meaning to your trip is to allot some time for visiting with a local family. Servas, an organization of international hosts in over 100 countries, will provide you with host lists for the countries you request. The normal routine is to spend two nights at the home of a host family, usually including dinner. The objective is to learn about each other’s way of life and exchange ideas. Some hosts will give you a tour of the local area and all can provide useful information. Dine with the Danes, a more commercial venture, provides a dinner-only exchange in Denmark for a fee. Servas charges nothing except for a membership fee, but the usual procedure is to thank your host with a small gift or bottle of wine.

Finding space in campgrounds is a lot easier than finding space in hotels (although at popular vacation destinations in July and August, it’s helpful to call ahead and reserve a spot). Not all campgrounds take reservations, so if the area campgrounds are crowded the best bet is to arrive early. I never made a reservation during my eight months of travel and was only turned away twice because a campground was full. In both cases, I got a spot at a neighboring site. I also tried to arrange my itinerary so I avoided crowded vacation destinations during the summer.

Preparation

A good campground guide is essential for locating places where you want to stay. Another essential item to get before you leave is an International Camping card. This provides admittance to most campgrounds (in some cases at reduced rates) and is held by the campground instead of your passport. Don’t leave home without it. (See the Camping Tips below for a listing of good books on camping in Europe and other services and suggestions. Proper planning is the best insurance for a smooth travel experience.)

Camping Tips and Resources

Propane Tanks: Your camper will undoubtedly come with one full propane tank (used for refrigerator, hot water, and sometimes heater) and possibly a small reserve "camper" tank. If you’re traveling for more than two months, get a second full tank from your camper outfit. This gives you plenty of time to get your empty tank replaced when it runs out at the most inopportune time.

Electric Heater: Get a small electric heater in Europe. It saves on propane during chilly nights and you just plug in at the campground.

GPS: I never used one but the new camping books are coming out with GPS readings. Hand-held or dash mounted. If you’re into gadgets, you might enjoy one.

Satellite TV: If you’re on a long trip this is a great way to keep in touch with what’s going on via CNN, BBC, etc. Many campers have them.

Money: ATM cash machines are the easiest and least expensive way to obtain cash in Europe and are everywhere in Western Europe.

Internet Access: For many connectivity is absolutely crucial these days. Many campsites have WiFi, WiFi in stores and chains along the way, the 3g, and other mobile Internet possibilities coming online all the time.

Books:

David Shore and Patty Campbell, Europe by Van and Motorhome. Basic how-to guide to RVing through Europe more than a listing of campgrounds. Good tips on a successful trip.

Mike and Terri Church, Traveler's Guide to European Camping: Explore Europe with RV or Tent (Traveler's Guide series). Picks best campgrounds in popular spots. My guide for much of my trip. Indispensible. Updated edition may be out by now.

Carol Mickelsen, Caravan & Camping Europe 2012 (Aa Caravan and Camping Europe). Similar to Church book.

The Caravan Club: Caravan Europe, Caravan France. Two-volume edition is the most comprehensive printed listing of European campgrounds available. Separate volume for U.K. campgrounds. Also sells a membership card for U.K. campgrounds.

ACSI Camping CD-Rom: If CD-Roms are more your thing, this one is in several languages. The website on which it can be purchased is complete with a search engine which lists more than 8,000 thousand campground in Europe in 29 countries. They also sell off-season discount camping cards.

Resources:

US Servas, Inc.: www.usservas.org. Membership fee.

Dine With the Danes: Visit www.dinewiththedanes.dk.

Braitman & Woudenberg: www.bwcampers.com. Dependable camper sales with buy-back and support while traveling.

Bilbo’s Trading Co.: www.bilbos.com. Buy-backs available.

Brownhills Leisure World, www.brownhills.co.uk. Buy-backs available.

Rutenkolk Caravaning: www.rutenkolk.de. Buy-backs available.

STEVE HUNT is a professional tour operator who has traveled extensively. He is currently touring Europe by motor home.

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