When we set off to explore Europe in our motorhome, I was a mixture of excited and really really daunted.
There are so many differences between motorhoming in the UK and in Europe; different rules and things to know, from the kit you must carry, dealing with tolls and routes or trying to plan where to stay. The good news is that, once you know the basics, exploring Europe is a lot of fun. To help you make the most of your time (and avoid making the same mistakes we did), here are 9 essential things I wish I’d known.
There are things you MUST carry with you
Unlike in the UK, in Europe there are items of gear and paperwork which you much carry with you. Things such as a warning triangle, headlight deflectors and an appropriate sticker showing the country your vehicle is registered in.
Don’t forget that every person in the vehicle needs a high-vis jacket and they must be accessible from within the vehicle.
You also need to carry certain items of paperwork with you, including your driving licence, vehicle logbook (the real one) and proof of insurance. You can grab a complete checklist of everything you need when motorhoming in Europe here.
Route planning can be done as you go
Once you’ve collected the kit you need, the next step is to plan your route. Initially, I thought I had to plan out the entire trip before we left (and if you’re travelling in peak season it might be a good idea to be more organised, especially if you want to use campsites), but if you’re travelling outside the main summer holidays, you can be much more flexible.
On our second tour, I only planned where we were going the day before, and we decided the roads to take as we went along. You can also choose if you want to use toll roads, or if you’re happy to use slower, free roads- this will depend on how much time you have for your trip. Using a dedicated motorhome sat-nav is a great idea to ensure you don’t take roads unsuitable for your vehicle.
Decide how you’re getting to Europe in advance
By contrast, if you’re travelling from the UK to Europe, the earlier you can decide how you’re going to get to Europe, the cheaper it will be. The Channel Tunnel is quicker and usually cheaper than a ferry, but it can be a long drive out of your way, especially if you’re driving from somewhere like Cornwall. You may find a ferry crossing is more direct, but they can be expensive and much slower. Here's a list of all the ferry options from the UK.
You can use a variety of overnight stopovers
In Europe, there are plenty of campsites and approved parking spots for motorhomes and campers. Goboony even has a list of the best campsites in Europe. Campsites can range from huge sites with swimming pools, kids clubs and restaurants, while others are cheaper, with fewer facilities, but are usually less crowded.
If you want somewhere cheaper or more flexible, which you don’t need to book up in advance, there is a system of approved parking places all over Europe called Aires or Stellplatz (depending on the country you’re in.)
We used ACSI constantly to find both campsites and motorhome pitches to stay in overnight. Even better, their app allows you to book many of them online very easily, making it much less daunting than having to phone a site in a country which speaks a foreign language.
We also stayed off-grid a few nights with our van but, honestly, the system of motorhome pitches is so good across Europe that we preferred knowing we were somewhere approved for the night.
Waste disposal and water are easier to find than in the UK
If you don’t stay on campsites all the time, you’re going to need to get fresh water and dispose of your waste hygienically as you travel. Europe is a lot better for this than the UK is; there are plenty of waste disposal points at motorway services, along with freshwater taps available to campers.
Be sure to save your 1€ and 2€ coins- you’ll need these all the time to use facilities at service points and even at some aires and campsites.
Gas needs a little advanced thought
Gas/ LPG is widely available in Europe, but don’t assume (like we did!) that you can buy a European gas bottle and it will fit onto your UK system; the connections are completely different.
You’ll either need to buy European hose connections or, if you’re planning to spend a lot of time in Europe, it might be worth investing in a refillable gas system, so you can fill up with LPG at hundreds of locations without worrying about whether the bottles will fit. It’s also much much cheaper than using exchangeable bottles.
Power isn’t as worrying as we thought
Before we headed into Europe, we had a fear of reverse polarity. And it wasn’t even close to being a worry. I think, in all our travels, we’ve only been to one site which had the problem and it was easily resolved using the polarity regulator we carry.
Europe electrics are 220v, which is compatible with UK, so you can use all your electrical appliances when you’re plugged in at a campsite.
If you decide to stay ‘off-grid’, you’ll need to make sure your van is equipped to survive a night or two without additional power. A solar panel and perhaps an extra battery can help with this. You may also wish to fit low-power LED interior lights so they don’t drain too much.
We carried a motorhome generator but I think we used it only a handful of times. In all honesty, there are better things to spend your money on.
Life on the road is pretty much the same
Sadly, travelling in a van doesn’t remove the necessity of chores, like cleaning or doing the laundry. But, on the positive side, your van is much smaller than most houses, so cleaning doesn't take so long. Laundry can be easily done at a campsite or using local laundrette. You’ll also find washing machines outside many supermarkets in Europe!
If you’re travelling for a long time, you’ll need to do regular maintenance on your van. We discovered it was better to do this little and often, rather than waiting until things are really really broken to fix them. Living in a small space is hard enough without needing to navigate around broken door handles or squeaky hinges.
Slow travel is better for the soul
When we started exploring Europe, we were used to having a short amount of time before needing to return to work. We would rush around, trying to see everything we wanted to before our trip was over.
Perhaps the biggest lesson we learnt is that, although it’s fine to have a plan and a list of things to see, it’s the slower travel which is better for your soul. You’ll find the prettiest roads are often the backroads or the slower coastal route. A random detour could lead to a discovery of a place you didn’t even know existed.
Taking the time to explore a smaller area than we might initially have wanted to allows us to relax and enjoy the experience, rather than just travel to tick something off a list. And, if you find a place you love, allow yourself to stay another day. Or two.
Don’t be scared of not having a proper ‘plan’- one of the best things about motorhome travel is that you have your home on your back, so could end up anywhere! Be sure to allow room to take advantage of things you find as you travel, such as markets, festivals or accepting invitations from people you meet on the road.
It’s these interactions which have made European vanlife so exciting for us and allowed us to make some great friends who we would never otherwise have met.
In 2018, Kathryn Bird quit her job as an air traffic controller to explore Europe in a motorhome with her (slightly bewildered) husband and over-excited puppy.
Since then, they’ve visited 19+ countries and driven over 60,000 miles, sharing their experiences on the award-winning motorhome travel blog Wandering Bird.
She is passionate about inspiring others to experience the freedom of life on the road, whether for a long weekend away or selling up to live full-time vanlife.