Never too late to do Europe by van
For those who love to deeply immerse themselves into the different European cultures, a motorhome road adventure is unforgettable. It’s all just outside the windows but as with all travel ideas, planning and organising is essential.
There’s no packing and unpacking every day, no bus driver honking impatiently and Europe can be explored at your own pace. Add to that the locals you will meet staying at campgrounds, and the Grey Nomad experience translates into a European adventure.
If you are picturing yourself in your own road movie in Europe you can add some more question marks to the list. The biggest is about your personal time frame.
For good value, a motorhome tour should be planned with at least three or, even better, four weeks. Europe may look small on a map, but distances shouldn’t be underestimated, especially if you want to immerse yourself into the different cultures without rushing.
Depending on perseverance, budget and personal situation there are basically four ways to accomplish the adventure:
• Rent a motorhome on your own; the planning-intensive way
• Consider a guided motorhome tour; let others do the job
• Ship your rig; if you have plenty of time
• Buy and resell a motorhome in Europe; the risky way
All these options have one thing in common: planning carefully and making arrangements months ahead – especially when it comes to finding reputable companies with the best value for your money. Just as essential, is choosing and making reservations for the friendliest and most convenient campsites near your targeted destinations.
The rental way
The first thing travellers must realise is that one-way rental across the European borders is almost not available or drains the wallet dramatically. This is due to the fact that someone would have to drive the vehicle back to the rental company’s main pick-up station.
It is a little bit more likely to get hold of a one-way rental within just one country but this is not what you expect from a tour through Europe, so planning a round-trip is the best idea.
To find a rental company is not that difficult. The rule of thumb is if your Internet search spits out results in English you have probably found a company which is used to dealing with international customers.
Online travel portals and camping forums can also provide tips. You can try your luck with local dealers, but don’t expect them to speak your language.
Tip: ask your national automobile club for recommendations.
Rental contracts are similar to those for normal cars but unfortunately not all dealers offer a translation. Before booking, ask for special terms such as country restrictions or limited mileage per day and whether your driver’s licence allows you to drive your desired model. Having an international driver’s licence is a bonus. These are readily available from the RACQ.
Rental costs vary from country to country, and Germany is considered to be on the cheaper side. The cost always depends on the size of the motorhome and, of course, the season.
The difference in price for the same motorhome can be around €50 a day between low and high season.
For a 2/4 berth, mid-sized camper van up to 7m expect an average rental fee of about €100 a day. The vehicles are new or almost new. Automatic transmissions are the rare exception. The fee normally includes comprehensive car insurance but the initial equipment with propane and water add to the cost and chairs and kitchen utensils often are also extra.
You’ll be charged a painful fee if you leave emptying the toilet to the company at the end of the trip.
Tip: especially during low-season, rental companies offer special package deals.
It is essential to book the motorhome way ahead, often six months or more, especially if you plan a trip during peak season. Same with campgrounds; check before you leave home that your favourite sites have pitches available.
Make reservations if possible, although some campsites require a minimum stay for that and will possibly ask you to transfer a deposit.
During the off-season, the situation is much more relaxed but don’t rely on luck only. Call the next campsite on your list one or two days before your arrival instead of just showing up.
If you choose the adventurous way, start looking for an overnight stay during daylight. Groping through the dark with a vehicle the size of a small hotel room is a hair-raising and potentially hazardous, even for experienced European drivers.
Staying overnight at a car park should be for emergencies only, as different laws apply in every European country.
Community-owned parking lots for motorhomes have become popular, often within walking distance of the main attractions and are sometimes equipped with hook-ups. They often charge only a small fee. The downside is you can’t book ahead. Expect the cost for campsites to be around €20 to €50 a night.
On the road
It is really hard to judge as a first-time visitor to Europe how much time you’ll need to drive from one destination to the next. Browsing these lovely winding European roads through Brothers Grimm type villages can be time consuming. Which is, on the other hand, part of the fun. In general a distance up to 200km a day is reasonable and you’ll spend three to five hours on the road. A fairly early start in the morning is a good idea. This allows enough time to do a final check on the motorhome, and to make some shopping and photo stops along the road.
The guided way
“So many road signs?” Debbie, an experienced traveller from Australia, said, frowning as she took the information brochure about traffic rules in Germany. “But if in doubt we’ll just follow you, close our eyes and hope for the best.”
The reasons travellers decide for a guided tour are many. Some don’t trust their language skills, others are afraid of foreign road layouts and signs. To just follow the tour guides allows them to relax and enjoy the trip.
Guided motorhome tours can be considered a hybrid of a classic, escorted hotel and motor-coach tour and an individualised, adventurous way to explore Europe. All of the planning is done for you but you have to pay for having the convenience of a fully organised tour with 24/7 support from the accompanying tour guides.
Included in the costs are normally the motorhome rental, campground fees, organised side excursions to special places of interest or boat cruises, and maybe road tolls. In general, you can compare the costs of a guided motorhome tour with pricing for hotel-based tours.
What can make it look more expensive is the fact that motorhome tours are generally longer; four weeks is common. But shopping at local markets and the ability to prepare your own food can be a money-saver.
There are several companies on the market which offer guided motorhome tours in Europe for overseas travellers. Their portfolio ranges from tours through the heartland of Europe to its periphery.
As with hotel-based tours, you can expect to visit the main attractions of these areas. If you are also interested in particular events you don’t find in normal tour books, you’ll need a tour operator with intimate knowledge of the area.
Confirm that they provide insurance against their insolvency. As an example, for Germany-based tour operators, the “Reisesicherungsschein” is statutory.
You will find differences in the size of the convoys; either you travel in a larger caravan or in smaller family-type groups. Check if you are allowed to do side trips on your own initiative or if you have to strictly follow the rig of the tour guides.
Tour books with detailed information such as addresses and GPS coordinates of the visited campgrounds and the destinations should be a matter of course.
The motorhome should be fully equipped with everyday life essentials. Normally not included are flights to Europe and personal insurance.
Bring your own rig or buy one
These alternatives are not for the faint-hearted and not feasible for average tourists. Both options require having time and the planning itself can be a headache with loads of paperwork. Be prepared to deal with embassies and customs.
Shipping a motorhome to Europe is of course possible. There are specialised freight companies in the market. The difficulty is to plan around the shipping aspect. If you plan to stay longer than 90 days in the European Schengen area you’ll face serious visa issues.
Finding appropriate insurance for the travellers and the motorhome can be the next big hurdle and don’t forget to adapt the motorhome’s electrically or gas operated appliances to European standards. All of these issues have to be resolved months before beginning.
Tip: if you should consider this way of travelling, try to find a shipping company which can support you in these aspects.
Buying a motorhome in Europe is like buying a pig in the poke, although you can read success stories on the Internet.
You wouldn’t have to worry about the technical equipment, but the visa and the insurance problems stay the same. Don’t trust “too good to be true” stories. What they often don’t tell you is that it is almost impossible to license a car in a European country without being an EU resident.
There might be solutions for that, but it’s playing with fire and a police stop could crash your holiday dreams.
Apart from that, prices for second-hand motorhomes are currently through the roof and there’s no guarantee that you can resell the vehicle at a good price.
And once on European streets, don’t forget to wave to other motorhome drivers. It’s a tradition.
Claus Schaffner is a motorhome enthusiast and journalist from Germany. Visit guidedmotorhometours.eu