Setting out in a campervan for who knows how long is daunting. But, luckily for you, we learnt A LOT during our time away. We’ve curated a list of practical, useful things to know that we picked up during our European adventure.
1. Diesel is really cheap in Bosnia
If you’re winding your way from the North coast of Croatia down to the South, a map will have already told you that a piece of Bosnia lies in the way (dammit!). We had no problems getting in, or out, of Bosnia, but did notice that diesel was incredibly cheap there compared with in Croatia. Don’t top up your tank just before crossing the border – you’ll be kicking yourself if you do.
2. France has huge supermarket complexes with washing machines
We spent an awful lot of time at Super Us in France – firstly because they sell everything you could possibly need and, secondly, because they all have launderettes. So, you can pop your washing on for an hour whilst you go and do your shopping and avoid traipsing around towns looking for somewhere to do the laundry. It’s a win-win.
3. You’ll need tonnes of mosquito spray
If you’re not keen on becoming a highly aggressive, panicky insect-squatter such as myself, you’ll need a shedload of mosquito repellent. Funnily enough, mozzies love campsites. They hang around the showers waiting to pounce on innocents at their most vulnerable, and they gather in hoards around washing machines, even in daylight hours.
4. You’ll cycle everywhere
Cycling is a great mode of travel for sightseeing. But it’s also a necessity if you want to avoid getting stuck in city traffic in an enormous motorhome. Italian hilltop towns are not van friendly, and neither are metropolitan cities. In fact, some cities like Paris require you to have an emission certificate. Aside from that, time is on your side when travelling, so cycling means winding your way towards a destination and finding hidden treasures along the way, instead of squeezing your van into a carparking space just to get within a mile of a tourist hotspot.
5. Germany has a gigantic super-store of motorhome supplies
….and it’s amazing. Just when we needed access to a vast array of things like chemical toilet fluid, giant water containers and gas hose fittings, we found it. Just outside of Munich, this is the place to go if you’re short on supplies or need fiddly things like gas hose fittings that work in every European country.
6. Duct tape will come in handy at some point
Broken wing-mirrors, broken beds, kidnapping – duct tape is a wondrous thing when living in a van. Pretty much anything that’s broken can be temporarily fixed with it. We used duct tape on outside compartment doors whenever there was a storm, too, to make sure no rain ever crept in.
7. You’ll want a fan
At one point during a 40-degree heat wave in Biarritz, we found ourselves sat in bum-shaped sweat puddles. We’d spent all day sat on the beach, swimming with ten-minute intervals. And then night-time came. Without a fan…well, it doesn’t bear thinking about. Imagine turning your pillow on to its other side in search of cool material, only to find that side HOTTER and WETTER than the last. The lesson is – a fan will likely be the only source of cool(ish) air available, so take one.
8. The Amalfi Coast can’t be driven on by a campervan
You can hitch a ride on a tour bus carrying 40 people, oddly enough, but motorhomes are prohibited on the Amalfi Coast between the hours of 6.30am and midnight. Our advice? Leave your camper van in a campsite – somewhere like Sorrento (a beautiful town nearby) – and hire a car. That way you can enjoy the views instead of trembling your way along the coast road.
9. Most Aires in France offer a single stand for services
Aires are cheap campsites and they vary from country to county. France and Spain are particularly well-known for them. But, in France mainly, you need to watch out for Aires that say they have electricity but only have one standing charging point. These charging points cost roughly two euros an hour and often you can’t stay plugged in overnight. So, no kettle or toaster in the morning if you’re reliant on 12V plugs like we were. DISASTEROUS for us Brits. If you want to make sure an Aire has a certain level of amenities before you arrive, it’s worth investing in an ‘All the Aires’ book. They are unbelievably useful and cover France, Italy, Spain and Portugal plus others.
10. An Aire camping card is useful to have
We came across a delightful campsite on the West coast of France (Seignosse) that was only accessible if you had an ‘Aire Camping Card’. Luckily, we were able to sign up for one there and then. Most of the campsites in that area were £20-30 a night, but this one was more like £12-15. And membership gives you access to lots of similar ones around France. They’re much nicer than your average Aire because each pitch has a electric charge point. No showers though, just a toilet.
11. Some campsites offer fresh croissant delivery
Occasionally, you’ll come across an epic campsite that offers fresh bread or croissant delivery in the morning. All that’s required is a pre-order with cash. This usually happens on small campsites, as big ones tend to have their own (expensive) shops on site. Many of our top moments travelling were spent sat in a camping chair taking in the view with a warm croissant in one hand and freshly brewed coffee in the other. It always signalled the beginning of another spontaneous day of discovery.
12. In peak travel times you need to book Aires
…especially in tourist hotspots. In high season, most campsites get booked up by regulars, meaning you’ll have to trek further away to find somewhere to sleep. Often, though, that’s worth doing. Campsites right next to Dubrovnik, for example, are double the price of those twenty minutes away. We scored a private pitch with panoramic sea-views for £10 on the outskirts – and buses, into Dubrovnik were regular, safe, and cheap.
13. Toll roads are sometimes worth it, sometimes not
Our first toll road in France cost us €40. It was a bit of a shock, considering our daily budget was £50. After that we vowed to avoid tolls, but it soon became apparent that our van wasn’t suited to rugged climbs up the Pyrenees mountains and the Alps. Some tolls are worth the money. Take Southern Italy and Sicily for example, where one huge toll road ploughs through mountain after mountain and only costs about €10-€15 in total.
14. You will need a budget for things that break
‘Our van will survive a year without any problems, we’ve only just had it serviced!’ Yep, that’s what we thought, too. Unfortunately, motorhomes and campervans are built for holidays, not long-term travel. Things will go wrong. You’ll need a ‘bumps budget’ of roughly £1000 for breakages along the way.
15. Fairy lights, cushions and kindles are necessities
One word…AMBIENCE. Cosying up your van is a sure-fire way to make a stormy day pleasurable. A good tip is to spend as much of your time as possible outside of the van – which is the point of travelling really – so that rainy days are pleasantly relaxing rather than painfully dull. If you’re feeling tired but it’s a beautiful evening, force yourself to sit at the beach or a local café. You don’t want you van turning into a negative space that feels claustrophobic.
Our kindles were essential. They were so handy for the beach, and ideal because we had a lot of spare time so got through a lot of books. As you can imagine, there’s little space in a van for stacks of novels.
16. If your gas stops working, it’s probably your regulator
Most van-duellers will have experienced their gas turning off with no explanation. If that happens, it could be your regulator. Luckily, buying a new regulator is cheap and you can do that in most big motorhome stores. We got ours replaced in Italy at a small garage that knew how to deal with campervans, which cost £100. We were overcharged, but that became a regular occurrence – us being naïve, privileged young people. If you find yourself without gas, we developed a fine selection of emergency no-cook recipes whilst away.
17. You’ll probably never use your van shower
Bathroom cleaning rota? No thank you. We stayed at campsites mostly, so showering inside the van just wasn’t necessary. When we buy another camper – we’ll be downsizing to one with a stow away toilet.
You can also get these great ‘shower bags’ that heat up in the sun after being filled with water. They’re only £10 or so, and handy when you’re travelling through hot countries and need to shower off the beach before getting into the van.
18. Park4night is useful if you don’t want to stay at campsites
Park4night is a simple app that records overnight camping spots. Official campsites and Aires are listed on there, but so are ‘wild camping’ spots with no amenities. The best part is destinations are posted by people that have actually been there. Every spot is reviewed to give you an idea of likeability, amenities etc.
But it’s worth checking the dates – we ended up traipsing from one wild camping spot to the next in Slovenia to avoid the extortionate campsite prices, only to find signposts had been erected forbidding campers in every one of them. Remember, it’s illegal to wild camp in most European countries. Some are super on it and some not. Take Croatia for example, where the fine can be over £400 – but that’s because wildfires are a real risk to locals. Just be sensible and take precautions. Oh, and don’t leave litter or toilet roll – clear up before you leave people! Respect the local wildlife, and don’t play a part in the destruction of some of earth’s most beautiful scenery.
19. It’s worth flying to some destinations
…and it might provide some much-needed respite from van life. Halfway through our trip we parked our van at Rome airport (it wasn’t hideously expensive) and flew to Istanbul for five days. The flying balanced out the petrol money and we didn’t feel comfortable driving into Turkey, anyway. But it was one of the best decisions we made whilst away. Istanbul is super cheap. We stayed in a swanky hotel for 60 euros a night, with aircon which was absolute bliss. It meant we got to dive into another culture and Istanbul wound up being one of our favourite places.
20. The best gelato in Italy isn’t on show
This is an odd one, we know, it’s an odd concept. But every outstanding dollop of ice cream we gorged on in Italy happened to be served from underneath a silver lid, instead of from a giant melting pile on top of a counter. So far, the theory has been proven in Matera, Rome, and Palermo. Our advice is to meander down backstreets in every Italian city you visit, where you’ll find these artisan-style ice cream shops with stunning flavour combinations. Try the flavour Stracciatella – a milk-based ice cream with chocolate chips.
Planning an epic campervan trip? Check out our ultimate packing guide so you don’t forget anything important.