We just hit our halfway point on our six month road trip through Europe in a campervan we got with Happy Campers Europe.
Vanlife has had its ups and downs for sure, but overall has been a positive experience and one we would not trade for the world. What have we learned? Lots! Do we still make mistakes? Every day! Here are a few nuggets of wisdom we have learned, either the easy way or the hard way.
Don’t wait too long to plug in!
We were enjoying a leisurely cup of tea gazing out over the amazing view of the Loop Head peninsula in Ireland. I walked to the kitchen to start breakfast and nearly had a panic attack. Our fridge was not on. Oh shit! We had just stocked up with proteins for the next few meals the day before. This was not the time for the fridge to fail. I checked the power and the red light was blinking. What? How the hell did that happen? We counted back and realized we hadn’t plugged in in nine days. Oops. I don’t know how that slipped our minds. So instead of enjoying our view, we had to pack up and hightail it to a campground where we could recharge. Thankfully our meat seemed ok, but going forward we never went more than six days just in case.
Tolls and the state of roads vary from country to country.
Austria, Czechia, and Slovenia have what they call vignettes – stickers you pre-purchase before entering the country so you can drive on their major highways. This is in lieu of toll roads based on distance and pretty convenient to purchase near the borders. Whereas Germany has no tolls and amazing roads (highway fees are incorporated into their tax system), France’s highway network is privately owned. So there is no rhyme or reason to the price of tolls or the quality of the roads. Do yourself a favor and set the GPS to “no toll roads” in France. You will see more countryside that way anyway.
Round and round she goes…
Get used to roundabouts on a European road trip because they adore them here. Large ones, small ones, oval ones. Some have seven exits, some have one exit (the point??). I can’t tell you how many times we have ridden around in circles because we missed the correct exit. Once Todd just did it so I could get a better picture of a rainbow from the van. Now that was fun! WEEEEEEE!!!
Look into low emission zones (LEZ) before entering each country.
We got a huge fine in London by accidentally entering the Low Emission Zone. Our van actually passes the emissions regulations. But because it does not have UK plates you have to pre-register it with the city ten days before entering which is what we did not do. We learned after the London fine to make sure our research was in depth. Most countries have LEZs in place for major cities and more congested areas and are easy to avoid. There are many helpful websites out there with interactive maps so once you get the hang of it, it’s easy. Too bad we hit London early on in the trip!
Privacy basically goes out the window…
Van life is not going to be for everyone. You have to be VERY comfortable with your partner in such small quarters. We thought since we had been sharing hotel rooms for the better part of a year we were used to small spaces, which is true. However, not having a door for the bathroom is a little different. All those secret habits you like to hide? Good luck with that!
That being said, we thought it was going to be a lot harder than it is to work around no bathroom. Public bathrooms are pretty common in Europe and are usually very clean, so there’s that. But if you can’t do the heavy stuff in a public place, van life is basically out for you.
We have more freedom than if we didn’t have the van.
We knew this going in, but it’s worth being said. There are places we would have never made it to without Art Vandalay. There are amazing spots we have free camped overlooking some stunning scenery. If we feel like staying somewhere one more day we do. No cancelling of train or bus rides or rescheduling hotel rooms. Or if we decide we don’t like where we are, we move. Simple as that.
We have been on quite a rapid pace the last month so when we got to this campsite on the island of Pag in Croatia we decided to stay three nights, then five, then a whole week. Because we can. We also enjoy being ‘settled down’ as in we don’t have to schlep our backpacks around and pack up every few days. The van feels like a home. On the down side, since we free camp quite often we don’t have access to wifi which means backing up photos, researching the next places to go and keeping up with the blog fall behind. And we have to put out the bed every night and pack it up every morning. Our next van will have a dedicated bedroom!
Embrace the funk.
Todd and I are clean people…on a budget. Which means we aren’t typically paying for a campsite if we can avoid it. Which means a real shower once every 5-6 days. Baby wipes become your best friend. Ditto for a strong breeze to air out the van and the bedding. Because let’s face it, laundry is only happening once every few weeks. Bouts of rain make things damp which is unfortunate but unavoidable. However I think we both would take the Irish summer over sleeping in a van in 100 degree heat.
We are saving a boatload of money.
Our budget of $100 a day (total, not per person) in Asia was easy to accomplish and we were often under budget. In Europe it would be a nightmare. Even hostel beds go for upwards of twenty euros a night in most places. Then add in three meals a day and any excursions and travel costs. With the van we have transportation, room and board all rolled into one. After not cooking for eight months I really enjoy preparing meals for us again. Of course we do eat out occasionally and enjoy the local food, but we keep it to maybe one dinner a week and a lunch or two, tops.
Surviving one lane roads in the UK and Ireland.
Small islands, smaller roads! Narrow roads edged with ancient stone walls and even older trees. One lane tracks hugging cliffs or meandering through the countryside. Sheep! Sometimes it’s like a game of chicken except that the locals always win. You stop with your heart in your chest, they cruise by you doing 100 km/hr. and give you the thumbs up.
In the spirit of saving money, some shopping tips.
Lidl and Aldi are lifesavers. They are pretty much found in every country and in all but the smallest of towns. Stock up on necessities at these places and when I say necessities I mean 3 euro bottles of wine, butter biscuits and peanuts. We also try to get fresh meat, cheese, bread and veggies at local purveyors when we can. We have enjoyed soda bread in Ireland, dark rye and fresh pretzels in Germany and most recently something we refer to as Ciapita in Croatia (cross of ciabatta and pita – yum!). Cheeses such as Stilton and Double Gloucester in the UK, Edam in the Netherlands, Irish cheddar and Camembert from Normandy have graced our lunch spreads.
In lieu of generic souvenirs we tend to buy local products that we can enjoy and cook with. Currently we have a Hungarian hot sauce, salt from the Hallein Salt Mine tour near Salzburg, jam from The Apple Farm in Ireland and three types of mustard (small fridge but we do have standards!). Drinking the local hooch will save you money as well – so go for the Irish whiskey, that French wine or a malty German or Czech beer. Imports will always be more money.
After only three months we almost feel like pros!
Just kidding. We still get lost, argue over parking placement, freak out over old van quirks, and probably should have taken a crash course in basic van conversions before we attempted this. But it’s a memorable experience and something we would definitely do again. We are glad we took the leap into the unknown and can’t wait to see what the next three months have to offer.