An Aussie’s Guide to Motorhoming in Europe
When my wife & I retired at the end of 2013 we decided to spend the next 3 years travelling. We were already enjoying the RV lifestyle by owning caravans since 2002, so it was not a big jump to purchase a motorhome in the UK to make a base from where we could tour Europe.
As we had not been to Europe before we decided to break the trip into 3 sections, West, Central & East doing 1 per year. As of this writing we have now completed 3 years and are planning our 4th & final trip to begin in April 2017. You can read the blogs covering these trips here.
So with the last 3 European summers under our belt we thought we would attempt this short guide to answer the many questions we are continually being asked and have broken it into the following sections:
- Mitigating Factors
- Rent or Buy?
- Buying Logistics
- Documents & Visas
- RV Stuff
- Security & Safety
- Miscellaneous Stuff
- Time – If not retired then you need to take leave of sufficient time to enjoy the trip.
- Child Free – There is a small window of opportunity from when the youngest child leaves until the first grandchild arrives.
- Mortgage Free – or at least small enough to be covered by tenants.
Length of Stay
Decide whether you want to go on one extended trip or go one or more years in a row alternating between Europe/Australia. If you plan to do more than one trip then you will need to consider vehicle storage and insurance when you leave the motorhome and maintenance of the vehicle and re-registration for your return trip(s).
Type of Motorhome
Left/Right Hand Drive
Naturally if the bulk of your route is non-UK then LHD would be beneficial. Some people have no problem driving on the opposite side of the road from the vehicle’s setup but I can tell you from experience that in larger vehicles and smaller roads it is most definitely an issue.
Number of berths
Even though we were only 2 people we purchased a 6 berth. If we were going for only 2 weeks then I would have made do with a beetle, but as each of our trips was for nearly 6 months and approx. 10,000 km we felt we needed the extra space for all seasonal clothes and a few extra comforts as well as having extra ‘personal space’.
When planning which countries to visit on your route do not forget to check to see whether the countries are covered by your insurance policy.
We quickly chose to abandon freeways. The tolls can be extremely expensive compared to Australia and we just found the driving a lot more relaxing on the quieter country roads. This way we also found some delightful small villages and sights that we would never have otherwise seen.
Low emission zones
Many cities in Europe use Low Emission Zones, Urban Road Tolls, Traffic Limited Zones and Traffic Restrictions to improve air quality, reduce traffic congestion and make historic city centres attractive to tourists.
Click here >> to answer your questions on where you are allowed to drive in cities and towns in Europe. Find maps, what you need to enter, whether stickers or permits are needed, the costs, what the penalties are and much more.
Size of destinations
The larger the town/city you are visiting the harder it will be to navigate to inner accommodation (if any is available). Consider staying on the outskirts and catching public transport.
Rent or Buy?
Ultimately the choice is yours whether you rent, buy or go for a buy back option. As we planned to do at least 3 x 6 months trips to Europe we opted for a buy back option with the choice of selling it privately if we wish.
- Great for short term trips (under 3 months
- No responsibility for registration, insurance, servicing and repairs
- Don’t need worry about foreign exchange rates on purchase/sale
- No initial large outlay of $
- Not cost effective if you are planning to spend more than 3 months in Europe
- Limited choice of vehicle type and layout
- Most rental companies only provide the bare essentials for equipment, contents & accessories
- Cannot customise to suit your requirements
- Rental roadside assistance, repairs, accident replacement vehicle etc may be difficult due to dealing through a third party
- Great for longer term trips (over 3 months) or if you plan to go to Europe on more than one trip
- Freedom of choice of vehicle type & layout
- Choose your own equipment, contents & accessories
- Can customize as you wish
- Deal direct with roadside assistance, repair companies
- Some companies in UK will offer a Buy Back service whereby they offer a guaranteed price for the vehicle when you return it – peace of mind knowing that you do not have to worry about selling at the end of your travels
- Need to organise your own registration, insurance, servicing, repairs & storage
- Potentially large outlay of $
- Have to organise the sale of the vehicle
- Foreign exchange rates on purchasing/selling
- If you opt for a Buy Back arrangement be aware that the prices offered are usually well below the market value of the vehicle
Where to rent from?
There are multiple companies renting motorhomes in Europe. If this is the option you choose just do a Google search and compare the pricing.
Make sure you check which countries are covered by the rental company’s vehicle insurance as several countries are not covered by most insurance companies.
Buying & Logistics
Where to buy from?
There are multiple options regarding where you can purchase a motorhome.
Germany, France & The Netherlands are the cheapest options to purchase a left hand drive vehicle. No doubt if you speak other European languages such as French or German, for example, you would find it relatively easy to purchase in those countries. Unless you speak the language negotiating storage, registration & insurance will be more difficult than purchasing in UK. As we purchased in the UK we do not have a lot of information about purchasing there.
For us it was easier to purchase in the UK mainly because of the language. Left hand drive vehicles were more difficult to find but storage, registration & insurance was easier to negotiate.
Here are a few links to websites that sell motorhomes. There is a mix of private and dealer sales
Out and About
Considering you will be purchasing from someone you do not know we recommend that you pay for a vehicle check before you purchase.
My Car Check is similar to REVS in Australia in that it provides information on whether the vehicle has been stolen, written off, has any funds owning, insurance write off, number of previous owners etc
Documentation of Purchase
When you purchase your motorhome ensure that you receive a sale agreement documenting the vehicle details including Make, Registration number, Model, Colour, Vin, Speedometer reading, Date first registered, Purchase price. Both you and the seller need to sign and date this document. Also get a copy of their passport and/or drivers licence. We recommend that you do not make any payments to the seller until you have done this.
Handing over $$$
This is an area which concerned us greatly when we purchased “Normie”. There obviously has to be a certain level of trust between you and the seller. We were fortunate that the company that sold us the motorhome came highly recommended by a friend who had bought a motorhome from the company on a buy back arrangement the year before we bought. We paid a deposit and waited until he was paid the agreed buy back amount before paying the balance. Unfortunately the exchange rate was not in our favour and it cost us several thousand dollars more than it would have had we paid in full at the time we paid the deposit. Despite this we felt comfortable about this decision and were still nervous that “Normie” would actually be there in the UK when we arrived 5 months later. Phew he was!!!
We were given the choice of payment by bank cheque or telegraphic transfer. As we do not have a UK bank account we paid by telegraphic transfer.
Transfer of ownership
Once your payment to the seller has cleared he/she must notify the Driver & Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA). This can be done online. Ensure you have given the seller your email. Full information regarding this can be found on the website.
The new owner should get:
- an email confirmation
- the new V5C registration certificate within 5 working days.
The seller will be sent:
- an email confirmation
- a letter confirming that you’re no longer the owner of the vehicle
- a refund for any full months of vehicle tax (or direct debit cancelled)
MOT Test & Registration
All vehicles in the UK are required to have a MOT check before registration. The seller should provide you with the MOT certificate however if this does not happen all you have to do is go to a MOT inspection station for the vehicle to be assessed. This is similar to what we have to do in Australia.
Registration is for a 6 or 12 month period. You must provide a UK address for registration. If you do not have an address in UK register the vehicle in your name and use a friend or relative’s address. It is unnecessary to pay for registration when the motorhome is stored.
- All vehicles are required to pay Road Tax.
- A valid MOT is required to purchase Road Tax
- Road tax is not needed until you are going to drive the vehicle.
- It cannot be purchased in advance, unless it starts in advance
- You can purchase online at Road Tax
In order to insurance a vehicle in the UK it must be registered in the insured’s name.
Obtaining motorhome insurance in the UK proved to be difficult and expensive. We contacted several UK insurance companies, most of which required the insured to be UK residents having held a UK drivers licence for a certain period of time.
We only found 2 companies that would insure Australians Herts Insurance Consultants and DU Insure. We have been insured by DU Insure.
Make sure you check which countries are covered by the vehicle’s insurance certificate as several countries are not covered.
It is important to take out roadside assistance in case of a breakdown when you are travelling in Europe. We did not investigate doing this in the UK as our current Australian roadside assistance in NSW, NRMA has a reciprocal arrangement with companies in most European countries.
We requested a letter of proof of membership and took this with us. If your current roadside assistance company is a member of the FIA you will be covered. For a list of countries and their reciprocal agreement go to the Australian Automobile Association AAA website. Download the AAA list
So far thank goodness we have not had to use this service. We strongly suggest that you check with your Australian roadside assistance organisation, get proof of membership and make sure you take your membership card with you.
If you are planning multiple European trips, travelling back home in between you will need to arrange storage for the motorhome when you are not there. Our motorhome is stored outside in a gated locked compound in Kent. The location is 20 minutes drive from Dover Port where the ferry to Calais departs and it is also close to a caravan park where we stay for a day or two before we catch the ferry to Calais. Make sure that you continue your insurance whilst the motorhome is in storage.
Documents & Visas
Documents to carry
You may be asked to show your documents at any time and could be fined or even have your car taken away if they’re not in order.
You must carry:
- Your valid full (not provisional) driving licence
- An International Driving Permit (when necessary)
- Your vehicle’s registration document (the original not a copy)
- Your motor insurance certificate (Your insurer may ask to be told when you’re going abroad and only provide third party cover when you do.)
- Your passport(s)
- Your travel insurance documents
- You may need a visa for certain countries too (see below)
International Driving Permit
Most European countries stipulate that you must have an International Driving Permit. To check whether the countries you are visiting require you to have an International Driving Permit go to the Australian Automobile Association AAA website.
To obtain an International Driving Permit you can either
- go into an NRMA (or your State equivalent) together with a photograph no larger than 3.5cm x 4.5cm or
- download an application form, post together with a photograph no larger than 3.5cm x 4.5cm, payment and they will post it to you. It can be posted to an overseas address for an additional charge.
When driving in Europe most countries require you to carry a safety kit including a warning triangle, safety vest, first aid kit, fire extinguisher, headlamp converters (for UK vehicles) More information from the AA UK site.
Gas fittings & bottles
Our motorhome was fitted with a European style fitting which suited most of Western Europe except UK, Spain, Portugal & Italy where adapters were used. We carry a UK gas bottle and 2 French bottles and as France has always been our entry & departure point we filled up on arrival and mainly used their bottles.
Gas bottles can be country specific and re-filling gas bottles can prove to be difficult. We managed by buying local bottles where required and asking locals what the options were. Below so far is what we did….
UK: refills available at most service stations.
France: We mostly refilled at Carrefours as they were reasonably priced. Lack of French language did prove to be an issue at most places however we managed to get by.
The Netherlands, Switzerland & Belgium: We did not need as we had sufficient supply.
Portugal: We bought a gas bottle
Spain: We used the Portuguese bottle and were able to refill in Spain.
Austria & Germany:We did not need as we had sufficient supply.
Italy: We bought a gas bottle. Refills are illegal however this did not stop some vendors. and we managed to refill
Service Areas – Waste Disposal & Water
All campsites and most budget/free campsites have facilities for the disposal of greywater, black waste and for refilling water tanks. Greywater disposal is usually over a drain or grille at the service point with a long trough sunken below the ground level.
Many of the free camps have a services vending machine that dispenses water and allow for the disposal of black water. The machines though sometimes free usually costs a nominal amount i.e. 2 euros which can be paid by coin, token and sometimes credit card. Some of the machines also have the availability for you to plug into power.
Tolls in Europe are much more expensive than Australia.
Social customs and danger
Be aware they change from region to region. So your research on each country before you go.
Local RV migrations
Depending on longitude and time of year the majority of travellers in the other motorhomes will tend to be from the same areas. For example during May/June between the Alps and Rome you will notice that the other motorhomes are almost exclusively from Netherlands, France & Germany, while south of Rome down to Sicily most other motorhomes will be Italian.
Country by Country
Vicarious Books has put together guide books on many countries in Europe. Go to this page for specific information on campsites, motorhome stopovers and free camps. It also has information about the roads & tolls. For countries not covered the web is the best way to search for what is available where.
Budget camping, free & wild camping
The are many free and low cost camping areas throughout Europe
Aires (France, Spain & Portugal, Belgium The Netherlands & Luxembourg)
Area sosta (Italy)
These are areas for motorhomes only and are often in superb locations, often free or at a very low cost. Motorhome stopovers exist across Europe as a way of attracting tourism to places where no other tourism exists, or where motorhomes turn up anyway and are in need of somewhere to go. There are terms and conditions for the use of these areas as the campervan must actually be a campervan, not just a van with a mattress in the back, and must be ‘self sufficient’. Camping is strictly prohibited, which means no tables and chairs outside and absolutely no tents. We purchased the Aires guides which were helpful, however we utilised the Camping Contact App and website more than the books.
We joined this organisation that allows you to camp for free in return for perusing the produce/wares. (mainly on vineyards) We stayed at several sites and it was a fabulous way to see meet the locals, see the countryside and there is no obligation to buy the produce or wines. (however we couldn’t resist buying a few wines, pates, cheeses!!!)
There are a plethora of wonderful campsites to stay at in Europe. Plenty of choice, mostly reasonably priced and some in magic locations.
Off season discounts
The ACSI Camping Card is a low season discount card which enables you to stay at campsites across Europe from 11€- 19€ per night. You can purchase a guidebook and also have the option to purchase an app. We have found this to particularly valuable when going to popular tourist areas off season and saved a lot of money by using it.
Accommodation Apps for your smartphone/tablet
Note: The icon on the app is called Parkings
A comprehensive guide to free & budget camp spots, service areas and campsites throughout Europe similar to Wikicamps.
The app also syncs to the website when you login
We found this to be invaluable and the best method to find accommodation and places to park during the day.
Three handy apps for your smartphone and tablet.
As an addition to the ACSI Campsite Guide there are:
- ACSI Europe app with 8,600 campsites,
- CampingCard ACSI app with all 3,142 campsites that accept the CampingCard discount card and
- ACSI Great Little Campsites app with 2,018 small and easy-going campsites.
Security & Safety
It is useful to carry an EPIRB device in case of emergency and if you don’t have mobile phone or internet access.
An Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon or EPIRB is used to alert search and rescue services in the event of an emergency. It does this by transmitting a coded message on the 406 MHz distress frequency via satellite and earth stations to the nearest rescue coordination centre. Some EPIRBs also have built-in GPS which enables the rescue services to accurately locate you to +/- 50 metres.
We have always carried one with us both overseas and in Australia, we haven’t had to use it for emergencies but have used it when we are out of range to notify the family where we are in case something should happen. Two examples of these are:
InReach (We have one of these devices)
Things to avoid
- Avoid camping or parking near Travellers (Gypsies)
- Avoid parking in unattended parking lots – near large populations. We were parked in an aire in Bilbao, Spain and caught the local bus to town. When we returned we noticed that there had been an attempted break in. Thanks goodness the only damage was to our door lock and nothing was taken.
- Avoid staying overnight in Service Centres on major highways. These areas are often the target for theft.
- We stress be careful where you choose to camp overnight. Don’t think you are safe when you are asleep in your locked motorhome. We have heard horror stories of motorhomes being robbed whilst their owners are asleep in the cab over!
- Avoid crowded squares, train/bus stations, tourist spots – Pickpockets thrive in these locations. If you must be in one of these spots transfer any valuables in rear pockets to front pockets and wear any backpacks containing valuables in reverse so that they are in front of you.
Info on where to go, what to see, where to eat!
During our trips we have used a combination of travel books and the internet to do our research on where to go and what to see.
We purchased Lonely Planet guides for the countries we planned to visit before we left Australia and they have been most useful particularly at times when we have not had internet access
So far we have not had an issue communicating with people as most people speak at least some English.
It has been fun using hand gestures and charades particularly in small country villages where English is not spoken.
By far the best translation tool we found was Google translate. It saved us in a few tricky situations when we needed repairs done on the motorhome.
Google translate website
Google translate for Apple devices
Google translate for Android
We did try other translation tools like Word Lens, SpeakEasy and various dictionaries but alway come back to Google translate
We found Google Maps vital in assisting our transport needs. Our rule of thumb was if we were parked less than 3 km from our destination we would walk, however over 3 km we would use Google Maps and utilise the local public transport (bus/train/tram/ferry). The app would not only navigate us to the closest stop/station but would also tell us the schedule. Once under way it would also tell you how many stops you were from your destination.
Google Maps for Apple devices
Google Maps for Android
Credit cards, Debit cards, Money Changers, ATMs, Travellers Cheques
Gone are the days when travellers cheques are used. Also Money Changers aren’t that widely used throughout Europe particularly when you are travelling in a motorhome and visiting rural regions.
Do your research before you leave Australia as to which method is the most cost effective for you.
We use a preloaded currency card and have found it to be cheaper than withdrawing from our bank account or using credit cards.
Travel through Europe is not as simple as we would have hoped money wise as not all countries take the Euro. For countries that don’t take the Euro we had no choice but to withdraw from our bank account via an ATM or use preloaded Aussie $ incurring an additional conversion fee.
ATMs are available pretty well all over Europe even in smaller country villages.
Travel insurance & your private health fund
It is advisable to take out a travel insurance policy to cover you whilst overseas. Ensure that you have 100% medical cover even for pre existing medical conditions. If you get sick overseas or worse die it can end up costing a small fortune.
If you have private health insurance in Australia you may be able to put your cover on hold while you are travelling overseas. It is suggested that you check with your insurer to see if this is possible. We have done this in the past with no trouble, the travel insurance per month is actually cheaper than our current private health cover.
Being able to communicate with each other (if travelling with one or more people) whilst in Europe and with family and friends back home is something that high on the priority list of most travellers.
We are very heavy data users and additionally wanted the ability to be able to message each other should we become separated. The 1st year we purchased local sim cards in each new country we entered. This proved to be expensive & time consuming but was better than using our Australian sims.
While back in Oz we swapped one of our mobiles from Telstra to Vodafone so for our 2nd year we tried Vodafone’s deal whereby they let you access your Aussie plan for $5 per 24 hour period while overseas. We used this phone as a personal hotspot for our other devices and the second phone was only used for texting in emergencies. We topped up our data when required and whilst this worked out around the same $$$ as buying local sim it was definitely a big time-saver and far more convenient.
To keep in touch with family we used Skype and Whatsapp.
There are many places that offer free Wifi, so on days where we could utilise this we didn’t use our own data.
The Vegemite contingency
These are some of the everyday Aussie supermarket items we found either impossible to find or highly expensive.
Tim Tams – yes, we all know about this one.
Gumption/Jif – different brands available but just not as good
Eucalyptus oil – available but could only find concentrate and it was $$$$
Personal insect repellent -$$$$
Suntan lotion -$$$$
Please remember to be safe and have fun.
We would love to hear from you if you have any questions or suggestions for added material to this guide, just ask away in the comments below or the contact page.
Finally an unashamed plug as this is our last trip in our beloved ‘Normie’ we would like to see him go to a good home and continue his great adventures showing Aussies around Europe. If you are interested then please visit Normie’s page for more information.