In 2017 we spent five months travelling through Europe in a campervan with our two children aged 10 and 8 years. It was the first time we had ever travelled in a campervan. In the beginning we had no idea what we were doing. Naturally starting from such a low base we learned a lot, often the hard way! So if you are looking for ideas on how to make your campervan trip a success, read on. We have collected some of our top travel tips for travelling to Europe in a campervan with kids for you.
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To buy or rent the campervan? Renting is simplest but it can be very expensive over a longer period. It is a little complicated for a non-European to buy and insure a campervan so I will leave this for another post. The good news is that it is possible. Some important factors in making a decision on whether to buy or rent are:
It is worth doing some research on the size and configuration of the campervan that you think will work for your family. There are SO MANY different van layouts. When you are living in the campervan for many months the finding the right configuration makes a big difference. Questions to ask yourself include:
We decided not to sacrifice space. While there are many small vans, the idea of converting the dining table to a bed each night for 5 months sounded pretty painful. Our kids were sick of sharing a bed as they had for the previous 3 months through Asia, India and Africa.
With two younger kids having a toilet was necessary. Also a fridge that would run on gas so we could freecamp was important to us. In the end we chose an older 7 metre long van with a double bed at the front over the cabin and a set of bunks at the back. It meant everyone had some space and their own bed. We also made sure the van had bike racks to carry 4 bikes. Having a larger campervan also meant that when the weather outside wasn’t great, we could comfortably hang out inside.
Get to know your new home before you go too far from where you rent/buy. Check the campervan is mechanically okay. Do the windows, blinds and doors open and close correctly? Confirm the appliances (fridge, heater, 12V outlets, AC outlets, air con if you are so lucky) are working and you know how to use them.
It is also really important to know the height, length and width of your van! Unlike in the USA, there were MANY occasions heading down a country road or under a small bridge we would notice a road sign with the maximum width or height and have to find another way because we wouldn’t fit. It is very important to know this!
Agree on a method for helping the driver with reverse parking. Our van didn’t have parking sensors or a reversing camera and it was impossible to see what was behind you. Navigating into campsites and getting out of carparks was often tricky and we saw a few other drivers taking out lightposts and fence posts in their attempts to reverse! One of us would always get out and direct the driver into or out of the spot.
Larger campervans come equipped with grey water tanks. Our recommendation is to empty the grey water before driving days. When we didn’t empty the grey water tank we would be driving along with our sleeves held over our noses! The smell of grey water wafting through the van is terrible and was much worse in hotter weather. We tried everything from special tank cleaner to dishwashing liquid to putting ice cubes into the tank and nothing could get rid of the smell. Having an empty grey water tank whilst driving was the best option we found to minimise the smell.
If your campervan has a refillable LPG bottle, monitor the gas level and don’t let it get too low. In some countries such as Portugal and Austria it was difficult to find LPG so we tried to keep it above half full. Having said that, we used the gas for cooking, heating and cooling the fridge when off the grid and it really didn’t use much gas at all. We probably could have only filled it once or twice in 5 months.
Note also that there are four of different types of LPG gas bottle fittings used across Europe. Our campervan came with all of them and we could screw on the one we needed when we refilled. The website www.mylpg.eu/adapters explains which fitting type is used in each country and also has a listing of LPG filling stations. Also, if you were like us and had no idea how to use an LPG pump, have a look on YouTube for some guidance.
You will need to buy a 12V USB port adaptor to charge your phones and tablets. Make sure you get one that is good quality with a high current output to enable fast charging of your phone. Also, it will need to be dual USB so you can power the GPS at the same time as charging a phone. Here is one good example.
If you have electronic devices such as a laptop or camera battery charger that are powered by AC voltage then see if you can find a 12V charger for them. Alternatively, consider buying a voltage inverter which allows you to run an AC device from a 12V port. In choosing an inverter you need to check that the inverter output is the correct AC voltage and is rated at a significantly higher power than the device you are powering. For example, I needed to run my laptop power supply which was 220V at 180W so I bought a Bapdas 500W Car Power Inverter DC 12V to AC220-230V With 4.2A USB Ports for Laptop, Tablets and phones.
Take bicycles! We bought second hand bikes on eBay in the UK and used them a lot. The bikes gave us so much more freedom to explore the local area without the need to drive the campervan. In many European cities there were bike paths from the outer areas into the centre. Riding is much cheaper than buying train tickets for us all and much more fun. The bikes were also great for the kids. One of their favourite things to do was to explore each camp ground on their bike.
We travel with a laptop, a tablet, 2 kindles and 4 mobile phones. The kids have a mobile device and headphones each because it was the cheapest way for them to have access to music and audio books.
We purchased a Spotify family membership for access to music online. Spotify is a great app. It meant everyone had their own playlists and could access unlimited new music throughout the year and save music for listening offline.
We also signed up with our local public library to borrow ebooks and audio books. This was one of the best decisions we made. It has saved us hundreds of dollars and also helped entertain the kids on long drives. Check with your local public library whether they are set up. Our library used the Borrowbox app. The kids would listen to audiobooks on their phones as we were driving and we could download ebooks to the tablet.
The two kindles are shared between all 4 of us. Our family had bought us an Amazon voucher as a farewell gift. We made very good use of this during the year when we couldn’t find books to borrow from the library. Book exchanges seem to be a thing of the past – we very rarely found somewhere to exchange English books so the kindles were great.
The laptop and tablet are primarily used by us for planning and writing about the trip but we also have a couple of the kids’ favourite movies on them. When we had a really long travel day or a wet day we would often run a movie for them.
Have a number of different navigation tools on hand to help plan your journeys. There was never one tool that met all of our needs. For high-level planning, our first point of call was our Philip’s Big Road Atlas Europe . Harvey loved using a highlighter in the atlas to track our journey and it will be a great memento of the trip.
I think a dedicated GPS/Sat Nav like our trusty Tommy with up-to-date maps is essential for a few reasons. It doesn’t rely on mobile connectivity, keeps your mobile free for other uses and while driving it shows you the speed limit and just how sharp that upcoming bend is. There are many different types of GPS but make sure you get European road maps included. We used an entry level TomTom and found it simple and reliable to use plus we liked the Australian voice option “mate, if those back seat drivers don’t keep it down, ditch them at the next servo”. Here is something similar you can buy in the US and the UK.
The only problem with our GPS is that it would sometimes suggest tiny roads or routes through village centres that our 7m/3.5 tonne van could not pass through. We would then also use the Google Maps app on our phone to see what route it suggested because it tended to be better at avoiding small roads. Another tip – when you have WiFi you should download Google Maps for use in offline mode to avoid being reliant on mobile data.
The other great use of Google Maps (if you have an internet connection) is to use satellite view or street view to check just how wide a road is. If you can see lines in the middle of the road you are good to go. If not, you may need to think twice.
We also occasionally used an app (or website) called Via Michelin which was able to give estimates for toll costs and more realistic travel times compared to Google maps.
Ensure you research different country rules in relation to things such as driving laws, low emission zones, how tolls are charged and child restraint requirements. They differ a lot between countries. Our Philip’s Big Road Atlas Europe had an excellent country section in the front that summarised the basic rules and regulations. We had to change our plans in and around London due to restrictions on older vehicles entering greater London. In some countries our 10 year old daughter was permitted to travel in the front. This meant we could change up the seating arrangements which helped on days the kids weren’t getting along!
Be prepared for travel days. The reality of traveling in a campervan is there is a lot of time spent driving. Pre-kids this was never a problem. With kids (ours anyway) it can quickly become a nightmare.
If we prepared the kids in advance by letting them know when we would be travelling and how far it would be, it helped a lot. Before we started out we made sure we had plenty of snacks on hand that the kids could help themselves to. Also we made sure that both had audio books and music downloaded to fully charged devices.
We found it was better to try and do longer stints driving rather than breaking it up with a lot of stops. Every time you stop it adds 15 minutes to the journey, so we tried to ensure the kids had plenty to entertain them while we were driving.
Toll roads are common in Europe (except Germany and the Netherlands). Do your research on the cost of toll roads in each country, how much time they will save you on the journey and how they have to be paid. The Via Michelin app was useful for estimating tolls on different routes. France was super expensive because our campervan was over 3m tall and classified as a bus. We spent 30 Euros ($35 USD) on one 5 hour drive down the west coast of France. Italy and Spain had much more reasonably priced and fewer tolls.
In most cases you can pay the toll using cash or a credit card at a toll booth. One exception is Portugal which has no toll booths, just toll points with cameras that scan your number plate. You must register a credit card against your number plate at the Welcome Points just over the border on their main motorways. Then your card is automatically charged when you pass a toll point. More info here.
Another exception is countries like Switzerland, Austria & Slovenia where you must purchase a vignette. This is a prepaid toll in the form of a sticker which you purchase typically from petrol stations near the border and display on your windscreen. They come with varying length validity. Being caught out will result in a hefty fine.
If you want to avoid tolls, you can set your GPS/Sat Nav and Google Maps to do this. As a rule of thumb, if we weren’t in a hurry we would avoid toll roads. If we were traveling a long distance we generally took the toll roads to maintain the sanity of both parents and kids.
If you plan to use camp grounds in Europe my best recommendation is to purchase an ACSI camping card. ACSI is a non-peak season discount program containing over 3000 campsites around Europe. It saved us hundreds of dollars in camp ground fees in the low and shoulder seasons over the 5 months. You need to order this before you arrive in Europe (unless you have a friend who is local) and make sure you allow plenty of time to receive the membership card and guides. We bought them directly from ACSI and had them sent to a UK address. They took about 6 weeks to arrive. It was worth paying a little extra for access to their mobile app as it was a good way to search for campsites in the general direction we were heading in.
We suggest you don’t rely too much on camp site reviews. Also, don’t believe bigger is always better. Early on we thought the best sites for the kids would be the ones with plenty of activities, maybe a kids club. In reality we often found these campgrounds to be loud, busy, with small uninspiring sites. Plus the kids rarely participated in organised activities any way. Most of our favourite sites were small and basic in beautiful locations.
We strongly recommend checking out memberships such as France Passion as they offer free overnight camping in wineries, farms etc. Europe also has an extensive network of aires, which are basic stops for campervans. They typically have a waste dump point, fresh water and toilets. Sometimes they have electricity hookups and showers. We occasionally used these but found them not to be ideal for stops of more than one night. We generally used the park4night app to locate aires in the area.
Also consider free camping and cheap camping in Aires and at farms. It will save you loads of money. We found the park4night app to be an excellent resource for finding free and cheap camp sites. This app lists free and fee based camping sites all over Europe. The sites and ratings are all user-generated. The sites range from supermarket car parks to gorgeous spots along the coastline. It is available offline if you pay the small monthly fee and this was well worth paying for.
Further to the note above, be realistic about how much free camping you will do. We thought we would free camp way more than we did. It is a great money saver and was much easier in some countries and places than others. In reality we had a 7 metre, 3.5 tonne, 2 wheel drive van that couldn’t sneak down little dirt tracks. Plus stopping over in a car park or on a street wasn’t much fun for the kids when they wanted to play.
In some countries free camping is illegal (such as Croatia) and in others they make it so hard to find a place to stop (such as Italy). Some countries allow it in the off season but not through summer. Every family will be different but for us it often wasn’t a great choice and we ended up in camp grounds about 5-6 days a week.
Resist the temptation to book your accommodation in advance. We had a very high level view of the countries we wanted to visit and in what order, but did not book any accommodation before we started. We decided every couple of days where we would go next. It gave us so much freedom to be flexible, to stay longer at places we liked, to take up recommendations we received along the way, or choose a place based on how everyone was feeling at the time. We very rarely booked in advance. If we planned to arrive at a campground by mid afternoon we always found a site.
However… the summer school holiday periods do require a little planning. Camp sites do get very busy over the school breaks, especially those on the coast or on lakes. While most campsites have a percentage of their sites that cannot be booked, in order to claim one you will need to arrive very early during the summer. We dealt with this by heading inland to the mountains during summer where we had no trouble finding accommodation. So look at visiting less popular places away from the coast during these times or be prepared to arrive very early at your next destination.
If you are keen to save money, plan to cook most meals in the van. In a past life eating out and experiencing the local food was a key part of any trip. To be honest I missed it a lot this time around. However, when you are feeding 4 people every day for 5 months in Europe, eating out quickly becomes a huge expense!
To try and stay on budget we rarely ate out, but we still found ways to experience the local food. Browsing the aisles at the supermarket for local treats and buying smaller snacks/treats when we were out sightseeing became our cheaper way of experiencing the local food.
Make sure you have enough food on hand to get through Sundays! Unlike the USA or Australia, supermarkets are more often than not closed in Europe on Sundays. Yes, really. Even in the large towns and cities. We often had no clue what day of the week it was and we were caught out a number of times. Toast for dinner anyone?
We always planned to grocery shop on route between destinations. We spent less when we could shop at larger chain supermarkets. It also meant we could buy in bulk and shop less frequently. Campgrounds were often not close to shops and I found it annoying to pack the van up to go to the supermarket once we had arrived and set up camp.
We can highly recommend that you buy beer, wine and spirits at the discount supermarkets. We found many drinkable wines in the 2-4 euro price bracket and even found a decent bottle of gin at Aldi for 7 euros. Admittedly our standards have dropped over the past year, but we still wanted to enjoy a glass of wine or beer at the end of the day!
Lidl and Aldi were by far the cheapest supermarkets in Europe. We would look them up in Google maps while driving and make a detour to shop there on the way to our next camp site. They may not have the best range of products but they saved us HUGE amounts of money.
If you have the space, stock up on pantry items when in cheaper countries. Also fill up before crossing the border.
Tailor your trip to the types of places that work for your family. We soon realised that cities and towns didn’t really work for us. They were more expensive. The kids didn’t really enjoy wandering through museums and galleries. Plus as adults we weren’t doing the things we would typically do in a city visit either.
We found that the outdoors (hiking, lakes, coastal areas, mountain villages) was the most enjoyable place for us. The kids had plenty of space, we could hike, swim and ride in spectacular surroundings. It meant there was a much more relaxed feeling day to day. We spent far more time in the outdoors than we expected and many of our fondest memories are from those places.
Don’t feel obliged to fill every day with sight seeing or activities. Accept that it isn’t possible to see everything. Not only does it become very expensive, it is also exhausting. When traveling over a long period of time you all need time to do relax, do nothing, for the kids to explore and create their own games. Plan for days where you do the washing and catch up on schooling. It is impossible to be busy all the time without burning out.
Our kids saw painted rocks for sale in tourist stores Montenegro and decided they would try to earn some pocket money painting their own. For many weeks they collected rocks, painted them and set up shop in the camp grounds to sell their rocks. Not only did they enjoy painting, they got to chat with people about their trip. Plus they were successful in making many sales!
Living in close quarters with kids over a long period of time can be VERY challenging and exhausting at times. It all looks perfect on Instagram. But when the kids are wrestling/bickering/whining/sick of each other, you have a couple of rainy days confined in the van together or you just want some peace and quiet, it can be tough.
We have one very active boy and a girl who loves to read and paint. Our biggest challenge was that they rarely wanted to play the same games. Our solution? We bought a lot of sporting equipment for Harvey. Also we tried to ensure everyone got their own space and made an effort to get the kids to bed at a reasonable hour so they were well rested. Splitting up and doing things in pairs instead of as a family is also a good way to change up the days.
I found this to be one of the most challenging aspects of our time away. Our kids were missing grade 4 and 2 at home in Australia. Our school did not have any mandatory requirements for our 12 months away. Every country has different requirements so check with your local school. We bought English and maths workbooks and diaries for them to work through during the year. But…homeschooling is hard! I take my hat off to all the parents out there home schooling their kids. We really struggled.
We found it very difficult to get into any consistent routine because we were busy seeing the places we were visiting and moving every 2-3 days. Also, the kids were very resistant to sitting down and going through the workbooks. So it often became a battle which was no fun either. Instead we tried to incorporate learning into our days in supermarkets, museums, whilst driving. I know they have learned a lot this year but in a very different way to school.
Don’t rely on camp ground WiFi. I was very surprised in Europe to find WiFi connectivity generally pretty poor. We found camp grounds almost always promised WiFi but in reality it was slow and unreliable. As we didn’t book any of our trip in advance we were planning most nights once the kids were in bed. To do this we needed mobile coverage.
We bought local prepaid data plans to reduce our reliance on WiFi. In 2017 the EU introduced a new law regarding standardised costs across Europe making this much simpler than it used to be. While there are still huge variations in the plans on offer, they must all offer standard charges across the EU. The Prepaid Data SIM Card Wiki is an amazing source of information that we used to determine the best deal in each country.
Have a budget and track your spending. It is not much fun if you plan to travel for 6 months and run out of cash in 3. Costs can easily get out of hand, especially if you are doing a lot of activities, staying at camp sites and eating out. We researched costs a lot before starting our trip. It is pretty difficult to find this information for a family of 4 and we just had to go with our gut a bit as well. I will get around to writing a post about our actual costs soon. Ultimately we set a budget by country, tracked it each day and reviewed it on a monthly basis. Having a budget helped us make adjustments to our trip when we needed to in order to stay on track.
There are a number of mobile apps out there to track your travel spending once you are on the road. The one we love and have used all year is Trabee Pocket. It allows us to easily track all spending by country and category in the local and home currency on the go. We can also export our costs to other applications such as excel where we track our overall budget for the year. We highly recommend this app.
Plan how to keep your campervan and valuables secure. Thankfully we were never broken into during our trip but it is worth taking measures to have peace of mind that your stuff is going to stay with you. Our van was pretty old so we figured it was unlikely to be stolen (there were much better ones around!), but we were more worried about a break in. Being an older van there was no alarm, no deadlocks and windows that would have been pretty easy to pull open.
We purchased a Pacsafe Travelsafe 12L GII Portable Safe to lock our passports, documents and devices up when we weren’t in the campervan. The bag was secured under one of the seats and it was then locked to the van. We would even secure it at night (if we remembered) when we were free camping or in a more dubious location. This bag has been one of our best purchases this year. We use it everywhere we stay.
In cities we always stayed either in camp sites or in secure parking stations. We always pulled the blinds down when leaving the van in a car park or on the street. Often one of us would stay with the campervan when doing grocery shopping if the area didn’t have a good vibe. We didn’t come across many other travellers who had experienced a break in so there is no need to be overly concerned. I just really didn’t want the hassle of losing our most important things so were happy to take precautions.
Ensure you have a printed copy of the insurance papers and rental agreement/proof of ownership handy. We made the mistake of only having a soft copy of our insurance papers available on our mobile phone. On crossing the border from Montenegro to Bosnia, we had to deal with a very irate Bosnian border officer who insisted only a paper copy would do. We were in the middle of nowhere and were forced to purchase additional insurance at the border. Not a good day.
Take originals of everyone’s birth certificates and marriage certificate. You never know if and when you may need them. It is almost impossible to get them once you are abroad and moving often.
Last but not least try and get off the beaten path. While Western Europe offers many beautiful destinations, some of our favourite places were in Eastern Europe. These countries are also significantly cheaper (although often not as cheap as we were hoping!). One of the great things about a campervan is that you aren’t constrained by train or bus lines or hotels. You can travel anywhere. It creates so much freedom that you don’t have when traveling any other way. Would we do it again? Absolutely!
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