To Explore Europe in your campervan requires more planning than a trip somewhere in the UK. More so than a trip around the UK. That impulsive, ‘let’s go away this weekend’ urge, is not so easy to satisfy when you need to cross the channel. Doing that, for the very first time, can seem to be a little daunting. Even for those, like us, with many miles of European motorways under their belt! We know that the secret to explore Europe successfully lies in thorough planning before you leave home.
The order in which you prepare is less important than ensuring you have it done it well. So here we have created an aide memoire for seasoned travellers. It is an explore Europe how to do it guide for first timers. It reflects what we do before we leave the UK and what works for us. And if you explore Europe differently, we would love to hear how. So, do please drop us a line with your tips and experiences.
Where, When and How
While totally obvious, you first need to decide where you would like to go and when you want to explore Europe. It is no good spending hours planning only to find that ferries are fully booked or that prices are sky high and have gone over budget because you left it late and your chosen dates clash with school holidays.
Unless you live in Northern Ireland and are travelling to Ireland, leaving the UK in a vehicle involves boarding a ferry or going by train. We have used both ferries and Le Shuttle (as the Eurotunnel is now called) to explore Europe taking our campervan to the Continent.
Ferries are operated by several different companies and tend to be slightly cheaper than Le Shuttle which has a monopoly for tunnel traffic. Depending on where you live, and the destination you have in mind ferries might be more convenient. You can catch a ferry from Dover, Fishguard, Harwick, Heysham, Holyhead, Hull, Liverpool, Newcastle, Newhaven, Pembrook, Plymouth, Poole, and Portsmouth. Ferries travel to Denmark, France, Ireland, Spain, and The Netherlands. The tunnel on the other hand, only takes you between Folkstone and Calais, but it has the advantage of speed, number of crossing a day and you will not get seasick in stormy weather.
Say NO to P&O
We have enjoyed ferry crossings to and from Ireland with Irish Ferries, crossed the channel with DFDS and are booked to take our campervan to Spain with Brittany Ferries next September. All offer excellent service and frequent sailings. We prefer not to travel with P&O remembering what they did to their crew. Ferry journeys are fun and somehow it seems as if the holiday has really started the moment you board. Irish Ferries have a delightful upper deck lounge on their ships and in busy times it is an extra well worth consideration. That said, we also love Le Shuttle and enjoy the quick and easy passage it offers to Calais.
Choosing the best route is not always easy. Nor is it a clear-cut decision as to which route is the best when it comes to value. Consider a journey from the UK to Bergerac in south west France, for example. From almost everywhere in the UK, Dover offers the cheapest channel crossing option and is often the fastest route. Miles driven in France can be reduced by crossing the channel into Le Havre but the ferry fare from Portsmouth is more expensive and the crossing time is longer. Bergerac is almost equidistant from St Malo in France as it is from Bilboa in Spain. But a ferry to Bilbao from either Portsmouth or Plymouth involves at least one night at sea, and that is never cheap.
You do not need to travel both to and from the UK using the same port, return fares are seldom cheaper than two singles. So rather than returning to the same place why not plan a route between two destinations both with ferries, or use the tunnel one way. We like returning by Le Shuttle as there are so many departure times.
Tolls and fuel
The cost of road tolls and fuel are other considerations to be made when planning. The French believe in double taxation when it comes to motoring. Not only do they tax fuel, but they also charge for fast road use. Travelling to Germany or Austria by road, for example, is more cheaply achieved driving through Belgium, a country that does not charge drivers for road use. Fuel duties across Europe vary, meaning the cost of fuel is not always the same. Gone, currently, are the days of arriving in Calais from the UK on fumes ready to fill the tank with cheap diesel. On our most recent trip to Belgium, we filled up in the UK before we left.
Having decided where you want to travel to, when you will go and how you will get your motorcaravan to the continent it is time to press the ‘buy’ button. But before you do, it is wise to check you have the right documentation in good order to leave the UK.
Whether flying abroad or traveling by sea, everyone travelling, including children, will need a passport to leave our island. Assuming you have a UK passport and are only visiting the EU, that document needs to have at least three months of validity remaining and be less than 10 years old at the time you plan to leave the EU, at the end of your trip. Check the passport expiry date of all people in your travel group. You do not want to be stopped at immigration. Generally speaking, you do not need a visa for a European holiday, but you can only visit Schengen countries for 90 days in each 180 days. Do not forget previous visits made to European destinations during the previous 180 days count toward those 90 days. Check https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice for the latest information.
Most UK drivers only need hold a UK photocard driving license to drive in Europe. Check with the embassy of the country you will be driving in. especially if, you have a non-mainland UK license or you are planning a long trip. In many countries you are required to actually have your driving license with you when you are driving. We have heard stories of drivers being fined for not carrying a license.
No one wants to experience a medical emergency when they are abroad, it could be a very expensive mistake not to be prepared. If you hold a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) it remains valid until the expiration date. This card has been replaced by the UK Global Health Card (GHIC). Replacing this is the free UK global Health Card (GHIC), the new way to get state medical care within the EU. Not all state health care is free within the EU. Repatriation costs are not always covered. So, it is important to purchase travel insurance. Do not just select the cheapest available. Make sure it covers the activities you plan to undertake and be sure you have declared pre-existing medical conditions.
Travel insurance is not just for medical emergencies, however. It also covers theft and cancellations for example. Many policies require you to have an EHIC or GHIC so do ensure everyone traveling holds one. https://www.gov.uk/global-health-insurance-card
When driving a motorcaravan to the EU you may need a new sticker for your car, even if your van’s number plate says ‘GB’ on it. Vehicles driving from the UK to mainland Europe must now display a ‘UK’ sign on their car. Previously, campervans and motorhomes driven abroad had to display a number plate, sticker or sign with the letters ‘GB’, for Great Britain. But then the rules changed in September 2021. If your number plate includes a UK identifier you won’t need this.
Different countries have different rules on what you should carry abord your vehicle. These are in addition to the documents above such as passports, licenses, and vehicle documents. A first aid kit is one item you should have but most motorcaravans will already have this. But not many routinely carry the two warning triangles and a reflective jacket or waistcoat for everyone on board. It pays to check that what you carry complies with the laws of the countries you are likely to drive in or through.
Drive on the other side of the road.
Check your vehicle handbook to see if you will need to adjust your lights due to driving on the other side of the road.
If your vehicle is over 3500kg you will need to fix blind spot or Angles Morts stickers when travel in or through France. For more information https://www.securite-routiere.gouv.fr/reglementation-liee-la-route/reglementation-de-la-visibilite
Before you leave the shores of the UK, be sure to pack an assortment of adaptor to allow the easy filling of potable water. Continental Europe generally uses larger size taps than we do here. If you do forget to pack or buy some, a quick stop at a good hardware store on the other side of the channel.
That will resolve the issue. Not quite as easy to find over there, are LPG gas adaptors that allow you to fill a van’s underslung tank with LPG. It is best to buy one in the UK before you travel. The good news is, however, LPG is so much easier to find on a filling station forecourt in Europe than it is here.
We do not use bottled gas for cooking, but from what we have learned from others, each country throughout Europe has its own supplier of gas bottles, each with its own adapter and regulator. Motorcaravanners we have met, who regularly spend long periods of time abroad, often have a different gas bottle for each country they visit.
Campingaz is available throughout Europe, but it only comes in small bottles, which are not always cost effective. We recommend you keep a small portable gas stove as a backup in your van when you explore Europe. Should your main supply of gas run out, you can use it to complete your cooking. It is also useful for cooking outside. Be sure to carry a spare bottle of gas. They never last as long as you think. Annoyingly, we find they always run out halfway through a cooking process!
Do not assume you will be able to use your mobile phone or any internet service in your mobile home while aboard without charge. Check your contract before you travel. Since the UK left the EU, many phone contracts no longer give free data roaming – use of your minutes and internet aboard. Sometimes you can call and use the internet for free in Europe. But be aware of the fair use and maximum GB of data per month allowance aboard that your provider allows. This is often less than your UK allowance even if you have an unlimited plan.
When you are used to downloading freely and letting you phone, tablet or computer update at home it is easy to suddenly find all your allowance used up. Our granddaughter took just 3 days to exhaust our internet allowance in Belgium. No, she was not playing on-line games, or downloading films! She was doing her homework using an app! When you explore Europe we recommend you turn off automatic updates and be careful before downloading or streaming.
On a short trip, less than two weeks, we have found that the advice to buy a local sim may be cost effective for phone calls. But not for internet use. Even if you are paying a daily UK use charge. Internet cafes have disappeared but there is often free wifi in restaurants and shopping malls.
Insurance and Documentation
Check your motorcaravan insurance covers the countries you plan to visit. Confirm the level of cover is sufficient and what document you need to carry. You should also carry the original vehicle registration documents. Check your emergency breakdown insurance will cover you abroad.
Carrying Rear Loads
If you explore Europe carrying bicycles or anything else on the back of your motorcaravan, it must not extend width-wise beyond vehicle or obscure lights or number plate. Attach a large reflective red and white striped hazard sign. It is allowable to tow a trailer with a car on it in the EU. But you cannot tow a car without a trailer using devices the likes of an A frame that leaves wheels on the ground.
Low emission zones are common now in Europe. Be careful if you have an old motorhome that does not meet the standards.
Food on board
Now that the UK is no longer part of the EU, certain food items are no longer allowed to be brought into even for personal use. This includes meat, milk, or their products. Check https://food.ec.europa.eu/animals/animal-products-movements/personal-imports_en for the latest information. The first stop for us when we explore Europe and arrive in Calais, for example, is always Carrefour, where we stock up our fridge and dry stores.
So, you always take your pet with you in your motorcaravan. Don’t worry you can take him, her or them with you to Europe. But it has become a little more difficult. Advance preparation is necessary now we are out of the EU and sadly it is not cheap. First check your chosen ferry allows the carriage of pets and what rules apply. While all responsible owners will have already microchipped their pets not everyone vaccinates against rabies.
Animal Health Certificate
You will need this done and you will need an Animal Health Certificate (AHC) from an official veterinarian each time you leave the UK. Phone your vet well ahead of your planned departure to check the latest rules, get any inoculations required and book an appointment for the AHC. Do not wait to the last moment, even if your animals have had all their jabs, as the documents the vet must fill in are lengthy and complicated. Remember to check if extra time is need at check in before you leave the UK. And what rules apply when you make you return journey. Even though it is expensive Tuvok, our cat, always travels with us.
As travel writers, we tend to visit Europe frequently and always enjoy the planning and preparation. Through our adventures we have picked up a few handy tips.
Download to your tablet films or TV shows before you go. Most services like Netflix, BBC iPlayer etc are area locked and frequently you will not be able to stream aboard. Recently we have noticed that when we are in Europe some services will not let us play downloads. Even those we stored on the device before we left home.
Take a photograph of all your important documents: passports, insurance certificates, driving license, credit cards, travel tickets and anything else that you are taking with you and store them in a folder in your mobile phone’s photo app. Also back them up to the cloud and share that link with those adults travelling with you. If the worst happens and documents are lost or stolen, you will have a backup. And it will make replacing everything easier. We have even used a photograph of our passports to return home when ours were lost! But do not rely on this as an option, you might not be as lucky as we were!
European Accident Statement (EAS)
While not a legal requirement we keep a printed copy of these free downloads in various languages in our campervan. We have never had to use them, touch wood! But they will be very helpful in the event of an accident aboard or even in the UK. https://cartraveldocs.com
We generally tour rather than stay in one campsite and in Europe it is very easy to find safe and permitted overnight stopping places.
Before our first explore Europe trip to France, we were puzzled when fellow campervanners told us they stayed overnight in Aires. We thought Aire was the name for motorway service stations in Europe and we had been told horror stories of break-ins and theft. When we did some research, we learned Aire is French for resting place. There are Aires, in many towns and villages in Europe and they are different.
They are officially called, ‘Aire de service/stationnement pour camping car’ in France, but, understandably, most of us call them aires for short! They are wonderful, cheap, overnight stops, generally very safe and most have water and waste facilities. We carry Aire de Camping Car Guides published by Vicarious Media. They have titles covering the whole of of the continent and allow you to easily explore Europe.
We are also members of France Passion a book and app that lists places for campervans and motorhomes to stop over night, free of charge. Generally speaking, the hosts are farmers and vineyards who hope that you will buy their produce. But there is no obligation to do so. We adore the concept and have enjoyed overnight stays in olive groves, apple orchards and vineyards. Best of all we have met some wonderful hosts and have learned how to milk goats and make cheese along the way. We have even stayed overnight on a snail farm!