Right you’ve decided then! Or maybe you’re still dreaming about taking that campervan trip through Europe. I know that dream well.
Calling a campervan home with the freedom of time and movement with our four kids. I’ve spent hours daydreaming about that.
Indulging in spectacular sunsets while breathing in the salty air of the rugged Portugese coastline. Spending the afternoons in the French sunshine with my lover enjoying ‘les produits locaux’ while the kids play in the streams and rivers.
Or perhaps hiking in the Sierra Nevada alongside Spanish mountain goats, exquisito. And of course not forgetting my (other) true love. Italia, with it’s love language of words, art, food and architecture.
Romantic? YES! Tasted? YES! Time of our lives? YES, YES, YES!
We sold the car, downsized our life, possessions and outgoings to move to Europe and make it a reality. I think I dreamed it into happening.
If a campervan trip across Europe is your dream. I can’t give you a con as to why you shouldn’t go for it. Ok there is one. A very real one.
Once home you’ll suffer from withdrawal symptoms and you’ll start to wonder exactly when you’re going to be able do it all again.
But then you’ll book a cheap train trip to Berlin for the school holidays because you’re a travel addict curious adventurer and you’re here in Europe to see it – why not?
Followed by planning a camino adventure because you want to do something that matters, the privilege of your travel adventure pushed you to do that.
Then you’ll take action and re-live your camper trip and talk #vanlife by compiling a list of campervan ‘things’ to help others make their dream easier.
That’s what I did anyway. I hope it helps. Here goes.
We researched a few options:
- Motor home hire
- Car hire with tents
- Accommodation in Airbnb’s
We soon realised that those options were too expensive for long term travel and we wouldn’t always have the freedom to travel and camp wherever the mood took us.
Enter Europe Road Trip. We bought our campervan through a Dutch Company (online, I know, sounds a little crazy). I can’t speak highly enough of Weitze and Harmen the father and son team behind Happy Campers. Right from my first email enquiry and up until the last email with the details of our buy back they were kind and helpful. Even when we had an engine query on the outskirts of Madrid they were there, a phone call away.
The buy back option suited us because we could buy a camper from one of the many that Happy Campers have in their fleet (they will even source one if they don’t have what you need). As part of the purchase you agree on a ‘buy back’ value with Weitze. Once your travels end (boo hoo, it always does) you simply sell it back to them.
The campers are well serviced and come fully stocked. Weitze organises the registration and insurance for you. Our money was returned within a week of returning our van – the one we’d affectionately named The Travelodge (I miss her).
Campervans come in many different configurations so it is worth considering what will suit your family.
Initially I presumed that sleeping in the bed above the drivers cabin was the ‘norm’ for parents but luckily my husband is more of a bigger picture planner than me.
Rather than go for a van with bunks at the back he found one that had a rather large storage option because there was a double bed rather than the bunks.
This suited us for a number of reasons:
- Four kids = a big box was needed for food staples (pasta, passata, weetbix, longlife milk etc.).
- We have surfboards, wetsuits, hiking shoes you know all the adventure gear! We could store it easily. When the season changed we could also pop a bag of winter gear in there.
- The double bed at the back meant we (the adults) didn’t have a foot between us and the roof. Rather we had more than 3 feet.
- It also doubled as a reading room when people needed some quiet space.
- We could also leave the bathroom door open which closed off our room which gave us some privacy. (I would consider adding a mattress topper if I were doing it again as there’s room for one and it would have added more comfort.)
Our three youngest shared the bed above the drivers cabin and the oldest slept on the table when folded down. We also travelled with a tent, more on that further down.
We all travel differently but the beauty of long term travel is that you have the freedom of time. We had a rough plan for where we wanted travel and that plan was constantly jiggled around depending on weather, camp sites, moods and costs.
Freeing ourselves from the confines of a schedule is what most of us who travel like this want, I think. It makes sense to me then that an itinerary needs flexibility. It was a little hard to get used to in the beginning. It always takes time to settle into the routine of camp life. But before you know it you don’t know what day it is, what month it is. And time – who bloody cares. You’re as deliciously free as a bird.
At the beginning we often wondered if we were staying somewhere a day too long or wasting a day by doing nothing. In time we realised that was the point of a holiday. Down days like weekends are still important.
We took the approach that it was a slow travel experience. We could always come back if we wanted to see more.
We got all the way to Madrid but the caravan park was a bus and metro ride into town, the weather was heating up and there was no pool until June – we hightailed out. There’s nothing enjoyable about dragging kids through that experience. South we went to swim in Las Lagunas – I’m calling that wild bliss, we stayed there extra nights.
When you buy your camper you can order extras like bedding or towels if needed. We used our own sleeping bags and pillows as we’d been living in Ireland for the first three months of our European adventure.
I did an inventory when we arrived and de-cluttered. We travel with our own camp cutlery and cups (we’re weird like that). I removed everything we didn’t need. There was quite a lot I took out to put in storage. In return that gave us a lot of empty cupboard space.
One of everything also means that dishes can’t build up. The dinner bowls were needed for the breakfast cereal. Who needs more that one set of cutlery each? The coffee cups were needed for the juice, get the picture? No kitchen mess. Who needs dishes when Mont St Michel is on your doorstep. Literally on your doorstep. Not me.Where to park it:
The beauty of camper travel was the freedom of where we could camp. Our kids were free to roam wherever we set up and we never felt cramped in the camper because of that. On the odd occasion it rained or the time it snowed it was cosy.
They really did live a free range life. When we first moved into this house after travelling the boys would sit on the curb eating their cereal, they were still living like campers.
We camped on mountains, in the snow, by the beach, in the bush, in cities, in the country, on wineries and in caravan parks. We probably stayed in over a 100 different places. The kids called the camper home. Home really is where you park it.
Often we free camped. Or we stayed in motorhome ‘park ups’, these are called ‘aires’ in France and they are everywhere and super cheap. We also utilised caravan parks when necessary and we bought a membership to France Passion the farm network.
We used a Dutch app. which is brilliant. Camper Contact. This was our main accommodation planning tool. We’d pick a destination and see what was available either there or en route.
In four months we spend around €2,000 on accomodation. Which is not bad for a family of 6 right? This is what made it such an affordable way to travel for us. That same €2,000 would be a week in an apartment if we were lucky.
Cities could be tricky as the caravan parks were out of town and leaving a camper in free parking in a city is not the safest option. Of course there were exceptions. Rome and Lisbon were easy to access from the campsites. Pisa, Girona and San Sebastian a few others that were super easy. We paid €7 per night to park in a park up in San Sebastian and that is an UNREAL city.
There are discount cards that we didn’t know about. They would have saved us more but considering we didn’t stay in caravan parks often it wasn’t too bad. ACSI is one. You need to buy them before you leave.
It’s a camper holiday. Keep it simple, prepare for your kids to wear the same thing in most of your photos. There’a less washing too then. Our kids had one cubby hole of clothes, a rain coat plus a puffer jacket each.
A rough packing guide for kids – think layers.
- A set of thermals are great for kids and they pack down nicely
- 3 pairs of shorts
- 4 t-shirts
- 2 long sleeve tops
- 1 Woollen Jumper or polar fleece (2 for little ones who end up in mud)
- 1 pair of trackies (again 2 for the muddy kids)
- 1 pair of jeans
- 1 rain coat
- 1 puffer jacket
- Shoes: 1 pair of sneakers, 1 pairs of hiking boots and 1 pair of crocs or flip flops (we did end up buying them river shoes)
- Bathers (no boardies allowed in French pools and swimming caps are necessary for Italian pools)
- A packing cell each of undies, singlets and socks (including warm woollen socks)
A good dose of your fun and adventurous spirit is a must.
Electronics and toys:
Alright I’ll go there! I wanted to travel without electronics but in the end we decided on an iPad with 4 movies. Yes, we watched those movies, mostly on the long car rides. We know every word and song from Pitch Perfect 1 and 2. My oldest has an old phone with a few games in it and he was allowed to use that sometimes. WIFI was rare.
Mostly they were screen free and that worked for us. The older two (12, 10) had kindles (not counting these as screens) and they read a lot of books. We packed books for the younger two (8, 5). I should have had a book budget for the kindles, we bought a load of books. We haven’t bought a TV upon returning as we’ve become used to less noise. It’s a nice benefit.
The kids had a tub of Lego and they played with that most days, building campervan after campervan. We topped it up with a bag of lego we found next to a rubbish bin in San Sebastian. Like it was meant to be, who throws out Lego?
Games (easy packing ones):
- Kathmandu playing cards (they are waterproof).
- A few decks of top trump cards.
Journals and a pencil case with supplies (I do love washi tape).
We packed a tent!
It was brilliant. Sometimes it was a playroom and other times it became another bedroom. On hot nights it was a great way to reduce the hot air in the van with a few moving out to sleep in the tent.
Flexible = calm. Who doesn’t love calm.
Sure there are still days where you’ll feel tired and grumpy (one too many sangrias maybe) but mostly just because camper vanning is real life. You need to cook, wash and still deal with tired or sick kids.
Although I’m going to be controversial here and say that tired and sick kids happens less when you’re on the road and they are free to play and away from noise. That was our experience anyhow.
Of course there’s the one night the family of 15 campers talk until 5 in the morning because they are Spanish and that’s what they do. But the kids still talk about Maxxy their 48 hr ‘Spannish’ friend who was part of that group.
Or there’s the night the disco next to the beach car park you thought was so wild and serene cranks up at 11pm. It continues to play rubbish music till 5 am. Not joking. Then you stay a second night because you think it must have been because it was Saturday (only it wasn’t). Although if you ask the kids their favourite camp spot and most of them will agree it’s the beach car park at Peniche – easy access to the surf!
We learnt to adjust. The kids stayed up late and slept in late. We saw many sunsets but not so many sunrises. Initially we washed clothes weekly, then we washed whenever there was a machine available. Big day exploring followed by two down days just hanging. Too hot? time to move on or into the mountains.
Learning to compromise was something we had to accept. There will be plenty of times you land somewhere and it’s Sunday or a Public Holiday and there is nothing open.
We got tricked many times and had to ‘shop’ for food at the local service station. I’ve also drunk my fair share of service station coffee.
The water in Portugal is not drinkable so we had to buy plastic bottles. I am sure we all compromise different things but you get the gist I hope.
I once read a post where a mum said they’d go to McDonalds to get coffee because the WIFI was free. We all need to find our compromises. But it’s good to know that you’ll need to.
There’s freedom in letting go a little. It’s not forever and soon enough you’ll miss the afternoons of cheese and sausage eating with a Baguette and a glass of red. It’s not quite the same sitting on your own having happy hour and nibbles in your lounge room.
One pot meals are your friend. If you’re not a cook it’s worth researching a few (I’ll add some here in time – I need the house chef to write them up first). Space is limited and who wants to wash dirty pot dishes? There is no oven so pastas, salads, veggies and couscous, meat and three veg type meals. The Spanish omelette was our favourite ‘use it all up’ staple meal and tomato based pasta out simple meal.
The fridge is small so we tended to shop daily and if we were in areas where there weren’t going to be shops we’d do a stock up shop. Veggies were fine in a shopping bag for a few days. I noticed families with less kids would do a big shop and use their freezer.
Washing is inevitable so I’ll give it its own section. Initially we washed in caravan parks. Caravan parks are good for doing a ‘van audit’ (the weekly clean). As the trip went on we got better at quick cleans and we realised that most supermarkets have washing machines.
One would shop, one would put a load on. The littlest would dance because there are washing machines and there’s music. Dryers are always available but I tried not to use them (environmental reasons mainly) and they are expensive in van parks. We did on the rare occasion use them but mostly we had washing hanging between the van and the trees. Underwear bunting, yes we did.
The van tidies up quickly if you keep your stuff minimal and whip through with a broom and dustpan. I did get a bit over the sandy bed in Portugal. Whole beaches of sand made it to our bed, we were definitely surf bums along that coast.
I used to squeeze water on the floor and spray a mint spray cleaner and a quick mop from time to time. When you only have a square metre of floor space and a tiny bathroom sink to wipe down your not spending a lot of your time cleaning.
More time for surfing. Yeah, that’s me. Back on the board after a very long time between breaks. The longer the journey the less the cleaning mattered. Priorities change. A whole lot of priorities change when you step out and examine your life for a while.
Of course we must discuss the toileting. These guys in the photo below are not at the water cooler. No they’re at the ‘shitter’ emptier. Toilets are cassettes that you pull out of the side of the van and wheel over to where they can be emptied directly into the sewer. Yes, just like a carry on suitcase but full of shit. It’s a matter of fact job. It’s not uncommon to see the dutchies carrying their toilets on the back of their bikes to empty it.
Practically, you’ll need to get yourself a long pair of gloves (up to the elbows) and toilet chemicals to put in the toilet once it’s empty. Most van parks or service stations have the chemicals…but don’t rely on that. Never be low on chemicals. Consider yourself warned and you’re welcome.
Do kids need to bath so often? Meh I think not. Lucy at luluastic and the hippy shake writes a good article about this so I’ll let you read that, here.
No seriously, save it for the caravan park nights. You’ll run out of water otherwise.
There’s enough water in the tanks for the adults to shower daily, we found it easier if we shampooed up with taps off and then on again to rinse, off for conditioner, back on. Get the picture?
The hot shower you take in the caravan parks are HEAVEN. I have a newfound appreciation of the availability a warm shower. I’ll never take it for granted again.
My boys still bath at home in the camp buckets, we don’t have a bath.
Fill your water tanks when you can. You never know where you’ll be and if the water doesn’t work for some reason or another (it happens). Or you might loose or have the wrong hose attachment, yes we did that. And mind the petrol cap we lost that too (twice).
Power and Gas:
When you can power up, power up. We bought a double adapter for the cigarette lighter to charge our phones while driving.
We also found adapters for the sockets inside the van that run off the solar panels.
When the van isn’t running it needs either electricity or gas for the fridge. The hot water is gas.
For the first few months this was fine but when it got hot we needed to power the fridge with gas (not at night – safety first friends). Gas bottles are re-fillable, you get adapters to do it. It’s easier in Spain and Portugal. We (husband) used youtube videos to learn how to do it. In 4 months we re-filled the gas bottle once.
We had no concerns with safety. There were a few free aires which after we pulled in we thought ‘no let’s move on’ so we did. It’s like any travel, you need to trust your gut.
We met an Aussie couple that had been robbed so it does happen. They think it was because their van had a big ‘RENT ME’ sign across the front. It was early on in their travels, they recovered and went on to free camp and they’re still on the road now! Lucky buggers retired in their 50’s. We travelled off peak so we motor homed on the grey nomad circuit.
An American couple that live permanently on the road taught us a trick where you use a ratchet strap or the like between the two front doors. They can’t be opened from the outside that way. We never felt the need to do it. We also had insurance.
While we were on the road we often said to each other ‘it’s really easy travelling like this isn’t it’? Camper vanning suited our style of travel and it gave us an opportunity to travel long term. It worked beautifully with kids so yes did love it (hard).
There is a special bond between my kids that comes from living an adventure like this together. I know all of them in a way I didn’t before we left, myself too. Ok, there is another con, my littlest now goes to his siblings for the cuddles he used to come to me for.
Erm…right I’m off to start dreaming again. What’s that you say? Free camping is easy in Scandinavia, hiking the fjords in Norway is spectacular, there are natural spas and saunas in Lapland OH LA LA.
If there’s anything you’d like to ask about camper van travel please ask in the comments. I’d love to update this post with relevant information as I know how hard it can be to find information about motor home travel with kids.
If you know anyone who is contemplating this kind of travel or daydreaming feel free to pass it on. I don’t have Facebook but you can link the article from here.