Motorhome Travel Planning In Europe I -> The Basics
Paul and I have started doing something we literally haven’t done in age…planning some serious RV travel!
After a long time stationary it’s rather exciting, and In COVID times somewhat scary too, especially as we have no idea if any of it is actually going to happen. None of this is new for our many RV & boating friends who’ve continued to fulltime travel across USA & Europe this past year, but of course for us it IS new, or at least somewhat new (we are pretty seasoned travelers after all). So since it’s what we’re up to right now I figured I’d write about it.
This will be a practical post and somewhat long, but hopefully useful to some of you “newbies” or “soon-to-be’s” out there. Next week I’ll get back to more day-to-day French rural stuff (most likely).
So, what are the basics of planning a longer RV or motorhome trip in Europe? How do you decide on travel distance and where to stop? How do you cross borders and ensure you are legal? And what additional things do you have to take into consideration in these COVID times? Read on for it all….
Planning Daily Travel Distance
When we RV’d in the USA we followed the weather going North in summer and South in winter, traveling slow n’ easy . We rarely drove for more than 2-3 hours in a day, and then we’d plan stay in place for a week or more before we moved on. With our “beastly” 40-foot RV this method worked the best for us.
Here in Europe the weather thing is much the same (it’s hot in the South in summer, so going North makes sense…and visa versa in winter), but our driving equipment is very different indeed. We have a 7m (~23 ft) motorhome which is nimble and easy, and that makes a ton of difference to our drive-plan.
We still don’t like traveling long daily distances simply because it’s not our style, but we now find a 4 hour drive-day easily achievable and don’t mind stopping off to visit a town or enjoy a scenic by-view along the way. Plus we don’t find we need to stop and rest for as long as we did in the big “beast”. We are happy doing more frequent drives and more sightseeing stops, a method that works really well in Europe where historic towns and interesting things to see are often a hop and skip away from each other.
On a basic level our planning is super duper simple.
- We figure out where we want to get to & map it in Google (= the ultimate destination)
- We break the trip down into 3-4 hour drives (or less if we’re feeling lazy) to figure out how many stops, and how much time we need to get there (= time needed)
That’s really it!
For example this summer we’re hoping (maybe, possibly) to travel to South Sweden. A quick search on Google Maps shows two different routes, each of which involve around 2,000km or ~20 hours of driving. If we stick to max 4-hour daily drives that means we need ~4 stops between here and there, which is easily achievable in a week (or a week and a half if we choose to take it slower). Planning done!
From South Sweden, if we then decide we want to do a mega-circle through Sweden & Norway (for example) that’ll add around 5,000 km (~3,100 miles) or ~70 hours to the trip. Again, if we stick to max 4-hour-preferred daily drives that equates to around 17 stops, which means that technically the whole thing “could” be done in ~3 weeks. In reality however we’ll probably end up driving more than 4 hours in some spots (Norway has some looong, lonely roads), but we’ll also want longer individual stops both for our own sanity, and to see some of the nooks & crannies that I know we’ll want to explore along the way. In Wheelingit terms that means we need at least a month and a half if we want to do the entire route. Once again, planning done!
We may not end up doing any of this, but these easy calculations give us general timeframes for the drives and an idea of how long we might be away. By matching these drives with monthly weather averages, we can easily plan some great routes where we’re likely to enjoy some great weather too.
Planning For Road & Toll Costs
The other thing we have to think about anytime we drive across Europe is road costs.
Many countries in Europe either have toll roads that you pay-as-you-go (via physical toll-booths), or time-based vignettes (basically a sticker for your windshield) that you have to buy when you enter the country. Plus of course there are bridges, tunnels & ferries which often cost money to use too.
To make things even more complicated the rules & costs are often different depending on the size of your motorhome, especially if you weigh more than 3.5 tonnes (road tolls are generally more expensive) and/or you’re longer than 6 m (adds costs for ferry crossings, in specific).
There’s no single website that covers all these details for motorhome travelers (sadly), but we’ve found the following links quite useful:
- Tolls.eu -> good, general information about tolls vs vignettes vs other rules in each EU country, including specific requirements for heavier vehicles.
- Viamichelin & TollGuru websites -> good sites for cost-mapping specific routes across Europe including bridges & tunnels. Viamichelin is reliable and fast. TollGuru seems a smidgen slower, but allows you to specify a motorhome as your vehicle too. Both sites will give you total estimated costs including both toll & fuel costs.
We rarely drive specifically to avoid tolls, but will check costs (so we are aware of the impact) and will often take backroads simply because we enjoy them so much. We’re also lazy and don’t like having to step out of the motorhome or contort ourselves into a pretzel to pay at toll booths (some of them are soooo awkwardly positioned!), so we carry two electronic tags that zip us through the majority of Europe without having to lift a finger:
- Bip and Go – covers us in France, Spain, Portugal and Italy. We’ve had this for years and it works beautifully!
- Brobizz – will cover us in Denmark & Sweden (bridges, ferries) and Norway (toll roads). We just ordered it, so TBD on how well it works.
Planning Overnight Stops
We’ve COMPLETELY changed the way we plan overnight stops since we moved to Europe!
When we RV’d in the USA we often booked our RV sites many months ahead of time, especially if we wanted to travel to well-known destinations during the high season. It was the only way we could ensure we got the sites & spots we wanted for our “beastly” size.
Here in Europe however, we mostly just wing it!
Part of this is simply thanks to our nimble little motorhome. We’re not much bigger than a large car, so we can pretty much (within reason*) fit just about anywhere. Also since we have no slides or jacks, we can park up or get going in ~15 minutes which means shorter stops are easier to handle. Also if we happen to pass by a town that looks interesting we can (for the most part), just chose to drive in and and visit it on-the-fly. No real pre-planning needed!
The other part of this is that we’re not the only crazies who like to travel this way.
Europeans just love stop-n-go type travel and the entire continent is pretty much set-up to accommodate that. So, there are tons of low-cost legal overnight stops that cater specifically to motorhomes (e.g. Aires in France, Sostas in Italy, Stellplatz in Germany etc.), as well as legal free and wild-camping spots, not to mention regular campgrounds (everywhere). And since Europeans like to move, there’s usually good turnaround in campers at each spot each day.
In practice that means unless you’re traveling to a tourist hot-spot in high season, you’ll rarely need to plan or reserve ahead more than a few days or so!
We really enjoy this style of travel (more than we expected) and have only been “caught out” by full campgrounds a few times, usually because we left it too late in the day before we called or checked in. Even in those times, we’ve always gotten by either by finding somewhere to park close-by (until a site opens up) or simply moving on down the road to another spot. Thanks to our small size, it’s generally pretty simple.
As far as how to actually find a spot? We always turn to the following apps:
- Park4Night – hands down the most-used camping app we own. It has everything from free camps to full-service campgrounds, including abundant comments & ratings by users. Awesome app!
- CamperContact – created by Dutch campers, it specializes in places to park & overnight stops (rather than developed campgrounds) so it covers everything from Aires to parking lots. A nice app!
- SearchForSites – A UK-based site, so there are lots of English-speaking reviews, plus it does have lots of extra details not always covered by other apps (e.g. dog-friendliness, motorhome size etc.) and a very active Facebook group. Also a nice app!
And finally, as for what to stop and see? We rely on fellow motorhome bloggers, Facebook groups, Google and travel guides. You can see many of my favorite sites HERE.
*Note/ Size Does Still Matter, Sometimes! We may be small, but we’re not car-sized and in Europe that does matter! Some towns here date back to antiquity and have the teeny, narrow road sizes to match. We almost got stuck once in Spain, and have had close calls in other places. The best way to avoid getting in a pinch is to have a mapping tool that allows you to input your camper size, either a motorhome/trucker-specific GPS (e.g. the Garmin Camper 780), or the CoPilot App (which we’ve bought here, and also used in USA). They’re not infallible, but they do help!
Planning Border Crossings
Travel in Europe ultimately means crossing country borders and on a basic level, that means you need to be sure that you’re legal, that your pets are legal, and that your motorhome is legal:
Are You Legal? Before you travel into any country you should always check your legal stay limits and whether you need a visa to enter. For example, American & British folks don’t need a visa to come to Europe, but are limited to 90 days total every 180 days within the 26 countries that comprise the Schengen Area (Note/ countries outside of Schengen have separate stay limits so it’s easily possible to extend your vacays simply by planning routes for the 90 days you need to be “out” before you can come back in again). European citizens have freedom of movement throughout EU, but technically also have limits on how long they can stay in each country (typically 3 months) before having to register as a local resident. As well as respecting stay limits you need to ensure your other documents are in order:
- Passport: Your passport needs to be valid for your entire stay plus at least three months beyond your planned date of departure from the Schengen area.
- Drivers License: If you’re an EU resident, your local drivers license is good throughout Europe. If you’re non-EU you can drive on your foreign license, although some countries also require you to carry an IDP (International Drivers Permit) too. It’s simple and cheap to get an IDP (e.g. in the USA it costs $20 at AAA and takes 10 mins to get) so for non-EU I always recommend getting one.
- Travel Health Insurance: You need travel health insurance that covers the duration of your stay and all countries you plan to visit in Europe. If you are resident in Europe, your European Health Insurance Card covers this. If you’re non-EU, you need to buy this separately.
Are Your Pets Legal? If you’re traveling with a cat, dog or ferret your pet needs either a Health Certificate (if they’re coming from outside the EU, valid for 4 months of travel) or a Pet Passport (if they’re coming from within Europe, valid indefinitely). Your pet will also need a valid rabies vaccine, plus you may have to do additional tests or treatments before entering certain countries (e.g. tapeworm Echinococcus treatment for dogs is required within 24-120 hours of entry into Finland, Ireland, Malta, or Norway). Lastly, most EU countries require that your pet is appropriately restrained while driving (either in a bag, cage or harness), so make sure you have all this in place in case you are stopped and checked.
Related Blog Post: Moving To Europe: Pet Transport Paperwork
Related Blog Post: Pet Passports & Registering Pets in France
Is Your Motohome Legal? Basic insurance is a requirement throughout Europe. The minimum is liability only (for every country you enter), but more comprehensive insurance that includes breakdown coverage is what I would personally recommend. You also need to make sure you have all your valid paperwork/registration with you as well as safety gear (legally required in several countries). For the latter, the minimum you should carry is yellow hi-vis jackets for all passengers, breakdown triangles, spare light bulbs & fuses (for all headlamps, side-indicators etc.) and a first aid kit.
Note/ speed radar detectors are illegal in EU, and dash cams are banned in Portugal, Luxemburg & Austria (plus their use is heavily regulated in several more countries). IMO it’s easier to travel without them.
Related Blog Post: Motorhome Travel In France III – Checklists, Crit’Air & Pet Transport
All this may sound a little overwhelming at first, but in practice once you have the basics in place the rest is really not that complicated. Also you may find you are rarely stopped, especially if you’re traveling between Schegen countries (where borders are pretty open). You need to have all your stuff ready just in case, but you may not need it as often as you think.
Related Blog Post: Moving to Europe: Visa Requirements & Stay Limits for US Citizens
COVID-19 has changed everything for travelers!
In the past year countries have shut their borders more than once, and every EU country has implemented its own set of additional rules. In some places micro-regional lockdowns were enacted (e.g. Spain), in others full lockdown (e.g. France). In some places you could enter with a PCR test, in others you needed a specific reason, quarantine and additional tests too. And what might be valid one week was not the next. It’s enough to make your head spin!
Thankfully there’s a site that keeps mostly on top of everything (a site I’ve mentioned several times before): the reopeneu site. I am constantly checking it and cross-checking with country-specific sites and actual feedback from other motorhome travelers (e.g. on Facebook, or through their blogs). From there I can mostly figure it out. Mostly…
For the moment I have to admit that everything is still very complicated. For example, I believe we can get into Germany with our vaccine proofs, but Denmark is more complicated. Right now they’re only accepting vaccinated travelers who are resident in EU and have been vaccinated in EU (so, how will Paul’s CDC card from the USA work??). Also Sweden is “dark red” due to an uptick in cases so I’m not exactly sure how that will work. Possibly it’ll be like hotel California…we can enter, but never leave?
I guess we’ll just keep watching, and hoping….and planning so I can put all these basics to use.
If you made it this far my dear readers, I applaud you! I only covered the basics here (there’s so much more I could write), but if you have any additional questions on motorhome travel planning in Europe DO feel free to ask them to the comments below.