The best way to see Europe is in a campervan. You can drive from country to country, down the long open highways and past some unforgettable views. Just make sure to keep your eyes on the road! Check out our Europe campervan itinerary below!
A campervan trip is a must-do if you like to wake up on a beachfront, have lunch in a forest, then have dinner in front of a castle. The ease of border crossings and a consistent currency (in most countries) make a European campervan trip one that you won’t forget.
We spent eight weeks cruising the streets during the months of June, July and August. It was an amazing journey, and we were able to penetrate into the countryside a lot more than if we were flying between cities, with the flexibility to run on our own schedule.
We had a basic itinerary set out, and a few places to be but otherwise we were happy to follow whichever way the wind blew and wherever the heart sang.
Navigating the hire car maze
For starters, you need to ask yourself ‘what sort of trip are you after’? Is it a luxury car with a nightly hotel? A small European car with a stop at a hostel each night? Or is it a campervan, where you can stop on the side of the road for your nightly rest?
For us, we went for a campervan option.
But it wasn’t just any campervan, we went for a Spaceships rental campervan which we picked up for a good price at a travel expo in London. Prices will change depending on the season, so factor this in when you are planning dates.
The Spaceship we called ‘home’ was a Toyota Estima, which included a fold-away bed, 15L fridge, side awning and storage for food. We liked Spaceships rentals due to the 24-hour service, unlimited mileage, and comprehensive insurance was included in our package. Being a fairly small campervan, it had no trouble getting under restricted height areas (eg car parks) and was easy to fit into small spaces.
The other big company that a lot of people go with is Wicked Campers but we decided against them due to price, and we thought the Spaceship (albeit being bright orange) tended to blend in with other cars a lot more. We think our spaceship was less of a target for thieves, and also allowed us to ‘freedom camp’ on the side of roads more easily. Besides, Wicked Campers have been in a bit of hot water lately over some questionable slogans painted on the side of their fleet.
Back to our Spaceships campervan.
The whole fleet has their own unique name, named after space travel or superheroes – ours was called ‘Odyssey’, which gave it its own character. It wasn’t long now until the final countdown and lift-off.
Crossing the Channel in a campervan
Taking a car on a ferry between England the mainland Europe is super easy! There are plenty of ferry options available but we took Brittany Ferries, who are a UK based company and gave us a pretty comfortable journey.
We left from Dover (England), en route to Dunkirk (France), which took no more than a couple of hours. The port at Dover was well signposted, and all you had to do was follow the arrows, fill in the customs forms, and present your passport before driving on board. Once parked up, you had to leave your car (you were not allowed to stay in the car) and wander up to the main areas on board.
Our return trip had us going from Caen (France) to Portsmouth (England), which was an overnight slow ferry (just under 9 hours total). We did not book a room to sleep but had a seat allocated to use so we were able to catch some sleep there. Just beware that if you choose this option, the boat will be rolling with the swell, so don’t expect a comfy nights sleep.
This is worth checking, depending what countries you are planning on driving through, and most importantly what passport you hold. In saying this, we did not come across any passport checks on the borders, and it seemed like easy and free travel between all of the European countries we went to.
We travelled as far east as Hungary and throughout 12 other countries (see below), but as already mentioned, it is worth checking as different rules will apply to different passport holders.
International drivers license and rules for driving a campervan
Again, this depends on what drivers license you already hold. There should be an abundance of information on the internet whether of not you are allowed to drive in certain countries. We were told by the team at Spaceships campervan rentals (where we hired our campervan from), that our New Zealand and Australian drivers licenses would have no troubles, and in fact, there was a booklet that came with the van which held this information (in different languages) in case we were pulled over.
Queue the Hungarian police: We were pulled over for a routine breath test and license check. We passed the breath test with flying colours, but the young officer had a hard time with us telling him that we did not need an international drivers license. Luckily, Jo held one of these, so as a stalemate, he set us on our way, with Jo in the driver’s seat, which we swapped back about 10 kilometers down the road.
If you wanted to play it safe, visit your closest licensing agency and get an international drivers permit – the cost a nominal amount of money (around $20 NZD in New Zealand), and all you need to do is bring a passport sized photo in with you for them to give it to you on the spot.
Camping grounds in Europe
When we set out, our intentions were to make the most of the many different camping grounds across Europe. We used websites like Camping Europe to help us find different areas, and our campervan came with a GPS navigation where we could easily be directed to the closest camping ground.
Europe is very well set up with plenty of roadside stopping areas, called Aires. They are made for people to stop off and most of them have decent picnic facilities, toilet stations, and occasionally free showering facilities (mainly for truck driver use, but can be for the public as well). You will find that many cars will stop at these Aires overnight, so you will feel very secure in them.
Once we had been on the road for a couple of days, we figured out that it was actually easier to bypass the camping ground, and just sleep on the bed that is in our campervan at the Aires. One of the reasons for this was that we found that camping grounds ended up being quite a lot more expensive than we had been used to in New Zealand and Australia so thought we would be better to save our money when there were such great facilities available for free on the side of the highways.
Doing so can be looked at with differing opinions where many people ‘freedom camp’ do not do so with the environment in mind. There have been many reports of people leaving rubbish on the side of the road, which means that nobody wins. You will be happy to know that we took all of our rubbish with us, and visited the likes of McDonald’s for our sanitary cleanliness.
Another issue here is safety. You are in a strange country, so please only pick your place to hunker down if it feels right to you. We had a couple of nights that we were in dark and dingy areas where we would wake up to the slightest noises thinking someone was trying to break into our van. Our tip would be to choose areas that other campervans are parked up, like Aires, sports ground carparks, shopping mall carparks or some cities even have designated campervan parking areas that are free of charge (like this place in Bilbao – photo).
Our total stays in camping grounds ended up being less than 33% – which means that we were camping only every 3-4 nights. Of course, when you do roll into a camping ground, you are able to relax a lot more, so it depends what sort of trip you are after.
Hiccups and issues on our campervan trip
I mentioned above that we had the top level of insurance, and I would recommend you doing so if you are hiring a campervan for any extended period of time.
Our hiccups came in the way of:
- A dent in the back left panel due to running into a concrete pole when backing around a corner in a parking lot.
- A flat tyre, after running over a nail. We were able to get replaced in a small town next to Lake Como in Italy – even though the mechanics had never seen a Toyota Estima before!
- A flat battery when we went to use the facilities at McDonald’s but left the lights on. We were able to ring the 24-hour service and jump-start ourselves off the secondary battery which powers our fridge.
Other potential issues came in the form of:
- We had all of our belongings inside our van, so when we were not with the van then it was an easy steal from an opportunistic thief.
- Size matters. Our van was just big enough for the two of us, which meant that we were limited to crouching area only. For the eight weeks we were travelling, this meant getting changed like a baby, lying on our backs to put our clothes on.
- Lack of washing facilities. Meaning that we reused clothes over and over (and over) again. Don’t get me wrong, this was fine, but it limited options to go out for runs unless we were parked at camping grounds where we could wash clothes in the shower or basin.
Events we had planned
Europe is a hot spot for festivals, concerts and other going-ons. Part of our fun was to have a few bookings in our calendar which meant that we had an end destination in mind, but were able to have mini adventures on the way.
Our big plans were to run a half marathon in Germany, meet some friends in Milan for an Italian graduation ceremony, Sziget music festival in Hungary in early August, La Tomatina near Valencia at the end of August. Otherwise, we had a free slate, so the skydiving in Switzerland, football world cup final in Germany, canyoning in Slovenia and basketball world cup in Spain were all bonuses!
Another good thing to do is to get to know the locals, and listen to them! We were told about some cool theme parks which were pretty isolated and were stoked to find a great evening out at Gardaland for only 20 Euros and ride Europes tallest rollercoaster at Port Adventura World for a similar price.
What we would do differently
In terms of the actual route we took, there would not be too much that we would change. We enjoyed the flexibility of the trip and saved a bunch of money by skipping some camping grounds. That being said, there were some very nice camping grounds, so a bit more time here would have been nice.
The return ferry from France to England was an overnight trip which had us sleeping on a rocking floor surrounded by other travellers taking the budget option. The bad thing about this, is that you are at their mercy, whether it be listening to their snoring, or being woken by their alarm which kept going off – true story, one chap decided to leave his bags in our communal while going off somewhere else, forgetting his alarm was set to the early hours and would chirp every 5 minutes or so until someone turned it off. Next time, we would find it much more comfortable to fork out the extra cash for a room.
What we would do the same
It is hard to hire a car without a decent insurance policy, so for us, getting top cover was a must. We are pretty good drivers, but having this piece of mind in strange countries put us at ease and meant that we were not liable for any of the issues we have mentioned above, or anything that is out of your hands (like a stray supermarket trolley, or a stone vs windscreen incident)
Visiting the ‘smaller cities’ which are a bit further off the routine travel plan. We really enjoyed going to Dusseldorf, driving the Romantic Road to Neuschwanstein Castle, travelling around Lake Como and northern Italy, the Caves in Slovenia, the Pyrenees to Andorra and the surf coast of Spain and France.
Things to bring on your campervan trip
There are a lot of things that you can buy while on the go. Like food; that is easy. There are plenty of supermarkets around Europe (Aldi and Lidl were our favourites for their cheap food and ease of layout). We also found that a lot of places recycled empty plastic bottles and gave you some money back for them, so we used these to fill up our water tank when a normal tap was not available.
Other things you will need, which will come in very handy are listed below and will save you time and stress trying to find them while already on your journey. We aren’t going to tell you how to pack your day-to-day gear in your bags because we have already done that here. This is a list of things that aren’t worn on your back, or digested in your belly.
True story: Jezza had to drive 50 kilometres to the nearest main town near Lake Bled in Slovenia just to try and find a water-proof casing for his phone as we wanted to do some canyoning. Although we found the case very handy throughout the trip, we could have done without the additional trip to find it!
Countries we visited in our campervan
Our Europe campervan itinerary (in pictures)
Belgium – Netherlands – Germany
Germany – Austria – Switzerland – Liechtenstein
Italy – Slovenia
Slovenia – Hungary
Italy – Monaco – France
Andorra – Spain
Spain – France
Let us know about the good times you have had in a campervan and any tips and tricks you want to share!