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If you’ve been following Heath and I for the past few months, you know that after traveling to all 50 states and across much of Canada, we are ready to start RVing abroad! But since we have no experience (yet!) our friend Michela is stepping in to share her abundant knowledge of RVing in Europe!
Michela Dai Zovi is half of Team Kaffeeklatsch, a freelance programming and web development team. Besides RVing in Europe, her passion is helping people find care they need for prices they can afford through Well Traveled medical travel. If international travel is not your thing but you still want to live vicariously, you can follow her on Instagram.
This post is equal parts hilarious and informative and if you’ve ever wondered about RVing in Europe, you’ll love it!
Sometimes the confusion is a pleasant surprise—we pull into town to go to the lavanderia (laundromat), but instead stumble into a huge ball in the main city plaza. Just to be clear, I don’t mean that I tripped over the kind of ball you play sports with. I mean that I turned a corner and saw people in elaborate Renaissance costumes bowing, curtseying, and whirling, dancing together to the music of a moonlit orchestra. To this day, I don’t know if I accidentally fell through a time portal, or if this is just a normal evening out in Italy—but I had a great time either way!
Other times, I’m hearing the thickly-accented Schwarzenegger voice of my German husband, Florian, shouting, “What are you doing?!?” and the answer is, clearly everything except for what I’m actually supposed to be, on the biggest, most confusing, pinball-machine-looking traffic roundabout I’ve ever seen.
As a perpetual international traveler, I’ve accepted confusion as my permanent state of being. I’m a lot like your dog— he has no way to understand the words you’re saying to him, but he’s excitedly wagging his tail anyway, just happy to be having fun with whatever is going on.
What I’m trying to say is: no matter who you are, no matter where you go, international travel is confusing. But that’s also part of the fun!
My husband and I have been freelance programmers/web developers and full-time international digital nomads for five years now. Most of the time we’re in Southeast Asia, but we spent the last two summers driving an RV through Germany, Italy, France, Austria, Spain, Croatia, Slovenia, and Switzerland—and, like many others, I have completely fallen in love with the fun and the freedom of the RV lifestyle.
We still have a lot to learn about RVlife, but we know a lot more now than we did when we started out. And to be honest, I would have been lost without my silly German Doppelgänger to help me make sense of Europe. I need his help across the pond as much as my favorite Sour Kraut needs my help in the US to keep him from getting fined or arrested for drinking beer on the street, in the park, at McDonalds… pretty much all the places where it’s okay to have beer in his native Bavaria—in other words, um, “everywhere”.
(Also, Florian, if you’re reading this, stop drinking your coffee out of brown paper bags; the American cops don’t think it’s as funny as you do!)
Since I’m lucky enough to travel with him all the time and you’re not, I decided to write an article to share my knowledge and help ease my fellow Americans into both the joys and frustrations of RVing in Europe. I hope it helps you skip some of the bad stuff and go straight to the great!
There Are No RVs in Europe
First terminology: There are no RVs in Europe.
There are “campervans” and “motorhomes”, two terms used interchangeably to refer to what Americans call RVs.
If you tell someone you live in an RV they might not know what you’re talking about, and then when you clarify, “recreational vehicle”, they’re going to imagine you snuggling up with a pillow in an off-road ATV.
So just choose whichever of the two terms you prefer and get used to using it.
And there’s no such thing as “boondocking”; it’s called “wild camping,” or “free camping”.
Knowing the terminology is not very important when you’re speaking to a person—they’ll see your rig and know what you mean—but very important for finding information online. You’ll get much better results googling “Motorhome park Germany/Spain/France” over the same search with the word “RV” in it.
Old But Charming
Next, the bad news: America is probably the most convenient place in the world.
If you think you’re going to see ATMs, bathrooms, and late-night business hours as plentifully anywhere else… let me prepare you for disappointment. Don’t be discouraged—Italy’s plentiful coffee bars will serve you the best cappuccino of your life (except for the one you had yesterday), it will only cost €2, and you’ll be absolutely enchanted by the little old men waving their wine glasses in each other’s wrinkled faces as they argue about politics all day long.
In other words, the experience of European travel gives more than it takes, but you need to think ahead more than you might at home, and be prepared for a slower, more relaxed, less convenient, way of life.
ATMs Are Scarce!
You likely won’t find ATMs at the gas station, grocery store, or mall. You might only find them at banks, which are generally clustered near the city center.
Also, Europeans don’t pay with plastic very often, so if you want to avoid people giving you the stink-eye at the grocery store like you’re a little old lady trying to buy 100 tins of cat food with 200 rolls of pennies, have cash on you.
If you’re traveling for a long time, I highly recommend a Charles Schwab bank account. Schwab is the best choice for international travelers because they don’t charge fees for international withdrawals, and they even reimburse you the fees other banks may charge at the ATM. I changed over four years ago from a bank that charged me a currency exchange fee, an international use fee, and a ATM fee every time I used it.
My only regret is not opening a Charles Schwab account sooner. Even better, while they do not have an affiliate program that would benefit me from referring you, they do have a refer-a-friend program wherein if I refer you you’ll get $100! Contact me via our freelancing site so I can refer you and get you your free money.
Shops Are Always Closed!
Europeans tend to have a strong demarcation between “work-time” and “play-time”—think Spanish siesta, or Feierabendbier, which is one of my favorite German untranslatable words; it refers to the first beer of the day after a full day’s work. I love the respect Europeans have for a healthy work/life balance, but as an American who is accustomed to being able to buy Cheetos and cheez whiz at 3 am on Christmas morning if I want to, the lack of constant shopping access does annoy me sometimes.
Most shops close early in the evening and are closed all day on Sundays, so if you like to cook for yourself and hate being hungry, make sure your fridge is fully stocked by Saturday afternoon. Fill up your gas tank while you’re at it.
While we’re on the subject, there’s no cheese whiz in Europe. Europeans sneer at the multiple variations of orange plastic that Americans call “cheese”, and, after you are accustomed to the wide and complex taxonomy of European dairy, you too might start to accept that maybe cheese is not at its best when aerated and sprayed out of a can.
On the plus side, lots of grocery stores do have an “American” section, so you get a chance to see what everyone else thinks we eat all the time. Odds are you’ll find it full of peanut butter, marshmallows, and hamburger accouterments. My husband told me he didn’t understand the end of the first Ghostbusters movie because Germans in the 80’s didn’t know what marshmallows were. More shocking, he had only eaten a few hamburgers in his entire life before meeting me!
That revelation blew my mind about as much as when we’re in an Asian country and tell people that at home we don’t eat rice several times a day. Asians typically have as much trouble imagining a life without rice as I do imagining a life without backyard burger barbecues, as much as my husband gets depressed imagining a life without beer and pork everywhere all the time. But broadening your horizons is what travel is good for, right?
Food is Cheap—the ‘Menu of the Day’ is Amazing!
The great news is that European groceries are really cheap. We are obsessed with the German chain Lidl, and, to a lesser degree, Aldi. When we shop there we will usually walk away with 2-3 days worth of groceries for about $30, and that includes everything we actually want—meat, veggies, sweets, even alcohol.
I’m not really a wine snob, more of a wine slob, meaning I don’t care what kind it is I just want to drink it all the time, and in Europe you can get a totally decent bottle of wine for only €2. Most of the time, wine is cheaper than Coke.
Admittedly, shops like Lidl and Aldi do have limited selection compared to huge American chains, so if your heart is set on a particular ingredient you might not find it. But to me, getting to know a place by its mundane details—like what do they have at the grocery store—is part of the fun of travel.
For example, in France you will find a massive cheese section, and don’t be surprised if you see frozen snails as well. In Italy the antipasti selection is amazing, and you absolutely have to try the smoked mozzarella! In Spain, you will almost always find an aisle full of jamon iberico, a whole leg of cured ham meant to be hung in the kitchen and eaten slowly over several weeks or months. If you’re open to creative collaborations between you and the local shops, you can eat very well Europe* for a low price.
*Except for Switzerland. Everything is expensive in Switzerland.
Although we all know one of the benefits of RV travel is having your own kitchen, don’t forget to sample the local restaurants! In many European countries, especially Spain and Italy, local restaurants will have a menu del dia (menu of the day), which is a set meal where you can order a starter, entree, coffee, dessert, and even a bottle of wine to split, in the neighborhood of €10 – €15 per person. Anybody who goes to a menu-del-dia-country without getting one has missed out on one of the best parts of touring Europe.
Mobile Data is Cheap and Easy, Unless You Need A Lot of It
If you’re like we are—you work online and need good internet at all times but you don’t necessarily have huge streaming data needs—you will be very happy in Europe. In most countries (except for Germany, which requires residency in order to get a sim card) it’s easy to find a sim card and a short-term, or even “tourist,” plan with 10 GBs for around $10-30.
Consult the international sim wiki for an idea of which options are available in the country you’re starting out in, taking care to make sure tethering is allowed with the plan, and if it will work with a dongle/mifi (whatever your preferred mobile internet option is). Also, before you leave the US please ensure that your device is internationally compatible (GSM), and make sure it’s unlocked.
For a concrete example: my husband and I usually use a small dongle that we bought in Bangkok several years ago, very similar to this one. Once or twice the sim card didn’t work with the dongle, so Plan B is we put the sim in my iPhone to make a hotspot for the two of us. I prefer not to use my phone as a hotspot or to tether with, because it tends to drain my phone battery after an hour or two. Once, we accidentally bought a sim card that didn’t work in the dongle and didn’t allow hotspot/tethering. The good thing about that disappointing sim card is that it was cheap, so we wasted less than $20 for more data than I need in my iPhone alone, and then we just bought a new sim card from a different provider a few minutes later.
Usually, buying local sim cards is so cheap and easy, I’m honestly astounded that people pay so much for international sim cards or phone plans—other than maybe keeping one in case of emergency. Just make sure that you test it in your device before you get too far from the shop, in case you have any questions, or need to go back and get a different sim card. If you bring your devices with you, the staff is usually very helpful, even given the potential language barrier. Their English might not be good enough to explain to you what they’re doing, but they can usually put it in and make it work.
If you need to be easily accessible to friends, family, and clients, at home and you hate the idea of giving them several different phone numbers, Google Voice offers a free solution to this problem. Transfer your old phone number to a Google Voice account for $20, or get a new Google Voice number for free. Then you can connect all of your devices to this single number. Your device(s) can send and receive texts, voicemail, and calls, from that one number—no matter the sim card, no matter the location. You need to have a US phone number to activate a Google Voice account, so do this while you still have your American phone service.
If you are a vlogger, podcaster, or otherwise need over 100 Gbs a month… you may need to become a coworking space connoisseur. Knowing that many members of this community are heavy data users I tried to find an optimal European data-heavy plan. Unfortunately, I kept running into the Anna Karenina principle, which is to say that everything I found was wrong for a different reason. This became such an unexpectedly interesting problem (and fascinating puzzle for a geek like me) that I created a blog around international digital nomad mobile data plans.
Check back to see if I’ve solved the problem by the time you read this. Otherwise, there is an app called Word Hard Anywhere, which theoretically helps you find cafes with good wifi all over the world. However, when we tried to use it in Europe there wasn’t anything good near us, so we just found the nearest Ikea to gorge on wifi and köttbullar (Swedish meatballs).
Long story short, I’ve tried to find a portable internet solution better than our default practice of buying local sim cards and topping-up or replacing them as needed, but I don’t think the perfect solution exists (yet), underscoring the truism that when in Rome—or with any kind of international travel—it’s often best to just do as the locals do.
Okay so that’s Europe in general, but what can you tell me about RVing Motorhoming Specifically?
- You might need a special pass to drive on the highway and tolls can be expensive, but that’s okay because the little country roads are where the fun is.
- Boondocking is safe and easy but might not be legal.
- LPG tanks are not standardized, so you might not be able to fill up or exchange in just any country.
Driving in Europe
If you are going to obtain residency or spend a long time in any one country, you might need to get an actual drivers license there. Otherwise, an International Driver’s Permit can be issued by either AAA or American Automobile Touring Alliance, and only them! There are a handful of scam sites selling fake International Driving Permits, so make sure you use either AAA or AATA, and do it before you leave the US.
Various European countries have different driving laws, and it can be hard to know where to find this information. A great resource for this is the UK-based Automobile Association. I highly recommend you spend some time browsing it to get familiar with all of the boring things you need to know, such as items that you are legally required to have in your vehicle, country-by-country driving guides, and even fuel prices.
Another thing that varies from one country to the next is that many European countries require a special pass, often called a “vignette”, to drive on their major motorways. Passes can cost between $40-100, and fines for not having on can be double that. For country-by-country information, the UK-based Caravan and Motorhome Club has a list of countries requiring a vignette.
Some European countries which do not require motorway vignettes can nonetheless have very expensive tolls. The Michelin Route Planner can help you estimate how much you might pay in tolls. Warning: It can be upwards to $100. We used sites to help us plan a route that avoided toll roads, like About Spain and About France, and of course, any navigation system like a Garmin or Magellan should also have an option to avoid tolls.
If you’re reading all my talk about expensive motorways and starting to feel frustrated—don’t. The major motorways are very boring, so unless you’re in a huge hurry, just avoid them. Our no-pay-motorway philosophy kept us in the small roads and interesting towns where the most unique, unexpected, and enjoyable, experiences are.
For example, the time in Slovenia when we met a circus troupe that travels via antique horse-drawn caravans. Hanging out with the circus people made me feel like I was living in one of those fantasy movies where the protagonist stumbles into an alternate dimension where everything is slightly off-kilter, but also extra-vivid, and intoxicatingly exotic. Way better than a boring day paying expensive tolls on the motorway!
Do use common sense and remember that you’re driving an awesome, but huge, house on wheels—something that many old European cities and tiny roads could not possibly have anticipated when they were built hundreds of years ago.
In other words, if you think your rig is too big to fit between or under some of the old buildings in the medieval city you’re driving through—it probably is! Don’t get into a spot that will be hard to back out of, look ahead, and when in doubt, find another way.
How to Sleep for Free in Europe
My husband and I have spent somewhere around 6 months, +/- 200 nights in the RV campervan, and we’ve never ever paid to park it overnight. I don’t know if this kind of hermit travel style would make everyone happy, nor can I tell you that this has always been legal, but I can say that we’ve only been asked to move twice. We’ve never been robbed, broken into, or harassed, and most of the time it’s such a beautiful place I can’t believe how lucky we are to have it all to ourselves.
The scariest experience I had was when I was startled while eating dinner by a shout outside. It turned out a family was playing peek-a-boo around our rig, presumably because they thought it was empty!
We manage to free camp every night from a combination of generous European infrastructure, our own preparation and particular hobby, and some general experience.
Free Overnight Parking in Europe at Designated Lots (aka “Free Camping”)
Many European countries offer basic overnight parking for free in areas that attract more tourist cash or are otherwise places where motorhomes show up anyway and are in need of somewhere to park.
For example, after taking a wrong turn outside of Milan, Italy, we accidentally stumbled upon the jumbo-sized Serravalle Designer Outlet Mall, which had a section of the massive parking lot designated as free motorhome parking, including free electrical hookups. It was such a crazy surprise when we showed up just after closing time around sunset and had this massive open-air mall, complete with a velvet-covered piano and mini water-fountain water show, just for ourselves, a few other RVers, and the security guard.
There’s another small, free, RV parking lot just around the corner from my parents-in-law’s house in their Bavarian village, complete with coin-operated electrical hookups. Another time we were welcomed into Spain by one of these free parking lots over breathtaking ocean views.
Often these free parking spaces are easily recognizable by a sign with an RV on them, but they also go by several names, depending on the location: Aire (France, Great Britain), Aires de Service/Stationment (France, Belgium), Aree di Sosta (Italy), Stellplatze (Germany, Austria, Switzerland ), Bobil (Norway), Area de Servicio para Autocaravanas (Spain, Portugal), or Motorhome Stopovers (United Kingdom). There are several books devoted to listing these free stopovers, not to mention apps like Park4Night and iOverlander.
Generally, free parking places in Europe expect you to stay no more than one night, you must be self-sufficient (real RVs only, no vans with mattresses in the back), and you are not supposed to set up your tables, chairs, awnings, barbecue grills, etc, outside. They are usually not the nicest or most interesting places to stay—once in France I got a bad feeling and pulled out immediately after pulling in—but it’s still a good thing to know about and keep in mind from time to time.
If you will be spending a lot of time in France, you may want to consider the France Passion program, which America’s Harvest Hosts lists as inspiration for their popular network. It is a network of vineyards, olive growers, farmers, artisanal producers, and other landowners that have agreed to allow people to park on their property for free, in the interest of helping you get to know France and maybe purchase some of their products. There is no membership fee, only an expectation of courtesy, and the purchase of an annual guide, which is only €30.
Free Overnight Parking in Europe by Boondocking (aka “Wild Camping”)
Truth be told, so far my husband and I haven’t used any books or apps to find a free parking spot and rarely sleep in designated stopovers. Knowing that we are introverted weirdos who like to frolic in the woods by ourselves but nonetheless want to be connected all the time, we installed a solar panel on the roof of our RV.
We have a small rig (American-style Class As and even Class Cs above 25 ft. or with slide outs are uncommon in Europe), so we don’t have have a washer/dryer, oven, or any other big energy consumers, other than our laptops and mobile devices. Our modest 100-watt panel generally supplies us with all the power we need to run both our laptops all day, as long as it’s a somewhat sunny day.
We find a lot of our sleeping spots through our hobby, via ferratas, which is a European mountain sport that is a mix between rock climbing and hiking. Most of the time, if we’re bouncing between one ferrata climb to another, our path will take us somewhere remote and beautiful in the mountains, where no one cares or even knows that we’re there. Of course you don’t need to climb via ferratas to find boondocking spots, and a few times in a pinch we’ve actually used our Garmin to find us a castle to spend the night in.
To an American, where almost nothing in our country is older than 300 years, castles are the stuff of fantasy movies. To Europeans, however, they’re often just an old pile of rocks. With the exception of a few very famous ones, if the local castle hasn’t become the local Lovers Lane, it will probably be abandoned. And even the famous castles, like Germany’s so-called “Disney Castle” (real name: Neuschwanstein), may have overnight parking nearby (pictured above).
In an uncommon display of Germans not following the rules (normally they won’t even jaywalk!), even though there was a sign forbidding overnight parking near Neuschwanstein, a gaggle of RVers were clearly hunkering down for the night. They told us they had never heard of anyone getting a fine or a ticket over parking there, so we spent the night there with them, and had a great time visiting the castle the following day, with no problems whatsoever.
If you’re considering spontaneous boondocking, you should know that the legality varies not only by country but also from state to state within a country. For a rough guide of the legality of boondocking and other issues, Polish-based site CampRest has really cool charts of relevant laws in 33 different countries (look for “Wild camping outside campsites”).
Paid Overnight Parking in Europe
If boondocking wild camping is not for you, there are of course lots of paid RV parks—that I know absolutely nothing about—all over Europe. My understanding is that Europeans love motorhoming as a family vacation, but full-timing is very rare. This schedule leads RV parks to be quite swamped from July to August, but empty or even closed the rest of the year. A popular app (that I’ve never used but hear about a lot) to find RV parks in Europe is All Motorhome Parkings.
Propane (LPG) Is Not Standardized
This is the most annoying thing on the planet, and unfortunately, a very important thing to know: Propane systems are not standardized across Europe.
Our first month out, we ran out of LPG in Spain and when we tried to fill up or exchange our tank, no matter where we went we were always told that they could do nothing with our German tank. Since we didn’t want to go all the way back to Germany yet, our only choice was to stretch our tiny backup tank as far as possible. We bought a small electric fridge, which nearly maxed out our solar panel’s capacity.
From then on, every morning I had to ask myself, “Is this cheese stinky because it’s French and supposed to be, or because I didn’t leave the fridge running all night and it went bad…?”
I have to admit that I still don’t really feel like I fully understand the ins and outs of propane/LPG, but I found a very useful site, MyLPG.eu. When I emailed the site to ask some questions, the administrator provided me with some general advice for US travelers:
- Check beforehand if the motorhome in question has an outside mount (way less hassle for traveling abroad)
- Check the connector on the motorhome.
- Check which connectors are in which country.
- Buy needed adapters.
- Give some thought to different LPG mixture in different countries.
To be honest, this is not the kind of logic problem that excites me. It’s the kind of problem that makes me want to bash my head against a wall or set myself on fire with whatever LPG I have left. To prevent that, from now on my husband and I just make sure we have a lot of LPG before we leave Germany. If we were to embark on any very long, very far trip, I’d probably try to plan to be in compatible countries when we expect to run out of LPG.
RVing in Europe Is Even Better Than I Hoped
By the time you make it to the end of my warnings and recommendations (if you make it to the end of this super long article!) you might be feeling overwhelmed, like this is too much of an undertaking. Don’t worry! I didn’t know any of these things when I started, so you’re already better off than I was.
RVing in Europe has been such a pleasure; I suspected that I might like it, but I didn’t know how much I was going to love it! Traveling with an RV in Europe has allowed me to unexpectedly attend a music festival in a medieval city, eat romantic private breakfasts in remote castles, climb inside caves or up mountains and through a waterfall, watch multiple secluded sunrises and sunsets on the beach, and so much more. I can’t even imagine traveling in Europe without our rig anymore; the idea just sounds so boring and limited.
Sometimes with international travel, and especially driving in a foreign country, it feels like there’s too much to know and it’s impossible to be fully prepared. You’re right! But the good news is, it’s never as bad as you fear and often better than you hoped.
Even with the hassles and annoyances I’m trying to prepare you for, RVing in Europe is such a magical experience. RV in the summer is by far my favorite part of our nomadic year. Just remember that if you want things to be exactly like they are at home, you should stay home. But if you’re open to all the food, fun, and adventure, that international travel has to offer, RVing in Europe could easily become your favorite thing to do, too.
Michela Dai Zovi is half of Team Kaffeeklatsch, a freelance programming and web development team. Besides RVing in Europe, her passion is helping people find care they need for prices they can afford through Well Traveled medical travel. If international travel is not your thing but you still want to live vicariously, follow her on Instagram. All non-Instagram photos by Florian Blümm.