This post may contain affiliate links. See our affiliate disclaimer here.
Next week, we jet across the pond to take our family of four on a month-long RV road trip across southern France and Spain. This will be our fourth and fifth countries to RV (previously: New Zealand, Canada, and Italy) and our first RV trip as a family of four.
With travel restrictions winding down, Heath and I have discussed at length what we wanted to do next. Should we RV full-time in the States again? Or should we go on shorter trips and keep working toward our goal of RVing around the world?
Ultimately, RVing around the world won out!
RVing America Versus RVing Abroad
Expanding our comfort zone and challenging ourselves is a huge motivation for Heath and me when we think about travel. We’ve visited every state (and 45/50 we’ve visited twice) and after six years of full-timing in the States, RVing here simply doesn’t stretch our comfort zone anymore. I could navigate RV life in America in my sleep.
It’s one of the main things that makes RVing abroad appealing to us. It’s a new challenge and it opens us to experience so many beautiful places.
Every country we’ve visited so far has been different than the last, but I wanted to share a few of our thoughts on what the differences are between RVing abroad and RVing here in the States. Let’s start with the obvious.
1. You may drive on the wrong side of the road.
As excited as I was to rent our campervan in New Zealand, I was equally terrified of driving on the left side of the road and the right side of the car. To add insult to injury, New Zealand has very few red lights and instead has multi-lane roundabouts. Do you have any idea how hard it is to navigate a right turn in a three-lane roundabout on the wrong side of the car and the wrong side of the road? I do!
Unsurprisingly, New Zealand has a very high accident rate, mostly due to tourists like us. They do an amazing job of labeling the roads to compensate for this and our rental also had notes and arrows on the windshield to help remind us to stay on the left side of the road. Perhaps most helpful is that the gear shift, blinkers, and windshield wipes are on the same side you’re used to in the States.
In many countries, you’ll be on the right side just like in the States, but if you plan to RV in the UK, Australia, or New Zealand, you’ll want to be prepared for this!
2. You will need to learn to drive a stick!
Honestly, there’s no better description than just watching this video:
Heath knew how to drive a stick…on paper. But in reality? Not so much. Many RVs abroad are manual transmissions, so learning how to drive one is a necessity. In contrast, I’ve never seen a manual transmission RV manufactured in the States.
3. Everything is bigger in Texas America
“You have a small rig then?”
“Uh, yeah it’s pretty small.”
The manager at the holiday park leaned over the desk and peered out the window. “Oi! That one’s massive!”
In America, the smallest RVs are about 21-24 feet long. Even Sprinter vans can be this long! Abroad, that will be the size of the largest RVs. This is a huge adjustment for us mentally. A seven-meter (23 ft) campervan feels small because in the States our last RV was 40 feet long and had three slide-outs!
You definitely won’t be seeing RVs that big abroad.
4. You can’t drive just anywhere.
In America, it felt like we could take our RV almost everywhere. Sure, there’s the occasional length limit like Pacific Coast Highway’s 30-foot limit and certain roads in National Parks. But in general, we run into few limitations. (The biggest ones I can think of are propane-free tunnels and low clearances around New York City!)
But the older the country, the more difficult navigating in an RV is. When I say roads are tiny, I mean TINY. And many towns and especially cities won’t allow RVs to drive in. In Italy, for example, these are called zona traffico limitato or ZTL. If we saw a ZTL sign, we knew we couldn’t go that direction… Or at least shouldn’t. Definitely ended up parked in one in the video above 😂🙈
Before we RV in each country, we Google search “tips for driving in ________” and can usually find an ebook or blog post sharing traffic signs, what the roads are like, and things to be aware of before we arrive in the country. This is a huge difference between RVing in America where you pretty much just drive.
5. A rose by any other name…
RV. Camper van. Caravan. Motorhome. Camping Car.
Every country calls it something different and BONUS, in most countries it’ll be in a different language. Don’t worry, we’ll post pictures on Instagram of our l’ autocaravane.
Similarly, campgrounds will all have different names. The UK and New Zealand have holiday parks, Italy has campeggios, and we have RV parks.
6. Those campeggi though 😍
Speaking of campgrounds…
Campeggi are INCREDIBLE.
When you only have a motorhome and no vehicle, when you get to a campground, you’re kind of locked in. Italy understands that and the campeggio experience is very all-inclusive.
We stayed at an all-inclusive campeggio in Orbetello on the coast of Italy. There was a private beach, pools, multiple restaurants, a grocery store, gelateria, a cafe, a schedule of activities, multiple playgrounds, kids’ bathrooms complete with toddler-sized showers, and so on. They even had a senza glutine (GF) menu at meals so I could enjoy ravioli and eggplant parmesan like everyone else. (Okay, now I’m hungry.) Campgrounds like this attract families, making them even more attractive to us now. Ellie made friends (who only spoke Italian) and had so much fun playing in the giant toddler pool.
We camped under giant trees, smelled saltwater in the air, and still had access to everything we needed all week!
(The all-inclusive campground cost about $100/night for a two-bedroom cabin and meals, in case you were wondering.)
7. Free camping abounds abroad*
*not including Canada, which is the hardest country for free camping
Italy and all of Europe are known for plentiful free overnight camping options. (I know what you’re thinking—awesome campgrounds and free camping options? Why am I not there already?!)
New Zealand has a reputation for freedom camping—what we might call boondocking in the US.
To say it’s amazing is an understatement. There is free camping everywhere.
Free camping in the US is practically exclusive to the west coast where there are more public lands. And even then the lands are remote and often difficult to access in larger RVs.
In New Zealand, we had 30 MBs down as our internet speed and we were camped on this giant lake surrounded by mountains on every side. We stayed as long as we could before we had to dump our tanks..and promptly returned. It’s one of our favorite free campsites in the world 🌏
8. Two words: Chemical toilets.
In all of our RV rentals thus far, the RV has had a cassette toilet. RVs in the States have them too, particularly smaller rigs like the Winnebago Revel. This means you have to dump your cassette toilet almost daily because it isn’t very large and will fill up fast.
However, you may not dump your cassette toilet in the same place as you dump your grey water. In Italy, we dumped our cassette in chemical toilets specifically for this purpose. In New Zealand, I recall Heath rolling our cassette toilet like a suitcase across the parking lot to dump it in a public bathroom.
I really can’t tell you if this is a pro or a con. But it’s definitely different!
All of the hookups will be completely different abroad versus in America. Different electrical cords and plugs. Completely different water hookup—i.e. no constant water hookup, you will fill your tank and use your pump. No dump station at your campsite.
And, when RVing across Europe for example, every country will have different hookups and regulations around propane, making this hookup particularly confusing. There’s a whole website dedicated to figuring out propane across European borders.
(If you rent an RV, the rental company will cover all of this when you pick up your rig so you’re not totally lost when you try to hook up for the first time! )
10. Canada is basically America but with cheaper healthcare.
There are not many differences between RVing in America and in Canada, though it is technically “abroad”. I highly recommend planning a trip across the border, if you can, because Canada has so much beauty to offer and is full of camping opportunities.
Since it is our neighbor to the north, you probably will drive your own RV versus renting, but RVs in Canada are very similar to US rigs too.
(But seriously on the cheaper healthcare thing. Also when I was sick in Canada, I got a prescription for $80. When I got it refilled in the US, it was $400 and the bottle was half the size. It would’ve been cheaper for us to drive back to Canada and get a new prescription than to fill it back up at home and I think about this all the time.)
11. Public Transport 🚃
I don’t think I’ve ever ridden the bus in America.
I’m scratching my head, but since I don’t live in a major city, it has never been a part of my life. And other than the shuttle bus in Glacier National Park, we’ve never used public transport as part of RV life either! We almost always had a car.
Abroad, this has been a fixture and one small thing that stretches our comfort zone on an almost daily basis when we travel abroad. Since many cities are inaccessible by RV (not to mention, I don’t want to drive an RV in Paris!) public transit is the best way to get out and explore.
We did also rent bikes in New Zealand and Italy, which was another great way to navigate.
12. Thank you for delivering my package, Amazon.
So this might be possible abroad. I haven’t bothered to try it because I don’t think it is. But often in the States, we have had Amazon packages, DoorDash deliveries, and more arrive straight to our campsite.
I’ve never tried this abroad mostly because convenience like this is a very American concept. In the States, we expect things to open when we want, deliver straight to us no matter where we are, and arrive fast. If you put “the big grey motorhome with the silver Honda in front” into the description on UberEats, you expect your tacos to be delivered straight to you. This is so specific to America.
Abroad, we’ve struggled to find restaurants open before 7 PM and outside of cities, practically no one delivers. It’s something we didn’t realize we did so often in the States until we went abroad and didn’t have the option.
13. Languages, obviously.
This felt so obvious I wasn’t sure if I should include it. But even in Canada and Mexico, you’ll be confronted with needing to understand another language. In all of our travels so far, since camping is a tourism industry, employees at campgrounds speak multiple languages.
Signage is almost always also in English or uses symbols/pictures that are universally understood. So language can be a difference, but not as big of a deal as you might think.
14. You spend more money.
The biggest, most obvious con to RVing abroad versus the States is the cost. Cost of living (I’m talking gas prices, food, restaurants) will vary widely by which country you’re RVing in, but on top of that, you’re paying for an RV rental. This is typically thousands of dollars a month.
When we decided to spend two months campervanning across New Zealand, we received a quote for over 10,000 New Zealand dollars! We got creative and worked with the rental company to create content to offset that bill, but still ended up paying well over $5,000 for our rental.
On top of the RV rental, you’re probably going to pay for flights and hotels as well. We’ve taken 3-4 nights in a hotel or Airbnb to adjust to jetlag. I highly recommend this if you have the time, but it is an additional expense. Visiting cities in RVs is difficult, so this is a great way to explore a city, adjust to a different culture, and feel energized before you hit the open road.
Because RVing in the States was always full-time for us, we knew it wasn’t vacation. Internationally, it’s hard to not think of your travel as a vacation—even when it’s long-term. We always end up eating out more and paying for more experiences abroad than we would in America.
15. We try things we wouldn’t otherwise experience.
I definitely haven’t done any of those things in the States…except ride a gondola or two. (But the one in Italy was NEXT LEVEL.)
I love how travel constantly exposes you to things you wouldn’t or couldn’t otherwise experience. We’ve seen amazing things in the States…but there are some things that simply don’t exist here.
16. And lastly, everything is an experience.
I started this post by sharing that one of the things that Heath and I love about travel is how it stretches our comfort zone. It also gives you a chance to be captivated by everyday experiences.
Getting ice cream.
Going for a walk around the campground.
Yes, that does mean some things are extra challenging like finding gas stations and refilling the propane tank.
But it makes every day a little more memorable.