ADVICE FOR FIRST TIME MOTORHOME TRAVELLERS TO EUROPE

Thanks to Ken Shawcross for this most useful information


Advice, Suggestions and Tips for those “Campers” contemplating their First Trip to Mainland Europe.

The following is the result of 44 years of Camping in various forms. 14 years of tents with assorted cars, 20 years towing 4 different caravans and we are now in our 11th year with a “motorhome” and our third campingcar known as “Wanderwagon 3” which being a Devon Conversions Ltd “Monte Carlo” based on the Renault LWB 2.5l turbo diesel.

We made our first trip to mainland Europe in 1969 with a fixed roof Dormabile , traditional ridge tent and 2 children under 9 yo. Since then we have spent, in total, about 2½ years in France, 5 trips to Germany, visited all the Scandinavian countries several times and been to Italy, Spain, Portugal, Austria and Poland plus a few others.

Most of the following may be of some use to all classes of campers though this current list has been slanted towards those campers using campingcars. I use the word campingcar as I have found it the word most readily understood throughout Europe regardless of language.

First Tip…….if you are contemplating going to mainland Europe ….then do it! Don’t be put off by alarmist horror stories . But do some serious planning first so as to give yourself the best chance of a really enjoyable and interesting trip. Every suggestion is based on things we have done ourselves. I will admit that others may well say “do it another way” but what I say has worked for us. We have had no bad experiences ..just some better than others! I have 3 “holidays” in one. Planning, Doing then going over it and sorting out the photos and slides.

Before Going
For many it is impossible, but if you have the choice, stay in your back garden mid July and most of August! For those who have no choice then it is even more necessary to plan ahead and maybe choose your location for the first few days and book a Campsite. We have never booked a site in advance except for maybe 3 or 4 times in the UK when wishing to meet up with friends or family on a definite date at definite site.

A study of the map will show you that it is a fair bet that the vast majority of campers making their first crossing of that dreadfully expensive strip of water ( English Channel) will disembark in France….yes La Belle France.

France is filled with French people who speak French….and they prefer to speak French! If there is one European country where the previously acquired knowledge and a small ability to use the local language is MOST appreciated then it is France. I progressed over the years, a few winter night school classes culminating when I was 61 in, I think, a CSE or was it a GCSE? It’s 14 years ago and I forget. Because of our efforts to use French we have, over the years been invited by strangers for aperitifs, offered to share the cost of a jeep ride up a mountain, been told about country fairs, been told about the Tour de France and, even more useful at the time, talked my way onto a full campsite in the dark of night and pouring with rain…the Guardian turning other units away both French and an English ‘van . Let me dispel a common myth. In all our visits we have been given help, kindness, courtesy and apart from the odd lackadaisical supermarket cashout operator nearing the end of shift, then that is the only downside we have come across in our relations with the French. Indeed mainly because of Camping we have 3 French families we class as “Good Friends”

2nd Tip
Try to understand a little of the Language. There are lots of small phrase books to be bought . Go to a large bookshop and browse through until you find one you like. Do the same for a small dictionary. You don’t have to go to a night class but if you do it will help.

At the very least you should read (more later) about European Road signs . They are very similar to ours but each country has one or two different signs.(more on driving later)

3rd Tip
While in the book shop sort out a map or two. Over the years we have standardised on using Michelin Maps for virtually every country though for Scandinavia I used an atlas by Geo Center Euro Atlas containing maps of (DK) (N) (S) (FIN) and Iceland. For France buy the Michelin Map of the whole country together with one or two Regional Maps covering your likely first area from the Michelin 500 series. At one time these maps were very much cheaper in French supermarkets than they were in UK but nowadays the difference is not so great. Large book shops will have a complete catalogue of Michelin maps which is most useful.
Which leads to:-

4th Tip
Write to the London based Tourist Information Centre (TIC) of the countries you intend to visit. (address later).
Be specific in your request…I”m travelling with my tent/caravan/campingcar. I require info re “The Pyrenees and areas on route” campsites, maps and road information most appreciated etc. Write in good time. If you are not specific you are likely to get adverts about hotels and coach tours!
If the info you receive is not great ….wait a month or two and write again and/or write to the TIC in (F) or (D) or wherever, directly!

5th Tip
Without doubt the Internet has changed the availability of Information…and, in my opinion very significantly for the Camping fraternity.
There are hundreds of web sites with information about sites and maps and general travel, traffic and climate information. The ones I list I have used for one purpose or another. Don’t forget that putting a few words like “camping France” will produce something from any of the main search engines.

First the Motorhome Forums I am subscribed to which, over the 4 years I’ve been on the Internet I still find very useful.

www.motorhome-list.org.uk (free)

www.motorhomefacts.com (£10 p y sub)

www.motorcaravanning.co.uk (free)

www.motorhomeandaway.co.uk (free)

Some of many other websites

www.campingdefrance.com

www.french-at-a-touch.com

www.bison-fute.equipement.gouv.fr

www.tourisme.fr

http://campingcar.enliberte.free.fr/

www.camping.it/english

For Disabled www.wheelgotravelling.info

And many more not forgetting www.viamichelin.com

Our first trip to Finland was aided enormously by emails from the secretary of the Finish caravan club. Help also from the Dutch club on our first visit there.

Which leads to hard copy information from books and guides.

6th Tip
There are a profusion of maps, guides, dictionaries and phrase books as a visit to any good bookshop will reveal. Herewith the ones we use as a result of our experience.

For Campsites
The books from The Caravan Club can be useful for sites especially outside of France and they have lots of good road, traffic, camping and legal information including TIC addresses and those of embassies etc

“Caravan Europe” Vol 1 (F) (AND) (P) (E) Vol 2 (A) (D) (I) (G) Eastern Europe
Scandinavia , Benelux and (CH)

For French campsites I am convinced that the best book to buy is “ Le Guide Officiel (year) Camping Caravaning” by the Federation Francaise de Camping et de Caravaning and printed by Les Guides Motor Presse.

I have had others. I have looked at most others in bookshops etc and I recommend the above without doubt.
Yes …horror!! it is in French. BUT there is a key explaining all the symbols and site layout in English and it is not rocket science to understand it.

It can be bought, about April each year, through the Caravan Club but I bought mine, ordered early, at www.amazon.fr. It can be bought in France at a good book shop. I do not buy new volumes every year. There is no need.

For phrase books I use/have used books by BBC, Penguin, Hugo, Collins and Berlitz…the latter being a short favourite it would appear. Phrase books, combined with the Traffic/Road Info in the Caravan Club sites book, and any other source you may know about, allow one to print out on small piece of card the most important written road signs for the various countries visited. If nothing else it gives the “Navigator” something to do!

Metric Conversion
Draw a little table showing speed in mph and the equivalent kph with 10 mph spacing. I always have one stuck in vehicle just at eye height on door post. Very helpful.
Also have your rig’s dimensions in Metric easily available.

For Those With Campingcars over about 9 metres and Caravaners with Double Axle vans. Some sites in France (in particular) will not accept you. Camping cars too big….Double axle vans sometimes specifically excluded because they are associated with “the travelling community”.

Specifically for Campingcar people
You will have heard all kinds of stories about wild camping in mainland Europe…people are robbed, gassed, travel all over Europe mainland for nothing etc etc.
The truth is somewhat different. Lets deal with the legal non campsite camping for camping cars. There are systems of official sites called Aires in France, Stellplatz in Germany and Solstas in Italy. There are others in Switzerland,Spain.Greece of which I know nothing.

The 2000 odd aires in France can be found in the following books

Le Guide Officiel(year)Aires de Services Camping-Car by Camping Car Magazine (also a good magazine) printed by Les Guides Motor Presse. Also caontains a map of the French aires and details of some stellplatz & solstas etc in Germany Italy & Switzerland. (Cost €8 in 2005)
I also use, because it is easier to handle, (the maps are in the body of the somewhat less comprehensive book) Le Guide National des Aires de Services Camping-Cars printed by Guides Larivière. ( Cost €6 in 2005) These two guides do not always contain the same information as to an aire.

There are other guides and books I am sure but these work for us.

I have bought them in UK or France in the past but my current two I purchased at www.amazon.fr without any problem. Without a count I don’t know how many we’ve stayed on. More than 40 …less than 100. None could be called Wild! The only slight disturbance…more because of our English expectations of trouble was at an official splendid small aire behind a church when about 6 “young people” gathered to socialise with “stellas and happy baccy” near the 3 vans on site. They disappeared before 2300 without even glancing at the vans and without even a broken bottle. On another seaside aire the only loud voices after 2100 were….you guessed it..English. An English van there early afternoon, tables and chairs out and the booze. It is amazing how quiet aires are by 2100. Don’t let us down .Do the same. Cost of aires varies from FREE to about €6 (euros) .Payment mostly by obtaining a jeton (token) from the nearest TIC or café or bakery.

There are some aires I have never nor would ever stay on in France. I would be very wary of the Auto Route aires in some parts. In fact we have only used the Auto Routes when we were still workers and wanted to get to our friends in Paris from Northumberland in a hurry. A friend, when he was on the Road Patrol motorcycles of the Gendarmerie, suggested that not only was it not a good idea to stop overnight on the aires on the A7 and A9 from north of Orange where the auto routes bifurcate and thence SW and SE, it was better not to stop even for fuel!

For Germany I believe there are at least 2000 stellplatz. We have been on several of late years. Again varying from free to the very maximum we paid was €15.60. That was on a well appointed site belonging to a hotel and catered only for camping cars not tents or caravans. One got €2.60 refund if you had a meal .
The book for stellplatz I use is Bord Atlas (year) by Reisemobile International. Cost in 2005 €14.90. This book also lists sites in many other countries.
I endeavoured to obtain from www.amazon.de but I’m afraid I misunderstood an email (in German1) sometime after I ordered and the book never arrived but at least I wasn’t billed for it!.I have been told also available at www.reisemobil-international.de/bordatlas2/ I bought it at the 2nd stellplatz we stayed on. I have heard of other similar guide books but have no experience of them.

Right. You’ve got the maps, the guides and books, sorted out approximately where you are going. Written out a few Road instructions and can say, in the appropriate language, good morning when ordering your baguettes. What next?

7th Tip
All these notes are written for the beginner European “camper” and the following items are essential even if they seem pretty obvious .

Insurance…..both travel insurance for all the bodies travelling and for the campingcar. Until becoming a campingarist we insured the bodies and the vehicle, either for single trip or multi trip with either The Caravan Club or with The Camping and Caravanning Club. Both very satisfactory. Dare say there are other insurers just as good, but they worked for us. The camping cars we’ve had have all been insured by Safeguard of Horsforth and their normal Comprehensive vehicle insurance is good for Europe. Health Insurance I’ve varied lately. Check that your vehicle is insured for mainland Europe comprehensively and NOT just basic minimum cover.
Make sure your Insurance states you are covered. At one time you had to have a “Green Card”…which was green but now most policies put the words on the back of your Insurance Certificate in black and white. We had a problem with this on entering Poland from Sweden. Had to pay about £5 to get a pink piece of paper because I didn’t have a green card even though insurance specifically stated we were covered in Poland.

Do not forget the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). You can apply for an EHIC, free of charge, at www.ehic.org.uk. Alternatively, you can apply by calling 0845 606 2030, or by picking up an application form from the Post Office. If you are a UK resident, you are entitled to medical treatment that becomes necessary, at reduced cost or sometimes free, when temporarily visiting a European Union (EU) country, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway or Switzerland. Only treatment provided under the state scheme is covered. However, to obtain treatment you will need to take a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) with you. Please note: Not all UK residents are covered in Denmark, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway or Switzerland. Check the Department of Health's Advice for Travellers page for more info. Yet another good thing from the EU. ( I mock not!) .

Four more things.!
The International Camping Carnet which covers you for third party claims on you for damage you cause on a campsite (but not caused by a vehicle). More usefully it can prove your identity, may be asked for to be accepted on a site ( about twice in 37 years for us!). Can be obtained from the above Clubs or your motoring organisation…AA, Green Flag etc. Cost between “free” and £4.
A Ferry Ticket or dare I say it, a Tunnel ticket. We have never used the Tunnel. We have travelled on every route and every company over the years except Southampton to Santander. As an ex mariner the crossing is not a moment of excitement and my wife firmly believes that the sea is for fishes. During the last few years we have generally crossed Dover/Calais, & the last 2 years with “SpeedFerries” on their catamaran from Dover to Boulogne. This has the advantage of being quick, 55 mins and the least expensive. NorfolkLine (Dover/Calais) have a good name on the Motorhome forums. Work out what ports are best and then shop around . The two Clubs have competitive fares they can book but check. They are not always the lowest.

Passports for all the Party Absolutely must be in order…in fact some countries demand that the expiry date on the passport must be at least 6 months beyond your estimated day of return.
Go to the Post Office again and get enough forms for all, fill them in and get your photographs taken at a shop which will guarantee to re do them free if the Passport Office return them as unsuitable. Evidently this has been very prevalent since “9/11” and “7/7” . I’ve just renewed mine….£51 and was back in less time than PO intimated it would take.
Extra Tip
We always have two colour photocopies each of our passports. Some Campsites demand you leave your passport and/or Camping Carnet at Reception until you leave…ie have paid!! My photocopies readily accepted in lieu of the official one. Some countries insist you carry suitable ID papers at all times.

Money
Over the years I have heard lots of different ways of sorting out your currency for the trip. I’m sure of one thing, the banks will grab (exhort) a goodly percentage of your hard earned cash in commission and/or charges. If I had all this grabbed money back I’ve paid out over the years I could have a free 2 months trip! Stop! BP rising!
The following has worked for us for many years now but some would disagree.
Find a credit card company that doesn’t charge commission on EU transactions.
I use Liverpool Victoria and have read that Nationwide are the same. Between us we have 4 other cards . We only carry one on our person the rest secreted in the van. This saved us even more problems when I had my wallet stolen on a tram in Amsterdam. We consoled ourselves with a good restaurant meal on my wife’s card from a different bank.
I would strongly suggest you inform your Credit Card company that you will be using you cards in the countries listed from and until the approximate dates given. I think I will do this this
year even though we have a previous record of being abroad at the same periods for several years. This should save the problem of having a blocked transaction in your first super market.

For cash check round for the best (or least extortionist exchange rate) and order in sufficient time before your departure. We take, what some would say, is too large a sum of cash. Things are much simpler with the Euro as you don’t have so many currencies to convert and pay commission on!.
We also buy Travellers Cheques, nowadays mostly in Euros otherwise Sterling. In the past Swiss Francs. Lately some reports of difficulty cashing TCs in France but we never have had a problem However some banks charge a fee for cashing the TCs but many give face value of the cheque.

The final (I think) point.
House Insurance. Does your house insurance cover your house if you are away for more than 30 days. If wintering in Spain or wherever can your central heating be set as required by the insurance company. Check it out in good time.

Make sure you have all the necessary safety kit as required by the countries to be visited . Warning Triangle(s?) Spare Bulbs, Hi Vis Yellow vests….see Caravan Club Book or ask TIC.

ON Foreign SOIL

The Moment of Truth…or When You have rolled gently off the ship’s gang way into a "Foreign" Country.

8th Tip
You most certainly will have had the passports checked in UK. Only twice in 30 visits to France have we had them checked on landing….they were obviously looking for some very bad people and only glanced at ours. However always have them available on approaching Control. NB: Now put them away again safely as you most probably will only need them again when changing Travellers Cheques or on the Control on homeward ferry or on landing in UK. Have you put away safely your return ticket voucher so you can find it ?

Driving on the Right!!
Since retirement 20 years ago I have driven on the right nearly as many miles per year as I have on the left and I have forgotten how I felt in 1969 driving off the Ferry into Calais into what was then, a very different France. ( Note For those making their first trip by going to Ireland…skip this passage! A different experience!)
You will unfortunately see many vehicles with GB plate speeding out of the docks. Do not try to keep up with them!
Most of western Europe has, in my opinion, better road signage than the UK (other then our motorways) and indeed ,with some exceptions, better roads.

I assume now that you the "first timer abroad", are landing in France (see Before Going). Landing in (N) (S) (DK) (B) or (NL) is very similar.
You should, by your planning and following these "Notes" have a reasonable map, say at scale 1cm to 2k open on Navigators lap. You should know the town or village you are aiming for for the first night which should NOT be a long trip for the first day! You should have written down the most important road signs for the country you are in and have the appropriate Phrase book to hand.

The following are just my personal ideas but they work for me. I object to paying road tolls if there is a suitable alternative. Even before retirement I tried never to be in a hurry to get from A to B. As far as I know virtually all French Auto Routes, on which one has to pay a not insubstantial toll, are built almost parallel to a Route National, eg From Paris the A10 runs more or less in tandem with the N20 and will get you to Orleans in about the same time. The N20 no toll. The A10 several Euros (you can find out how much from the internet!) National “N” roads and most Departmental “D” roads are as good as our Motorways and top class A roads. Some Autoroutes are now free of toll. An up to date map will show you which ones. Eg The A16 from Belgium, through the north outskirts of Calais to Junc 29 near Boulogne. Autoroute signs are blue with white lettering and the word péage on the sign means tolls are payable.
Apart from saving money the “N” and “D” roads are generally more scenic and interesting.
Driving along you will notice that French road signs are angled a little differently to UK. Check with care . Two most useful signs TOUTES DIRECTIONS basically means drive in direction indicated until you come to a town sign eg. ARRAS. If you want to go to Arras then head in that direction. If not, there may well be a sign AUTRE DIRECTIONS near the Arras sign. This means if you follow that sign you will get to anywhere else in France! Or at least you will come to specific town signs one of which will lead to where you are heading.
I would suggest you arrive with enough fuel for at least 200 miles so that you are not forced to make a stop for fuel an early foreign experience!
As in UK the cheapest fuel is found at supermarkets. Enter SM with care and especially with a big rig (of any sort) make sure there is enough room to get OUT past the pay cabin! Having to reverse a 21 ft caravan or a 8m campingcar to irate directions in French or language other than English is not a good thing . Danger warning…..By the time you have done a successful shop, well stocked with wine, fresh bread, and good vegetables and a tank of worthwhile less expensive fuel, you will probably not remember how to get out ‘cause driver only concerned with not hitting things on the way in to remember the way out!! SM car parks are often dangerous places..rule of the road! Completely forgotten,. THIS is a the time of possible mistake….so pleased to be out of there in one piece you then pull out onto the highway driving on the left! Whoops! I’ve done it and seen it done several times. Another time is when you leave the Campsite first thing in the morning.
If you have done as advised, driven much more slowly than usual, kept well over to the right, stopped if in doubt. (Stopped car cause little damage!) You are now on the right route. Ahead is the next problem THE ROUNDABOUT. At one time in history the French scarcely had a roundabout. The last 10 / 15 years they have grown like mushrooms. You go round them the “wrong way” ! Think about it and plan how to proceed. Give way to vehicles on the roundabout, If the navigation is on form you will know exactly which exit to take! If not, signal going round and round again ‘till you get it right. Strongly suggest you read the driving information in the Caravan Club Book “ Caravan Europe Vol1” .
The French do not put up illuminated warning signs for fun! ( such as a bend with suggested speed limit) Should you come across one I strongly advise you obey it!
“Sleeping Policemen”…pay attention . Some are modelled on the jump jet flight deck of an aircraft carrier!!
Traffic Lights in France can be less brilliant than in the UK. No Amber between RED and GGREEN. Many are suspended on high and can be difficult to see in the beautiful sunshine you are bound to be having. A splendid idea is that there is a small repeater light at about car window height that saves you having to peer up the light pole..

Police Checks
Lots of stories about police in the camping mythology! We have been stopped on the road twice in about forty trips . Once in France early 80’s at about 2200 not long after leaving a restaurant. Road block obviously looking for bad people. A quick glance at our passports and a courteous “Bonsoir “ and we were waved on. Second time about 2001 in Norway. All vehicles directed off the highway to a large lay by where all Passports and Vehicle Documents of all vehicles were checked. We were in order and I knew the dimensions and plated weight etc. And on we went. Please note most “foreign” policemen are armed.

I think that’s it for Driving on the Right.

Some General Advice. Now that you are safely arrived!!

Do not let fuel tank drop below a third. On Sundays in France, at least, many filling stations are closed or only self serve by putting your credit card in the pump slot.. Most, if not all, such credit card machines at French petrol stations will NOT accept UK cards. Make too many errors and card is swallowed! Inconvenient it could be!..

As previously said Supermarkets are cheapest for fuel and most things. However country
markets in all countries are much more interesting and one can buy good food fresher and cheaper.

In France the prices of drinks sold and the meals sold MUST be displayed outside the establishment so you know whether to go in or not depending on your wallet! (UK please follow) This is common else where but not sure if it is by law.

The same for Campsites, all prices displayed at entrance. This is the case in most other countries.

Most sites will not take offence if you WALK round the site and ablution block to see if you think you will stay.

In holiday season you should be looking for a site or an aire by 1500 and at about 1530 to 1600 at the latest in early September and June especially in popular places.

Most campsites, aires and stellplatz are pretty quiet by 2100 and silent by 2200. Don’t spoil it!

Even if you are challenged linguistically you can, with practice, check on the weather forecast by an unobtrusive look in the local &/or regional news paper in the SMkt news stands and study the weather maps. You could even buy the odd paper and become an expert.

Vehicle Bits
“Halfords” type products can be found in most larger supermarkets in France,oils wipers, plugs ,bulbs etc.

Think that’s about it. Take care and have a good trip.

Ken & Mary Shawcross ………with Wanderwagon3

The above information given in good faith. E & OE.

©2006 JK & M Shawcross


Back to the Travel Page