We traveled around the U.S. & Mexico in an RV for 18 months and loved every minute. In a comparatively small 21-foot-long vehicle, we learned to live off-grid and on a limited budget.
However, six months ago, we headed to Europe to continue our #vanlife on the continent we call home. After a few weeks of being back in the United Kingdom, we purchased a new van and got busy converting it into our newest home on wheels. Given everything we’d learned from traveling through the U.S., as well as our knowledge of Europe, we wanted our new vehicle to be tailored to our needs, but also as stealthy and as small as possible.
We bought a 2007 Ford Transit cargo van — the short wheelbase version which comes in at 5 meters long (that’s 16 feet!), of which the living area is 3 meters x 1.7 meters (10 feet x 5.5 feet). Not a lot of room to live. But, with the small space, the van ticked the box of small and stealthy (though perhaps a little too small).
We insulated, laid flooring, padded the interior with wood, and installed windows, solar power, a kitchen area, a pull-out sofa bed, and a slightly cordoned-off area for a toilet. After a lot of trial and error, we were ready to hit the road in our new home, which we christened, ‘Mike’.
Our first trip took us to Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, and France. After a few months back in the U.K., we headed out on our second trip, this time through Spain, Portugal, and France.
Van life in Europe has a number of important similarities with the same lifestyle in the U.S., but, naturally, there are a few differences, too.
A Stealthy Vehicle
Particularly in Europe, we were so indistinguishable from other vehicles that we found we could park almost anywhere for the night without drawing attention to ourselves.
For example, in Berlin we parked right outside a metro stop for five nights and never once got hassled. In Stockholm, we parked for three nights opposite a fancy hotel on the water’s edge in a standard open air car park. Had we been a more obvious vehicle, we would have drawn attention to ourselves. Our U.S. vehicle, even though it was small by American standards, was still obviously an RV and, after a few tickets in the likes of San Francisco and Raleigh, we soon learned our lesson that parking anywhere near certain cities was nigh on impossible in a motorhome shaped vehicle.
Access to Dumps & RV Parks
A lot of the major freeways in Europe have rest stops and service areas that include dumps, or each town will have an RV park where you can pay to dump your tanks, fill up propane, and so on.
There seems to be an unwritten rule that spending the night in a supermarket parking lot in Europe is acceptable and, for the time being, the likes of Walmart, Lowe’s, and other large American outlets seem to allow short term overnight stays (although they don’t have the mobile security that a lot of U.S. supermarkets and malls seem to have).
In June 2017, a new E.U. law was enacted whereby all mobile/cell phone operators will NOT be allowed to charge roaming fees for mobile and data access in different E.U. countries (to be honest, whether E.U. or not, most European countries are included). This means no more parking outside McDonalds or Starbucks to steal WiFi. Just pop in a SIM card from a major European country, and you’ll have full mobile internet data — and you’ll be thankful when Google Maps diverts you away from German freeway construction that could add two hours to your journey time.
It goes without saying that U.S. roads are car-friendly, but Europe is simply not built with vehicles in mind, so getting a parking space (especially anywhere near a city centre) can be stressful. Driving down narrow, one-way streets during rush hour, while trying to keep half an eye out for a space can be pretty stressful, to say the least.
Showering On the Road
In the U.S., we had a Planet Fitness gym membership that paid for itself so many times over with the constant supply of gyms and, therefore, showers, fitness, parking. However, no such chains exist across Europe, so showering proved a difficult task (we decided against a shower in the van due to our size, but also the weight the water adds, and the additional fuel costs).
While we had a makeshift shower in our van (a kitchen tap, with an extendable hose, that we could pull out to shower outside), this was both cold water and pretty “water intensive,” so it was barely used. Instead, we had to pay at service stations for showers, begrudgingly pay for a night in an RV park/campground, or treat ourselves to a night or two in an AirBnB.
A lot of stores in Europe seem to stick to rather inconvenient opening hours. The chances of finding a supermarket open after 9 or 10 PM in Europe are be very slim. And trying to buy some food on a Sunday can be near impossible, especially compared to the conveniences of 24/7 supermarkets in America. You’ve been warned!
These days, many major U.S. cities and states seem to have quite a few toll roads, but they are even more prevalent in Europe. It seems you can’t drive more than 20 miles on a freeway in France or Spain before you come across some kind of toll plaza. And the fees can be pretty steep. On top of this, in some European countries you have to purchase a vignette that will allow you to drive on their roads for a certain number of days.
Overall, we have gone from what we considered to be a large and obvious RV driving across wide American roads, to a small and inconspicuous van driving through cobbled streets in ancient European cities. Quite the change.
However, the one thing that has been consistent is how achievable both styles of van life can be. There will always be WiFi, shops selling food, water, and fuel, sun to charge our batteries, and a beautiful, interesting, exciting place no more than a few hours down the road…