Top Tips For Your First Motorhome Trip Abroad
Today we’re bringing you our top tips for your first motorhome trip abroad!
So, our campervan travels maybe now relaxed, adventurous and spontaneous, but it hasn’t always been such a smooth ride. So, if the thought of going abroad with your campervan or motorhome fills you with dread then look no further!
How it all Began for us – Top Tips For Your First Motorhome Trip Abroad
After decades of motorhome travel to far away shores, our learning curve has been a long one. However, our love of Campervan travels abroad are as strong as ever. So much so, our trips abroad are not only easier to do than those in the UK but often cheaper and more enjoyable.
Probably like many people, those early days of travelling abroad by van was exciting but incredibly daunting. Our first time abroad with our own motorhome was back in 2005, when we swapped our life-long love of touring by caravan to travels by campervan. To be more precise, we had a Swift Bessacarr motorhome and that first trip abroad was the biggest learning curve of all!
Why? Because in the Beginning we treated travels abroad in our new motorhome like those we’d had in a caravan.
To be honest, we simply didn’t realise there were such big differences. As soon as the penny dropped, our travels were transformed and we never looked back.
1. Coming From Caravan To Motorhome? Here’s what we did wrong.
On that first motorhome trip abroad in 2005, we booked every campsite in advance, as we had with the caravan. That included campsites across France at places we thought we may want to stop the night.
With a caravan, it didn’t matter if the campsite was in the middle of nowhere because we had the car. It also didn’t matter about packing up to drive to the shops or trying to find a parking space in a small village.
On top of all that, we’d drive from the site in the car to explore, then drive back to site. Basically, the campsite was our base for the whole holiday and the car our transport.
How we soon realised our mistake
It wasn’t long before we realised our mistake. In the motorhome we had so much more freedom. Not only was it our transport but also our accommodation and with it came new possibilities.
For example, we no longer had the worry of towing and all the extra attention this needs. Gone was the very lengthy outfit with towing weights to think about which if unbalanced could lead to snaking or worse.
With the caravan we just wanted to get to the site, un-hitch, un-pack, pitch up and relax.
A Motorhome Brought freedom and simplicity
Whilst in the motorhome we were passing so many lovely places en-route to our first booked site. When in reality we could just explore at our leisure with everything we needed on board including an engine! By booking ahead, we’d missed so much by just driving to the campsite that could be miles away from the place that looked so inviting.
Of course, in the motorhome everything was already in place, making travel easy, From bikes and outdoor chairs neatly stored in the garage to food in the cupboards and those onboard tanks filled with water – we could have a cup of tea in jiffy.
Also, the motorhome floor wasn’t filled with an awning or water containers and other things that had to be stored for travel in the caravan. So no having to clamber over the contents of the van every time we stepped inside.
Basically the motorhome was a home on wheels ready to go, whereby the caravan would be towed to it’s location where it would then become a home on legs!
We began to hear about aires and that sealed our new relationship with travels abroad
No sooner had we started out on French soil and we started hearing about and noticing signs for motorhomes.
But, what were they? Why did we keep seeing so many motorhomes parked up together and how could we find out more?
Top Tips For your First Motorhome Trip Abroad
It wasn’t long before we realised there was a whole book of these locations, which we now knew were called “Aires”. Back then the book was only available in French, with no photo’s. Now of course not only are there English books with photos but a whole labyrinth of Apps and everything else technology brings.
As soon as we knew that the Aires were for motorhomes to stay the night then we embraced this new found freedom.
So, on that very first trip away, we cancelled all those booked campsites after the first 2 nights and never looked back!
To this day the only time we’ve booked anything is in the UK and for Christmas abroad!
2. Do all countries have dedicated motorhome areas?
The answer to this depends on which country you are going to.
Each country has its own rules on motorhome stops but many countries have dedicated areas for motorhomes to legally stop overnight. More on this later.
3. Which Ferry Port Is Best? Top tips for your first motorhome trip abroad
Dover to Calais is the shortest and cheapest ferry route, having a journey time of around 90 minutes. However, the quickest journey time is the Eurotunnel taking just 35 minutes without having to leave your motorhome.
There are several other more expensive ferry ports and crossings to choose from. Depending on where you live in the UK, where you want to travel to and how much your budget is will determine your route.
Our preferred choice is the Eurotunnel but we have tried most of the others over the years. The reason is that it’s quick, simple, you don’t have to worry about choppy seas and you can have a flask of coffee ready to relax in the motorhome during the journey.
4. What are the roads like?
Driving abroad, particularly in France where you’re likely to travel for the first time abroad in the motorhome, is in our opinion and experience much easier than the UK. The difference of course is that they drive on the opposite side to us Brits.
Roads are quieter and well maintained with many towns and village roads almost deserted at times. That said, in popular tourist locations near the coast, expect it to be busy, especially at weekends.
5. Are there Toll roads?
Yes, most countries have toll roads, although not all. Again we’ll concentrate on France here, otherwise it’s going to get lengthy and confusing!
France, has an excellent motorway network with a mix of Péage (paid tolls) and free sections of motorway.
6. How Do You Pay Tolls?
In France tolls can be paid at toll booth machines en-route and at exits of motorways. Most major credit cards are now the most frequently requested form of payment. Booths used to be manned and cash paid, but we don’t see these that often any more.
If you think you’re going to travel regularly then you can order a Tag in the UK which is sent in the post and placed in the windscreen of the motorhome. This is linked to a bank account with toll payments used being deducted.
Note: The Tag is for motorhomes up to 3.5t.
Some countries such as Austria and Switzerland use a Vignette system which is also for up to 3.5t. These are available to purchase at the border. See link below for further details on tolls.
Essential Guide to Tolls in Europe
7. Which Country is Best to visit? Top tips for that first motorhome trip abroad?
We would suggest France. Simply because we think it’s easy, beautiful, diverse and it’s one of the closest to the UK.
In Summer the weather is a little better and more settled than the UK in the North but once you drive around 5 hours South it generally gets much better. This is around the Burgundy region, Loire for example, although it can still get unsettled, so don’t blame us!
Further South again, around an 8 hour drive brings you to really good Summer weather and long hot days and evenings. This would be around the region of the Dordogne, Southern Alps/Provence type areas and then further down to the Mediterranean coast.
On top of all the above, France is still one of the most motorhome friendly countries of them all.
8. Which Region Would we Visit on a first Motorhome trip abroad to France?
For those first time trips abroad in a motorhome or campervan, we used to stick to those regions further North.
Normandy for example is just a few hours drive from Calais and has some of the most fascinating wartime history and coastline.
Brittany further to the West and extending further South has a dramatic rugged coastline with sheltered bays and pretty coastal villages.
Depending on how much time you have, we would suggest exploring one or two regions. Remember that France is a big country with lots to see and can easily be leisurely explored by motorhome.
9. Are there any other countries that aren’t too far?
If you don’t want to spend time in France or really fancy driving into another country then Belgium and The Netherlands are where we’d head for.
Both have their own plus points and are incredibly different to France without being too far to travel.
Belgium has fabulous Brugge with its intricate architecture and canals, the First World War sights are well worth a visit throughout the battlefield regions.
The Netherlands is a cyclist paradise with beautiful canals, those windmills and an abundance of good private motorhome stopovers and campsites.
10. Do you need a different Electric Cable for an EHU and what is power like?
If using an electric hook up then we check for Reverse Polarity to make sure it’s ok.
We take a Reverse Polarity device with us from the UK to check for this. This plugs into a socket in the motorhome and the result lights up. Most good caravan shops should sell these as well as the leads for abroad. So it’s best to go prepared and take a visit to one before travelling.
Power supplies abroad are often much less than the UK campsites. Here in Britain we can get 16amp supplies but generally in Europe, particularly France a campsite will offer 6amp, maybe 10amp at best.
Basically, power can be limited.
11. How do you find somewhere to stop the night?
In recent years the advances of technology have made it so much easier to find that all important place to stop the night.
There are several good Apps – we usually have a few already downloaded onto our phones with accounts already set up before leaving home.
There’s too many to go into here but you can read another article Top Apps For Motorhome Stopovers which goes into all the details.
We also use a Garmin Sat Nav which has one of the App providers already installed, in our case Campercontact. This is great because we don’t have to think about using valuable phone data.
There are still some books which list places to stop, again the link to the article lists these too.
12. Can you stop overnight anywhere you like?
Most countries or regions even towns within those regions have rules which vary enormously. That’s not to say that there are some parts where it is tolerated to park for one night but it’s all about risk of being moved on or allowed to do so and then if it’s safe to do so.
One thing is certain, there should never be camping behaviour involved or soiling the environment in any way – whether that be emptying waste water or using nature as a loo.
Many countries such as France, Germany and Italy to name a few have dedicated motorhome parking areas.
In France these are called Aire de Camping Cars or Aires for short and the system is superb. Other countries use other names for them but for simplicity we’ll stick to France and the Aire system here.
13. What are Aires? Top tips for that first motorhome trip abroad.
Aires in France are dedicated motorhome parking areas provided by the local authority or private land owner.
These are found all over France and can be in any number of locations, scenic or not. For example, it may be a convenient place in the middle of a town or a beautiful waterside location next to a canal or the sea or just about anything in-between.
The amount of time you can stay at an Aire is up to the local Mayor and signs at the location will give the details.
Typically it’s anything from 24-72 hours and this could be free or fee-paying – they are all different.
You can read an in depth article Motorhome Aires in France and Europe for further details.
14. Can you book an Aire?
Usually no, however there are an increasing number of Aires that are being converted to a more formal set up.
This is by the company known as Camping-Car-Park which has a card that you top up and allows access to its Aire locations. The card can be bought in advance and sent to your UK address.
They have a facility to pre-book, all details of this system can be found on their website.
15. How do you empty the loo/waste and fill the water tank when abroad?
We use Aires and the services provided on them in countries that have those systems.
That’s because most towns or locations that have Aires also provide a service area to fill up the fresh water, empty the waste water and the loo and sometimes an electric point for a quick charge up.
If they don’t have a service and dump area at the Aire, there’s often one fairly close by. Again these may be free or for a small charge but each are different.
16. What are campsites like abroad and should you book?
There are some fabulous campsites abroad and many with superb, modern facilities. We’ve stayed on some incredible sites in countries such as Austria and Croatia where cleanliness is second to non and locations hard to beat.
France tends to have a more rustic feel but choices are good and their local community municipal campsites are really good value for money.
Overall, anything goes and some pitches can be extremely tight for motorhomes. We’ve been to some pitches where we can’t even get on the pitch or we’re nose to tail with the adjacent pitch.
Prices vary enormously too and anything close to water will be very booked up in high season, so if you want a guaranteed location then you may be best booking.
Having said that it’s not often we’ve been turned away. But it is quite often that we’ve had the last pitch or campsite owners have moved vans to make room for us!
17. Can you buy Calor Gas abroad?
When we’ve run out of gas abroad, we’ve ended up buying a local gas bottle and a new pigtail etc to fit which isn’t always easy to get. In the end we started taking spares so we had the right attachments for French gas bottles in particular.
18. Is it dangerous? Top Tips For Your First Motorhome Trip Abroad.
This is one question that we’ve never had to answer “yes” to, thank goodness!
We think we’ve done well in all our years of travels abroad because despite a couple of instances, there’s never really been anything too dramatic happen to us or any other people we’ve come across either.
Yes, motorhomes can get broken into, indeed we’ve been a few doors from some when this has happened. We ourselves had 3 tyres stabbed several years ago in Spain, leaving them completely flat. So things can and do go wrong but they are unusual.
Probably the most dangerous times come from those occurring naturally. This is in the form of storms, forest fires, hailstones and floods.
To be truthful, we’ve seen the aftermath of all of the above and been on the tail end of some very bad storms or been somewhere just before them on several occasions.
The weather can be quick changing and rivers that were streams suddenly become torrents very quickly. Some campsites have warning sirens and flashing lights to warn guests to evacuate and this we have had to do!
We’ve also seen landslips, rockfalls and horrific damage to buildings and motorhomes caused by giant hailstorms. That’s not to mention a colossal tree being struck by lighting behind our motorhome, it’s huge falling trunk missing us by inches.
Overall, we’ve never been put off and respect nature and natural forces at play. One thing we are careful with is parking near rivers, simply for the reasons above. Nowadays, there are signs in many countries warning of the dangers but still we see campervans parking up alongside.
We are not ones to take the risk!
19. Checklist of documents to take
One thing is certain we don’t leave home without the following:
- Travel insurance that covers both of us for each country we enter for the duration of our travels – we buy a backpacker insurance as these cover a wide selection of countries for long periods of time.
- A copy of the motorhome V5 certificate and original document.
- Motorhome insurance policy and certificate.
- European breakdown cover.
- MOT Certificate
- European Heath Card (until it expires) then we’ll need the Global Health Card that has replaced it.
- Snow chains in winter as they are a legal requirement in some countries. Also check for Winter Tyres requirements as they differ too.
- Driving licences – valid ones!
- Check if you need a Green Card.
- Passports – valid ones with 6 months remaining after the return.
- Displaying a UK sticker (used to be GB)
- Beam Benders for the headlights
- Camping Card International – we buy one for £5 from the Camping and Caravanning Club which we are members of. These act like a passport in some countries so avoid the need in having to hand over passports.
Top Tips for your first motorhome trip abroad
Double check all the latest requirement with proper Government websites before travelling and requirements for each country.
There’s also things like a warning triangle, reflective vests in the cab and first aid kit that countries stipulate are needed.
Finally, there’s things that we don’t have so can’t comment on but you may need to check out. Think about rules around towing a car and have an A-frame or if your motorhome is over 3.5t. Then there’s rules on bike racks etc, the list is endless!
20. What about using mobile data abroad?
Well this is always a pain in the neck.
Data roaming abroad is limited by phone providers, but as a rule this can be as low as 12gb a month up to 20gb a month or 23gb at most. You first of all need to check your own contract and providers rules on roaming abroad and which countries they include if any.
So, even if we have 100gb of data per month per phone for use in the UK, once abroad this drops dramatically.
Currently we are allowed to use up to 20gb per month on our BT mobile contracts. Some providers have a fair usage policy and some may cut out before the 20gb is up and not re-set the following month – yes this has happened to us in the past.
So if data is important to you, then you really need to do the homework on this before leaving the UK. Of course, you can buy a data sim locally in country.
21. Is free wi-fi good abroad? Top Tips For your First Motorhome Trip Abroad
We never have much luck with free wi-fi. Even paid wi-fi is poor in our experience, so generally getting connected is a pain in the butt!
22. What about taking pets abroad?
No idea! We’ve don’t have pets!
23. Does it get hot in the motorhome?
Yes – you’re in a tin box and temperatures can be in up to 40C heat!
Our indoor temperature gauge reaches over 40C in Summer but that’s the way it goes so we embrace it.
We shut the blinds, open all the windows, put a throw across the side door when we’re with the van but still lock everything up when we’re not with it!
We always look for a shady spot to park in Summer. It’s not always possible but we try our best.
24. Why don’t we have Air Conditioning?
Because for one it needs electric and even if we were on a site with electric, the chances are the power from the EHU supply wouldn’t be enough to run it. It’s also unsightly, big and heavy and we don’t like air con at best!
25. You want to go abroad but see as many countries as you can?
So, you have a 3 week trip planned – great! Yes, you’re going to go to France, Spain then Portugal before moving on to Italy, Croatia and come back through Germany before taking a look at the Netherlands – are you mad?!!
Yes, this is a true statement from one of our motorhome hire customers who came to hire a motorhome several years ago from us. For those that don’t know – we used to own a motorhome hire business here in North Wales until we gave it up in 2016 to concentrate more on our own travels.
We have always said to people and still do – that you can waste time trying to see everything but end up seeing nothing! Why would you want to do that?
Remembering that these countries are big and that fuel is the enemy in terms of what your travels cost is one important point to make.
26. How much time do you need abroad? Top Tips for your First Motorhome Trip Abroad
How long is a piece of string?
This all depends on where you want to see, what your interests are when you get there and how much driving you want to do.
For example, we like to walk every day which is half the day gone! Personally we love to properly immerse ourselves in a region, seeing everything we possibly can before moving on to the next.
But, everyone is different! We were on a 3 month tour of Italy 3 years ago when we parked up near the first British motorhome we’d seen in ages.
The couple started talking to us and they had driven from the Italian Lakes and were driving South to just see the sea before driving back! That was miles of driving time and lots of fuel, something that we would never have done, but they felt the need!
27. Factor in Journey Times to Ports
One thing that often people forget is the time it takes to reach the ferry or train from their UK home.
For us that’s a 7 hour journey with a short stop en-route. So, basically it’s 2 whole days gone out of a trip before we even start.
Then there’s travelling back to the ports, if we’re in the South of France or further afield this can take day’s to do safety and responsibly.
Why risk driving all day and all night? We always prefer to make the return journey part of the trip too.
28. What’s it like Out of Season?
The tourist season abroad is shorter than the UK. In France we’ll see places shutting down between late September and mid October when resorts become a ghost town.
The temperatures start to drop and the atmosphere disappears. In fact we always think travelling abroad in the shoulder months heading in and out of Autumn and Winter can become quite bleak.
That’s unless we’re in a city or much further South in the furthest coastal regions of Spain.
Some areas with significant historic interest such as the war sights of Normandy, Belgium and The Somme do generally remain open and are busier. Also ski resorts when the re-open for Winter where a few Caravaneige campsites and Ski Aires open.
In Winter, service areas on Aires often shut down.
29. Can you Wild Camp – Top Tips for your first Motorhome trip abroad
When we first started travelling abroad with a motorhome the answer to this question would have been very different.
Unfortunately, “wild camping” as it’s become known recent years or “Free Camping” as some other countries call is becoming increasingly difficult.
That’s partly because of infrastructure improvements that have taken place along what was popular free camping spots. For example, miles of cycle paths and new car parks have been built along the Southern French coast which were once haunts of the motorhome brigade.
Another reason is social media – those Insta photo’s selling a dream when in fact it’s often an illusion!
Respect those few places where it’s still tolerated
Another reason why authorities have clamped down is down to sheer volume and many owners making a mess of nature in the process.
At the end of the day, there are just so many people with motorhomes not just in Britain but all over the place!
So, in many countries, regions or areas wild camping is forbidden. Having said that, you can still come across places to park overnight, especially in the mountains or less popular regions.
However, do so with caution and above all RESPECT those surroundings.
A FEW TIPS:
- Obey any signs or rules and don’t use the great outdoors as a bathroom – use your on board loo and shower – that’s why they’re fitted.
- If in doubt about a parking place – ASK!
- Landowners should give permission or no permission before you park up.
- Empty those waste tanks & loo at a designated dump area on a site or Aire, don’t empty into the grass or nearest ditch.
- Don’t overstay your welcome – one night yes maybe but not 3 or 4.
- Go it alone, avoid meeting up with friends and having a social.
- Take all rubbish away
Wild Camping in The South of France
30. Do we ever plan and should you, what about children?
In short the answer to this is no we don’t plan but that’s not to say other’s shouldn’t! It’s easier and more sensible to plan and book sites to stay on if you have children.
For us motorhome travel means freedom to choose along the way, being spontaneous and feeling as though we have all the time in the world. Then again, our children have long since flown the nest, so there’s only us to think about.
We usually book a return crossing and take a selection of travel guides and maps for various countries.
However, by the time we reach Calais we have to have some sort of idea of which way we’re going. More often than not, this is when we finally make a decision and so far it’s never been a wrong one!
Most of the time, our own trips come from gut feeling, a sense of where we fancy and where we haven’t visited before. Sometimes it will be a return trip to places from those early days of travel, in other words trips down memory lane or simply just a jolt for the sun.
Ok, so Winter travels are different, the weather needs checking and we like to arrive somewhere before darkness sets in – so that means early! Planning is more important especially to ski areas where every care should be taken.
do you need to Plan and What about booking a site? Top tips for your first motorhome trip abroad
Well for those first time motorhome trips abroad, we’d definitely recommend to have some sort of plan. This will really help calm the nerves and boost the confidence whilst finding those motorhome feet on new soil. Above all, it will help with organising everything you need before you leave home.
For us, we’ve already got years of maps, travel guides and diaries – a wealth of knowledge and experience that takes years to build up. The information is already embedded in our brains if you like and nothing is particularly daunting.
So, unlike us, maybe choose the country, study a few regions and maps to familiarise yourself and have an idea where you want to spend that first night or two or even the entire trip!
If you are going to stay on campsites and really want a particular location in high season, then booking maybe the best option, especially with children.
Perhaps avoid Winter, when travelling abroad is more difficult and less enjoyable. After all, it’s far more enjoyable and less stressful with long warm Summer days.
What works for you? Top tips on your first motorhome trip abroad
At the end of the day we’re all individuals so what suits one person won’t suit the next. Most importantly, only do what’s right for you and enjoy every step of those new adventures abroad.
Finally, there’s nothing wrong with booking sites, some experienced people still choose sites over Aires and as mentioned previously, if your’e travelling with children, we think sites are a better option.
After all it gives people a base to start from and a safe and welcoming place to park up. They’ll be proper mains showers and loos and lots of other amenities to help make the trip more enjoyable for many. The choice is yours and you’ll know what you prefer!
Look our for us across the Channel!
So, if you are venturing abroad for the first time this year or maybe you’re old timers just reading our blog, either way we’ll soon be making away across the Channel ourselves so look our for us and give us a wave!
Before you ask – No, we’ve no idea where were heading for!! So be sure to follow our journey to who knows where and maybe we’ll even surprise ourselves when we get there!