Over the years we have learned that the more we prepare for the trip before we leave, the more freedom we will have to improvise our day to day plans. In this post I will talk about the process we use to plan our trips, and some of the tools we use to help us get everything organized. We are not list planners, but over time we have a general method that we use to help us and hopefully some of this will help you if you decide to try a RV trip to Europe or anywhere else.
This planning process presumes you already have an RV in Europe or have arranged a rental. The process we followed to purchase our RV is outlined in our post about Purchasing a RV in Europe.
We are not full timers and the planning process for that would be much more complex than ours. For us our year is focused around two major trips to Europe. These trips are each around 60 to 70 days, but that is a significant time away from home and does require a good deal of planning.
Our process begins near the end of our last trip of the previous year. As we are driving around we begin to discuss what we learned on the last trips and places we are interested in. We take into consideration things like our experience during the last year. Interests that we have in places, and places that fellow travelers we met during the last year told us they enjoyed.
We also have a general rule that we go north in the spring, and south in the fall. This is driven by temperature. For a lot of reasons we travel during the two shoulder seasons when the weather is less predictable and of course in the spring we expect the worst weather at the beginning of the trip, and the fall the worst weather should be at the end of the trip.
Once the general plan for the trip has been settled we move on to more specific planning for the spring trip. For North America the trips are more spur of the moment and often revolve around going to visit our sons or friends around the country. We sandwich some other stops around our drives to the home towns of our friends or sons.
Once we have settled on our general plans we begin to do more research on our destinations. We gather some material together on our destinations including books, maps, and tourism websites.
We still like to use books in our planning. Ton favors the DK book series. For major tourist destinations they will publish a general book on the country plus a road trip book. She likes the road trip book if the country has one. She will take the book with her on the trip as she likes to use the driving time to look at things to do around where we are. She also likes the map that DK provides with their books as a planning tool. I generally down load books onto my kindle and favor the Lonely Planet books as they are available on Kindle Unlimited which allows you to have 10 books downloaded for a small monthly fee. We both spend some time with these books getting a general feel for the countries we are visiting.
We also take into consideration places other travelers have enjoyed or not enjoyed. We are fortunate that a lot of our friends also travel extensively so we can ask them what their experience was in the countries we are planning to go. We also take into account the experience of other RV travelers we have encountered in our previous trips. Another source of information that we tap into is travel websites, both the traditional ones and sites of other RV travelers.
After we have done our research we come up with a list of must see places. We try to keep this list short, generally 6 or 8 places. This is the most important step as it drives the planning process for the rest of the trip. The reason this list is so important is it determines our overall route for the trip. This route is somewhat general, but gives us a guide as we are making our daily plans. By keeping the list to 6 or 8 places it allows for a great deal of flexibility in our daily travel. And while this seems like a short list for a 8 or 9 week trip we have yet to have a trip where we have not had to have a meeting where we decide which highlight we are going to drop.
The next step in our planning process is to set a general route for the trip. This is not a day by day itinerary. We use this to look at overall route options, some of the things we look at are:
- Will we be able to use a loop route without doubling back in any places.
- If we have to double back can we see different places going and coming.
- Are there any mountains or large bodies of water we need to cross that could be affected by weather.
- Are there any major festivals we want to avoid or attend.
- Do we have any commitments to meet friends that will affect our route.
To determine the best general route we use a tour map of Europe and highlight our must see places. Then taking into consideration the list above we decide on a general direction we will take from our starting point and have a planned order we will visit the “must see” places.
When looking at our general route we try to take weather into consideration. As we travel mostly in the shoulder seasons we figure that we may run into bad weather at least part of the trip.
We especially look at when we may be in the mountains as while François can handle cold pretty well, we do not want to try to do any real driving in the snow in him. We also look at any sites that really require good weather to enjoy and try to route ourselves in a way to make sure we are there when we have the best chance to have good weather.
Check out Ferries
One trick we learned on our last trip is when the trip does not lend itself to a circular route like Italy, look into the possibility of a ferry to or from the furthest must see place. This worked very well for us in Italy. There is a very extensive ferry system in the Mediterranean and the Baltic, and they are often quite affordable.
As an example we took an overnight ferry from Toulon France to Sicily for €255. This fee included François, the two of us, a private room, and one meal. This allowed us a great deal more time to explore Italy by only having to travel in only one direction. It also saved us money, if we had driven that distance directly we estimated the total cost would have been higher taking into consideration fuel, food, overnight stays, and tolls.
We use the www.directferries.com to look at ferry options. It is not a particularly user friendly site as it presumes you know the name of the exact town that the ferry starts and finishes in. It is also not good about giving you alternate dates, many ferries do not run from both destinations daily, so if you get a ferry not available, try the day before or after to see if one shows. When using this site I keep Google maps open on another screen to double check the ports. While we never pre-book campgrounds; we would recommend you pre-book long distance ferries.
As we are not trying to full time in Europe and plan our trips around the shoulder seasons Schengen does not have too much of an impact on our planning. In fact Schengen is part of the reason we choose to travel during the shoulders as it maximizes our time with good weather. If we traveled in the summer we would be guaranteed good weather, but we would probably end up with less time in Europe per year unless we wanted to travel there in the winter.
We time our spring trip for early April to early June, and our fall trip for early September to early November. Usually the April date is no issue with Schengen, but we did run into an issue last year for our fall trip. Because we had to take care of some business in early April we did not arrive for our spring trip last year until late April. We stayed about 60 days. When it came time for the fall trip we had some doubts about our arrival date so we began using a tool to calculate the earliest date we could arrive and have our full 90 days. The tool is published by the EU department of Migration and Home Affairs and is called a short stay visa calculator and is available at www.ec.europa.eu. This tool allows you to input the dates of your last trip, and the dates you are planning to come for your next trip. It will then display how many days you can stay on your upcoming trip.
We do basic research on our must see cities for camping availability just to see how easy or hard it may be for us. For some cities you will find camping is easy, and others may require parking in the suburbs and taking a train in. We do like to spend a couple of nights per trip in a hotel so in the cities where it may more difficult to camp we consider the possibility of using a hotel.
We use a few apps for both our pre-trip and in trip planning. We tend to lean on an app called Park4night. It lists all forms of camping including campgrounds, aires, and free camping. There is another app called Campercontact that we use less often but is very similar to Park4night. We strongly recommend you join ACSI which is a camping service something like Good Sams in the US. For an annual fee you get access to discounts on campgrounds. Traveling in the shoulder season discounts can be substantial. They also have an app that lists all of the campgrounds participating. All of these apps list open and closing dates for the sites, but the accuracy of those dates has been hit or miss.
Finalizing the Trip
Up to this point we have been working in general windows. Now is the time to finalize the trip and pick exact dates. We always book a round trip flight. We have discussed doing a one way ticket in each direction but have shied away from it because we have read that technically to comply with the Schengen Visa you are supposed to have a return ticket on arrival. We are not sure that is accurate, but have decided to not chance it.
At this time we look at the best options for the flights. Our RV is stored near Paris so we look at the options from our home in Portland to Paris. As the flight is usually the biggest overall expense for the trip we do a fair amount of digging looking for a good deal. We do have one personal requirement that there is no more than one connection. Having settled on the best flight we now have our arrival and return dates set.
The next step is to finalize transportation from the airport to François. We have used both public transport and a private car. The decision on which one to use is often based on how much stuff we are bringing with us. The first time we had 4 large bags and carry ons so we chose to go with a private car. Subsequently we have used public transport which is very good in Europe.
We have so far used hotels for both the first night and the last night of the trip. The thinking on the first night is that airlines and the arrival process is unpredictable so we cannot count on getting to François on time to pick him up and stock him on the first day. We have begun to rethink that and planned to experiment with booking a car to take us straight to François on our recently cancelled trip. For the return it makes sense to get a hotel near the airport after dropping François in the morning. The connections just do not work to avoid that. We book the arriving hotel before the trip, and the departing hotel sometime during the trip.
We also make sure that the storage is notified of our arrival date and set a time to pick up François. If François needs any routine maintenance items taken care of we arrange an appointment with a local service center to take care of these. Unlike the US our understanding is that even oil changes are scheduled in Europe, so we pre-book all of our routine maintenance right after our arrival.
The last step is to arrange for someone to pick up the mail, and take an occasional look at our house. We are lucky that our neighbors are kind enough to keep a good eye on our house.
With everything prepared we now just wait for the day to begin our next adventure. Planning is a pretty personal thing, but we hope anyone thinking of going to Europe will find some of our considerations helpful.