Driving Our RV in Europe

The most frequently asked question we get from Americans about our experience RV’ing in Europe is how difficult is it to drive? Our quick answer is it’s easy, tens of thousands of Europeans do it every year. Our experience is that driving in Europe is different then in the US, but not so different that you should not visit Europe by RV.

Statistically fatal accident rates in Western Europe are less than half the rate of the US. The worst country in Europe is Bosnia with an automobile fatality rate of 15.7 per 100,000 people compared to 12.4 in the US, the next worst country in Europe is Albania at 13.6. Both of these countries require special insurance to drive in for Europeans. Italy which has a reputation for aggressive driving has a fatality rate of 5.2 per 100,000 which is less than half of the US.

The rest of this post gives our impressions of driving in Europe based on our limited experience.

Roads

The roads in Europe are generally very good. There is as you would expect some differences in quality from country to country. Of the countries we have driven German roads were exceptionally good, better than the US. The worst roads were in Italy, especially Sicily, but they were not so bad that they required a high level of awareness. Our impression is that the standard lane width in France is narrower than in other countries in Europe and certainly the US, which is my only complaint about French roads. Driving between cities is generally very easy and no more stressful than in the US. In fact in Spain and France traffic is often much lighter than in the US on equivalent roads.

The biggest difference in European roads is in cities. Because of the age of the cities, many urban roads were laid out hundreds of years ago and therefore are narrower than modern roads. In cities parking is much tighter than in the US and sometimes spills into the traffic lanes. We find urban driving is more stressful than at home because everything is just a little bit tighter, and sometimes quite a bit tighter.

Types of Roads

Generally speaking in the countries we have traveled there are three categories of roads. The nomenclature is not standardized so for my ease I am going to use the French designations. You will quickly learn the local term for each type of road.

Freeways/A roads

Autoroutes in France are designated with an A and number (sometimes E if it is considered a trans-Europe route). These are the equivalent of our Interstate highways, though in many countries (except Germany and Belgium) they are tolled. The quality of these roads is extremely good. There are frequent service areas that do not require you to leave the highway to use them. While the service areas are convenient the cost of fuel is quite high, and we have never fueled there for this reason. They often will have a restaurant and of course restrooms that are usually free to use.

Typical A road leaving Italy for France.

The level of traffic is often less than we are used to in the US, particularly on Sunday when commercial traffic is restricted. If you are planning a long jump in Europe Sunday is a particularly good day to do it, as most stores and sights are on restricted hours so there is not much to see, and truck traffic on the A roads is very light making travel easy.

One difference is that many of the A roads are monitored by surveillance cameras, so help is automatically dispatched if an accident or breakdown occurs. Also, speed is monitored by camera systems in most countries. It is rare to see a police vehicle writing a ticket on the shoulder as we are used to. Instead a fine shows up in the mail a week or two later when you trigger a camera, and the police concentrate on other things.

The speed limit on A roads in rural areas is usually 130 kilometers per hour (80 mph) for light vehicles, generally defined as under 3.5 tons. For heavier vehicles the speed limit is 90 kph (55mph). In urban areas the speed limit usually drops to 110kph (68mph) for light vehicles and stays at 90 kph for heavy vehicles. Many RV’s (including François) qualify as light vehicles and can use the higher speed limits. We do not recommend you drive an RV at 130kph. We normally drive between 95 and 100 kph which on Sunday makes us one of the slowest vehicles on the road. Another thing to note is that the speed limit automatically drops to 110kph in rain and fog.

While passing on the right on interstates is technically illegal, in much of the US it is never enforced. If you read Europeans writing about driving in the US they are shocked that we do this. Passing on the right is enforced in Europe and never done. Because of this lane discipline is good. Slower traffic stays to the right, and only uses the outer lanes long enough to pass and then move immediately to the right again. This is actually quite refreshing and makes travel easier.

The A routes in Germany and Belgium are free. Also, a significant portion of the Spanish A routes are free, but not all, and some of the sections we traveled in Italy were free, particularly in the south. When tolls are in place they are quite expensive, particularly in France.

When we first began traveling in Europe we tried to avoid the A routes completely. Our first two trips were limited to France and we wanted to avoid the cost of the A routes. Also, the A routes like the interstates in the US really isolate you from the countryside and we miss the little things you see when you travel on regular roads. As we spent more time there we began to use the A routes more often, particularly when we were making longer drives to change regions. Now we evaluate the convenience of the A routes vs the cost. Also, in Italy we defaulted to A routes as the secondary roads were less well maintained and stressful on me and François.

Vignettes

Many countries in Europe use a system called Vignettes instead of toll booths on the A routes. These are passes that you purchase in advance and display in your vehicle. For residents and frequent visitors an annual vignette is offered. Many countries offer transit vignettes for shorter periods of times either weekly or monthly. So far in our travels we have not entered a country that requires a Vignette on purpose. (We did have an accidental incursion into Austria driving between two German cities.)

Determining if a country requires a vignette can be done with a simple Google search, as well as the types and cost. If you opt for a larger RV (above 3.5 tons) some countries require an electronic device that monitors actual miles driven and charges based on that. For smaller RV’s the fee is flat and you purchase a sticker and display it in the windshield of the RV. It is important to display the vignette as some countries have a video monitoring system to insure compliance. Most countries make it very easy to acquire the vignette and frequently they can be purchased at gas stations. Some countries allow you to purchase the vignette on line in advance.

In many countries the vignettes only apply to the A roads, so if you stay off of A roads you do not need to purchase one. I am not sure how practical that is as we have no experience yet.

Highways/N Roads

N roads are sometimes referred to as National Roads. The designation N is the French designation and the letter does vary from country to country but all of the countries we traveled in had these type of roads. They are the old main highways prior to the A Roads and are analogous to US Highways. They are designed to handle semi-truck traffic so are generally wider and have shoulders. Occasionally they will have two travel lanes in the same direction, and less frequently they will be limited access. They are always free of charge, and in countries that charge to use A roads a reasonable free option has to be provided by law, and these are frequently the N roads. The N roads are more likely to by-pass towns and villages than D roads. The speed limit varies more on these roads than others, but is usually 90 kph in non-urban areas. These roads are frequently very good alternatives to A routes allowing you to see more of the countryside while making pretty good time.

Local Roads/D Roads

D roads are the most common road. They are the equivalent of our state and county roads and you will spend most of your time on them as all of the good sites are located on them.

D roads are by far the most variable in quality. The pavement is usually good, the only poor quality pavement we found was in Italy and Spain, the real variation in quality is in width. They range from very occasional limited access roads, to one lane roads with pull outs.

Two lane D road typical in France between smaller towns.

These are the roads that connect small towns and villages to larger towns. They also are the roads that cut thru towns and villages so you will find yourself navigating these small towns. Most of the time it is no problem except for slowing down for the lower speed limits. Occasionally you will run into a tight squeeze.

The default speed limit on these roads is 90 kph (recently changed to 80 in France). The thing is that it is 90 whether the road is a good two lane road with shoulders, or one lane with pullouts. Your average speed if you follow these roads for a long period of time will be well below 90. We plan on an average of 60 kph on these roads.

The D roads are worth it for views like this.

We do our best to avoid the very narrow roads, but of course we do not know the area we are driving in, so are not sure if the tiny road our GPS is guiding us down has a better alternative route that is slightly longer but faster. We tend to follow the GPS directions less regularly in Europe than in the US. If the road Greta our Garmin tells us to turn down seems very narrow we will continue along the larger road we are on and see what happens when she reprograms herself. So far our instincts to avoid narrow roads has worked pretty well.

However, sometimes you will find yourself on the one or one and a half lane roads. We just look as far ahead as conditions allow, and when we see on coming traffic we look for a wide spot to pull into. Most of these roads have small pull outs strategically placed to allow for this. There is a great deal of farm machinery using these roads and they are quite wide. The farmers are very good about moving over as much as possible to allow you to squeeze by.

A one and a half lane “D” road in Spain. There will be periodic wide spots to allow large vehicles to pass each other.

Our last advice is when you do get into a tight spot do not panic and take your time working out the best solution. Our experience is that almost everyone is very patient while you and the other vehicle pull in mirrors, do some hand signaling and get it sorted out. Everyone takes the slowdown in stride as it comes with the territory.

Urban Driving

By far the biggest difference between Europe and the US is in built up areas. Villages, towns and cities have road infrastructure that pre-dates automobiles. In the US while cities may have more going on around you, the traffic lanes remain at the standard width we find on our highways. In Europe by necessity this may not be the case, so you have all of the distractions that come with urban situations, (pedestrians, cars popping out of parking etc), you are often doing it on a less than standard width lane.

Typical small town road.

The distance between buildings and the road can be much tighter than we are used to. This can come into play particularly when you have to make a turn with a building right to the edge of the road. This tends to happen most often in small villages. It is difficult to see if there is something on the road you are turning onto and there is no buffer so you may need to swing a little wider into the on coming lane to miss the building. There often are mirrors in place on these turns to allow you to see if there is traffic coming. If you are turning from one of these roads to the main road it may be blind for you and you have to creep a little to see if there is traffic coming. My best advice is take it slow in these cases.

While it is best to avoid these roads sometimes it cannot be helped.

Often for large and mid-sized towns there will be by-passes for commercial vehicles. Your GPS may be sending you thru the town, use the by-pass as it will ultimately be faster and less stressful.

This sign is the city limit sign and means that the speed limit is 50kph unless otherwise marked. The exiting the town sign is the same with a slash thru it.

The speed limits are 50 kph as soon as you pass the city/town limit sign, and it is often enforced with a speed camera. While people may cheat on speed limits a little outside of towns, we have seen very few people cheating on the speed limits in town. As you approach the very center of the city the speed limit often goes down to 30kph.

Traffic Circles/Roundabouts

Traffic circles are much more common in Europe than the US. The French in particular have a fetish like attachment to them, and are actively building them all over the place. As we became more used to them we began to appreciate them, particularly in the countryside. In low traffic areas they are a much more efficient way to handle cross traffic. On a N or good D road in France you will encounter circles very frequently, it is rare to go more than 5 or 6 kilometers between circles on a well traveled road.

Typical Circle in Europe.

In cities they can be a little more stressful as the traffic volume is higher and the traffic may be entering the circle in multiple lanes and the circle itself has multiple lanes. Our method to handle busy circles is to enter the circle in the right lane and stay there until we get to our exit, and exit into the right lane. This allows people to do whatever they have to do while we move along.

Europeans use their turn signals to indicate if they are staying in the circle, (left turn signal), or taking the next exit from the circle (right turn signal). Signaling is very important in the busy circles as it lets people know you are continuing around if they are exiting the circle or trying to enter the circle. This is probably the best safety tip I have for handling circles. In the busy circles people will cut in front of you to exit, just expect it and accept it.

One trick I learned from a British couple was that circles are a good way to lose the tail of cars you will accumulate being one of the slower vehicles on the road. When you enter the circle, by pass your exit the first time and go all the way around the circle. It is a courteous way to allow the cars behind you to get in front of you without having to pass you on the narrow roads, and delays you only a few seconds.

Traffic Lights

Traffic lights in Europe are quite different than the US. They are much more austere. They are usually placed on the corner of the intersection they control, and there is only the one light. The large light that you key on as you approach the intersection is angled down the road it controls, but if you are one of the first cars at the intersection you will not be able to see that light. A smaller version of the light is located about half way down the pole and is angled so the first couple of cars can see it. It is important that you not overshoot that small light as you will have no way of knowing when the light changes until someone blows their horn at you.

A typical French traffic light. The large light at the top is visible down the road, the small light at the bottom is all you will be able to see if you are the first vehicle at the light

Toll Booths

In the countries with Toll roads they all have done a very good job of providing enough booths so that traffic is very rarely delayed. So as you approach the booths you go from 2 or 3 lanes of traffic to 10 or 12 lanes of traffic with all of the slaloming associated with people trying to get to the correct lane and shortest line. We find it is not too bad, we identify the correct lane for us, and head in there watching for people angling across our path.

On entering the tollway you will be directed into a booth that dispenses a ticket recording where you entered.

Typical toll station in France, the French have recently added height barriers on some of the lanes to keep things interesting for RV drivers, keep an eye out for them.

The trick is identifying the correct lane. All European countries have an electronic system available that seems to be universally called Telepass, but each country administers it separately. Telepass owners pass thru the booths without stopping and the toll is added to their accounts. You have to avoid these booths as the fine is quite substantial if you inadvertently pass thru one of them.

Telepass lane on left, Credit Card lane on Right.

We pay our tolls with credit cards and the lanes that accept credit cards are marked with a sign that looks like the back of a credit card so they are easy to identify. There are usually one or two booths that take cash if you do not want to pay with a credit card. We have heard stories of toll booths refusing to accept non-European credit cards. In our two years of driving we have not run into that problem.

Typical pay station.

The payment system is pretty straight forward. Insert the ticket you received on entering the tollway. Insert your credit card, and if you want a receipt push the button for the receipt. The gate should then go up and you are on your way with a recorded Arrivederci in Italy, and silence in France and Spain.

The pay stations usually are set at two heights, one for cars, and the other for commercial trucks. The one inconvenience is that François our RV is right in between the heights and I usually have to put him in neutral and remove my seat belt prior to engaging with the station. It can be a little bit of a scramble to get the belt back on once the gate goes up.

Limited Traffic Zones

Many cities in Europe have limited traffic zones. They are usually in large urban areas. Each country administers them differently where they exist. The guide books usually have information about what cities have them and what they are. This has not impacted us very much because in large cities we prefer to stay on the edge of the city and use public transit, so we are usually outside the Zones.

A limited traffic zone with hours it is in effect posted.

The one exception to being able to avoid Limited Traffic Zones for us was Italy. Fairly small towns had them. We ran into one in the town of Tropea which threw us for a loop until we figured out it was not in effect at that moment. The key thing is not to blunder into one as the fines are substantial if you are caught. When one is imminent there is usually enough warning to turn short of the Zone and regroup. Campgrounds and Aires will not be located inside these for obvious reasons.

Manual Transmission

Most RV’s in Europe are equipped with manual transmissions, and while newer RV’s are touting automatic transmissions the market is still overwhelmingly manual. Finding a used RV with an automatic transmission is going to be difficult.

Since manual transmissions make up less than 3% of car sales in the US most of us are either rusty or unfamiliar with sticks. I found that I adapt pretty quickly to shifting when I am there, the years of shifting gears from my youth come back to me. I will confess to finding no joy in shifting gears and miss Scouts automatic transmission. If I was buying new I would definitely spend the extra cost to buy an automatic.

Signs

The signs are different than the ones we tend to use. There is overlap such as stop signs, but most are different. Having said that they are normally pretty intuitive. Because of the many different languages in Europe they use symbols only, and very rarely use words. The signs are standardized across Europe.

All guide books have a list of road signs in the back if you come across one you cannot figure out. There are some fairly obscure signs that may require Google to sort out, but they are generally not too important, but informational.

The only time we have gotten into trouble with signs is when they contained local language. In France we would often see speed limit signs with the word Arret under it. I took this to mean ahead, like the signs we have in the US warning you of a lower speed limit ahead. After about 3 weeks I googled the word, and it really means now, the opposite of what I thought. Our experience are signs are not a big issue, and you will adapt your eye to pick up the critical ones.

Our best advice before you leave is (re)learn to use a manual transmission, and spend a few minutes looking at the traffic signs on line so you can get a feel for what you are getting into. The first day I would keep the trip drive short so you can get a feel for the roads and the RV. If you are in France you will almost certainly have your first experience with a circle/round about, just remember to use your signals as we are not used to that as Americans. And finally enjoy, it is part of the fun.

In Trip Planning

What is that place, and where can we stay?

In a previous post we talked about the planning we do before we depart for our trips to Europe. When people ask us how we decide where to go on the trip we usually answer that we do not. Our daily planning is fluid, but it is based on our trip highlights we set prior to departure, so while we do not have a set itinerary we do have 6 to 8 must see places that drive our decisions on how to proceed every day. This post talks about how we select places we go to next, and the thoughts behind those selections.

We are type A travelers. We tend to move very frequently as we have not learned to enjoy, like so many other travelers, the pleasure of sitting and chilling. After a couple of days in one place we are looking to move on. For this reason we are constantly scouting for the next spot we want to see. This does not mean we will not spend 4 or 5 days in one place, but that is an exception for us.

This means that nightly after dinner we are looking for our next stop on the route. Our unofficial target in Europe is someplace that looks interesting within 100km’s of where we currently are.

Picking the Next Stop

The obvious first step is to look at where we are now. Is there anything else we want to do in the town we are in, if not it is time to move on.

We begin by looking at what other towns are in the region we are in. We carry two travel guides with us on every trip. Ton tends to favor the DK travel books for countries, and prefers an actual book as it allows her to read while we are driving. I also download the Lonely Planet Guides for the country we are in on to my Kindle. The Lonely Planet books are currently available on the Kindle Unlimited Service for the monthly charge for the service. Both DK books and Lonely Planet offer road trip books for major European countries and these are Ton’s favorites as they match the way are traveling. Also, while the theme of road trips is the same, the trips themselves do not always overlap so having two guides gives us more options. These guides often give us some ideas for a series of towns to visit.

Another important source is other travelers we meet. Quite often in the evening we will have conversations with our neighbors and inevitably favorite places come up. People will often tell us not to miss a place so we will add it to the list of places to try to get to.

When we first arrive in a particular region we will try to gather some tourist information at the normal sites, tourist information offices, campground information desks, and big tourist sites. We sometimes consult these for ideas.

After the next stop is selected we divide up the work. I work on finding a place to stay and selecting a route. Ton begins to do more research on things to do in the town.

Check the Weather

We also check the weather for the day as that will have a big impact on our plans. At least twice during our travels we have re-routed ourselves because of the 10 day weather forecast. Even if the weather is not going to change our destination we need to know what to bring with us when leave François for the day, and it effects the places Ton selects to go see.

Selecting a place to stay.

I begin by consulting our go to place to stay app which is Park4night. Park4night is available on the Apple app store, and there is an android version of it. Park4night is a database of places that other campers have nominated for stays, the app owner has a group that then goes out and verifies the suitability of the site if there is a question. The database includes campgrounds, aires, parking lots where overnight stays are tolerated, and wild camping sites. It also lists parking lots that are not for overnight stays but can accommodate RV’s for day trips. One of the features I really like is that after you input the town you are interested in going, there is a map available that gives you an overview of all of the sites in the database keyed to what type of spot it is. This feature gives me an immediate feel for where the different options are located.

When looking at options for places to stay I tend to look at the options in this order, Aires, Campgrounds, and lastly free places. This is a very personal choice, and we run into many RV’ers who pride themselves on maximizing their free camping time.

A Spanish aire near Gibraltar.

I then look at the options for aires first. If there is a good aire and we do not require a campground I usually opt for the aire. Our priorities when selecting an aire are:

  1. Close to the sites we are going to visit.
  2. Price. Aire sites vary greatly in price from free to as much as €20.
  3. Convenient to transit. This priority goes up if we are having to stay away from the sites we want to visit.
  4. Secure. Park4night gives user reviews, and since it provides a pretty good automatic interpretation of most languages it is widely used by many nationalities. We primarily look for security problems in the past, and high noise.
  5. Service points. Many aires provide dump stations and water. A few provide electricity. Depending on the state of our services we may pay for an aire that has this rather than stay in a free aire that does not.

As a minimum every 3 or 4 days we stay in a campground, and after our last trip to Italy, Ton is beginning to think we should prioritize campgrounds over aires. If we decide to stay in a campground I will also consult the ACSI app as well as Park4night. ACSI is a campground service somewhat like GoodSam in the US. For a small fee (€20 for 2020) you gain access to discounts at campsites particularly during shoulder season. Typically with ACSI we pay €16-20 per night. The card pays for itself very quickly and I highly recommend joining. They will send the membership package to your home in the US.

For Campgrounds we have a similar priority list:

  1. Close to the sites we are going to visit.
  2. Price.
  3. Services available. We prioritize electricity and WiFi. Some campgrounds offer on site restaurants and bars but those are not important to us.
  4. Laundry room. Finding good laundry rooms is an eternal search for RV’ers. If the reviews specifically call out good laundry I will let Ton know.

Our lowest priority is free camping. We are very conservative in selecting this option, though I would guess we spend about 10% of our nights in free parking spots. If a city is offering an aire for a nominal charge, we respect that and will forego free parking 100% of the time. Park4night will list sites that people have spent the night in parking lots or even on the side of roads. In many parts of Europe this behavior is tolerated for short periods of time if you show no indication of “camping behavior”, which means no level blocks, no awnings, and certainly no chairs.

Our priorities for free parking are simple.

  1. Close to the sites we are going to visit.
  2. Security. We are very picky about this. I am looking for a site that has been reviewed many times on Park4night, with no security incidents and no indication that the police have ever asked anyone to move on.

If we cannot find any suitable places to stay using Park4night, and ACSI, I will consult another app called Campercontact (also in the Apple app store) and I will run a Google search for campgrounds. In a couple of cases we found sites that were not listed on Park4night by doing this.

Occasionally good sites are not available close to where we want to go. One example was Barcelona where we did not find a site we liked in the city and ended up staying about 30km’s away at a campground that offered a free shuttle into the city. Once in a while after I do a search and cannot find a site I like we end up changing our plans. This happened in Nuremberg Germany.

Once I finalize a place to stay I note the GPS coordinates for the site. We nearly always use GPS coordinates when navigating in Europe, as we find Greta Garmin our GPS system prefers them over addresses. There are three systems for GPS coordinates and I prefer the digital method. If the GPS coordinates use one of the other methods I convert them to digital coordinates by using a website called LatLong.net.

Planning the Drive

Often planning the drive is as simple as plugging the coordinates into Greta Garmin and going to sleep. For short drives that is often all I do. Occasionally we have to take longer drives and I want to look at alternative routes. For longer drives in countries that charge tolls we often will look to see if we should take back roads or go ahead and pay the tolls.

When faced with this decision I look at two apps to decide which way to go. The first is an app called viaMichelin. It is a road map application that allows you to input the size of your vehicle. You can also filter the route to allow tolls, freeways, and ferries. I like this app because unlike google maps which has all of the other capabilities of viaMichelin it has very up to date information on the cost of tolls in Europe. As this is often the key decision maker for us on long trips we often start with viaMichelin.

I will often review the turns for the last few kilometers of a trip on Greta when we are heading towards parking in the center of cities. Our experience is that this is when Greta tends to send us down roads best avoided in a RV. After reviewing if I have any questions, I will double check with Google Maps as you can often see the width of the roads clearer on that app using the satellite view.

Visit Planning

While I am researching where to stay and how to get there, Ton is researching what to do at the next place. She often does this research after I go to sleep as she tends to stay up later than I do.

She already has a very good idea about what is available from her country book. She then digs into the details about the town using the internet, and following up on recommendations she has gotten from other travelers. When I wake up in the morning she will often hand me a short list of things we need to do. She will also tell me if there is an interesting restaurant, brewery, or winery we should plan to visit, or if we are eating in for the day.

Auchan is one of the major grocery chains in Europe and often has a gas station attached.

Logistics

The final driver in our daily plans are the state of our logistics. Do we need diesel, propane, water or food. Do we need to dump our tanks and we cannot do it before we leave in the morning. Sometimes we are at a point where we may need something but not critically, and will adopt a if we see a place while we are driving we will swing in plan. Then if we do not see the place, the next day we will have to build finding whatever we need into the plan. We may have to research the location of a source of fuel, food, or propane. In general the cheapest diesel is located at grocery stores so the real homerun is when we find a large grocery with fuel. Fuel and groceries are easy and a simple Google search will give you locations for those places. For propane we sometimes use an app called Stations GPL to locate places we can fill our tanks.

With all of the planning complete we set off on our adventures for the day.

Pre-Trip Planning

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.

General Planning

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.

Trip Research

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.

Books

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.

Other Travelers

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.

Country Highlights

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.

Rome one of the travel highlights on our Italy trip.

Route Planning

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:

  1. Will we be able to use a loop route without doubling back in any places.
  2. If we have to double back can we see different places going and coming.
  3. Are there any mountains or large bodies of water we need to cross that could be affected by weather.
  4. Are there any major festivals we want to avoid or attend.
  5. 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.

We try as a rule to avoid snow! But it always does not work out.

Weather Considerations

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.

Schengen Considerations

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.

A beautiful campground in Italy.

Camp Grounds

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.

WIFI Data in Europe

Like most people we need data to exist. While traveling it is more important. We use it for our daily planning, and for navigating around towns. We like everyone else, need to be connected. After all who can live without texts, line, and all the other on line communication. We even occasionally use it for entertainment at night as we do not have a TV in the van, and we cannot understand the local television if we did.

This article reflects our experience, I took a look at the options in June 2020 to make sure that no one had changed their plans substantially, so what we show reflects our research while we were traveling and a quick check to make sure nothing substantial had changed.

What are the Options.

Take your US plan with you. Most mobile phone companies have an option of buying International coverage while you travel. They typically have two options, a daily charge which seems to be universally $10/day, be careful this happens automatically if you have your phone on when you land in Europe, though you can usually get out of it if by contacting your carrier. This includes phone, text, and data, it is supposed to match your plan in the US. The websites are confusing but it looks like you get up to 2gb of data per day for that cost so it is not unlimited like at home. If you go with this option make sure you have a conversation with your carrier, when we talked to Verizon we did not get 2gb per day, but substantially less.

All of the US carriers also offer monthly rates that vary between $35/month (TMobile) to $70 per month (the rest). For this charge you got unlimited calls, 1000 texts, but only 2gb of data for the month. The overage on data is astronomical, so this is basically a telephone option.

Buy in Europe

We investigated two options for Europe. The first was an unlocked phone with pay as you go sim cards. The second was establishing a permanent phone account in Europe.

The unlocked phone and pay as you go sim card is a very inexpensive way to go. You can purchase the sim cards in many places including most of the large grocery stores (except Lidl and Albi), and the phone stores for the local cell companies. The sims come with certain number of minutes of phone calls locally, and can be purchased with international options. Most come with a small amount of data. The sims cost as little as €10. Cheap phones that take the sims are also easy to find and can cost as little €20. The problem with the sims is they do not cross boundaries, so as soon as you enter a new country you will have to purchase a sim for that country. While we have looked at this option several times, we have not jumped because of this problem and how we travel.

One of the major cell companies in France, not an endorsement.

We also looked at purchasing a traditional cell phone plan from one of the French carriers. These are just like US plans and the costs are in line with what we pay in the US. These plans also cross borders in the EU. Since about 2015 you can use your cell anywhere in Europe without paying roaming if you have a traditional plan, much like we can use our phones in any state without roaming charges. As an example in June of 2020 Orange was offering a plan that seems to offer unlimited calling in Europe, and 110gb of data per month for €66.

For us traveling in Europe for only 4 to 5 months per year this option did not pencil out. But, if we were spending more time per year there, I think this may be the way to go. If you go with this option you are supposed to provide an address for billing, in our case we would use the address of our Societe Civile. However, it looks like the phone companies really do not police this very rigorously and I think any address will do.

A typical MIFI device.

What we choose

Prior to our first trip we were researching all of our options to get data and phone service. The eurocampingcars.com website had an article about a company called Hipocketwifi. They rent you a mifi device and provide two levels of data for a daily rate depending on if it is for France only or all of Europe. One plan is for 1gb per day and costs €4.90 per day for all of Europe, and unlimited for Europe is €6.90 per day. These rates are based on 14-30 days usage. They often run specials that discount those rates substantially. Their website is www.Hippocketwifi.com. They ship the device to your home in the US prior to your departure, and include a stamped envelope to return the device at the end of the trip.

We decided to go with this for our first trip and were really pleased with the results. You can connect multiple devices to the mifi and we have occasionally had as many as 6 devices connected. Because you are getting your data off of cell towers and the coverage in Europe is really outstanding you are very rarely unable to access your devices. By activating your cellular call feature on your iPhone you can make calls to home at no extra cost, interestingly the phone acts like it is in the US so if you call a European number you are charged overseas rates. For this option make sure you leave your phone in airplane mode.

We have been very pleased with the customer service, and the two times we have had problems with our sim cards, they responded very quickly to help us resolve the issue. As I mentioned they frequently offer specials and the first time we saw a special we only had a vague window for our next trip. I contacted them and they told me to put in my best guess for our next trip, and to contact them when I finalized the trip plans and they would adjust the dates accordingly. I have now done this for 2 other trips to capture discounts. The last thing is when we had to cancel our spring 2020 trip due to the Covid outbreak they refunded our payment the same day we asked, no questions asked.

After 4 trips we have found we only wish we had a local phone 3 times and none were an emergency. We have decided that in an emergency we can activate our US phone by turning off the airplane mode and have immediate service, so we do not have a phone for local calls.

Navigating by GPS in Europe

Finding our way around countries that we are totally unfamiliar with is one of the challenges that we deal with on a daily basis when traveling. This post is about our experience using our GPS in Europe.

What to do?

Driving

For long distance navigation we use the same Garmin GPS unit that we have in the US that we refer to as Greta Garmin. There is a European SD card which can be bought and inserted in many Garmin navigation systems. It is possible to also download the map set into the Garmin directly. The only issue with purchasing the SD card in the US is that it cannot be updated, you have to purchase a new card when you require an update. This became a problem as the French changed the speed limits on most of the inter town roads (N and D roads in the French system) after our second trip, and we needed to update. If you plan to stay in Europe for a long period, or do not want to carry your GPS unit back and forth it may be worth looking at purchasing a unit over there as units purchased in Europe come with free updates from Garmin for the European map sets as they do here in the US.

Other Options

There are other options that we have looked at including using Google Maps, an app called ViaMichelin, and an app called CoPilot GPS. The issue we have with these three options for long distance navigation is that they are internet based, and while we purchase a plan that gives us about 3 gigs of data per day we do not want to use it for inter-city navigation. The CoPilot app has an offline mode that allows you to use the tracker in your phone and a route you download prior to departure. We considered that, but my senior eyes need a display larger than an iPhone to quickly see what is going on.

Our Experience

The initial unit we brought over was a car based system so there was no capability to program any size restrictions. This is more important in Europe than in the US. Roads are far more often restricted by height, width, or height than in the US. When these restrictions are in place they are usually well marked so you can detour prior to hitting them, but sometimes the detour is not clear. Watching for these signs are both of our responsibilities.

My observation is that the logic for Garmin systems looks at speed limits and distance to pick the best route. Our experience is that there are three broad classification of roads in Europe. Using the French designations as they are not standardized across Europe, “A” routes (freeways)have speed limits of 110 to 130 kph. “N” routes (think US Highways) have speed limits that vary between 80 and 110 kph, but generally are either 80 or 90. The thing that makes navigation tricky are the “D” roads. The speed limit is 80 on these roads but these roads can range from good wide two lanes with shoulders, to a paved one lane equivalent of a US ally with no shoulder, and obstructions on either side, and while the official speed limit may be 80 kph the realistic speed particularly in a RV is going to be much slower. The problem is that Greta Garmin does not know which type of “D” road it is and since the speed limit is the same will pick the shortest route. The other problem is that most of the good stuff you want to see is on a “D” road so you will spend a lot of time on them and occasionally to get where you really want to go you will need to go a skinny road.

A good “D” road speed limit in France 80 kph. (This one is from Austria)
Also a “D” road speed limit 80kph.

The other issue is that when you enter the city limits of towns in Europe the speed limit drops to 50 kph unless marked. The same logic applies here to Greta Garmin, she picks the shortest route which can take you down roads that were designed in the middle ages, versus a reasonable modern route with two good lanes that is 200 yards longer.

These signs are standard when you enter a town in Europe. It also means the speed limit is 50kph unless marked differently.

Over time we have learned to ignore Greta’s insistence on turning down single lane country tracks, and continued on the good “D” road we are on, particularly in towns. It usually works out though she complains for a while. As we have gained more experience we have learned more about signage to help us find the bypass routes that keep you off medieval roads.

To try to address this problem of Greta trying to route us down roads that should be used as a last resort, for Christmas I invested in a RV Garmin that we plan to test on our next trip. This will allow us to input the size and weight of François into the Garmin which will hopefully cause Greta to want to keep us on wider roads. I will give an update after our next trip.

The bottom line is that like in the US do not blindly follow your GPS no matter what type you are using. But in Europe in an RV be even more skeptical than you would be here about what your GPS is telling you.

How long can you stay in Europe? The Mystery that is the Schengen Agreement.

Note while Covid-19 is in ongoing there are new rules in place that supersede the normal conditions for travel within the Schengen Zone. This article is based on our experience prior to Covid.

One of the most common questions that we are asked is how long can you stay in Europe?  The short answer is simple, as Americans we can stay for up to 90 days in any 180 day period in the countries  that are a signatory to the Schengen agreement.  Let me begin by stating that this article is based on our experience traveling to Europe, and pretty extensive research on the internet, it does not represent in any way shape or form an official explanation of the ins and outs of the Schengen agreement.  Below I will attempt to give a laymans explanation of Schengen and how we have managed travel since we began motor homing in Europe..

What is the Schengen agreement?  

It is an agreement amongst the countries of the EU and Switzerland to allow for free movement of people within the borders of the signatories.  Effectively there are no border controls and anyone who has legally gained entry to Schengen can cross from country to country during their stay.  At this time it covers most of Europe with the exception of Great Britain, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Albania, Bulgaria and Romania.  These countries do not participate in Schengen, but for Americans all of these countries have visa free entry that will adequately cover travel in them.

Do I need a visa in advance to travel?

There are a list of countries that are allowed visa free entrance to the Schengen countries.  That list includes the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and soon Great Britain.  This website has a list of countries that do and do not require visas, schengenvisainfo.com.  So for us to travel to Europe, as long as we enter at an airport within Schengen and depart within 90 days, no paperwork is required beyond passports. 

Managing the Time 

For long term travelers managing the 90 day periods becomes an issue.  If you are full timing in Europe you have to get out of Schengen for 90 days of every 180 days.  Remember that list of countries I listed above, days in those countries do not count towards your 90 days, just insure that you receive a departure stamp on your passport at the border of the EU country where you leave Schengen so that the clock stops.  Other options to stop the clock that are easily accessible from Schengen countries and have good tourist infrastructure are Morocco and Turkey.

Some travelers report that this requirement is not strictly enforced in all countries. We do not think this is a risk that you should take. On one of our trips when we departed Schengen thru Iceland, the immigration officer made a point of asking if we clearly understood the rules regarding length of stay, so in Iceland I can for certain say they are paying attention.

In our case we make two trips per year and try to utilize two different 180 day periods per year.  This can be tricky and we have found a very good tool to help, it is published by the European Commission for Migration and Home Affairs.  It is a short stay visa calculator, the website is ec.europa.eu, and it is an official EU website.  In this tool you put the dates of your last visit, and the date you would like to arrive for your next visit, and it will tell you how many visa free days you can stay after that arrival date.

A personal example:  Last year we arrived for our first trip to Europe on April 28 and departed on June 25 for a stay of 59 days.  We originally planned to arrive for our second trip September 15, when I used the calculator it said we would only be authorized for 31 days, the remainder of the 90 days we had from our previous trip.  Running thru the calculator I learned that if we arrived on September 26 we would get 31 days, but if we arrived on September 27 we would get the full 90 days.

It may have been possible to change our plans to drive to Bosnia or Serbia, and re-enter the EU after September 27 but we did not want to risk it.  We adjusted our arrival date in France to be September 29 so there would be no problem.  The consequences of overstaying your visa can be a substantial fine, and in the worst case a 5 year ban on travel to Schengen.

While it is hard to find someone who can clearly explain the ins and outs of Schengen, and the on line references are often contradictory, if you are conservative in your planning and use the EU calculator you should be fine. The bottom line is pay attention and you can spend substantial time in Europe every year, and with some creativity you can nearly full time in Europe.  

Purchasing our RV in France

Purchasing our Knaus 550

The vehicle we had rented on our first trip to Europe was a Knaus 550.  We liked the layout and size of the RV, and determined we would like to purchase one.  When we returned the rental to France Motor Home Hire we initiated a discussion with the owners Phill and Hannah Spurge about purchasing a like vehicle.  At the time they operated the rental company, and would sell RV’s out of their rental inventory.  They have since sold the rental side of the business to Apollo but still receive vehicles from the Apollo rental fleet to sell used.  They are also authorized dealers for Knaus, and Blue Sky if you are interested in a new RV.  

They have an unique way of allowing the sale to non-EU residents that I will describe below under the heading Societe Civile, and we spent some time with them to better understand the details of setting up the Societe, and the process.  As part of the purchase process they also assist with the procurement of comprehensive insurance for the RV, and register the vehicle with the appropriate French agencies.

Sales Process

The sales process is much like you would expect to go thru for a RV in the US. We negotiated with Phill on the price by email, and once the final price was agreed to we arranged for payment. It was fairly straightforward with no real drama.

Societe Civile

It is difficult for a non-resident of the EU to purchase a vehicle there.  The folks at eurocampingcar.com have found a way that allows legal ownership thru establishing a “Societe Civile” in France.  A “Societe Civile” is similar to a LLC in the US.  While Ton and I cannot legally own a vehicle in France as individuals, we can form a Societe Civile in our names and the Societe can own, insure and register vehicles legally.  It is an extra step, but it allows for the vehicle to be in our names, albeit with an extra cost. 

Phil and Hannah set us up with a Notary that would take care of the paperwork needed to establish the Societe. It may be possible to file paperwork without using a Notary,   but unless you are absolutely fluent in French, and familiar with the legal requirements I would not attempt to do it.  The cost of hiring the firm is relatively minor considering the investment you are making.  We did have a few issues dealing with the firm that Phil and Hannah use, and at one point I did ask Phill to step in and help us with communication. 

The paperwork was supposed to take about 3 to 4 weeks to process, in our case it took longer as the famous bureaucracy in France kicked in.  Everything went well initially as the only identification required by law is a copy of our passports.  The first snag that we ran into is that in France the town of your birth is very important and is apparently part of the passport.  Ton’s US passport only shows Thailand as her place of birth and does not list her hometown so our initial request to file was denied.  Luckily Ton maintains duel citizenship and her Thai passport did list her town of birth, problem solved.  Not so fast, her Thai passport ( and US actually) does not list her maiden name, apparently European ones do, so they requested a copy of her birth certificate to verify her maiden name.  For various reasons this was going to take months to get, and have translated.  We offered up a copy of our marriage certificate in Thai as it listed Ton’s maiden name,  and we already had an English translation.  To make a long story shorter after a couple of tries this was accepted, problem solved!  Not so fast, this time the administrator noticed that Ron’s passport only had his state of birth, and not his town of birth so he requested a copy of Ron’s birth certificate.  This we could and did obtain, and though there was some doubt about whether the administrator  was going to accept the birth certificate due to the poor penmanship of the person who filled it out over 60 years ago, he did eventually decide he could confirm that Ron was indeed born at Camp LeJeune, Carolina du Nord, Etats Unis America. For Americans plan on submitting a copy of your birth certificate as well as your passport.

The Societe Civile requires that the company have an address in France.  In our case we are using Eurocampingcars address in Veron.  Phill and Hannah monitor the mail that comes in addressed  to Corbin Voyage (the name of our Societe Civile), and contact us if anything comes in that requires our attention.  They have begun charging administrative fees for some of the contacts.  The list of fees is available if you end up using them for your Societe.

At the Eurocampingcars site they have a more detailed summary of the process. If you are interested in going this way I recommend that you contact them directly.

Registration and Insurance

One of the issues that helped us decide to purchase an European RV was insurance.  When we looked into insuring Scout in Europe we found that liability insurance would be approximately $1200 per year.  It is very difficult to find anyone to write a comprehensive insurance plan.  We finally found one company that said they may provide comprehensive insurance for approximately 70% of the value of Scout for $4500 per year on top of the liability.  So if we shipped Scout to Europe we were looking at $5700 per year for comprehensive insurance.  This year our comprehensive insurance for François thru AXA Insurance is €800, approximately what we pay for comprehensive insurance on Scout our American RV.  

The initial paperwork to insure François with AXA was completed by Eurocampingcars, and all we did was make the payment by credit card.  The first year we successfully renewed the policy directly with the agency.  It took a couple of emails to get things going, but once we did succeed in getting their attention the process was done smoothly. For 2020 the renewal was very easy, consisting of a single email to the agent who then provided us a security code to go on to the AXA site to pay the fee by credit card.

The registration of the vehicle was also completed by Eurocampingcars and was completed within a couple of days.  The registration fees are a one time event in France, so there is no periodic renewal of license plates like we are used to in the US.

Storage

We have chosen to store François at Eurocampingcars in Veron.  The cost per day is a little less than I paid when I stored my RV in the US.  We make sure that our arrival and departure days are communicated as soon as we finalize our trips.  Eurocampingcars is a small operation, so there are windows when they are traveling so they appreciate the advance notice.  

There is no requirement to store with them, and other clients store at other sites and other countries.  In the future we may consider other storage to assist with logistics of trips.