Thursday, 29 October 2015

Traversing Europe by Campervan: The Pros and Cons

I spent this summer travelling around Europe in what might just be the smallest camper van ever made, the 2009 Romahome Hylo, which is a converted Citroen Berlingo. Sadly these are no longer in production but the closest thing for comparison is a Romahome R20 Lo which is pretty damned similar. Like with any form of long term travel there are plusses and minuses to exploring the world in a van.



Nick and I left Brighton on a rainy summer morning in late June after spending a couple of nights renegade camping in the city’s streets and parks. Our initial planned route was taking us from Calais, up to Antwerp and over to Hanover before hitting Berlin but this is where one of my favourite plusses of both van life and long term travel come in to play. Freedom! We decided to take a detour! An online friend told me that the Amsterdam vegan festival was happening in a couple of days and I just had to go. Despite loving to make plans, it excites me to play around with schedules and ideas and to make sure that I’m in the right place at the right time, arriving in Tokyo the day the blossoms opened in 2014 was no happy accident, freedom is my most treasured right. I am keenly aware that it’s a privilege and not a right that everyone can avail themselves of; being able to travel at all, to be able to cross borders and to traverse the globe as I please is an amazing opportunity and I never forget that whilst I'm exploring the world. I loved that having our own transport meant that Nick and I had ultimate freedom to travel wherever, whenever. I enjoyed being able to make snap decisions about where our day / week / month would take us making it totally possible to change course to meet a new friend, to delve into a new vegan scene, or to detour away from a planned beach destination and scope out city life when the sun wasn't shining.

So, without further ado, here are ten pros and cons of van life which might help you decide whether or not you'd like to undertake this kind of adventure.

Pro: Spending more time outdoors.


I love being outside, there aren't many things better than breathing in fresh sea or mountain air. I love swimming in lakes, attempting to hike places and walking around cities for hours on end. There aren't many things that'll get you up and out faster than camping - who wants to lie around in a boiling hot van - and when you find that magically quiet rural campsite where you can only hear birds chirping and the sedate trickle of a river it makes a great day beyond perfect.

Con: Terrible internet! 

The internet on European campsites was quite literally the worst I’ve ever experienced anywhere in the world so far. It was far slower and less likely to work than in a Vietnamese budget hotel or Thai beach bungalow and it meant giving up on my goal of getting my You Tube channel off of the ground. Even getting one photo onto the blog could take 35 - 40 minutes so I can't imagine how much hair pulling trying to upload videos would have caused... well, no, I can imagine, I tried it once and it made me feel stressed and like I hated everything and wanted to hulk smash my computer. I basically decided that that kinda stress was no fun so I made the sensible decision to step away from the laptop and go outside!

Pro: Good for the travel budget. 

Not great but pretty good considering. Having the van meant that we kinda needed to sleep in the van! There’s no option to splurge on a nice hotel because most of them don’t have car parks and I’d feel pretty silly if the van got broken into on some city street just so that I could have a luxurious bath and roll around in some clean sheets. Also, being able to cook our own food cut our spending dramatically, we ate breakfast and dinner in the van most days and just ate out at lunchtime when we were out exploring.

Con: Summer in Europe can be busy and pricy.

To totally contradict my last point travelling in Europe, even in a van, in high season can be pricy. This hit me hardest when Nick and I had to pay €53 for one night at a campsite in Croatia. Mind. Blown. It wasn’t even a nice campsite, horrible pop music blared until midnight and kids ran around the van screaming from 7am. It also means that that gorgeous city you’ve always dreamt of visiting will be chock a block with all of those other people who’ve always drempt of visiting - this was why we detoured into Bosnia and Herzegovina early and saved Dubrovnik until the summer holidays were over.

Pro: There's space for a few luxury items.


After living out of a 38L backpack for the first half of the year, and knowing that there was more of that to come, being able to bring some luxury items was a huge plus point in favour of van life. Before Nick and I decided to embark upon this adventure my to-read pile of physical books was taking up a whole shelf and I was pretty upset when we had to lock them away in storage to be read another time. Because I'm ridiculously organised I picked the ten books I was most excited about and popped them into the big box labelled "VAN" that also contained my steaming pot, favourite knives, a real towel, a handful of nail polishes and more lip balms than you might consider necessary. In the end only three books (including the one pictured above which is amazing and you should read it if you haven't already) and a handful of zines and magazines I'd had sent to my BFF's address could fit into the limited space in the van alongside our Europe on a Shoestring guidebook but I was still pretty happy about that. 


Con: Reading less blogs. 

One major downside of having terrible internet is that I had less time to spend there cultivating my online friendships. Blogging once a week was really tough, my bloglovin' app would crash before I was able to comment 90% of the time, and forget You Tube. It wasn't even feasible to watch a You Tube vid let alone to upload one myself! I have no idea how travel You Tubers do it. I also had to skip out on fully participating in Vegan MoFo as an organiser and as a participant which sucked - I love MoFo.

Pro: Reading more books. 

Not so much a van thing as a general travel thing. I love to read but, like a lot of people these days, I struggle to concentrate thanks to the constant distractions available due to the internet and social media. I sometimes feel like I need a social media intervention but I'm too weak. Maybe one day right? To look on the bright side, this year, aside from the time I spent at an Air B&B in Austin, I've had much patchier wifi than I'm used to dealing with and I've learnt that I'd rather read a book than get frustrated that my Twitter feed won't load. If you're also into books you can follow what I’m reading over on Goodreads



Con: No Personal Space. 


Nick and I have been co-habiting in some pretty close quarters since January but the van was by far the most challenging space. I like alone time and living in a space that’s smaller that the average double bed is kinda ridiculous - when the weather was great we spent the majority of our time outside but when the cold or rainy nights drew in in was more problematic, mainly because when you're sitting in the van you are sitting on top of the cupboards containing the majority of your stuff. Under bench storage makes a whole lot of sense up until the point where you're trying to cook dinner and someone is on top of all of the pans, soy sauces and crockery.

Pro: Watching less TV. 

When I left the UK in January I had Netflix and Tunnelbear all set up and I’d hoped to be able to keep up with my favourite shows (New Girl, The Mindy Project & OITNB incase you're interested)  but obviously a shaky internet connection, more interesting things to do and my true love, books, have halted my TV watching in its tracks. Now I’m not going to pretend that I think TV is the worst thing ever, give me a cosy sofa and a remote control and I’ll happily marathon a show with you* but I’m under no illusion that spending hours and hours watching TV (as I was in the habit of doing back in Brighton) is a good thing for my productivity / happiness. *When that Gilmore Girls re-boot comes to Netflix next spring I'm going to hole up under a duvet and marathon the shit out of it! 

Pro / Con: Campsites can be far from town. 

This is both a pro and a con in my opinion because on the plus side you get to see the parts of town where people actually live and that haven’t really been touched by the hand of tourism but on the downside you can miss out on nightlife because you’ll sometimes need to catch that last bus back to the campsite at 7pm! Cities with great out of town campsites included Venice, Split and Sarajevo. Skopje? Not so much.



I definitely feel that overall living in a van comes out a winner. It's a great way to explore Europe, to get off of the beaten path and to be able to travel in a little more comfort and style than just a backpack will allow. What do you think? Would you be tempted to live in a van like this or would its small size make you run for the hills?

14 comments:

  1. I haven't travelled in a van, but I have done car + tent camping. I agree with so many things you have said, that it's great to get your reading on, but bad weather sucks cos you're cooped up with your other half but would quite like a little space! The 'pro - good for the travel budget' made me laugh because one night when we were travelling in our car we were both too lazy & tired to camp and thought "ahah, we'll stay in a hotel (they're pretty cheap in the Baltics where we were) so we can save time in the morning and get on the road quicker because we won't need to pack up! But what happened was that as we drove down the road to the hotel, we drove over a huge nail that damaged our wheel, so we didn't save time as we had to go get our wheel patched up. Moral of the story - we should've have been lazy f**ks!
    I have to say, if you feel like doing more of Europe next summer, the Baltics were not so busy when we were there in August time and they are incredible countries, and cheap too!

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    1. Oh nooooo! That's not good at all! We're definitely considering The Baltic countries for next summer, I'm desperate to check out Estonia and Latvia and Lithuania have been calling me for a while. We're also considering Scandinavia because van travel seems like the cheapest way to explore up there.

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  2. I have always wanted to live for a while in a van, and now your post makes me want to do it even more! Even with the cons :)

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  3. I'm not sure I could cope with the small space. I'm not great in a tent either. I have really loved reading about your adventures though. I'm really trying to cultivate a reading habit again. As well as social media I have to read application forms all day for my job so my involvement with books has suffered in the last few years. Can't wait to see where you go next Jojo!

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    1. Thanks Caroline! We have our sights set on Cambodia once we're done volunteering in Thailand.

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  4. What a fun summer you've had! Great rundown of the good and bad of camper life. While I love the outdoors, I've never been much of a camper person myself. I'm right there with you on Gilmore Girls, sadly, I don't have Netflix. :-(

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    1. I don't have Netflix right now either but you can bet your ass I'll be subscribing for a month in April when GG premiers!

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  5. I have loved reading about your travel adventures, though I know in my heart that camper van travel is definitely not for me. I am glad you had mostly good times! Do you think you would do it again?
    Looking forward to seeing the next stage of your travels.

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    1. I would totally do it again! Nick and I are currently trying to decide what to do next summer and van travel is definitely high up on our list of considerations.

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  6. Did you rent the van? I'm interested in how having the van and running costs for it (tax? insurance? fuel? MOT?, I don't know what else!) compare to the stupid high costs of train travel.

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    1. We didn't rent the van, it actually belongs to Nick's dad but he's currently looking into selling it as his wife doesn't like camping. Fuel costs obviously vary around Europe and whilst we were in the Balkans fuel was really cheap which was great - right now we're looking at taking a trip to Scandinavia where fuel costs are pretty ridiculous so I guess it just depends where you're going. Luckily the van passed it's MOT easily but it did fail a gas safety check which ended up costing us a fair chunk of cash (around £400 I think), insurance wasn't cheap but that was partly because of our chosen countries (Albania definitely made it more expensive but that was offset by the cost of campsites hovering at around £8 a night). I can't say I've had more than a cursory glance at the cost of European train travel but the van definitely gave us more freedom and meant that it was easy to explore more rural areas without needing to deal with the hassle of taking a tour or renting a car.

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  7. I love this article, since many of the things are both pros and cons! It makes me think of when my parents would rent cabins in Maine. No internet, no cables, making your own meals, and further away from the main attractions. It was nice and relaxing.

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    1. That sounds wonderful and relaxing Jennifer. I really like the idea of hanging out at a cabin with a big group of friends, it'd be so fun.

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