Much of the fun of RV travel is in the planning. Enjoy the process. But don't overplan. The greatest thing about motorhome travel is the flexibility it gives you. Please leave room for the road itself to speak to you. With an RV you can go where you want when you want, at a moment's notice. You have more than door-to-door capability; you are a vacation home on wheels. You can toss in virtually as much luggage as you like — unpack it only once — and transport it all to the middle of nowhere, without having to use any nasty bathrooms along the way. (Special tip: Use collapsible luggage, i.e. softsided bags, that can be stored in the RV easily and without taking up much space.) Essentially with RV travel you have no downtime — unless you want to take a nap while your partner drives. What's more you can cook your own meals, using local ingredients.
This is all great for families with children. The kids have the security of their "own" bed every night, and they have their own bathroom whenever they need it. With all the extra space, they are able to play or nap more comfortably while on the road. There's none of that car claustrophobia. The kiddos get food that is healthy if not altogether familiar. And at bedtime you can tuck them safely in and then socialize with adults, which would not really be possible in a hotel.
We suggest our clients do not plan to rely solely on any one guide nor even on any collection of such guides (whether they be in book form, software form, or online) to plan their trip. Such a guide — especially if it is provided free of charge by the rental company or another entity — should not be considered suitably thorough and up to date, although in many cases they are very useful. Even if a rental company's policy is to provide such guide with every rental RV, they occasionally run out of supply because too many clients lose or abscond with the guide, or for other reasons beyond the rental company's control.
We therefore propose two rules of three. First rule of three: Use at least two published guides, and rely on your own on-the-ground research (e.g. following local signage, asking local people, and so forth) to complete the picture. Second rule of three: Rely chiefly on your instincts, secondarily on word of mouth (especially from locals), and thirdly on guidebooks.
Market forces usually take care of the rest because they result in campground and hotel locations per the general demand and thus near where you are most likely to desire such location.
So many well-marked campgrounds dot the European landscape, for instance, that finding them is usually a no-brainer. Look for the international camping sign: either a "C" with a tent superimposed or else a stylized trailer. Greece, however, denotes campgrounds with a sign reading "EOT." And if you find a campground labeled "FKK" or "Frei Körper Kultur" (literally translated, free body culture), know you've found a clothing-optional campground. More generally speaking, however, Europeans view camping as being cheap, socially oriented accommodation rather than the rugged, back-to-nature experience that North Americans tend to picture. As such, organized campgrounds in Europe are good places to meet the middle class sector of European society, a somewhat different crowd than you'll find in hotels or hostels. Europeans RVers tend to spend more time outside their RV than do North American RVers, and as such you will tend to meet more people in a campground there than you will in a campground (RV park) in the USA or Canada.
The major European cities, too, harbor popular campgrounds. For instance, Thalkirchen campground on the Isar River just twenty minutes outside Munich is a wonderful spot, bordered by the river and within a forest and boasting cafes and bars and an international clientele. Most budget guidebooks describe the best campgrounds in and around the bigger cities or otherwise-popular spots. In fact, nearly every town in Europe is graced with a few RV friendly campgrounds. If you plan to do lots of camping, however, a special guide is worth its price. Many of the tourist offices will send you detailed information about campgrounds. Consider this snippet from Mike and Terri Church's Travelers Guide to European Camping:
Campgrounds are also used by Europeans as destinations for extended vacation visits. Many Europeans get a month off during the summer, usually in July or August, and they flock to the seacoast and to sunny southern locations. The vacation campgrounds that they use are a little more like what we Americans are accustomed to. They are located near beautiful natural areas or places with great weather. Places like the Alps, the Mediterranean coastline, or southern Portugal. Even in these places, though, the campgrounds tend to be privately owned and provide more in the way of facilities and entertainment than we are accustomed to. Best of all, campgrounds are never crowded except in July and August, the rest of the year most places aren't even half full.
By the way, Europe in general is on a much higher latitude than the USA; as such, the summer sun sets much later there.
Camp primarily at designated campsites. Try to research campsites in advance and arrive early so you have time to set up before your neighbors go to bed. But again, don't overplan. Maintain flexibility.
Camping on private property without permission is usually illegal and can be dangerous. However, several great resources have recently emerged to connect landowners, B&B owners, even just home owners, with RVers looking for a place to park and "camp" for a night or two:
Camping in public areas, on the roadside, etc, can be illegal or dangerous or both. Many RV travelers do spend the night in the parking lots of tourist attractions — under the pretense that they're waiting to get in early — or, say, in the parking lots of supermarkets (Walmart is a common haunt of domestic RVers in the USA) or marinas, churches, truck stops, or casinos. Even more popular in Europe are the rest stops along expressways. Many of those European rest stops are designed to facilitate overnight RV stays.
In the USA, don't plan to sleep overnight in a rest area (lay-by) — the police will knock you awake at 5:00 am. If you're still looking for a campground rather late into the evening, try a truck stop or casino or get off the freeway and cruise along a two-lane highway until you find a little campground (they usually have room) or a church lot. Campgrounds at major attractions (e.g. the Grand Canyon) may have an overflow lot or another solution for late arrivals. And remember: cancellations occur every day, even at the most popular campgrounds. (Nothing ventured, nothing gained.) For RV travel in the USA and Canada, we suggest you keep to a minimum the number of campsites you book, using perhaps less than a handful of such bookings at the most popular RV parks (e.g. Yosemite National Park) as the linchpins of your itinerary.
Remember too, just because you're traveling by RV you don't need to spend every night camping. You can indulge in a sprinkling of hotels. You can sample a hostel or two, many of which welcome RV's. You can incorporate train and bus and moped and especially bicycle travel into your trip. Hey, you can put the movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles to shame — and we encourage you to do so.
Camping, of course, is a money saver. Discreet free-camping in an RV (alias dry camping, boondocking, wild camping), although we do necessarily warn against it and although explicitly prohibited in certain countries, is tolerated almost everywhere in Europe. Sweden officially sanctions free-camping, and Norway and Finland tolerate it in principle. The people of those countries consider free-camping a right: everyman's right (Allmansratten), they call it. To properly exercise that right, as it were, a person camps on unfenced and uncultivated land, at least 150 meters (just over 150 yards) away from any dwelling, stays no more than two nights, and cleans up after himself or herself. Please note, however, that Allmansratten does not apply to RV's.
When not in Scandinavia, you could take your chances and free-camp unannounced in some discreet spot or, if you are intent on free-camping, you could do the right thing by asking permission of the land owner. If you choose the second option, chances are your host will engage you in a fascinating conversation and, if you're lucky, invite you to dinner. Of course you can sleep in your vehicle if you like.
Again though, for the sake of safety, we recommend you do not free-camp.
European RV campgrounds usually itemize fees — charging for each person, tent, vehicle and trailer. Campgrounds in Europe are rated on a four-star scale; and apart from the basics, four-star operations are likely to provide several of the following: laundromat, grocery store, restaurant, bar, disco, swimming pool, water slide, sauna, tennis courts, fitness facilities, miniature golf course, horseback riding, a library, and a playground. Absolutely great for kids! Many campgrounds also offer mobile homes or bungalows for rent. Unless you plan to rent one of these, don't worry about reservations: European campgrounds are never "full"; the operators will pack you in if need be. Individual campsites are typically not delineated. But beware that most campgrounds lock the gate for the night at about 22:00 (10:00 pm) and for lunch from noon to 14:00 (2:00 pm). Also, most campgrounds in Europe do not provide picnic tables, and, sad to say, they disallow campfires. Though the toilets can be perplexing, we'd rather let you discover their wonders for yourself than force you to suffer through a description here. As for the showers, expect all varieties; and if using one that's token operated, make sure you know how much time a token gives you.
Most European motorhomes have chemical toilets with detachable cassettes designed to be emptied in special receptacles — called "Chem WC" units — installed at most campgrounds, or into a regular toilet. Because large, heavy, irremovable holding tanks (i.e. blackwater tanks) and the corresponding flush toilets are not so common on European motorhomes, many campgrounds in Europe don't have a North American-type dumping station. Campgrounds or other camping facilities in Europe that do have such a facility are denoted by the trailer pictogram and/or the words "Entsorgungskanal" (German), "scarigare" (Italian), or "vidoir" (French). The German auto club ADAC publishes and distributes — free of charge to members of affiliated clubs — a list and map of such dumping stations. For a charge, some campgrounds will allow you to dump without staying overnight. Don't dump these tanks by a highway or in a field — this is highly illegal. If you must, visit a municipal sewage treatment plant to do the job.
Most campgrounds provide central drinking-water taps with a hose connected so motorhomers can fill their tank.
Most European motorhomes are wired with 10 ampere circuits that, given the 230 Volt standard, might allow you to use up to 2300 Watts (that's 10 x 220) of power at any one time. Note, however, that at 230 V or so you need about half the amperage that you need at about 120 V to result in the same power (Watts). A 1000 Watt hair dryer requires only about 4.5 amps in Europe whereas in the USA it requries about 8 amps. Some campgrounds offer a meter at each site, charge you to hook up, and then charge per kilowatt-hour. Others impose an inclusive charge. Since you may have to park quite a distance from a socket, a 25 meter connecting cord (the longer the better) designed for outdoor use is helpful.
You should tell us in advance, and the rental depot on pick-up day, all the countries you plan to visit and if you plan to use the RV for a purpose other than your own tourism or for a special purpose such as to support a business operation you own or are employed by or are affiliated with, to transport merchandise or professional supplies, to film a movie, to attend a rally or a multi-day festival (e.g. the Burning Man festival), etc.
Motorhomes rented via IdeaMerge can be taken by ferry or the Channel Tunnel to/from England and Ireland from/to continental Europe. Of course the motorhome's steering wheel will be on the left side of continental-Europe-based RV's and on the right side of the UK-based RV's. Though it is perfectly legal to drive such European campervan or motorhome on the other side of the road, as it were, the driver will typically not be able to see around immediately preceding vehicles well enough to overtake those vehicles and will therefore in this respect have to rely on the eyes of a trusted passenger.
If you do plan to take your rental campervan or motorhome on a ferry, you should contact the ferry company in advance to be sure you bring all the vehicle documents required to board. Upon the RV rental pick-up occasion, make sure you have those documents.
Special tip: If planning a long ferry ride with a RV, remember it is not possible to run the refrigerator while aboard the ferry, where the RV engine and propane tanks or bottles must be turned off and where electricity is not provided.
France, Italy, Portugal and Spain have extensive toll road systems on their expressways whereas Belgium, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands do not. For details on all the various road toll systems and instances in Europe, please see www.theaa.com/european-breakdown-cover/driving-in-europe.
The following countries in Europe require that vehicles using certain of the nation's roads bear a special one-off road tax sticker or vignette: Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Moldova, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Switzerland. Switzerland requires such vignette on its expressways. You can buy the Swiss vignette for 40 SwF at Swiss National Tourist offices, Swiss Customs posts (the border), Swiss post offices, or Swiss garages. (However, check whether your rental vehicle already has a valid vignette on it from a previous renter, in which case you don't need another vignette.) At the border you can pay in SwF, EUR, £'s and USD. You can also pay inside the Customs office onsite by credit card. The vignette is valid until the end of the January of the year after you buy it, is non transferable, and should be thoroughly affixed to the windshield. If you buy it from the person stationed for this purpose outside the office (who accepts only cash), they will insist on affixing the sticker. If you buy inside the office you can affix the sticker yourself. If your vehicle doesn't bear a properly affixed vignette and the Swiss police catch you driving on an expressway, you'll be subject to a 100 SwF fine — on top of the vignette's cost. Expressways offer the only hope for speedy and level motor travel through mountainous Switzerland. Still, it's not absolutely necessary to use the expressways there. You have to ask yourself this: Why do I want to travel quickly and horizontally through Switzerland? Carefully study your map to determine if you want a vignette. See Wikipedia's Vignette page for more about such vignettes and road taxes.
If your RV's total permissible weight (i.e. basically its unladen weight) is over 3.5 tons (i.e. 3500 kg, which corresponds to a pretty large European motorhome), you must buy a "GO-Box" rather than a simple vignette to travel the tollways of Austria. A white box about the size of your palm, the GO-box should be affixed to the inside of the windscreen. The device logs the tollway distance traveled by the vehicle. (Electrical control points are located along the tollway and are queried by overhead DSRC microwave radio transceivers at different locations. Overhead 3-D infrared laser scanners detect and photograph vehicles travelling without the GO-Box.) A GO-Box initially costs EUR55. These devices are sold at most fuel stations on major roads approaching Austria. (In Germany, look for signs reading "GO Vertrieb.") The initial EUR55 is reduced each time the vehicle passes a tollway control point. As the credit gets low, the GO-box emits certain warning signals. You can recharge the GO-Box in EUR50 increments only. The fine for traveling said expressways without a charged Go-Box is EUR220. For more information, visit www.go-maut.at.
For further resources about RV travel, please see our relevant Resources page, which features heaps of useful info, including links to websites that specialize in RV campground bookings: