Here is a snapshot into our experience as van lifers from Australia and the most common questions we had before we started our trip in Europe! These were the 10 big questions we wanted to know when we started planning our van life dream in Europe. We are new to this forum and interested in knowing what you think and if you have had similar or different experiences to us.
Who are we?
The Hurley Ventures - we are Joe and Eunice Hurley – 26 year old newlyweds from Brisbane, Australia. We were previously working full time, Joe as a underground copper geologist and Eunice as a physiotherapist in a hospital. We wanted to have a ‘gap travel year’ as we love travelling and decided to combine this as our honeymoon. We saved up money after both working for 4 years, then quit our jobs a few weeks before our wedding, got married and then packed up our lives and went overseas! We bought an older van model (Fiat Ducato 1988), renovated the entire interior and have been travelling full time in a van across Europe since August 2018. We have experienced both summer and winter seasons and visited 23 countries and counting! We prefer visiting free/natural places, off the beaten track and where we can put our 1988 Fiat Ducato to the test.
1. Why choose travelling in a van?
We both wanted to do a year trip and also love nature and camping so we got inspired by travelling in a van! Also, travelling for so long, we didn’t want to keep changing hotels and live out of a suitcase. We wanted to create a home so that we can still be very comfortable when travelling. Not only do you save a lot of money on accommodation and transport, but it gives us the flexibility to go where we want at our pace and in our own time. We also enjoy living minimally and our tiny home on wheels is perfect for just that! It is completely self-contained – meaning we can go ‘wild camping’ and have everything we need.
2. What are the basic things you need to be ‘self-contained’ and comfortable?
We have an 80w solar panel and two deep cycle batteries which give us enough electricity for lighting, charging electronics and even the keep the fridge going (without need for plug in). Our water tank can last us up to 5 days before needing to be filled up (this includes daily showers, drinking water and washing up). We also have 2x 13kg gas bottles for cooking, heating the boiler for our showers and to keep the fridge going if there hasn’t been enough sunny days for the solar panels. We know that a lot of other vans do not have a shower/bathroom inside their van but this was one thing we did not want to compromise on and it works well for us! It is comfortable and cosy as we have a bed, kitchen, fridge, dining table/living area and a bathroom and toilet.
3. How do you usually organize your travel/where to go?
We use instagram, google blogs and also have a Lonely planet book to find places to visit. We use park4night app to find spots to stay/camp. We use google maps to help map out our route and travel time between places. Then we handwrite it in our good old travel book so we can keep track of where we go. We have a general plan for which countries we want to visit well in advance (2-3 months prior) but prefer to plan the exact location of where we go and where we stay around 1-2 weeks in advance. In saying that, we have improvised a lot when we have found some last minute great places to visit or or changed our plans due to bad weather or mechanical breakdowns.
4. Wild camping vs campsites?
Each country has different laws regarding whether its permitted or not but generally - if you are discreet you won’t face any problems. For example, in croatia there are signs everywhere saying no camper with a symbol of the van and you will get fined there as the police patrol it frequently. However, if you’re in the countryside a bit more, wild camping there will be a lot easier and you most likely won’t be disturbed. In cities, the best free parks you will get are from the public carparks, local parks or quieter side roads. We generally try to stay in ‘wild camping’/free spots, in places which are a bit off the main road and more quiet. If not in a city, we stay at more scenic places overlooking a lake, river, the beach or mountains etc. In the city, we try and stay somewhere conveniently close to the town centre or public transport so we can sightsee the town easily. We always make sure our parking locations are not disruptive to the daily cycle of where ever we visit, and we always try to leave a location better than we left it. In saying that, sometimes a nice campsite is what you really need to get all the chores done easily and have everything in one spot (i.e refill water, dump your waste, charge up the batteries if the sun has been hiding and do the laundry!). So we don’t mind an occasional visit to a campsite!
5. What about breakdowns on the road?
Yes it is inevitable! We have found that to really know how your motorhome/van operates and looking after it well is the key to getting back on the road quicker! Consistent preventative maintenance is essential, especially with an older van like ours (1988 vintage). Become familiar with the basics of the engine mechanics so that you can monitor it and avoid lengthy/expensive break downs. If you are travelling on the road for a long time, make sure you continue servicing your vehicle every 5000km approximately, change your fuel filter every 20000km…etc. Insurance is also very important which will be covered in a later question.
6. What about winter van life - is it doable?
Yes it is, we did van life in winter through France, the Bavarian and Austrian alps! We had to get all the right gear - this includes having appropriate tyres/chains and shovel, heating (gas heater) and insulation (we put alfoil/styrofoam layers) and anti-freeze solution in your engine and bathroom/toilet. We did a bit of research on what the winter tyre requirements were for each country beforehand. When driving on wet salted roads in winter it is important to regularly wash the underside of the van thoroughly to prevent salt corrosion. We went to many car wash places to ensure our underbody didn’t get rusty. Also make sure you take into consideration the weather for your safety when planning to drive and visit places!
7. What about insurance and green cards?
It goes without saying that you must have insurance and an originally printed green card which stipulates all the countries you can visit that you will be covered for on your insurance policy. Make sure you have this printed as some countries in the Balkans would only take a original version.
8. Safety concerns in a van?
Generally, it has been pretty safe from our experience - we haven’t felt unsafe in the van when parked somewhere. Locals are usually friendly or linger only briefly for a bit of a stare at the vehicle as its so unusual (like in Lithuania, don’t think they see foreigners as much in the countryside!). Our van did get robbed in the beginning when we were out exploring a French town and they took our electronics, wallet etc. We have definitely learnt from that experience. We have a safe inside the van now which is really well hidden as we found the thieves were easily able to access the electronics that were stored in one of the overhead cupboards. We try to take most of our valuables (camera, laptop, wallets, passports) with us now when we leave the van. We place a steering lock on the wheel too now and when in a city, we try to park at a public carpark which is busy/lots of people around and its visible (ie try not to park it on a random side street on its own).
9. What about budgeting for extended travel?
Our model is that we saved up enough to travel for a year in the van in Europe. We also didn’t want to work during our trip so we wanted/need to be thrifty to last a year yet still comfortable enough so that we didn’t have to compromise on travel plans. Our main expense is diesel fuel. Wild/free camping saves you a lot of money on accommodation and you can generally find cheap campsites everywhere too. We also buy groceries from the local grocery store and tend not to eat out for every meal. We do a lot of our van servicing ourselves and try to DIY solutions if things inside the van are broken or faulty. The local hardware stores (i.e Bauhaus!) are amazing and have everything you need. We also bought cheap bikes in Croatia which have truly paid themselves off in terms of money saved on transport/parking. For example, paid parking at the entrance of attraction so we simply found a park a bit further away and then rode our bikes 1-2km and chained our bikes to a nearby fence/tree!
10. Issues with travelling through different countries especially for non-EU?
We are travelling through Europe on our Australian passports. Apart from the UK/Ireland, once you hit mainland Europe it is all left hand drive with pretty much the same road rules everywhere. Make sure you have your emergency equipment that you are legally required to have (fluro vests, triangles…etc). Road tolls are also different - some countries have the toll booths before entering the certain highway and other countries require you to buy a vignette which allows you access on the motorway. Either way, we found it really easy regarding both options. Vignettes are easy to buy at any service station near the border or near the road and there is sometimes a sign saying vignette required before getting on that motorway. We usually took non-toll roads but it was handy going on them sometimes as they really cut your travel time significantly.
When it comes to travelling through different countries, we had to do a bit of research on the ‘Schengen Zone’. Basically it means no border control or restrictions travelling between all the countries that belong to the Schengen zone. For us as non-EU members from Australia, we get to have 90 days within a 180 day period inside the Schengen. We have heard others who got longer visas in certain countries but we have found the 90 day restriction fine - we just planned our route differently to account for it. We spent 3 months all through the balkans and by the time we were finished in the Balkans, we were fine to re-enter the Schengen zone. Also, Australia has additional ‘Bilateral agreements’ with certain Schengen countries so that you can stay there additionally to the 90 days rule. We made sure we emailed the Australian consulates in these countries to double check and have it in writing. When we were in the Balkan countries which are not part of the Schengen, we needed to stop at each border and have our passports, green card/insurance and van checked by the police.
There are ‘green zones’ for some of the major capitals in Europe which have enforced rules on what vehicles can enter the zone and if your van doesn’t comply with the eco standards (ours certainly did not as our camper is vintage!) you will be fined. Its mainly the big cities so just do a quick google beforehand. There are usually places that you can stay that are outside the green zone so you can still visit the city.
There are different gas bottles and fittings for each country and we started off with a UK bottle and a spanish bottle. Some countries like the balkans and poland will directly refill your existing bottle and that saves you from having to buy a completely new gas bottle and fitting each time so we always looked out for those places. Even so, buying a new gas bottle from scratch is not too expensive and usually lasts us a month (heating chews up the gas in winter) or longer in summer months.
Would love to get people’s thoughts/opinions on their experience of these 10 basics and if there is anything we could be doing differently/better?!