The UK has many outstanding areas and attractions which could easily occupy your touring aspirations for a lifetime, but for some, the need to broaden the experience or improve the chances of warmer weather, perhaps for the only holiday of the year, will see them eyeing up the option of taking the caravan across the water into mainland Europe. (NOTE. For purpose of this article Mainland Europe will be referred to as Europe, even though, technically, touring in the UK is also European touring).
The idea is hatched but something holds you back, the unknown. Breaking out of the comfort zone is the obstacle and how long it will take before you are snugly back in that zone enough to relax and enjoy the experience. We have towed our caravan into Europe on two occasions, the first time for two weeks in France 2015, followed by a longer seven week tour across six West European countries in 2017. We consider ourselves novices outside the UK, and while many experienced tourers may say “What’s the fuss, it’s simple” we still recognise the ‘first time’ worries and concerns people will hold.
Remember how you felt when you first towed, nervous eh? How do you feel now? If you are still a nervous wreck then maybe wait a while longer before travelling afar. If you feel competent in the UK, you don’t need to be ‘driver of the year’, you are already well equipped to manage a European trip. Apart from some quirks we will mention below, after only a few miles ‘on the right hand side’ you will feel fine.
Below you will find our observations in the categories of ‘Driving’ and ‘Caravan Sites’. Clearly not a full comprehensive list as you could go on indefinitely, but hopefully it gives an insight on the unknowns and demonstrates there is nothing too scary or massively different to UK Caravanning. Some things may appear negative but often that is because they are away from the ‘norm’, and in many cases, you learn to see the logic in the differences and wonder who is doing it best.
- Ferry or Tunnel – Many are vocal about their preference and your final destination and budget will be a key factor. We are fans of EuroTunnel for its sheer speed and simplicity, plus we get to stay with the caravan, you can read about out Tunnel crossing here, EuroTunnel in a Caravan . Many others consider the Ferry part of the holiday and a time to rest. Both options offer easy boarding and a competent driver would have little difficulty on or off.
- On the right – Road design makes it difficult to get wrong, roundabout entries point the nose of your car to the right as do motorway on/off slip roads. Occasions to be careful are when you exit one way streets or petrol stations as you are not already ‘on the right’ in these situations your UK autopilot may catch you out.
- Traffic Signals – Essentially the same Red, Amber, Green as home. You don’t get Red/Amber before Green, it simply goes from Red to Green. The lights themselves tend to only be on your side of the junction, ie, on the stop line, one is high above your head and often impossible to see when stopped but a second mini set of lights will be strapped to a post on the right hand kerb at eye level, so try to keep at least one in view or you will be oblivious to the lights.
- Stop Lines – This is a feature we struggled with for a good while, in the UK a traffic light will have a clear line that the first car must stop at and UK drivers are accustomed to this. Many European traffic lights feature no road markings at all and it will feel quite unusual the first few times you see a red light and wonder where you should stop, even though it is obviously at the red light.
- Flashing Ambers – Imagine the UK scenario, it’s 2am and you are the only car for twenty miles being held by a red light. In some European countries you will encounter flashing Amber lights during the night or at normal traffic light junctions after peak periods. Essentially, these lights have reverted to normal road priority for stopping, give way or pedestrian crossings and simply require your heightened awareness as you proceed.
- Speed Limits – Know your limits for each country. Generally limits are similar to UK for caravans, ie, approx 60mph motorways, 50mph country, 30mph town but that is only a guide for your expectations and NOT accurate for any specific country. Speed limits will be set in kilometres per hour and generally signposted.
- Speed Signs – Another ‘watch out’ for unsuspecting UK motorists. Unless signposted lower, the speed limit in towns is 50kph (approx 31mph) but will not be signposted, the limit comes into force at the name sign as you enter the town or village. It remains in place until you see the same namesign ‘crossed out’ by a diagonal red line. At this point the speed limit reverts to the speed prior to entering the town/village without another speed limit sign, so you have to remember the previous speed limit.
- Locals – Just as in the UK, locals will inevitably drive at speeds they feel appropriate based on actual speed limits and any risk they are prepared to take over that. Notwithstanding any safety risks this presents, as a touring visitor you will not know where speed cameras are positioned or recognise them like UK cameras, they come in all shapes and sizes in Europe. Our advice, don’t speed, even when there is a queue of impatient locals staring in your rear view mirrors.
- Road Tolls – Fore-warned is fore-armed. Road funding in Europe is different across all countries and collection of funds is invariably via road tolls or pre-purchased vignette. Further details on this and European Low Emission Zones can be found via the following two links: Towing in France and Low Emission Zones & Road Tolls
- Fuel Stations – Diesel is generally labelled Gazole and mostly you will serve yourself as per UK, occasionally there will be a pump attendant that fuels the car and takes payment. Often, however, you will encounter self service credit card payment pumps especially on a Sunday and we found some of these hard to understand in a second language. We tried to fuel at cheaper supermarkets on weekdays as much as possible.
- Parking – A sore point for us as the recipients of a parking ticket. Do not assume no road lines or no lamp post signs means there are no parking restrictions, in built up areas an entire district may be subject to parking permits and notification signs may only be as you enter the area. London drivers may be familiar with this type of zone but many people will be less aware. We would also recommend you buy a parking disc as pictured below, as many time limit parking disc areas require you to display your time of arrival in your windscreen. These are normally available in European petrol stations near the spares and accessories.
- Booking – Our two trips were different, two weeks peak period summer 2015 and we pre-booked exact dates and sites for the duration of the trip before travelling, booked via the Caravan and Motorhome Club we found this fairly stress free and probably a good option if your first trip to Europe is during school holidays. Our second trip, seven weeks touring, was entirely the opposite, off-peak, we simply arrived unannounced at any site we fancied, using the ACSI Camping Card site network and its brilliant phone App. Next time? We may not follow any individual scheme or site network and just blunder around. Off-peak freedom is a massive ‘thumbs up’ for Europe.
- Stay Duration – In peak season this may be dictated by availability and require pre-booking, however, off-peak (sorry young families) it is a totally different story to the UK where you say how long you are staying and pay before you pitch. In Europe you arrive, you don’t pay, only when you are ready to leave do you pay. If you arrive on site and are not happy you can either move on to another site or stay one night and pay/move in the morning, which we did on two occasions. If you love the site, you just stay as long as you like and just keep reception informed as a general courtesy, then pay as you leave. There has to be something here that UK sites can learn from.
- Pitches – This differs by country, Italian pitches were the smallest and require a motor mover regardless of your driving skills. France, Germany, Netherlands, Austria had pitches only slightly smaller than a UK pitch but positioning is far less informal and you can mostly position your caravan anywhere within your pitch and face any direction. First time out your mind will be set in the UK Car/Caravan/Awning layout facing towards the front, stop, walk around the pitch, think about the sun, the level, privacy and position how it suits you, again, quite liberating compared to UK.
- Electric – Two things to note. Amps and Polarity. UK sites are normally 16 Amps and you happily run heaters, microwaves, toasters and kettles all at the same time. European sites will often be 6Amps or 10Amps and you will quickly find yourself tripping the fuse followed by the walk of shame to reception to get it reset. Luckily, you should not need your heater and we found cooking with gas, ie BBQ, released spare capacity. Invest in a simple 3 pin plug polarity checker and plug it in when you first connect Electric Hook Up, we have experienced reverse polarity only twice across sixteen sights which is easily corrected by using a hook up polarity reverse adaptor. Only on one occasion did we require a 2 pin plug for the Electric Hook Up, luckily we had the adaptor but the sites normally sell or rent one if you don’t.
- Toilets and Washrooms – These will vary greatly by site and by country, our view was that if we didn’t like them we would use our caravan facilities. Across Europe you may find facilities that match the best 5 star hotels like we had in Austria, or you may find communal facilities where your shower or toilet cubicle will be next to one being used by someone of the opposite sex, toilet roll may be provided or not, sometimes half the toilets will be ‘squat’ type. It is a bit of a lottery and sometimes only a written review will give you any advanced warning.
- Internet – Similar to UK this depends on the willingness or infrastructure of the particular site. We found 40% had strong free wifi – 40% had cheap wifi or a hotspot near reception – 10% had extortionate prices per hour – 10% no wifi so we used a 3G Mifi router on these occasions with a £13 per month ‘Three’ sim card for 20GB.
- Aquaroll & Waste Water – Watch how many Europeans point and talk about you as you fill or empty your daily water requirements, it is an oddity that can leave you a little self conscious. Mostly, European caravans have onboard water tanks with a locking filler cap that they fill via watering cans, then they generally catch waste water in a bucket and water the nearest bushes to empty. They find our barrel of 40 Litres sitting in the hot sun a little weird and emptying 40Litres in the bushes is not very discreet, or acceptable, so you have to do another walk with everyone pointing or water bushes little and often. With hindsight, still not sure who’s system we prefer.
- Fellow Campers – You are in Europe, so, you will meet Europeans!! If you caravan in France the nationality mix is greatest, predominantly British, French, German and Dutch. Further East towards Germany, Austria and Italy you will find almost exclusively German and Dutch. We actually barely notice any difference in friendliness of one nationality over another, it is similar to UK sites, 50% of people actively look you in the eye and smile and say good morning, 30% respond if you speak to them and 20% avoid all contact and keep themselves to themselves, Europe is just the same. We had a perception that the Dutch were the friendliest people we met but this could quite easily be put down to their excellent command of the English language making contact with them much easier. We still had some great conversations with Germans, Austrians and Italians when neither person had a clue what the other was saying. A personal favourite was a German recommending avoiding a road on the map by pointing and saying “Das ist shit”.
Hopefully these observations will be useful to any ‘newbie’ European tourers and dispel any concerns on specific aspects. For most, France would be a first venture towing abroad and we would very much recommend that, unless you have better language skills for another European country. The experience is well worth any minor negatives you may encounter and remember, every night you get to tuck up in your own home from home.