Other services on the road

Life on the road can’t be exciting all the time. There is no getting away there are certain things you need. These include

    • Fuel 
    • Gas (Propane, Butane or LPG)
    • Water
    • Toilet dump
    • Grey waste
    • Laundry
    • Wi-Fi

Our solar panel powers our 12v leisure battery and we have an inverter which can power the laptop and projector. Our treat to ourselves when we have electrical hook-up is pizza and a roast dinner as we can use the convection oven.

Fuel

This is no different to filling your car and is common sense really. We tend to fill up as and when we need it, or if we see a particularly cheap deal then we obviously take advantage. It’s worth googling fuel prices when you cross borders to ascertain which country it is cheaper to buy fuel in. We failed when going to San Marino and paid over the odds just before we crossed the border!

It’s worth noting that in Italy and Sicily there are often two prices; one for the self-service and one for the serviced pumps. The difference is between 25c and 40c so it can make a huge difference is you are filling your tank.

Gas

For better or worse, we use exchangeable bottles and bar our one problem in Spain (see Van Life: Let’s talk gas ), touchwood we’ve been okay since. In Spain and Portugal we picked Repsol to buy our gas bottles from and had no problem exchanging them. In Italy, we managed to buy bottle at one of the campsites and we were also able to get our German bottle refilled at a place recommended by one of the campsite in Rome.

Sometimes Park4night has gas filling stations and LPG stations marked on it so it’s always worth checking on there.

Services

The thing that usually determines whether we need to stop at a paid site or service dump is whether we have a full toilet. There are several options for emptying and re-filling the services:

Free service dumps

Many of the petrol stations and supermarkets in Spain and Portugal have free camper services. In our experience, this is less widespread in Italy, however a few towns do have camper stops with free services. We either find these on Park 4 Night or we stumble across them as we’re driving.

Paid service dumps

Many campsites will allow you dump your services, and refill your water for a small fee (circa €5). Even if it’s not advertised, it’s always worth asking. Again, this is usually advertised on Park 4 Night.

Water

We have a 110L water tank and that usually lasts about 4-5 days. We keep an eye on it, preferring to top it up a little bit each day rather than paying to do large refills when we are not staying on site so as reduce our costs. We always fill up before leaving a site, and also fill the various refillable bottles we have lying around the motor home.

There are times, when the universe conspires against us and we find ourselves running a bit low on water. We consider that to be about 30L in the tank (or the red light on our indicator). So, what are the options if you do run low with no services nearby?

Use a water fountain

It can be a bit laborious but we’ve (when I say we, I mean Doug) has filled our water tank plenty of times using the local water fountain. Nobody has taken issue with it to date.

Buy bottled water

We’ve only had to do it once, but we ran so low and there were no services for miles, so we went to the supermarket and bought 40L of water to get us through. It’s not ideal but it’s always an option.

Laundry

It’s all well and good in the summer hand washing everything but in winter we just can’t dry it. If we’re on a campsite then we usually use their facilities and if not we head down to the local laundrette.

It has become a family excursion where Issy does her homework whilst we do the washing, charge our phones and take advantage of the free Wi-Fi. The locals find it hilarious when they come in and find this little English girl doing school work.

We simply do a google maps search of “laundromat near me”. Many of them don’t require you to have detergent or conditioner, it’s included in the price. It usually costs around €10 for a wash and dry (around 15kg including the sheets and towels). 

Wi-Fi

Doug and I both have a ridiculous allowance per month via our EE contracts (100GB each). This is supposedly limited to 15GB whilst we are in Europe however at the time of writing this has yet to happen. That said, we both take advantage of free wi-fi whenever we can. This tends to be when I upload stuff for the blog and we let Issy go mad on you tube.

Choosing a van

For those of you who have followed our journey, you will know that Rosie (our motor home) was an impromptu purchase due to circumstances. We had looked at motor homes and campervans before leaving but not found anything we could agree on. Doug and I had very different ideas of what we should get and the ones we looked at were out of budget. Doug was in the motor home camp and I was in the campervan camp, the VW transporter camp to be precise. It pains me to say it but he was right!

Why should you listen to us?

We don’t profess to be experts. Our combined experience of motor homing prior to owning Rosie was Doug’s one week in New Zealand with 3 boys. That said, we’ve now lived in Rosie full-time for 8 months out of the past 12 so we’ve got a good idea of what works and what we would change if we were buying again.

So for what it is worth here goes…

Motor home -v- Campervan -v- Converted van
Motor Home

The main determiner for us was usage. There will always be compromises but think about how those will impact on your intended use.

We are full-time van lifers. Rosie is our home, office and school so usable space and practicality were high on our agenda. She might only be 38m3 but we all have permanent beds, different zones we can retreat to, plenty of head room, loads of storage and our own toilet and shower. Trust us when you live in each others pockets these things matter.

If something annoys you in the showroom imagine what it will be like after living with it for 8 months with 2 other people. If it’s a permanent thing, move on, it’s not the right van for you but for example our bunk ladder lasted 3 weeks before Doug bought a stepladder (damn him he was right again!)

Campervan

Don’t get me wrong there are plenty of people we meet who live full-time in a VW campervan and frankly I am in awe. If this is the way you decide to go there are other ways to increase your usable space with the addition of a pop-top roof or awning tent. However, it’s worth considering that are temporary extensions and having lived in a tent for part of our journey the novelty of putting up, taking down and watching the weather soon wears thin. When storage is at a premium, having to store an awning tent would also have been an issue for us.

Van conversion

The third option is a van conversion; either one already converted or a self-conversion. Whilst it’s something we might tackle in the future, it’s not something that we can advise on at this point. There are plenty of others who are far more qualified than me so I’ll just put it out there. Something to consider is that any conversion will have to be signed off by the DVLA and there may also be insurance implications.

Whatever you chose, it’s also worth having one eye as to how your needs with change in the near future. 

Despite there only being 3 of us, we actually have a 6-berth motor home.  It’s enabled us to host friends, sleepovers and gives Issy flexibility for her area (she can either have 2 bunks for friends sleepovers, a bunk with table and chairs underneath it or a single bunk).

Old v New

This is usually determined by budget as new vans are expensive. We could have only afforded a new van if we’d culled our entire trip so we had to buy an older one. 

New ones have the advantages of coming with warranties etc but as with everything the depreciation on them is very steep in the first few years so it’s worth considering a van that’s 5-10 years old (still relatively new in motor home circles). Rosie is 21 and still going strong. 

It’s also worth noting that if you buy a van abroad and seek to register it in the UK you don’t pay import tax on older vans.

Right hand drive -v- Left hand drive

Rosie is a left-hand drive. Even before we bought Rosie in Germany we had decided that we would look for a left hand drive as were intending to Europe and further afield for extended periods. 

If the main bulk of you driving is going to be in the UK with occasional overseas trips then it probably isn’t that important.

Size

Size matters!

We wanted a van that was less than 6m as once you start getting over that things like tolls and ferry costs increase and we can park her in most supermarket car parks without a problem. When we have found ourselves in narrow streets, tight turns or anywhere in Italy having a shorter van has been a distinct advantage. 

Height is also a consideration. When you live in her full-time being able to stand up all of the time was one of our non-negotiables. 

Rosie is 2.89m high (again relatively short for a motor home) but we’ve still  had a few hairy moments in Italy with narrow roads and balconies. We also had the “Intermarche incident” in Coimbra. They had failed to mention that whilst there was no height restriction on the way in, the exit was limited to 2m!

And to think we would have missed out all these adventures if we’d played safe with a VW camper.

Layout

This largely comes down to personal preference and there is no substitute for going and looking, climbing through and making a list of things of non-negotiables. 

We love our permanent beds because no matter what happens during the day we can come back and climb into bed. Never underestimate how much these simple pleasures mean if you are on the road for long periods of time.

 

The space has to work for you. Rosie has an amazingly efficient layout which means that we each have our own zones; Issy retreats to her area at the back, Doug tends to sit in the cab or in our bed and I sit at the table. At the same time, if it’s raining outside or we’re wild camping one of us can be making breakfast, one of us getting dressed and the third can be in the bathroom and we’re not on top of each other.

Amenities

If you are looking at free camping then having a fridge/freezer and heating system that runs off gas as well as electricity is a distinct advantage. We retro-fitted solar panels which increase our ability to go off-grid.

Practical things like where are the lights, power sockets, usb charging points (12v charging points on older vans) and bike racks are also important considerations.

Summary

Our top tips are

    1. Look at as many motor homes, campervans and van conversions as you can. If you can hire a similar one for a week and see if it works for you, do it.
    2. Speak to people who are already van owners. We got so many little titbits before we were even thinking of buying a motor home.
    3. Write a list of negotiable and non-negotiable points. For us our non-negotiable points were permanent beds (preferably bunks for Issy), toilet and shower, kitchenette and as close to 6m as possible.
    4. Have a realistic budget. We started with a budget of €10,000 and had to up it €15,000 but for that we got a van with everything we wanted and so much more (most of which we didn’t know we needed)

Practicalities; Finding a place for the night

When it comes to finding a place to stop, it goes without saying personal recommendations are best. However, if you don’t see anyone or the recommended place is booked up here are a few go- to ideas for finding a spot for the night. 

Park4Night

This is our first port of call particularly for free camping. It has everything from free sites to 5-star campsites and other useful information e.g. gas refill stations and service dumps.

You just need to be a bit careful as to when the site was added. We are a bit wary of sites where there have been no recent reviews. Regardless of the reviews, if we get to a site and it doesn’t feel right we move on. With this in mind, we’ve stayed in some really dodgy looking car parks and left some much nicer looking ones.

ACSI Camper Card App or Book

If we want a campsite then we look at the ACSI directory and we will often cross-reference the reviews with Park4Night to get a rounded picture.

ACSI caters for a very different market to Park4Night and sometimes the discrepancy in reviews can be hilarious. We stayed an amazing campsite in Portugal which had been rated as 1-star on ACSI and 5-stars on Park4Night and Campercontact. The reason the toilets were cleaned between 11am and 12noon and thats when the poster liked to take her showers. It seemed to escape her notice that she had clean showers in the first place.

From experience, we have found that are very few reviews on the camperstops which at times is annoying particularly in places where the camperstop is not listed on Park4Night.

Campercontact

This was recommended by some motor homers we met in the queue for the ferry to Santander. I believe is particularly popular with the Dutch and Germans. Like Park4Night, it shows a number of different site types but tends to favour paid sites. Generally we only use it if we haven’t found anywhere on Park4Night or ACSI

Blogs and Pinterest

When we first left for Spain, we were completely newbies to free camping. I read a lot of blogs and searched Pinterest avidly for ideas. I mean who knew there was an elephant park in Santander!

Look around you

We were on our way to a free camping spot in Sicily when we spied 3 other motor homes parked up by the beach and went to investigate. We spent the next 4 days there and it’s probably been our best free camping site to date.

Other top tips
Try to arrive mid-afternoon

If  you don’t like option 1 or it’s full, you don’t want to be chasing your tail in the dark. We had a day where we had 6 false starts before finding a beautiful site at attempt number 7!  Whilst days like this are rare, it pays to be prepared. 

Don't be afraid to move

We’ve had two occasions where we’ve moved in the middle of the night; one was due to gale force winds and the other was the because of noise levels. We could have dug our heels in but we would be doing nothing other than compromising our own piece of mind. 

On that note, if you get to a site and aren’t sure, whilst it’s lovely to have glass or two of wine at the end of the day, make sure that there is always someone to drive the van should you need to go in an emergency. 

Embrace your surroundings

Whether it be a fellow camper, local cafe owner or a dog walker that says hi,  say hi back.  We have made some of our best friends this way and  received some fantastic recommendations. One guy in Gijon wanted to practise his English so Doug made him a coffee and had a chat. In return he gave us 15 recommendations for things to do and places to stop. Most of which we never would have found on our own.  

And finally...

If there is a web-site for a campsite check it.  We learnt our lesson after Doug accidentally confused “naturalist” and “naturist”! As I’m typing this I’m still laughing at the horrified look on his face as it dawned on him and he rang up to cancel the booking!

What 300 days on the road has taught us?

We’ve been on the road for just over 300 days now and the transition from 9-5 to a full-time nomads hasn’t been the easiest at times but it’s been one of the most rewarding.

For the first time, we had a start point but no end point for three routine based people the change is remarkable. We’ve gone from panicking about leaving at 7.30 instead of 7.27 to booking a ferry 4 hours before it left for Denmark having just a bought a motor home. 

So, what has 300 days on the road taught us?

Living together in a 20 square metre box is hard

We lived in a four-bedroom detached house with a shared tennis court before we left the UK so we have downsized considerably. In the motorhome, there is no escape and conflict is inevitable when you spend 24/7 with each other, we are no exception! We have  learned to be more tolerant of each other and to communicate with each other before small issues get out of hand.

There are many beautiful places in the world but it's the people that make the difference

We are fortunate to have met some wonderful people (and their furry friends) along the way and shared some amazing memories. 

 

Don't forget to stop and smell the roses

It’s sounds silly but sometimes we need to take a holiday from our travelling. 

At the start of our travels, we got very caught up in having to see everything a place had to offer, and as a result we whizzed through fourteen countries in four months and everything had to have a purposes. We were knackered and it was unsustainable financially, emotionally and energetically.

It’s hard, even now, we have to say to ourselves we can just stop. The difference is we are now able to recognise when we need to stop and batten the hatches. We’ve just spent two weeks in Rome and for five of those days we did nothing, we just hung out in the campsite, tinkered and enjoyed some down time in the sun. It’s been great.  

Every friendship starts with hello

Whilst, Doug will talk to anyone Issy and I are a bit more reserved. 

We met our friends La Smalaventure because we saw their van, and  I contacted Caroline via Facebook and said do you fancy meeting up. It was the start of a great friendship and to see the kids when we met up with them in Lagos for a second time was incredible.

Within seconds, all five children had said hi to each other and were in various states of undress in the sea; language barriers and age put aside. Issy is now learning French so she can in touch and communicate with them better when we next meet up.

 

Kindness makes the world go round

 

Kindness is the world’s best currency. 

We believe in paying it forward, so where we can, we always help people. Only yesterday, we helped a family who had borrowed a motor home and couldn’t get their electricity. Our reward was that today, on Random Act of Kindness day, we met a campsite owner who whilst being full himself told us of another campsite down the road, where we were able to purchase another gas bottle and Issy got some cuddles with a month old kitten. 

When Aviero had a powercut, and I was plunged into darkness is a back street somewhere, I was welcomed with open arms into a little cafe.

The small things matter but they are not what you think they are

Before we left, it didn’t occur to me not to wash my hair every day but it’s surprising how many days you can go without a shower and electricity when it’s 20 euros a night and the alternative is a beautiful beach or a mountain view.

However, nice bedding (no matter how bad your day has been you still get to sleep in comfort), some photographs of friends and family, or a cuddle from a 3ft crocodile matter when you are feeling homesick can really make the difference.

If there is anything in particular that reminds you of home, stock up. For us, the things we haven’t been able to get are gravy, baked beans and Issy’s hair detangler. It’s all very well trying all these new foods but sometimes she’d just like some cheesy beans without it costing a fortune.

It takes time to adjust to homeschooling

As I said, in my post homeschooling: hints and tips, homeschooling Issy didn’t start off on a great footing. It’s taken time to get to where we are. 

She much prefers only having two hours of school. It hasn’t occurred to her that life is her school now!

We've all got untapped talents

Issy and I have both used the clippers on Doug’s hair. This saves us about 10 euros every 2-3 weeks. 

In a moment of madness, I even let her lose on my hair! One of the things she wants to be is a hairdresser and so I thought what’s the worst that happens I go to hairdresser and get it cut properly. In fact, I needn’t have worried and she’s made a really good job.

And finally save the Andrex for hotels and home

It’s no good buying posh toilet paper, it might be good for your bottom but it’s not good for the toilet cartridge or the person who has to empty it. The best toilet paper for a motor home is your bog standard (pardon the pun) supermarket 2-ply.   

We’ve all changed in the past 300 days, and who knows where we will be in another 300 days or what lessons we will have learnt, one things for sure we will have enjoyed the journey instead of racing to the destination.

Van Life: Let’s talk gas

Our appliances (fridge, hob, hot water and heating) all run off the gas. Whilst, this gives us the freedom to wild camp, it also creates a problem, if the gas runs out. This is exactly what happened to us in Santander when we first hit the road.

Little did we know, that exchanging our German propane bottle for a Spanish one would cause us such a headache. We have since learnt there are several gas connections across Europe. The learning curve involved a fractious 24-hours driving round Santander. Firstly, we had to find the correct regulator and then we had to get a propane bottle. Since, I’m here writing this we did live to tell the tale! So, what are the options when it comes to gas?

Replaceable bottles

Travelling with all your gas requirements for a short trip isn’t likely to be an issue. However, for longer trips it’s neither practical nor safe. In addition to probably being illegal and/or invalidating your insurance.  At some point you are going to have to replace your bottles.

Here are some of the issues with replaceable bottles:

  1. There are several different connections across Europe. We now have a pack of adapters that should enable us to use our German regulator with any European gas bottle.
  2. Each time you buy a bottle in a new country you have to pay a deposit on the bottle. If you don’t return the bottle, then you lose your deposit. This can soon add up at 15-20 Euros a bottle.
  3. In some of the southern European countries finding propane can be an issue. Initially, we got propane because we thought that was what you were supposed to use but it turns out it’s a bit more scientific than that! Butane, whilst burning more efficiently doesn’t like cold temperatures. Anything below about -2 degrees centigrade and it stops working. Given, as I write this we have been on the road for 3 months over the European winter, propane remains our gas of choice.
Refillable Systems

The main alternative is a refillable system which runs of LPG (a propane/butane mix) which is readily available in petrol stations. The Gaslow system is the recognised name in the market but GasIt and Safefill are other alternatives. 

The main argument for installing a LPG system is the cost of LPG is cheaper and there are no lost deposits. However, purchasing the system and installing it (even if you self-install which I would be reluctant to do) is in the region of £550-600 for the system with installation being approximately £150-200.

Whilst, we were tempted (even more so after having no gas),  the reason that we haven’t installed a refillable system comes down to cost. We have a 20 year old van and we are unlikely to recoup our installation costs through usage or re-sale.  

 

Van Life: Kit List

Like I said, we had one week’s experience of motorhoming between us, so we had to learn and quickly. Whilst, we had a basic idea of what we needed, as we’ve become more experienced, we’ve refined our kit list and re-assessed what is really important. 

With the exception of a few more specialist items, our van has been largely been fitted out from budget stores such as Lidl, Aldi and Poundland or their European equivalents.

This is not intended to be an exhaustive list but if you are new to the game hopefully this will give an idea of what you might need.

Legal Stuff
  • Driving License
  • International Driving Permit (depending on location)
  • Original V5C (Vehicle log book)
  • MOT paperwork
  • Insurance Certificate
  • Green Card (This is currently included in our insurance certificate but who knows what the position will be post-Brexit)
  • European Driving Kit (covers legal requirements such as breathalysers, high visibility jackets etc)
  • Chains (if travelling in winter)
  • First Aid Kit
  • Reflective square if towing or carrying bikes
Essentials
  • Basic Tool Kit
  • Bungy cords
  • Water Hose and adapters
  • Gas and adapters 
  • Electrical hook-up cable and adapter (not all campsites use the universal camping connection)
  • 12V Inverter
  • Internal multi-plugs (with USB charger connections)
  • 12V chargers
  • Toilet chemicals
  • Disposable gloves
  • Cheap toilet paper 
  • Hand cleanser
  • Toilet brush
  • Nice bedding
  • Cutlery and kitchen utensils
  • Gas igniter or matches
  • Kettle
  • Plates, bowls, cups
  • Saucepans
  • Frying Pan
  • Measuring Jug
  • Cooking Scales
  • Wok with a lid
  • Bin
  • Dustpan and brush
  • Cleaning wipes
  • Peg-less washing line
  • Storage boxes and organisers
  • Dehumidifier
  • Lantern/Emergency Torch
  • Door fly net
  • Fly swat
  • Anti-mosquito candles
  • Hot water bottles
  • Fold-up table and chairs
  • Fold-up deck chairs
  • USB Fans
  • Refillable bottles
  • Wheel-clamp
Luxuries
  • Step Ladder (to get in an out of bed above the cabin)
  • Electric Kettle 
  • Electric Heater
  • Toaster
  • Convection oven 
  • Handheld vacuum cleaner
  • Projector

Upgrading Rosie to go off-grid

In the 20 years that Rosie has been on the road, there world has changed somewhat and she needed some upgrading to allow us go off-grid (wild camp or stay in places other than a campsite).

 

Bike Racks

The downside to having a motor home as opposed to a caravan is that if you need to drive somewhere then your whole house has to come with you. This isn’t a major issue when you are free camping but on the occasions that we’re stopped for a while it becomes a bit tedious to have collapse everything down and unplug.

The bikes give us the freedom to venture into town, head to the supermarket or just go out for a longer explore without it taking hours or costing a fortune on public transport.

Solar Panels

We started with a 120W MTTR solar panel but that got damaged in high winds and so we replaced it with an 80W MTTR combined with a separate 85W leisure battery. So far we’ve never exhausted the capacity of the leisure battery.  That said, we only use the leisure battery to power the lights, the laptop. Our heating and fridge run off gas.

Reversing Camera

After a few close shaves, the final straw was when someone came round the corner and managed to miss a 3.2T motorhome reversing and hit us. We got a wireless one from Amazon which Doug spent Boxing Day afternoon fitting and it’s a godsend. It makes reversing and even driving so much easier as we can now see what’s behind us.

Satellite Navigation App

We have found out that Google Maps and a motorhome don’t mix on one too many occasion. So we’ve upgraded our Sat Nav to Co-Pilot which has a feature whereby we can put in the dimensions of the vehicle. Touch wood a week in we have no complaints. Even when we’ve thought it’s a bit tight we’ve had 30cm either side to spare as opposed to the 3cm either side in Evora. 

Motion-Sensor Alarm

As Rosie didn’t come with an alarm, we fitted a simple wireless alarm which we picked up from a hardware store for 15 Euros. Whilst not absolutely necessary, it’s piece of mind and hopefully will alert people if someone does try and break in.

Issy’s Room

For the price of a shower curtain rail and some cheap curtains we have created Issy her own bedroom complete with bed and separate table and chairs. She often shuts herself away in this little oasis playing on her tablet or with her beloved Lego.