Life on the open road….
We love the freedom of a touring holiday but, apart from a few family breaks in static caravans, have never succumbed to the delights of a mobile home.
Right now it seems the perfect choice – you can still travel but stay in your own bubble, protected both from the elements and from getting too close to other human beings.
So it’s no surprise that in the UK, campervan and caravan dealers have seen a sudden surge in post-lockdown activity and touring holidays are creeping back up the list of choices.
But a holiday on the road presents a bewildering range of options, with a style for everyone – from wild camping through the RV life with fun and funky personalised motorhomes to the cosy comforts of a snug little caravan.
If buying’s not for you, there are plenty of short-term rental options, and if you can’t face the narrow roads of the British countryside there are even companies who will drive the vehicle to the campsite of your choice.
But whether it’s hired or your own, there are things you need to know before you head off into that wild blue yonder.
First of all let’s get the terminology right.
Caravan – defined as a mobile home, fully equipped with household accessories which is towed behind a vehicle. Compact but packed with everything you need with sleeping quarters, washing and toilet facilities and a place to cook.
Motorhome – a motor vehicle traditionally built on a truck or bus chassis and designed to serve as self-contained living quarters for recreational travel. There is normally a divide between the cab and the living area which contains sleeping space, washing and kitchen facilities.
Campervan – a van equipped as a self-contained travelling home, normally smaller than a motorhome. They’ve come a long way since the traditional VW seen on the road in the 1960s. They have the essentials of bed, cooker and storage but are mostly without washing and toilet facilities and there is generally no divide between the cab and the living quarters.
A trend which has been rising in the UK market for the last few years is for manufacturers to make what are called ‘van conversions’, based on larger vans than VWs and including all the mod cons of a motorhome in a smaller space.
RV – stands for recreational vehicle and is a generic term that includes all of the above. It simply means an enclosed piece of equipment used as a means of travel and as a temporary home, but most people use it to refer to the big, beautiful beasts that roam the American highways.
So which one is for you?
We spoke to dedicated caravan, campervan and motorhome owners and asked them to share their tips for a successful life on wheels.
Norfolk-based Simon and Chris bought a caravan a few years ago. ‘Planning to retire soon, it seemed a good way to see old friends and explore new areas of the country without placing a burden on those we visited. With two active dogs it gave us a way to travel and be welcome.’
‘Before making our final decision we drew up a small list of must-haves which included a good day room, a fixed double bed so that we could fold into the arms of Morpheus at any time of day and a completely self-contained wet area, shower and WC. We also wanted good light – early viewings made it clear that some caravans, particularly older ones, can be dark.’
They finally settled on a second-hand Adria because of its large perspex windows and roof panels and the big external storage areas. A bonus bit of kit was the remote controlled power mover, making parking very easy.
‘Four years on we’ve used the van regularly, not only as we had anticipated but also as a base camp for work in different parts of the UK. The beauty of WiFi means we can both work from the van, starting the day walking dogs somewhere new, working, and then out with the BBQ in the evening or enjoying the contents of a slow pot under the awning.’
‘Caravanning encourages a life of up at dawn and bed at dusk. We have found TV takes a lesser role; although the WiFi enables access to Netflix when it’s wet.’
And as for caravan versus motorhome? Simon says it’s a no-brainer. ‘You can set up at the site and pop down the pub in the car!’
Firmly in Team Campervan are Ann and Nick from Nottingham who, with their 10 year old daughter Emily, have travelled both in the UK and across Europe.
‘We love our van and the time we spend in it. We have a 2016 short wheel base VW Transporter with a Camper King conversion. We chose it because we wanted something that was small enough to use as a vehicle as well as a campervan.’
‘Before we bought we hired a VW Transporter for a 12 day trip round Wales to test it out. Being outside in the fresh air in nature, cooking on a BBQ, the way that ‘camping faff’ occupies your mind and hands just enough to forget about your worries – our campervan gives us all that with a comfy bed and more protection from the elements. So we get the good night’s sleep that is often missing in a tent.’
‘It also gives us flexibility as most of the stuff we need is usually in the van so we can go away for weekends without too much prep and can be set up within half an hour of arriving at the campsite. The last time we went away Emily and I nipped to the toilet and Nick already had the barbecue going by the time we got back!’
Another benefit is the camaraderie of fellow-campers. ‘We like to include other children in our longer trips. The van means we can ‘pop in’ to other people’s holidays for a couple of nights, joining them on a campsite or even sleeping in the driveway of a holiday home, without imposing too much.’
‘We also like the freedom. The last few years (sadly not this summer) we have taken 3 week road trips across France, England and Spain maybe staying 1 week somewhere then 2-4 nights at other locations. The holiday feels long, we get to discover new places and drop in on friends.’
Weighing in for the motorhome option are Sally and Bill from West Sussex, owners of a Carthago they wouldn’t swap for the world.
‘It’s the smallest one they make, only 6.4 metres long. Carthago has a touch of luxury about it and, like many of the best motorhomes, is German-made so very few rattles and the road-noise is quite acceptable. We’re glad we specified an automatic as it makes it so easy to drive.’
Both have happy memories of family campervan and caravan holidays in the 1960s and 1970s, so a motorhome was perhaps an inevitable purchase for them. But starting out with their own was still a bit daunting.
‘There’s a lot to get your head around – getting water and gas on board, ‘hooking up’ to electric points on a campsite if it’s available, how to run your van’s heating, dealing with and disposing of waste water (‘grey’ water) and toilet waste (‘black’ water). It helps if you are methodical and, after a while, it becomes simpler and easier as you learn the tricks of the motorhome life, such as setting your pull-out awning at a jaunty angle so if it rains the water runs off rather than soaking you when you wind it in!’
Freedom and flexibility are once again key. ‘We see our motorhome as our ‘holiday apartment-on-wheels’. We’ve been as far north as the northern coast of Scotland and as far south as the beaches of Croatia. On route we’ve loved the vineyards of Alsace, the spa towns of southern Germany, the rugged costas of Spain, the spectacular Italian lakes and the beautiful and wild Atlantic coast of south-west France. ‘
‘Continental Europe is made for motorhoming with France and Germany in particular providing cheap (e.g €5-€15 or sometimes even free) overnight stops specifically for motorhomes. One German ’Stellplatz’, as they are called, came with free entry to the local spa and we luxuriated in the salt pool and the steam room before returning to the van for supper.’
The personal touch
It seems everyone likes to add that little extra to their mobile home and the keener and more mechanically-minded often make improvements, or ‘mods’, to make things run better.
Simon and Chris started with a full sized weather proof awning, which came with the caravan, but soon changed to a light weight shade and mesh sides, providing a dry area outside when coming and going. ‘An awning is a must-have with dogs particularly when the weather is inclement.’
For Anna and Nick it’s a double seat in the front. ‘This is one of my favourite and enduring memories of our van trips – the 3 of us all in the front, heading off for adventure. Oh and a decent sound system as the original speakers were terrible. It was the best thing we did for long journeys – we take it in turns to DJ, listen to audio books and the SatNav is easy and clear to see.’
Sally and Bill admit they give all their mobile homes names. ‘Our Carthago is called Heidi, after the literary little girl, because our van hails from the German/Swiss border, and we do tend to wander and learn lots about the places we visit.’
‘Our Auto-Trail, which was a Tracker model, was called Tonto after the Lone Ranger’s loyal sidekick who, let’s face it, was the one with the real skills.’
How to choose the right mobile home for you
It’s a big purchase and everyone agrees Try Before You Buy is the best approach. Hire a vehicle similar to the one you want to buy and have a holiday in it to see if it matches your expectations.
Anna says, ‘We have friends who bought a beautiful but very big motorhome but got rid of it within a year as they felt restricted by the size of the vehicle for exploring quiet towns and villages. Other friends travelled Europe for 3 years with a child and a large motorhome completely suited their needs as they liked using bikes and local transport to explore.’
‘We already thought we knew that we wanted a campervan but our 12 day trip round Wales was fantastic persuasion. We experienced 4 days of wall-to-wall sunshine, 2 days of non stop rain, some 50-60 mph winds and the varied and changeable weather that Wales offers. And we enjoyed every minute.’
‘Camping on a cliff top campsite outside Tenby, with 50+ mph winds and rain all night, we closed the van door and all got a great night’s sleep. We woke up to see the tent across from us had collapsed and the family had deserted.’
‘At the washing up block I eavesdropped on the moaning and groaning of other tent campers who’d endured the constant flapping of canvas and the persistent dampness. They were all sleep-deprived. Our decision was made!’
Sally and Bill agree it’s best to Know Before You Go. ‘When we took a month to travel round the North Coast 500 (the Scottish tourist board’s ‘round the top’ route which is approximately 500 miles long starting and ending in Inverness), we met a plethora of people in rented motorhomes. One group of six we met in a campsite in Ullapool had no idea how to fill the water tank of their huge rented van until we gave them some friendly advice.’
And if you have made the decision to buy, Bill says you should take all the help you can.
‘Any dealer selling a new motorhome should set up a ‘handover’ session which it’s a good idea to capture on your phone camera or video as there’s a lot to take in. When you get on site for your first night in your new van, it’s difficult to remember how to get the heating working, unfortunate if it’s cold outside!’
‘If you’re buying second-hand, it’s best to seek out a dealer who specialises in reselling good second-hand models rather than buying direct from sites like eBay or Gumtree which can contain scams; low-priced motorhomes where money is asked for upfront with the van never materialising. Sadly there are people who’ve lost their money and with it their motorhoming dreams.’
But even though he loves life on the move Bill says it’s not always the easiest of holidays.
‘The coastal areas of Britain can be crowded with motorhomes searching for spots to park or stay and many British councils have yet to catch on that accommodating motorhomers could be lucrative. Motorhomes are welcomed with open arms to almost every town and village in France and the local Mairie often provides an Aire de Camping Car at low-cost. Here in Britain parking is often difficult with height barriers and no overnight areas, because of an innate fear of attracting travellers.’
‘There are more than 3,000 special camping ‘Aires’in France and books and apps in English detailing all of them, but there are almost no such spaces in the UK. This reluctance to recognise the disposable spending power of motorhomers has led to a rise in so-called ‘wild camping’, parts of the countryside where it’s possible to park up overnight – often illegally – without being disturbed. But this isn’t ideal as there’s no way to dispose safely of waste water and horror stories of toilet waste being dumped in streams and bushes in the British countryside do nothing for the image of camping.’
Top tips for a successful motorhome holiday
- Join one of the Facebook groups for almost instant advice and help.
- Find an app. There are several detailing all campsites, Aires and Stellplatz over Europe and further afield.
- Read reviews about campsites – they can be very busy and sometimes noisy. Vans make a very effective ‘bubble’ and using its own facilities, especially during COVID, opens up the smaller rural sites.
- Have a good SatNav with the ability to input your motorhome’s length, width, height and weight to avoid roads unsuitable for your van.
- Plan to arrive as soon after lunch as you can. Arriving late and setting up in the dark is no fun.
- Keep the van stocked with basic foods and spices, wine and beer etc to make meal planning easier.
Finally consider joining an organisation, for additional benefits and discounts. The two most well-known in the UK are:
Camping and Caravanning Club
For £41 a year you get access to a nationwide network of 1,400 Club and member-exclusive sites. It offers friendly help and advice for both experienced campers and first-timers, along with insurance and a range of discounts and special offers.
• Camping and Caravanning Club
Caravan and Motorhome Club
Membership costs £54 per year and gives members access to 2,700 campsites in the UK and overseas. The club was founded in 1907 and members can take advantage of expert advice, overseas travel services, cover and insurance and exclusive member offers and discounts.
• Caravan and Motorhome Club
Bill sounds one final note of caution.
‘Even in a campervan, motorhome or caravan you are still camping. You are in a field exposed to the weather and there is still the ‘camping faff’ to contend with.’
And there you have it, three very different yet equally enthusiastic views.
So is ‘van life for you?