Time to get your maps out.
So you've got your van all setup and are just about ready to roll out. But which road should you take? Planning your vanlife journey is where the fun really begins.
Rank the countries.
Europe can be an intimidating place... it's so vast. With so many countries seemingly at you fingertips, you will need to prioritise where you go first. We started off with a fair idea of the countries we wanted to visit, based on our combined past experiences. Coming from a background in travel, I also added a lot of "must-visit countries" to the list. Our main goal was to spend as much of the summer along the coastline where we could swim and enjoy the sunshine. We decided on a rough loop starting in the Netherlands, heading across Germany, through the Balkans, down the boot of Italy and then all the way to Spain. Being mindful of our budget, we decided to avoid Scandinavia altogether as the tolls and cost of living there is so high. We marked dates in our calendar of where and when our friends would be travelling, so that we could meet up with them along the way.
Allocate your time wisely.
The amount of time you have will dictate how far you can travel, how many countries you visit and for how long. Having quit our jobs, we are not short of time and plan to travel until our money runs out. We figure we can comfortably make it to the 6 month mark or even longer if we pick up some work along the way. If you are similarly planning a long trip, then you will need to be mindful of visa requirements. Daniel is travelling on a British passport and I have a German working holiday visa so that I can exceed the 3 month Shengen visa requirements. Plotting your route on Google Maps will help you to roughly plan out distances and driving times. Don't try to accomplish too much in too short a time. Driving is a tiring business and if you rush you won't have time to see anything. Always allow yourself extra days as a buffer. That will give you time to rest, to enjoy the moment, to visit places you stumble across and even have necessary repairs done.
Be mindful of tolls and vignettes.
Some countries charge tolls or fees to use their roads and highways. These add up quickly so should be considered when planning your route. Vignette stickers last a set number of days and are required in some countries regardless of which roads you take. Make sure you do your research. It feels very wasteful when you are forced to buy a ten day pass in a country you only plan to visit for two days. This link is useful for more information about Vignettes.
If you have plenty of time, make sure that you choose routes without tolls. In most cases they can be avoided and the longer drive often proves to be quieter, more scenic and with plenty of places to stop along the way. While I can't argue with the efficiency of the autobahns, they are very monotonous and you really do miss out on a lot of the beautiful countryside.
Utilise GPS and offline maps.
We mount an iPad Mini onto our dash and connect it via Bluetooth to a GPS device. We have preloaded this with Here Maps. This is the only free offline maps we have found that provides directions in real time. Download all of the countries you need and switch the app to offline. To avoid getting yourself into any sticky situations, you need to filter your route results. Make especial care to tick no to unsealed roads. Otherwise don't be surprised to find yourself down some undesirable, dirt roads. It's also worth having the app on your phones so that you can navigate cities while on foot or bike as well.
Avoid green zones.
Some countries have "green" environmental zones within the cities. In these zones, older vehicles which don't meet the environmental standards are forbidden. Make sure you are aware of these so as to avoid fines. They are not very well signposted so make sure to do your research. We found them to be quite common in the Netherlands and Germany. For further information check out this website.
Say yes to car ferries.
Don't forget about travelling by sea. Car ferries provide a gateway to exploring the islands. So far we've taken our van over on the ferry to Brac (Croatia) and across to Sicily (Italy). Incorporating car ferries into your trip can be a great way to save on travel time (and sometimes fuel and toll costs too).
Some popular routes we looked at...
- Greece-Italy eg. Patras-Ancona, Patras-Bari
- Spain-UK eg. Bilbao-Portsmouth, Santander-Plymouth
- UK-France eg. Dover-Calais
Keep in mind that some ferries operate seasonally and have an irregular timetable, so do plenty of research first. You can compare the options on rome2rio which will direct you to the appropriate booking websites for further info.
Don't forget to track your journey.
Tracking our trip is a great way to be able to look back, reflect and remember where we have been. It amazes me to see just how far we have come and to be able to auto generate a map with the data. It's a great way to be able to share our journey with our family and friends. We use TraceMyTrack.
Ask for suggestions & embrace spontaneity.
What it boils down to is that despite all the best preparation in the world, things will never always go exactly as you plan. Despite all the rave reviews you read online, not everything will be your cup of tea. Arriving by van also alters your experience as not all cities are van-friendly. I am sure that my time in Dubrovnik would have been greatly improved had we not had to suffer the $10 an hour parking, which must be paid all in coins. There have been many places on our planned itinerary that we simply decided to keep on driving through. Similarly, a lot of the smaller towns we love wild-camping in don't feature on the front page of Lonely Planet.
What we have learnt to do is to always, always ask for suggestions and recommendations from people who have been there. Even better if the advise comes from locals. It has paid off every time and we have found ourselves in some of the best, far-flung spots we never would have discovered otherwise.
Vanlife means freedom.
And that there is the true beauty of van life. Having the freedom to be able to change your plans on a whim and discovering new places that you've never even heard of!