Camper parked by the beach in Normandy

Camper parked by the beach in Normandy ()

My husband looks in the rearview mirror of our little camper. "Hold onto your stuff, kids. We are making a U-turn."

“It looked quiet,” I confirm.

“Off the road?” my husband asks.

“Yep. And there was already another camper,” I reply.

He found a place to do a quick turnaround, the kids were unsuccessful in keeping water bottles from sliding off the table, but our nights’ stay in St. Denis, about 3 hours west of Paris, was quiet and peaceful. The next day we finished our Normandy camper road trip with a long drive home to Kaiserslautern.

A different take on RV’s

Taking a big family road trip in a camper is super enjoyable. Our kids find the rear seats with the table more conducive to playing games or getting schoolwork accomplished while driving. Restroom breaks are quick and self-contained, plus we save money on food by bringing our own groceries.

We also take advantage of the free camper parking available in small towns across Europe, but only after we wrapped our heads around using the camper as a rolling hotel and not a way to access nature. That is one of the big differences between American-style RVing and taking a European camper road trip. There are campgrounds in Europe, but they tend to lack the privacy and “back to nature” feel we prefer.

Finding a free parking place for the night

In Versailles, we parked overnight one block from the palace. In Bayeux, we found a quiet spot to sleep by the canal path that led into downtown. One of the benefits of camper travel is flexibility. My family finished at Mont St. Michel earlier than we expected, so instead of staying the night as originally planned we motored on and saved ourselves time the next day.

In France, we looked for “Motorhome Aire” parking lots on Google maps for an official parking spot that sometimes included services like a dump station or trash bin. In Germany, we stay at a “Campingwagen or Wohnmobil Stellplätze” which may have a small fee or an electric hookup. In Italy, the keyword is “Parcheggio Camper or Area Sosta Camper” which sometimes has water to refill.

However, you don’t always need to stay in an official camper parking area. In most of continental Europe, 24-hour parking lots are also legal for campers to stay overnight. These are not a place to bring out any camp chairs, just a spot to sleep for the night.

In most of Scandinavia, parking along a layby, rest stop, or trailhead is accepted. In England, rules are stricter. No matter where you go, finding a spot via an app is very helpful. I recommend the following two apps for finding great places to overnight park in both the UK and the rest of Europe.

Renting a Camper

There are lots of camper rental companies available in Europe. Local companies can often have great services, while larger multi-national rentals may offer better deals.

  • McRent touts itself as Europe’s largest camper rental agent with offices all over, so one-way drives are easy.

  • Indie Campers claim to be Europe’s number one in camper rental and offer their own fleet plus numerous private listings.

  • Motorhome Republic searches multiple camper rental websites.

  • Go Boony is like Airbnb for campers, allowing you to rent from private owners.

Consider the size of the camper you need. Be sure it has the correct number of available seatbelts and bed space. Most campers will list the table as bed space – meaning you need to convert it every night. If you’d like four beds available without adjusting the table, search for six beds.

Next, consider the amenities of the camper. Most large European campers (or motorhomes) are still quite small compared to American ones but cram a fully useable kitchen, table, beds, toilet and shower into the small space. They are much like a rolling tiny house. However, many of the small campervans only have a basic camp kitchen, lack a toilet and may require you to pop up a tented roof for sleeping. Check whether bedding is included in your rental.

Maintenance on European campers is easier than those in the U.S. Water is easily filled with a hose to an external hookup or even with a bucket into a large under-seat opening. Greywater (from washing) is trickled from the bottom of the camper. Black water (toilet water) is contained in a “cassette” the size of a fat briefcase; it’s a clean process and easily dumped. Heat runs on replaceable propane canisters, and the electrical battery recharges as you drive.

Camper Road Trip Hints

  • Make sure your phone service includes data in the area you will be traveling.

  • Download an offline Google map of the area ahead of time.

  • Set your mapping app to avoid tolls. Camper rates are very high and driving at camper speeds means you lose any speed benefit. One exception is through the Alps, where tunnel tolls help avoid mountain passes.

  • Compare off-freeway routes. Campers will take longer than a Google maps’ estimate. A local road may take the same amount of time with less mileage, which saves on gas.

  • Rent a diesel if possible. The gas mileage is beneficial.

  • Know how to drive a standard transmission (a stick shift).  This is a rental rule around the world; automatic vehicles are either more expensive or non-existent.

  • Seeing a semi-truck or another motorhome in a potential parking spot is a good sign that it’s OK to park.

  • Pack some board games and books for evening activities; European campers don’t come with TVs.

Our four days driving the camper to Normandy were a whirlwind and great family fun. Wherever you end up, a European road trip in a camper is sure to be an adventure.

author picture
Kat is a travel and lifestyle writer based in Kaiserslautern, Germany with a special interest in anything outdoorsy or ancient. She has a bachelor’s degree in geography from Penn State University and has been a travel writer for about 10 years. Currently, she is in the depths of dissertation research for an archaeology degree at the University of the Highlands and Islands. 

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