Motorhome touring in Europe
Words by Barry Norris
If you’re an old hand at visiting Europe, you don’t need telling about the joys of European touring but, for newcomers to motorhoming, it’s a must to get the most from your vehicle. For all of us, though, there are a few things to catch up on post-Brexit.
There are so many facets of each individual country in Europe to consider. For me, it’s wide-open roads, the abundance of overnight stopovers, warmer weather, and exciting foods, places and people to meet.
Visiting southern Spain and Portugal for some winter sun to help get through the British winter is so worthwhile, especially when you can take off for a month or two or more.
Modern motorhomes are well insulated and winter sports may be your pleasure or you may prefer the cultural highlights of European cities. Whatever your passion, it is worth preparing beforehand to avoid any problem with bureaucracy and the law.
General preparations before motorhome travel
For newcomers, take a few UK trips so you have mastered your motorhome or campervan and know how it performs.
Always check the roadworthiness of a vehicle before any long-haul trip and ensure scheduled services have been undertaken.
Don’t forget you need to be UK road legal to be legal in Europe, so if your MOT is due, get it done before you go as European garages can’t issue MOTs.
European vehicle breakdown cover is essential to avoid major disruption should a breakdown occur. Most motorhome insurers include European breakdown cover or offer it as an optional extra.
Always check the cover includes breakdowns on the campsite and that there’s no restriction on weight or length of unit.
The European way
It’s important to remember the continentals often do things differently from us. For instance, the UK (except Scotland) has a legal drink driving limit of 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood, while for most of Europe, including Scotland, the limit is 50mg of alcohol.
The Slovak Republic, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Romania and Hungary have a zero tolerance of alcohol when driving.
If you’re into winter touring, some countries like Germany and Austria require the use of winter tyres and some regions will also require snow chains when on snow-covered roads.
Once you enter the EU you can travel freely from country to country. Between most of the EU states there are no border posts as such and generally all you will see is a roadside sign to indicate you have entered another country.
Despite the lack of formal border control, if there is a toll booth at or close to the border then that’s where it’s a possibility you’ll be stopped and asked for documents.
If you do come unstuck with the police for infringing regulations, you may be asked to pay an on-the-spot fine in some countries.
Planning your motorhome trip in Europe
It’s worth planning your route before you depart and note many European countries use motorway tolls. Toll roads may be fast but, in good weather, a journey off the motorways can be part of your holiday, exploring the delights of small villages.
Despite sat-nav and Google Maps, I prefer the use of a good paper map to help with route planning. Michelin provides some excellent European maps and guides with further online assistance on viamichelin.co.uk
Other helpful guides can be found at vicariousbooks.co.uk
If you’re contemplating your first foray into Europe and feel a little unsure then clubs and private companies offer escorted tours, where you have the services of a guide to help on the way with the itinerary and campsites organised for you.
Alternatively, the two main clubs organise rallies at European campsites where a rally steward will be available to help you and organise social activities. You can use the clubs as a one-stop shop for booking ferries, campsites, travel insurance and more.
Some prefer unplanned wandering and this is possible because of the ready availability of aires for nightly stopovers in many European countries, but watch out for the peak holiday season and popular destinations.
For example, in the south of Spain in midwinter, many coastal spots get very crowded, although inland the situation is better.
If you’ve heard of the abundance of wild camping, well, this is probably coming to an end in Spain and Portugal.
There’s a new law in Portugal that permits overnight motorhome parking only in designated areas and a similar regulation in the Valencia region of Spain.
Similar problems with wild camping has also given rise to restrictions in other areas along the south of France where many coastal car parks have height barriers and parking of motorhomes along many stretches of promenade is banned.
Driving licence and insurance
Despite Brexit, you do not need an international driving licence (IDP) to drive in the EU, Switzerland, Norway, Iceland or Liechtenstein, as long as you hold a photocard driving licence issued in the UK.
You are likely to need an IDP if your licence is a paper driving licence or it was issued in Jersey, Gibraltar, Guernsey, or Isle of Man.
An IDP can be easily obtained from main post offices for £5.50. If required then, in general, it’s the 1968 type of IDP required, although Andorra requires a 1949 IDP.
Check your insurance covers European travel and ask for an international motor insurance card, known as a green card, well in advance of your trip. If towing, you need a separate green card for the trailer.
You must carry a physical copy of your green card when driving abroad as electronic versions are not accepted. The green card is needed if you are involved in an accident and you may need to show it along with other documents at police checks and border crossings.
A CCI (Camping Card International) isn’t an essential document, but is useful. It’s recognised throughout much of Europe and it can act as an identity document and can often be left at the campsite reception instead of a passport.
Third-party insurance is also provided and all for less than £6. It can be obtained through the main clubs.
Towing a trailer
Many European countries require trailers to be registered and display the registration plate, but this does not apply to UK visitors unless it’s a commercial trailer or over 3,500kg gross weight.
Throughout Europe, speed limits are lower for vehicles towing, as they are in the UK and, in Spain, if your outfit length exceeds 12m then you require marker boards complying with ECE 70 regulations on the rear.
You can have one large board or two smaller ones made of the aluminium with yellow centre and red outline, which can be purchased at HGV suppliers including hgvdirect.co.uk
These are areas where Brexit has a big impact and you will find it’s a different experience at EU border control. Passing through passport control may take longer using the non-EU lanes and you may be asked to show a return or onward ticket and proof of funds to cover the trip.
For residents of Northern Ireland (NI), many aspects of EU travel dealt with here may vary because of NI’s unique status. Similarly, when GB residents travel to NI for many situations it’s as if you’re travelling to the EU.
Your passport must have at least six months’ validity and be less than 10 years old. When travelling to Ireland your passport need only be valid for the length of your stay.
Your stay in the EU is now limited to 90 days within a 180-day period unless you have a visa to stay longer.
In 2022 it’s anticipated that the EU will introduce an electronic travel authorisation called ETIAS (European Travel Information and Authorisation System), which is likely to be similar to the USA’s ESTA system.
Travelling in Europe with pets
Pets also need documentation and this has changed with Brexit. You can no longer use an EU pet passport issued in Great Britain for travel to an EU country or Northern Ireland.
Now, you will need an animal health certificate (AHC) and show proof of their microchip and rabies vaccination. Proof of tapeworm treatment is also required for travel to Finland, Ireland, Norway and Northern Ireland.
The AHC must be obtained no more than 10 days before you travel and is valid for four months for EU travel and four months for re-entry to GB. For further information check out the gov.uk website: “Taking your pet dog, cat or ferret abroad”.
The EU has stringent measures on importing food, including pet food, such that only limited quantities of pet food are permitted and for health reasons only.
Clearly this provides a challenge for pet owners unless they can get their pet to eat fish, plant or egg-based products. See fish4dogs.com
Taking food into the EU
Even small quantities of food for personal consumption are now restricted. Normally, I like to stock up the fridge and cupboard with a few days’ supplies to get me to my destination, plus a few of my favourite foods.
But you are now not permitted to take any meat, milk or any products containing these items into the EU.
There are exceptions for powdered baby milk, baby food or pet food required for medical reasons. Limited amounts of fish, fruit, vegetables, eggs and honey are permitted. Details are on gov.uk and europa.eu We've been getting lots of queries regarding things like processed foods, frozen and gravy granules, etc, so here a link to a UK Government factsheet.
However, the long and the short of it is that it really does depend on the ingredients. Meat, dairy products and vegetables are banned, plus fresh fruit except bananas, coconut, pineapple and dates. We can find no reference to tinned or frozen fruit and so can only assume they are also banned. Soya milk and yogurt presumably will not be permitted as all plants and vegetables are banned.
However, the document does provide some clarification on gravy granules, which may be permitted, assuming they can be considered to be a food supplement and contain less than 20% of processed meat products. Also listed with exemptions are cakes, biscuits and soup stocks, which can be permitted if containing limited amounts of the banned foods.
When you are returning from the EU to the UK there are no restrictions on personal imports of meat, dairy or other animal products. Plants and plant products for your own consumption and free from disease are also allowed, although controls on these are due to be phased in this year.
Coming back to GB, duty free allowances for alcohol and tobacco will apply as for returns from non-EU countries. Basically it’s 42 litres of beer, 18 litres of wine and 200 cigarettes, but refer to gov.uk for more details.
EHIC Health card
An EHIC (European Health Insurance Card) within its expiry date is still valid in Europe. If not, apply for a UK Global Health Insurance Card (GHIC), which gives the right to access state-provided healthcare during a temporary stay in the EU.
You can apply for a GHIC on the nhs.uk website. It’s worth noting that you may still be liable for the cost of medication and other health facilities, so ensure you have proper travel health insurance.
Check your insurance covers length of stay and countries you are going to visit.
Ferries offer numerous routes into Europe from the short Dover/Calais crossing to the Portsmouth/Plymouth crossing to Santander/Bilbao. There are also crossings from the east coast such as Harwich, Hull and Newcastle to Holland.
If a short crossing to France is required, then Eurotunnel is also a quick and easy way to cross the Channel.
While there is a ban on LPG-fuelled vehicles using Eurotunnel, the ban does not extend to motorhomes with gas cylinders or tanks for habitation purposes as long as there’s no more than 47kg per container and no more than 50kg per vehicle if more than one container.
Gas containers (cylinders and bulk tanks) must be no more than 80% full (which is the norm) and they must be switched off when travelling.
Ferries also have rules on carrying gas, so check terms and conditions on individual ferry websites. One thing to remember when travelling on a ferry is not to put your alarm on if it has a motion sensor, as most do, as this will set off the alarm once you’re at sea.
If going for winter sun in Spain or Portugal, it’s worth looking at the Brittany Ferries’ route to northern Spain as driving through France is not ideal in winter (many aires are shut or have services switched off) and much of the extra cost in ferry fare will be recouped from savings on campsite fees, tolls and fuel.
On the open road
Once you get started driving, you should find you will adapt to driving on the right-hand side of the road fairly easily, because continental roads and especially motorways tend to be much quieter than at home.
In the big cities it’s busy, but elsewhere it’s quieter to give you a chance to think carefully before manoeuvring.
Whilst the UK is good at signing a 30mph speed limit at the approach to an urban area, many countries just indicate the start of the urban speed limit with a village/town name sign and, as you leave the limits, a sign shows the name crossed out.
Within the urban area the speed limit will be 50kmh (30mph) unless specified otherwise. As in the UK the speed limit outside urban areas varies.
Radar speed camera detectors are banned throughout Europe and, in France, Germany and Switzerland, sat-nav speed camera location warnings are also banned, so it’s best to disable this function. Also illegal is the use of dash cams in Austria, Portugal and Luxembourg.
Be cautious when travelling on quiet stretches of motorway, especially in France and Spain, where there have been reports of tourists being flagged down with indications that there is a problem with the vehicle. The other driver appears friendly, but may be an opportunistic thief, so be cautious.
If you are proposing to enter major cities and towns, it’s worth checking on the environmental restrictions operating in that country before departing from the UK.
There are many schemes, which restrict vehicular access into urban areas throughout Europe according to size and vehicle Euro rating. In most cases you need to apply for a windscreen sticker, which will indicate your environmental rating and entitlement to enter (or not) specific areas.
Germany has its Umwelt stickers and France uses Crit’Air stickers.
See urbanaccessregulations.eu for further information. Normally the stickers can be bought online; make sure you buy from the national government or city authority as there are third-party sellers who may sell a genuine sticker, but at an inflated price.
Number plates and GB stickers
A registration plate with the EU stars and GB marked on it is no longer accepted for EU touring, nor is a national flag of England, Scotland or Wales.
Now a number plate requires the GB identifier on its own or with a Union Flag. If not then you will need a GB sticker on your vehicle. But, drive into Spain and irrespective of what number plate you have, you need a GB sticker, but for Republic of Ireland a GB identifier is not required.
A-frames in Europe
The use of A-frames in Europe, for all our years as part of the EU, has been fraught with problems and I do not expect things to improve. Post-Brexit there may be a little less sympathy among our European friends for non-EU visitors trying to tow in a manner that can be argued is against the regulations of some EU countries.
In general, Europe permits cars to be towed only when being recovered in the case of a breakdown. While our Department for Transport tends to accept that a car being towed with an A-frame is, subject to certain provisos, a trailer, in Europe a car towed with an A-frame is still a car.
To be absolutely safe from being stopped by police, only tow a car mounted on a trailer.
Many European motorways are funded by tolls, which can be costly – costs vary according to the class of vehicle, which is often defined by gross weight, height and number of axles. Sites such as viamichelin.co.uk will calculate the tolls payable on your journey.
In most cases, toll booths offer a selection of payment by cash, debit or credit card or automatic electronic tags, which need to be obtained before travelling.
For more, see tolls.eu
Portugal has two toll road systems: mixed toll roads, where electronic tolls and cash/card payments are accepted, and fully electronic toll roads where you must register your vehicle and debit or credit card beforehand.
The Irish Republic’s motorways are pay as you go except for one spot on the M50, which is automatic with number plate recognition cameras, so register with eflow.ie
Austria and Switzerland require you to buy a vignette to display in the windscreen for vehicles up to 3.5 tonnes GVW for use of motorways and semi-motorways.
For heavier motorhomes, Switzerland has a heavy vehicle tax (purchased at the border) and Austria requires you to purchase an electronic box, a GO-Box.
Campsites and Aires
Unlike the UK, many European countries have an abundance of overnight stops for motorhomes, referred to generally as aire de camping car, commonly shortened to aires (stellplätze in Germany and sostas in Italy), which are low cost or even free with water and dump station and sometimes electric hook-ups.
These aires are not to be confused with aires de service, which in France are the motorway service stations.
You should avoid stopping overnight on such motorway service areas as they have a reputation for night-time break-ins. That’s not to say some motorhome stopovers will not be in areas you may consider a little risky, it’s always advisable to assess your surroundings before parking up.
The best advice is to obtain a good guide to aires for the country you are visiting. The Vicarious Books series of All the Aires guides provide a description of facilities and the location. Subscriptions and free apps are also available for locating stopovers, like park4night or Camperstop.
Many aires can be found close to villages and the basis for their existence is that visitors will benefit the local community by spending money in the local shops.
Aires operate on a first-come-first-served basis (except for some busy commercial aires), so it’s best to sort out your chosen aire earlier rather than later if you particularly want to park at that location.
Often, it’s the aires closest to a popular coastal spot or near motorways that will fill up first, whereas the more remote ones are likely to fill last.
A company called Camping Car Park allows you to book at one of 250 aires in France, with news that it wants to expand its network to other countries campingcarpark.com
Facilities will vary enormously, both in extent and quality and this is where an up-to-date guide helps. While many aires will be free, often water needs to be paid for, sometimes using coins and other times by use of a token (jetons in France), which have to be bought at a nearby shop or café.
Service points will most often be via proprietary service bollards, which dispense water and provide dumping facilities for the toilet cassette. The drawback with this system is the close proximity of the drinking water tap and the toilet cassette drain and rinsing tap. So be careful to not mix up your taps.
For longer stays (more than 48 hours), or when you want to get out the table and chairs (ie camp, which is generally not permitted on aires), you should look for a campsite.
Aires usually provide little more room than necessary for parking, something that takes a little getting used to after the usual six-metre rule spacing.
Northern European campsites tend to operate seasonally as in the UK and, if travelling in winter, the help of the two major clubs can be very useful with their winter en route sites.
While aires will largely remain open all year round, it’s not unknown to find the water supply cut in colder regions.
In summer it’s worth booking campsites in advance and other times I usually take a couple of campsite guides to provide a good selection of sites. One useful guide, especially for low season camping, is the Camping Card ACSI with the card providing discounted rates.
Gas and electric hook-up
If you use exchange gas cylinders, such as supplied by Calor and Flogas, note that cylinder exchange is not available in Europe.
The only cylinder in the UK that is also exchangeable throughout most of Europe is Campingaz. The disadvantage, though, is the capacity with the largest (907) cylinder containing just 2.7kg.
If you think you will need more than the two cylinders you need to consider refillable cylinders or an underslung gas tank, both of which can be refilled at service stations that sell autogas.
Some of those staying for longer over the winter period purchase a local exchange cylinder. Like at home, this requires a deposit and also a different adapter/pigtail to connect to your normal regulator.
Most European campsites do now use the European standard blue plug and socket electrical hook-up we are familiar with, but sometimes you will find a continental-style two-pin hook-up point.
You can buy an adapter to fit onto your normal electric hook-up cable plug. Many European hook-ups will provide only low-rated power supplies, perhaps only 6A and occasionally the supply is metered.
Sometimes you will find reverse polarity on continental sites irrespective of the type of hook-up. This can mean that when switched off, even at the socket, equipment will not be isolated. Use a mains tester, which plugs into a socket to test for reverse polarity before using electrical power.
If reverse polarity is indicated, press your RCD (residual current device) test button to see if it still functions (it’s good practice to test the RCD every time you pitch up, even in the UK). If it doesn’t work then you should not use your power, but try another hook-up; it can vary even within the same bollard.
If the RCD does work, then you can use the power with caution and remember with reverse polarity, the only way you can be certain of equipment being electrically dead is to unplug it or disconnect the hook-up from your motorhome.
TV and mobiles
Once you’ve left the UK, your normal terrestrial TV channels disappear, although satellite TV will keep you going until near Bordeaux.
Ever since UK satellite TV was changed to a very focused beam, the size of dish does little to help as you go further south.
Satellite TV will, however, bring in other non-UK stations.
There are also problems with downloading catch-up TV from the internet as normally the system will recognise you are operating outside the UK and prevent access.
As of the start of this year, free roaming for UK mobile phones in EU and EFTA countries is no longer guaranteed. Although mobile phone companies have said that they will not bring back roaming charges, this could well change in the future.
The UK Government has introduced legislation that requires mobile operators to apply a financial limit of £45 per monthly billing period to protect mobile users from any unexpected charges.
While this article outlines many facets of European touring, it cannot cover details for each and every EU country.
Both the major clubs have a wealth of knowledge within their travel sections and on their websites so these are a good resource.
In addition, a particularly useful source of information is the Caravan and Motorhome Club’s overseas touring guidebook.
At the time of writing the UK is starting the process of opening up with the success of the Covid vaccination programme.
Europe is somewhat behind in its vaccination programme, but some countries that are heavily dependent on tourism are keen to open up on the basis of vaccination certificates.
Hopefully by the time you read this, things will have moved on and you can start planning your European adventure with some certainty.
Check out Foreign Travel on the gov.uk website and the EU website reopen.europa.eu/en
Angles Morts – Blind spot stickers for motorhomes over 3.5 tonnes
France has recently introduced legislation for vehicles with a total authorised load weight over 3.5 tonnes to have designated stickers on the sides and rear. This legislation is designed to improve the safety of vulnerable road users like cyclists at junctions and covers foreign vehicles including motorhomes.
Whilst Transport for London has set the bar high for similar regulations at 12 tonnes, even relatively modest motorhomes are caught up in the French regulations.
The regulations apply in urban areas, so it’s unlikely you can avoid having stickers if your vehicle has a plated gross vehicle weight over 3.5 tonnes. Clarification is still being sought from the French Government on the scope of the legislation for motorhomes not exceeding 3.5 tonnes but, when towing, have a combined gross weight exceeding 3.5t.
There are two types of sticker, one for lorries and one for coaches. Without any further guidance the coach sticker seems to be the most appropriate as motorhomes are passenger vehicles.
See securite-routiere.gouv.fr for further details.