caravanning in europe
If you’re planning a European tour soon, make sure you’re clued up before you leave home – here’s what you need to know
If you’re an old hand at visiting Europe, you don’t need telling about the joys of holidaying on the Continent, but for newcomers to caravanning it’s an opportunity to experience a different way of life and some great campsites. For all of us, though, there are a few important things to catch up on post-Brexit, plus a reminder of the usual different continental ways of doing things.
WHY GO TO EUROPE?
There are so many facets of each individual country to consider. For me it’s wide-open roads, warmer weather, exciting foods and 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 caravans are well insulated and winter sports may be your particular pleasure or you may prefer the cultural highlights of European cities. For families there are some brilliant campsites geared up to keep the children entertained. Whatever your passion, it’s there for the taking, but it is worth taking the trouble to prepare beforehand to avoid any problem with bureaucracy and the law in particular.
GENERAL PREPARATIONS FOR CARAVANNING IN EUROPE
For newcomers to towing, the basic rule must be to get a few UK trips under your belt so you have mastered your outfit and know how it performs. It’s always worth checking the roadworthiness of your towcar and caravan before any long-haul trip and ensure scheduled car and caravan 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 insurance is important to avoid major disruption to your holiday should a breakdown occur. Your usual UK car breakdown insurer may be able to offer European cover as RAC and AA do, but check the cover fully includes the caravan. Both major Clubs are able to offer specialised breakdown cover for Europe.
DOING THINGS THE EUROPEAN WAY
It’s important to remember the continentals often do things differently from us in the UK. For instance, the UK (except Scotland) has a legal drink driving limit of 80 milligrammes of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood, while for most of Europe, including Scotland, the limit is 50mg of alcohol. The Slovak Republic, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Romania and Hungary are more restrictive with a zero tolerance of alcohol.
If you’re into winter touring, certain countries like Germany and Austria require the use of winter tyres and some regions will also
require snow chains when driving 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 possible you’ll be stopped and asked for your documents.
Speed limits vary from country to country so if you do come unstuck with the police for infringing limits or other regulations you may be asked to pay an on-the-spot fine.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
It’s worth planning your route before you depart and note many European countries use tolls to pay for their motorways. Despite sat-nav and Google Maps I still prefer the use of a good paper map to help with route planning. Michelin provides some excellent national and regional European maps and guides with further online assistance which can be found on viamichelin.co.uk.
If you’re contemplating your first foray into Europe and feel a little unsure then the Caravan and Motorhome Club offers escorted tours where you have the services of a guide to help on the way with the itinerary and campsites organised for you. Alternatively, both the Caravan and Motorhome Club and the Camping and Caravanning Club organise rallies at European campsites where a rally steward will be available to help you and organise social activities. You can also use the Clubs as a one-stop shop for booking ferries, campsites and travel insurance.
DRIVING LICENCE, INSURANCE AND OTHER IMPORTANT DOCUMENTS TO PACK
Despite Brexit you do not need an international driving permit (IDP) to drive in the EU, Switzerland,
Norway 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 Gibraltar, Guernsey, Jersey or Isle of Man. An IDP can be easily obtained from main post offices at a cost of £5.50. If required then in general it’s the 1968 type of IDP required, although Andorra requires a 1949 IDP.
Check your car insurance covers European travel and ask for an international motor insurance certificate, commonly known as a green card, for your towcar and caravan well in advance of your trip. Note it’s your towcar insurer which is responsible for issuing the green card for the caravan not your caravan insurer. You must carry a physical copy of your green cards 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 to have.
It’s recognised throughout much of Europe and it has the ability to act as an identity document and can usually be left at the campsite reception instead of a passport. Third party insurance is also provided and all for a small cost of less than £6 and can be obtained through the Clubs.
Many European countries require caravans 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. European caravans are normally well below this limit, but a few fifth wheel units may exceed this figure. In which case it needs to be registered with the UK government, see GOV.UK for how to register a trailer. Trailer registration for this purpose is not the same as CRiS (Caravan Registration Identification Scheme) registration; however, it’s worth taking your CRiS certificate with you as local police may not understand this.
Speed limits are lower for vehicles when towing, much as they are in the UK, but France and Austria differentiate between towing units on the basis of the combined gross weight of the outfit (otherwise known as combined maximum authorised mass (MAM)). Any outfit with a combined gross MAM over 3.5t (3,500kg) is restricted to a lower speed limit. You can check this by looking at your caravan and car’s weight plates. Add the caravan MTPLM weight to the top figure on the car's weight plate. Don’t forget if you have just a B category driving licence obtained after 1 January, 1997 you are only permitted to tow a car/caravan outfit with a combined MAM not
In Spain, outfits over 12m in length require marker boards complying with ECE 70 regulations. You can have one large board or two smaller ones made of aluminium with yellow centre and red outline boards which can be purchased at HGV suppliers such as hgvdirect.co.uk.
BORDER CONTROLS, PASSPORT AND VISAS
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 vary because of NI’s unique status of having one foot in the EU while remaining part of the UK. Similarly, when GB residents travel to NI for many situations it’s as if you’re travelling to the EU. For more information check out GOV.UK and for NI residents nidirect.gov.uk.
Your passport must have at least six months validity and be less than 10 years old. When travelling to the Republic of 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) likely similar to the USA ESTA system.
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 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. The best option is to get your pet to eat fish, plant or egg-based products, see fish4dogs.com.
PERSONAL IMPORTATION OF 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 British specialities like bacon, cheddar cheese and fresh milk. Now you are 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 available on GOV.UK and europa.eu
When you are returning from EU countries 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, but controls on these are due to be phased in later this year.
Coming back to GB, duty free allowances for alcohol and tobacco will apply as for non-EU countries now. Basically it’s 42 litres of beer, 18 litres of wine and 200 cigarettes, but refer to GOV.UK for 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 you the right to access state-provided healthcare during a temporary stay in the European Union (EU) the same as an EHIC. 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 your stay and the countries you are visiting.
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 the carrying of gas cylinders 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. Cylinders must be no more than 80% full (which is the normal situation) and they must always be switched off when you are travelling.
Ferries also have rules on carrying gas but check terms and conditions on individual ferry websites. One thing to remember when travelling on a ferry is not to put your car or caravan alarm on if it incorporates a motion sensor 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 routes to northern Spain as driving through France is not ideal in winter 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 the continental roads and especially the motorways tend to be much quieter than at home. Admittedly in the big towns and cities it’s busy, but elsewhere it’s quieter to give you a chance to think carefully before you manoeuvre.
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 50km/hr (30mph) unless specified otherwise. As in the UK the speed limit outside urban areas varies according to the type and the size of vehicle.
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 POI function.
Always aim to book campsites so you don’t spend too long at the wheel each day and risk your safety through tiredness. Frequent stops during the day are also recommended and certainly in France and Spain there are plenty of service stations and picnic areas along the motorways. However, do not be tempted to use them for overnight stops as these areas have a reputation for night-time break-ins.
There are also reports of tourists being flagged down by other drivers along quiet stretches of motorway by indicating that there is a problem with their car or caravan. The other driver appears friendly but they turn out to be an opportunistic thief, so be cautious and keep your doors locked and valuables and documents out of sight.
If you are proposing to enter major cities it’s worth checking on the environmental restrictions operating in that country before departing from the UK. There are many schemes now which restrict vehicular access into urban areas according to size and Euro rating throughout Europe. 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 it’s Crit'Air stickers in France. See urbanaccessregulations.eu for further information. Normally the stickers can be bought online, but make sure you buy from the national government or city authority as there are third-party sellers who may sell you a genuine sticker but at much inflated prices. It is always worth doing your research before you head off on your holiday to avoid paying more than you should.
VEHICLE NUMBER PLATES, GB STICKERS AND OTHER KIT
A registration plate with the EU stars and GB marked on 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 towcar and caravan. But drive into Spain and irrespective of what number plate you have, you must have a GB vehicle sticker, but for Republic of Ireland a GB identifier is not required.
Many European motorways are funded by tolls which are often costly and they will vary according to the class of vehicle which generally goes by gross weight, height and number of axles. There are websites which will price up the tolls payable on your journey like viamichelin. 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 general information, 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. See portugaltolls.com for further information. For electronic payment in France, Spain and Portugal, see emovis-tag.co.uk
Ireland motorways are pay as you go except for one spot on the M50 which is automatic with number plate recognition cameras, refer to eflow.ie
Austria and Switzerland require you to buy a vignette to display in the windscreen for vehicles up to 3.5t gross vehicle weight (GVW) for use of motorways and semi motorways. In Austria the one vignette covers car and caravan, but in Switzerland there is an additional fee for caravans.
Towing vehicles over 3.5t are required to have a GOBox in Austria which calculates the toll payable by number of axles, Euro emissions rating and distance travelled. This toll system only applies where the towing vehicle exceeds 3.5t, not where the car/ caravan gross combined weight is over the limit.
In Switzerland, towing vehicles over 3.5t are subject to a heavy vehicle tax (purchased at the border), with cost assessed by combined gross weight, time period and is applicable for use of all roads. See asfinag.at/toll/vignette/ and ch.ch/en/swissmotorway-sticker/ for further details.
Campsites tend to operate seasonally as in the UK and if travelling in winter the help of the two major Clubs can be useful with their winter en route sites. In summer it’s worth booking campsites in advance, but out of main season 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 scheme campsites book with a card providing discounted rates.
Both major Clubs can book sites for you which have been inspected and the Caravan and Motorhome Club European Touring guidebook contains numerous campsites which have been reviewed by its members. Do not expect campsites to always be as you expect to find in the UK. Often pitches will be smaller or you pay a premium for larger pitches. In southern Europe especially, grass may be a little sparse on the pitch, which may be little more than compacted soil and grit.
The range of facilities will vary enormously just as at home, with quiet sites and those aimed at the family caravanner with swimming pools and an array of other facilities to entertain children – at least in the summer months.
GAS AND ELECTRICAL HOOK-UPS
If you use exchange gas cylinders, such as supplied by Calor and Flogas, it’s important to remember cylinder exchange is not available in Europe. The only cylinder available in the UK which 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 which can be refilled at service stations which sell autogas. Some long-stayers over the winter period purchase a local exchange cylinder. Like at home, this will require a deposit and also a different adapter/pigtail to connect up to your normal regulator. Don’t be tempted to try to fill up your exchange cylinder, which in most countries is illegal as they do not have an 80% overfill valve.
Most European campsites now use the European standard electrical blue plug and socket 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 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 hookup. 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 test button to see if it still functions (it’s good practice to test the RCD every time you set-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 sure of equipment being electrically dead is to unplug it or disconnect the hook-up.
TV AND MOBILES
Once you’ve left the UK, terrestrial UK TV disappears, 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 January 1, 2021, free
Many European hook-ups will provide only low-rated power supplies – perhaps only 6A and occasionally the supply is metered
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 unexpected charges.
While this article outlines many facets of European touring, it cannot cover details for each and every EU country. Both major Clubs have a wealth of knowledge within their travel sections and on their websites.
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 us, but some countries which 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. Check out Foreign Travel at GOV.UK website and the EU reopen.europa.eu/en