We have gathered together some practical information and statistics for anyone contemplating doing something similar to us once they have retired.
We bought Modestine second-hand about a year before we intended setting off on our travels. She is an R registration Romahome built onto a Citroën Berlingo chassis and she runs on diesel. She is taxed and insured as a car and classed as a micro-mobile home. We investigated thoroughly what vehicle would best suit our purpose and regularly trawled the internet until we discovered one for sale locally. This worked out considerably cheaper than purchasing from a dealer and delighted both us and her vendor Pat, who has been following Modestine's travels with great enthusiasm. Modestine has proved a very reliable travel companion, well insulated, comfortable, manoeuvrable, economic and easy to maintain. She has also proved to be highly attractive "eye candy" to the international motorhome fraternity, thus introducing us to many interesting people during our travels.
We took Modestine on several trips within Britain before setting off abroad, ensuring we fully understood how she functioned and how we could best survive in such a confined space. It is vital to appreciate the difficulties of living so completely together, totally reliant on each other. However well you may think you know your partner at home, after three wintry days and nights of incessant rain marooned on waterlogged campsites in a space 12ft by 5ft without room to stand fully upright, along with a couple of bikes, a computer and printer, all your bedding, clothes, shoes, maps and books, wet coats and umbrellas it is just possible you may feel an urge to throttle each other! We feel that overall we survived very well indeed. This may have been in part because of the mutual interest we had in developing our blogsite and would strongly recommend a shared hobby, be it blogging, photographing manhole covers – we call it "drain spotting" – or indeed train spotting! We were particularly fortunate in that we generally share many similar interests anyway and our skills complemented each other. Jill coped with the driving, shopping, cooking, laundry and blogging, while Ian concentrated on the serious issues like which cultural sites we would visit, marking the route we travelled on the road atlas in pink felt-tip and listing all the cartographic errors he encountered. He was also pretty neat at looking after the financial side, coping with the many different languages we encountered, editing our digital photos and finding open campsites in the depths of winter.
Over the past year we have stayed on hundreds of different campsites and every one has been different. Each has its own peculiarities. None are perfect – that's to say they are all imperfect. The only completely consistent thing about them all is that none of then have sink plugs. Take your own or buy one at a French street market at the first opportunity. They are simply a flat, flexible six-inch disk of rubber that fits any sink, anywhere. Better still, take at least three - we found clothes washing is much quicker using three different sinks for washing and rinsing. Many sites do have washing machines but travelling light means ensuring laundry does not accumulate. A washing line is really useful, not only for washing, but for airing bedding and to conserve a pitch if you drive off during the day.
To save space we did not take the chemical toilet. (An emergency champagne bucket came along for the ride but didn't earn its keep.) This meant that in general we needed to use campsites each evening but the security, hot showers, occasional companionship of fellow travellers, freedom to enjoy a glass of wine and access to electricity to prepare the blog far outweighed the economy of camping in car parks or lay-bys. Take your own toilet paper. Outside of Austria and Scandinavia you are unlikely to find it provided. If you discover any on the French sites you've won the jackpot! Almost all the European sites we used did provide free hot water and showers though. Take a good torch with rechargeable batteries so you can pick your way between the dog turds on dark winter nights on French campsites as you cross the icy field to the equally icy shower block. Rubber flip flops are the best footwear on campsites regardless of season. They can be left outside if encrusted with grass or worse and they halve the time it would normally take drying off after a shower. It is far warmer and more comfortable to dry your feet back in the campervan.
It is worth trying to obtain an international camping card. We didn't realise about this until we had left England when it was too late. There are sometimes considerable discounts on campsite fees, but the biggest advantage is that you do not have to hand over your passport as evidence and security when you check into a site, with the fear that you could drive off without it and be a hundred miles away before you realise! Campsite administrators, particularly in Portugal and Italy, insist they need passports for the police. Sometimes they will scan them and return them. We questioned this as our permission was not asked. We were told records are kept for seven years and it is a legal requirement for campsites to gather them. In the end, we got photocopies made, showed the campsites the originals but refused to leave them. In general the photocopies were accepted instead and returned when we left. In general too, the French police don't give a damn and we were rarely asked for any ID at campsites. In Scandinavia they don't ask for your passport but it is a requirement to belong to a camping organisation. We had to pay about £10 to join in Denmark before we could use any of the campsites. If we had held an international camping card we would probably have been exempted.
As for the discounts, sometimes we were given them anyway when we tried a bit of wheedling. Often there are campsite chains which allow a 10 or 15% discount after using the first one. This is common in Austria and Germany. Portugal is very cheap and all the sites we discovered were part of the same Orbitur chain, open all year and very basic, frequently without hot water or even loo seats but at 9 euros including electricity, very reasonable value. Hungary too is inexpensive but the sites are almost invariably attached to thermal spas, frequently with inclusive charges and inevitably crowded with unfit Germans sent by their doctors on expenses-paid health cures. The cheapest paying site we discovered was in Brittany where for 5 euros we had a basic pitch without hot water or showers but including electricity. The most expensive was in Fiesole, near Florence, where we paid 36 euros for not an enormous amount more. The most evil was 23 euros in Spain, near Valencia, which reeked and the water and electricity didn't work until Ian discovered enough Spanish to terrify the management. One of the cleanest, nicest and most friendly was at La Roche Bernard while the free pitches, hot showers, toilet paper and spotless facilities provided for campervans at Néris-les-Bains, stand out as quite amazing.
Don't forget a collection of electric plug adaptors for hotel rooms or rented accommodation, as well as cable connectors for European campsites. Take a fan heater for the winter and a small fan for the summer. Both will be required. Don't forget battery chargers for phones, torches and cameras.
Give yourself a treat occasionally if you are having continuous bad weather - find a cheap hotel. The room, however small, will seem enormous and the en-suite bathroom is wonderful for trampling clean and hanging to dry any accumulated laundry. You will appreciate the experience, believe us.
Fill a really large thermos with boiling water every morning. During the day it provides instant hot drinks as you travel and if you should inadvertently end up sleeping by the roadside you have immediate hot water for washing and shaving next morning.
Most countries sell phonecards for internal and international calls from both public and private telephones. Generally they are sold in post offices and are the cheapest, easiest way of phoning home. France in particular is really cheap and easy. Other countries vary but certainly we found them in Spain, Portugal, Austria, Germany and Hungary.
Don't buy anything you don't need. Souvenirs are out! Even essential guidebooks and maps had to be jettisoned in the interest of saving space. As we did not know which countries we would be visiting we took a European road atlas and purchased national maps just before entering a country. Guide books are more of a problem though. We spent much of our time using Spanish and Portuguese guidebooks in French, and Hungarian, Danish and Norwegian ones in German. It was easier than trying to cope in the local language and English ones were not available. Tourist offices frequently provide cheap or free maps and guides to the locality in a range of languages.
Sort out direct debits for all your regular expenses before you go and try to have an email contact for your insurance company so you can sort out the mess they will inevitably make with your life, house and vehicle insurance policies while you are thousands of miles away riding wild horses on the Hungarian Puszta! We took copies of all important documents on a password protected cd in case of emergencies. Do remember to take your vehicle documentation. We forgot the document of ownership which we were asked for. Fortunately they did not understand English and we got away with showing the MOT certificate but you cannot rely on that!
We changed our bank account before we left and it has suited us in every way with interest on our current account, internet banking - so we always know exactly how much money we have – and a really useful perk, free cash withdrawals throughout every country we visited. We must have saved hundreds of pounds in bank charges over the year and the exchange rate was usually better than that offered locally. We never ceased to wonder at modern day travel where we would arrive in a country and simply go to a hole in a wall and walk away with a pocket full of notes in the local currency.
Of course the Euro in much of Europe makes this even easier and it is so simple to compare prices. Hungary and Portugal were amongst the cheapest, Austria was generally good value all round, as was Germany. Italy and Spain were generally quite expensive, Denmark more so and Norway was by far the most expensive for everything. Diesel is cheaper than petrol everywhere except Britain. With the exception of Gibraltar where diesel was 56 pence per litre, Spain was cheapest. Norway and Portugal were both quite expensive though slightly less than in Britain which seems the dearest in Europe.
Travel insurance can be difficult. Actually we found it impossible and we are still not convinced it is really needed anyway. Of course we had an excellent vehicle insurance policy with the Co-op which included unlimited Europe-wide assistance cover for the duration of the policy without time limitation outside the UK. This insurance has a number of useful features built in anyway, such as emergency accommodation and repatriation if the driver is incapacitated. (Particularly useful with only one driver.) We were aware that we were vulnerable as far as theft was concerned but carried little of major value and always tried to ensure Modestine was left in a safe place. That was one advantage of campsites over hotels where she would have been unattended on town streets overnight. We also tried to avoid sleeping rough by the roadside.
We left England with the E111 document giving reciprocal health cover in EU countries but it was phased out while we were away. Our difficulty was to obtain the European Health Card which replaced it when we were not resident in the UK and had no fixed address abroad. It ensures reciprocal health care throughout EU countries but you will need to check cover. Switzerland and Norway are slightly different and we did not go across to Morocco because we would not be covered there. In the event, we never needed medical attention so we cannot report on how effective the card is, but we met many people who have been travelling around Europe or living there unofficially with no other personal cover.
Before we set off we contacted dozens of travel insurance companies and brokers trying to get a policy that suited our needs. All the companies were fazed by our request. It seemed so normal to us that a retired couple should wish to travel around the countries of Europe for a year in a camping car, free to return to Britain as and when they wished. Britain is part of Europe anyway so we imagined a Europe wide policy would include Britain. No one, not even Saga or the Caravan Club, could provide anything suitable and all were expensive, automatically including cover we didn't need.
Policies, even over the internet, are only valid if taken out in the UK before departure. So we could not simply buy or renew online from France or Germany when our current policy expired. Annual travel insurance only permits trips for up to three or four months before returning to the UK. And it's no good lying about how long you have been gone. Big brother knows everything these days and you have to be able to prove what you say. We wanted an annual policy that would allow us to return whenever we wished rather than when our insurers dictated, and to stay in England for as long as we wished before returning to our travels. In the end we went with the 90 days left on our existing policy and then travelled with our fingers crossed until we returned in March. Then we took out an internet based policy for six months to cover the rest of our travels. However, this meant that we could not return temporarily to England for any reason as the policy would cancel immediately. We never needed it and with the European Health Card and our vehicle insurance we feel it probably wasn't worth having anyway, though it was of some psychological comfort.
Don't overlook renewing your UK road tax before you set off. It may well be possible to renew it online by now though. If you don't want to return to the UK for your vehicle's MOT make sure you have it done immediately before you leave. Such tests are just as efficient and a lot cheaper abroad but unfortunately they are not recognised once you return to Britain.
Carry only the credit cards you really need with you on the streets and make sure any others are well hidden. Split cards between you and if you have a joint account don't carry matching cards. If one is stolen, both will automatically be cancelled. Keep some travellers cheques and local currency hidden somewhere in case of emergency. (Remember where you hid it. We only discovered once we were back home but fortunately didn't need it.)
Always keep a really close eye on you possessions and don't assume people are honest. They probably are but it's not in your interest to assume so. It's easier to avoid a risk than sort out the mess once you have been robbed. Use a body belt and trousers with complicated zips to safeguard passports, wallets and documents in towns and cities – especially Barcelona and Florence.
Apart from our laptop computer (separately insured) we each took a USB stick, both for storing and downloading material from the internet in cybercafés and for uploading material to our blogsite. With these we could save and answer emails in Modestine to send on our next visit to a cybercafé. These are far more common in other countries and we rarely had to search for long before finding one. We did though manage to pick up a virus on one of the sticks and transmit it to our laptop, a real nuisance when we could not link it to the internet to download updated virus protection.
A few statistics
During our 13 months travelling we drove 20,690 miles and covered an additional 960 miles or so on ferries as well as a number of train and bus journeys to and around Paris, Barcelona, Florence, Vienna, Lübeck, Berlin and other major cities.
There are 95 entries on our blogsite which amounts to 1,840 pages including the photos. We took 6,916 digital photos of which about 3,000 are included on our blogsite.
Modestine consumed 2,103 litres of diesel at a cost of £1,536, paid in a variety of currencies. On average we paid 76 pence per litre throughout Europe over the entire year. This means she was giving us nearly ten miles to the litre and costing less than eight pence per mile for fuel. We feel this represents astonishing value for a car that was also our kitchen, bedroom, dining room, office, library and mobile bike shed!
Total maintenance and repairs for Modestine were around £1,100 while major ferry crossings cost £750. Other fares for rail, urban transport and short ferry crossings worked out at about £400
Our total accommodation costs were about £5,000 averaging out at around £14 per night. Hotels cost more while staying with friends and nights spent away from camp sites were free. Campsites ranged between £8 and £20 per night and renting worked out around £400 per month.
Living costs, including food, eating out and replacement shoes and clothes, cost about £4,300 plus another £400 for wine.
Cultural activities, entry to museums, galleries and concerts amounted to £500 while guidebooks, maps and other miscellaneous items were about £250.
Finally loading our travel account onto our website and downloading emails cost around £300. This isn't counting the fact that we needed electric hookup each night to prepare it but that cost is catered for with the campsite fees.
So our wonderful adventure, from 10th August 2005 to 2nd September 2006 cost a grand total of £14,514.50p. When you think how much it costs for two people simply to live in their own home in England for 13 months, we reckon this was pretty good value for money. It obviously does not include the cost of purchasing Modestine but does include the cost of returning to England in March and the cost of her MOT. It includes absolutely everything we spent, even our wine, entertainment, museum charges, frivolous treats, ferries, funiculars and other public transport.