There was so much to learn before hitting Europe...

"Have you thought about reverse polarity?" he said.

"?????" we said.

Well, we didn't actually say "?????" obviously, but he could probably tell that was what we were thinking.

Although the evidence sometimes points to the contrary, my husband Phil and I are actually reasonably intelligent people. We were in a camping supplies shop, discussing our requirements for a forthcoming motorhoming trip to Europe. Therefore, there was a high possibility that reverse polarity probably had more to do with motorhomes than with the North/South Pole reversal that allegedly wiped out the dinosaurs.

This was not our first visit to Caracamp in Plymouth and we were sure it wouldn't be our last! Armed with yet another long list and our well-used flexible friend, we were making preparations for a six-month summer tour to Spain, Portugal and France. We had bought Monty the motorhome in the autumn of 2009 and had a few trips in the UK to get used to it all. We were booked onto the Plymouth-Santander ferry at the beginning of March 2010 and there had been much to learn - and to buy!

The past few months had been a huge learning curve for us: European driving regulations; health insurance; gas supplies; telephone and internet availability; European Sat Nav systems. Then of course, our planned route and where to stay: campsites; Aires; France Passion? How much clothing to take with us? How much sun lotion? How many teabags??

 

QUESTIONS, QUESTIONS!

Many of these questions had been answered by motorhome magazines, the Caravan Club, forums, websites, fellow motorhomers and the very helpful staff at Caracamp. Obvious things had been checked, such as the expiry date of our passports and driving licences. Phil had a spare pair of glasses, which is a driving requirement in some European countries. We'd renewed our MoT and tax, and our vehicle insurance with Safeguard Ltd covered us for unlimited time and mileage in Europe. Safeguard also provided complimentary UK and European breakdown cover, which we did have to use (but that's another story!).

We had been to the weighbridge and knew that Monty, at least, was within acceptable weight limits. I'm not too sure that the same could be said for either Phil or me, but at least we couldn't be stopped and fined for it yet. Give it time and I'm sure the law will change.

We now had enough hi-visibility vests and warning triangles; a set of spare bulbs; a set of beam benders; a red-and-white warning board on our bike rack; a GB sticker; a continental adaptor for our electric cable; and, thanks to the advice from Ian at Caracamp, we were able to check for and safely deal with any reverse polarity issues.

We had campsite books, guidebooks, phrase books, Sudoku books, cookbooks, reading books. We had a laptop with all our favourite music stored on it, we had a selection of DVDs. We had binoculars and a camera, our phones and all the relevant chargers.

 

GAS OR GAZ?

We had also purchased a new Camping Gaz bottle. We'd had a Propane bottle supplied when we purchased Monty, but wouldn't be able to exchange that in Europe, so although Camping Gaz wasn't necessarily the cheapest option in every country (between €15 and €25 a bottle, which lasts us about five or six weeks), it was at least universal. An added bonus is that they are so widely available, often being sold in supermarkets as well as garages and campsites.  We'd been told stories of other motorhomers who'd been left without gas, due to not being able to top up or replace a particular type of bottle. At a later stage, we purchased a second Camping Gaz bottle, so we always had a full one to hand.

And whilst we're on the subject of running out of gas, have you ever noticed that you always seem to run out on a rainy evening, when you're halfway through cooking dinner? Why doesn't it ever happen on a sunny day when you're washing up? 

                                       

 

MONEY MATTERS

Accessing our money whilst abroad was given much consideration. Martin Lewis' money saving website proved very useful for this, as we were able to compare debit and credit card charges for all the high street and internet banks. The charges varied greatly but the Nationwide Building Society stood head and shoulders above the rest, as they did not charge for Euro withdrawals, although certain criteria had to be met before opening an account. Unfortunately, this has now changed, as a 2% charge is made, but they still appear to be cheaper than their rivals.

HEALTH AND TRAVEL INSURANCE

Another major headache was caused by trying to decide which travel insurance company to use. Although we carried the EHIC card, we knew it had limits. Not all European countries offer a 100% reciprocal arrangement, as the criteria is that an EHIC cardholder receives state treatment equivalent to that which the residents of the country receive. The arrangement in France, for example, is only 70% reciprocal, therefore we needed a policy that would cover any other costs. Also, and this didn't actually become apparent to us until we needed to use the State system in Spanish territory, you're not always going to be close enough to a state hospital to use the EHIC card in the first place.

For our first trip to Europe, we used a company called EHIC Plus, whose insurance policies are designed to pay additional expenses incurred during state treatment in European countries offering the EHIC card. I would consider using the company again, if I knew that my holiday destination was close to a state hospital in a 100% reciprocal country, as it is a comparably cheap option. However, I would strongly advise that if you wish to insure with EHIC Plus, you check and make sure that you are covered for everything you need.

We now use a company called Staysure, as not only do they insure all the normal hospital treatments, travels delays, lost luggage and so on, they also sell long term travel insurance, for trips of up to 18 months for the over 50's. Phil is of, shall we say, mature years, and we couldn't find another company who would insure an over-50 for longer than three months at a time.

Of course, an insurance company only really proves its worth when you actually make a claim. We have never had to make a vehicle-related claim with Safeguard but their breakdown cover has been worth every penny...

 

FINDING OUR WAY AROUND

On our first trip in Monty, in the autumn of 2009, we had met a couple who recommended a ProNav PNN-200E Sat Nav, which comes pre-loaded with full European maps (the PNN-200 is just for the UK). The reason for their recommendation was that it is designed for vans and HGV's, and as such, allows you to input your vehicle dimensions and weight, thereby avoiding low or weak bridges and narrow lanes.

The downside to it, which we did not discover until after we had bought one, is that although it will provide you with your position in GPS co-ordinates, you cannot enter GPS co-ordinates into it. This, combined with the fact that postcodes in Spain, Portugal and France can cover an area of a few kilometres, caused us a few problems in the early days.

Having now become used to Jeeves the SatNav, if we can't find the correct street name, we often use the Points of Interest facility and look for something mentioned in the campsite information as being close by, such as a church or river. Jeeves, by the way, is named after the old search engine - if we don't know where we are going, we "ask Jeeves", female voice notwithstanding! Of course, we still use a road atlas too!

 

                                                

 

SO MANY ROADS TO TRAVEL, SO MANY PLACES TO VISIT

We changed our minds a number of times before finally settling on a rough route. We intended to drive west from Santander to La Coruña, then south along the coast to the Algarve, before heading north to San Sebastian and so into France. We planned to stick fairly close to the west coast of France, explore Brittany, and finally to sail back to the UK from Roscoff, though we didn't intend to book a ferry until closer to our return date in early September. We're big fans of the DK Eyewitness Travel guides, and had the relevant Spain, Portugal and France guides, along with phrase books for all three countries.

WHERE TO STAY

Investigations into where to stay produced a wealth of results. We were now armed with the Caravan Club Europe 1 book and the the ACSI low season discount book. We had joined the France Passion scheme, which gave us a choice of overnight stops at some 1600 vineyards and farms in France. We had the Aires books and the Alan Rogers guides for all three countries.

The ASCI book proved particularly useful; the pitch price of €12, €14, €16 (and now there's an  €18 pitch too) is for a standard pitch with electric, for two adults and a dog (the dog is optional, you don't need to have one…). We think this is very good value, as the book itself is very cheap to buy; it cost us just £11.99 in 2011.

The France Passion guidebook and 'All The Aires France' were also well used, as was the Caravan Club Europe 1 book, with its choice of 4500 sites in Spain, Portugal and France!

LESSONS LEARNED

So having spent six months touring in Spain, Portugal and France, enjoying it enough to do it again, we have learned a few things:

Full travel insurance cover is very important, hence us now using Staysure instead of EHIC Plus.

Replace your empty Gaz bottle as soon as possible, or you will run out at the most inconvenient time.

Take every opportunity to chat to fellow motorhomers, and pick their brains for good ideas.

And most important of all…

Take more tea bags!