After working corporate jobs in LA for 4 years, we had saved enough money to take action on our dreams of exploring the world. We had originally planned to teach English in South Korea, but when Drew’s family offered us their 21-foot Sprinter van to explore our own country in first, we decided it was an offer we couldn’t refuse.
For a year we traveled and lived all around the US, Iceland(!!) and Canada, falling more and more in love with VanLife, and each other, along the way. We returned to our families in Florida in time for our wedding (I designed our invitations from the road in our van!), and after tying the knot, we took a giant leap – all the way to England – to make our VanLife Europe honeymoon dreams come true.
It has now been nearly 2 years since we’ve been living in the Howlin’ Yoweller, an 18-foot Converted Ford Transit (with right-hand drive), and because of it, we have been able to call some of the world’s most incredible countries home. From England to Ireland, Scotland, Holland, Austria, Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Denmark, Norway, Sweden… and now we are preparing for our next big VanLife Europe chapter in Morocco, Spain and Portugal. VanLife Europe has blessed, challenged and changed us in more ways than we ever could have imagined.
So, how is VanLife in Europe different from VanLife in the US?
1.Language, perhaps the most obvious one of all.
The fact that every time we enter a new country we are faced with not only a foreign land, but also a foreign language, makes everything a bit (a lot) more complicated. In the US we took for granted the ease and uniformity brought on by the fact that all the states are English speaking. Road signs are the same, grocery shopping is the same, the names of most stores are the same and even something as simple as the names of other countries (and states) being the same just makes everyday life that much easier. In Europe, each and every country has its own unique set of challenges and things to get used to, all in their own unique language!
2.Wild camping / “Boondocking” laws.
Like everywhere, if you can read the signs and search for unrestricted parking areas, sometimes overnight camping is ok and sometimes it’s not, except in Europe where some countries completely outlaw wild camping (also BLM land does not exist over there). In Croatia for instance, wild camping is illegal and they will fine you hundreds of dollars if you’re caught! Luckily, we were able to get away with it for nearly the entire 3 months we were there, we just had to be very stealthy. Then there are countries like Norway and Sweden, where the “Right to Roam” makes wild camping completely legal, in fact, they promote it! You just have to do a bit more research when crossing borders in Europe vs. crossing borders in the States where the laws stay relatively the same.
3.Internet cafes / Digital Nomadism.
As VanLifers trying to make it as digital nomads, those in the US have it made. With Starbucks and local cafes in literally every city and town, it’s not hard to find a chill place buzzing with cool vibes, wifi as powerful as the coffee and power plugs. Or better yet, just get a wifi booster for your van and work from the comforts of your rolling home!
In Europe it’s not quite that easy. Most of the places we go don’t have wifi cafes, England is the one exception. In most places cafes are for eating and so bringing your laptop to work all day is just not the norm / frowned upon even. Also, you have to go to the cities for cafes, where “car parks” are usually very small, very packed, have height restrictions, 2-hour time limits, safety concerns and cost quite a bit. Overall we tend to completely avoid cities, opting to spend our days enjoying the space and fresh air of nature, meaning our wifi is limited to what we get on our phones. Our international data plans (T-Mobile) can be limiting, so we end up experimenting with SIM cards and wifi hotspot devices… connectivity, let alone speed, is never certain.
4.Cost of living.
For US VanLife we were able to get by on $1,000 per month per person, but in Europe, it ends up being about $1,500 per month per person (including literally every expense). Partially due to the increased cost of gas, food and not being able to save by doing laundry at friend’s, etc. but also due to the fact that there are A LOT more unknowns that we are forced to navigate. Sometimes we get things right, and sometimes (many times), we have to learn the harder (more costly) way. For instance, our van is currently parked at the Gatwick airport because parking there was only £55 ($70) a month, a great deal! BUT, after returning to the US we went to pause our car insurance since it’s not being driven, but because it’s in a “Public Space” we are not able to do so, as they will literally “tow and crush” any vehicle without insurance found in their lot… so now we are paying the $70 + $100 for parking each month… in our experience, the US tends to be much easier to navigate these sort of specifications.
5.We are foreigners.
As American’s living in a British van throughout Europe, Scandinavia and Africa, we tend to stick out like a sore thumb basically everywhere we go. We don’t know many people, and often times we don’t speak a lick of their language, on top of that, we live in a van and are wild camping everywhere we go, so there are many days (weeks even) where we don’t really get to interact with anyone other than each other, which can get lonely in many ways. While living as foreigners in a foreign land, without a permanent place to call home, can be endlessly difficult, it is still worth it in nearly every way possible.
6.Ease and convenience.
Depending on where you are in Europe, it can be extremely difficult to find what you need. When we traveled the US in a van we were able to order nearly everything off Amazon (that we couldn’t find at Walmart) and have it shipped to a post office nearby for pickup. In Europe, that option doesn’t exist and so the only hope is having things shipped to a friend’s house that falls along our route, and being that we aren’t in our home country, those are few and far between.
It’s also important to consider that store names change in nearly every country, and without the convenience of Amazon, “normal” working hours, etc. an otherwise simple task can take a few days, or even weeks, before being solved… refilling a propane tank for instance. Each country uses a different bottle, with a different adaptor, and the refilling stations have different names with unpredictable hours..! We learned to have a back up camping stove for moments like this. VanLife Europe has definitely taught us a thing or two about improvising. Like that one time we couldn’t find a replacement for our sink hose when it sprung a leak in Norway, so we fixed it with a piece of gum!
There are many things we could mention in this category, but we’ll stick with the one cultural difference that we encounter nearly every day, no matter what country we were in. In the US it’s customary to wave to strangers, whereas in Europe, it is not, often resulting in long, hard, confused looking stares – but we still do it anyway 🙂
Also worth mentioning: shaking hands, appropriate clothing (Morocco especially), table manners, road etiquette, holy-days, etc. each country has its own way of doing things, and we are literally taking a crash course every day as we roll on through.
8.History, traditions, architecture, pace of life…
Europe is different from America in so many ways. Long lunch breaks, war-battered buildings, medieval churches, unique cuisine, lush nature, traditional clothing, family dynamics and so, so much more. While America has its own traits and gems, there has been something so endlessly fascinating about the immense variety of cultures we have been able to roll through during our time in Europe… memories we know will only grow sweeter with time.
Perhaps the greatest of all the blessings of our time in Europe, is the immense sense of gratitude we have for… everything. For the time we get to spend experiencing such rich cultures, for the hospitality we experience from total strangers, for the love of our families and friends back home, for the joy we get when finding a peaceful place to park for the night, for the opportunity we have to be in such incredible places, for hot showers, paved roads, warm cups of tea on cold mornings, camping spots next to the sea on beautiful, sunny days and for the sound of rain on the van, for the breath in our lungs and the incredible earth beneath our feet… for all that we have seen and for the realization that we will never be able to see it all, and that’s ok.
Being completely disconnected from so many of “life’s comforts” has allowed us to create a bond with each other (and our van), with our earth and within, that enables us to feel an incredible sense of home in our hearts no matter where we are.