Category Archives: Driving through Europe

Things to consider when choosing your family’s overland vehicle

The carrera terra austral Patagonia....rks in progr
The carrera terra austral Patagonia….bitumen to come

 

2WD or 4WD?

Do you really need a 4WD to road travel? Well, yes and no….. We have been to many countries where a 2WD capable vehicle, would do just fine. My 20 year old hatchback, could drive down almost all of the dirt or unpaved roads we have been on. In some countries, there are road  works currently in progress to better the road conditions.   In a few years, even the carrera terra austral in Patagonia will probably be all bitumen. However, until this happens, a top heavy vehicle with low clearance, won’t make it on the dirt roads.  So, it really also depends on what sort of 2WD vehicle you have…. you may be able to drive a motor home slowly along a dirt road if you need too but you wouldn’t want to drive 500 kms of it!  We tried initially..see blog: our 12 day motor home nightmare.  You are risking damaging the vehicle, getting lots of flat tyres or worse, getting stuck. A 2WD van would be more durable.

Then there are some countries where you just simply can’t go without a 4WD – e.g. Mongolia (most of the country has basically no roads – your following wheel tracks), Far east Russia, and some of the Stan’s in central Asia. So, first ask yourself where do you want to go – e.g. which country/continent, and then ask yourself, where do you really want to go once there e.g. countryside, national parks, off road etc.

Crossing the high Atlas Mountains on a 4WD track
Crossing the high Atlas Mountains on a 4WD track

The highlight of our Moroccan road trip was spending a week driving on an off road track through the desert and also trying some off road tracks in the high atlas mountains. We only passed about 4 or 5 other cars during our desert time (compared to 1000s along the bitumen inland and coastal roads) and got to wild camp (I mean really wild camp in the desert with no-one else around, rather than camp in a car park with 50 others). It felt like a real adventure. Whilst in Morocco, we spoke to other road trippers who kept telling us how bad the roads were when in our 4WD we hadn’t even noticed.

A 4WD gives you the capability to go off road and find somewhere discrete to camp, or even a really nice location to visit that’s off the main road.  During our central Asia trip, we camped in all sorts of places off the main road, and we were able to get to places (e.g. across a river) to camp where other 2WD/locals couldn’t get to – sometimes for both peace of mind and safety.

4WD’s come in all shapes, sizes and capabilities.   A 4WD is more than just having 4 wheels that drive.   Factors such as clearance, size of tyres and weight carried, can all affect the vehicle’s performance and ability off road. Whatever you decide, consider both the potential and the limitations of any 4WD vehicles; whether it be a van, truck or overloading a 4WD car/pick up (Ute) with a top heavy camper.

A travellers converted fire truck home...your imagination is the limit!
A travellers converted fire truck home…your imagination is the limit!

Can you live without your creature comforts; fridge, shower, satellite t.v.?

I didn’t think I could live without a fridge (I’m a cheese freak, my husband a beer one!)    Our Engel fridge in our car back home was in place and  ready for any camping or weekend trip away.  Do you know what?  It was always full…. However I have discovered during our time overseas that I  can live quite happily without a fridge. It hasn’t meant that  we have stopped eating or buying cold storage products, instead,  anything  bought is eaten and cooked within a day or so.    Most countries stock UHT milk rather than fresh milk so this is easy storage.

A shower however, well nothing quite beats a hot shower with a strong jet. This is not to say that I would get one in a travelling vehicle… filling up every inch of space in a camper is not ideal. A heavy and over loaded vehicle even if it is a 4WD does not necessarily equate to stable and/or practical.   Most people we spoke to who did have a shower, rarely used it, and rather it became  storage space.  Even if you did fit out a shower, at best it would be a trickle…… There are camp-sites available almost everywhere, and  these are often full of self contained vehicles!    Many road travellers even those fully contained will usually stop at a structured campsite, even if its every 2/3 days – to access power, water or for the security, social aspect it provides.  Most camp-sites will have a shower/toilet block to use although I cant guarantee it will be hot water or clean!

However, there are always other ways to wash that will do the trick if you don’t want to stand under a cold shower jet.   Be creative – go for a swim, have a bucket/flannel wash, carry a solar shower pouch or do as the locals do – have a bath at the local bath house (private showers in Mongolia for $1), the baths in Turkey, hammans in Morocco, the saunas in Russia. Washing kids is easy – buckets/baby baths/standing in the sun with a water container….  Even at 2 and 4 yo, my kids could still fit sitting together in a baby bath we borrowed from a neighbouring family, they thought it was hilarious and fun.

Save yourself the money and space and go for the cultural as well as the cleaning experience.

In terms of everything else; ask yourself if it really is a must have.   The bigger your vehicle, the more space to fill, and believe me, you will fill it!

Location and purpose

Camping in the middle of ruta 40, Argentina
Camping in the middle of ruta 40, Argentina

Where and how do you want to travel?

Some of our  trip highlights have been going to places where others can’t go so easily.  Fewer tourists and fewer people equals more remote, and in my opinion, a nicer experience.  If you do meet a local, you might even have a genuine interaction.

Getting to the good bits, chile's national parks
Getting to the good bits, chile’s national parks

In Patagonia, there were few motor homes. Partly because of the shipping costs and partly because you couldn’t drive the kms needed to, on the dirt roads.   We chose a 4WD and camped, it was summer time and lovely. We enjoyed touring the national parks and being outdoors in some breathtakingly  natural and scenic environments.  See blog: overland vehicle choices when buying in South America.

 

However, in Morocco, camping in a tent was not so nice. This time, we bought our 4WD in England.  Structured camp-sites are made for motor homes and are essentially glorified car parks.  Free camping is not so easy and/or practical with a tent.  In addition, it was winter: warm and sunny, but early cooler evenings.  In this situation, we would have liked a contained lock up vehicle – to be able to either camp in structured sites or have the freedom to really park anywhere.    It would’ve  been useful to have the choice to drive even after dark and be able to stop for the night and get into bed without setting up a tent.  You could even buy a reasonably cheap motor home/van in Europe, as there is the variety available – every brand and year you could think of.  For a family of 3 or 4, a pop top or hard top van or 4WD is a reasonable option with enough bed and seat space.

If you are considering a road trip in Europe or North America, you have predominately bitumen/paved roads so that a 4WD would be unnecessary and plenty of infrastructure exists for motorhome travellers such as free camper overnight stops.

When considering a vehicle, imagine how you might be perceived in the local country. Do you really want to stand out? What do you think locals see when you drive by in your €150,000++  convertible travelling home…. Even for a westerner from an affluent country like me, it seems like an inconceivable amount of money to spend.

Imagine locals in some of the poorer countries of the world where there are many more people than cars.   In Morocco, we gave 3 women a ride in our car (yes 3 women squeezed in the front seat next to my husband) when they flagged us down. They were already  walking (in the middle of nowhere), when we saw them and had another 8 kms to travel carrying heavy packs on their heads. They had no car, not even a donkey to help them carry their heavy load. Suddenly we felt very wealthy in our £3000 Land rover.   In Mongolia, we often had locals ask how many people slept in my sister in law’s rooftop tent, surely not just one?!   We would often see old Russian jeeps pull up, and could not believe the number of adults who would emerge….5, 6, 7, 8!   Incredible..it was like a bottomless car..

Period of travel and budget

Think of the period you will be travelling for, are you doing a long extended trip or a short one?  Is it worth spending a significant amount of money on a travel vehicle you will only  use for a short time…what about the re-sale value?  Will you need to sell the vehicle quickly?

Some people will travel for 3 months every  year and want a vehicle that’s well set up and ready to go that they will use for the next 10 years…. In Australia, people love caravans because you don’t have the huge registration costs and expense of another vehicle to maintain.

If its an extended trip – how long for?  Do you plan on road tripping the whole time or stopping somewhere for a few weeks/months?   The money saved in not buying an expensive convertible home could buy you months/years of accommodation in some places – especially when negotiated for a longer period.  While in Morocco, we got to stay in ryiads in some of the city medinas, and in Patagonia in cosy log cabins when we needed to (in times of bad weather, in cities, or simply for a treat).

If you want a stable familiar space for you and the kids – what size do you need?   How much are you prepared to spend for the initial outlay?  This is on top of your daily travel expenses.

We managed to 4WD and camp for a period of 3 months each in two different continents.  This was fine, although any longer, e.g. 6 months to one year of continuous road travel and a mobile home is looking good!

At the end of the day, your budget will determine what vehicle you can afford. Whilst being self contained helps to reduce costs e.g. accommodation, eating out etc, there are still costs to consider. Yes we met road travellers who rarely paid for accommodation (camp-sites or other) but most people we saw still parked in structured camp-sites where we were staying with our tent.

An affordable way to roadtrip in south america
An affordable way to roadtrip in south america

Budget

There are lots of affordable motor homes and converted vans available in Europe (less so in South America). However, a brand new motor home or self converted 4WD truck camper can cost anywhere from $100,000 – 200,000.

We met a traveller in a custom made 4WD truck after doing a desert off road crossing In Morocco.   We found out that he had driven one section of the  off road track we had, but then he decided to re-route back to the  bitumen road because it was too rocky (and it was). However, by doing so, he missed the best bit of the track – a second, more interesting and less rocky leg.   He had invested so much in a vehicle he had purpose built for exactly this sort of off road driving, yet the potential costs of any tyre or body damage was far too great that it outweighed the experience and the reality.  It didn’t matter so much to us, if our £3000 car, (with a couple of dents already) got another one. It didn’t even matter if we re-sold the car for £2,000 and lost £1,000  at the other end…it was a small scale risk. The more expensive the investment, the greater the liability and the greater the financial loss when things do go wrong.

Family size

So, what’s the size of your family? It can difficult to find a suitable vehicle that seats and sleeps 4 people without being oversized. However, if family size and comfort is your main consideration, then there are a multitude of options from vans, trucks, motor homes etc -the list and variety is endless. In some cases, e.g a smaller van and pop or hard top but be suitable.  It might be difficult to find one wide enough to sleep across so that your tall members of your family can fit…for example, my husband stands at 187cm tall.   It might just require a test sleep before you buy one!

What’s your style/personality?

Different countries will have different trends when it comes to road travel. In Australia, your lucky if you see a motor home – caravans, tents, campervans are all the rage.   In Europe/north Africa, there are lots of different vehicles but motor homes are topping the list in popularity – its the new holiday home.   It doesn’t mean you have to do the same. Find out what you like, what’s available and choose your style!  After all,  you and your family will be the ones travelling and living in it 24/7.

What would we choose?

We weren’t completely sold on spending our extended travel period, driving.  We liked the idea in theory, but we weren’t sure the practicality of long term road travel was for us.  Our youngest son was 1 when we started and not a big fan of extended periods in the car.  We also were keen to explore other continents and other ways of travelling.  We were interested in sailing and walking.   However, if we were to go on a one or two year road travelling trip or even if we wanted regular road trips to be part of our home life, these are options we would consider and our must have list….

Our list

  • 4WD e.g off road capable
  • can fit in a standard car park – gives us the flexibility to park anywhere – in a town, city, countryside, etc.
  • simple fit out (bed, sink, cooker, maybe fridge/portable toilet.
  • walk through cab
  • encourage greater outdoor living – cook inside or out and eat/play out
  • have a contained lock up space to sleep in
  • most likely pop top to fit beds for family of four, but be able to all sleep without pop top up- even if it means one mattress on the floor!
  • affordability
  • light!!  Windows that open
  • can fit in a container for shipping purposes
  • think less rather than more – keeping our “stuff” to a minimum: no overloading the vehicle
  • Some vehicles we have considered – 4WD ambulance, 4WD pop top, small ex military 4 or 6WD vans

What did we buy?

After almost two years of travel, meeting lots of other single, couple, families road tripping across two continents, seeing other vehicles/conversions (talking to lots of German and dutch travellers who can be creative and innovative when it comes to vehicles)  and simply working out what would be best for us given our preferences and experiences,  we think we have found the perfect vehicle for future road trips…we are in the process of trying to work out how and if we can import it into Australia….if we can, we will let you know about it!!

 

 

 

 

 

Schengen shenanigans

imageSomething happened to free travel in the EU between the year 2000 and 2013 and no-one told me about it! One year I’m happily backpacking for 6 months around Europe without any consequence and then fast forward to 2013 and I’m told I have 90 days in total (within a 6 month period) in the schengen area.. schengen what??

Yes, that was pretty much my reaction…what is this schnegen and why is it the cause of my European vacation woes…..not too mention some anxious itinerary juggling, some last minute add ons, nervous finger counting on the calendar and missing out on visiting a host of countries not because I ran out of money but because I ran out of time.

So what is schengen and what does it mean? It is basically a convention – a signed agreement between a number of European countries (about 26 to date = most of Europe!) which removes the need for internal border controls and operates a common visa policy across the signatory countries. Yes, a shame not to collect all those country stamps in your passport, but great you say….no border controls…..in and out when you please?!

Well, not exactly….unless you hold an EU passport! For everyone else, its 90 days for the whole schengen area! That’s right, not 90 days for Italy, and then 90 days France or even Greece…no it’s 90 days all up and schnegen, take careful note is different to EU.

You see, countries not even in the EU have signed the schnegen agreement. So if you thought you could escape schengen by going to Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Norway or even Iceland you would be schengen mistaken!!!

So two months into the European leg of our trip, and we suddenly discover schnegen. There goes our one year plan out the window, in supposedly border and visa less Europe. Even if you spent 4 days in each schnegen country you still wouldn’t get to see all of them!!

However, I still wasn’t too phased. Surely, we could fly out and fly our schnegen behinds back within a day/week/month to continue our trip ( by this time we had already bought a boat hoping to cruise the canals and the meditterrean schnegen sea). Unfortunately, its a 90 days in and 90 days out rule (not necessarily consecutive….e.g 90 days within 180 days….so you can fly in and out but goodluck keeping up with your 90 schnegen day count). So suddenly we were faced with the other devastating non schnegen prospect…..of spending 3 months in Gibraltar or the Vatican city or somewhere like that!

Did we want to test the enforcement capacity of the schnegen treaty? Not really, we had already heard about another canal cruising Australian couple who got fined 5000 schnegen dollars for overstaying their 90 days in Holland. We also had read countless of forums, of people who had overstayed their 90 days (either wittingly or unwittingly) and were trying to work out what the schnegen next to do…. and others who were quick to point out the legal and immoral implications of being so unschengenlike. It may not look like the immigration person behind the schnegen counter is checking your passport but believe me, it doesn’t take long to calculate 3 months in their head and the last exit stamp is always beside the last entry stamp….they find these stamps even amongst your hundred other ones from Asia or America etc… they know.

Whether they choose to pull you up on it or not is up to the schengen gods. The schnegan agreement doesn’t keep people out, it keeps people in. This is fine if you never plan to return home but for those who do they might just find themselves travelling from one schengen country to the next for 10 years unable to leave the “EU”, until they finally miss family, friends and home cooked meals and turn up at an international airport somewhere prepared to face the fine and the never to return to Europe stamp…..

We almost thought of getting away with it when the immigration officer was about to give us the schengen wave through after seeing my husband’s British passport but no we made mention of the rest of the family’s Australian passports….stupid or schengen smart?

I would like someone to enlighten me on the rationale behind the schengen agreement. Why a bunch of countries, including those not even in the EU and as far away as Iceland chose to open their borders to everyone in the EU but exclude everyone else…. Essentially, give some of us, who are the furthest away, as little time as possible to travel through a glomerate of countries and spend as little of our tourist dollars as possible…. !!!

Isn’t there an economic schengen crisis in Europe? Wouldn’t Spain or Greece like some of our tourist money? Apparently not…UK on the other hand, has benfited the most from our EU “out” time, taking up about 5 months of our total European stay… The UK, like Ireland decided to opt out of the Schengen agreement, controlling their own border entry and exit points.

Why can’t schengen countries determine on a case by case basis whether someone has the funds/ability to remain in their country/area just like the English do… the English are quite happy to ask interrogative questions if they think they need to.

What’s even worse, unlike other countries you can’t even apply for a schengen visa extension! Technically, as a US/Australian/Canadian citizen you don’t have a “visa”, you have a stamp, a stamp that entitles you to 90 days….. PERIOD…. maybe a few more days if you have a medical emergency… In trying to do the right thing, I spent a whole day trying to get someone, somewhere in France to stamp my damn passport so that there would be no dispute when I had entered the country – thats’s how I spent my first schengen day…..and now here I am, with my 90 days ticking away, while I’m motoring at 8 kms an hour along a canal in France, only half way across the bloody schengen country….so what to do?

So where to go besides Ireland and UK, because lets face it, who wants to escape the European winter and head to the UK? So, if it wasn’t for the schengen agreement we wouldn’t have spent 3 interesting months in Morocco…..(we considered Tunisia and Turkey also, as the closest countries to Europe with milder weather). Driving and camping through Morocco was great and wouldn’t have otherwise happened if not for schengen however, a visit to the Canary Islands would’ve been nice, or even Portugal and Spain on the way through but no……By the time we left Morocco three months and counting was far too schengen long and we were all feeling a little schengened out!

So we tried option 2

Apply for a permission to stay in an EU/schengen country. I have family in Italy, speak the language and the funds to support myself so I decided to apply for a permesso di soggiorno (carte du sejour in France) based on family connections and tourism motives (as suggested on their website). Did this work out well…. no, not really and 3 offices later (including a visit to the citizenship office) we left Italy in the same position as before. What I could have applied for, was a permission to stay as a spouse. So, my husband as an EU member would need to register as a resident with the local council and I apply based on my relationship with him. All fine, if we were in a stable address in Italy, but a boat even if parked in Italy does not count as a residence. All we really wanted, was to spend a schengen winter and summer in the Mediterranean (preferably Italy to stay close to relatives) but these was not to be. So off we went twice, for 3 months to a non schengen country, wishing I had an EU passport or even a NZ one… somehow unbeknown to me, there has been some “agreements” made between certain schengen countries and NZ to allow 90 day stays in these individual countries…. how?? now thats what I would like to find out…..!!

Visa free borders, well not really

There are currently 26 countries in Schengen.

Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Austria, Greece, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Iceland , Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

Non schegen countries:

Cyprus, Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia (this may change in the future)

Other options

Before leaving home, find out if you or your partner can apply for an EU passport. Do your research. Is there a maternal/paternal grandparent somewhere that you didn’t know about who is really from Bulgaria, Croatia? Dulve deep into your ancestral roots.. a country that wasn’t EU 10 years ago, might just be now!!

Ask your government why NZ can strike a deal with EU schengen countries and yours can’t….time to look at your countries foreign relations….

Re-think an extended trip through Europe before you leave!

Plan your trip through Europe so that you are in non EU territory when 90 days expires

You can’t apply for a visa extension on your stamp. Visit a country’s embassy from your home country to apply for an extended stay before you depart

Apply for a permision to stay (carte de sojour, permesso di soggiorno etc) immediately on arrival to the immigration officials of the country you wish to apply for, usually within 8 days. You need to meet their requirements. Italy’s familial connections law changed in 2009. Do you intend to travel and study? Also check the countries residence requirements if your partner or family member carries an EU passport.

Choose another continent such as South America for your travel of a lifetime dream. We entered several times back and forth between countries e.g. Chile and Argentina, and there are enough countries to visit to keep you busy travelling for a long time.

Sympathise with all those visitors much worse than yourself who are at the constant mercy of a country’s strict visa rules and regulations

Think Karma….there is a reason why strict visa rules apply to you….and also lots of visa charges. Its more expensive to travel on an Australian passport than a British one…we know, as we forked out ridiculous visa fees every time on our Australian one, while my husband on his British passport never paid once…not even in Argentina, and Britain went to war with them!

 

Mind your p’s and q’s

imageI wish that Australians showed more manners sometimes…. I thought that the Chilean ‘politeness’ was simply a cultural thing, as we often had anyone from a teenager to an adult offer us seats when we were out as a family..it .didn’t matter where it was, whether it was the local pool, on the metro etc.  Then we got to London and I soon discovered that even in a city with a population of over 8 million, here were another bunch of really courteous people… whenever we were on the tube someone always offered a seat to either myself or the kids and everyone knows that spare seats in the tube are rare.

Sure we might be a bit miffed and joke about the overly organised societal rules that can exist –the almost iconic ‘mind the gap’ (although its no longer continuously broadcast over the PA), ‘keep to the left’, the specific doors you have to enter or exit when catching a double decker bus. The refusal (either wittingly or unwittingly) to comply with any of the above can at best be met with a rude glare or an abrupt excuse me, and  at worst, well find out at your peril!!    These matters can be taken into one’s own hands and might even  be the cause of a riot…….In one instance, I witnessed a bus driver refusing to drive until one  passenger (an older lady) got off and re-entered the bus again through the entry not the exit doors.. Well, all manners went out the window, and it caused everyone much grief. For ten minutes there was lots of grumbling, swearing, insults, sides taken, and I could foresee a fight to break out…and all for what? I even joined in with a “come on mate, it doesn’t really matter, does it?” (as I felt it my duty to remind him of his duty; to drive the bus!) Oh yes, for someone with staunch principles…everything matters, either that, or the bus driver was having an exceptionally bad day…..

Aside from these rare moments, when it comes to driving etiquette, a similar politeness and courteousness takes place on the roads too. On the motorway in the UK, people keep to the left, overtake in the right lane and generally, are mostly good natured even though the traffic can be hideous and the conditions not so great especially in winter time with fog, black ice, early darkness.

Australians have generally had a great record when it comes to road safety especially with the introduction of child safety seat laws, mandatory seat belts (as early as the 1970s) and compulsory helmets for bike riders (who could forget the stack hats of the 80s). Currently, the governments latest target as the biggest killer on the roads is speeding, and anything above 5kms over the speed limit gets you a hefty fine, yes even on the free way/motorway.

So what does this lead to??? A bunch of angry, frustrated, impatient and arrogant drivers..and 3 lanes of traffic on a free way ALL driving at the same pace, give or take a couple of kms depending on the accuracy of your car’s speedo.

There are the drivers who refuse to move out of the right (overtaking lane) because they are doing the speed limit, so why should they, would come the reply.

There are the drivers going slow (still in the right lane), who can’t quite make the transition to the middle/left lanes, partly because there’s few gaps in the traffic (cars are all going just under 100 kms) and they seem to miss every opportunity and partly because in 186 kms or so they will be taking a right turn exit off the free way so why move now only to move later.

Then there are the arrogant drivers who are in the right lane also, who refuse to budge, because after all, they pay taxes and the right lane is just as much theirs as anyone else’s.  So is anyone driving in the left lane you ask? Well, that’s what I’d like to know…

So what does this create? Road rage, reckless driving, undertaking, tailgating, lots of raised fingers, hand shaking out the window, high stress levels, high blood pressure, headlights flashing, horns beeping, low morale, low cash flow (camera’s are everywhere) and basically some very dangerous driving conditions. Even when I’m driving at home on a free way, I’m torn between yelling at the driver in front, to get the hell out of the right lane and back to the left and to the driver behind me to back off unless he wants to pay my fine and cop my demerit points…

100 or 105 kms, is it really a speeding hazard or a revenue raising venture?? Sure, in residential areas it’s important to keep driving to a minimum safe speed especially where there are schools, parks nearby, families out walking, kids out playing etc. But on a free way?? Surely the danger is in a driver who is distracted, not concentrating, driving dangerously or driving at ridiculous speeds…

We have witnessed in awe at the driving that can take place in other countries…. even amongst the more arrogant EU countries that we won’t name. The speed limit is usually anywhere from 110 to 130 kms (in Germany we found no speed limit freeway!).  Drivers generally as a norm seem to go at an average 110/115kms regardless.   Of course there are always the drivers that push the limits and go much faster regardless of the speed restrictions (this happens every where in the world).    We found that drivers generally  keep left (or right depending on which country your in), keep the fast lane for overtaking and will move very quickly out of the way when another car is in sight…And you know what?  It works….. in 2010, the road death toll was 3 per 100,000 in Great Britain, compared with 6  per 100,000 in Australia. Don’t get me wrong, Australia’s record is quite good in comparison to some countries, but it’s also quite average compared to others despite its strict speed regulations.

The other day while driving back into London after a weekend away in the countryside, my husband pointed in disbelief to the  strange scene ahead of us….. “did you see that… the car in the left lane slowed right down to let the merging car in”… and you know what, there was no honking, screeching, yelling, anger… just polite road manners….I’d like to see more of that. Sure as Australians we have big roads, big country, big cars but do we need the big egos?!