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 (see Why You Should Live in a Van Before Getting Married), 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 (watch how we survived week 1 in our heater-less van in England in February here!).
It has now been nearly 3 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 journey through Morocco, Spain and Portugal (little recap of our travels here). 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?
Disclaimer: Blanket covering the differences between so many unique European countries is tricky. Some countries vary by a little and some by a lot. England, in particular, is much more developed, which does make it easier to access and find certain things, though this cuts back drastically on the ease and availability of wild camping… of which we found places like Norway, Morocco, Spain and Portugal to have an endless supply:
So (excusing the U.K. from this one), #1 on our list is 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 (they differ in different languages… confusing right?) just makes everyday life that much easier (and much less interesting at the same time).
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. While it’s all fascinating and exciting, making us feel more alive and conscious of our surroundings, after 3 years we’ve also come to admit that it makes daily life a bit more exhausting as well, especially when we just want to know where to go for a hot shower, or simply if we’re supposed to turn left or right… while also making sure we’re driving on the “right” side of the road in our right-hand-drive vehicle!
Even Google Translate couldn’t figure this one out!
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 here). In Croatia for instance, wild camping is 100% 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 (video on wild camping in Croatia here), we just had to be very stealthy. Then there are countries like Portugal + Norway and Sweden, where the “Right to Roam” makes wild camping completely legal, in fact they promote it (see why VanLife in Norway is MAGIC here)! 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, working in cafes in not quite the same, they tend to be reserved for eating (which we understand) and so bringing your laptop to work all day is just not the norm / frowned upon even, depending on where you are, with England being the exception. 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 hot spot 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 increase cost of gas, food and not being able to save various bits by doing laundry at friend’s (watch us discover roadside laundry in Holland here!), etc. but also due to the fact that there are A LOT more unknowns that we are forced to navigate on the daily. Sometimes we get things right, and sometimes (many times), we have to learn the harder (more costly) way. For instance, we had to return to the US for VISA reasons and so left our van parked at the Gatwick Long-Stay Car Park, where it was just £55 ($70) a month – great deal! BUT, after returning to the US we went to pause our car insurance, since it wasn’t being driven, but because it was in a “Public Space” we were not able to do so, as we were told they would literally “tow and crush” any vehicle without insurance found in their lot…! So, we ended up paying the $70 parking fee + $100 for insurance, each month. Bummer. In our experience, the US tends to be easier when it comes to navigating these sort of situations.
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 many places 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 + are wild camping everywhere we go + maybe eat out once a week (depending on how affordable or not a country is), so there are many days (weeks even) where we don’t really get to interact with anyone other than each other (this was especially true in Croatia), which can get lonely in many ways. While living as foreigners in a foreign land, can be difficult in many ways, 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 quite exist, which we actually like, but when you need to find a mini-screwdriver to fix your Polaroid camera somewhere along the wild Algarve Coast, things can get a bit trickier:
It’s also important to mention the task of refilling our propane tank. Each country uses a different bottle, with a different adaptor, and the refilling stations have different names with unpredictable hours and various capabilities. We learned to have a back up camping stove for moments like this – VanLife in Europe has definitely taught us a thing or two about being prepared, and at other times, the art of 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!
In the US it was super simple. We had 24/7 gym memberships, so we could work out and shower at over 3,000 gyms Nation wide! In Europe there is no such gym that spans across the whole of Europe (let alone 1 country!) like that. Most days we swim in the ocean… yes, even in the Arctic Sea in Norway + search for community centers + municipal pools + campgrounds (though these cut into our budget) + beach showers (which in Europe, they REMOVE during winter), and then there’s the always reliable”gallon shower” + bucket trick.
There are many things we could mention in this category, but we’ll stick with the one cultural difference that we encounter nearly everyday, 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 everyday as we roll on through.
9.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.
In the US it was pretty simple. We did a loop from the east to the west, popped into Canada, took a quick trip to Iceland + Alaska and after a year we made it back to where we started (just in time for our wedding):
In Europe, there is SO MUCH TO SEE and it’s spread out all over the place! So many nooks and crannies to fall in love with, so many villages, monuments, mountains, trails, museums, surf spots, famous photo ops, new foreign friends to meet (thanks to Instagram), crazy/amazing foods to try, oceans to swim in, views to park in front of and the list goes on, and on. In order to keep things digestible, we have had to break our European VanLife travels into 3 parts (check it out on YouTube). PLUS, as Americans, we are limited to 90 days in the Schengen countries out of 180 days and the same goes for Morocco + 180 day limit in the UK out of 360 days (and NO, “Visa runs” do not work), so needless to say, this adds a bit of a puzzle/time crunch to our schedule.
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.
It's incredible how quickly we can become comfortable in life, opting for a state of sameness over the powerful shifts brought on by newness and the unknowns. They say that fear and excitement come from the same place, but what makes all the difference is how we CHOOSE to look at things. Practice choosing excitement over fear, and maybe, just maybe, your life will shift in all the right ways. #alwayschangingalwaysgrowing ••• #TBT to yoga + Drew reading me The Alchemist in our van the day after we summited the highest mountain in Norway, because some days you just need to be comfy cozy 😌 #gorumpl
For more insight, be sure to check out our post on how we prepare for VanLife in another country here + our video guide on how to travel across America in a camper van + our VanLife Europe episodes on YouTube! We love sharing and navigating the endless knowns with you.