Vanlife - Overview and Guide
6 months around Europe in van called Matilda
May - November 2018
After planning the trip for at least 6 months, and talking about it for a few years, in May 2018 we found ourselves in London with a van we called Matilda ready to head off on the road for just over 6 months. We thought we were prepared for the trip as we owned a van in Tasmania and went away in it most weekends, but we learned so much living in a van full time. We experienced the highs of watching the midnight sun from the top a mountain in Norway to the lows of breaking down in the snow in Faroe Islands. Every experience help us to be prepared for the next one, and we were constantly learning throughout the trip.
Looking back, there's so much we wish we'd known before we took to the road, which is why we've put together this comprehensive guide to help you have the best adventure without the stress!
Total number of Days = 193
Distance travelled = 22,000 miles / 35,400 km
Number of countries visited = 18
Deciding what to pack for a 7 month trip was hard enough, especially when we would be traveling through all different climates and doing all different activities. We packed the maximum allowance of 30kgs each. Here’s a basic list of what we packed;
- Shoes (Runners, Sandals/Thongs, Boots)
- Hats (Cap, Beanie)
- Summer Clothes (shorts, T-shirt’s, dresses, etc)
- Winter Clothes (thermals, wool layers, puffer jacket, waterproof outer layers etc)
- Water bottles
Items we packed which we didn’t use as much as we thought we would included:
- Hiking tent and sleeping mats (we only used it once but it was worth it for that one night!)
- Hairdryer (needed for the cold weather but I hardly used it in summer)
- Small handbag (I usually just packed my backpack)
- Active Wear (tights, shorts, singlet, etc)
- Rock Climbing Gear (shoes, harness, belay device, chalk bag) Note: we would have liked to bring our rope but there was not enough room and we were able to hire ropes or climb without one
- Hiking Gear (hiking boots, head torch, first aid kit, waterproof dry bag, waterproof pack cover)
- Sleeping bags
- Camera, lenses and batteries
- Laptop and Ipad
What we bought when we arrived:
- SIM cards
- Ben linen
- Cooking essentials for the van
Matilda the Van
Matilda is a 1986 VW T25 Autosleeper
We decided to buy our van for the trip rather than hiring one for a number of reasons. Financially we had the money to spend up front and worked out that it would be cheaper to buy rather than rent for the period of time we wanted to travel for. Once we had finished traveling we could either sell it (for a similar price to what we bought it for) or import it home to Australia. We also wanted our van to feel like our home so owning it and being able to make any changes to it to make it feel like ours was important to us.
We did a lot of research into the type of van we wanted and in the end decided an older van would suit us. We found the van on gumtree before we left Australia. Luckily the owner was willing to hold it for us for a few weeks until we arrived in the UK and we had a few phone conversations with him about it to be certain that it was suitable for our needs. We picked it up a few days after we arrived in London and spent a few days organising insurance and getting it ready to leave.
We paid by international bank transfer which was discussed and agreed with the seller prior to meeting them. Depending on your bank and the value of the vehicle you are buying it is likely that you will need to increase your transfer limit. You can do this over the phone, but we visited a branch in Australia the day before we left. Your bank might also require you to enter a code to complete the transfer, so be aware that if you change your mobile number you will need to update this with the bank over the phone so that you can receive the code for the transfer.
Below you can find all of the information you will need for buying a car in the UK;
Buying and Registration
When buying a new vehicle, especially overseas, you should always check the details and history of the vehicle. Ask the owner for the vehicle's registration number, make, model and MOT test number. You also need to see a copy the V5C vehicle registration certificate (log book).
- Check the details you've been given match DVLA's information here
- Check the vehicle's MOT history here
- Check if the vehicle has been recalled because of a safety issue here
- Check the log book isn't for a stolen vehicle here
Once you've bought the vehicle, you have to register it. How you register it depends on whether it has a V5C registration certificate (log book). The vehicle we bought did so we just filled in the V5C form with our details and it is the sellers responsibility to lodge the new registration. You will keep part of the log book, the green ‘new keeper’s details’ slip (V5C/2) for your records until your new log book arrives.
Note that you will need a UK address to register a vehicle and receive the new log book. If you do not live in the UK it is possible to use the address of a family member or friend, but it is always a good idea to check that they are happy with this first. Be aware that it can take up to 4 weeks to receive your new log book.
You can find more information about vehicle registration here.
It is a requirement that you must pay tax on your vehicle to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) in the UK. The vehicle tax cannot be transferred from the pervious owner, you will need to pay this immediately when buying your new vehicle before you can drive it on the road. This can easily be done online on your phone, all you need is the green ‘new keeper’s details’ slip (V5C/2) from a log book which you will receive from the previous owner. You can choose to pay for either 6 or 12 months depending what suits your requirements. When you sell your vehicle or export it out of the UK you will get a refund of any full months of remaining tax.
Pay for your vehicle tax of find more information here.
The MOT test checks that your vehicle meets road safety and environmental standards. All vehicles are required to have a valid MOT. The MOT is transferable with the vehicle from the previous owner and is valid for 1 year.
Check the MOT status of your vehicle here.
The vehicle we bought had a valid MOT until February 2019 which was a few months after we were planning on leaving the UK. We would recommend only buying a vehicle which has a MOT valid for the entire time you require the vehicle for. If you don’t and the vehicle you buy requires you to get an MOT this will mean extra time (to take your vehicle for an MOT test) and extra money to pay for the MOT and any repairs that are required to pass the inspection.
You can find more information about getting an MOT here.
You must have insurance before you can use your vehicle on the road. It’s illegal to drive a vehicle on a road or in a public place without at least third party insurance. We arranged temporary insurance through Insure Daily to pick up the vehicle.
We found this part of buying our van to be the most difficult, mostly because our van was over 32 years old and we had not been living in the UK for at least 6 months. We spent a few days calling around different insurance companies only to find out that they would not cover us. Eventually we came across DownUnder Insurance who specialise in insurance for Australians travelling overseas. Because of our circumstances we were only able to get third party insurance (not including fire and theft) which cost us about £480 for 7 months cover.
Note that you might be able to find cheaper insurance or more comprehensive cover with a newer vehicle or if you have been living in the UK. It is always a good idea to get a few quotes to compare insurance before making a decision.
You will also need a Green Card to prove that your insurance covers the minimum cover in the country you’re driving in. Ask your insurance company if they can issue you with one.
Note that third party insurance does not cover break downs, so you may want to consider purchasing break down insurance as well. We arranged breakdown insurance with Driver Guardian which cost £150 for 1 years cover. This covered us for the whole of the UK and 90 days in Europe (with no trip more than 31 days). This meant that we went without cover for quite a bit of time in Europe but we actually used the cover quite a bit and it was a lifesaver when we broke down in Wales and needed a tow truck to take us 2 hours to the nearest mechanic.
Europe Driving Kit
If you're planning on driving through Europe you’ll want to make sure you take the right kit with you, to avoid the risk of a fine for not carrying something as simple as a warning triangle or reflective jacket.
The AA has a guide which shows what you will need for most of the countries in Europe here.
Map / Route
We had an idea of the countries we wanted to visit so we planned our trip around these countries and also the 90 day Schengen Visa (more on the Visa below). Before leaving Australia we made a general plan of how long we wanted to spend in each country to ensure that we made the most of our 90 days in the Schengen Zone.
We didn’t plan any routes until we started driving. Generally we would find a few places we wanted to visit in the country and plan our route for the next few days based on them. We would also visit tourist information centres nearby, google or look on Instagram for other places in the area to visit.
We used an app called maps.me to pin locations for places that we wanted to visit in one place, then we could plan our route for each day. The maps work offline so you can download the maps for the areas you are visiting (we just did this when we had WiFi) and then use the pinned locations to plan a route. Maps.me also shows things like petrol stations, toilets, supermarkets, shops, hotels, etc. which are useful while on the road.
We were super flexible with our plan because we didn’t want to be locked into a schedule that we had to meet. For example we weren’t initially planning on visiting the Alps, but after 3 weeks of rain in Norway we had enough of the bad weather so we left Norway earlier than originally planned and drove for a few days to get some better weather and visit Austria, Italy and Switzerland.
Below you will see the timetable we used to plan the countries we wanted to visit (this changed a lot from the first draft) and you can see a map of the general route we took at the top of this page.
We looked at all of the options for visas to stay in Europe for longer than 3 months. These included getting working visas for Italy or France, but these came with extra costs and extra hassles to organize them before we left. In the end we decided to plan our holiday around the Schengen Zone visa which allows Australian citizens (and some other countries) to travel to any country in the Schengen Zone for 90 days out of 180 days.
Check the requirements for your country here.
While we tried to avoid as many tolls as possible some were just unavoidable. Most tolls were able to be paid at the toll gate while driving through and they all had cash or card options. Some tolls required you to take a ticket while entering the motorway and then pay when leaving for the distance you have travelled.
There are a few exceptions which require registering or prepayment;
- Norway - register before arriving here. They will invoice you at the end of the month and you are able to pay online.
- Sweden - register before arriving here. They will invoice you at the end of the month and you are able to pay online.
- Austria - vignette sticker for traveling in/out of the country on the autobahn. You can purchase a sticker at most petrol stations before crossing the border for about €8 for 10 days.
- Faroe Islands - pay toll for sub-sea tunnels at petrol station
For the first week of our trip we stayed in an Airbnb in London to get organised for the trip. Obviously we also wanted to some do sightseeing while we there so we bought a 7 day Oyster card for Zone 1 & 2. This covered most of the areas we wanted to visit and meant we could travel on the underground, overground and busses as much as we liked for 7 days.
Other than London the only public transport we took were ferries, and we took a lot of ferries! Here’s a list of the ferries we took over the trip;
Folkestone (UK) - Calais (France): Eurotunnel (there is also a ferry option but the train is faster!)
35min travel time and approx £125 for 2 passengers and a campervan one way
Rostock (Germany) - Gedser (Denmark): Scandlines
2hr travel time (depending on departure time) and approx €110 for 2 passengers and a campervan one way
Gothenburg (Sweden) - free car ferries to the archipelagos
Norway - the majority of the ferries we took were in Norway. Especially in Fjord Norway car ferries are part of the major driving routes and are reliable, regular and not too expensive. We also took a ferry from Bodø to Lofoten Islands to cut out some driving time. While these longer ferries are slightly more expensive they work out about the same as petrol would cost to drive the distance and you get the added bonus of seeing the spectacular landscapes from the sea. Other ferries such as the ferry from Andenes to Senja wasn’t as regular and we had to wait a day for the next ferry.
Dieppe (France) - Newhaven (UK): DFDS
3hr travel time and approx £130 for 2 passengers and a campervan one way
Armadale - Mallaig (Scotland, UK): CalMac
30 minute travel time and approx £15.50 for 2 passengers and a campervan one way
Cairnryan (Scotland, UK) - Larne (Northern Ireland, UK): P&O Ferries
2hr travel time and approx £150 for 2 passengers and a campervan one way
Dublin (Ireland) - Holyhead (Wales, UK): Stenaline
3.5hr travel time and approx £150 for 2 passengers and a campervan one way
Harwich (UK) - Hook of Holland (Netherlands): Stenaline
6hr travel time and approx €170 for 2 passengers and a campervan one way
Hirtshals (Denmark) - Tórshavn (Faroe Islands) - Seydisfjorder (Iceland): Smyril Line
3 nights on the ferry each way and approx €1,800 return for 2 passengers and a campervan (including a cabin and meals). Note we travelled in the off season, prices increase in peak season.
Phone, Internet and Power
We did some research before we left and found Three mobile to be the best value for money prepaid phone plan for what we wanted, which was mainly lots of data. Although if you don’t have a UK credit card you can’t use the app to top up so we just bought vouchers from the 3 store. If our credit expired while we were in another country you can purchase vouchers from Datago with your credit card then use the voucher number to top up in the app.
Three mobile has a limit on the feel at home when traveling outside of the UK so we used our data sparingly and would catch up on social media and download maps, etc. while on WiFi. We usually stopped at McDonalds for this as we could also use the power outlets to recharge our laptop and cameras. Note: the only country we visited that wasn’t covered in the feel at home countries was the Faroe Islands so purchased a Føroya Tele SIM card from the SMS shopping Centre in Tórshavn when we arrived.
We also have USB and 12V power outlets in the van which run off the second battery so we can charge our phones and the laptop while we are parked for the night. We also have a power outlet in the van which only works when you are plugged in to power (which was hardly ever!).
Free Camping and Parking
We tried to free camp for the entire trip to reduce our costs as much as possible.
We used an app called Park4night to find a place to stay when we had an idea of the area we might be staying in that night. Unfortunately the app doesn’t work offline, however it is a great source of information from people who have stayed at places previously and left photos and comments about the place. We always made sure to check all signs in the area to double check there were no ‘no camping’ or ‘overnight parking prohibited’ signs.
Luckily Scandinavian countries are very liberal with free camping, encouraging people to be out in nature. It was obvious when camping was not allowed in a place for certain reasons, like at a rest stop, but overall it was easy to find somewhere to stay the night. Other countries, such as Switzerland, do not like anything to be free, so free camping here was a little trickier. We usually tried to arrive later and leave early, making sure we were out of the general line of sight, not making much noise, not leaving any waste and had no lights on. Overall we had no problems with free camping anywhere.
For the entire trip (not including 3 weeks in Iceland and the Faroe Islands) we only stayed at 3 paid camping grounds. The exception for free camping is Iceland and the Faroe Islands. It is illegal to stay overnight in a camper van (or tent) outside of a designated camping ground. This meant that we had to pay to stay at a camping ground each night. We were also traveling in October which is outside of the summer season so many of the campsites were not open. For Iceland we used a website (tjalda.is) to check the winter opening hours for the campsites we wanted to visit.
Across the UK we didn’t have any issues finding somewhere to stay for the night. We actually signed up to be National Trust members which meant that we could park at and visit any National Trust properties for free. You will need a UK address to send the membership card to, but if you have a friend or family member in the UK it is definitely worth signing up. We paid £69 for an annual membership. Parking was usually between £2 - £10 and entry into properties was usually between £10 - £15 so we definitely would have ended up spending more if we weren’t members. And it also meant that we visited some fantastic places that we might not have otherwise visited if we weren’t members.
For parking you can also usually find free parking if you are happy to walk a little bit further. Car parks in the town centre are usually paid, but if you look for street parking just out of the centre or in a residential street this can save you some money!
Toilets and Water
Our van doesn’t have a toilet so we often tried to find a place to camp which had free toilets nearby. We used the Maps.me app to find the nearest public toilet. Unfortunately sometimes this wasn’t possible and sometimes the toilets required payment so our alternative was to use a bottle in the van. For me this obviously required a funnel, for Jack it was a little easier. This also made it a lot easier when you need to go in the middle of the night and it’s dark and cold outside!
For water we kept about 60 liters of drinking water in the van. Our van has a water tank for the sink, but being an old van we didn’t want to risk drinking out of it so we used that tank for the sink and washing dishes only and kept separate plastic water containers for the drinking water. Drinking water wasn’t too difficult to find, we just had to remember to fill up before the water got too low. We usually filled up from public drinking water, but if we couldn’t find any sometimes we would ask campsites if we could fill up our water. If you aren’t staying there sometimes they will ask for a small fee. We used on average 8 liters of drinking water a day depending on what we were doing so 60 liters usually lasted us about 1-2 weeks.
Showers and Washing Clothes
Traveling in summer for the majority of our trip made it a little easier for showering most of the time. We would swim in the ocean or rivers and lakes whenever possible, especially after a run or a hike. We also love rock climbing so we tried to go to an indoor rock climbing gym every few weeks and use their showers after a climb. For the days we couldn’t shower or swim we either had a bucket shower at the van (think cold soapy water and a wash cloth) or if it was too cold for that we used baby wipes.
To wash clothes we would do small loads in the sink in the van every couple of weeks and use an elastic clothes line with suction caps to hang up the clothes to dry. We usually tried to pick a day with warm weather so the clothes dried the same day but when you are running low on underwear sometimes you don’t have much of an option! We also visited a few family friends so we could do some washing at their houses. Some campsites also have clothes washing facilities if you choose to stay in campsites/caravan parks.
We found these apps to be really useful while on the road;
If you have been following us on Instagram (@laurenlsutton and @jackrsutton) you know we love to take photos. We are by no means professional photographers, but we really enjoy taking photos to document our experiences and tell the story of our trip.
We both brought our cameras on the trip and 2 lenses each. These are;
Sony Zeiss FE 55mm f1.8
Sony Zeiss FE 16-35mm f4
Canon 24-105mm f4
Canon 50mm f1.8
We also brought our MacBook Pro and iPad Pro to save and edit our photos while on the road. We usually try save our photos from our camera memory cards to an external hard drive at the end of each day. Then at the end of each country we do a back up of all the original photos to a second external hard drive.
Keeping healthy while traveling is a bit harder than at home without the comfort of your normal routine, but that doesn’t mean it has to be impossible. I am by no means an expert in this department I just know that when I eat well and exercise regularly my body feels better.
Food and eating well is a big part of this and probably where we struggle the most while traveling. How many people feel like they need a snack on a long car drive or a wine and chocolate while winding down from a big day?! We definitely do! While we are traveling we try not to worry if we want to have a snack or a wine, we want to enjoy ourselves! But we do try to cook most of our meals ourselves and make sure we eat enough fruit and veggies. Sometimes we couldn’t afford fresh fruit and veggies so we also started taking multivitamin tablets with iron to make sure we were getting enough of the right vitamins and minerals.
Walking is usually the exercise we do every day. Whether is it walking around a small town, along a beach or up a mountain, the more walking the better! We also love rock climbing so we tried to visit a gym somewhere near us once every week or so. This also has the added benefit of being able to shower!
Food and Recipes
As some of you might know I am gluten intolerant so this was a additional factor to take into consideration when food shopping. Luckily we found most of the major supermarkets in Europe and the UK had a large gluten free section so it was pretty easy to find gluten free bread and pasta. A lot of the restaurants were also able to cater for gluten intolerance which was great whenever we felt like pizza or a burger!
In the van we have a small fridge and a gas cooktop. Our butane gas bottle ran out while we were in Norway and when we tried to refill it we found out they only have propane in Norway because butane freezes there in the winter. Our only option was to buy a portable gas cooker with small gas bottles to cook on until we got to a country where we could refill our gas bottle.
The fridge cools while the car is running but for some reason not while the car is stopped (it’s pretty old!) so we usually only keep enough food in the fridge for a few days so it won’t go bad. We also bought a small electric coolbox to keep drinks cold when we wanted to have a few wines and beers on the weekend (or any night!). This runs on the 12V outlet so we could cool it while we were driving somewhere and have cold drinks at our campsite.
We cooked most of our meals in the van. Food is one of the biggest places you can save money by cooking for yourself, and we love cooking so it was an obvious choice for us! Most of our meals are cooked on one pot/pan as our cooker isn’t big enough to fit 2 pots.
Here are some of our favorite recipes we cooked on repeat in the van;
- Eggs on toast
- Toast with Tuna and pesto or prosciutto and Brie or anything else we had
- Noodle cups
- Steamed veggies
We know that driving around in an old VW is not the most environmentally friendly way to travel, but there are plenty of things you can do to help the environment while traveling
- Avoid bottled water - carry a reusable water bottle. All of the places we visited had drinkable tap water meaning there was no need to buy bottled water, we simply filled up our water bottles at a cafe or campsite. Although if you are traveling to a country where you can’t drink the water there are other options for water filtration that you can find online.
- Keep cup - carry a keep cup or use a mug. We usually make tea and coffee in the van but if you do want to buy coffee you can always bring your own mug.
- Carry it in a tote bag - there is no need to collect plastic shopping bags every time you buy groceries. Keep a fabric tote bag with you and you’ll never need a plastic bag.
- Say ‘no’ to straws - you can carry a reusable straw if you need, but saying no to straws is a simple way of cutting out the use of unnecessary plastic
- Shop and eat local
- Use environmentally friendly shower products - I use the shampoo and conditioner bars from Lush which I carry in a metal container. This means no plastic and they are smaller than carrying bottles and last for ages.
- Use a mooncup / diva cup - using a menstrual cup is a really easy to cut down on waste from single use tampons and pads. It also means you save room in your luggage and don’t need to do any last minute trips to the store to try and find tampons.
- Stay on the trail - Marked hiking trails are there for a reason. Stick to the path to avoid harming native flora and fauna.
As always keeping safe while traveling is important and being careless about safety could ruin your holiday. Planning ahead, being aware of your surroundings and being respectful will go a long way to keeping you safe for your holiday.
Here are a few tips for keeping safe while overseas;
- Don’t leave anything visible in the car when you leave it unattended and take your valuables with you if possible
- Keep a record of personal belongings and photocopies or passports, bank cards, etc and leave a photocopy of passports and credit cards with someone at home
- Monitor credit cards and bank accounts
- Learn the language (or translate as much as possible)
- Be informed about your destination - know if there are areas which are unsafe especially when parking a vehicle overnight or if you are leaving it for the day
- Trust your instincts - if you don’t feel safe you probably aren’t
- Keep a list of emergency numbers including travel insurance, car insurance, bank, etc
- Always check the weather and conditions before going for a long hike and pack for all situations including a first aid kit and enough water and food
We have had so many questions about how we could afford to travel for 6 months. Honestly we have just been saving for a really long time!
If you want some tips about how to save to travel the world The Common Wanderer have a great guide on their blog here.
Heres a basic breakdown of most of our costs for the trip (based on 2 people in 2018). Note this is a very rough guide and most of the prices are approximate as I didn’t always keep receipts. Some of the amounts are approximate conversions to Australian Dollars as we paid in a different currency.
Flights (Qantas - Australia to London return) - $2,893
Travel Insurance - $280
Van - $18,000
Vehicle Insurance - $1,100
Vehicle Tax - $500
New Tyres - $550
Vehicle Repairs - $3,500
Smyril Line Ferry (Denmark to Iceland return) - $2,800
Transport (including other ferries) - $1,800
Camping (Iceland and Faroe Islands) - $650
Daily Allowance approx $50 per day (food, petrol, phones, activities, etc) = $9,650
Approximate Total = $41,723
Hopefully you will find some of this information useful. I know we would have liked to have all of this information in one place when we were planning our trip. Although everyone’s trip will be different, there should be a few tips here which will make your experience easier and more enjoyable.
Keep an eye out here for posts on each of the countries we visited over the coming months.