How To Road Trip Around Europe

Note from Jason: This is a post by Joanna Moore.

Last May my girlfriend and I packed up our house in Nottingham, England, piled our belongings into our car, and headed south to Harwich ferry terminal.

We’d given up our rental contract, gotten rid of most of our possessions, and moved into our car. The plan? To road trip around Europe for a few months.

As we were driving through the pouring rain to the port, I turned to my girlfriend and said, “what on earth are we doing?” Since she doesn’t have a driving licence, and despite the fact that I’m a terrible driver, it was me who was going to have to drive us through the Netherlands and Germany the next day.

Apart from getting to Berlin for a conference and visiting a few friends in various parts of the continent, we had no plan for the trip. We were clueless about how to road trip around Europe.

But of course we learned quickly. We made a ton of mistakes. We were grateful for some belongings and wished we hadn’t bothered bringing others. We got into a routine and figured out how to live on the road quite comfortably.

Now it’s time to pass on everything we learned, so that you too can travel around Europe while living in your car, perhaps without making quite as many mistakes as we did!

What This Guide Will Cover

This guide covers all the basics on how to road trip around Europe. While it is focused on Europe, it will be useful for anyone planning to live in their car or go on an extended road trip.

  • Choosing your car
  • Packing and preparing the car
  • Checking the rules of the road
  • Planning your route
  • Finding places to sleep
  • Keeping clean
  • Eating
  • Traveling on a budget
  • Final tips

Choosing Your Car

Size And Model

If you don’t already have a car, the first thing you’ll want to do is ask yourself whether comfort or budget travel is more important to you. My girlfriend and I had slept in a tiny Toyota Yaris before and, while we had no trouble sleeping, we had no desire to be that cooped up for longer than a few nights at a time.

If you’re traveling alone or you don’t have a ton of cash to spend on gas, I’d recommend looking at estates, as they’re quite long. If comfort and space are important to you, I’d suggest getting a people carrier like our Ford Galaxy. Make sure the seats are removable, so that you can lie down.

Features

What you look for in a car will depend on you, your driving experience, and the type of trip you’re going on.

Whereas in the UK, most cars are manual, and that’s all I’d ever driven, we decided to go for an automatic, because we wanted to make the driving as simple as possible. Driving on the other side of the road and understanding unfamiliar road signs was going to be tricky enough, without having to switch gears at the same time.

Look for a car with tinted windows, so that you can sleep and keep your stuff in the car without anyone noticing. The car we ended up with didn’t have tinted windows, so we bought tinting paper from the internet and stuck it in ourselves. It looked a bit scrappy but it did the trick.

You could also hang up black curtains or material (and we did use some of those too, because we never actually finished putting the tinting up!), but know that they might make people peer into your car in the daytime, wondering what’s behind them.

Car Tinted Windows

You can see how bad our tinting was, but it did the trick!

Age And Reliability

While we did want a car that didn’t have too many miles on it, this wasn’t a huge deal to us because our plan, should our car die, was to abandon ship and come up with an alternative way to travel. That said, we were lucky and got one with just under 80,000 miles on it.

If your car is going to be your only option, make sure it’s the most reliable car you can afford. We bought a beaten up family car, but we liked that it was scratched and scruffy, because we figured no one would look twice at it, let alone consider stealing it.

Of course, you should follow the normal instructions for buying a car, especially if it’s second hand. If you’re not confident examining it yourself, get a friend to do it or pay an expert to do it.

You could buy your car abroad, and we did consider this because, driving a British car in Europe, our controls were going to be on the wrong side. However, we decided that we’d rather deal with the buying in our own language and bought our car from a guy down the road!

It’s also a good idea to get your car serviced by a garage before you leave, to give yourself some peace of mind. Our car needed a new door lock, new tyres, and new internal fittings, so plan to spend some money on this.

Packing And Preparing The Car

We had lots of plans to do up our car and turn it into the ultimate mobile home, but life happened and we never got round to it. By all means, go all out and convert your car into a fully fledged living space, but you’ll manage perfectly fine by just following the advice below.

Get Used To The Car

I literally could not drive our car when we first got it, so I was glad that we bought it a few months before we need it. Get plenty of practice of driving your car and getting to know how it works.

It would have been good to have known, when we got a flat tyre on the highway on the border between Austria and Germany, that our car did have a spare tyre. It would also have been useful to have known how to change a tyre. We were completely fine, but this information would have saved us a bit of time and worry. Get to know your car before you go.

What To Take

I’m not going to provide a full list of the items you should take with you, as this will differ for everyone. But I will give you a list of the things that made our lives much, much easier.

Bench

We actually took an exercise bench with us to serve as a shelf. It essentially doubled the amount of space we had for our belongings. We had it pushed up against the back of the two font seats and we put boxes of stuff both below and on top of it. Genius!

Boxes

Try to split your belongings into categories and have a box per category. I referred to one of our boxes as “the bathroom” and another as “the kitchen.”

By keeping everything in its place, you’ll keep the car tidy and you’ll never struggle to find anything.

Likewise, I’d recommend having an easily accessible “important documents folder.”

Rug

We wanted one simple rug to cover the whole of the floor of the car, just to keep things nice in there. But we found that normal rugs were pretty expensive and the wrong size.

The perfect solution turned out to be one of those play rugs for children with a town mapped out onto it. It was the perfect size and it wasn’t too thick, so it didn’t make us too warm at night.

Yoga Mats

We used a yoga mat each as a bed. The first night was a bit uncomfortable but after that it was fine. That’s all you need.

Quilt And Pillows

You could use sleeping bags, but having a regular duvet made us feel more at home in the car.

Adapters

Obviously, you’ll want regular adapters, so you can plug your electronics in while you’re abroad, but make sure to pack a cigarette lighter to USB adapter too, particularly if you’ve got an iPhone. These are great because they allow you to charge your phone while you’re driving.

If you’re lucky, you’ll have a sat nav that comes with one of these.

Sat Nav

Choosing between a map and a sat nav is personal preference, but we took a sat nav with us. We felt like we should take a map with us to be on the safe side but in the end we didn’t.

Although we came to hate our TomTom (called Thomas when it was misbehaving), it did get us round Europe, so we can’t really complain.

Kindle

One thing we discovered early on was that there’s not much you can do in a car.

Our Kindles made the whole trip much more enjoyable, because reading was pretty much the only thing we could do to relax, and it would have been a pain to have taken a whole stack of books.

Card With Free Cash Withdrawals Abroad

Before you go, work out how you’re going to withdraw money abroad. Your options will depend on where you live and where you’re going, but if you’re from the UK and you’re going to Europe, I’d recommend opening an account with Metro. Their debit card was a great little find and allowed us to take out money for free.

Rain Deflectors

Rain deflectors are basically strips of plastic that serve as mini roofs to stop the rain from getting in when you’ve got the windows open.

We bought these so that we could keep the windows slightly open at night (so they wouldn’t steam up and give us away to passersby) without anyone seeing that they were open.

Rain deflectors

Rain deflectors from inside the car

Few Clothes

We didn’t take many clothes at all but we still had too many. When you’re living in the car, you don’t end up changing your clothes every single day. We tended to sleep in our clothes too, so we didn’t get through very many of them.

If you’re super concerned about being clean, go ahead and take more clothes, but most people won’t need more than a couple of pairs of shorts/pants/skirts, one jacket, and about three t-shirts.

Rucksacks

Our best buy of the trip was our rucksacks. We were able to fit everything into them that we needed to take with us whenever we left the car (laptops, phone leads, water, food, camera, Kindles, spare jackets, purses, passports, etc.), and we kept them packed, so we could grab ‘n’ go.

There’s no need to get fancy here at all. Our rucksacks are relatively small, with external pouches for drinks, a front zipped pocket, and two compartments inside. Find one that suits your needs.

We also bought gym bags and kept everything we needed for the gym in those too.

Light Laptops With Long Battery Life

Before we set off, I had a huge Dell that was slow and heavy. Buying a used Macbook was the best thing I could have done. It meant I could carry my laptop in my rucksack and use it without a problem when wall sockets were in short supply.

Europe-wide Guide Book

Over the years I’ve had so many country-specific guidebooks but my well-worn Europe on a shoestring by Lonely Planet has always beaten them all.

This was the second Europe-wide trip I’d done, and having one book that covers everywhere you want to go saved us so much space.

Protein Powder

My girlfriend and I both lift, so getting enough protein to keep us growing without access to a kitchen was going to be difficult. We took huge bags of protein powder with us and drank them with (generally warm) water. It was gross but we both put on muscle while traveling.

If you’re not into lifting, you won’t need as much as we did, but one shake a day could be a good way to get some protein into your diet. Likewise, you might want to look into taking supplements.

Tin Opener

Tinned food will be your friend, so make sure you can get into it by taking a tin opener with you.

Cutlery

Take a set of cutlery (whether plastic or metal) each. You might want a plastic plate and a few other bits and bobs, but we managed without.

Addresses

Make sure you know where you’re going. Driving around Slovenia, desperately trying to recognise something that would lead me to the farm I used to live on because I hadn’t brought the address with me wasn’t my finest moment.

Jump Leads

Just to be prepared. We didn’t take these with us, so when I managed to leave the car lights on overnight and drain the battery, I had to walk to a gas station and shell out quite a bit for some leads to get us back on our way.

View

The view from inside the car

Checking The Rules Of The Road

Insurance

Of course, make sure you’re fully insured before you set off. Insurance was our first big hurdle. We’d planned to travel for up to five months, but all the quotes we got were for a few thousand pounds. No way.

Our solution was to get a regular insurance policy that would allow us to go abroad for one month at a time for a total of three months in one year, popping back across the English Channel a few times. In the end, we only did one month in mainland Europe, so this wasn’t an issue.

If you’re from a mainland European country, you might have more options than we did.

Breakdown Cover

Don’t forget to get breakdown cover. Being able to just phone someone and wait for help when we broke down in Austria was the easiest thing ever.

Equipment

Before you set off, find out what each country requires you to have in your car. This guide gives an overview of what you’ll need. Each European country has different rules, so what you need to get will depend on where you’re going.

We didn’t know where we’d end up going, so we got the most commonly needed things (reflective jacket, GB sticker, warning triangle, first aid kit, fire extinguisher, spare headlight, breathalyser), and planned to look up each country’s rules as and when we needed to. You can get kits with most of these things in.

If you’re from the UK, you’ll need some stickers to make your headlights beam in the opposite direction too.

Sleeping In Your Car

In some countries, it’s illegal to sleep in your car. You could look this up beforehand or stay ignorant and hope that if a police officer notices you, they take pity on you.

Each night we decided what we’d say if we were questioned. Usually the plan was to say that we were driving to whichever friend’s house we were going to next, and that I’d gotten tired and thought it safer to have a nap than continue. If we weren’t going anywhere in particular, we’d say we were sleeping in campsites but had gotten lost.

Passes

Some countries and cities require you to have and display special passes and stickers to drive in them.

Particularly in the East, you’ll find that, as you approach the next country, you’ll see signs urging you to pull over and buy a vignette.

This is a sticker that allows you to drive in a particular country for a certain number of days. They’re only about €20 each, but it’s worth factoring them into your budget.

Some European cities have low emission zones that you need a sticker for too. You can order these from your own country before you leave, but we found out about them too late and had to go from gas station to gas station in Germany, trying to find someone to issue us one.

Again, these cost a few Euros, although we got ours for free (no idea why). If you don’t want the cost or hassle of getting one, simply avoid the affected cities.

Planning Your Route

Efficiency

I’m a big planner, so when I did InterRail, my friends and I booked every single hostel for our trip before we even set off.

This time, we decided to do the opposite. Apart from going to a conference in Berlin, we had no plans. The plans we did make changed pretty much on a daily basis.

One day, we were in Klagenfurt, Austria, planning on staying there for a week or so. The next day, we arrived in Germany, having driven through Salzburg, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland, just because.

And while it was fun being so free, it didn’t make any sense, gas-wise. This approach was not at all efficient, so if you’re on a budget, figure out how to squeeze as much out of your route as possible, or just stick to one part of Europe.

The Best Roads

I was very nervous about driving abroad, but I actually ended up preferring it to driving in the UK.

In most of the countries we went to, the motorways only had two lanes and you’d only see another car every minute or so. It was so easy and peaceful.

The busiest roads were the Netherlands and Germany. Along with Vienna, they’re the only places we got stuck in traffic.

Toll Roads

For whatever reason, our sat nav failed to tell us when we were approaching a toll road, so we wasted more money this way. If you’re tight on money, look these up before you go or make sure your sat nav will do that for you.

Driving

Driving on the Slovenian/Italian border

Finding Places To Sleep

Sometimes finding somewhere to sleep is a nightmare but, after a while, you get pretty good at it.

Residential Areas

Your best bet is to try and blend in on a normal residential road or housing estate with no parking restrictions. Avoid main roads and deserted back alleys.

Street Lights

It’s a good idea to keep your car under a street light, to discourage thieves. That said, the light can stop you from getting to sleep, so experiment with different distances and positions.

Churches

We read that sleeping near churches is a great way to deter vandals and to be close to help, should you need it. We never tested this idea out, but feel free to try it!

Affluent Neighbourhoods

Before we drove to a new city, my girlfriend would look up the different neighbourhoods and find a few “good” neighbourhoods that were within walking distance of the city center.

We just felt safer sleeping outside big and well-kept houses than we would have if we’d stayed somewhere shady-looking.

Slopes

If you end up parking on a slope or hill, make sure you sleep with your head on the highest bit and your feet on the lowest bit. You don’t want all your blood ending up in your head!

Switch It Up

We tended to stay in the same spot for one or two nights. In Edinburgh, we ended up staying outside some random guy’s house for about a week and I think he got suspicious of us towards the end, so we simply moved a bit further up his road.

Be quiet, keep lights off once you get into your car at night, and try not to draw attention to yourself.

Keeping Clean

Toilets

Sometimes you’ll find a parking spot close to an alleyway or somewhere private where you can relieve yourself, but don’t count on this. Park near to a McDonald’s or other cafe and go to the toilet as soon as you wake up and just before you go to sleep.

Try not to drink anything in the last hour before you go to bed. One skill you’ll develop while living in your car is the ability to sleep even when you need a wee!

If you’re a guy, you’ll probably be fine. Girls, we tried Shewees and I’m just going to say “no comment.” We also tried Peebols, which are essentially resealable bags. We only used them when we were desperate because we didn’t particularly like keeping bags of pee in the car overnight, but these were great. Stock up!

Washing Yourself

We used gyms and showered in them every other day or so. Look for gyms with free trial passes and cheap rates for one day passes.

McFit is a great option because they have gyms across Europe. Either join this gym or take advantage of its free trial.

The first time we went to a McFit, we were just let in without providing any details about ourselves, so we went again in our next city. This time they took a few details. We went again somewhere else and they took quite even more details, but they didn’t seem to notice that we’d had free passes before. Finally, in Münster, Germany, they did notice that we’d been to more than one gym, but they didn’t mind.

If they question you, tell them you’re considering moving to a few European cities and you’re checking them all out. I felt a bit bad about this but it saved us a lot of money!

Otherwise, we took hand sanitizer with us and used sinks.

Washing Your Clothes

The obvious way to wash your clothes as you travel in the car is to visit laundromats. Unfortunately, whenever we wanted one, we couldn’t find any. So we washed our clothes when we visited friends and one night when we stayed in a hostel.

If you’re desperate, you could wash your clothes in the sinks of cafe bathrooms, but I’d recommend holding out for a hostel, friend’s house, or laundrette if you can.

Lake

There’s no need to resort to washing in lakes!

Eating

You’re probably not going to be able to eat the best diet while you’re living in your car, unless you’ve got a lot of money to spend on eating out. We accepted that we probably wouldn’t be able to drink enough water each day and that we’d have to do the best we could with what we could find.

When I did InterRail in 2008, my friends and I lived on bread and Nutella. Tasty but very unhealthy.

This time, we ate tinned tuna and vegetables, bread, cereal, protein shakes, and peanut butter. Again, not great, but it is possible to sneak some veggies and protein into your diet if you make a conscious effort to do so.

Despite the fact that we went to McDonald’s every day to use the internet, we didn’t really eat fast food. If you’re using fast food restaurants for their wifi, buy drinks instead.

Drinks actually turned out to be quite problematic for us. We figured we’d be able to top up our water bottles from sinks but we were rarely sure that the water was drinkable. Instead, we had to buy bottles of water from supermarkets, which was expensive.

Traveling On A Budget

While we worked out rough costs before we started our trip, we weren’t very careful or thorough about this at all. We also haven’t worked out how much we did spend, simply because we would probably be horrified!

But don’t let that put you off. Knowing the mistakes we made, you should be able to save yourself a lot of money and do the trip much cheaper than we did.

Work As You Go

Your best option for funding your trip is to get paid to travel. Our trip was only possible because I work online.

The easiest way to work online is to freelance on somewhere like Elance or to become a virtual assistant. This is relatively easy to do. In fact, my girlfriend picked up an editing job a few weeks into our trip, entirely by accident. Simply head to Elance or contact your favorite bloggers to see if they’re hiring.

Working

Working by a lake with my laptop and rucksack

Plan For Problems

By far the biggest expense for us was our car. Aside from actually buying and preparing it, we had to shell out for quite a few mishaps.

  • Car (£800)
  • Insurance (£800)
  • Breakdown cover (£100)
  • Full service, new tyres, new door lock, internal fittings
  • Gas
  • New tyre in Austria/Germany
  • Air con fix in Slovenia

Reducing Costs

You could avoid and reduce a lot of these costs by buying a smaller and newer car than ours (ours was a 1999 car) and by planning ahead.

A great way to save money is by staying in the same place for longer, since it’s mostly the actual travel (the gas) that costs you once you’ve got your car.

Keep your food costs down by finding the items and brands with the lowest cost per 100g and by buying from supermarkets like Aldi and Lidl.

Besides keeping the car going, our biggest unforeseen expense was water. Take lots of empty bottles with you and fill up on free water whenever you can find it, whether that’s at a gym, from a water fountain, at a friend’s house, or from a bathroom sink with drinkable water.

It goes without saying that if you’re really tight on money, you should try not to spend money on attractions and in tourist areas. Aim to get a feel for the places you’re visiting by wandering around them rather than by going to museums, etc.

If you’re there more for the experience than to see particular places, visit towns and the countryside rather than cities.

We’d only been to Berlin, Prague, and Vienna when we decided to stop visiting tourist hotspots and to just see what we came across. It’s amazing the events and places you come across when you’re not looking for anything in particular.

Final Tips

Be Flexible

Your trip is about having a good time and seeing Europe. If you find yourself getting stressed, remind yourself why you’re there. There’s no point cutting your expenses right down if doing so is making you miserable.

We planned to spend three to five months road tripping around Europe. By the end of our first month abroad, when it was time to pop home because of our 30-day insurance policy quirk, we were running low on both money and energy. We liked the idea of continuing our trip but we also couldn’t really be bothered anymore.

Rather than pushing on, we decided to road trip around the UK instead. After a few weeks of that, we suddenly decided we wanted to settle down somewhere. That same day, we went home.

Don’t let yourself feel restricted by your plans. Do what you want to do.

Take Your Shoes Off

Take your shoes off whenever you get into your car. If possible, keep them in a particular place too. That way, you’ll keep all your stuff clean and you’ll feel comfier in your portable home.

Plan Your Escape

Know what you’d do if someone tried to get in during the night.

We decided that we’d stay quiet and try to peer out if we weren’t sure what was going on, and hope whoever was bothering us went away. If we thought someone was trying to break in and we had time, I’d jump into the front and start driving. If it were too late, we’d grab our rucksacks and run away.

I kept the car keys in the pocket of the door I slept next to, so that, if someone were to try and break into the car while we were sleeping, I’d be able to grab them, hop into the front, and drive away.

It probably won’t happen but it’s good to have a plan.

Know Yourself

Know what you need to function properly. If you’re grouchy when you eat poorly, prioritize your nutrition. If being spontaneous freaks you out, plan a little. If you can’t stand the idea of being a little smelly, book into a hotel every couple of days.

My girlfriend and I are both introverts, and we both found it hard to feel like we could properly relax in our car, because we were always in public. Reading was a nice escape, but we could have done with more sheets to cover the windows with at times.

If you’re traveling with someone else, do your best to understand them and their needs. My girlfriend and I don’t argue much but we definitely argued a fair bit on our road trip! Try to see their point of view, compromise, and talk.

Reading

Reading in the shade in Slovenia

Appreciate It

A day or two after we moved back into our parents’ houses, my girlfriend and I set off again. Being back in a house felt like too much. There was too much time, too much space, too much food to eat, too many options. It was boring and we hated it!

We stayed in the car again while we looked for somewhere to live and then moved into a shared house. After the freedom of living out of our car, living with other people and with so much of their stuff everywhere was really stressful.

We only lasted three months in that house before we left again and moved into a small, unfurnished apartment. Finally, we’ve got very little in the way of belongings, furniture, and space again!

Living in a car has changed the way I live in a house or apartment, and I’m glad for that.

But every now and then I long for the days when we’d wake up, hop into the front seats, and just drive. Whenever I look out of the window and see our car sitting there, I miss the simplicity and freedom of our road trip.

It’s a cliché, but road tripping around Europe in your car probably will change you.

While you’re out there, you’ll get sick of lukewarm protein shakes and your lack of opportunities to pee, but appreciate it.

It’s an awesome way to get to know yourself, your traveling companion, and the world. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Want more? Listen to this podcast about how to travel Europe on the cheap.

Subscribe to the Zero To Travel Podcast on iTunes

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