13 November 2017
Our amazing caravan
 
When we finally hit the road with our beloved Mercedes Vito and Wilk Stern 700 caravan, these are the places we visited:
Switzerland, France, Spain, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and Germany; with day trips to Austria and Luxembourg.
 
[For those just joining in now, we were constrained by the Bi-lateral Visa Waiver Agreements, on where we could go and when.]
 
Sometimes we would move every day, and at others we'd stay a week, most times it was 2-3 days in one place.  This 'freedom' wasn't easy nor carefree.  In fact it was darn right difficult even with the up-to-date ADAC (equivalent to NZ's AA) annual camping guide that listed private and municipal options alongside the camping grounds.
 
The idea was to stay at park-over properties instead of camping sites, to save money.  For the size of our family, camping grounds would have cost similar to a motel each night.  You generally would pay for the two vehicles and for each person, as well as electricity and utility charges. Park-overs were usually a minimal charge per unit (not per head) but which may not even provide water and power (both extra costs) - just a car parking space.  On average our daily charge for somewhere to overnight was EU10 in Germany, EU5 in France, free in Spain and Sweden, EU30-35 in Netherlands and Denmark.
 
 
We had three major challenges to finding somewhere to rest our weary heads at the end of a long day.
 
The first was that we were travelling with a caravan.  This is not the done thing unless you are a gypsy, and as a result we were tarred with the same unfavourable brush.  The issue of us being self-contained didn't seem to factor into it at all.  Caravans there are towed to an official park, set up and left year-round.  They are not towed around the countryside!  We repeatedly encountered prejudice at it's finest.
 
Secondly we had a very long rig at over 13m when attached, approx 4 + 9 separated.  Many of the park-over properties were only for vehicles up to 6m.  Manouveuring into spaces that were long enough for the caravan, even if we had to park the Vito elsewhere, was invariably a nightmare.  The number of times we had to unhitch, re-position the van; or even use sheer brute man-power to guide the caravan to where it needed to go was too numerous to count on hands and feet.
 
I could tell you the story of driving it through one of many small quaint French villages and getting so stuck not being able to make a right turn even with the caravan unhitched, that the local police had come to see what the activity was about and ended up not only helping us rock it back and forward (along with a patron from some neighbouring restaurant) around the corner distorting the tyres so much I thought they would blow; but then afterward provided an escort to the parking lot on the Seine river where we were intending to head.
 
I got very used to doning my hi-visibilty vest, which is mandatory for every passenger in every vehicle, and scoping out what was in front and behind us, yelling all the while to Atlas who would try to interpret it, to get us out of trouble.
 
Then there was the abiding issue of lack of wi-fi, to check these places were what they said they were and to ask if they'd allow us to be there.  Or to try and find another one at the end of a long day because we couldn't stay where we had planned.
 
 
If we were to do it all over again, the one things I would do differently would be to position ourselves for a month in one place, and make day trips from there.  
 
Finding a place to overnight, a petrol station for fuel, the supermarket for food, public wi-fi if at all and generally orienting oneself with the environment day in and day out is FAR TOO MUCH STRESS.  Finding a place to stay longer that was not a camping ground would still be a challenge, but I reckon possible.
 
 
Do I miss living in a caravan and travelling Europe?  Yes absolutely!  It did give us a sort of freedom and flexibility albeit at the very high price of stress.  It was the means to our end, the vehicle for us to even consider being able to make the journey.  Without the van and caravan we could not have gone where we did, seen what we have nor experienced the culture and life of so many countries and people.
 
It was great that you weren't living out of a suitcase and packing and unpacking every day.  In the caravan everything had it's place and everyone did too.  The children had pictures on the walls, toys and games in the cupboards.  It was fun to outfit the kitchen, in particular, with the essentials of what we needed and realising that it really wasn't that much.  The fundamental needs of running a household on wheels were stripped down to 'do we have enough water?', "where can we dump the toilet?" and "is everyone fed and warm enough?".
 
This lifestyle was nothing new to me, as growing up my parents were able to provide me with holidays in a caravan; but for the other six it was a new frontier.  The simplicity appealed to my minimalist nature; but not so much to the children.  The boys missed their Lego & toys, Gemma missed her space; and Vega missed her sewing.  Some days when the homesickness was in full swing what the child missed became so huge they were not able to see what else they did have that they didn't at home.  I guess a case of the grass is always greener.
 
 
For me, being home now 7 months I do appreciate our house is big enough, whereas prior I had wished we could have afforded an extension so children didn't have to triple up in a room.  I have continued to hold minimalism and the process of constantly re-evaluating an object's usefulness (as you need to do in a caravan and also while long-term travelling) in focus.  We have in our home what we need, and the rest sits still in the shipping container for sorting, selling or storage.
 
 
One other mindset change was that whilst overseas if we did really need something we had to buy it.  At home we had always tried not to buy something new if we could make do but this wasn't possible overseas.  Having the right item for the specific task did make things quicker and easier. 
 
What this means for me, is for example when I wanted to paint a couple of stripes around the boys' room I calculated what I would need, and went and bought tester posts from the hardware store in the exact 2 colours instead of trying to mix them from the mis-tints and leftover paints we might have had in the shed.  Ok, so it may not sound like a big deal to you, but to me it is.  It wasn't an expensive splurge either, but I was giving myself permission to make my life easier and that feels good. 
 
In contrast I have just hauled a (free) wooden pallet home from the other side of town balanced precariously on a bicycle so I could make two headboards of it for the same boys' bedroom.  The difference was that I wanted to have a go at up-cycling some from a pallet and this was finally a practical project.
 
 
I dare say that each one of us will continue to have these little mind shifts and revelations especially as we individually and communally process our 17 months abroad.  For that I am grateful for the O.E. that was.
25 August 2015

 

In researching air fares, bus fares, accommodation and everything else that goes with travel you realise there is nothing standard about being a child, so it may seem futile to be writing about it.  However it is something valuable to know especially if you are in the budgeting phase of your journey.  There will be other 'hidden' costs, or those totally foreign to you, that being exact with what you can, will help rein in any contingency blow-out.

 

So here are a few GUIDELINES:

Airlines generally charge full fare at 12 years of age, discounted between 2 and 12, and free if under 2 and the child can be accommodated on a parent's lap.

In New Zealand 16 years old is the age most companies charge as an adult.  Family tickets are 2 adults and 2 children only.  Under fives (pre-schoolers) are mostly free.

Austria is über cool, allowing child prices under 19 years of age (ie from 0 - 18 inclusive).  

Belgium looks upon children under 6 as free, and children under 18 as portioned.

Iceland generally designates children to be under 6 if making a distinction at all, and doesn't allow family tickets - you pay for each person.

Germany are great for their family tickets, normally without limit on the number of children that are included and often allowing for these to be grand-children as well (German Rail).  Although the age in many commercial institutions is under 14 or 16 years, children can get the same concession up to 18 years and/or if they carry a student ID (even in tertiary).  There are also concessions for the disabled and those over 65 years old.

 

HOW TO STRETCH YOUR BUDGET:

  • Plan meticulously!
  • Do free activities and attend free events.  Often museums will have a free day per week or month.
  • Check online prices, as these may be slightly cheaper than in-person ones.  
  • Winter usually costs less than summer, if attractions and accommodations are still open - you will then need to check the specific dates that dictate the season.
  • Cook your own meals.
  • Book your airfare approximately 60 days prior to travel for the best rates.
  • Think about renting an apartment or staying in hostels to get longer-term discounts.
  • Use public transport and look for day/week or group travel discounts.
  • See whether buying a vehicle is more economical than renting (note though insurances, registration, plates, and ongoing variable costs like fuel etc).
  • If travelling in summer only, consider camping or buying a second-hand caravan or motorhome.  Camping grounds may charge per person or per unit.  Many are closed for winter
04 August 2015

Southern Germany to Denmark via Berlin

Images courtesy of Google

 

Planning exactly where to go is not a science at all.  It is a mixture of heart and mind, and finding a balance between the two.

The countries we want to visit are just the big picture and it is up to me to design our itinerary to satisfy more than the 'stamp in the passport' mentality of visiting a new land (and in Europe where there are no internal borders, stamps are a bit of a thing of the past anyway).  Let me take you through the beautiful but messy process that is planning an overseas experience (O.E.).

 

THE WHERE

First Atlas and I prioritised our country wish lists.  You will notice when doing this exercise for yourself that some decisions you make are based on what you know or do not know about a place; othertimes it's how you feel that wins over.  Comparing fact vs feeling is like comparing apples to oranges but it can be done! Surprisingly the first group of 6 (out of 18 destinations) were the same with only 1 difference.  Germany is of course our number 1, but with the potential to stay another 3 months and travel after that, these other countries are our next focus: Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Iceland, Belgium & Greece.  

 

THE WHAT

Next I asked each person what they do or might enjoy doing or seeing in a new place.  I wrote about those in our What we'll see and do in Tuebingen post.

The challenge is to find what opportunities exist in each place, not doing too much, and how it might work to get there.

 

THE HOW

Google maps is a real boon to route planning and moreso when you discover that there is an 'avoid tolls' option that you can select when travelling by road.

 

Another tip is instead of entering a broad start and finish location and dragging the route to the places you really want to travel through on the way, use their '+' feature.  Start with your beginning location, add the next one, then press the '+' to add another etc. [Note: it only allows for 10 points.]

 

 

To a certain extent you may also need to consider the time of year you will be visiting.  For us, this applied especially to Iceland, as Atlas wants to see the Northern Lights and they are only visible in the (northern) Autumn and Winter months.  Sadly not being there in Summer means not seeing the Puffins and Reindeer though.  That is something I figured early on:

We are not going to be able to see & do everything; we are not going to ever have the perfect itinerary; we will miss some things BUT we will have experienced something, and experienced it together! 

 

THE WHY

Yes, for us it's primarily experiencing something together.  Parts of our journey are because I want to share something of the past with the family, or conversely try something altogether new; others are because a tourist attraction is in a specific town; one country is for family heritage, others as our foreign 'son' or 'daughter' lives there.  There is no wrong or right reason to go somewhere or do something.

 

In all this complex inexactness of designing our trip I found that it is neither what, where, how or why that consistently trumps the others.  Each takes a turn as the raison d'etre, and that's okay.

You are not going to be scored out of 100 for your personal planning prowess.

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