When we started planning our year long European Odyssey on bicycles with our four kids, our first consideration was lodging. Where could we stay on a budget of $100 a day, for everything? The answer? Not in hotels. Not in hostels. We could camp!
Finding affordable lodging is no less of an issue for college students taking a year off to travel on a shoestring budget than it is for us. We met more than one backpacker who’d traded his hostel membership for a tent. Scott, a fabulous fellow with a gold pirate-style earring who was camped near us in Vienna, bought his tent from a street vendor somewhere in the Eastern Block and summed it up nicely: “Camping is WAY cheaper than staying in a hostel. I’m meeting a more diverse group of travelers, not just students, and it is more fun than sharing a dorm with six other guys who are sleeping off last night’s drunk!” We agree on all points.
Camping in Europe is much easier than camping in North America. For one thing, there are FAR more campsites in Europe and they are not isolated out in the backwoods of places you don’t really want to go. Nearly every major city has a campground within city limits, or very near by. We’ve camped in Amsterdam, Aachen, Bruges, Mainz, Prague, Vienna, Venice; the list goes on and on!
Finding a place to camp is no problem. There are multiple websites dedicated to camping in Europe; the most comprehensive and easiest to navigate is Eurocampings. This site provides an extensive list of campsites by country, as well as a rundown on their facilities, approximate prices and dates of operation; many campsites, especially in Mediterranean Europe, are open year-round. Armed with this website and your credit card, you can make reservations anywhere you want to go. Be sure to book in advance during the high season!
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There are some differences to be aware of if you are camping in Europe for the first time. To begin with, pricing can be confusing at first. At most campgrounds you’ll pay separately for each tent, each person and each vehicle.
- One person, walking in, sleeping in one tent on a non-electric site would likely pay €5 for the tent and €3 for the person, a total of €8 (half of what you could expect to pay at a cheap hostel!)
- A couple, driving in, sleeping in a tent at the same site would pay €5 for the tent, €6 for both people, €4 for the car, for a total of €15.
- A family of four, driving in a caravan would pay €15 for the caravan on an electric site, €12 for the people, for a total of €27.
These prices are just examples, and obviously costs vary from campground to campground. The website listed above gives approximate price ranges for specific sites. Another great resource for finding and comparing campsites is the book Traveler’s Guide to European Camping by Mike and Terri Church.
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Tents vs. motorhomes/campervans
In addition to differences in pricing you’ll find a few differences in facilities as compared to the usual North American campground. First off, not every campsite in Europe accepts tents. Sounds weird, I know, for a CAMP ground not to take tents… but some are RV only. Be sure to check on this detail BEFORE you roll in at the end of a very long day with four tired kids only to find that there is “no room at the inn” and you’ll have to cycle another 30 km to the next available, tent friendly, place… but I digress.
>> Get tips for camping with kids
Cooking and eating
Almost every campground we’ve stayed at in Europe has had a restaurant attached to it, which is very nice when it is raining, or if you are backpacking ultra light and are relying on local foods instead of cooking for yourself. If you ARE cooking for yourself, do NOT expect to find picnic tables. In a year on the road we’ve found maybe five picnic tables. The best piece of camping gear we have is our ultra light tarp, which becomes kitchen and dinner table every night!
Many of the campgrounds in Europe, especially those nearer the major cities, also have internet access, in the form of an internet café, but more frequently, Wi-Fi for those carrying their own laptops. If you need to charge that computer, you’d better hit a hardware store when you get to Europe and purchase one of the blue and white adapters for the campground plug-ins. European RVs have a specific plug that requires an adapter to use with a regular plug… and by regular plug, we mean Euro plug… so don’t forget to bring that adapter too. With the RV adapter we’ve had internet in our tent on many occasions, plugged into the RV electrical pole outside. Or, you can sit in the bathroom and re-charge… there are generally free plugs in there too.
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Laundry is also a consideration, no matter how you are traveling. Campground facilities are generally adequate and offer the option of hand washing, which is sometimes more difficult in a hostel or hotel. Some campgrounds have rules against clothe lines, but tent strings work just fine. We were shocked at the price of coin-operated laundry in Europe. You can expect to pay at least €4 to get a load washed and at least €7 if you hope to wash and dry. Plan accordingly! We recommend micro fiber everything so that you can hang dry over night and save at least the drying cost.
One final note on the combination shower/toilet rooms that are common, especially in the Mediterranean regions: When you’re tired and groggy of a morning, be sure that the button you push on the wall is really the one for flush… and not shower… it’s a rude awakening, trust me.
Camping without a tent or vehicle
Of all the people we’ve met at campgrounds in Europe, the most surprising are those who are not camping! Virtually all of the campgrounds offer some sort of accommodation for non-campers, from cute little cabins in Bruges, to dorm style bungalows in Amsterdam, to “tent hostels” and stationary trailers in Venice, to sleeping in over grown wine casks in Melnik, in the Czech. Just because you hate sleeping in a tent doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of the budget friendly aspects of staying in campgrounds across Europe!
There is one final option for camping in Europe that I feel compelled to mention and that was completely unheard of to us. We were awakened to the possibility when a huge tour bus roared up, as we were quietly cooking our dinner outside our tent, and fifty young people piled out and began assembling their city of blue tents around us. For those who like the security of group travel, don’t want to walk as much as traditional backpackers, like to camp and still want to travel inexpensively, you might consider the camping tours of Europe. The catch? You have to be between 18 and 35 years old. There are several tour companies to choose from, Tucan Travel is just one.
If you’re pining for Europe but suffering from sticker shock, I encourage you, heartily, to camp. It is safe, fun for all ages and definitely the cheapest way to stay on the continent. You’ll meet interesting people having fabulous adventures and have your eyes opened to a whole new world in the process. Grab your sleeping bag and your Czech phrase book and hit the road!
Read more about camping in Europe and around the world:
- Camping in Italy
- Why We Camp: An Ode to the Joy and Sorrow of the Great Outdoors
- How to Choose the Best Travel Tent
Read more about Jennifer Miller and see her other BootsnAll articles.