Why We Decided to Road Trip Across Europe in a Self-Built Campervan

In three months I will have packed up my life, quit my job, said goodbye to my family and friends, and set off around Europe in a self-built campervan.

For over a year, Andy, my boyfriend, has been, with a little help from me, converting a white panel van into a motorhome that will take us, an amateur photographer and wannabe travel writer, on a life changing road trip.

You may wonder what would make a couple in their late 20′s want to go against the norm by changing their whole lives to travel the continent in a van?

Well, for a pair who met while working as holiday reps having the time of our lives in Majorca, we knew that settling down in one place working the “nine to five life” would not be a walk in the park, but we didn’t think it would make us unhappy enough to make such a drastic decision.

What prompted this?

About a year and a half ago after yet another miserable day at work, returning home to an expensive, damp, and dull shared house, we started to dream up our escape from our less than ordinary lives.

Living in York was not easy. The rent was very expensive, a night out cost at least one days wage, and we had both settled into very mediocre jobs due to the poor economy, which seemed to have stayed in a recession from the moment I finished university over five years ago.

Each morning felt like Groundhog Day, and each day we seemed to grow more frustrated and angry, which did not do wonders for our relationship. We both have degrees, are hard workers and have plenty of work experience, but it was proving impossible to find well paid respectable jobs.

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I worked in an office which paid the men more money for the same role while my 22 year old boss patronised me constantly. Andy had started in a bank, full of promise and opportunities, to then be informed that there would be no pay rise or bonus and he was going to be transferred to a different location 30 miles away on the same pitiful wage.

An idea was born

So to hold on to our sanity, we discussed our dreams and where we wanted to be. I dreamt of backpacking across Thailand for a few months there and then, but Andy was very against that whole way of traveling.

In response he said: “I refuse to spend a month in a wet field getting the runs and looking at elephants. Humans have spent the last 10,000 years evolving so that we can have technology and live in relative comfort. I have a better idea.”

His dream involved taking a campervan across Europe and staying for at least six months. While I agreed that it would be a fantastic way to live, I knew that the planning and preparation involved meant that it would never be realistic, so I went on with my day without giving it another thought.

I didn’t question the decision because nothing had felt so right in a long time.

That is until I received a call at work telling me that not only had Andy found the perfect van, but to my surprise, he had gone ahead and bought it.  I remember feeling dizzy with confusion and excitement.

There I was standing in the toilets at work, the place I hated, having a secret conversation about leaving all of this behind.

I didn’t question the decision because nothing had felt so right in a long time.

The preparation

Of course the build-up hasn’t been easy. It has taken up all of our spare time and a silly amount of money. The van was a write-off and needed lots of work, our bank accounts were not in the best state, and we didn’t really have a plan, but none of that mattered because we were finally chasing our dreams.

What followed was over a year of planning, headaches, saving, and of course lots of building.

For a while now, our alone time has mainly consisted of working in the freezing cold. Every phone call involves electrical problems or van related challenges. Each rare day off we have together is not spent enjoying romantic meals or out on day trips, but instead with me handing over tools or holding wires.

I have had to take a back seat in the relationship for a hunk of metal, but for every moment that we spent money on great insulation instead of shoes and handbags, spent hours discussing the electrical system instead of whispering sweet nothings, bought expensive solar panels instead of going away for the weekend, I didn’t care because I knew that it would all be worth it in the end.

After worrying about what on earth I was going to do the whole time we were traveling, I realised that this would be the perfect opportunity to make a career out of our trip. I decided that it would be wrong to experience so much and not have the ability to write about and share our adventures, so I spontaneously took an intensive fast track journalism course, and Andy purchased a Canon DSLR to work as a photographer.

We had gone from being a fed up couple escaping in a van to a freelance travel writing team, or as Andy likes to call us, a travel writing phenomenon.

I didn’t care because I knew that it would all be worth it in the end.

People’s reactions have been surprising, most are very happy for us and keen to know how things are coming along. A few have voiced their concerns about what the future holds for us when we return, but life is too short to worry about that. Our family and friends will always be here, and until we are ready to settle down, money and possessions have take a back seat to happiness.

People initially thought that we were just going to throw a mattress in the back and not wash for months. They just couldn’t picture how anyone could live in a van, but this image is far from our solar panelled fully-equipped, miniature home.

What has made this all so easy to plan is the way our families have reacted, my family has always been very supportive, but Andy’s parents have made all of this possible. Coming from a navy background, they both understood our desire to travel and offered advice and help throughout the whole process whether we wanted it or not.

Counting down the days

Each morning we count down how many days till we leave. Every time work gets us down, we remind each other that soon we will be visiting many countries, taking in different cultures, tasting local dishes, practicing strange languages, and most of all just living – having the time to take in our surroundings and forgetting about when to set our alarm or resenting each week passing by without collecting any memories.

The departure day is looming, the van is almost complete, and we are now getting through the last few months of work and preparations. My task at the moment is to plan the route, but with so many destinations within hours of each other it is now proving hard to fit them all in.

This week, with our fingers crossed, we will take the van for a dreaded MOT ready for our first test drive. With a shower, kitchen, heater, and full electric system all powered by solar panels, we can finally test how self-sufficient we really are.

We have both never done anything quite like this, but we also know that we don’t have any doubts. Each year that we plod along working, trying to save for a house, we lose a part of ourselves, and we want it back.  We want to be a bit reckless and take on the world together.

So after months of blood, sweat, electric shocks, and tears, our adventure is finally within reach. France, Italy, Switzerland, Greece, Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania, Hungary, Slovenia, Austria, and Germany, here we come.

Each year that we plod along working, trying to save for a house, we lose a part of ourselves, and we want it back.

Our plan is to travel until our money runs out, and then find an idyllic ski resort to work in over Christmas where we can ski on our days off and drink mulled wine snuggled up in our heated van at night.

We will unfortunately have to return home in April 2013 for an MOT, although this will give us the chance to visit our friends and family, enjoy long baths, English food, and decide whether to start the cycle again.

At the time of writing this, it has rained for 8 days straight, and with differing shifts I haven’t seen Andy for four of these days apart from sleeping, but I am finally okay with this because soon I get to spend every single day with my best friend.

Whether we are hiking along the Almalfi Coast, tasting wine in Bordeaux, diving in the Mediterranean Sea, or gorging on cheese in the Swiss Alps, we will be living, laughing, and enjoying the best things in life.

Check out the following stories and resources to help motivate you to take that leap of faith and make your travel dreams come true:

All photos courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission.

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Leave a Comment

  • Claire Moley Bragg said at 2014-05-09T11:48:34+0000: Wow, looks amazing! Just nearing the finishing point on our own conversion in a Ford Transit! Very excited. Tell me though, who are you insured with?! I'm currently with Adrian Flux and they have told me I can't leave the country for over 60 days at a time?! Obviously a lot of people here have been driving around Europe in their self-builds for more than 60 days, so can anyone tell me where/with whom I can get reasonable, long term European cover? Would be a massive help, it's the only thing blocking us from hitting the road! Thanks x
  • Richard Blake said at 2014-02-06T18:25:59+0000: My first car was a 1972 Beetle. I bought it for $35 because its owner didn't want to take the time to figure out why it had stopped running. I knew nothing about cars, but I knew I had $35 in my pocket and needed a car. Thanks to the John Muir classic book - How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive - I managed to get it running and keep it running for over 100k miles (above the 72k it already had on it). Because of this I have loved air-keweled V-Dubs my entire life. For a time I even had a micro-business based out of my 1965 Samba VW Bus - it was called the Hippie Limo (http://hippielimo.com). As you probably have guessed, it was a small scale limo business for weddings and such. Over in the UK this concept is insanely popular - over 130 vintage VW limo business with between 2-10 vehicles each (you can see a partial list of them on my website under a post "Like Minds"). In the US however, the concept doesn't seem to have traction. I had to close my doors late last year. There are 6 current vintage VW businesses in the US total (and at least 10 that I have watched go out of business during my 3-year run). The VW may have not been a comfortable ride, but it was always a fun one that came along with a strong sense of independence (because it was so easy to fix no matter where or what happened). What a long strange trip it was! ;-)
  • Terry Fuller said at 2013-11-12T01:47:17+0000: my dream will happen next year
  • Sean E Keener said at 2012-06-11T14:30:07+0000: Sounds like an interesting adventure.In regards to Andy's quote - “I refuse to spend a month in a wet field getting the runs and looking at elephants. Humans have spent the last 10,000 years evolving so that we can have technology and live in relative comfort. I have a better idea.”.Thailand is not necessarily like this sir. At least in my experience it hasn't. There is a lot of comfort and "evolving" going on in Thailand and other parts of the world. Have you been?
  • Purdy Fielding said at 2012-09-13T20:45:00+0000: This is fantastic! and so inspiring! My fella and I are starting to put in place our plans to take a year out and travel round Europe in a campervan and in our research on line your article was one of the first we read and we just knew too that we were doing the right thing in throwing caution to the wind and getting out there. Keep us posted with your travel blog and pictures!
  • Jeanette Vieira said at 2012-09-07T18:32:26+0000: Awesome story - and I say that because ours is so very similar. Actually, it felt like you were telling our story... from the 9-5 drag to the thailand story to the awesome adventure in a motorhome. Only difference is that we hit the road in the US. Cheers to you our fellow dreamers and adventurers! - Catch up with us here... http://www.cheddaryeti.com/about/PS- We'd LOVE LOVE LOVE to motorhome around europe. That's next on our list... maybe Thailand some day too!
  • Steve Cordis said at 2012-06-21T16:26:41+0000: You will have the time of your life! Many years back, in the middle of our 2 year around the world trip, we bought a VW camper van from an Australian couple. We lived and traveled in it for 6 months, and drove over 15,000 miles all over Europe. When we had to return to the US, we sold it to a Kiwi couple, who were going to do the same, for the same as what we paid for it. Be sure you get yourselves a couple bikes, so you can leave your van parked, and still go out into the neighborhoods exploring. We even drove to Moscow and parked our van on Red Square. Where ever your are, your home for the night! We were so into life in a van, on the road, that when we returned to the US, we bought a pickup with a camper and drove from California to Costa Rica and back, taking a year to do it. I agree with one of the other commenters in that the slower you go, the more you'll enjoy. Happy Trails
  • Pam Davies said at 2012-07-31T19:50:26+0000: guess you have been in the sea a lot by now, glad you got rid of the miracle cafe, yak. what a pile. love ya
  • Pam Davies said at 2012-07-30T18:02:28+0000: Hello, well done you two. writing a diary from this side for you to read when you get back. x x
  • Surfing Round The World said at 2012-06-11T22:39:57+0000: Good for you guys! We are strong proponents of following your dreams (especially when following your dreams involves long-term travel) and choosing experiences over possessions. As soon as you start preparing for a trip like yours, you find out how many other people are doing it and have done it before, and it doesn't seem so crazy or impossible. We are on a 2-year RTW trip, and our initial plan didn't involve buying and driving our own campervan, but 3 months into our trip, we decided to do it in South America and we've been having a blast ever since. We've been driving around Peru and Chile for the last three months and plan to continue for another 3 months. The experiences and things we've seen are priceless, and we've gotten to see so many beautiful, out-of-the-way places and surf so many empty waves because of our little van. We bought and converted a VW kombi into our very own campervan in Lima. You can find our post about securing and building out the van here: http://surfingrtw.com/2012/02/26/its-a-girl/ and a post about some of our on-the-road experiences here: http://surfingrtw.com/2012/04/11/on-the-road/ Good luck, you two; you won't regret it!
  • Martin's Travel Photo Blog said at 2012-07-26T07:04:01+0000: Nice Blog, Do you wish you had brought a left hand drive van to convert to travel Europe? I am looking to covert my work van and interested to know how it works for you! Happy road trip.
  • Anne Supsic said at 2012-06-11T17:52:11+0000: I really like this article for several reasons: most of all I applaud your adventurous spirit and your inventiveness. Also wanted to share that my husband and I have been doing the travel writer and photographer combination for several years now -- like you, I am the writer, and he is the photographer (& he also edits). It is one of the best things we have done together. Best of luck to both of you!
  • Sonja Leysen Key said at 2012-06-14T01:13:40+0000: I think you're both awesome. I would have done this in a heartbeat in my 20s. Good luck to you!
  • Maria Cordero said at 2012-06-11T19:01:56+0000: Cool! I am pretty sure it's going to be a very interesting and unforgetful experience for you two! Pity you won't go to Spain... Enjoy and write lots... you will have lots of readers waiting for updates!
  • Sarah Lawton said at 2012-06-11T11:53:20+0000: The article is amazing hunni! Very impressed! Need to make plans soon miss u! Xx
  • Jessie Voigts said at 2012-07-11T20:29:57+0000: so excited to follow along on your journey - will you be posting occasional updates, or have a site? very proud of you for stepping out of the rat race and living!
  • Soultravelers3.com- Around the World Family Travel Education Adventure! said at 2012-06-15T14:14:55+0000: Coolio! We're an American family who has spent almost 7 years roadtripping around Europe ( as well as seeing much of the world) so you might want to check out our blog for tips and ideas. http://www.soultravelers3.com/ My first tip is go slow and follow the weather. Have fun!
  • Marko Šinkovec said at 2012-06-14T05:45:47+0000: That's a great plan! I hope you have the best time ever... and keep us posted. If you need some more ideas for your travel plans you should probably check out my Travel Photo Blog at www.travel-pb.com - it covers most of the countries you plan to visit.
  • Trev Davies said at 2012-06-11T20:23:49+0000: nice one Emms! looking forward to further installments of your travelling tales. Youl'll be going to lots of french places I've never been to so write lots and plenty of pictures please. And looking forward to meeting you both somewhere...
  • Dave Hartley said at 2012-06-11T10:59:29+0000: This is awesome! How about attaching a caravan on the back of the van for me and Ste Sumner to follow?
  • Emma Lloyd said at 2012-06-12T11:44:35+0000: Thank you so much for your lovely comments and tweets.
  • Ste Sumner said at 2012-06-11T10:10:56+0000: Love it! I'm going to have to track you down and bagsy that tent a few nights.
  • Louise Crowther said at 2012-06-11T12:36:38+0000: I love darren.
  • Louise Crowther said at 2012-06-11T12:37:03+0000: D rock rules.