10 Differences between Vanlife in Europe v.s. the U.S.

When I heard Brittany and Drew of Mr and Mrs Adventure were purchasing a van in England, I was interested in sharing a different perspective. What is it like to travel in a van in Europe vs. the U.S.? Brittany breaks down 10 differences that she and Drew noticed in the past two years living out of a custom-converted Ford Transit van.
Disclaimer: We realize Europe is a continent and not one country like the U.S. so these differences might vary between countries. This post is one reader's attempt to share her perspective and some tips that might be helpful for U.S. travelers who are thinking of experiencing Europe by van.

For the past two years, we’ve been living out of an 18-foot Converted Ford Transit (with right-hand drive), and because of it, we've been able to call some of the world’s most incredible countries our home. We've traveled to England, Ireland, Scotland, Holland, Austria, Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Denmark, Norway and Sweden. And now we are preparing for our next chapter in Morocco, Spain and Portugal.

Europe has blessed, challenged and changed us in more ways than we ever could have imagined. So, how is vanlife in Europe different than vanlife in the U.S.?

1. Language

Every time we enter a new country, we are faced with not only a foreign land, but also a foreign language, which makes everything a bit more complicated. In the U.S., we took for granted the ease and uniformity from all the states being English speaking. Foreign languages make road signs, names of stores and countries (and states) more difficult to navigate.

In Europe, each and every country has its own unique set of challenges and things to get used to. And all of them are in their own unique languages.

2. Wild Camping/Boondocking Laws

In the U.S., if you read the signs and search for unrestricted parking areas, you can often get away with overnight camping. But in Europe, some countries outlaw wild camping (and BLM land does not exist).

In Croatia, wild camping is illegal and you could be fined hundreds of dollars if you’re caught.

Luckily, we were able to get away with it for nearly the entire three months we were there. We just had to be stealthy.

In Norway and Sweden, the “Right to Roam” makes wild camping legal. In fact, they promote it.

3. Internet Cafes/Digital Nomadism

As vanlifers trying to make it as digital nomads, those in the U.S. have it made. With local cafes in almost every city and town, it’s not hard to find a good place with Wi-Fi.

Or better yet, get a Wi-Fi booster for your van and work from the comforts of your rolling home.

In Europe, it’s not that easy. Most of the countries we visit don’t have Wi-Fi cafes (England being the only exception). In most places, cafes are for eating, and bringing your laptop to work all day is not normal and can be frowned upon. Also, you have to go into a city to find a cafe, and most likely park in a car park. Car parks can be small, crowded, have height restrictions, two-hour limits, safety concerns and expensive costs. Overall, we tend to avoid cities and enjoy the outdoors.

Our Wi-Fi and international data plan (ours being T-Mobile) can be limiting, so we end up experimenting with SIM cards and Wi-Fi hotspots. Connectivity, let alone speed, is never certain.

4. Cost of Living

In the U.S., we were able to get by on $1,000 per month per person, but in Europe, it ends up being about $1,500 per month per person. That expense is due to the increased cost of gas, food and not being able to do laundry at friends' houses. But it's also due to the fact that there are a lot more unknowns that we are forced to navigate. Sometimes we get things right and sometimes (many times) we have to learn the harder (and more costly) way.

Our van is currently parked at the Gatwick Airport in England and parking costs only £55 ($70) a month. But after returning to the U.S., we discovered that we couldn't cancel our vehicle insurance because our van isn't being driven and it’s parked in a public space. Parking lots can “tow and crush” a vehicle without insurance found in their lot, so now we are paying $70 plus $100 for parking each month. The U.S. tends to be much easier to navigate during these kinds of experiences.

5. Life as Foreigners

As Americans living in a British van and traveling throughout Europe, we tend to stick out like a sore thumb. We don’t know many people and often times we don’t speak the language. And, on top of that, we live in a van and are wild camping. There are days (even weeks) where we don’t interact with anyone other than each other, which can get lonely. As foreigners living in a foreign land and not having a permanent place to call home, day-to-day life can be difficult. But it is still worth experiencing in every possible way.

6. Ease and Convenience

Depending on where you are in Europe, it can be extremely difficult to find what you need. When we traveled the U.S., we were able to order nearly everything off Amazon and have it shipped to a post office nearby. In most countries in Europe (England being an exception), that option doesn’t exist.

Store names change in nearly every country, which makes an otherwise simple task (such as refilling a propane tank) take a few days or weeks. Each country uses a different bottle with a different adapter, and refilling stations have different names and unpredictable hours. We learned to carry a backup camping stove for situations like this.

Europe has taught us a thing or two about improvising. One time we couldn’t find a replacement for our sink hose when it sprung a leak in Norway, so we fixed it with a piece of gum.

7. Customs

There are many things we could mention in this category, but we’ll stick with the one cultural difference that we encounter nearly everyday no matter what country we are in. In the U.S., it’s customary to wave to strangers, whereas in Europe, it is not and it often results in long, hard, confused looking stares. But we still do it anyway.

Each country has its own way of doing things, such as shaking hands, attire, table manners, road etiquette and holy days. We are taking a crash course everyday as we pass through a new place.

8. History and Traditions

You'll know you're in Europe if you see someone on a long lunch break wearing traditional clothing or if you walk by war-battered buildings and medieval churches or if you experience unique cuisines. While America has its own traits and gems, it's been fascinating to experience the variety of cultures we have been able to roll through during our time in Europe.

9. Showers

In the U.S., we had 24/7 gym memberships, which allowed us to work out and shower at more than 3,000 gyms nationwide. In Europe, there isn't a gym membership you can buy throughout Europe (let alone one country). Most days, we swim in the ocean (even in the Arctic Sea in Norway) and search for community centers, campgrounds and beach showers (which in Europe, they remove during winter). And there's the always reliable gallon shower as our backup.

10. Gratitude

Perhaps the greatest part of traveling Europe is the immense sense of gratitude we have for everything. We are thankful for the time we spend experiencing such rich cultures, the hospitality from total strangers, the love from our family and friends, the joy we get when finding a peaceful place to park for the night, and things like hot showers, paved roads, warm cups of tea on cold mornings, and camping spots next to the sea. Even with the realization that we will never be able to see it all, it's still amazing.

Being completely disconnected from so many of life’s comforts has allowed us to create a bond with each other (and our van), with the Earth and within ourselves, that gives us an incredible sense of home in our hearts no matter where we are.

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Produced & edited by Kathleen Morton.
Photos courtesy of Brittany and Drew