Camping Around Europe
The Way to Beat High Prices
By C.B. Heinemann
As the dollar so often sinks lower against the euro and fuel prices soar, the cost of seeing Europe seems to be sprinting out of the realm of possibility. There is one way to save a huge chunk of your travel budget, however—by doing as the Europeans do and staying at inexpensive, clean, and scenic campgrounds.
Campgrounds are everywhere, from the Alps to the beaches, in cities, and sprinkled throughout the countryside. With today’s lightweight, comfort-oriented camping equipment, camping no longer means roughing it. And since most of the places visitors want to see have at least one or two campgrounds close by, some of the best views in Europe can be had from your tent door.
Dragging luggage around a crowded urban area looking for an affordable hotel can be a draining experience, and even at hostels you’re likely to meet only other Americans. Campgrounds are the perfect place to meet Europeans in a very informal setting. Conversations often turn into parties.
European campgrounds are generally clean, attractive, and well supplied with hot showers, clean toilets, kitchens, and laundry facilities. Some are practically luxurious. Many have their own restaurant or pub. Others also offer inexpensive bungalows or a motel, and a few even provide entertainment.
For example, one campground in France’s Camargue offers rides on the region’s famous horses. Another puts on weekly puppet shows. Some campgrounds in the Swiss Alps offer guided hikes to breathtaking views. Many campgrounds offer swimming pools, movies, fireworks displays, dances, or cook-outs. One campground in Hungary overlooking a drive-in movie theater allows campers to spend an evening watching old films in English with Hungarian subtitles.
The cost of staying in campgrounds averages about $8 a night. In Scandinavia the autobahn rest stops frequently feature free campgrounds, with showers and grills included. Swiss and German campgrounds are among the most expensive, sometimes as much as $20 a night for two. Many are surrounded by gorgeous scenery, and all are very clean. France seems to have campgrounds around every corner; they vary widely in cleanliness and amenities. The subsidized municipal campgrounds, associated with towns or cities, often cost as little as $3 per night. Eastern European campgrounds are generally very cheap, and the newer ones have excellent facilities.
Of course not everyone wants to camp every night, and wet weather can dampen anyone’s interest in camping. But even an occasional night in a campground can cut down drastically on expenses.
What to Bring
Camping equipment comes in more compact designs every year, utilizing the latest in space-age materials.
Tents: Most are inexpensive, and some models roll up nearly as small as a collapsible umbrella. Make sure the seams are sealed and that your tent comes with a floor and a rainfly.
Sleeping bags and pads: Sleeping bags can be warm even in very cold weather. Down-filled bags can be stuffed into a small bag and tossed into a suitcase. However, synthetic bags dry out more quickly if they get soggy. Ground pads and air mattresses are easy to roll up, weigh practically nothing, and make the ground feel a lot softer. They are also good for insulation in chilly weather.
Backpacks: Backpack designers have come up with an amazing variety of lightweight, well-balanced packs that seem able to hold everything that anyone might own. Of course they’re unnecessary if you travel by car, but backpacks are still useful for storing belongings in a compact, organized place, even if you never take it out of the car. Small daypacks are good for hikes and sightseeing.
Eating: One of the most wonderful things about Europe is the food. The eye-popping supermarkets can supply you with whatever you might need and are attractions in themselves. If you want to cook, bring along a small butane stove or buy one when you’re there.
Clothing: Bring special clothing if you plan to hike, mountain climb, or participate in other outdoor activities. Many campgrounds have laundry facilities, and the washers are usually of very high quality.
The tourist offices of the countries you plan to visit will be happy to supply you with lists of campgrounds. Make sure you have a map that shows their locations. One of the best things about camping is that you can ramble wherever you please, and when you start thinking about finding a place to stay a campground is usually close by. You don’t need reservations, and even if you show up after the office is closed you can still go in and set up your tent. Simply register and pay the next morning.
Most Europeans are used to dealing with people who don’t speak their language and handle it smoothly. They are usually very easy to communicate with and appreciate any effort on your part. A phrasebook can come in handy.
A Camping Secret
European countries are connected by the network of superhighways that crisscross the continent. Whether they are called Autobahn, autostrade, or autoroute, most of these highways have large rest stops complete with restaurants, clean rest rooms, and showers. Many Europeans stay overnight for free in these rest stops and take advantage of the amenities offered to travelers. A traveler could spend every night sleeping in their car, van, or RV at no cost, and get gas, a meal, the occasional shower, and other supplies.
If you do decide to camp, you will soon discover a camaraderie among campers that can lead to lifelong friendships. Campers are always ready to exchange stories, advice, and tips on good places to visit with fellow campers. And at the end of the day, when you’re gazing out at the sea at sunset, watching the clouds drift behind snow-peaked mountains, enjoying the perfect rows of vineyards, or learning to play boules with your friendly new neighbors, you’ll wonder why you haven’t been camping all along.
Campgrounds in Europe
See our Camping Abroad section for many helpful resources.
C.B. Heinemann is a freelance writer based in Laurel, MD currently working on a series of camping guides, Camping Through Europe.