We truly love traveling. It's always been the highlight of our lives. The vehicles we ride on have changed over the years, though. The biggest upgrade to our family travels yet is here. After 7 years of exploring Europe on a camping trailer, we're buying something radically new — a van.
Empowering the Spirit of Freedom
Our objective has always been to be as free as possible, not to be slaves to material possessions, and to be able to do whatever we like, while being able to make money on the road. We'd like to spend our lives in a way that when we look back, we're happy about the memories we made. Yes, that comes at a price, just like everything else does. But we already got our investment back many times over. So we're now just enjoying our travel addiction.
There are many kinds of RVs, of different shapes and sizes, that you can live and travel on as a digital nomad or a family. We have looked at many and showcasing them all would make for a long article. But there's one important factor that should be the number one question you ask yourself before buying any camper. The question is: what's the right size?
That's because size defines most of the other features, such as: layout, storage space, fuel consumption, comfort, insurance price, ferry fees, overall maneuverability, the possibility to drive down narrow roads and through city centers, and, most importantly, the seating and sleeping areas.
Inexperienced campers usually worry a lot about living in a tiny space, and they inevitably compare a camper to a house, so they tend to choose an oversized vehicle. Experienced campers, on the other hand, do some research and realize that the best approach is to get the smallest possible vehicle to satisfy their needs, because the world is their back garden and playground.
The smallest possible van to live on for us four, would be a VW California (Westfalia or Vanagon) or similar. However, that felt a little too small to work and live on in reasonable comfort, as my friends from Zebra na cestach experienced in their T4. So we chose an RV that's a little bigger.
The Main Reasons Why We Switched to a Van
- It's quicker to set off from home – we can park the van next to our house
- The black colour of the exterior – stealth camping at night in a city is easy
- After removing the decorative vinyls, it looks just like a tradesman's van
- City parking with a vehicle that's just 20 feet (6 meters) long is way easier
- You can reach smaller boondocking spots, as it's a more maneuvrable vehicle overall
- I would like to try to sleep near farms (with the France Passion card) or do some wwoofing (helping out on farms for free)
- The van we chose allows me to work at the dinette while the kids sleep
- It's all brand new and so it might last longer
A Perfect Camper is a Myth
As you might already know, choosing an RV is all about priorities and a compromises. We tried the van life out in different vehicles and want to share our experience here to help you think twice about your choice. We hope you will be happy in your camper in the end. You don't need to choose the hard way, like we did.
Having a car+caravan setup made us 40 feet (12 metres) long and it clearly showed that we were tourists to anyone looking for a break-in target. But we could carry a lot of gear and we could leave the trailer in a campsite and travel with the car. As we boondock more, we didn't disconnect the trailer much. With a roof top tent, which we tried last year, it was the opposite extreme — it was a small and agile rig, but the level of comfort and the feeling of security at night was low. Read further to discover all the experiences we had.
So we chose a compromise. Our van is big enough to offer a good night's sleep for two adults and two kids, small enough to fit in a car parking lot, and dark enough to disappear at night in a city or by a beach when we stealth camp.
Why We Changed from Caravan to Van
In a nutshell, we wanted to be able to drive further afield and enjoy more freedom. We were looking for a vehicle that would allow Renata's and my businesses to keep running, while we traveled to more narrow places. Something that would allow us to go visit clients quickly, when needed. After some time, I would call this an impulse purchase of sorts, especially if compared to the budget we put in the caravans we owned before.
After achieving good business results in the last few years and taking into account my objective to be able to reach international web design clients via my business website, it was also a reasonable investment for the business, that would certainly pay dividends. Just imagine — I can now meet a client anywhere in Europe and work closely with them for weeks or months, no matter their location.
Camping trailer — Still the Best Option for Kids and Parents
- Campground parking is safer for kids under 5
- It's way cheaper to buy and maintain than a camper or van
- Filling up and discharging water is easy in a campground, there's no need to move around
- You have dedicated travel and living areas and plenty of storage space
- Con: Some campgrounds don't welcome trailers
- Con: Stealth camping is harder in a camping trailer
- Con: If you go for a heavy caravan, you need to upgrade your driver's license and a powerful car to tow it
What happened to our Roof Top Tent
In 2017 and 2018, I thought that we could radically downsize. I played with the idea of buying a rooftop tent for our Toyota Hilux, and it turned out great. But. Unfortunately, for others, not us.
We travel long-term — several months a year — so we need a reliable place to live in when it rains, when the kids are sick or when we need to work for several hours a day. And while the Hilux with a rooftop tent was definitely turning heads, and it was absolutely cool, it was also clear that the set-up didn't work for a computer geek and a boondocking city family. If we were more outdoorsy and less addicted to our jobs, the tent would have been a great choice.
What we found out during our rooftop tent life failure, was that we like cities with their coffee shops and restaurants as much as we love being on the beach and just hanging out with the kids. And so we sold the tent and we started looking at a new path — the #vanlife path.
Why #Vanlife is Better than Overlanding for Us
- I can't force myself to be as outdoorsy as overlanding requires me to be
- I choose city over forest
- Asphalt roads offer more comfort for full-time campers 😉
- I don't need a 4×4 in most places in Europe, and the maneuvrability of a van is similar to that of a car
- It would be great if Toyota made vans
- Heating and cooking is difficult with an outdoor kitchen and just a tent
- Looking after sick kids and working in comfort is easier in a van (or caravan)
You Didn't do a DIY Conversion to Live the Van Life? Whaaat?
Instagram and Pinterest are full of vanlifers who buy a new or used van and rebuild it to be liveable and to have a spiritual place to live in. And in some cases it's also to save money. While I admire everyone who took this path, I also know that my main skill is web design and so it's best if I make money that way and pay for a solid van, rather than building something that might break often or not be as well made. This would make our family's life miserable and our travels unsustainable. Even though I think of myself as a bit of a hippie, reliability is a huge factor for me.
Dan, from Mali.Mish family, who did their Sprinter van conversion DIY in about 40 days, told me that many travelers who went traveling on a van or trailer didn't make it beyond 2 years. They just loved the idea of the van life, but probably didn't have the perseverance to overcome all the downsides that come with it. So while a nice-looking wooden van interior might feel great, the reliability of the vehicle is at risk. We chose to go with one of the biggest RV manufacturers in Europe and we hope that they did the hard work for us.
Why We Said No to a DIY Van Conversion
- I worry about reliability, I've had some unreliable cars before and it really ruins your life
- I'm more efficient at my job when things work as they should
- All the features you need are space-efficient and have multiple uses
- Some clever German men and women spent months thinking it out
- A van off-the-shelf might retain value better than an imperfect custom-made rig
Van Options Available in Europe
From my experience, Americans are more into custom rigs for both vans and cars. They aren't scared of cutting holes and modifying things. Europeans are more conservative. We prefer production rigs. Modifications for us mean risk. So if we're looking for a new vehicle, these are the most popular options:
- Buy a new or used camper van (made by a reputable manufacturer)
- Buy it from a dealer or private owner
- European van brands chosen by camper travellers: Fiat (80%), Sprinter (8%), Citroen (5%), Peugeot (4%) or Crafter (3%) — that is my educated guess
- Two main types of van — fibreglass roof & overcab bed (a permanent bed above the driver's seat) vs a standard metal van with H2 height (on wide offer on the market) or H3 height (on limited offer, as it's too tall for most uses)
Choosing the Best Family Camper
What were my requirements? Being able to work all day and night if needed, having enough space to sleep four people while working, having the smallest possible van to go anywhere, not sticking out for stealth camping, sleeping in comfort on a quality mattress, a reliable engine, ideally without AdBlue (some Euro 6 engines have it).
Benefits of a Van
- Shorter weekend trips will hopefully be easier; with the tent it wasn't working
- Packing and prepping is simpler
- We have everything in one vehicle
- Heating and cooking is simple in any weather
- If the kids are sick, it's not a problem
- We don't need a garage for bikes, but we do have a stand-up paddle board
- We have the option to travel overseas at some point in the future
- A classic ‘off-the-shelf' van is made in big batches, so it's easy to resell
Downsides of a Van
- Limited space, compared to a camping trailer — it's more minimalist
- Way less payload — about 590kg, compared to 700+400kg in car and caravan
- Expensive insurance and maintenance (oil changes, windscreen wipers)
- Price point — ours was about 5 times more expensive than our second caravan
- You can read up on more downsides in this nice article on OverlandBound: Why #vanlife sucks
The Options: 3 European-Made Vans
After looking around an RV Show and browsing the internet, these three kinds of vans fulfilled all my requirements. None of them has the traditional two bunk beds in the back (which I don't like, as you can't use it as a playing area, really) and are short enough to fit into most parking lots.
- Pössl Vario 545 — 5.4m long and 3.1m high
- Globe Traveller Pathfinder X — 6.3m long and 3.0m high
- Weinsberg CaraBus 601 DQ — 6.0m long and 2.8m high
- Knaus Box Star Solution 600 (it's the same as Weinsberg, but better equipped)
There are also many custom build options, such as Tanja Vans, KRS and Eastwander, but that means taking similar risks to those involved in a DIY conversion. The builder (or you) need to have enough experience to get things right the first time around, or enough patience to re-build things later.
Ordering a Van in High-Demand Market Conditions
Once my wife and I had decided to buy a van, we sprang into action. We visited an RV Show in a city nearby to see what was on the market, together with our friend Tomas, his wife and kids. It all became a little challenging from this point on.
I tried to negotiate a deal with different Czech van conversion dealers. That all went south except for one nice guy, who offered us a discount of €1.000 from the list price. So I contacted another Czech dealer and sent him two emails. Nobody replied. So I went international, which means Mobile.de & AutoScout24, both popular mostly in Germany. I replied to 5 to 10 ads listing vans that I liked. And luckily, one person replied. So I had two real offers to compare. All others were taken, as the demand was high in 2018.
The Dealer: Sun Mobil Cars, Germany
The person who replied was Alexander Widmann, a young and helpful sales rep from Sun Mobil Cars, Germany. As it turned out, they had an offer that was simply a great deal from the start. They order cars in bulk from Weinsberg, so I could save some €10.000, compared to the second lowest offer by Globe Traveller Pathfinder X. And that was for a perfectly equipped van that was ready to pick up within weeks, rather than months. The only thing that was missing was a Truma dual heater. This van only had a gas-powered heater, rather than a 230V electric heater. And there were no solar panels – we needed to add those to the roof, which was full of windows and vents, so it would only allow for about 200Wp of solar power.
Our Choice: The Weinsberg CaraBus 601 DQ
What a romantic name! Well, it's a van made in Germany, so if you translate it to English, it would be something like “The Wine Lover's Freedom Van, offering 601 reasons to be happy and manufactured in Diamond Quality” 😉 Am I right?
Honestly, it was a great deal. The price was fair and it was a ready-made vehicle with solid equipment already built in. So these were the main reasons we went for a Weinsberg:
- German quality and reliability
- Ergonomics inside
- Easier to sell in Europe
- Ideally, we're keeping it forever
- Awesome price
- Fiat is the number 1 vehicle base for RVs
- The black exterior color is great for stealth camping and “free heating”
- It offers the option to travel overseas – a caravan with a towing car would be too expensive to transport on a ship
- It's the shortest and it has the lowest roof among the three options we had in mind
- Ready within a month, instead of the half a year it takes if you order it to build
Get Yourself Inspired by Van Conversions & Overland Families
This is our opinion. And it might not be your cup of tea, which would be a paradox, as you've almost reached the end of this crazy-long article 😉 Anyway, here is a list of more experienced and knowledgeable road travellers who we follow and we get our inspiration from, when it comes to van conversions and similar vehicles.
- Mali.Mish — a family of five on a Sprinter van
- A2A Expedition — a family of five traveling the globe on a Land Rover
- Surfwise — a movie about a family of 11 living on an RV
- Nomadic Fanatic — a guy traveling the USA on an RV with his family
- Zebra na cestach — a family of four on a VW Transporter
- Ivo Dolezal — a family of four traveling around Europe in an RV for a year
- Naruby Life — family of four living on an RV in Europe
- Usandthebigbus — a Kiwi family we've met in our family's winery camping spot in the Czech Republic
- Living 4 Wheel — a couple traveling around Europe in a Volkswagen T3 called The Box
- White van star — a young couple traveling in a white Mercedes Marco Polo
- Combi Life — a well-known couple traveling the World in a Volkswagen T2
- Nomadem.cz — marketer and illustrator, he manages a large Facebook nomad and van conversion community and a YouTube channel
- Eagles na cestach — a young couple living on a DIY Mercedes Vito conversion and traveling around Europe
- Vandog Traveller — a guy who quit his job in 2013 to convert a van into a home to travel Europe
- 4x Overland — the biggest 4×4 (AWD) and overland themed video production, managed by a veteran in the area: Andrew St Pierre White
- A girl and a Commander — a happy young lady in a little old camper
- Mala cestovatelka — Klara did her own Sprinter Van DIY conversion and travels Europe
The Brief History of our Travels
We are a family of four. We travel several months a year, mostly during spring and fall, to various places in Europe. I work as a freelance web designer and I do advanced User Interface design for clients all around the world. Renata, my wife, is a virtual assistant; she's also our two kids' teacher and she looks after us really well while I work or drive.
- We owned our first camping trailer for four years, and the second one for three years
- Our first caravan trip in 2012 was to Croatia — our second baby was just 4 months old at the time
- We have visited all of southern Europe – from Morocco (Africa) to Turkey (Asia)
- All of our eight bigger trips combined make up a total of 59,000km (as of Jan 2019)
- And we've had a total of 550+ days living, learning and working on the road (as of Jan 2019)
- I have read and watched dozens of magazine articles, TV shows, YouTube channels, podcasts and several talks about the nomadic life (simply too many)
- Many friends and families got inspired to do the same, many inspired us to go further
We are super grateful for all our adventures. And we have created a huge amount of memories that make us happier in our everyday lives. They empower us and our kids. And we hope we can help you make your life more fun, too. That's the main purpose of all our articles. We'd love to meet you on the road, one day!