When we were getting ready for our grand European Adventure this summer we read every little last bit of information we could get our hands on about the practicalities of travelling and camping in Europe, and especially with little ones. Were we completely mad to be trying to go exploring with a four year old, a two year old and a crawling baby? How would we find campsites? How much would it all cost? What would we eat? Did we have all the stuff the car would need to go into all the countries we were considering? What about Internet access?
The questions could have filled a book. Some we found answers to, some we realised didn’t actually matter, and some we just made up as we went along. We found Lucy and Hannah’s travel how-tos really helpful, and just in case all of our postcards home have convinced you that that’s what you should do with your next holiday (and if not, why not), this is our “How To Have a Blast Travelling Around Europe with Three Preschool Aged Children and a Tent.” Catchy title isn’t it. This is all the nuts and bolts of what we did, and if there’s anything else you want to know, shout it out in the comments and I’ll answer as best I can.
What were we up to?
For three weeks in August 2015 we travelled around Europe with Kitty, then 4, Elma 2 and Pip, very nearly one. Our adventures and our video diaries were all included in our postcards home:
We took a four man tent borrowed from some friends of ours. That the front “lounge” section didn’t have an integral (sewn in) groundsheet was useful when Kitty tipped her supper all over the floor one evening – we just washed it out the door – but the rest of the time, the rain came in, and Pip could crawl out of any side; when we buy our own next year it’s going to have an integral groundsheet.
In the sleeping pod we had two double air mattresses side by side. H and Kitty shared one and Elma, Pip and I had the other. For the girls we bought Hi Gear “Boom” sleeping bags (in hot pink naturally) which they loved and H treated himself to the grown up version. They’re oval sleeping bags so you can curl up inside as if you’re under a duvet at home and much comfier than the traditional mummy style. For Pip and I, we spread a quilt over our air mattress as a sheet and then he was tucked into his usual grobag and snuggled up in the crook of my arm with my normal sleeping bag opened out over us as a duvet.
We all took a favourite pillow, nice at night but quite useful in the car too.
In our kitchen/lounge/dining room, which was outside unless it was bucketing it down with rain, we had a folding table and benches, folding deck chairs for the four biggest, and a picnic blanket for Pip. We probably didn’t need the deckchairs as well as the table and benches but they were a nice treat. Cooking was all on two little portable gas stoves, the flat sort that take gas cartridges that look like aerosol cans. They’re easy to pack, very hard to knock over and we never had a problem getting more gas either in France or Switzerland and I suspect it would be the same in Germany (we just didn’t need any more by that point).
We borrowed a set of camping saucepans from friends and I brought a few key utensils and our picnic plates and cutlery in a folding crate. We brought pasta and a few jars of tomato sauce with us just for the reassurance that we definitely had supper in the car if we ever got totally bamboozled by supermarket opening times but it was only ever a security blanket not a necessity. Our washing up stuff lived in its own little green washing up tub (fixed with duct tape after we accidentally stabbed it with the sharp knife two days in – always pack duct tape)
Where the kids were concerned I think I overpacked on clothes and under packed on toys, the latter because we’d pretty much run out of space in the car by the time we got to toys. We took their sketch books, lots of colouring crayons and a handful of Pip’s favourites and supplemented as we travelled with a lot more colouring books, Panda and Dolly Fleur in Paris and a selection of Petit T’choupi board books which remain Pip’s favourites. They wore all of the clothes but it would have been easy to take two thirds of what we did and wash more often. We could also have done with a few warmer things; I don’t recommend Saltwater sandals for walking through snow oddly enough, and when we were in the Black Forest it got very cold at night; we were bundling the children up into jumpers and woolly socks until the sun got over the hill and the thermometer soared.
All of that filled our family car to the gunwhales. My small craft stash that came with us was tucked under my feet in the passenger footwell and the camera was pretty much always in my lap or round my neck. The only thing I think I wish I’d had would be a charge bar for my phone; using it to film and navigate wore the battery down pretty fast and there were a couple of days when we had to have the car on for ten minutes to work out where we were going for the day!
We found all of our campsites either through word of mouth recommendations from people we met, or through the Euro Camping website. It’s a fairly international website with an international clientele as you’ll see from the reviews and we never found ourselves to have wondered into a British enclave, which for us is a good thing.
We stayed at:
Camping les Peupliers, Merville-Franceville, Normandy
Literally just over the road from a gorgeous beach, under beautiful big Norman skies, this was a perfect introduction to camping. This is where the French come for a week long holiday and they seriously glamp – gas ovens, tv, carpet, the works! We booked online before we left the UK and got a great corner spot behind a hedge with just enough space to squeeze the car onto the pitch too. The pool was bliss but very busy but they don’t have a speedos only rule (gold star from H!) so we spent quite a bit of time cooling off in it or watching the girls at the playground, whose bouncy castle was always a hit. There is camp entertainment in the evening but it stops before 11 and at that point the ‘street lights’ are turned down to their dim overnight settings so everyone can sleep. The next village along, Sallenelles has a bakery that sells delicious croissants and is so pretty to explore.
Camping de la Forêst, Jumieges, Rouen
Tucked away on the outskirts of a tiny village in the forest in a loop of the Seine, this was the most British-populated of all of our campsites. It’s endorsed by the Caravan Club and from the high turnover I think is one of the main overnight stops on the way from Eurodisney to Calais but it also makes a great base from which to explore Rouen. We phoned up the day before to book and they wrote my name down on a piece of paper which was enough to secure our pitch and is worth doing, it’s a popular spot and they were turning people away by 6.30pm. The campsite has two pools but does enforce the speedo rule, you get a cheaper pitch if you don’t want electricity, oh and the shop at reception does a very nice line in essentials (very cold Heiniken) and will order in croissants and bread from the village shop every morning. They also win the prize for the nicest “espace du Bebe”, a little room with a baby bath fitted into a worktop like a giant sink plus changing table. All of the French campsites had these except for Paris and they were genius, Pip loved having a proper bath, and we loved getting him nice and clean, and even Elma was little enough to fit in for a quick wash. I missed them when we moved on to Switzerland.
Camping International, Maisons-Laffitte, Paris
Sat on a tiny island in the Seine (yes really) and only accessible by the one bridge which has a manned reception most of the time and locked gates overnight, this was the biggest campsite we stayed in. Located in Maisons Lafeyette in the suburbs of Paris, this was a top tip from some Dutch neighbours of ours in Normandy and we booked online while sat on the wall of Honfleur harbour. The pitches are small and it’s definitely worth paying extra for a pitch on the banks of the Seine, both for the view and the extra space. The toilet blocks are basic (no baby bath here) but the on site shop is great and sells everything you could need and the restaurant does some great burgers. There’s a giant Carrefour the other side of the river in that sells made to order sushi too!
This was also our most expensive campsite at €50 per night, which for a family of five doing Paris is not bad at all. Travelling into Paris is a 10 minute walk up the hill and a straight train on RER-A (the red one). Had it not been having engineering works the line would make the centre of Paris 20 minutes away and Eurodisney an hour. It might not have been our favourite for just hanging out at camp, but the location was great.
Camping Le Panoramic, Sévrier, Annecy
Up on the side of the hills behind Sévrier and just down the road from Annecy, Camping le Panoramic wins the awards for ‘swimming pool with a view’ and ‘washing up with a view’ hands down. We turned up at 7pm having driven all the way from Paris and they still had half a dozen pitches, possibly because of the rainy weather forecast. They don’t take bookings, even by telephone, it’s turn up and hope for the best, but there are so many campsites in the Annecy area that you know you’ll find somewhere to sleep. This was our first choice, lovely pool, good bar for a drink while the girls scrambled all over the play park, and a tiny shop with fresh croissants and orange juice in the morning. That it rained was not their fault
Camping du Botza, Valais Switzerland
Located down the back of an industrial estate, this was the campsite where we wondered whether we’d made a mistake, but once we got inside it quickly became one of our favourites. We’d booked online the day before and booked a bigger pitch to have a bit of space to run around, but the site was very quiet and we set up our tent across the middle of two pitches and the girls and Pip had empty space all around us to run around. It was incredibly relaxing, stunning view of the mountains every time you looked up and the most insane swimming pool slide I’ve ever come across – they have pictures on their site – worth clicking over just for that alone.
There is a shop and a restaurant on site but we never worked out the opening hours of the shop and the restaurant looked a little fancier than was really going to work for us so we shopped at the Migros on the way to Sion and ate under the trees. The owner, Jean-Nicolas, was really lovely and so much fun to chat to. He completely won the girls over by giving them lollies and I think was trying to persuade us to come back in the winter – we’d love to, but maybe not in the tent!
Camping Müllerwiesse, Enzklosterle, Germany
And finally, my favourite, the one I’m just a little bit reluctant to share because I loved it so much, the lovely blissfully peaceful camping Müllerwiesse. Next year this is where I want to start, which probably says everything.
In terms of facilities there are two nice modern shower blocks and a good laundry. There’s no shop on site but you’re just at the top of the village so there are restaurants and the village shop within a couple of minutes walk and the bakery at the bottom of the hill is a must visit for breakfast. We didn’t even try to book in advance on this one, just drove and figured we’d work it out along the way and even in the middle of August there was no one night when it was absolutely full. It is worth knowing that they don’t take card payments though, so you need to make sure you have cash but at €48 for two nights in August it’s very affordable.
Phones and Internet
Only one of our campsites offered free internet, and then only if you were sat outside the shower block. The rest of the time we used the Europe roaming data and coverage package that my phone network provides (£4 per day) and purchased top up data when we needed it (£1-2); which was most days. It meant that my mobile phone bills were quite spectacular when we came home, but we knew in advance that that would be the case so we could budget for it. It was usually cheaper than buying campsite wifi and we had it with us all the time for map reading, choosing campsites, Instagram – all the essentials!
In the three weeks away I don’t need to be wearing open sandals to count the number of times we ate out, and I don’t need all the fingers either if we discount two Golden Arches suppers at Rouen and Cherbourg on the way home because nothing else was open. Self catering was partly what made the trip affordable, and meant that we could stay away for longer and go on unmissable expeditions like the trip up to Zermatt and Gornergrat.
Breakfast was usually porridge made with long life almond milk and maple syrup that we brought with us, lunch we made sandwiches, and for supper we dropped by a supermarket at the end of the day for a little inspiration. It’s amazing what you can make on a camp stove when you put your mind to it. Tomato pasta with burger ‘meatballs’ was Pip’s favourite, the girls loved the night in Normandy when we made ham and cheese crepes, but I think I was most impressed with H’s steak and chips – he bought a packet of frozen chips to act as an icebag for the steak and then fried them up in a saucepan – yum!
Not knowing quite where in Europe we were headed we packed for most European countries by buying a kit that would cover France, Switzerland and Germany and adding extra hi vis jackets just in case we fancied going to Spain. Happily the only bits we actually needed were the magnetic GB plate and the headlight deflectors, everything else is still in its nice little box for next time.
Fuel was never a problem and the only other thing we had to buy was a vignette for the Swiss motorways; available from every petrol station and a sort of universal toll.
Why do it?
It’s true, there are much easier holidays to go on, and there were definitely days when staying somewhere warm with walls, built in childcare and someone to bring you a drink on a tray sounded very appealing, but so often in life the things that are worth doing aren’t always the easiest. This trip ignited the travelling bug in our children, showed them different countries and different cultures. I showed us just how little we need to be happy, and just how much we have in our house when we got back home, it gave us snow and mountaintops, beaches and sunsets and a fair amount of rain too. But most of all it gave us three weeks of time spent focussed just in being together as our little family of five before the big changes that the autumn brought. The word life changing is horribly over used but I think I might be justified in using it here.
If you are in any teeny tiny way even vaguely tempted to try it then all I can say is “Go!” Book a ferry and a couple of nights camping in Normandy to see whether you like it; you can always come home if it rains, but I bet you won’t want to.