Pros and cons of van life

Living in a van isn’t always easy. It is often portrayed as the ultimate freedom; you can go anywhere, anytime, you can choose to go off the beaten track, off the tourist trails and do and see things you would never see on a regular holiday. Freedom is an interesting concept though. Are we really free? Do we even have free will? As Westerners we have become slaves to the system while every year the shackles become tighter and tighter.

Stepping outside your comfort zone is really hard, what about all the “what ifs?” On social media, naturally like everybody else, most of the time we only post the good stuff. But with the good there is bad too. Nobody posts the bad shit on Instagram. I say bad hastily because even the bad times leave something to learn from and sometimes looking back on the bad times can be the strongest sometimes even the funniest memories to look back on. In any way of life, even the bad times you will have fond memories of and we will be proud of every challenge we faced both at home and on the road.

Here is a little list of some pros and cons of life on the road. There’s good and bad in all things so these points are a mixture of pros and cons depending on how you look at it. For us obviously the good outweighs the bad, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing it.

Time and money. One is real, one is fake. Money comes and goes, jobs come and go but time you can never get back. We have time to spend with each other, yes we kill each other some times too. Even on the road, time seems to fly by. It’s sort of irrelevant, we have no place to be, no one to answer to. We lose track of days often. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what week it is. Yes money is fake but you need money to travel. It has to be done cheaply if you want to travel long term. We are terrible with money. Terrible. But we have learned to become frugal as f**k. We want to travel for as long as we can and that is reason enough for us to not eat out and drink out, to find the wild camping spots and to spend as little money as possible. It’s funny, some people think we are rich or we have won the lottery. We do have one great asset and that is our house. We can rent it out and with that income after paying our monthly loan and household and campervan taxes, insurances and bills we spend the rest ourselves. It’s very little, but we make it work. We earn a little extra through the blog (ps. Thank you to everybody who has supported us and subscribed to us here xxx), through selling crafts on the road and from teaching yoga along the way. We’ve met lots of digital nomads on the road, lots of people who are able to work remotely and those who pick up jobs as they travel. Many people choose workaway, cultural exchanges, farmstays or house sitting for free park up and board which saves a lot of money. There are lots of ways to do it.

Insurance. Technically, you must have a permanent address to get insurance and if you’re insuring a camper van, ideally you should be insured on a car first as your primary vehicle because if your main vehicle is a camper van the insurance costs are ridiculously high…even higher than insuring two vehicles which is pretty scandalous. Travel insurance is another head wreck. Usually travel insurance will cover you only for a maximum of three months of travel per year. For your first year you can get 365 day backpackers insurance but you’re kind of screwed from then on as you need to be permanently resident in your home country for at least six months prior to leaving on your trip. Also if you have health insurance you can say goodbye to that too. In most cases they will only cover you for three months of travel. In Europe we are covered under the EHIC scheme. It’s free so be sure to order your cards online before you leave. So although yes it feels like total freedom, we still have a lot to consider and many responsibilities.

Always on the go: Because our campervan is our home, we feel at home everywhere we go. Living life on our own terms, building our own dreams but being on the move a lot can be very tiring. We love it when we find a place that we all like and a place where we can stay for a few weeks or months at a time. Even better when we find a place with families, children or communities for us to get to know other ways of life. We have met so many people on the search for land or a community and we are no different, not to fully settle down or anything but to have a base. You can get land really cheaply in some countries now, it can be a risk, an investment, really scary or really exciting. If the opportunity ever arises for us we will seriously consider it.

Simple life: Living full time in a van, naturally consumption goes down. No more owning pointless things, no water waste, less carbon footprint, less rubbish, less stuff to worry about. We don’t need loads of clothes, products or toys. We very carefully consider the things that we really really want before we buy it. We were both pretty bad hoarders in the past and always felt like the things we owned actually owned us. We have been brought up thinking that if it’s not broken, then don’t fix it and if it is broken at least try to fix it first before buying new shit.

Off grid: For the most part. Obviously we are still part of “the grid” as in we have an actual address, a house which we pay for, our children are on the Irish homeschool register. Did you know that if you leave the country for more than three weeks you will have you Child Benefit cut off? We didn’t know this until we left Ireland back in 2018. We were only gone two weeks when we got a letter from the department asking us if we were still in the country. Now how they knew so fast I will never know but I totally assumed that being Irish citizens who have a house in Ireland, who lived and worked there all our lives, with children on the Irish homeschooling register thought we would be fully entitled to this payment. It affirmed to us that the more we are entwined in the system, the more we feel trapped. Although it’s unfortunate that we would lose this payment of €280 each month which we used as part of our homeschooling budget, we cut our losses and had to let it go.

Career: We both quit our jobs to live this life. I loved my job working as a personal trainer. Liam loved his job too. It wasn’t enough to stop us from hitting the road though and that is something you have to consider. Some have taken career breaks and many people still work but on the road. You could try to forge a career online, there are loads of opportunities there too. I think just taking the leap is enough and opportunities will arise as you go, just taking it day by day, week by week. If shit hits the fan you can always just go home and start again. It’s not something we worry about too much anymore, fuck that shit, get out and enjoy life.

Community: We love the van life community, we have facebook groups, meetups, convoys arranged for all over Europe. We have met so many nice people along the way, many of whom are good friends and we can call on them anytime. We are always bumping into people we know and met on our travels. In our second year on the road we have met lots of people we already met last year. We’ve never been more social in our lives.

Are we there yet? Living in a van you will be on the move quite a lot. We use Google maps way more than any other app on our phones. This is great for the most part but it can be shitty too like when you find a string of bad park ups, bad weather, Aires with no spaces left….the worst. Park4night has been a life saver in these situations. Park4night and CamperContact are apps used by van people to find parkups.

Being tourists: We have been so spoiled seeing some of the most interesting and beautiful sites in the world. When we hit the road in the beginning, two years ago now, we were total tourists. We saw everything touristy we could along the way and have seen some incredible sights. We can see these places mid week, off season, when there’s less tourists around. This obviously is a massive pro but it has clouded our senses somewhat. We have seen so many beautiful Roman arenas and other architecture that when we go to see a new one the kids are like “oh not another amphitheatre”. Well not really, we love Roman architecture but we definitely don’t love cities. If we don’t ever see a city again that would make us very happy. There are so many nice places to see away from the touristy areas which are often way cheaper, friendy and more authentic. Many popular cities were ruined for me by the constant touters trying to sell you shit, tour guides up in your face trying to nab you, just a lot of people relentlessly trying to make a shilling and ripping you off. If you’re like us and not that into cities then get off the beaten track. You will be well rewarded.

Weather: Will you follow the sun or snow. Maybe follow both. The weather is so important for van dwellers, we have to stay up to date all the time with forecasts. If it’s hot outside the van, it’s hot inside and if it’s cold outside it’s cold inside the van. Yes we have insulation and all that but it’s still a hot box on hot days and can get very cold sometimes in the winter months even as far south as Spain or Italy. We have gas heating when we need it and extra blankets too but we wouldn’t enjoy being in colder countries unless we had a stove or decent heating system in the van. Weather also affects what you can do during the day too, a spell of rain for a few days in a row, athough rare enough where we go, can get cabin fevery real quick. Storms can be scary, we need to find shelter and sit through it. I’ve never heard of a campervan blowing over but sitting exposed in a force 9 gale once we had to move to more shelter as we could feel the van lifting…no shit. Last summer we were in Normandy when that 45’celcius weather and that was horrible too.

Health: We have two children so health is a constant concern but of course that would be a fear at home also. Living in rural Ireland we were always almost an hours drive from the closest hospital. On the road we are never too far away from healthcare. Thankfully we haven’t needed more than a visit to a pharmacy since hitting the road but the minute one of the kids gets a so much as a cough, I am online researching nearest doctors just in case.

Bugs: Fucking mosquitoes. Those little bastards are the bain of our lives. Flies have been a problem on occasion too. We’ve become used to seeing snakes, lizards, bugs, butterflies, and even beetles that fart but thankfully nothing too harmful in Europe.

Limited space: We see this as a pro as you are forced to choose minimalism but you also have less personal space most of the time both inside and outside of the camper. Inside we live in a living space of a few square metres. This means you don’t get a lot of privacy if you want to take a nap or even a poop. I practise yoga when I can and I have to do this outside the van usually with a load of people gawking wondering what the fuck you’re at. We are nearly always in close proximity to other campervanners so you have to be a little more aware of making too much noise.

Homesickness: We miss our friends and family at home but we have loved making new wonderful friends along the way. Going home is great, we love where we’re from but we’ve been home once in the past two years. I wouldn’t say we’re homesick, we’re very used to being on the road and we find it hard to see ourselves living in a big house just yet.

Cooking and cleaning. We only have one of everything in the van. There are four of us so we have four bowls, four plates, four forks, four spoons one big pot, one small, one frying pan, . We have to stay on top of the washing up all the time and the kids are always hungry…..always.

How lucky are we to experience new and authentic cuisines from all the different countries we’ve visited, from olives to gazpacho, real Italian pizza, German pretzels & Belgian waffles. Not to mention the wine! All the wine from the different regions of France, Spain, Portugal, Italy. The beer in Germany, Belgium and Sardinia. The champagne in Champagne. The different liquors from cherry and strawberry liquors in Portugal to my favourite cognacs in the town of Cognac, France. Not to sound like total alco’s we also appreciate the bread and the pure olive oils in Spain, Portugal and Italy. So lucky.

Cost: Van life is cheap and it can also be very expensive.  Our biggest expense is diesel/van maintenance, phone bills and food. Honestly they’re our only expenses on the road but at home we have bills, loans, house maintenance so we simply have to scrimp and save every penny to try to cover it all.

Relationship: Living in a small space, we have to resolve problems quickly. It’s not a matter of wanting to, we can both hold a grudge for an embarrassingly long time, we simply have to. For the kids sake and ours, there’s no room for us to get in moods with each other. This has been great for our relationship. Living in a van certainly tests your patience, sometimes leaving you tired or frustrated. You can’t really get a minutes peace. There’s always noise, from the radio, from where we’re parked, if we’re parked near a road or motorway or if we are near a town especially at weekends. There is always noise from the kids. Our old sleeping habits are a distant memory. We now all wake up whenever we like, usually after  9am and the kids now go to bed between 9 and 10 most of the time but stay awake reading, playing or fighting sometimes until 11pm. Liam and I have been together for 11 years or more so we can read each other pretty well now and if we ever need a time out we will take turns to take a break away or one of us bring the kids on an adventure.

Safety: Number one safety issue for us is finding a safe place to sleep. Full time van lifers rarely spend money on places to park. If we did, we wouldn’t last very long. They can be expensive but have been a life saver from time to time. We check into a campsite every few weeks to catch up on laundry, have a good hot shower and put our feet up for a day or two. Thankfully, there are thousands of places where you can park for free, many have free services, some don’t, many are very safe, some are not. If we ever get a bad feeling about a place, we move but we have been caught off guard on a couple of occasions. Two such occasions happened at home in Ireland, one night we parked by a lighthouse in Ireland and we were verbally attacked by an alcoholic next door who accused us of cutting a pipe on his his diesel line from his generator, he was so aggressive and threating  we had to call the police who took him away for the night. Another night by the port of Rosslare a guy parked door to door right beside us in the empty carpark and left his engine running all night long. Since we left Ireland we encountered two occasions, once at the port in Bilbao where a couple of lads tried to break into the back of the campervan and another in a car park near Malaga where a load of cars gathered to party and played music really loudly all night long. Thankfully our children are heavy sleepers and slept through every single one. Us, not a wink.

Driving: We have been driving on the other side of the road for two years, that’s not a problem as you learn very quickly but driving a campervan can be a problem sometimes especially when you find yourself on the narrow hills of Tuscany, or through the towns around Seville where the orange trees hang low, or driving through tiny medieval cobbled streets on a wet day or driving on a motorway in heavy winds. These are all difficult driving conditions that we have encountered along the way. Moving through countries we have to be aware of new toll systems, which countries are not in the EU as that affects our insurance, which cities and towns are green zones where vehicles over a certain age are banned. Ours is twenty years old so we avoid all green zones as the penalty for driving in one can be huge.

Water: Having to find clean water, some take it for granted but this is something we need to watch and the longer we’ve been on the road, the better you get at it. Some water is drinkable, some isn’t, you know by the look and smell of it pretty quick but we usually get our water from aires where it’s clear whether it’s drinkable or not and thankfully have never had a problem. Some people boil the water first, we have never done that and never had a dodgy stomach from it or maybe we’re just toughened up from drinking Irish water all our lives….ooooh

Hygiene: Many vans we met on the road do not have toilets and showers. We are lucky, we do….could do without our shower though. I never in a million years thought I would say that, I had slight ocd as a teenager and showered multiple times a day, never left the house without a face full of make up. These days I could shower once a week, often less than that and be absolutely fine. Even though we do have a shower in the campervan it’s just so awkward and annoying to clean after that we just don’t bother using it. Instead we “shower” in the sea, have a bird bath, swim lakes, use the public beach showers. The vast majority of beaches have showers and sometimes we book into the odd campsite too.

Laundry: Laundry day is the worst. We try to keep on top of our laundry by handwashing at campsites or free aires with water but sometimes it builds up quickly and we must go to a town to find a launderette…..what a waste of a day, it takes hours of hanging around, puts us all in a bad mood and we almost always end up killing each other at some stage during the day. Just not our favourite chore at all. We wear clothes to death and hardly ever buy anything new.

Summary: So yes we are on a trip of a lifetime. It may look like a giant big holiday but it really isn’t and that’s something only people who have experienced this way of living will understand.  Now before you go all boo hoo poor you with your easy lives travelling around Europe, you are greatly mistaken. It takes a lot of guts and sacrifice to do something like this. We have given up a lot but we have also gained a lot. With the good times, there is often bad and everything else in between. So there you have it. Don’t be jealous of us. We need your support. Sometimes we wonder what the fuck are we doing ourselves. Van life looks amazing on Instagram and it is amazing for us but it certainly is not for everybody. Living in a van is not always easy, we have learned to adapt and wouldn’t change our choices for anything. We are all on different paths and when you do what you love and love what you do then anyone who judges you, excludes you or questions you is simply projecting their own issues. Drawing boundaries has helped us immensely with this and we try to not get drawn into any negativity. There will be nay-sayers and what-if’ers, and a few unlikely people that will project anger towards you for choosing to step out an be different. I think that’s mostly what we weren’t prepared for. It was a hard pill to swallow but it’s always important to remember that you must live your life for yourself and yours, not for other people.

Published by Niamh & Liam Colfer

Niamh & Liam Colfer currently livin' on the Hook peninsula in County Wexford offering yoga and breath-work classes, personal training and hike the Hook walking tours. All about healthy balanced lifestyle, home schooling, travel, outdoor life, sea swims and on the Hook / off the Hook adventures.

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