Renting a VW Camper Van in Europe

Because we were traveling with Ethan (Oliver’s service dog) on our trip to Europe this summer, we decided that we’d try to rent a camper van for our accommodations: this, we reasoned, would remove the need for nightly “are dogs okay?” negotiations with hotels, would place us out in some variation of nature (being easier for dog walks and general well-being) and, besides, who doesn’t entertain an Arlo Guthrie-fuelled dream of owning a VW microbus.

Fortunately, our friends Bill and Michelle had some experience in this regard, having rented a VW California for a 5 week trip with their daughters several years ago, so we got to know, through Bill’s eyes, something of the lay of the land, and what might be possible.

We ended up renting a camper from DRM, an established operation with several branches in Germany; the alternative was McRent, which has a broader footprint, but they didn’t have stock of the VW campers near where we wanted to start from. Here’s what it looked like on our first night of camping, on the Rhein north of Düsseldorf:

VW California Rental Van

How much did it cost?

The cost for the rental broke down like this:

  • The camper rental itself was 88 € a night for the first 13 nights and 116 € for the last night, for a total of 1,260 €.
  • On top of that was a 110 € service fee, 30 € for 3 camping chairs, 10 € for a camping table,  55 € for a kitchen set (plates, bowls, knives, pots, etc.), and 165 € for three sets of bedding.
  • The total cost, then, was 1630 €, which, at today’s exchange, is about $2300 Canadian, $164 a day.

We had to leave a 1300 € damage deposit when we picked up the van; 890 € of that were returned to us after 4 issues (some scratched in the plastic and paint and a kink in the pop-up roof) were deducted.  We were careful with the van, and these issues, while clearly present during the inspection on return, came as an unexpected surprise. So the real cost, at the end of the day, was about 2000 €, or about $2900 Canadian.

Picking up the Camper

We chose the Düsseldorf station for pick up because it was nearest to our first destination of Enschede in the Netherlands. The DRM station was in the southern end of the city, so we took a cab from the airport when we arrived, which cost us about $60 and took about half an hour. When we arrived the van was waiting for us, and after some paperwork we were given a walk-through of all of its systems (pop-up roof, stove, fridge, etc.).  Given that we’d just stepped off a red-eye flight from Canada, I retained only about 60% of this information and were I to go through the process again I would have arranged for an overnight in a hotel before picking up the van.

Distance and Gasoline

We drove a total of 1119 km over 14 days, from Düsseldorf up into the Netherlands, across to Utrecht, down into Belgium and back to Düsseldorf. On the map (I was dropping a digital breadcrumb via my mobile phone every minute) the trip looked like this (there are some misplaced pins because of flaky GPS: we didn’t go into Amsterdam, for example; and the map is incomplete because sometimes my phone battery was dead, my mobile data plan ran out, or we were in an area of bad mobile coverage):

Map of our European Trip

The diesel gas used by the VW cost about 1.40 € a litre and I gassed up once on pickup (the van is provided empty and you return it empty), and two other times after that, spending a total of $210 on gasoline over two weeks.

The VW California

The van itself was equipped with two beds (one in the pop-up and one made from the folding rear seat combined with a cushion on the back shelf in the “trunk”), a small fridge (good for a few days food), a two-burner gas stove, and a tiny sink. There were two folding chairs that were stored on the back door, an outside table that snapped out of the side door, and an inside table that folded out into the middle of the passenger area. The “neato” factor was relatively high.

Sleeping

We were two adults, a 13 year old and a large standard poodle traveling together. With our son Oliver needing to sleep with our dog Ethan, and Ethan not able to navigate into the pop-up, that meant that Oliver always slept down below with Ethan. The pop-up bed was, in theory, big enough to hold both Catherine and I, but in practice we ended up switching back and forth, with one of us sleeping along upstairs, the more comfortable of the two situations, and the other down below with Ethan and Oliver, every other night.

Neither up nor down was particularly “comfortable,” per se: it was a step up from, say, sleeping in a tent on the ground in a sleeping bag, but the beds were hard and the lower bed had a lot of pointy bits and bumps that made it particularly uncomfortable. With some better bedding (the DRM-rental bedding wasn’t luxurious), especially some better pillows, this might have been made a tad better, but as it was, we got between 50% and 75% of a good night’s sleep over the two weeks.

Ethan in the VW

Cooking

Despite the tiny kitchen, we were able to cook most of our meals in the van. We shopped in markets, small grocery stores and from roadside stands and cooked simple meals: coffee (or hot chocolate) with cereal and yoghurt for breakfast, sometimes supplemented by fried potatoes or the like, and sometimes with pastries from the campground canteen when available; pasta or rice or salad or fish or some such for lunch and supper. The campgrounds we stayed at generally had a central dishwashing area, so we didn’t need to wash the dishes in the tiny sink (which would have been impossible in any case). We ate well, and relatively inexpensively.

VW California Rental Van

VW California Rental Van

VW California Rental Van

Driving

The VW California, for a house-on-wheels, is a pretty nice vehicle once it’s out on the road. It’s close enough to car-sized that the only size-related worries are remembering that it’s 2.3 m tall so can’t fit in many parking garages. The six-speed transmission was a joy to drive, and the van handled well even at 130 km/h on the autobahn.

Catherine and I sat in the bucket seats up front while were were driving, and Ethan and Oliver sat in the bench seat at the back. There was plenty of room for everyone.

VW California Rental Van

Buttons and Switches

The pop-up roof operates electrically: with the ignition running you toggle a control-panel in the top centre console to “Pop Up” and then to “Open” and hold the button until the motors raise the pop-up to its full “up” position.  Taking the pop-up down is simply the reverse operation, with the added need to take care that the fabric of the pop-up tent doesn’t become snagged and that it folds inward and not outward.

The gas bottle for the stove is located at the bottom of the closet in the rear of the van: to use the stove the gas bottle valve needs to be opened and a switch under the burners in the dishes closet needs to be switched on. The burners themselves are electric-start: you turn the gas control to “on,” push down, and then click the ignition button. It took us a while to get this down, but eventually it became second nature.

All of the campsites we rented came with electricity: there’s a master electrical outlet on the back-left of the van on the outside that gets tethered, via some special-purpose cords, to the campground electric pole, which uses a special-purpose connector. All of the bits and bobs for this were included in the sliding cabinet under the bench seat. Sometimes the campground electric pole was some distance away from the campsite, but the included extension cord was always long enough to bridge the gap. The custom appears to be to simply run the extension cords from pole to camper across the dirt and grass, with no heed paid to tripping or driving-over dangers.

VW California Rental Van

Inside the van the electricity operates the fridge, the lights, and feeds several electrical outlets (one standard European plug and a cigarette lighter plug behind the driver’s seat and a second cigarette lighter plug in the back). Confusingly, there’s a second standard European plug behond the driver’s seat that is only powered when driving, so if you are, as I was, charging a mobile device you need to switch outlets on departure or arrival.

Water to the sink comes from a water storage tank that’s filled from the inlet beside the electrical plug on the outside left rear; there’s a water-level indicator on the control panel at the front of the van and water for filling the tank up is generally easily available at campgrounds.  There’s a grey water storage tank that collects water from the sink; there’s a way to empty this, but it never filled up for us, so I never had to learn how.

Campsites

We stayed in seven campsites over the 14 days:

  • Rheincamping Meerbusch north of Düsseldorf was our first and last stop on the trip. It’s handy to the DRM rental station – about 30 minutes drive through the city – and is located directly on the banks of the Rhein river. The staff are friendly and English-speaking. There’s bread and pastries available for ordering in advance every morning, a decent restaurant/bar, and something of a beach on the Rhein. The toilets and showers were clean, and hot water and toilet paper were included in the price; wifi, which was flaky, was available via vouchers for purchase. There’s airplane noise from the Düsseldorf airport, which is just across the river, and river boat noise from the constant flow of boats up and down the Rhein, but neither is bad enough to suggest not staying here.
  • De Twentse Es in Enschede, Netherlands, was our home four nights. We choose it simply because it was very close to our friends Ton and Elmine’s hous; as it happened, it was one of the nicest campgrounds we stayed at as an added bonus. It was clean, had a well-resourced shop, very modern toilets and showers (with hot water and toilet paper included) and swimming pool (though it was too cold for us to use during our visit). Wifi, with excellent throughput, was included in the price. The only odd thing is that the receiption desk is closed a certain periods of the day, so if you arrive or wish to depart during one of these times you can get stuck with a wait.  The environment is on the edge of the city in a lovely forested area.
  • Camping de Kikkerije in Meppel, Netherlands was a place we ended up at late in the day, with our GPS running low on batteries and no obvious destination in sight. Located on the side of a canal on the outskirts of town, it was a small campground with mostly seasonal campsites and a few spots avaialble for vagabonds like us. A small toilet block with pay-hot-water for the shower and sink but with toilet paper included. Wifi was available via vouchers for purchase. Friendly owners. A good, simple place to spend a night.
  • Watersportcamping De Maasterp in Maasbommel, Netherlands was another late-in-the-day arrival and it was raining to boot. They had a single site available for a single night, which suited our needs. Maasbommel is very much vacation country, and De Maasterp was one of several large campgrounds in the area. Our campsite was right at the edge of the water with a beautiful view. The toilets and showers were hike up to the centre of the campground; they were clean, but you needed to bring your own toilet paper and pay for hot water for showers and sinks. Wifi was available via vouchers for purchase. There was fresh bread available every morning, and there was a (somewhat imposing-seeming) bar on site for drinks.
  • De Hoge Veluwe National Park was the closest we came to “nature” camping on the trip: the campsite is located just inside the park’s Hoenderloo entrance and requires purchase of a park ticket as well as payment for the campsite pitch, so it was also the most expensive place we stayed. The campsite is very nice, though: pitches are very large and are arrayed in a circle around a meadow. The toilets and showers were in a bright, open building with a green roof that included a small lending library, and a fire pit for groups. There was wifi included in the price; showers were coin-operated and toilet paper wasn’t included. The best aspect of the campsite was that it was so close to the park: a quick 5 minute drive (or 20 minute cycle, via the fleet of free white bicycles based directly beside the campsite) was the visitor centre, restaurant, network of bicycle trails and art gallery filled with Van Gogh, Renoir, Seurat and more. It’s hard to imagine a better situation, and we really enjoyed the two nights spent here.
  • Camping de Boomgaard in Bunnik, Netherlands, just outside of Utrecht, was the perfect base from which to explore the city. Its primary benefit to us was that it was 10 minutes walk from the Bunnik train station which was, in turn, a single 5 minute stop away from the central station in Utrecht.  The camprground was a nice mix of seasonal and overnight campers and there was a very family-friendly feel to the place: it had a swimming hole, a petting zoo, wagon rides for kids and a trampoline. The toilets and showers were clean (coin-operated hot water; bring your own toilet paper) and we were able to do laundry and an much-needed time. The office opens late and closes early so arrival and departure need to be timed to coordinate.
  • Campinastrand in Dessel, Belgium was a campground with its best years seemingly behind it. The location, on a chain of artificial fishing lakes, was idyllic, but the infrastructure was aging, and we had some issues with hot water and electricity. The staff were friendly, though and the price – 14 € for everything, including electricity – was by far the cheapest of the trip. There was no wifi that we could identify, and hot water (when it worked) was coin-operated and toilet paper was bring-your-own. The bar with terrace was a little “do we really belong here?” imposing, but we hung out anyway and had a pleasant hour or two drinking beer and playing cards.

Would we do it again?

The “house on your back” flexibility of the VW camper was certainly a nice feature of our vacation: we could stop anywhere for a hot lunch if we wanted, and we could explore the highways and back roads without fear that we’d ever be all that far from a campground. We got to see places that would have been difficult to get to without a vehicle, and we got to travel by the seat of our pants, making up the itinerary as we went along. The campgrounds themselves varied in quality, but were generally pleasant places to spend the night.

The van, while a little cramped for three plus dog, was just big enough to handle us, and I wouldn’t have wanted to drive around one of the larger more-RV-like larger options. That said, the jump from VW camper up to larger vehicles would, I imagine, significantly increase the comfort of the beds, and I can only imagine the sleeping-on-inlaws-couch feel of the VW beds becoming more problematic as Catherine and I age, so who knows.

We’ll need some time to chew on the experience before knowing whether it’s the sort of vacation we’d take again, but we all enjoyed the experience and are glad we choose to do it as we did.

Day to Day Experiences with Ethan the Service Dog in Europe

As I’ve detailed elsewhere, we travelled with Ethan, Oliver’s service dog, to Europe over the last two weeks.

In general life-with-Ethan-in-Europe was quite similar to life-with-Ethan-in-Canada. Here are a few notes about our experiences:

  • We travelled in both Germany (Düsseldorf) and the eastern Netherlands, staying in a VW camper.
  • DRM, the camper rental operation, had no issue with Ethan, simply asking us to pay particular attention to the before-return-cleaning, which we did.
  • Every campground we stayed at welcomed Ethan without hesitation (most of the campgrounds allowed dogs in general, as long as they were kept on a leash).
  • One restaurant, a sushi place in Düsseldorf, refused to let us bring Ethan inside, despite our explanation that he was a dog guide. They did let us eat outside on the patio, after a 20 minute wait for a table to open up.
  • Every other restaurant had no issue with Ethan at all; indeed most restaurants supplied us with bowl of water for Ethan without us even asking.
  • Several shops – a grocery store, a national park gift shop and a few others – told us that dogs weren’t allowed before realizing that Ethan was a service dog. After explaining this to them – Service-Hund in German and geleidehond were the keywords that we used to good end – our interogators were universally apologetic and allowed Ethan to stay with us.

One of the unfortunate ironies of traveling with a service dog is that the stress of needing to worry about whether or not the dog will be allowed where we want to go mitigated some of the very stress-reduction that Ethan’s presence injects into our day to day life; fortunately, as the trip wore on and we got used to the situation this stress withered away, and by the end of the trip we were pretty confident that we’d be able to handle almost any situation.

Flying to Europe with a Service Dog (Redux)

Back in May I wrote about our plans to take Ethan, Oliver’s dog guide, to Europe with us for a family vacation. We’ve been there and back, and here are a few notes on how the experience went:

  • Condor, our airline from Halifax to Frankfurt, was simply fantastic: all of the arrangements I’d made with their special services office in advance were on our file, and so they were ready with us for both legs, with no fuss nor hassle.
  • Halifax International Airport has a wonderful area for dogs just outside the terminal beside the new parking garage. It’s clean, fenced-in, and has poop-bags at the ready. Every airport should have such a facility.
  • On the Halifax-Frankfurt flight we were boarded even before the “preboard” phase, and when the flight attendants saw us sliding into the economy seats with little legroom they immediately upgraded us to “premium” economy, which gave us just enough legroom to allow everyone to fit comfortably. Ethan spent the entire flight at Oliver’s feet, didn’t make a peep, and most of our fellow passengers had no idea he was there.
  • Clearing the border control in Frankfurt with Ethan was quick and easy: I showed the border guard our health certificate (record of an exam by Ethan’s vet, counter-signed by the “official vet” at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency) and we were through in less than a minute with no issues at all.
  • Our flight to Frankfurt was delayed enough that we didn’t have time to take Ethan out for a pee: we had to quickly make our way to the Lufthansa terminal, never venturing beyond security. Ethan, bless his heart, gamely held on.
  • Despite several email exchanges, and a telephone conversation with the medical office in advance, Lufthansa had no record of Ethan being a service dog accompanying us in the cabin. Fortunately we were taken under the wing of a helpful gate agent who made all the arrangements for us and so this ended up being only a small bump in the road.
  • Upon arrivel in Düsseldorf I enquired at the information desk about a place to relieve Ethan and was told that if I headed out to the sidewalk, turned left, and just kept walking I might find a patch of green somewhere; they seem perplexed by my request. We did find a patch of green, and Ethan had a long, long, long pee.
  • For the return trip, we arrived back at Düsseldorf with plenty of extra time, which was good because, again, Lufthansa had no record of Ethan and the very notion of a service animal riding in the cabin seemed novel to them. Again we were lucky: our gate agent was tenacious, made a lot of phone calls, spent a lot of time at her computer, and, after about 45 minutes came up with the magic certificate we needed to be allowed to board.

On all of the flights we took with Ethan he was the very picture of a well-behaved service dog: he scrambled into his place at Oliver’s feet and simply remained there for the duration of the flight. Even, as on our return flight to Halifax, when the flight was 7 hours long.

The oddest Ethan-related event of our trip was surely when the Düsseldorf gate agent asked his weight.

“He’s 61 pounds,” I said, realizing that even as I said this she was expecting the weight in kilograms.

“Oh, no, I mean, oh, around 120 kilograms,” I jumped in, forgetting that I needed to divide not multiply.

She looked confused and asked me to put him up on the scale. Which is how we came to this:

Ethan Flying

I was terrified that somebody was going to press a button that would suck Ethan, suitcase-style, into the baggage handling system. A delightful scene for a Disney movie: less delightful a prospect when it’s your family service dog. Fortunately it didn’t happen.

Our general marching orders from Dog Guides Canada when they sent us off into the world with Ethan was “life your life as you normally would, but with Ethan along side.” And so that’s what we did, and why we went to the trouble of arranging to have Ethan accompany us on the trip. Because this was our first experience, with a learning curve and two airlines, it probably added 5% more to the travel planning process, but I expect that for future trips this would be less.

Utrecht, Belgium, Düsseldorf

When I last wrote, we were in the waterworld of Maasbommel looking for floating houses. We found them, and, after looking at them from all angles, we moved west, meandering through the countryside toward Utrecht. The Maas is traversed by several small car ferries along its length and we took the opportunity to sail back and forth a couple of times – the cheapest way to get out on the water – and we diverted into open studio day in the town of Zaltbommel for a couple of hours, so it was late afternoon by the time we arrived in our campground, Camping de Boomgaard, outside of Utrecht.

This turned out to be the perfect campground for exploring Utrecht: 10 minutes walk from the train station at Bunnik (which is a single stop from the central station), and in the middle of the city suburbs, yet set in an orchard and buffered from the noise of the train and the highway by trees. There was laundry, and lots of space to walk Ethan, clean washrooms, and friendly staff. It was one of the nicest campgrounds we stopped at, and I’d highly recommend it as a Utrecht base.

The next morning, Sunday, we woke up early and headed into Utrecht for the day, with the University Museum Utrecht as our destination. This turned out to be a combination science centre and paean to the greatness of the university; there were some really great little exhibits – a tour through the human body was compelling – along with a lot of dry material about the evolution of the university campus. The highlight was the “Jeugdlab” on the top floor, an area for young people to explore and experiment that was well-constructed and staffed by a very talented facilitator who was a big help in our enjoying of the experience.

Sunday night we rendezvoused at a nearby Indonesian restaurant with Edward Hasbrouck and his partner Ruth. I’ve been corresponding with Edward for more than 10 years, but we’d never met, and their cycle trip through Europe came close enough to our camper trip through Europe that they graciously arranged to divert from Belgium into Utrecht to meet up. It turned out to be a great meal with kindred spirits, made all the more interesting by the fact that Edward’s book, The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World, has been so influential in shaping my own thoughts about independent travel.

Monday morning we were faced with a fork in the road: we needed to be in Düsseldorf on Wednesday morning to return our VW camper, and so we had one night of camping left, one more destination to squeeze in. Given that Belgium was so close – the western part of the country only a little more than an hour from Utrecht – I advocated for a quick overnight jaunt there; my advocacy prevailed, and so late that afternoon we pulled into Campinastrand, just outside the town of Dessel.

The campground was one that had obviously seen better days in an earlier time: the vestiges of a glorious well-equipped past were everywhere and, while not without its charms, we found it rough around the edges compared to other campgrounds we’d stayed at. The owner was a friendly man, however, and he got us set up with electricity at a spot beside what could charitably be called a “lagoon.” We enjoyed some Belgian beer on the terrace, took a nice walk around the fishing lakes that dotted the campground, cooked a meal in the camper, and then tucked in for a night punctuated by the arrival, in the middle of the night, by a gaggle of young rock festival refugees stopping over for the night: when we awoke we found a trailed parked 3 feet from the back of our van.

The next morning we packed up and headed west toward Düsseldorf, stopping in the pleasant city of Eindhoven for the afternoon for some lunch and shopping (and, for me, a pleasant hour at the beautiful Eindhoven Public Library). By supper time we were re-installed in the Rheincamping Meerbusch campground north of Düsseldorf where we’d spent our first night two weeks earlier. After a nice meal on the patio at the campground bar we set to work packing and cleaning, readying for our return of the van the next morning.

We woke up early on Wednesday, did a final round of packing and cleaning, and headed off to our Airbnb apartment in central Düsseldorf, where I dropped off Catherine and Oliver, and then onward to the DRM franchise in the southern part of the city to drop the van. I then headed back into the city by train, picked up Catherine and Oliver, and we headed for lunch with our friends Pedro and Patrícia. We spent the afternoon with them, grabbed supper at a nice Italian restaurant near our apartment, and then fell fast asleep – in real beds for the first time in weeks! – packed and ready to head to the airport on Thursday morning.

Simultaneous Deutschgasm

Longtime readers will recall that a regular feature of our small family’s travel exploits is forgetting to eat. Or eat least leaving the eating for far too long. Today was no exception.

We started off so well: with a tour of the Kröller-Müller Museum planned as the central element of the day, I lobbied for an early lunch so as to take in the van Gogh et al on a full stomach. The family rallied around this idea, and so we enjoyed a heaty lunch of “maaltijdsaladesat” – it’s a meal, in a salad! – at Monsieur Jacques, the museum’s busy café. We were fed and heavy into the Vincent by 12:30 noon.

Three hours later, with our minds full and our hearts satisified, I hopped on one of the free white bicycles and dashed back over to the nearby park visitors centre to pick up our van, returned to pick up Catherine, Oliver and Ethan, and we were off, leaving our two days Nationale Park De Hoge Veluwe behind us with happy memories.

Georges Seurat, The Harbour and the Quays at Port-en-Bessin

We’ve been navigating around the Netherlands using a combination of my phone’s Google-powered navigation app (when I have a SIM that’s data-enabled), notes scribbled into the sides of brochures from a morning fill of wifi (when I don’t have mobile data) and by the seats of our pants (when all else fails). Today was a little bit of each: I eked out a little wifi on the way out of the park, scrawled down a few notes, and we knew the general direction of our trip to the watery region of Maasbommel (choosen as today’s destination because we both fondly recall a documentary watched years ago on its amphibious houses).

Unfortunately, this ad hoc approach to navigation failed us today, and we ended up on more than one “oh, that was the wrong turn – and there’s not another exit on this highway for 35 km” misadventures.

And so a promised 59 minute trip quickly stretched into a couple of hours.

But every unwanted diversion has a payoff, and so we found ourselves sailing across the river Maas on a tiny ferry built for a half-dozen cars:

The Maasbommel Ferry

While the high of unexpected water-journey was enough to keep us out of catatonia temporarily, soon the skies opened up with rain, and the struggle to find a campground took over, and that early lunch started to look foolhardy as it receded in the past.

We pushed on, however, and resolved, once our campsite was secured, to find a grocery store and restock the van’s pantry.

This too was easier said than done: we found a sign for “Supermarkt,” followed it, but none manifested. We reversed and still found nothing. Finally we spotted a man walking along the road; we slowed, Catherine rolled down her window.

“English?”, she asked, tentatively.

“Deutsch!”, he proclaimed.

“Supermarket?”, I asked, thinking this a universal enough term.

The man then proceeded to recite directions to the village supermarket in German.

At the conclusion of which we thanked him heartily, rolled up the window, looked at each other in surprise and the simulataneous realization that we’re understood absolutely every word he’s said. Despite knowing only 10 words of German between the two of us.

Wordlessly we followed his directions to a T, and five minutes later I was in the grocery store buying yogurt, bread and pasta.

Our campsite, available for a single night only, alas, is right on the side of the same body of water we’d crossed earlier in the day by ferry, looking out at a collection of ducks and geese and with the sounds of water lapping at the shore to lull us to sleep.

Maasbommel Campsite

Tomorrow we’re on to Utrecht.