Cheap holidays in your motorhome don't have to mean penny-pinching and missing out on the luxuries of life, or the fun and adventure of travel. My wife Elaine and I have toured Europe extensively in Elsa, our fabulous Ace Siena, and with a little care it's possible to make every pound, Euro, krone or złoty go further. Here we share our top tips so you too can enjoy touring for less.
Be fuel efficient
However, the savings on a tank full on the overall cost of a couple of months away don't make it worth the stress of driving on fumes to get to the cheap pumps. Always look carefully at the way in and out of supermarket petrol station forecourts: there can be high kerbs and rooflines to catch out the unwary.
When driving on the autoroutes, try to keep your right foot steady on the accelerator, and adjust your seat so the foot is relaxed on the pedal at your cruising speed. This also helps with potential pain and stiffness due to holding your leg to keep at a certain speed.
I always keep the mpg readout on, to keep an eye on our economy. For our motorhome I find that the optimum mpg is achieved at just under 60mph. This is about the same pace as the lorries. However, as tempting as it may be, slip-streaming them is dangerous and I will not compromise our safety for the sake of a few Euros of fuel, and I always try to keep at least the recommended stopping distance between us and the next lorry.
Of course, fuel can consume a significant part of your holiday budget, and did you know that how you pay can affect your spend? Be aware of how much it costs to make a transaction with your card. It is often cheaper to change a large sum of cash and pay with it, rather than making a number of credit/debit card transactions. Also, be aware that self-service/24-hour fuel outlets always require card payment – and we've found the occasional one which does not accept 'foreign' cards.
To toll or not to toll
There is no doubt that it is cheaper to use the N roads rather than the toll roads. However, you'll often find you achieve better fuel consumption and you will arrive quicker on toll roads, possibly avoiding another overnight stop. I feel safer on the autoroutes, too.
A little research can go a long way. For instance, the A75 north from Béziers is almost free for 210 miles to Clermont-Ferrand. There is just a €10 toll to cross Norman Foster’s amazing 2.5km viaduct soaring above the River Tarn at Millau, which is well worth the modest outlay. You can even make it part of your tour, by taking a break at the viewing point on the north side, or dropping down into the valley to the visitor centre.
We leave home with enough food to get us to our likely destination. After that, we like to support local shops and businesses, so they'll still be there next time we visit. This will also reduce the amount of weight we're carrying in our ’van, helping fuel consumption. And, of course, it's nice to try local produce.
As when buying fuel, look at the way your bank charges for withdrawals. It may be worthwhile getting cash in as large amounts as you can when on the Continent, as the fees are usually capped.
You never seem to be far from a Lidl in France, Spain or Croatia and there is usually suitable parking, which is always a consideration when motorcaravanning. We had to park in the street at the Mali Lošinj Lidl on the Croatian island Lošinj, south of Cres, but then that's probably as remote a Lidl as you'll find anywhere! And, of course, as in the UK, Lidl's prices are very competitive.
Mixing self catering with eating out is, we find, a good way to get a taste for the region you're visiting and a break from cooking and washing up (you are, after all, on holiday!), without breaking the bank. Shopping in budget supermarkets definitely helps and although it's lovely to browse the stalls if you visit a town on market day, it's often not the cheapest way to get supplies, although the produce will be local and fresh.
When choosing restaurants and other eateries, we tend to head to those populated by locals, a few streets away from the tourist trail – they often have the best prices and the best coffee. In Spain, I'd recommend looking out for a pensionista bar – you don’t have to be of pensionable age to use them! A prime example is the pensionista bar on the southern beach in Peníscola, where we enjoyed great food – and lots of it! – at very good prices.
Everyone knows that it's easiest to take cheap holidays outside the main summer months and if you can do this, the CampingCard ACSI book is a good investment from just €10.95 (about £8.50). This contains a comprehensive list of sites with all the information you need, and the prices for a pitch with electric hook-up for two adults is between €11 and €19, depending on the facilities and location. We have stayed on some excellent ACSI sites with very good facilities. And if you'd rather eke even more out of your payload by keeping all such information in a digital format, check out the scheme's app – and it can be used offline.
If you have a long enough time away, it is possible to get some really good deals for longer stays using this scheme. For instance, Càmping Les Medes in June is €406 for 29 nights which works out at €14 a night, compared with €29.40 for a single night at this time of the year. When we stayed, we found it has excellent facilities and very welcoming staff.
We save overnight fees for some of the time we are away by staying on aires. The best guide to these is Camperstop Europe from Vicarious Books, well worth its £20.99 cover price. Aires are often free or just a few Euros and generally have fresh water, and facilities for disposal of grey water and emptying the toilet. However, after a few nights on aires, we're always glad to get to the comfort of a site. We think the best country for aires is France, just be sure to be sensible and careful, heeding all the usual warnings.
And, of course, if you're touring the UK, don't forget about Practical Motorhome's very own Nightstops scheme, which lists places across the country where you can pitch for free, or for very little.
We always book ferries on The Caravan Club website, getting a better deal than buying direct, although, of course, the cost of annual membership has to be taken into account. The price is no different if booked well in advance or up to a day or two of travel, however avoid booking within a day or two of departure. It is possible to make savings by crossing at stupid o’clock in the middle of the night/early in the morning, but be careful and don't drive tired.
When touring, we usually use the Dover-Calais route. We've considered other ports, but the extra cost of the ferry is usually more than the cost of driving. We've yet to try the Santander crossing, but we feel that the drive down through France is a big part of the holiday.
Ferries to and from the Croatian islands were very reasonably priced and we never booked, just turned up and joined the queue, paying at the kiosk. However this was in September and October. When we go again we will take the ferry from Brestova to Porozina on the northern tip of Cres, rather than driving round the coast road through Rijeka.
Cheap holidays are all about being a bit canny and doing a little research. We've proved that motorcaravanning can be a wonderful, wallet-friendly way to see the world – we hope you think the same!