Qualities of an American RV for Europe

Here’s our advice about things to look for if you want to ship an American RV to Europe like we’ve done with Rover. 

First, a story: 

We had pulled into a parking lot in Lourdes to read the road map when a car pulled up beside us. Down came their window; down came ours. “Bon jour,” we said; “Hi,” they replied. Immediately--even before he told us they were from California, and long before he asked how we’d gotten Rover overseas--his next words were a question: “What do you do if you have a breakdown?”

That leads to our first piece of advice if you want to ship your American RV to Europe, and it may be the most important:

1. Buy one that’s reliable. 

Unless you’re much more adventurous than we are or are a really good auto mechanic with all the tools you might need, it would be better if you never found yourself in a situation where you had to answer the guy’s “What do you do if . . . ?” question.

That means not having a breakdown in the first place.

We bought a Born Free because of the company’s reputation for quality construction, as well as the reputation for reliability of the Ford E-450 chassis and V-10 Triton engine.

We were also happy that Rover had already been driven nearly 50,000 miles when we bought it and that we were able to buy it from the Born Free factory, which had taken it in trade. That way it had time to be broken in, and we could investigate its history with the former owner, who had no reason not to be completely straight with us. Also, we knew the factory had gone over it thoroughly before reselling it, and we could also have it checked out by a Ford dealer in the area who was accustomed to performing that sort of service for buyers of used Born Frees.

For us, “reliability” also includes things like using high quality synthetic oil, even though it’s proved to be a bit of a pain to find it in Europe at a decent price (hint: try a large Wal-Mart-like superstore, like the French Carrefours chain). And reliability means being sure we had the best tires we could find (Michelins, partly because they’re readily available in Europe). And to take care of the tires, we bought a portable air compressor to keep the tire pressure where it should be--air is really hard to find at many service stations in Europe. (Another hint: the compressor should probably be bigger than the 3/4 hp size we brought with us from the US--it burned out after a year.) And we installed expensive AGM house batteries because they hold their charge over the months that Rover spends in storage in Amsterdam.

2. This one is about as important as reliability: an American RV in Europe should be as SMALL as possible.

Rover is nominally 24’ long, but in fact is nearly 25’. We’re grateful for the interior room, but when we’re trying to back into a small, shallow French campsite we could wish it was shorter.

Even more critical is Rover’s width: 9’-9” with mirrors extended, 8’-3” retracted. (And we do have to retract them--regularly.) Unlike most European RVs we see, whose wheels are in line with one another, Rover’s rear wheels are outboard of the front. This can lead to some scary moments: passing through the chicanes that every small town seems to think are obligatory, meeting trucks on narrow roads with cars parked at the side, passing bicyclists, entering toll booths...and the list goes on.

It’s also true that only once have we even barely scraped an obstacle, and that was a  road sign--in a place it had no business being--while backing up at about 3 mph. On the other hand, nearly every day of driving has included at least one moment when we wished Rover were fully 12” narrower.

Hint: tape your American RV’s metric dimensions--height, length, width--to the dashboard. European roads are full of signs like “3.5 meter height restriction is 100 meters ahead,” and it’s nice not to have to figure out whether that means you while you’re going 50 mph (especially when the sign isn’t in English, remember).

3. Leave your American RV’s electrical generator in America. For one thing, the gas it burns is wildly expensive; also, campgrounds won’t let you run it at night anyway; and if you run it during the day, you’ll be the only one doing so because European RVs don’t have generators, and the message you’ll be sending is that you’re one of those Americans Who Think They Have the Right to Consume More Resources than Anybody Else on the Planet and to Make Lots of Noise while Doing It; and besides . . . see #4.

4. Use your now-empty generator compartment to house a 240-volt step-down transformer and maybe a really good aftermarket converter/charger (Camping World will sell you one and install it, too).

You’ll need the transformer to convert European 220/240-volt current to American 110/120. And the converter function of the converter/charger can draw on your house batteries to help supplement the sometimes inadequate power that European campgrounds provide (this can be as little as 4-5 amps of 220-volt current, which your transformer converts to only 8-10 amps of 110).

Hint: to protect this equipment, put a lock on the compartment that houses it; then on the compartment door install a small trapdoor that will accept the 220/240 shorepower cable that you plug into the transformer and the 30- or 50-amp 110/120 cable that you run from the transformer to your RV. And install a good-sized vent in the compartment door for cooling. We also found that we needed to drill a couple of weep holes in the floor of the compartment to let excess moisture escape.

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   Former generator compartment                                                                         Interior of compartment with transformer and converter/charger


5. Consider getting a diesel engine. Diesel fuel in Europe is cheaper than gasoline, sometimes by as much as $ .50 a gallon.

6. Think about what’s most important to you in terms of sleeping and eating arrangements as well as entertainment and storage areas. Is it important to have a permanent dining table and two swivel chairs? Do you want to be able to lie back and watch a large tv? Do you want to retire for the night with a minimum of bed-making effort? If you have bikes, where will you carry them?

In a 24’ Class C RV, we couldn’t address all these items equally well, so we prioritized: we wanted to store folding bikes inside instead of on an outside rack; having beds that were comfortable was more important than having them ready-made; and we intended to spend as much time as possible seeing Europe and eating in its restaurants, so the permanent dining table, TV and entertainment center came in dead last.

As a result, we use the cabover bed for storing bedding and bikes; we use campgrounds’ showers so Rover’s shower is additional storage space; we have two sofas that fold into a king-sized sleeping area; and we use Born Free’s swivel table for meals.

And when we wish we had TV, we turn on the I-Pod and open a bottle of wine instead.