Earlier this year we got an offer from a Dutch friend who was visiting us in Tucson: “Would you like to borrow my Airstream sometime and go camping in Europe?” he asked.
Stefan lives near Amersfoort, just east of Amsterdam, and owns a North America-spec 2016 23D International. Since purchasing it in Canada and shipping it home to Europe he's had the electrical, water, and gas systems adapted to European travel requirements. Plus, the dealer (Can-Am) designed a sweet custom hitch system for his tow vehicle: a Jaguar XJ8.
Did we want to borrow this rig and camp in The Netherlands? Um, yes please. It sounded like an experience we did not want to pass up. I mean, just look at this fine tow vehicle:
Stefan recommended we stay at a campground called Camping Duinpan, near the coast of the North Sea. He suggested it for its proximity to an excellent biking network and the beach, and described it as an “average-type European campground.” That sounded perfect.
After an hour of instruction about his Airstream's essential systems, and a tutorial of his robot "mover" (more on that later) and the European-style hitching system, we set off for the west coast of North Holland. After four adventure-filled days that ranged from nail biting to blissful, here are a few helpful things to know if you're thinking about Airstreaming on the other side of the pond.
1. Learn a bit of lingo
The terms RV and trailer aren’t used in Europe–you’ll be traveling in a caravan. And when you're booking, you’ll get a camping pitch instead of a campsite. If you want full hook-ups, ask for a type of camping pitch that's called comfort. (They aren't as widely available as in North America.)
2. Campground pricing is quite good
Fees are charged on a per person basis, for 2, 3, 4, and 5 persons in a pitch. At Camping Duinpan, low season rates ranged from €30-45 (about the same in dollars when we were there), and peak season rates ranged from €38.5-53.50.
Note too that the campground fee can include a fixed amount of electricity instead of unlimited, as we are used to in the US. In our case, the daily fee included 4 kwH of electricity per day, with each additional kWh consumed charged at €0.95. We used power as we normally do, and since we didn't need air conditioning we did not run into any additional charges.
3. Electrical connections and propane tanks are different
Obviously, Europe has different voltages which means different outlets than those in the U.S. That means you need to bring electrical adapters to plug in mobile devices, laptops, tablets, etc.
We had brought adapter blocks with us already, so this was not an issue for us. Plus, Stefan already had all the appropriate extension cord and dog bone adapters we needed on board–including an adapted North American power cord we could plug into European campground power.
The other electrical connection that's different is the trailer plug. Instead of a 7-way plug, in Europe you'll find a 13-way.
And without getting technical, propane connections are also different, as are the tanks, which don't have a filling valve at the top like US tanks do. If you run out of propane, there's no yanking out a tank and hauling to a propane fill station. The tanks stay put, and you tow the trailer to a filling station.
4. Chuck the chocks; your European Airstream will have a parking brake
Caravan standards require the installation of a parking brake for hilly camping pitches. If our friend's Airstream had been made in Europe it would have come with one. But since he had to adapt a North American model, he had the brake installed, in the front.
Other European safety requirements he added were fog and back up lights on the back of the trailer.
5. Camping pitches and campgrounds are much tighter than in the US
We had already understood this from Stefan and others. But we really didn’t understand just how really, really tight until we got to the campground.
When we arrived, the reception office was closed and the driveway was extremely short (about 20 feet!) at which point our options were: tight right turn or tight left turn. We took a shot and chose to go right.
Since we were unaware of the parking protocol, we asked another camper, who told us that we could simply pull into the campsite we had been assigned when we booked, and register when the office was open. When we realized our site was on the other side of the campground, and we couldn’t easily back up past the reception driveway to get there, the helpful gent pointed toward the back of the campground and said, “it’s okay - you can drive around.”
Sadly, in the stress of the moment we took this as fact and didn't check out the route ourselves. Thus we did not heed Rich’s wise advice to “never believe what other people tell you. Look for yourself to verify.”
As we set off to “go around,” we quickly realized that up ahead was a 90 degree turn at the hedges. There was no backing up at this point so we had to try. And when we did, this happened:
Yup, that’s the Jaguar into the bushes. This little passage was not wide enough for a car alone, much less a car towing an Airstream. And because we had just squeezed through a narrow gap between parked cars and a hedge, we could not back up.
Rich had to unhitch, attach the Airstream to the robotic "mover" you see below, then back up the trailer very slowly about 80 feet before turning it around and re-hitching to tow it in the opposite direction. This being the first time he'd used the little robot mover (affectionately named "Robbie"), it was an amazing feat under extremely stressful conditions, with several well-intentioned but interruptive campers trying to "help."
Which leads me to the next thing you need to know if you decide to trailer camp in Europe: you need a "mover." Because once Rich performed the miraculous turnaround you see above, this is what we were faced at our camping pitch on the other side of the campground:
We needed to tow the Airstream into this tight area by turning a tight right corner between those two hedges, unhitching, and using the robotic mover, get the Airstream in between the two large seasonal campers you see flanking the trailer.
Thus, we strongly recommend the following:
6. A “mover” is a necessity if you plan to Airstream in Europe
"Robbie" saved the day and without him we would have never gotten into that spot in the hedges.
Many European caravans — including European-made Airstreams — have permanently installed movers built-in, under the wheels. Alternatively, the lighter-weight caravans have a dolly wheel on the front, with grab rail that allows you to manually maneuver them. Either way, you need something that will allow you to manually get your trailer into the camping pitch.
Granted, after the harrowing events described above were over, we learned that Camping Duinpan is a bit tighter than most campgrounds. But no matter where you go in Europe, you're going to find much smaller than you are used to campgrounds. And pull through sites are pretty much non-existent.
7. Dumping is a bit different
We were lucky: our camping pitch had a drainage (their term for sewer) hole. Many European campgrounds don't have one in the camping pitch – which is why most European-spec Airstreams and caravans have a toilet cassette: a removable cartridge that collects waste and pulls out from the side of the trailer. You then roll it like a carry-on suitcase over to a dumping station. There is no spillage and no smell. (Well, until you dump it.)
The dump stations too are quite different than those in the US, which drain using gravity. In a German campground Rich visited years ago, the dump station was a little concrete building that required campers to roll their toilet cassette up over a threshold and dump the contents into a large hole.
In our pitch at Camping Duinpan, the drainage hole was much smaller than those we have in the US. So the wastewater hose that hooked into the Airstream was about the diameter of a large garden hose. We used a macerator pump that chewed up the chunks of waste and pushed the poo through the smaller hose. Our friend also upgraded his system with a water spray system that cleaned things out quite nicely.
Overall, our European camping experience was very enjoyable. After the stress of the first day, we settled into our typical routine of making coffee early, watching the light come into the big front windows of the trailer, and exploring the surrounding area. A 17 mile bike ride up through wooded paths and along the North Sea was a highpoint. We also took the train into Amsterdam twice, to visit the Van Gogh Museum and the Royal Palace, as well as take an early evening canal tour.
By the way, Europeans who want to get into Airstreaming don't have to import a trailer from North America and go through the hassle of modifying all the systems. They can buy ready-to-go EU caravans from dealers in Germany, the UK, and Italy. They're a bit lighter and narrower than the North America versions, among other adaptations.
Airstreaming in Europe is an entirely new angle for someone who's done a lot of North American travel. We'd recommend it, as long as you know what you're getting into. Just be aware of the differences, and be prepared to get a lot of attention—there aren't many Airstreams in Europe and people will drop by your campsite just to take a photo and get a peek inside!