By Rick Steves
Camping, like hosteling, is a great way to meet Europeans. But although camping is the middle-class European family way to travel — and can be the cheapest way to see Europe — relatively few Americans take advantage of Europe's 10,000-plus campgrounds. Those who do camp in Europe give it rave reviews.
"Camping" is the international word for campground. In the US, we think of campgrounds as being picturesque outposts near a lake or forest. By contrast, European campings are often located on the outskirts of an urban center and can range from functional (like park-and-rides) to vacation extravaganzas, with restaurants and mini water-parks. In general, European campgrounds are less private than the American version and forbid open fires. But they rarely fill up, and if they do, the "Full" sign usually refers to motorhomes and trailers. A small tent can almost always be squeezed in somewhere.
Campgrounds generally mirror their surroundings: If the region is overcrowded, dusty, dirty, unkempt, and chaotic, you're unlikely to find an oasis behind the campground's gates. A sleepy Austrian valley will probably offer a sleepy Austrian campground. "Weekend campings" are rented out on a yearly basis to local urbanites. Too often, weekend sites are full or don't allow what they call "stop-and-go" campers (you). Camping guidebooks indicate which places are the "weekend" types.
Prices: Prices vary according to facilities and style — sometimes it's by the tent, the person, or the vehicle. Expect to spend $10–12 per night per person.
Registration and Regulations: Camp registration is easy. As with most hotels, you show your passport, fill out a short form, and learn the rules. Quiet is enforced beginning at 10:00 or 11:00 p.m., and checkout time is usually noon. English is the second language of campings throughout Europe, and most managers will understand the monoglot American.
Services: There's usually space to pitch a tent or park a camper van, motorhome, or trailer (caravan). Most campgrounds have laundry facilities and great showers with metered hot water — carry coins and scrub quickly. Larger campgrounds may have a grocery store and café (a likely camp hangout with an easygoing European social scene).
Equipment: You can bring your gear with you — or buy it when you get there. Tents, sleeping bags, and cooking supplies are cheaper at large European superstores (found in Britain, France, Germany, and Spain) than at specialty backpacking stores. European campers prefer a very lightweight "three-season" sleeping bag and a closed-cell sleeping pad. I'd start without a stove, keeping meals simple by picnicking and enjoying food and fun in the campground café. You can always buy a stove later.
Safety: Campgrounds, unlike hostels, are remarkably theft-free. They are full of basically honest, middle-class European families, and someone's at the gate all day. Most people just leave their gear in their vans or zipped inside their tents.
Kids: A family can sleep in a tent, van, or motorhome a lot cheaper than in a hotel. Camping offers plenty to occupy children's attention, namely playgrounds that come fully equipped with European kids. As your kids make friends, your campground social circle widens. Campgrounds are filled with Europeans in the mood to toss a Frisbee with a new American friend (bring a nylon "Woosh" Frisbee).
Tent Camping: Tent-and-train can be a money-saving combination, though it can be challenging to connect the train station and the campground. In some cases, buses shuttle campers from train station to campground. Tents and bikes are an even cheaper way to go, if you don't mind the weight. Bikers enjoy the same we-can-squeeze-one-more-in status as hikers and are very rarely turned away. Camping by car is my favorite combination. A car carries all your gear and gets you to any campground quickly and easily. In big cities, the money you save on parking alone will pay for your campsite (leave your car at the campground and take the bus downtown).
RV Camping: David Shore, author of Europe by Van and Motorhome, gives consults on finding and renting the right camper vehicle. Each country has companies specializing in camper van and motorhome rentals. Look for one with a pick-up and drop-off location that makes sense for your itinerary. For example, Origin Campervans is centrally located in Lille, France. McRent has 43 rental depots across Germany. London-based Wild Horizon can meet you at any airport in the UK.
Turn-Key Camping: Some services offer virtually turn-key camping, renting sites already set up for you with a tent, trailer, or mobile home outfitted with linens and kitchen gear. Two British companies are a good place to start: Eurocamp and Canvas Holidays contract with campgrounds across continental Europe.
Free Camping: Low-profile, pitch-the-tent-after-dark-and-move-on-first-thing-in-the-morning free camping is usually allowed even in countries where it is technically illegal. Use common sense, and don't pitch your tent in carefully controlled areas such as cities and resorts. It's a good idea to ask permission when possible. Never leave your gear and tent unattended without the gates of a formal campground to discourage thieves. With a camper van or motorhome, no stealthiness is required — you can sleep overnight in any legal parking space.