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Family friendly travel: An expedition by camper van

I’ve come across a surprising number of parents scarred by horror stories of traveling with kids. Even the most adventurous of parents, once kids arrive, start to hunker down, straying only as far as they can drive, often with a nanny in tow, frequently trying to sing the praises of "stay-cations" or any other excuse to stay put while everyone else is traveling.

As a parent, I can sympathize. Packing sufficient diapers, hauling more luggage for a single night out than we had brought with us for an entire year of backpacking, having to visit yet another pizza and burger joint rather than a restaurant with glorious cuisine as that’s all the kids will eat… it’s enough to make all but the "Vrai Routard" stay at home.

It would be very easy, not to mention enjoyable, to write a scathing rant about the woes of traveling with kids. With three young kids, and lacking the sense to stay put when vacation time comes around, I’ve got plenty of war wounds to show for my efforts.

But this is a different sort of article. It’s an article about solutions, and one particular solution in particular–the glory of a holiday by camper van.  

If you’re like me, the concept of a camper van holiday may seem shockingly implausible. My strongest association with camper vans is my imaginary great aunt Thelma heading south to escape the icy winter in some poor blighted northern hemisphere landscape, packing Sidney Sheldon novels and stopping by NASCAR events on the way.  

But here’s another way to think of it, one regularly provided by my seven-year-old daughter Hannah who’s been lobbying for a camper van trip for some time now–it’s like being a turtle. Instead of having to choose a new home every night, or always come back to the same home, it’s like having your home on your back, traveling with you wherever you go.    

Camper vanning solves some of the most pressing problems of traveling with kids. We recently completed nearly a week around Germany by camper van, and I hauled nearly no bags. And, as any traveling father will attest–and it’s most often fathers who get stuck hauling baby beds and overflowing diaper bags up to that fourth floor pensione that looked so charming when it was booked online–this is a welcome, not to mention back-saving, relief. Instead, all our gear was with us, ready to be pulled out of the van’s incredibly organized drawer system at a moment’s notice.  

Likewise, with your home attached, camper vanning solves the pressing problem of where to stay. As any family will attest, arriving in a new city, without reservations, with a pack of weary kids in tow, is a challenge often bordering on disaster. With weary travelers alongside you, the compulsion to choose the first place you come across, which invariably turns out to be a dive, is simply too great. With a camper van, there is no question about how you will chose where to stay, only where to park your home. And if you’re rambling around Europe, there is no shortage of pleasant and well-situated campsites. In nearly a week of traveling around Germany, however, we never once stayed in even one of these. Rather, we stayed right in the middle of glorious cities; our traveling home allowed us to be in the center of it all.  

There is no good way to travel with kids. By car they can whine endlessly “are we there yet?” Flying isn’t much better, especially in Europe where kids are expected to be well disciplined and orderly, and most especially in Germany where apparently much of society still buys into the concept that kids should be seen but not heard. Trains are more promising, apart from when the departure time coincides with nap time, or things happen to get crowded.  

Camper vanning solves all of this. In fact, the journey becomes part of the fun. Our kids never wanted to arrive, they simply wanted to travel. Being able to sit around a table coloring, napping, playing Boggle, drawing or having lunch as Germany’s scenic river valleys flowed past the windows proved a great hit.  

The logistics of traveling are also much more manageable when your home travels with you. Hungry? Hit the kitchen. Need the potty? Well, without giving too many details, this is easy too. There’s no more running out of charge on iPods or computer games. It also turns out to be surprisingly affordable. Our recent camper van cost 70 Euros a day. Factor in both car rental and a hotel room or two, and it suddenly becomes a significant bargain.

This past Eid we picked up a camper van in Wiesbaden, wandered peacefully up and down the Rhine and Moselle river valleys, popped for an evening into Luxembourg, meandered over to the university town of Heidelberg, before making our way back to Wiesbaden. The camper van made all of this simple. The kids never slept better. The van needed no special license and was easy to drive. We only needed to take on water and empty out certain other receptacles that need no further detailing once, which was easy to figure out given the plethora of campsites we passed.  

Once, entering Heidelberg, we passed road works, and traffic stopped interminably. Tempers rose to boiling point in all the cars around us. We simply pulled off to the side of the road, which happened to be next to an elegant palace with a glorious garden, made lunch, finished naps, ran around in the garden outside, and climbed back in once traffic cleared, rested and ready, unlike our frenzied neighbors on the road.

It must be said that all of this happened in Europe, more specifically in Germany, where things are highly organized, and camper van routes are well organized. The whole experiment could be a lot less fun if driving conditions become chaotic, if appropriate facilities are difficult to find, and if other drivers on the road are intolerant of slightly cumbersome bedrooms on wheels. To summarize, I can’t imagine trying such a holiday in Egypt.  

But if traveling with kids has you weary, if you’re looking for a way to shock even the most jaded of traveling children into delirious pleasure, and even have a good time traveling yourself, then the camper van holiday could be just what is required.  

Details: Depending on the season, camper vans can rent for between €60-120 daily, ranging from simple cozy wagons for two to upscale palaces for the entire family. Larger vans may require a special license. This is usually inclusive of insurance, exclusive of linens, service and final cleaning. Any Google search will give you a range of options for your intended country, and a good place to start is a country’s Automobile Association. Try for some ideas. Inexpensive campsites can be found along nearly any route: try for a list.  

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