There are lots of different types of what I will call camper stops, falling into three broad categories: campsites; aires; and wild camping.
Campsites are usually privately owned, and offer pitches big enough to accommodate the van with room to extend the awning and set out tables and chairs. The pitch will have an electrical hook up point, and if it doesn’t have a dedicated water supply then there will be a shared tap nearby. The site will have one or more service bays to dump grey waste (sinks, shower) and black waste (toilet). There will be a shower block, an area to wash dishes and, if you’re lucky, a laundry room with one or more washing machines and tumble dryers (which you invariably have to pay for). Some of the larger sites, especially in southern Europe, will have a swimming pool along with bar and restaurant facilities. The cost will reflect the services and facilities available, and will be higher in the peak season. Many campsites participate in the ACSI scheme, offering discounted rates to ACSI members of between €11 and €19 per night out of season. Campsites are generally quite secure, more often than not having an entrance barrier and CCTV.
Aires are places where overnight parking in a motorhome is permitted. These can be exclusively for motorhomes, or motorhome spaces in a shared car park. They’re typically municipally owned and may have a service point offering fresh water and facilities to dump grey and black waste (some are parking only with no other facilities at all). Electrical hook up is sometimes available as well. Camping behaviour isn’t allowed, strictly speaking, but people do tend to get chairs out on a nice day if the aire isn’t busy. Some aires charge and others don’t. Payment can be by machine, but in some aires an attendant will do the rounds to collect money, or alternatively you have to go and pay at the local tourist or council office. The services often only work when using tokens purchased from the tourist/council office. Not all countries have aires, but they are very common in France, Spain and Portugal, as well as Germany (where it’s called a stellplatz) and Italy (a sosta).
Wild camping, as the name suggests, refers to parking up for the night somewhere other than a camp site or aire, where overnight parking isn’t expressly forbidden. This can be almost anywhere – on a street in a residential area, in a car park or down a country lane in the middle of nowhere. Wild camping is obviously attractive because it’s free, though this does seem to be abused in the southern Mediterranean when large numbers of people wild camp on the seafront, often to the annoyance of the local residents. In some countries such as Croatia, it is illegal to wild camp, with a hefty fine to pay if caught.
Our preference is to stay on low cost or free aires when we can, and to use camp sites in low season with our ACSI card, when we’re staying in a large city or when we need to do the laundry. We’ve not needed to wild camp very often, though that will most likely change as we travel through Greece, where camper stops are few and far between out of season.
There are lots of things to consider when choosing an aire. First of all, it has to feel safe. We have a rule that if either of us is unhappy, then we move on. Then the services must be working – we’ve moved on a number of times when there has been no water, or the waste facilities were out of action. We’re also wary of aires which are located next to a community or sports centre, particularly on a Friday or Saturday evening – it’s not much fun trying to get to sleep when there’s a party in full swing.
There are two great apps/websites that we use which between them list pretty much every camper stop in Europe: campercontact.com and searchforsites.co.uk These provide details of the aire, often with photos and reviews, so most of the time we have a good idea what to expect.
Once we’re happy that the aire feels safe, we’ll then park up. The most important thing is that the van is level, so that our feet aren’t above our heads when sleeping (otherwise we’d wake up with thumping headaches). I keep a small spirit level in the cab to check, and if there’s an incline then we can get the levelling ramps out. If the weather isn’t good then we try to park on a tarmac or gravel surface, but sometimes grass is the only choice, when it’s a case of parking in the least muddy/boggy space. We always check out the lighting as well, as some aires will be floodlit bright enough to light up the inside of the van even with all the blinds drawn. We generally avoid parking directly beneath a street lamp for the same reason. If we want to watch TV (not often, mainly Tour de France) then the line of sight of the satellite dish must not be obstructed by trees. In the height of summer it’s a good idea to park with the fridge side of the van in the shade, so that the fridge doesn’t have to work overtime to keep itself cool. And then there’s the view to consider.