Saturday, 22 September 2012

Camping in on the cheap ?

It was time for a holiday, the first real one we'd had since a package to Turkey in 2008, although admittedly we did spend around a week very early this year driving to a few cities in Northern Europe.  

Although I get  to travel around the world occasionally with work assignments, and even take my wife on some of them, they don't usually allow too much time for sightseeing and just general chilling-out.

It's many years since I'd been to the warmer parts of Europe, and my wife had never been at all.  A timely lull in foreseeable work commitments coincided with the end of the mad August rush on the French Riviera, and so two or three weeks away in September was the plan. 

The initial intention was to just drive around and stop wherever we fancied, generally in the cheaper hotels and B&Bs, but if the weather was fine then we'd fit in a bit of camping instead. 

The last time I was in a tent was around 30 years ago, so it was also a bit of an adventure although it meant having to buy all the basic equipment.  However, we reasoned that even if we only spent three nights camping then we'd recover the costs and we'd also have the equipment for use again in the future.  Some of the stuff can also be used around the home.

These equipment costs are summarised here, all including the delivery costs for the eBay purchases :-

  • £80     4-person 'Quechua' pop-up tent, new from eBay
  • £18     single ring stove plus 8 gas canisters, new from eBay
  • £14     double air bed, new from eBay
  • £14     double sleeping bag, old stock but brand new from eBay
  • £7       folding table, new from B&M
  • £5       camping kettle, new from eBay
  • £4       air pump, new from the local Tesco
  • £4       2 x air pillows, new from eBay
  • £3       24 litre coolbox, new from Wilkinson's (with 75% off in a sale)
  • £3       LED lamp, new from eBay

Total for the basic camping stuff was therefore £152.   A two-person pop-up tent would have been less than half the cost of the one we bought, but they seemed very small, and extra space to move around in is always useful.

Note also that everything listed above was bought new.  If I'd had more time to plan, then we'd have shopped around the eBay auction offers first, at least for the tent which is the one true high-cost item on the list.  As it was, I'd ordered all the eBay items just eleven days before we intended to travel, and on the day before I went on a business trip to the middle-east for a week.   Luckily, all items arrived during the week I was away, even with the Monday of that week being a bank holiday.

Everyday kitchen items like pots & pans, cutlery and crockery etc were simply borrowed from home for the duration.  There's plenty of space in the car to take whatever we wanted, and therefore no need to splash out on anything new when it's not necessary.

The fishing rods and tackle were retrieved from the shed and readied for action.   Reels were cleaned and new line fitted, which I'd had stored in the tackle box since the time of a work assignment in Canada several years ago.   The last thing you need on a fishing trip is losing your first big bite through a snapped old line....  We packed the tackle box with feathers and lures we bought as a job-lot on eBay a couple of years ago, for our occasional bouts of mackerel fishing in the North Sea.

On the trip, we were planning on sea-fishing from the shore only, which is free in France and Italy, but not in Spain I believe.   River and lake fishing generally costs money for licences everywhere.

I dug-out an old 300W 12v DC – 240v AC inverter and made a set of cables with a car-lighter plug at the end, to keep the laptop and mobile phone charged en-route and also various batteries for the cameras and lamps.  It would also power the wife's travel hairdryer if there's none provided in the shower rooms at the campsites....

I put the three rear seats back in the car.  They're usually kept in the shed for a few reasons:-

  • there's only the two of us and so the front seats are usually all we need
  • they're easy to refit if we should need additional seating capacity on occasions
  • they're quite heavy and therefore we must be using more fuel to carry them around unnecessarily
  • the load-carrying space in the car is very large without the seats, like a small panel van, ideal for trips to collect building materials and such
However, the downside of removing the rear seats is that anything kept in the back is clearly visible, which is not usually a problem for us on local everyday trips, but when taking a car on holiday (and especially when camping) it becomes a repository for all things valuable such as laptops, cameras etc and so the rear seats and parcel shelf are a must to keep things out of sight.

The outbound ferry crossing was prebooked just 3 days in advance, on the day I returned from my business trip; £240 to take wife, self and car from Hull to Zeebrugge and including a nights' worth of cabin accommodation, evening meals and breakfasts.   No return crossing was booked since we didn't know how exactly how long we'd be away.

The neighbours had volunteered to feed and water the rabbits while we were away and so, armed with 1,000 euros in cash and the credit cards, we set off.....

Day 1 – Ferry Crossing

Not much to report, drove to the ferry terminal and crossed overnight from Hull to Zeebrugge.

Day 2 – near Dieppe, France

Followed the coast and found a small village (Quiberville) not far from Dieppe.  Although there was a campsite there, we stayed in a hotel because it was windy and quite cool.   The hotel was OK but the food was quite poor.


Days 3 & 4 –  Fouras, France

Our first foray into camping.  Nice campsite by the sea.  Pop-up tent very easy to erect but it's a bit of a knack to take down again...

Days 5, 6, 7 & 8 – Biarritz, France

Drove further down the Atlantic coast.

We had an unintentionally prolonged stay in Biarritz after the car was immobilised with a broken front suspension spring.  We had to abandon the car and take a taxi to a nearby campsite. 

Of course, this would have to happen on a Saturday afternoon and therefore it was Monday morning before I could get a tow-truck to take the car to a local garage.  Expensive repair, more than three times the cost of doing it myself if it had happened near home...

However, we hired a 125cc motor scooter for a few days so we could still get around.

The campsite was full and we were lucky to get the very last pitch, but unfortunately it was an exposed spot with no shade from the very hot afternoon sun.

our very exposed pitch at the Biarritz campsite

Days 9 & 10 – Antibes, France

Very long trip across southern France from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.  Not a bad campsite on the coast, but separated from the beach by the railway line. 

Days 11 & 12 – Monaco

Expensive couple of days in terms of hotels and restaurants, but we got to meet up with a client of mine who lives out there and we had the added bonus of an afternoon trip out into the Mediterranean on his 40-foot sailing cruiser.  We stayed in Beausoleil, adjacent to Monaco but actually in France.

onboard the yacht

Days 13 & 14 – Cecina, Italy

Drove into Italy and followed the coast down to Cecina, not far from Livorno.  Stopped for a few hours in Pisa en-route.

the typical tourist's photo of the leaning tower...
Two more nights camping, nice site but a stony beach next door to a new marina under construction.

Day 15 – Fusina, near Venice

Drove across Italy to the Adriatic, via some very tight and twisty roads through the mountain passes. 

Very expensive tank of diesel in Italy, even more than in the UK.

Arrived at the campsite mid-afternoon, set up the tent and then took the boat across the lagoon into Venice.  I've been to Venice many times before – I was a resident engineer at Porto Marghera on a project in the nineties – but it was the first time for my wife.

the Rialto bridge at dusk

Having seen enough, we decided that night to head home the next day and give ourselves the weekend to recover from the holiday...

Day 16 – Bourg-en-Bresse, France

Very long day driving across Italy and we crossed into France at the Frejus tunnel.    Spent the night in a budget hotel.

on the road towards the Frejus tunnel

Day 17 – Homeward Bound !

An early start with a seven hour drive across France to the Eurotunnel, 220 euros to cross the channel, and then five hours driving in the UK eventually arriving home after 10 pm.  Very long and tiring day....

Spent almost the last of the euros in Calais on a couple of cases of wine for the neighbours, as a thank-you for looking after house and rabbits when we were away.

We also filled up the tank with diesel at a Carrefour supermarket in Calais, at around 80% of the cost of doing it on the other side of the channel.


We were blessed with excellent dry and warm weather throughout with only a heavy thunderstorm during one night in Biarritz.  At least it proved the tent was waterproof.... 

Throughout the trip, I found the camping experience very pleasant, and generally slept really well in the tent.

In the end, the fine weather allowed us to spend 11 nights out of the 16 in the tent at an average cost of less than 20 euros per night, and so the tent definitely paid for itself.

One significant cost of the holiday was for road tolls in France and Italy.  The autoroutes are an absolutely necessary expense if you need to cover large distances in a reasonable time, since the national roads in France and Italy are just too slow to make meaningful progress unless you're prepared to stay on holiday for a month or so.

Total miles clocked up from door-to-door was 3,712 (5,973 kilometres) at an average of 48.7 mpg (5.8 litres per 100 km), quite respectable for an eight year old two-litre turbo diesel.

Cost summary, approximate :-

Ferry crossing outbound,  £ 240
Tunnel crossing inbound,  £ 190
Diesel, £ 450
Hotels, £ 450
Campsites, £ 170
Restaurants, £ 400
Supermarket food & drink, £ 200
Road tolls, £ 150
Total £ 2,250

I haven't included the costs of the tow truck (£80), scooter hire (£100) or the repairs to the car (£390) because that incident could have happened at any time.

So, around £2,250 for 16 nights.  Was it worth it ? 

On balance, it's difficult to say.  We could have had an all-inclusive two weeks in Turkey or somewhere else in southern Europe, flying from a local airport, for around three-quarters of this cost.  Add in a motor scooter hire and the package version would likely still have worked out cheaper, and with none of the long drives necessary on our own grand tour. 

Although simply driving around and stopping wherever you fancy has some added value, we've adequately demonstrated that it's not a cheap holiday, even when camping.

Therefore, it's definitely worth considering a package holiday next time....

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