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Motorhome vs Caravan PDF Printable Version E-mail

Motorhome vs Caravan (with Bicycles)

Subtitle: Isn't Motorhoming much Easier?

Or: 48 Reasons for Travelling with a Caravan!

Barry and Margaret Williamson
December 2012


DSCF3143.JPGWe have been travelling for some 18 years. Three of those years were spent in three separate round-the-world journeys, mixing cycling with the purchase or hiring of motorhomes. Of the 15 years travelling in Europe, the first 12 years were entirely by motorhome, supported by bicycles and, in the early years, a small motorbike.

For the last 3 years we have alternated between a motorhome and a Sprinter van, latterly pulling a caravan, but always carrying bicycles. The pattern was:

Flair Motorhome + Bicycles: Summer & Autumn 2009
Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Baltic Republics, Poland, Slovakia, etc

Sprinter Van + Bicycles: Winter & Spring 2009/10
Italy, Sicily, Malta, Tunisia, Greece, Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia, Croatia, etc

Flair Motorhome + Bicycles: Summer & Autumn 2010
Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Baltic Republics, Poland, Slovakia

Flair Motorhome + Bicycles: Winter 2010 & Spring 2011
Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Switzerland

Sprinter Van + Compass Caravan + Bicycles: Summer & Autumn 2011
Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Germany

Flair Motorhome + Bicycles: Winter 2011 & Spring 2012
France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Greece, Italy, France, Ireland, Wales

Sprinter Van + Bailey Caravan + Bicycles: Summer 2012
Northern England and Scotland

Flair Motorhome + Bicycles: Autumn 2012

Sprinter Van + Bailey Caravan + Bicycles: Winter 2012/13
France, Spain, Portugal (ongoing)

After this varied experience, friends sometimes draw us into the tedious, fruitless and often-biased discussion of motorhome versus caravan: which is better? This debate is pointless unless it begins with defining the purpose of the vehicles. What kind of travelling, if any? UK or mainland Europe? Long-term or short-term? What budget for purchase? What budget for travel? What kind of load, by weight or by volume? How many people travelling? Free camping or campsites? What time of year? Local exploration in depth or continual movement? Physically fit or physically disabled? Old or young? With children? Dogs?

With these questions answered, a sense of purpose emerges. Then it's possible to decide on the kind of equipment that is fit for the purpose. These have been our purposes:

At the beginning of early retirement, we bought a motorhome simply as a home which we could move easily from place to place. We used it as a base in areas that were good for cycling. In those days, 18 years ago, this was an easy and pleasant process. There were few other motorhomers and no distinction was drawn between staying for a while on a suitable campsite and just staying by the roadside for a night or two. The location was all that mattered.

For example, in the period 1995 to 2002, we cycled 70 European mountain passes. The total height climbed was 261,184 ft (79,146 m), an average of 3,731 ft (1131 m) per climb in the French, Italian, Swiss and Austrian Alps; in the Dolomites; in the Pyrenees; and in the mountains of the Greek mainland. For each climb, we had to locate the motorhome at the foot of the climb. We camped in the true meaning of that oft-abused word, as and where we could.

Now, campsites have become 'holiday parks', the roads are crowded and motorhomes swarm around any place identified as suitable for 'free camping'. Many a good place to park for the night has become an Aire or Stellplatz or Sosta, and the authorities in turn put up automatic barriers requiring a credit card to get in (if you carry the right one). Cyclists have been swept off the roads in many countries, or confined to narrow paths shared with pedestrians, roller skaters, the dreaded 'e-bikes', mopeds and dogs.

So we have had to adjust our mode of travel for these new circumstances. Our purpose has changed.

We still need to be able to live on the road, comfortably and with lots of storage capacity (by volume and weight). We have to carry many things with us, while others take only what they need for a short and pre-planned tour or holiday, leaving much else at home. Leaving England on a long journey, how are we to know which clothes, maps, books, favourite food, tools, spares, documents we might need? So we take them all. They may be necessary and, after all, where else would we put them?

To help us decide between a motorhome and a van plus caravan, we found it useful to list Sprint_(31).JPGwhat we found to be appropriate about the latter. We do emphasise 'van' as the tow vehicle, although we find that the majority of caravanners tow with a car or a 4wd vehicle. But then the majority don't go anywhere much, and mostly not for any length of time, and certainly not with a keen interest in cycling (which is not the same as just carrying bicycles). This is what we mean by 'fit for purpose'.

Here is our list, in no particular order, looking at 48 positive features (for our purposes) of using a tow vehicle + caravan to travel with bicycles, with not too much money but with all the time that it takes.


1. Multi-purpose
If the tow vehicle is a van, it gives a multi-purpose extra space (see dimensions below). In addition to storage, our Sprinter is a bicycle shed, a changing room, an emergency sleeping place and a brewing-up site. Not least, it has a set of 24 drawers along one wall, courtesy of B&Q.

2. Long-term Winter Stay (Spain, Portugal, Greece, Sicily)
For a long-term stay in any country, but particularly in the winter favourites, most people choose a motorhome, though the caravan has many advantages. Not the least of these is the freedom given by having a smaller vehicle for local travel without the need to hire one.

3. Storage in UK
It's easier and cheaper to store a caravan in the UK than a motorhome. There is less chance of serious deterioration and the tow vehicle can still be used for other purposes.

4. Storage in France or elsewhere on the Mainland
The caravan can be left on a site in France or another mainland country (friends left theirs in Greece), while the tow vehicle is used to return to the UK. This saves on fuel, ferry fares etc and gives a vehicle for use in the UK. Not least, this is the easiest way to return for an MOT, for a family occasion, for medical reasons or just for a change.

5. Moving Around without having to Pack Up
Once the caravan has been set up as the place to live, it doesn't have to be moved until the next stage of the journey. The empty tow vehicle stands ready to use. A motorhome has to be packed up just to go shopping, carrying everything on board.

6. Dirty Boots and Wet Coats
We can use the Sprinter van to hang wet coats and damp towels to dry, and to keep dirty boots as well as much else. This removes a lot of pressure on the caravan, particularly in muddy or wet conditions.

7. Awning
Although we don't have one, we can see the advantages of a caravan awning, particularly for long stays. It more than doubles the living space and can be used for extra chairs and table, a refrigerator, outdoor boots and clothing, the dog, bicycles etc.

8. Visiting Friends
For all the reasons associated with packing up, narrow roads, parking spaces and small driveways, visiting friends at home or abroad is easier using just the tow vehicle.

9. Keeping Clean
Both a tow vehicle and a caravan are more easily cleaned than a motorhome, inside and outside. This is particularly true of the caravan, which lacks a cab, an engine and a windscreen to gather dirt and condensation.

10. Electric Hook-ups
Leaving the caravan on a campsite while you go out in the tow vehicle means that the caravan stays connected to the mains; the fridge/freezer stay on, the battery remains on charge. On cold days, you can leave a small electrical heater on. For the non-technophobe, a TV programme could be recorded in your absence.

11. Independent Movement
Going out in the motorhome means that everyone goes. With a tow vehicle and a caravan, one or more people could travel in one, or stay in the other. Dad could take the children out while Mum catches up with emails (or vice versa). No need to wait for one another at the dentist, garage or hairdresser, or for everyone to go shopping together.

12. Easier to Drive
Someone accustomed to driving something the size of the tow vehicle may often feel uneasy (to say the least) behind the wheel of a large motorhome. So much so that they don't get behind that wheel! And a second driver who is uneasy towing can, at least, drive the tow vehicle solo.

13. On the Level
Strangely, many campsites don't provide level pitches (flat places to park the caravan or motorhome). They expect their customers to make themselves level. Imagine if this were also true in a hotel, guest house or hostel! Caravans are easily levelled sideways with a ramp or piece of wood under one wheel only; they are even more easily levelled fore and aft with the winding handle on the jockey wheel. They are then locked level with the four legs wound down.

Motorhomes may need driving up ramps under one, two or even three wheels in order to be level overall. They then rely on the hand brake or chocks to stay on the ramp(s).

14. Getting the Gas
Caravans and motorhomes rely equally on bottled gas. Occasionally, a bottle needs to be replaced or refilled, which means finding a supplier of bottles or gas, or perhaps even buying a new bottle and regulator in a foreign country. All more easily done driving round with the empty bottle in a tow vehicle than taking the motorhome!

15. Squatters' Rights
Going out for a time leaving your pitch empty on a busy campsite, you may find it occupied on your return. Motorhomers need to leave a notice, an electrical lead or a table and chairs to denote ownership. Caravanners simply leave their caravan in place, with no need to manoeuvre and reconnect on their return.

16. Carrying the Family
A tow vehicle in use at home will already be fitted with a baby carrier or child-safety seats where necessary. Motorhomes are notorious for inadequate safe seating for extra passengers, even for adults. It is not unknown for sideways-facing seats to have lap belts only, or for motorhomes sleeping 4 or 6 to have only 2 secure belted seats in the cab! Child safety is not a concern of the manufacturer and it may be difficult to make secure after-fit arrangements.

17. Dogs and Other Animals
Dogs and children shouldn't go together, but they do in the matter of in-vehicle safety. This time it's the safety of the driver. In a tow vehicle, the dog can be safely restrained by a barrier, keeping it behind the rear seats. In a motorhome, dogs (and cats) are often seen roaming free while travelling!

18. In an Emergency
The tow vehicle is ever ready to go in any kind of emergency. A quick return to the UK, last minute shopping for a forgotten item, a medical emergency, running someone to or from the bus or train station or airport.

Lower Costs

19. Initial Cost
The initial cost of a van and caravan is much lower than an equivalent motorhome, even if bought new. And very much lower if bought second-hand. Our Sprinter van and Bailey caravan together cost under 10,000. We won't say how much the bicycles cost!

20. Fuel Consumption
Using diesel even when towing, the Sprinter van averages about two-thirds of the consumption of a typical European motorhome. And about a third that of a petrol-engined American motorhome!

21. Ferries
We are inveterate ferry users (35 in 2011 and 6 so far this year) and we have found that a tow vehicle + caravan are almost always charged less than a motorhome. In addition, ferry companies sometimes make special offers, such as 'caravans free on certain sailings', which do not apply to motorhomes.

22. Vignettes and Tolls
These are usually less for a tow vehicle + caravan. Sometimes the caravan is ignored in the calculation, sometimes caravans are in a lower category than motorhomes. The tow vehicle + caravan will usually be under 3.5 tons, while motorhomes above that weight limit pay a greatly increased toll, vignette or 'Go-Box'.

Cynthia Webb, along with Martin a very experienced motorhomer (currently in Sicily) and former caravanner, writes: 'don't travel through Switzerland - you have to buy 2 vignettes, one for the towing vehicle and one for the caravan! Over 3.5 tonne vans buy a carnet of 16 nights (valid for one year) for 22.50.'

23. Cheaper Insurance
Invariably a tow vehicle can be comprehensively insured for less than a motorhome. Vehicle and breakdown insurance usually include a caravan while on the move, for no extra charge. It is not compulsory to take out extra insurance for a caravan but the premiums are low, particularly if security devices are fitted. Our caravan has an internal alarm, a hitch-lock, a wheel clamp, an extra door lock, a lock on one of the wind-down legs and central registration (through CRiS). Many owners of more expensive caravans invest in a tracker device.

24. Warmer
The tow vehicle is easily and efficiently warmed by its own engine and heater. The caravan, having a smaller volume and lacking the loss of heat through the cab windows, windscreen and doors, is easily warmed by no more than one kilowatt of gas or electrical heating, even on the coldest night. In addition, a caravan does not need 'silver screens' inside or out, around the cab, since it doesn't have a cab. All its windows and the door are double glazed.

25. Cooler
In hot weather, the caravan can be cooler. It usually has opening windows on all four sides as well as one large and 2 or 3 smaller opening roof lights. The lack of a hot engine on first arrival also helps!

26. Longer Life
The caravan covers fewer miles than the tow vehicle, and therefore is subject to less wear and tear and road dirt than an equivalent motorhome.


27. Access to Remote Places, Shops and Back Streets
This was an important feature for us. Travelling with a motorhome often left us Sprint_(32).JPGisolated from places we wanted to be. The size of the motorhome meant that narrow and steep tracks, height barriers, parking restrictions and security all created problems. In our early days of travelling, we used a small motorbike to gain access for walking in the hills. Our 16 weeks cycling and walking in Corsica in the summer of 1998 remain long in our memory.

Now, once the caravan is safely set up, the Sprinter van takes us far and wide, with our bicycles, cycling and walking kit safely stowed but easily accessed.

28. Accessing Fuel Pumps and Garages
The height of the canopy, the narrowness of the entrance and the sharpness of turns can often block access to petrol pumps. Increasingly fuel is being sold more cheaply by supermarkets (especially in France and Britain), which means that access is even more limited through a busy car park. Obviously, the tow vehicle can enter the fuel station much more easily on its own. Access for a motorhome to a garage, for service or repairs, can also be limited by a low roof.

29. Height Barriers
Once uncommon, height barriers are now found on many car parks, open-air as well as multi-storey. They are designed to keep commercial vehicles, motorhomes and caravans on the outside but a solo tow vehicle can usually enter.

30. Width
Although only measured in inches, motorhomes are sufficiently wider than caravans for this to be significant on narrow roads and narrow entrances.

31. Flexibility
A tow vehicle + caravan bends in the middle when manoeuvring, something that has advantages over a larger motorhome on corners. It has to be admitted that the caravan needs extra skill when reversing!

32. Parking
Parking with a motorhome or a caravan is never easy, although 'electric movers' make it much easier to manoeuvre a caravan onto a campsite pitch. The caravan can then be set up as living quarters and left safely on site, while the tow vehicle is used to go where parking would otherwise have been difficult or impossible, for either caravan or motorhome.


33. Breakdown
One major advantage of the tow vehicle + caravan is in the, fortunately rare, case of mechanical breakdown. If Bellinzona_(39).JPGthe caravan needs repairs, the tow vehicle remains available for transport: if the vehicle breaks down, the caravan is still available to live in. Meanwhile, important possessions can be transferred, so that they remain safely in your possession.

A normal breakdown truck is more likely to be able to carry a tow vehicle, with the caravan in tow behind the truck, than to lift a motorhome. Not least, a breakdown truck with a motorhome on its back may find low bridges a problem. Our Sprinter van has been rescued twice: once in the snow in Bellinzona in the Swiss Italian Alps at Christmas, and once from Lake Bled into Ljubljana in Slovenia.

34. Spares and Repairs
Caravans tend to be universal in their nature and in the simplicity of any possible repairs. In extremis, the caravan can be left with the repairer and the journey continued in the tow vehicle. The tow vehicle itself is invariably more easily repaired than the more complex motorhome. Spares and repair facilities are likely to be available both locally and universally - our Sprinter van was recently repaired at a small garage in Ballachulish at the foot of Glencoe.

It follows that only a limited number of spares need be carried for the tow vehicle, and a smaller spare wheel and jack are required.

35. Servicing
In addition to repairs, a van and caravan are more easily maintained and serviced, sometimes by the owner/driver. At a garage, any tow vehicle is likely to be a routine job. Not least, a typical garage lift is designed for a car or small van, rather than a motorhome.


36. Safe to Leave
Most robberies from motorhomes take place while the occupants are asleep in what is called 'free camping' or on an Aire (France), Stellplatz (Germany) or Sosta (Italy) or on a motorway service area (anywhere except Britain where the parking fee is prohibitive). Motorhomers don't seem to realise that robbers can also access the many lists and publications giving SatNav co-ordinates to where they are sleeping. Do the robbers have POI's listed as 'Targets for Tonight'?

Caravans rarely stay in such places, preferring the safety and convenience of a regular campsite. Caravanners are, on the whole, more safety conscious, with extra door locks, hitch locks, wheel clamps, leg locks, central registration (through CRiS) and tracking systems.

Exercise and Activities

37. Going out in the Evening
What could be more pleasant than driving into town for a meal in a good restaurant, or to a theatre/concert/cinema, then returning to the warm and comfortable home that is waiting in a quiet campsite field, perhaps on the shores of a river, lake or sea? That is the life of a caravanner, with no worries about driving and parking a motorhome in the town, then returning in the dark to set up on the campsite pitch again or worse, finding that the 'free camping' spot is now full!

38. More Exercise
39 and 40 belowDSCF3132.JPG develop the idea that caravanning itself promotes and often demands more exercise. On arrival, the caravan has to be manoeuvred into place, levelled and the legs lowered. Water has to be fetched, usually 40 litres (= 40 kg) at a time, waste water collected and emptied. Items have to be moved from tow vehicle to caravan; perhaps an awning has to be erected. This procedure is reversed when leaving. However, this routine does not have to be repeated very often, since the tow vehicle can be used for local travel and wider exploration.

In contrast, motorhomers hardly need to leave the motorhome at all. On arrival, they just park and plug into the electricity. On departure, they just disconnect and drive off. Later, they might get out to shop, if they can park. Is this an advantage?

39. Getting to Places to Cycle, Walk, Swim
Of its nature, the tow vehicle can take the caravanner anywhere that is suitable for walking, cycling, swimming, surfing, fishing, boating, rock climbing, photography, painting, bird watching, horse riding, kite-flying, etc. These possibilities are increased if the tow vehicle is a 4wd. Much kit, including bicycles or even a small motorbike, can be safely carried inside if the tow vehicle is a van.

40. Culture and Tourism
The tow vehicle used on its own greatly assists an interest in ancient sites, museums, medieval cities and towns, quaint villages, castles, fortresses, art galleries, theatres, festivals, dances, folk singing, markets, caves, churches, cathedrals, etc.

41. Independent Travel off the Beaten Track
In addition to independent travel with the bicycles, there is also the possibility of independent travel with the tow vehicle, leaving the caravan on-site and staying in rooms or taking a tent. If the tow vehicle is also a van or, better still, a small camper van, this becomes even more useful and attractive for exploring remote places.

42. Access to Bicycles
A small but important point. CarryingIMG_0054.JPG bicycles on an outside rack makes them more vulnerable to theft and to bad weather, even if locked and under a cover. They take time to remove from the rack, and often come off dirty or dusty. They also take time to put back. The rack itself increases the effective length of the motorhome and may require extra lighting.

Inside the Sprinter van, they are held with a single strap, don't need a cover or a lock and are very easily removed and replaced. They are secure, safe and dry. It can be argued that some motorhomes have a 'garage' at the rear, under a bed in which you can hardly sit up. In practice, like many other garages, they tend to fill up with tables and chairs and crates and boots and tools and bottles. Unlike other garages, they place a lot of weight behind the rear wheels of the motorhome, an unfortunate practice in a front-wheel drive vehicle.


43. Driving Licence
A tow vehicle + caravan are likely to weigh less than 3.5 tons in total. The driver need have only a category B driving licence. This obviates the need for a medical every three years when renewing a C driving licence (over 3.5 tons) once the 70th birthday has been celebrated.

44. Insurance
Legally, only the tow vehicle needs insuring and that insurance usually covers the caravan whilst moving. If wished, extra caravan insurance can be taken out as well. In the UK, the caravan carries the same number plate as the tow vehicle and needs no separate registration. We were once pulled over by police in Germany who refused to believe that all this was possible!

Cynthia Webb, along with Martin a very experienced motorhomer (currently in Sicily) and former caravanner, writes: 'Having towed a trailer and a caravan when living in Germany we were pleased that it had to have an annual TUV check (MOT), separate insurance, separate registration - we felt safer and we certainly feel safer following a European (mainland) caravan which we know (hope) is roadworthy. Unfortunately, not all UK caravan/trailer owners are as safety-conscious as yourselves.'

45. MOT
This will be easily available for the tow vehicle in the UK; usually a motorhome requires a specialist garage. Of course, the caravan does not need an MOT and can be left on the mainland of Europe whilst the tow vehicle is taken back for its annual test.

46. Weight
With a total weight of less than 3500 kgBailey_B.JPG (3.5 tons), there are less restrictions for a caravan and tow vehicle on driving through some towns. It also means lower toll charges, higher speed limits and less restrictions on overtaking on some roads in some countries. Larger European motorhomes, with equivalent or less living space, less payload and higher fuel consumption, often stray over the magic 3.5 ton limit.

Cynthia Webb, along with Martin a very experienced motorhomer (currently in Sicily) and former caravanner, writes: 'Disagree re higher speed limits - again, having towed for a number of years in Germany (Europe) ... Martin for 27 years ... many many motorways restrict (a) speed and (b) outer lane usage for towing vehicles with no restriction for under 7.5 tonne vehicles ... having said that, we are aware that over 3.5 tonne vehicles do have a 60 mph limit on dual carriageways in the UK (did you know that a dual carriageway is defined as having a barrier of over 1" between both directional lanes???). We have also been told very recently that there is a 60mph/96kmh speed limit on vehicles over 3.5 tonnes on many European (mainland) motorways. We haven't yet checked this out (in fact we rarely travel at over this speed).'

Finally, Flexibility and Greenness

47. Flexibility
Our main aim has been to achieve more flexibility, compared with the rigidity and one-dimensional nature of the motorhoming way of life. Now we have a good place to live (the caravan) and a vehicle to take us where we will, cheaply and smoothly (the Sprinter), carrying bicycles to the relatively few places where it is still possible to ride safely and at length. In addition, we can leave the caravan behind and use the Sprinter plus rooms for more intimate travel in sensitive places such as Tunisia, Morocco or the Balkan countries. Or we can just use the bicycles plus rooms or tent for longer rides. All of these we have done.

48. Greenness
We can't end without pointing out that a tow vehicle plus caravan are greener than a motorhome in many significant ways. Here are some of them: you can think of others.

a. For those already owning and running a suitable tow vehicle year round, the only extra purchase is a caravan.

b. The caravan has a much lighter build than a motorhome, requiring less materials and fewer construction processes.

c. The caravan is less subject to deterioration.

d. The caravan doesn't need its own engine.

e. The caravan uses less water because it has to be fetched, 40 litres at a time.

f. The caravan uses less gas and electricity because it is better insulated all round.

g. The combination of tow vehicle plus caravan has better fuel consumption figures than a motorhome.

h. There is a tendency for motorhomers to drive more quickly and for longer distances, since there is often nothing better to do.

i. Local and side journeys made by a gas-guzzling motorhome can be made by the tow vehicle alone.

j. Caravans recycle or dispose of all their waste products and rubbish in the appropriate campsite facility, while motorhomers sometimes find this impossible (eg while 'free-camping'). Where do free-campers empty their toilets?

Our Tow Vehicle

A swb Mercedes Sprinter van with the following sizes and weights.

Load Dimensions

Length: 2.6 m or 8.6 ft
Width: 1.8 m or 5.9 ft
Interior Height: 1.65 m or 5.4 ft

Area: 4.4 sq m or 48 sq ft
Volume: 7.5 cu m or 268 cu ft


Kerb weight: 2,050 kg
Payload: 1,400 kg
Roof Load: 300 kg

Towing Capacity Unbraked: 750 kg
Towing Capacity Braked: 2,000 kg

Combined Pay Load of the Sprinter + Caravan = 1,600 kg = 1.6 tons