Van Camping: Who Needs a Hotel? Well . . .

[Map: Camping along Italy's Amalfi Coast]
By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 6, 2008

The GPS device I've been calling "The Lady" keeps directing us in a confident, strident voice: "Turn left in 10 meters. Turn left now." But any left turn off this dirt road somewhere outside the ruins of Pompeii would put us through a ditch, a fence and into a greenhouse. Even through the darkness and pouring rain, we can see that much.

The extent to which we've become lost in a strange and deserted agricultural area has clearly confused The Lady, but she refuses to just admit it and shut up.

This is one of the many both high and low points of our camping trip by van from Rome to Amalfi. A high point because we see the absurdity of our condition well enough to laugh hilariously; we are having an adventure. A low point because we're tired and hungry, and we've already been lost enough times on this trip to know that our destination isn't necessarily going to become clear any time soon.

On what was planned as a four-night camping tour of the famed Amalfi Coast, we travel singularly beautiful mountain roads that overlook a coastline widely considered the most stunning in Europe, if not the world. We stop in fairy-tale towns where houses painted in bright pastels cling to cliffs towering over a brilliant blue sea. We marvel at ancient ruins and visit cathedrals gilded in gold. We pass terraced orchards heavy with lemons the size of grapefruits, part of the scenery that has inspired writers from Robert Browning to Ernest Hemingway and Gore Vidal.

We also spend a night parked along a busy road, trying to ignore the barks and howls of packs of stray dogs. Just as they go silent and we think we might grab a little sleep, the roosters begin to crow. That was before the time we ran out of gas, but after the time we became trapped behind the automatic gate because the machine at a highway toll gate refused to take my ticket and the attendant refused to answer the help bell in person but kept yelling through an intercom, in Italian, in an increasingly angry voice. (Eventually the machine sucked in my credit card and popped out what seems to be a fine of nearly $100.)

This trip with my teenage daughter and her friend was planned as both an adventure and a relatively inexpensive way to see some of Europe. A budget alternative on the Continent has never been more compelling, given the current exchange rate of about $1.60 per euro.

In the end, the trip was most definitely an adventure. A budget alternative, not so much. And that's before I had to pay for smashing the van into a tree.

Great Expectations

The combined mode of transportation/lodging is increasingly popular with Americans traveling to Europe and is a major trend for Europeans visiting America, according to Kevin Broom of the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association.

At, a motor home that sleeps six goes for as little as $142 a day for a week-long rental in Italy in June and July, including 60 miles a day. Vans, which sleep four, are more scarce, but the site connected us with Van Italy. In summer months, vans rent for $150 a night, with unlimited mileage. A campsite for four could cost an additional $40 a night.

By comparison, the average price for a room for just two in Italy is $202 a night, with rates higher in major cities and tourist attractions, according to Smith Travel Research, a firm that tracks lodging data. And without a van or RV, you'll of course need ground transportation. Renting a car will probably cost close to $100 a day this summer, which puts the daily travel and lodging expenses for a family of four up to $504, not including fuel.

Camping can also put a dent in food expenses. I figured we'd prepare at least a few meals in our little van kitchen, which included a refrigerator, burners and sink. As it turned out, we were in a campsite only one out of four nights, so that didn't work out for us. Instead, we reluctantly paid huge amounts of money for restaurant meals.

Take, for example, our dinner in Rome. My daughter had a bowl of soup in an ordinary neighborhood restaurant, her friend had a salad and I had an entree; we ordered no drinks except a shared bottle of water, no appetizers, no dessert. The bill: $79, including a $14 charge for the bread that automatically arrived on the table.

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