We are always looking for a cheaper way to travel while not cutting ourselves short on any of the amazing experiences travelling brings. The idea to buy a camper van to take us around the UK and Ireland came to us when someone posted their van for sale on Facebook. While the first outlay of money to actually buy a campervan is a big one, the amount of money saved by not having to pay for accommodation over the months that we’ve had the van has paid itself off easily! Here’s how we went about it.
Buying a van
We were extremely lucky to have some friends living in London while we were looking for a camper van. We stayed with them for 2 weeks while we explored London and spent every night pouring over Gumtree UK until we finally found 2 vans worth a look!
We were looking for an already converted camper van, meaning we wanted a van that was ready to go equip with a bed, cooking facilities and every basic camping need. We ended up buying Esmeralda for a bargain of 2,500 pounds! It helped looking around in August, the end of peak summer holidays in the UK.
Beware of scams!! I shouldn’t have to tell you this but just incase you’re unaware Gumtree is full of idiots who want your money basically. We were looking at a van that seemed perfect to us and were messaging the guy to organise a viewing. It seemed so legit, especially since this van was coming from a garage! It wasn’t until I did a bit of further digging that I found news articles about his scamming and dodgy business and this bloke had used an alias on Gumtree because he has been to jail for fraud! Close call there. Moral of the story is do your research, don’t be afaird to ask lots of questions and meet the person to make sure they are real and give off a good vibe before you hand over any of your money!
A huge tip I will give you to save money is to look for a van well before summer and if you can look for it in August (as the peak season for the UK dies down). The prices will be lower as people try to sell their vans now that the sun is basically going into hibernation!!
Obviously a requirement! Insuring your vehicle in the UK is so expensive (are you surprised?). For us Aussies it was no exception but we did find the easiest and cheapest company for Australians was Down Under Insurance.
It’s not just for Aussies! You can also be from New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, America or even Britain itself. However I’ve only done the research as an Australian citizen. All we did was call, give them our details and we were insured to drive our new home!
Van specs and things to consider
We wanted a van that had a leisure battery (important for charging phones, lighting etc). It wasn’t until we spent a week in the van that we realised how convenient it was to also have a chemical toilet! Another aspect to buying our home on wheels was the size and height. The van we bought was a medium wheel base, not too long making it difficult to park and not to small giving us less room inside. Out of the 2 vans we looked at we chose the taller van. This is another aspect we are glad we gave priority over. While some places e.g. Ireland and some parts of England, have height restrictions, we could actually stand up in our van and it was much less claustrophobic inside.
Layout is so important! When we were looking for vans we found a lot of them typically had the bed going longways down the van and your cooking area and cupboards at the foot of the bed or at the rear of the van (opened to cook). When we saw the van we ended up buying on Gumtree it was really memorable. After looking through pages of vans for sale this one really stood out to us for its unique and workable layout. See photos below!
Workable storage is important to ensure your gear doesn’t get in your way and doesn’t go flying everywhere as you drive! Remember you’re going to be spending a lot of time in the back of your van. Another important aspect is the bed! Make sure it’s comfortable for you and works for your height especially if you’re tall.
MOT (in the UK) is a compulsory annual test for safety and exhaust emissions of motor vehicles of more than a specified age. When we bought our van it still had 8 months until the MOT expired which was perfect as we could still sell her with MOT on her. This is an important aspect to consider if you don’t know a trustworthy mechanic who can give you a good price to do the MOT check. Also if you buy a vehicle without MOT there is a chance it may not pass the test and you could be up for big bucks. There is a website where you can check any vehicles MOT history simply by using the number plate!
Wild camping and parking spots
The term Wild camping I speak about here is finding a free parking spot for your van for the night.
Sometimes a wild camping park is just a carpark of a shopping center that doesn’t have restrictions, other times it’s an beautifully picturesque location on a hillside overlooking the ocean.
The freedom is beautiful but also sometimes frustrating as you have to find somewhere appropriate that:
1. Doesn’t have parking restrictions e.g NO OVERNIGHT PARKING or a height limit if you have a large van
2. Isn’t a DOGGING* location (unless you’re into that type of thing I guess)
*dogging is a term we learnt in the UK for people who pull up in car parks at night looking to watch couples willing to put on a show for them… Yes we accidentally found one and yes it was already too dark and we were too tired to try and find a new spot and yes the constant coming and going of cars with predominately dirty old men in them wasn’t the way we wanted to go to sleep that night.
3. Is a safe place to park. Avoid dark backstreets for obvious reasons or main highways as it could be dangerous and the traffic flying last will definitely keep you up. We always parked under a street light (our van had great black out curtains to avoid any light from this coming in). Also when it comes to scenic parking go for it BUT don’t park so close to the edge of a cliff or something as it is possible for wind to tilt a van no matter how heavy!
We only ever had one occasion where we thought somebody was trying to break in with us inside. I was petrified and Sam was ready to bash the person over the head with our massive torch…luckily he didn’t as it was just a policeman thinking it was a dumped vehicle. He was thoroughly impressed by our little van home when he realized though and he let us get back to our Netflix!
We found so many gorgeous spots on our travels especially along the coast!
Want further advice? Ask us!
Budget and van living costs
Every individual is different but our budget was to find our perfect van for between 2,500-3,000 pound (around 5,000 AUD approx.) We worked this out with our total savings and time we would spend living and travelling in the van. We also considered how much on average we would be spending on hostels a week in the UK and Ireland by averaging hostel prices per week.
While not having to pay for any accommodation will save you so much a van does require petrol and you need food for your fuel! Food and fuel were our biggest costs whilst in the van. Per week we spent £250 on average. This includes occasionally eating out and having a drink! We bought a lot of our own staple foods and anything reduced is obviously always great.
The best supermarket we shopped at for budget prices was definitely LIDL. Sainsbury’s, ALDI and TESCO were regular ones as well and usually we got our petrol at Sainsbury’s or TESCO petrol a little bit away from the motorways as it was usually cheaper.
Here is what a simple day in the life of van life budget looked like for us:
-£40 of fuel
-£12 at TESCO for dinner, breakfast and lunch the next day
-£14 x 2 for an entry ticket to a castle or attraction
We didn’t need fuel every day, probably about 3 times a week with all our driving. We had staple foods in the pantry usually stocked e.g. Oats for breakfast, wraps and salad for lunch and we’d usually buy our dinners either from reduced section or have a can of soup from the pantry! Also we prioritized which things we wanted to see and do. In the UK attractions such as castles and Heritage sites are so expensive whereas in Ireland they’re much more reasonably priced. Most of the time the scenery you get while driving or the spot you pull up for the night is amazing and better yet, it’s free!
Esmerálda took us all over the UK and Ireland!
…to name a few favourites!
I was super sad to sell our wonderful van home. It was a wicked way to see more of a country while not breaking the backpacker budget! Van Life is something we will definitely do again at some point on our future travels.
Check out our van life video we made to help sell our beautiful Esmerálda here!
Are you looking for a camper van? Planning your trip to the UK or Ireland? Give us an email or message us on Facebook we’d love to swap stories or answer any questions you may have about van life!
Sam and Kirsten x