Aires vs Campsites - Finding a Middle Ground

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Sunday 11 January 2015

Aires vs Campsites - Finding a Middle Ground

As we're travelling for an extended period of time rather than for a shorter holiday some things from home have needed to come with us, including a budget and regular review of our spending.  In our planned monthly budget, after food and motorhome overheads, overnight parking and campsite costs are our third biggest costs. Therefore the issue of where we stay at night is one we spent some time researching before setting off and continually think about whilst we're on the road. As we've been reflecting on the benefits of campsites in the last couple of days, because campsite life comes at a cost, our thoughts have also turned to all the wonderful places we've stayed for free or at very low cost. Many of the motorhomers we have met on our tour have strong opinions on where to stay at night.  For us, we don't think there is a 'right' way of doing it and feel we are finding a middle ground that works for us - balancing cost, convenience and fun.

So far on our trip we have met many different motorhomers, some of whom have been travelling in their motorhome for many years.  We are always eager to learn from their experiences and are interested to learn how they travel. One issue that always comes up is where they prefer to stay overnight.  For some people we've met, finding a place to stay overnight for free is imperative and has become like a game. They actively choose their route based on where the free aires or wild camping areas are and if they arrive to find a parking charge, they move on.  Other people we've met have been the exact opposite. They must stay at a paid campsite believing it is the only way to guarantee security and sleep soundly at night. Obviously these two opinions sit at either end of a continuum and many factors will determine where someone's own way of travelling sits on this scale (e.g. budget, extent of motorhome security, personal preference and confidence, location of travel).

Personally we sit somewhere in between and wanted to share our own thoughts about the middle ground we are shaping out for ourselves during this trip. After moving into our motorhome more than 8 months ago now we've stayed on lots of aires (official and unofficial) plus a dozen or so campsites as well.

Different people tend to have different perceptions of what a 'motorhome aire' is and we've written a little more about what we mean by an aire and how we choose them.  In addition to reflecting on our best and worst bits of campsite life, we also plan to write some more notes about how we've saved money on campsites using out of season discounts, membership cards and long-stay deals as so many people we've met still haven't heard of these schemes and often these deals and benefits bring the cost of campsites in line with some aires (some aires can even be more expensive than nearby campsites offering deals).  However, in terms of a general comparison between campsites and aires, our thoughts are.....

Summary of Benefits of Staying on a Campsite
Compared to living on an aire, to us a campsite means space and luxury. We find that when we check into a campsite we immediately feel able to spread out more and relax into our space, compared to staying on aires when we always try and keep the motorhome ready to roll.  For example, we don't have to pack our juicer away after every time we use it, we can leave it on the side. We don't have to do our washing up in the motorhome, we can do it at the campsite sinks and we don't need to shower in our motorhome (and wipe up any standing water afterwards), we can use the campsite facilities provided.  Also, if the weather is fine we can extend our awning and sit in our deckchairs without occupying another parking space (and which is often not allowed on aires).

Most campsites also offer extra facilities that aren't often provided with aires such as WiFi internet, sell local produce and laundry services which can save time and energy if you just want to relax around the motorhome. Some even have luxuries like gyms and pools which makes it feel even more like a holiday (at some you may have to pay extra for the privilege of using these extras, but often out of season they are included in the pitch fee).  Campsites have also saved us time by highlighting local attractions, excursions, market days, hikes, rides etc and we've benefited from some discounts offered at local attractions (for example, reduced entrance to Parc de la Prehistoric in Tarascon-sur-Ariege when we stayed at Camping Le Sedour)

In terms of security we do feel more relaxed on campsites. Generally speaking there are more other campers in their own motorhomes or moving around the campsite which gives us a feeling of safety in numbers. Some also have a security guard and entry/exit barriers too. That said, thinking about it logically, it is also easy to see how a criminal might simply walk into a campsite and target motorhomes with windows left open or with valuables on display, so we always lock our doors, close our windows and either hide or take valuables with us, even if we are only going for a shower.  As with most motorhome security, the majority of staying safe is common sense and vigilance, no matter where you are staying.

Click here for our reflection on the best and worst bits of campsite life.

Motorhome Aires – our experiences so far .......
We've written a longer post about what a motorhome aire means to us and how we assess them, but I'll summarise our thoughts a little here as well. To us a motorhome aire is a dedicated motorhome parking area provided and maintained by a village, town or city. Usually (but not always) they include a facility to empty cassette toilets and grey water and often also have drinking water too. However, services are not always free and any one or all of these services might also be charged. If electricity hookups are available that is almost always extra.

The reality of most aires is that you're essentially living in a car park. The parking bays are usually a little bigger and sometimes it is part of a larger car park for cars as well, but you have one allocated parking bay that is your space. Often this means your next door neighbours are pretty close. The area surrounding the parking bays varies wildly from place to place. Sometimes it's a remote rural area, other times you're in a crowded city (often at train stations, cemeteries or sport centers)

The benefits of staying at aires is primarily cost saving (although some aires are actually more expensive than campsites in popular areas, e.g. the Barcelona aire is 30 euros per night, whereas the nearby campsite with more comforts is 16 euros and the train or bus straight to the centre 4 euros return!). In return for having no extra services you can spend the night for free or for just a few euros in thousands of places throughout Europe.  However, the downsides are that we sometimes feel less able to relax and leave the motorhome while we go exploring. You have to make your own judgement of an area, but the lack of any sort of reception or third party security makes aire living very much at your own risk.  That of course it will depend on the surrounding area i.e. we feel very differently on an aire in the middle or outskirts of a big city compared to on an aire in the high mountains.

That said, we've spent almost three quarters of our nights on motorhome aires and have been having a wonderful time. This was especially true in high season when we spent almost 2 months straight on aires while campsite charges were especially high.  And on our tour there have often times been places that we have wanted to visit but where there has not been a nearby or open campsite at the time of year we have visited so we have found some amazing aires or authorised free places to stay with brilliant views and access to the mountains trails right from our motorhome door.

Finding the Middle Ground
Unlike some motorhomers that we've met we don't commit to either always staying on motorhome aires or campsites, but do have some general rules we try and follow to balance comfort, feeling secure, what's on offer and our budget.

No Fixed Itinerary
As we don't have a fixed itinerary or list of places we want to visit we do have some more flexibility as we are rarely forced to stay somewhere because it's all that's available. When we are planning where to head to next we always get out our camping and aire guides to assess if there is anywhere we'd like to stay. If there no good aires or all the campsites are too expensive or closed we'll probably just head somewhere else.

Even Minor Savings Add Up
If an area we've decided to head towards has a choice between both aires and campsites we almost always try the aires first. Even if the aire is still a small fee we work on the principle that even minor savings over a long period add up to a large amount (e.g. near Valencia the aire costs us 10 euros per night compared to a camping for 16 euros a mile away, but over 3 nights that's more than an extra night of camping paid for). However, if we don't get a good feeling at the aire (or aires) we try first then we'll head to a campsite.  But the most we are willing to pay for a night of camping is 16 euros which is the second highest ACSI rate and if we do end up on the camping we're likely to stay for less time before moving again.

Safety - Plan in Back-ups
To follow this process safely we always try and make sure we have as many backups in place as possible with multiple options for aires and campsites at the places we choose to explore.  We also now try to leave enough time to get to them in daylight and have a look around (we've learnt this lesson the hard way early on in our trip).

Our Middle Ground
The net effect of our preferences has been that we've spent around three quarters of our nights on aires and the rest on campsites, averaging just over £120 pcm in our first six months of travel. The only time we tend to vary our thinking is that sometimes, after some really rough weather or a long period on aires we'll stay on a campsite simply as a treat, almost like a holiday within a holiday to 'recharge' our and the motorhome's batteries.

When we first set off in our motorhome we were worried about "getting it right" and that we'd just be safe as long as we didn't make any "mistakes".  However, we've soon learned that there is no such thing as the right way to motorhome tour.  Just like everyone else we've met on the road, we're all finding our own of living to maximise our fun and safety within our own budget and boundaries.

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