When my husband, Ron, retired in 1996, we thought of retirement as an opportunity to spend six months of the year in Florida, near our (then) young granddaughters. So for five years, we enjoyed Florida's weather, volunteered our time and kept busy with various projects.
Then we made a big lifestyle change: We bought a small, old motor home that had a new motor. One winter was spent fixing it up; then we made a trip between our winter home in Tampa and our summer home in Connecticut. The journey took 72 days, because we went by way of the West Coast and Vancouver.
Ron and I learned that we loved this way of traveling. Our trip allowed us to visit national parks and cities across the continent. We were always comfortable, never had to unpack and were able to eat healthful meals "at home," going to restaurants only when we wanted a treat.
Having made that trip, we faced with the big question: Where should we go next?
We made an unusual decision that really changed our lives. We decided to ship our RV to Europe, which turned out to be the least expensive way to travel there for lengthy periods. (With the decline of the dollar, that's even more true today.)
Ron drove the RV, and I followed in our car, from Tampa to the Jacksonville office of the freight forwarder, who handled all the paperwork. We learned that the RV's crossing would take about two weeks. We drove back home in the car. Allowing time in case the RV was delayed, we flew to Europe three weeks later.
Our experience was so rewarding, we now have made this trip six times.
Behind the wheel
In some ways, traveling with an RV in Europe is better than doing it in the United States: Nearly every European city has a campground in it or quite close by. We drive into the campground, park our RV and then take buses to the tourist area.
We shop in the supermarkets that the locals use and, frankly, that's often more fun than viewing the tourist sights. If we find an open-air market, we can buy our food there because we have our own kitchen. Delicious!
This way of traveling allows you to go at your own pace, with no set itinerary. We go to places that sound interesting. If we want to stay in a city three days or seven, we can do it with no problems. If we are tired, we can stay "at home" and read or sleep.
We normally travel in Europe for three months. This is for economic reasons:
You'd be lucky to find even two-star hotel rooms in Europe for $100 a night, but even at that rate, just the lodging for a 90-day stay would cost a minimum of $9,000.
Shipping our 21.5-foot RV in 2008 will cost approximately $3,000 each way. Campgrounds cost $25-$30 per night. Adding the shipping and camping costs roughly equals the cost of three months of hotel rooms — but now you also have your "rental car'' and a home that allows you to save real money by eating in a restaurant only when you want to.
Though the cost of gasoline in Europe is frightening, distances between cities are so short that the total cost of fuel is manageable. The declining value of the dollar against the euro means the trip costs more, but it is still the least expensive way to go.
On the go, at home
We have explored the Netherlands and Belgium extensively, toured Germany and Italy and, we think, we have been to more places in France and England than have most of the natives.
(We were very pleased to find that there was no problem at all driving on the left side of the road in the United Kingdom. We believe most Americans' difficulties adjusting to driving on the "wrong'' side are caused by the driver having to sit on the right side of the rental car.)
Finding campgrounds is not a problem. On each trip, we buy a campground guide put out by the Irish Automobile Association that covers most of Europe.
Hundreds of campgrounds are easily accessible on the Internet, so we can research them before we leave the States. And the campground operators in Europe know of other facilities along our route or are members of a camping group. Tourist offices within the cities also have lists of campgrounds, and road maps indicate their locations.
Best of all, we often see highway signs that point the way to campgrounds as we enter a city, and we can just follow those the signs.
Neither of us is young — Ron is 75 and I am 72 — and we have the usual assortment of ailments that come with age. One of the years we did not go to Europe was the year that I had my second knee replaced and didn't feel that I was up to the walking we normally do.
When we first began traveling this way, we used to send a broadside letter to the 75 or so friends and relations who wanted to know where we were. They urged us to write our experiences as a book. Our Take Your RV to Europe was published in 2005.
That same year, Ron and our son, Joe, set up a Web site (www.rv2europe.com). We've begun another Web site (www.europebymouse.com) and our blogs from our current trip are at www.2008tripblog1.blogspot.com.
We'll continue to tour Europe until we can't do it physically. We have met other Americans there, and we always hope to see more retired people enjoying this extensive, and relatively inexpensive, tour of Europe.
Adelle Milavsky is a Tampa resident who most recently worked as a jewelry designer. Ron Milavsky retired as a research executive at NBC before working as a professor of communication sciences at the University of Connecticut.