Van Life in Europe – Buying the Right Van and Cost Calculation

Van life in Europe? Yes, it totally possible! By now you must have heard about the “Van Life” lifestyle. It has gone almost mainstream in the last two years. Almost to the point where your parents and grandparents know about it. It is a perfect lifestyle for those who work online and don’t want to be tied down to a single location. Working and exploring new places does sound amazing, doesn’t it?

When seeking van life content you mostly see Americans doing it. Most of the “van life” influencers come from the US. The truth is, the van life community is also alive in Europe. It’s a bit different but it is perfectly doable. Sure, the vans are a bit different and the whole camping scene is a lot different, but those obstacles are not big enough to stop people.

Which van to buy for van life in Europe?

We have some general recommendations but it mostly depends on your budget and needs.

General recommendations:

  • Old diesel engines. This is especially important if you are buying an older van. Old vans like the Mercedes-Benz 310 (now known as Sprinter). Or the smaller Volkswagen Transporter T4 has amazing and reliable diesel engines like the 2.4D (before TDI). Especially older Mercedes diesel engines are known to be insanely reliable and some-what fuel-efficient. Older and newer petrol engines in vans tend to consume a lot of fuel. That is due to the general shape of vans, that does not make them aerodynamic. Most of the older diesel engines do not have turbos and delicate fuel injectors. This makes them really reliable but also very slow. This means huge hills will be a problem. The reliability outweighs the low performance tho. If you find one with low mileage, you struck gold.
  • Newer diesel engines. If your budget allows you to buy a van with a newer diesel engine be careful. Common rail diesel engines and turbo diesel have a lot more complicated technology that needs proper maintenance. This, of course, is not a problem if you are buying a new van. But if you are buying a used van, make sure to check the van’s maintenance reports and history. We can stress enough how important this is, especially with higher mileage vans.
  • LPG (liquified petroleum gas). It’s common to see petrol-powered vans converted to run on Autogas or LPG. This reduces fuel costs in a big way, which is amazing. Some LPG powered vans use less fuel than diesel vans. This can be a great option as petrol engines tend to be reliable and less complicated than some types of diesel engines. However, make sure the LPG installation was done by professionals and that it was maintained properly. If not, you can expect huge engine problems and it might not be safe to drive a van with a faulty LPG installation.
  • Really think through your needs. Is this van going to be your home? Are you alone or with a partner? Are you going to use this van just for trips and shorter travels? Will you visit official campsites or camp in “stealth mode”? What features will you need (shower, wood stove, etc.) Think about this and everything else imaginable.

Low budget vans (up to 5000€, including a 1000€ build)

All prices and examples are taken from Mobile.de, the biggest German car marketplace.

For this budget, you can get a really good and fairly modern L1H1 van. L1 means length 1 and H1 means height 1. This is a fairly small van, not a good option if you plan to live in it. These are our picks (click on the image to enlarge):

  • Citroen Jumpy with the 90HP HDi engine
  • A really well kept Volkswagen Transporter T4 (preferably with the 2.4D engine)
  • Fiat Ducato (any year is good as long as it is well taken care of, Fiat diesel engines are great)
  • Old Mercedes Sprinters (fairly reliable, but always check for service history and body rust)
  • Ford Transit (most of the time they have glass panels and are fairly reliable, a good option for UK buyers)

All of these vans are under 4000€ which leaves you some space to build out your living setup. They also include reliable diesel engines. You could go even lower with the budget and look for something cheaper but don’t expect “comfort” like air-conditioning and power steering. Much older and cheaper vans also tend to have more rust issues which can cost a lot of money to fix. There is also an occasional L2H2 available for this kind of budget, but they tend to be in worse conditions.

mercedes 310 van life
Be on the lookout for these used fire department vans, they usually have really low mileage and less rust than commercially used vans.

One option for this budget is also to buy a proper camper van. You can mostly get solid Fiat Ducato campers, which we recommend due to great engines and easily accessible spare parts. Don’t expect to camp in parking lots and other public places though, this looks like your typical European camper and you are bound to have a run-in with the authorities as public camping is prohibited in most European countries. Here is an example:

fiat ducato camper