Everything you need to know about hiring a motorhome – Introduction
We hired a Chausson Flash 03 motorhome for a 12-day family holiday in the UK based around the autumn half-term holiday 2013. We planned to visit family and friends as far apart as Essex and Herefordshire. We have two very lively children, aged 9 and 4 years old. My husband and I are fairly experienced caravanners and had previously hired a motorhome for a short period once before, when our youngest child was only six weeks old.
We were keen to try out an up-to-date motorhome with all the modern conveniences and see just how self-sufficient we could be. Now that there are four of us we find it increasingly difficult to “bunk up” with friends and family who only have small houses, flats, bungalows etc. We have tried staying in hotels, but we find it inconvenient when we don’t have our own kitchen to prepare simple, cheap meals as and when required.
During the twelve days that we used the Chausson Flash 03 motorhome we really put it through its paces and we have a few handy tips to pass on to first time hirers, especially those who will be travelling with children. I would advise anybody hiring a motorhome for the first time to try it out for a weekend; this is a suitable amount of time to get used to driving the vehicle and using all of the interior features.
Day 1: Bourn, Cambridgeshire – Toppesfield, Essex
We picked up the Chausson Flash 03 and were given a thorough briefing by the company’s representative about the interior and exterior features. We were also given a DVD welcome package and user’s manual. Our children were rather over-excited and started investigating the cupboards, bunk beds, light fittings etc so it was tricky to pay full attention to everything; it would probably have been better to send just one adult to pick up the vehicle. You can usually leave your own vehicle at the motorhome pick up point for the duration of the hire period.
We didn’t book a campsite for that night as we had been invited to park the motorhome outside our friends’ house in rural Essex and have dinner with them. This gave us plenty of time to go to a supermarket, stock up the fridge and put on the bedding. As we had just flown into the UK from abroad, we hired bedding from the company. This costs £35 per person and includes a duvet, duvet cover, fitted flat sheet, pillow and pillowcase for each bed, plus a small and large bathroom towel per person. Of course if you live in the UK you can simply use your own bedding. A tea towel, washing up sponge, washing up liquid, anti-bacterial spray cleaner, j-cloths, dust pan and brush and bin bags are also supplied with the hire vehicle.
The Flash 03 has an overcab double bed with reasonable headroom, good-size bunk beds at the rear of the vehicle and a dinette table and bench seats that can make a further double bed if required. We used the overcab bed which was fine and the children liked their bunk beds very much. Simple curtains fitted around the beds gave an extra cosy feeling and a bit of privacy.
Day 2: Rural Essex, cooking facilities and the control panel
We enjoyed our first breakfast in the motorhome and put the melamine crockery and various pots and pans to good use. The Flash 03 has a three ring gas hob and a traditional kettle (i.e. not a plug in electric kettle). There was plenty of water in the fresh water tank but we knew that we would have to top it up at campsites or service stations at regular intervals (especially if we used the shower). Our only gripe was the height of the so called eye-level grill which was obviously designed for use by a family of giraffes. I had to perch on the bunk bed ladder to use it!
There is a control panel inside the motorhome next to the habitation door where you switch on the water pump, the interior electric lights, check the water levels etc. This seems daunting at first but soon becomes second nature as you use the different features.
After a relaxing morning getting to know the motorhome we drove to Sudbury with two of our friends on board to stock up on magazines, comics and other essentials for the trip. My husband commented on how much easier the Chausson Flash 03, based on the Ford Transit engine and cab, was to drive than other large vehicles he had used. Our hire vehicle didn’t have reversing sensors so we parked it in the traditional way, i.e. the wife waving her arms around and shouting “Back a bit, still two feet to go…” I’m being ironic here of course. The roles could easily have been reversed.
We had dinner with our friends in The Green Man pub, Toppesfield, Essex, because it was “Specials Night”. Beef stew and dumplings or ham, egg and chips – £4 a head, highly recommended.
Day 3: Rural Essex to Tring, Hertfordshire. The 3-way fridge and leisure battery.
After breakfast and lunch in rural Essex we set off to Tring via the M25 and A41. It was at this point that we realised travelling with two lively children was going to require some strict and consistent parenting to keep them seated and occupied. It wasn’t really possible to watch a DVD while travelling as we had planned; there was too much road noise and the TV was mounted over the habitation door at an angle that made the picture too unclear when we were sitting down. It would have been more useful to bring an iPad, DS or other mobile entertainment for each child. Comics weren’t so much use after a while and especially after dark.
Our children also tend to squabble (whose don’t?) so it became essential that I sat with them on the bench seats. This left the husband/driver deprived of a navigator as we’d foolishly decided not to buy or borrow a new UK map book, thinking we could use the app on his phone for directions. There were a few arguments later on in the week when we ventured into unfamiliar territory, or it was dark and we were all tired. It was difficult to hear what each other was saying above the road noise and I couldn’t see any of the road signs from where I was sitting. Our Flash 03 didn’t have SatNav and on this holiday we probably needed it. The moral of this story is “Be prepared before you set off!”
We stopped off at Tesco just outside Tring to get dinner and other essentials. In a motorhome the three-way fridge and freezer compartment can be run off the mains supply if you have electricity on a campsite, the gas bottle supply when you are parked and the leisure battery when you are driving the vehicle. The fridge/freezer in the Flash 03 could easily be switched between the three power sources by using its source selection switch which has a touch sensitive display. The display flashes if the fridge is not being powered correctly.
We drove to the Camping and Caravanning Club Certified Site at Gubblecote, between Tring and Leighton Buzzard. This was a great big field, set in lovely countryside, with free range turkeys running about next door. The site can accommodate up to five units (motorhomes or cars and caravans) at a time. The gate to the site is padlocked and the security code is changed regularly. There are electric hook up facilities, a fresh water supply, a place to empty the chemical toilet and a little hut with a flushing toilet (which we only discovered on our last day!) As it was the weekend there were a few “regulars” already camped on the site and they had bagged the best spots next to the principal electric hook up and water supply. The other electric hook up point was rather too near the turkeys (bearing in mind what I’d bought for dinner) so we decided to see how long we could run the vehicle off the leisure battery and the gas. As we intended to drive the vehicle every day we knew the leisure battery would charge up automatically.
Our dinner was stir-fried chicken with mixed vegetables, curry sauce, rice and poppadoms, all cooked in the motorhome. It’s worth noting that the nearby village of Long Marston has a good real ale pub, called The Queen’s Head.
Day 4: Gubblecote to Wing and back again
The shower and heating system
We planned to drive to the village of Wing, on the Buckinghamshire-Bedfordshire border, for a big family reunion lunch with my parents, brothers and partners at The Cock Inn. Prior to this I decided that some of the family needed a shower before contact with civilization. To use the shower, in its own handy cubicle, you need to switch on the water heating system choosing between electric if you are hooked up to a mains supply or gas if not. The rocker switches are located behind the front passenger seat. Select 70 degrees for a shower and 50 degrees for washing up. It took about 15 minutes for the water to heat up. You need to make sure that the water pump is switched on at the control panel. If you are fairly quick you can enjoy an adequate warm shower.
The Cock Inn is a delightful village pub with a great range of beers, wines and spirits and they serve lovely food. We found the staff to be genuinely warm and welcoming to everyone. Access to the pub car park was too narrow and low for the motorhome so we just parked elsewhere in the village.
Back in Gubblecote the weather did turn rather windy and wet later in the day and we knew that hurricane force winds had been predicted for the weekend. This was a good chance to try out the diesel heating system in the motorhome. We found the vehicle to be very well insulated and the blown air heating was very effective. The switch and temperature control for the heating is located behind the front passenger seat. We turned the heating up high first of all and then turned it down a bit once we went to bed. The heating system uses diesel from the vehicle’s fuel tank but not a significant amount. There are vents under the seating and cupboards. Yes the wind and rain were noisy, but we were all exhausted and slept pretty well.
Day 5: Whipsnade Zoo and adventures with the chemical toilet
Generally speaking a Thetford chemical toilet will need to be emptied every two days with four people using it. We had not been using this facility continuously as we had been visiting people, going to pubs etc. Emptying the cassette toilet is not as ghastly a chore as you might think as the part containing the waste products is completely sealed when you remove it via the exterior side panel designed for that purpose.
Apparently once the red light next to the flush button is illuminated there should be enough space for five more “deposits”. We found out that it was best to empty the toilet as soon as the red light shows. Enough said. Do find a proper emptying point for the waste rather than an ordinary public toilet. The toilet chemical (10 ml to a cupful of water) works pretty well at breaking down the waste and toilet paper however.
We also needed to top up the fresh water tank. We found that the hose supplied for this purpose was pretty inadequate, very narrow and rather flat. It took about 30 minutes to fill up the fresh water tank at a petrol station.
Anyway, onwards to the zoo, always the perfect place for a family day out and a picnic lunch. Whipsnade Zoo is situated near Dunstable and is recognised worldwide as a conservation centre. The animals are housed in large enclosures and in suitable family groups where appropriate, as they would be in the wild. The children loved it. We met up with my brother, his partner and her daughter who took loads of lovely photos. It was very useful to have the motorhome nearby to brew up a cup of tea and enjoy a few snacks once we had finished the visit, rather than spending yet more money in the café.
Supper was beans on toast in the motorhome, before settling down for a cosy night in, despite quite strong winds and rain outside. By now it was Sunday night and we were the only unit left on the campsite. When we booked the holiday I had wondered whether camping on very basic sites or wild camping with children would feel OK, but we chose our locations carefully and with our own toilet facilities on board there was no need for any of us to go out of the motorhome again once we were settled for the night.
Day 6: Gubblecote and Great Train Robbers’ bridge
Why has pretty much every man I’ve had a relationship with been obsessed with pinpointing exactly which railway bridge in Buckinghamshire featured in the Great Train Robbery? Maybe it’s because I used to live in the area. Anyway while I took the four year old with me to do helpful things for my ageing parents the husband took our nine year old bridge-hunting. We didn’t encounter any problems during this trip with low bridges, but you do need to bear this in mind when hiring a hi-line motorhome with an overcab design. Supper may well have been peanut butter or marmite on toast followed by fruit and yoghurt.
Day 7: Gubblecote to Newcastle-under-Lyme via the A41, M40, M42 and M6
We paid for the campsite (£12 per night), emptied the cassette toilet, unplugged the electric hook-up and headed towards Newcastle-under-Lyme near Stoke-on-Trent. We stopped at a service station en route, made a cup of coffee and fed the children some snacks. It was cheap and convenient to use our own onboard facilities.
We were due to arrive at my parents-in-law’s bungalow for afternoon tea. We had selected a very basic Camping and Caravanning site near Stone in Staffordshire as we couldn’t really find anywhere suitable in or near Newcastle-under-Lyme. We thought it would be sensible to check out the site in daylight before visiting the in-laws.
Stone is located in very low-lying countryside and the site was so boggy that the 3,500 kg Chausson Flash 03 immediately got stuck in the mud. It was mostly our own fault as we misunderstood some directions the site owner gave us. As the wheels whizzed round we sank deeper. The children thought it was hilarious but my husband didn’t. He was imagining tow trucks and extra expense! Fortunately a nice chap on a tractor working in a field nearby spotted our plight and quickly came to the rescue. We have usually found during our caravanning and motorhoming career that if people can help you in some way they will do. We decided that this site wasn’t really going to work out for us, which was a shame because it was actually in a very nice setting with a fishing river, bridge and a little island. So we headed off to Newcastle-under-Lyme hoping that we could squeeze the motorhome on to my husband’s parents’ driveway and camp there for the night. In fact we parked it on the road, which is a fairly quiet residential one.
Day 8: Lunch in Newcastle-under-Lyme and dinner (eventually) in Leominster
A week into our trip and it was definitely time to give the children and the clothes a proper wash. If we hadn’t been able to use my mother-in-law’s facilities then this would have been the moment to book on to a proper campsite with a washing machine, tumble dryer and shower block. We have previously stayed at the Ashbourne Heights campsite in the Staffordshire Peak District and that would have worked fine in this instance.
After a delicious lunch of homemade beef casserole followed by apple crumble and ice cream, we decided to drive down to Leominster in Herefordshire, ready for a rendezvous the next day with friends for some spooky Halloween fun. This hundred mile drive should have taken about two hours but there was heavy traffic on the motorway as we left Newcastle-under-Lyme so we opted for the smaller roads. We did seem to take double the journey time when going anywhere due to the size of the vehicle, poor navigation skills and antics of the children.
Our route would have been more enjoyable in daylight. We turned off the M6, taking the A5 towards Telford, continuing past Bridgnorth and through Ludlow. Unbelievably we were all hungry again so we stopped in a lay-by for a brew and a quick sarnie. By the time we reached Leominster it was about 8.30 pm, very dark and rather rainy. We had phoned ahead to the Baron’s Cross Inn, a family friendly pub with camping facilities, to reserve a pitch for the night. We were relieved to park up, plug in, buy some beers and make a quick dinner of bangers, beans and mash.
The Baron’s Cross Inn has a beer garden, free range chickens and children’s play area. We used a pitch with a fresh water tap and electric hook up. This cost £14 per night. There is also an emptying point for chemical toilets which we made full use of. The warm, clean pub toilets are open from 8 am until the pub closes at night. Luxury!
Day9: Leominster to Hampton Court Castle. Spooky fun, mud and gas bottles
This was one part of the holiday that I had put a bit of effort into planning so that the children could enjoy a bit of Halloween fun without demanding to go “trick or treating” in an area where we didn’t know many people.
Hampton Court Castle, a stately home located between Leominster and Hereford, was offering spooky fun in the cellars and other attractions for the autumn half-term holiday. We planned to meet two sets of friends there and turned up just before lunch. The off-road parking was on some muddy grass and whereas this worked fine for cars we immediately got stuck in the mud. Doh! The husband wasn’t particularly happy but we knew that we had helpful friends with other vehicles turning up in a while.
We had invited a couple of friends to share a picnic lunch and a cup of tea in the motorhome before we visited the castle so that we didn’t have to spend loads of money in the café. I imagined myself as the perfect hostess calmly extolling the virtues of motorhoming while handing round hot steaming beverages. Unfortunately at this moment the gas in the gas bottle ran out. I had noticed earlier, when cooking the breakfast, that the gas was more difficult than usual to light and the children had moaned about a pungent smell. This generally means the gas is running low. So, there we were, stuck in the mud and no possibility of tea. Anyway all these problems were in fact solved pretty quickly with the help of my friend’s husband who drove my husband to a nearby petrol station to get a new bottle of gas while we ate lunch and controlled the over-excited children. While we visited the castle gardens, got lost in the maze and took part in the Halloween activities, the husband enjoyed some “bloke time” with his friend using some old bits of carpet under the motorhome wheels to drive it out of the mud. As ever the gender roles could have been reversed but the husband was strangely elated with this outcome.
A family ticket for the grounds and spooky fun was £18, but the under-fives go free so we just paid as individuals, £6.95 for adults and £5.95 for youngsters between 5-17 years old.
One of my friends then invited us to come to Tenbury Wells for fish and chips and an overnight stay on her boyfriend’s driveway (gravel not mud!) This is where the Chausson Flash 03 really came in handy as there would have been very little room for four adults and four children in a ground floor maisonette. It really is like taking your own spare room and bathroom with you wherever you go.
Tenbury Wells fish and chips portions are huge, very tasty and come with a big sausage should you ever be in the area…
Day 10: Tenbury Wells to Leamington Spa via Kenilworth Castle
This was a nice easy drive along the A456, A443, A4133, M5, M42, A4177, and A452. We had finally acquired a map book (thanks Sonja!) and I was enjoying navigational duties. We stopped at a service station in the town of Warwick to fill up with diesel and put some water into the freshwater tank. We refuelled ourselves with tasty Lancashire pasties.
We were due to arrive in Leamington Spa at 5.30pm for dinner at a friend’s house so we had an afternoon to fill and the children needed some exercise. I decided that we should take a look at Kenilworth Castle, once the home of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (1532 or 1533 – 1588) a close friend of Queen Elizabeth I. We are all big Horrible Histories fans so this was perfect. I remember visiting the castle during the 1980s when it was just an interesting ruin, but it is now managed by English Heritage. They have rebuilt the Elizabethan formal gardens and turned the Gatehouse into an exhibition centre. There is also the inevitable gift shop and café.
We thought the entrance charges of £9 per adult and £5.40 for children aged between 5 and 17 years were a bit steep, although the under-fives go free. The family ticket is £23 for two adults and up to three children. Parking is free if you present your car park ticket when paying for admission to the castle. We all enjoyed the visit and spent the entire afternoon there. Both children found plenty to do, including a little archery lesson and a witch’s spell trail. A well-deserved cup of tea and some snacks in the motorhome at the end of the afternoon probably saved us a further £15. Then on to Leamington Spa to where we parked on our friends’ driveway and sampled Leamington fish and chips (no sausage this time). The adults chilled out with a nice glass of wine.
Day 11: Leamington Spa to Irthlingborough
We started the day with some nice fresh croissants in my friend Sue’s kitchen and then went for a brisk walk in the Warwickshire countryside with her adorable puppy. Meanwhile the husband took a brisk walk into Leamington Spa for a nice Saturday morning pint.
We said our goodbyes and headed off to Irthlingborough after lunch. This was a quick, easy journey via the A45, M45, M1 and a bit more A45. Along the way we amused ourselves by wondering whether the people of Irthlingborough referred to themselves as “Irthlings”. We arrived at my brother-in-law’s house to a warm welcome and a full Saturday roast. Our hosts were very keen for us to actually sleep in their house as they have plenty of spare room. We probably could have had showers as well, but we had started rationing out the clean clothes for the rest of the trip, so it didn’t seem worth it!
Day 12: Stanwick Lakes, curry in a car park and the final night in rural Essex
The husband and I enjoyed a goodish night’s sleep in a bed which just for once wasn’t two metres in the air above a cab. However it did also contain a four year old child. Anyway we all ate a hearty breakfast and set off for nearby Stanwick Lakes which has a children’s park with wonderful wooden climbing on things, cycle paths and a nature reserve. There is just a small charge for the car park.
After a really long walk we returned to Irthlingborough, said our thank yous and goodbyes, acquired some leftover chicken and set off towards rural Essex. As this was Sunday evening at the end of the half-term holidays we didn’t want to impose on anyone with a normal job and initially thought we’d stay at a pub campsite near Bishop’s Stortford. We needed to be near Stansted airport for early Monday afternoon as we had booked a room in the Holiday Inn Express for that night.
While we were discussing our next move we cooked dinner in the car park of Sainsburys in Haverhill. This involved combining the chicken leftovers with a jar of tikka masala curry we needed to use up. With rice and a shared bottle of lager for the grown-ups we were pretty happy. Rather than stopping overnight at a campsite we decided to revisit our friends in rural Essex who were delighted to share a quick drink with us and hear about our adventures. We parked the motorhome outside their house and settled in for our last night.
Day 13: Rural Essex to Bourn via Stansted Airport
All good things have to come to an end and we were very lucky that we could install the children in our friends’ house so that we could pack our bags, edit the piles of comics and colouring books and clean up the motorhome before returning it. We had been pretty disciplined about keeping the vehicle clean as we went along so there was just the hob, grill, fridge, cupboards, drawers and surfaces to wipe down and the bed linen to strip. We had hosed down the slightly muddy exterior the day before. I swept out the interior of the motorhome with the dust pan and brush.
The husband managed to locate a suitable chemical toilet emptying point a few miles down the road and everyone received strict instructions NOT to use the toilet again!
We left rural Essex and headed towards the Holiday Inn Express at Stansted Airport. It was much easier for my husband to drop myself and the children off at the hotel once our room was available rather than us all taking the motorhome back. The three of us were rather sad to see the Chausson Flash 03 driving off on the final part of its journey. The husband returned the motorhome to the hire company and was thanked for keeping it in such good condition. He got a lift to the nearest train station and rejoined us a couple of hours later.
All in all the holiday had been quite an adventure and I’m already looking forward to the next one! Our nine year old has always had a hankering to go to Loch Ness…
Some comments from the driver
The Chausson Flash 03 is based on the 2013 Ford Transit van. It is actually really lovely to drive, I had never driven a vehicle with a 6 speed gearbox before so that came as a surprise, but I loved it.
The motorhome also has cruise control so you can just accelerate to what speed you like, set the cruise control and not worry too much about keeping an eye on your speed. The turbo diesel engine is powerful and doesn’t seem to have any of the flat spots or turbo lag that I had experienced before.
The Flash 03 is easily capable of doing 70mph, but I tended to maintain a cruising speed of 60mph on the motorway as we were trying to keep fuel costs to a minimum. Apparently you use 20% less fuel at 60mph than you do at 70mph. The diesel tank is quite large, so if you find yourself at a supermarket petrol station, fill up with cheap diesel.
When driving along country lanes you start to notice something that you may have never noticed before, overhanging trees. Branches from trees can do a lot of damage to a motorhome so you may need to drive slightly more in the centre of the road than you would normally.
Manoeuvring the motorhome is fine when you are going forward due to the massive door mirrors and the additional wide angle mirrors they have in the lower portion of the mirror. When you are taking corners you need to turn a little bit later than you would in a car and glance in the mirrors to check your rear wheels don’t hit the kerb.
Reversing the motorhome is not particularly easy if you are not used to driving a big vehicle. It’s helpful if you can get somebody to ‘see you back’. A huge tip is to tell your assistant to make sure they can see YOU in the mirrors, if they can’t see you, you can’t see them! The motorhome is about seven metres (21 feet) long so walls and fences come up faster than you may think.
Finding parking spaces is never particularly easy these days for any vehicle. With a motorhome you need to be prepared to park a little bit further away than you might do with a car. For example in a supermarket car park it is worth going to some of the more remote spaces. This way you can probably find two free spaces end to end so that you can drive into the spaces and drive out, without needing to reverse.
As far as the day to day running of the actual motorhome goes, I actually enjoyed all of that. When I was being shown around the motorhome it all seemed a little daunting, but after a day or so it was all pretty familiar. The one thing that amazed me is how well you can survive without mains electricity. The fridge runs really well on gas, as does the gas water heater. The lighting is all super low power 12 volt LED lights and the diesel heating system is superb. Even the TV/DVD runs off 12 volts! The only times I started craving a mains supply was when my laptop battery was getting a bit low and also when I wanted to charge up my video camera. This was a massive contrast to my old caravanning days when we would be pretty much stuffed without mains hook up.
What we learned from our motorhome holiday
You need to be pretty organised to get the most out of your hired motorhome. There are various practical tasks that need doing every time you drive away from a campsite (e.g. plugging in and out of the mains supply if you are connected, turning off the gas, checking that all the cupboards are locked before you drive off etc). It’s good if you can share these jobs out between you. Our nine year old daughter liked to take responsibility for the cupboards.
If you have the opportunity to do the routine maintenance, do it before you move on to your next destination. For example: empty the toilet cassette before you leave a campsite, fill up with fresh water if a tap is nearby and empty your grey water if you are parked over a grid.
If your hire vehicle doesn’t have SatNav make sure you have a good map book or print out your route(s) before setting off. Trying to look at the small screen on your phone and following map apps while driving is difficult. If the second adult in your party has to sit with the children in the bench seats they will find it difficult to see road signs and place names; therefore they will be less useful as a navigator.
If you have children and intend to do a lot of driving around make sure that you have plenty to keep them occupied while travelling.
Hiring a motorhome allows you to be flexible with your arrangements when you are visiting people. With your own fridge and cooking facilities on board if you have a change of plan you can put together a meal at any time of day or night.
Modern motorhomes are really well insulated and are easy to heat.
It is possible to have a decent warm shower in a motorhome (something we hadn’t tried before) but you need to be quick as the hot water tank isn’t huge. Both my husband and I used the shower – on separate occasions! If you are hiring for a week or more you may prefer to book on to a campsite with shower facilities to keep the whole family clean.
Think before you drive your rented motorhome on to a muddy campsite or field. Motorhomes are much heavier than cars and therefore more likely to get stuck in the mud. Park up on the road first and have a look at the terrain!
A couple of bits of old carpet are very useful for getting a motorhome out of a muddy situation if there isn’t a local farmer with a tractor handy.
Most of all it was great to spend so much time outdoors and have a warm dry place to come back to. We really made the most of the autumn half-term holiday, which can sometimes be a difficult time of year for entertaining the children. This motorhome holiday in the heart of England would work equally well in the spring or summer months too.