I travel around Europe in a camper-van with my girlfriend as we both teach English as a foreign language online to fund the adventure. In late June 2018, 18 months after becoming first-time homeowners and putting one foot each on the much-vaunted property ladder; we jumped off head first. We’d scrimped and saved for years to buy a house, but it just wasn’t how we’d imagined or even hoped it would be. We had enough to live fairly comfortably, with around £50 per month to put into the rainy day piggy bank. Our bills were low and we’ve never had any expensive habits such as smoking, gambling or social drinking. Both of us worked full time, exhausting ourselves for bosses who expected, nay; demanded more sweat and effort than we felt our salaries justified. One day, my boss actually told my co-workers and I that if we wanted to leave we could do so, as there was a queue of people stretching from the local jobcentre to the front door of our building who’d happily take our place. Perhaps he was right if a little crass. The place closed permanently not long ago anyway, I guess that lengthy line of eager job seekers dodged a bullet.
So, as I said, we sold our house, bought a van and had it converted by a great independent company called Camper Kong. We left for Europe one week after collecting our newly converted van. We weren’t adequately prepared, but can you ever be for such a radical lifestyle change? It all sounds exhilarating to some, horrendously uncomfortable to others, both from a mental, physical and financial standpoint! We’ve made lots of mistakes and errors, experienced all of the “teething problems” you can imagine and lived to tell the tale. Hopefully, we’ve gained enough experience and knowledge by now to share with others so that they can believe that this lifestyle is not only feasible and achievable but also appealing to them. I’m going to list and elaborate on the factors which we believe are the most important and essential to know and understand when teaching online whilst traveling in a camper-van.
Find the right company for you.
To get the ball rolling, research, research and then research a little more on as many ESL companies as possible. There is a helpful group on Facebook, where recruiters, teachers, and people interested in the industry communicate, post job vacancies and review companies. TwoSigmas is also a useful resource as they offer extensive information about teaching all over the world and actively help teachers find exciting job opportunities. Luckily my girlfriend is an extraordinary researcher, so this part wasn’t overly stressful for me. She has now worked for three ESL companies, all slightly differentiating in terms of structure, working hours, student age groups, curriculum, and salary. She likes to keep her options open and isn’t afraid of exploring new opportunities and possibilities. In case you were wondering, yes; selling our house and buying a camper-van so we could jump into the unknown and travel around like the lost halfway hippies we are was all her idea. I have only ever worked for one company, one that many of you may be familiar with, Cambly. For those of you that don’t know, they’re a Saudi owned, American based company who are open to students of all ages and abilities from most countries you can think of. The majority of students on Cambly are from middle eastern and Far East Asian countries, although I have spoken with many students from, Brazil, Turkey, France, and Russia. The Russian guy was super cool and although I’ve never felt less adequate as a man than I did when speaking with him, I’ll cherish our chats about Russian and Western cultures for years to come. I earn $10.20 per hour and work a minimum of 30 minutes to a maximum of 3 hours per day, never working on weekends. It doesn’t sound like much, but our only regular bills are for our phones, fuel, and food. Our weekly shopping costs around £40, and we eat well. Fuel costs will always vary depending on how much traveling we wish to do.
I choose my own hours and after an initially slow start I’ve built up a nice group of regular students, most of whom I now consider my friends. It doesn’t even feel like a job as the chats are so relaxed, although Cambly does provide curriculum and set lesson plans if that is what the students or teachers prefer. I speak with nice people, they get to improve their English and I don’t need to fight the urge to let my bosses tires down anymore; everybody wins. Other companies can pay up to $30 per hour but may want teachers to work regular set hours which will suit some teachers more than others. One massive benefit of working with these companies is that they can offer teachers a lot of work and give them the security of guaranteed lessons and wages. So, to summarise, you shouldn’t have a problem getting work, it may just take time to find a company that suits you best.
Be organized and plan ahead.
This comes more naturally to some and will be a lifelong struggle for others in all aspects of life. I usually know by Friday what lessons I have planned for the following week. Whenever I speak to a new student, I’ll message them after our first lesson has finished to give them a friendly reminder that they can check my availability on my schedule should they wish to book another lesson. With regular students, they know my availability and book whichever time slot suits them, although I’ll always make an effort to compromise if they need a time that I normally wouldn't work. My preferable working hours are 9am-12pm. My girlfriend is currently teaching for Whales English and works set hours which are 12-3pm so we don’t clash and can both be on hand for each other in the event of an emergency or technical issue.
My girlfriend and I rarely make plans in the morning or afternoon due to our working schedule. She may do yoga and read a book whilst I teach and I may do the same when she is teaching. We have the late afternoon and entire evening to go hiking, chill out and then make a nice dinner. We only visit cities on weekends, so that we know our explorations won’t clash with our lesson schedules. We once went into a busy city, ate some great food and then hopped on the train back to our van. The only problem was, although it technically was the correct train, it was going the opposite direction to what we wanted it to. By the time it took us back to the van, I’d missed a lesson and felt terrible for letting my student down. It won’t happen again.
Choose your location wisely.
We’ve been there so many times. We pull up to a beautifully secluded beach, park the van perfectly and smile as we take in our new home for the next however many days. Then it all comes to a halt. We’ve got no phone signal, which is a big problem as we use our phone data to hotspot our laptops for internet access. You will need at least decent 4G coverage to pass many of the connection tests ESL companies run at the start of each lesson before they’ll allow you to teach. If you show up to a lesson with bad internet, most companies will penalize you. Cambly won’t even let you teach. Even if you do manage to make it past the connection tests with dodgy internet, the lesson quality will be greatly diminished which will lead to frustration and disappointment for both the students and yourself. If we haven’t got strong 4G then we simply don’t stay, unless it’s the weekend. We’ve been to many campsites, restaurants, and bars with free Wi-Fi but it’s rarely strong enough to pass the connection tests. It can be frustrating having to leave great locations in search of good internet but it’s the nature of the job.
Also, depending on the city or even the country that you’re in, people will have different feelings towards where you choose to park your four-wheeled home. We usually stay away from busy cities and suburban neighborhoods but even in remote spots, you may encounter an unfriendly local or a nosey neighbor. I’ve had police banging on the van during one of my lessons, asking why I was parked in a particular spot. This actually happened outside my parents’ house in the UK. So yeah, always be alert and aware of your surroundings and any potential disruptions to your lessons. We both have £30 phone contracts with Vodafone and have slightly over 100GB of data between us. This has always been more than enough data for us, with some left over to download podcasts or stream our favorite movies and shows. Vodafone has great coverage over most European countries and remember to check with your provider if you’ll incur any extra charges when using your package abroad, as they all vary when it comes to the fine print in their terms and conditions.
The technical stuff.
Our van is 2.2m tall, just over 1.8m wide and almost 6m long. It has three hobs, an oven, a fridge, a shower, two sinks, a small TV and can sit four people. We have a slightly smaller than average double bed at the rear of the van with a large amount of storage space underneath the bed, accessible via the rear doors. We also have decent overhead storage in various locations around the van. Now and then we’ll have to squeeze past each other, but for the most part, it feels roomy yet cozy at the same time. We have a small detachable dining table which sits in the middle of our four seats. This is also where we teach.
My girlfriend has an HP laptop with 8GB of Ram and a core i3 processor. Mine is the same but with only 4GB of ram. Some companies’ platforms and software will be more demanding of your laptop and you may have to run multiple web pages for several hours each day so check that your laptop will be able to manage the demands that teaching online may place it under. We only teach a few hours per day but some of you dollar chasing go-getters out there may want to teach 10 hours per day, so just make sure your gear can hold up to it. We have three 12v sockets where we can charge our laptops from. The Outtag charger set we bought has changeable adaptors which are suitable for most laptops. We each have a Kotion headset which is sturdier than your standard earphones and also looks more professional to the students and your employers. We have two high amp leisure batteries which along with two, 100watt solar panels, power the vans electric system. This is enough to run the fridge and allows us to charge our phones, Kindles, and laptops from the multiple USB and 12v charger sockets located around the van. We also have an Erayak 1500w power inverter as a backup power supply. It connects to the leisure batteries and converts the power so we can charge our laptops here if the solar panels are not producing enough power.
Lastly. Things go wrong, it’s inevitable.
I’m sure your attention span is waning and this isn’t the kind of article you’d normally spend your lunch break reading, but I thank you for doing so and will now end with some true stories to show you the darker side of van life. To be brief, since setting off in search of happiness and fulfillment on these beautifully diverse European shores, a lot of things haven’t gone how we wanted them to. Our water tanks, which are located underneath the van, fell off after we went over one too many gigantic Spanish dirt road potholes at night. We spent two days stuck in deep mud in the forests of Seville, one week before Christmas. It took three Spanish huntsmen, two Ecuadorian love birds, a Romanian trucker and us two English fools to get us out of that (sticky!) situation. The police moved five vans including ours from a beautiful Portuguese beach at 3 am, on New Year’s Eve. Honestly, I think they were just angry at having to work that particular shift. There have been worse incidents than those listed above, but they’re for another time, another article.
Stuff will happen, you’ll cry, you’ll laugh, you’ll have good and bad days. We’ve met some amazing people both through traveling and teaching. I don’t even know if this life is definitely for me, all I know with one hundred percent truth is that I was totally unhappy and unsatisfied with my previous lifestyle.
Try it, you just might enjoy it!
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