Searching for that perfect new caravan can be a headache. You can trawl through endless brochures, magazines and websites advertising caravans for sale, but there’s nothing like getting inside the real thing and having a good look and poke around. For instance, if you’re considering a fixed-bed layout, a bed that appears large enough on paper might actually be too narrow or too short when you use it for the first time. So, the only way to check if you fit is to actually lie down on one.

Once you’ve determined which layout you want, you might find a dealer not too far away that has a demonstrator of one particular brand, but you can almost guarantee that if you want to compare a couple of models from different brands they won’t have both. By the time that you locate that second model, the chances are (if you’re like me!) that you will have forgotten the detail of the first one.

This is where the various caravan shows come into their own. In the main, all the UK’s manufacturers have all their models on display – the bigger shows also attract overseas brands such as Adria, Knaus and Hymer. In most cases they’re all under one roof too (or several roofs in the case of the February and October shows at the NEC Birmingham) and in the dry, so you can wander freely from one model to another – and maybe back again! – to compare and contrast caravans back-to-back.

Next month’s Motorhome and Caravan Show at the NEC is also the first time that you’ll be able to see the latest 2017-season models in the same place – it is a huge show, so make sure you’re wearing comfy shoes!

Before I go any further, I will tell you that the last six caravans I’ve bought have all been ordered as a result of going to one of the UK’s caravan shows – you can learn from my experience and mistakes! So, what are the advantages and possible pitfalls of buying from a show?

If you really are starting from scratch, I’d suggest doing a little research before leaving home. Shows are great for seeing lots of caravans at the same time under the same roof but, in the case of the NEC Birmingham, that’s not one roof but 11! To make sure you get the most from your time at the show, it’s good to have some ideas, so you see what you need to. Consider how many berths you want, what kind of layout suits you and how heavy the tow car is that’s going to pull your new tourer.

Once you’ve worked all that out and narrowed it down to some brands/ranges that suit your pocket (yes, unfortunately these things have to be paid for!) try to weed it down to a couple of models. If you’re only going to use the caravan over the summer period, there’s not much point in having things like Alde type heating (which increases weight and cost) but, conversely, if you’re a hardy soul who’s going to go away whatever the season, then it might be. If you’re a family with young children, whilst a fixed-bed layout might look attractive, it might not be that practical for your use. Having a list of ‘must-have’ and ‘would-like-to-have’ features will help you refine your search.

So you’ve picked your shortlist. Go and spend some time in each of them, and have a good look around. Take your time and don’t be rushed – a caravan is a big purchase, you want to get it right. Go back if you want to check something you’ve missed. Are the sofas comfy? Are the beds long/wide/low enough? Can you reach that high-set microwave? Do you fit in the shower?

Be mindful that most of the caravans on show will have some form of extra lighting (usually tucked up into rooflights) to give perhaps a false impression of light. Try not to be drawn in by the ‘showroom glitz’, but pay attention to the detail.

For instance, yours truly couldn’t really care less about the fashionable sunroof, but if I open an overhead locker and it bashes into a roof mounted radio speaker or light fitting, to me that shows poor attention to detail from the manufacturer, and then I might start questioning what other daft things there are. Is the switch for the washroom lights inside or outside the washroom? Personally I prefer a pull cord just inside the door, so that you’re not fumbling about in the dark for the switch. If the switch is outside the washroom, are you going to disturb the other occupants when you need to pay a night-time visit to the loo?

It’s highly unlikely that you’ll find a ‘perfect’ caravan, as they’re all a compromise in one way or another, but if you can live with small foibles then don’t write that particular model off. If it would be an irritation (and can’t be altered) every time you use the caravan, then look elsewhere.

One reason that buying from a show can be advantageous is that there are often goodies thrown into the deal. Manufacturers will sometimes add extras for ‘free’, such as a motor mover or other options, or offer exclusive show-only discounts on caravans sold at the show.

Eventually you settle on one caravan that ticks the vast majority of your boxes, so it’s time to start talking to a dealer. If you’re a seasoned caravanner and know a good dealer that’s not too far from your home, then see if they’re represented at the show. If you’re new to the game, be careful. Find out where any dealer that you speak to is based. It may be that you’re offered a fantastic deal on a new caravan, but if they’re based a couple of hundred miles away from where you live then it’s likely to be a poor deal overall. Why? Sadly, the chances are that you will need something rectifying under warranty, so you don’t want to have to travel for hours. If you have a dealer of the brand that you’re set on nearer you than the one who you are considering buying from, you might be very lucky and they might do the repairs, but don’t be surprised if they refuse, so you’ll have to return to the dealer you bought it from. Other dealers are not obliged to do the repairs, and will prioritise their own customers. We often compare the caravan industry to the car industry, but in reality they are miles apart.

Remember also that you don’t have to sign there and then (unless it’s the last hour of the last day of the show, when you might be under a bit of pressure). If it’s possible, speak to a couple of dealers. Get a price that it’s going to cost you, and if you find a dealer who waffles and won’t give you a firm price, walk away and seek out another. I’ve been lucky over the years and got a great dealer who might not be the nearest to home, but is still reasonably convenient. He simply gives me a price to change (with any extras etc). I then go home and consider things away from the hype of the show, and if I’m happy with the deal, give him a call a day or so afterwards to place the order (but before the end of the show as sometimes special offers end with the show).

How are you financing your new caravan? If it’s on a loan, then there are usually some decent finance arrangements available at the shows. Plus, the main finance companies are usually represented so you’ll be able to get a pretty instant decision.

Chances are that you’ll be given a date for manufacture, but don’t be too surprised if that comes and goes. I’ve yet to have a caravan delivered on time. Indeed, the initial date that we were given for our current caravan was December (ordered at the October show), but it eventually arrived at the dealers in April!

So, to summarise, choose your caravan carefully by comparing different models, and then be even more careful with the dealer that you choose, especially their location. And never feel pressurised into signing on the dotted line – give yourself the time you need to make the right decision, so go away and think about it.

With all that done, wait with anticipation for your new arrival and happy holidays!