Touring caravan holidays in France: advice and ideas
Taking the caravan abroad takes a bit of research, careful planning and a little bit of confidence. But once you've done it, you'll never look back
Words & Photos Gayle Ripper
It took us around 14 UK breaks with our Lunar Quasar 546 before we felt confident enough to embark on a trip abroad. With three kids in tow, we decided to add further responsibility by including our five-month-old cockapoo, Olga, in our plans.
Our first trip was inspired by a feature written by Caravan editor, John Sootheran. His article showed his family enjoying some amazing surf at Biscarrosse on the west coast of France and showcased some fabulous sights and sites along the way.
It gave us the confidence to bite the bullet, and so we set about making plans and booked a four-week trip to France which included two of the sites that John featured, the first in Tours which made for a great halfway stopping point, and another in Biscarrosse, offering coastal or lakeside beaches, an hour south of Bordeaux.
Ferry or Eurotunnel?
Our first choice: ferry or Chunnel? For us, our decision centred around our four-legged friend. While some ferry companies offer cabins, which are dog-friendly, dogs must be muzzled when outside the vehicle or cabin.
We decided on the Eurotunnel as it meant Olga could remain in the car with us. The set-up for dogs at the Eurotunnel terminal is impressive. An award-winning dog exercise area includes staff, agility equipment and clean, artificial grass.
Olga enjoyed tiring herself out in readiness for a long drive at the other end of the tunnel. UK pets are not required to go through Pet Control Checks so it's only when returning to the UK that a visit to the Pet Reception Building at the Calais Terminal is needed, where, incidentally, the exercise facilities pale comparatively to their UK counterparts.
Travelling through the tunnel meant we had to adapt our route somewhat and it took longer to arrive at our destination, but it was worth it.
These days, Olga's separation anxiety is less of an issue, so we now travel by ferry, but this too brings additional choice. Calais, Caen, Le Havre or Santander? There are other factors to take into consideration when deciding on crossings, including fuel costs and road tolls and how much the travel time can eat into your holiday.
Travelling abroad with pets
If you are travelling with your dog, it's a good idea to refer to the government's website which will help ensure you have made the right preparations. A 15-minute appointment with our vet and a £90 bill provided Olga with her own Pet Passport.
Regular rabies boosters are required to keep the passport valid. The time interval depends on the specific vaccine used, but it's generally every 2-3 years and the expiry date will be noted in the passport. On return to the UK, your pet will have to be seen by an approved vet in France, who would give a tapeworm treatment.
You must do this more than 24 hours, but less than 120 hours, before your scheduled arrival time in the UK. Always check the vet has logged the correct date accompanied with an official stamp and includes a signature as incorrectly completed and dated documents may result in pets being refused travel or quarantined at the owner's expense.
We made these arrangements by email through the managers of our final site who were extremely helpful and knowledgeable. Our appointment cost around 40 euros and included a full check-up, which proved Olga was fit to travel. Prior to travel I also informed our pet insurance company and confirmed she would be covered.
Since 2016, it has become compulsory for dogs to be micro-chipped. Those that aren't, risk a fine of up to £500. Olga's details on the Petlog database were also amended to include temporary addresses and specified dates. We also obtained a new collar tag, which included a UK dialling code for our contact number as well as an indication that Olga was 'en vacances'.
Caravan insurance and recovery
Before we depart, we check our car and caravan insurance to make sure we are covered for overseas travel. We use Red Pennant Insurance, which we find offers excellent comprehensive cover including caravan repatriation.
We check our car insurance company is aware that we will be towing a caravan abroad and have requested a document in different languages that confirms we insured.
Driving laws vary from country to country, depending on where in Europe you are travelling. You may need to carry some if not all the following:
- alcohol breath testing kit
- spare vehicle bulbs
- fire extinguisher,
- first aid kit
- up to two warning triangles
- hi-vis jackets.
Our forthcoming trip will include, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Germany, Belgium, Austria and Switzerland and we have discovered different countries have different rules and regulations.
For instance, when travelling in Austria and Switzerland, we will need a windscreen sticker called a vignette, which can be available at the border or online beforehand. Check your policy includes breakdown cover and it's worth checking tyre pressures, water and oil levels before you leave. It's also worth carrying spare tyres and a puncture repair system.
Any spare should be the same type of tyre as the existing ones as you're required to have the same tyres on the same axle. Check your caravan tyres suit the weight of the caravan and maximum speed limit abroad and make sure you fit headlight beam deflectors.
Place a GB/UK/CYM/ENG/SCO/WALES sticker on both your car and your caravan.
Extend your policy checking to your home insurance as some may have limitations regarding cover while you are away, particularly if your home is empty for over 30 days.
I keep copies of everything, including our European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), which can be obtained online for free or by asking at your local Post Office.
It gives you access to free medical treatment in the EU. Booking confirmations, site information, email correspondence, policy docs, itinerary and reference numbers and contact details are all kept in a folder.
Our son, Matthew, has epilepsy and takes daily medication; therefore we not only locate hospitals with emergency departments in advance that are in the vicinity of our sites, but we also carry a copy of his prescription, which not only proves the medication is prescribed, but it also gives peace of mind in case we need to obtain more. It's a good idea to leave a copy of your itinerary with someone back home in case of an emergency.
Knowing your vehicle dimensions and having them at hand is important. We keep ours taped to the vanity mirror for easy reference.
When planning our route, we use Google Earth and Google Street View to plan journeys, select sites and view approaches to campsites.
We have found this particularly important when selecting a site that will suit our dog. It's her holiday, too, so we aim to choose a site that has a good dog-walking area nearby; preferably with an area where she can enjoy some time off the lead.
During the trip
We tend to get a bit carried away and take many extras with us, including an inflatable kayak and paddle board, wetsuits, fishing gear and various power kites, so a roof box is invaluable in relieving the caravan of weight and keeping us in line with weight restrictions.
It can, however, impact on finding a parking space as it increases the height of our vehicle, which can exceed barrier restrictions, so keep that in mind. It's easy to get carried away with bringing too much food and we have learned from experience it's worth taking just the basics to tide us over and we buy additional items on the Continent.
Caravanning abroad has the potential to be uncomfortably hot so we have invested in a tabletop fan, a godsend and has been well used.
This year we purchased a small air-cooler unit, which was an inexpensive online buy. We have so far only tested it out at home during our UK heatwave. We're impressed. There'll be a review to follow on how it fares in the caravan for this summer's travels!
At the Eurotunnel terminal, our number plate was recognised as we approached the check-in booth and we followed the instructions on the screen to check in. We watched the electronic departures sign which informed us of our time to board.
Before we knew it, we were saying "Bonjour la France!"
We followed the 'All Directions' signs until our sat-nav kicked in and showed us the way to our first destination in Tours. As it is caravan-specific, our sat-nav avoids dead ends and narrow streets. Immediately we relaxed – we were quickly getting used to driving abroad.
Just as you might try and avoid the UK roads on a bank holiday, it's worth checking out potentially busy road days on national holidays. Our journey time in France was reduced significantly through using the péage toll roads.
These add more expense to your holiday, but if you want to travel in double-quick time and enjoy some quiet roads, then this is a great option. Keep cash at hand for toll payments, as using a British bank card can add £1.50 or more to every payment. Some longer péage stretches (100km+) can cost over €30.
One of our favourite sites was in Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie, located in the Vendée in the Pays-de-la-Loire region of western France. Here, the pitches were distanced apart and the site ran alongside a wooded area where Olga could run freely. Beyond lay a stunning dog-friendly beach.
The kids would say that their favourite site was in Biscarrosse, as it boasted an impressive water park they visited daily. It also had a lakeside dog-friendly beach and watersports. Dogs were required to be kept on the lead at all times, so, by the end of the week, Olga was desperate to chase and run after a ball.
City and village trips in France weren't complicated at all by having a dog. We all even enjoyed a day out at the glorious Chateau Chenonceau.
As Olga was so little at the time, she could enter the castle as long as she was carried around. She even joined us on our idyllic and serene two-hour canoe trip down the River Eyre with me, Olga and eldest son, Joe, in one canoe, and Chris, Matthew and Esme in the other.
Even our day trip that involved climbing to the top of the Dune of Pilat, the tallest sand dune in Europe, was a family affair.
Elsewhere in Europe
The kids are desperate to visit a theme park on our forthcoming trip and we've discovered Europa Park, the largest in Germany, welcomes dogs.
Certainly, there is much more to plan when travelling abroad with a caravan, but once you've done it, it makes the second trip so much easier. Armed with my folder from our first trip, it takes no time to organise everything for subsequent tours. I just have to replicate or update each piece of relevant paperwork.
A carefully planned and 'agreed' itinerary (we are travelling with two teenage boys after all), is essential, and, with one successful trip under our belt, our forthcoming trip is more adventurous, more ambitious and will hopefully include many more memories.
From scoffing chocolates in Belgium, appreciating the stunning historical architecture in Luxembourg, rollercoastering in Germany, taking in the breathtaking views from a cable car in Switzerland, strolling along the old towns in Austria and finally exploring Normandy and finding out more about the events that took place in 1944, which my kids have each studied at school.
And, in between all this, we'll be kiting, fishing, kayaking and paddle boarding and no doubt planning our next trip abroad, what we tend to do as each trip draws to an end.
Hola España, perhaps?
Where To Stay
Prices: couple, electric hook-up, high season, per night
Camping Le Bahamas Beach
168 Route des Sables, 85800, Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Ville, France
T 00 33 251 546916
Open 31 March to 29 September Price £30
This lovely site has a pool with a slide which was perfect for the kids. A wooded area was great for morning dog walks and beyond a beautiful dog-friendly beach. The nearby village is a short drive which hosts a lovely market.
Little Satmar Holiday Park
Winehouse Lane, Capel-Le-Ferne,
Folkestone CT18 7JF
T 01303 251188
Open 10 February to 31 October Price £23
This well-maintained site has excellent facilities and is the ideal stop for a departure for ferry or tunnel.
La Ferme des Aulnes
Nampont, 80120 St Martin, France
T 00 33 322 922269
Open 30 March to 1 November Price £20
Situated on a peaceful Picardy farm 20 minute's drive from the beach. This site includes a spa, sauna, heated pool and restaurant.
Camping Tours Les Acacias
Rue Berthe Morisot, 37700 La Ville aux Dames, Tours, France
T 00 332 47440816
Open All year
A quiet site close to the river Loire. Giant inflatable toys are great fun but watch out for slide burns on hot days!
Route de Biscarosse, 33115 Pyla-sur-Mer, France
T 00 33 556 227456
Open 31 March to 30 September Price £42
An all-singing-all-dancing site, our kids loved this place. Possibly not the dog's favourite as the pitches were close and other dogs were tethered throughout the day. The kids loved the water park here and played in it for hours each day.