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First timers driving motorhomes in France: All you need to know


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The Channel Crossing

This route assumes a ferry to Calais or Dunkerque or the LeShuttle train. The train may not be faster overall, there can be delays loading trucks and you don’t get a proper break. The ferry has shops and cafes and you get a decent driving break, it somehow feels more like going abroad.

  • Pre-book. Prices vary through the day and week and consider a flexible return; missing the booking incurs surcharges. A return booking is also proof of your intended return date, which may be required in the unfortunate event of an insurance claim
  • Remember mainland Europe is an hour ahead. I recommend an arrival time which allows reaching your intended first night's stop in daylight
  • French passport control is at Dover, you come to them first, all passports are checked and stamped, which may cause delays. This is followed by UK passport control, who often wave you through, and then ferry check-in. On returning to Calais, you check in first and then come to French passport control where passports are stamped again. UK passport control is last, there can be long delays and officers may want to check for stowaways. We have missed the ferry previously, so allow plenty of time
  • Turn off gas bottles or tanks. Eurotunnel also has a limit which may affect fixed tanks. Turn off the fridge, with the door shut, it will survive the crossing
  • If you used the Dartford crossing to reach Dover and don’t have an automatic account, make sure you pay before boarding. Once across the channel you’re certain to forget
  • If your van has a tracker, advise them before boarding. A moving vehicle without the engine running should trigger an alarm condition.

Driving in France

  • You will be surprised at how quickly you adapt to driving on the right. Just take a little more care at junctions and as you exit roundabouts; don't drift to the left. Away from major cities traffic is usually light compared to the UK
  • Main roads are of a high standard and well maintained. Hills often have crawler lanes to help get past lorries. Your biggest holdup is likely to be tractors, passing them if right-hand drive can be tricky. Hang back to let traffic pass you, the tractor will probably turn off shortly anyway
  • Road signs will be familiar and unlikely to be a problem, but distances will seem high, remember 50km is 30 miles
  • Watch your speed, the open two-way road limit is 80kph; that's only 50mph and easily exceeded. Fixed cameras are common and police speed checks can incur spot fines. The urban limit is 50kph, if in doubt drop to 30mph at the town sign and don’t speed up until the exit sign. Devices to detect mobile speed cameras are illegal. Fixed cameras shown on navigators are ok provided any audible warning is switched off
  • Sat-navs are useful to find aires and help at junctions. Don’t set for shortest route or rely solely on it, as you may end up in a town square on market day. My route will probably not follow your device’s fastest setting either
  • Take good maps which show all rural roads, a scale of 5 miles to 1 inch, or less, is recommended. They are useful for checking the sat-nav is not taking a short cut through the town centre, or down a narrow lane, and will prove invaluable if you get diverted by road closures
  • If the km scale on your speedometer is difficult to read, make a larger crib sheet. It's also useful to note your van's size in metres, in case you meet a low bridge or narrow entrance
  • Diesel is about the same price as the UK and like here, better value at supermarkets, dearer on motorways. Pre-pay 24/7 pumps are common and accept all popular cards with displays translated into English

Camping Car Aires: what are they all about?

France has hundreds of overnight parking areas for motorhomes. Usually run by the local authority, their advantage over campsites is often location. Many are close to town centres for sightseeing, shops and restaurants. Rural aires may be in beauty spots, ideal for walks and enjoying the views.

They are open all year with no advance booking or restriction on arrival and departure times, ideal for carefree touring, what motorhome ownership is all about.

Some people may hesitate at the lack of a club six-metre rule; most campsites in Europe don’t follow this either. You will have taken steps to secure your vehicle and it’s surprising the added sense of security when parked with other motorhomes.

Don’t let preconceptions put you off, try a few. We’re not suggesting avoiding campsites, just mixing the two is better value and aires will save time in the long run, especially useful for overnight stops they are unbeatable.

You are unlikely to be alone, but if it doesn't feel right simply move on. You can buy guides which list them, but none covers them all, and it's not essential for this route. If you intend to travel more widely.

I recommend Camperstop which lists around 10,000 sites across the whole of Europe. There are also several apps, park4night is popular but use with care, it lists many sites not verified as official parking areas, which may be unsuitable.

An increasing number of aires are now operated by a commercial company which use a pre payment card system for barrier control entry. They also operate a reservation system, but charges are generally above the average. My suggested overnight stops does not include any of their sites.

Parking on motorhome aires

  • Only stay overnight on aires specifically signed for motorhome (camping car) use. Do not stay on motorway rest stops, service areas or lorry parks
  • They vary from a few bays in a village square to huge purpose built landscaped areas taking a 100 motorhomes or more. Parking is usually on reinforced grass, gravel or a paved surface, but may not be flat; you need levellers
  • If adjacent to a car park, it may have rather narrow lined bays, so park alternately and hope there are few late comers. If bays are not marked, park just close enough to a neighbor to prevent someone from pushing in.
  • Aires are not licensed as campsites; technically, you are not camping, just parked. However, in good weather, people will have chairs out. Just be cautious about opening the awning and do not hang out washing.
  • Over more than 20 years, we have stayed on hundreds of aires and only moved on twice due to itinerants. Parking is commonly limited to two or three days, and police patrols are often seen, which is quite reassuring.
  • On larger, more popular aires, the local baker may visit in the morning with fresh croissants and bread.

Services at motorhome aires

  • The simplest may not have any services, but most provide a drain and water source.
  • Many have a machine with a facility to empty and rinse the toilet cassette and take on fresh water, together with a drive-over grey water drain. Always look for a separate or suitably guarded fresh water tap.
  • Electric is often available, but outlets may be limited. Also see my note below.
  • Better sites often have town maps and signs in several languages explaining costs, length of stay, and other local rules. Emergency phone numbers are often included and possibly details of the nearest garages, supermarkets, pharmacies, etc.

Paying at motorhome aires

  • Many are free, but in popular areas a motorhome parking charge usually applies, around €10 for 24 hours is common. Sometimes a small additional tourist tax per person is added.
  • Charges may be collected via barrier control entry, a ticket machine, or by someone calling in the early evening. They often come from the town hall or tourist office, and don’t be surprised if it’s a policeman, another way of checking you’re genuine motorhomers. The collector may also come from a nearby campsite; don’t feel guilty about denying them custom.
  • Most machines now accept credit card payment, even for small amounts. If the parking charge does not include fresh water and electric, it may require a jeton (token) bought from a nearby tourist office or café.
  • Drainage for grey water and the toilet is usually free.
  • If the charge is manually collected, they may not carry a card machine, so a €20 float of small change is recommended.
  • In winter the water supply may be off but parking charges are often waived.

The rise of motorhome parks

Increasingly motorhome parks are appearing. More like small campsites, and licensed as such, they are only for motorhomes and usually fenced with a manned reception for at least part of the day. Good sized hardstanding pitches with electric hook-up are normal, together with a motorhome station for water and drainage.

Toilets, showers, washing machines and a small essentials shop may also be available. Generally, there is no limit to the length of stay, but they cannot be pre-booked.

Using French campsites

Sites are everywhere in France, and as diverse as those in the UK, from small fields to full feature holiday villages. Often less spacious than here with no hardstanding they are correspondingly less expensive with short high season periods.

Pitches are often hedged, adding privacy, but may be on the small side with overhanging trees, making access tricky for larger motorhomes.

Many towns have a municipal site. They are usually quite small with grass pitches and limited, possibly faded, facilities. But they are often within walking distance of the shops and offer good value for money. Signs usually just say ‘Camping’.

Larger commercially run sites may include swimming pools, swishy toilet blocks, sports areas and high season children’s clubs, but they are often remote with a high concentration of static caravans and cabins. Check carefully if you want walking or cycling trails and public transport in rural areas is usually quite poor.

You will need to pre-book campsites, which are close to the beach, in July, August and early September. Also in high season they may only accept week-long bookings. At other times, and particularly for inland sites, pre-booking is usually unnecessary.

Be aware that many sites have a surprisingly short season, opening quite late and often closing before the end of September.

If you intend to travel widely in low season, the ACSI discount card is good value. You buy the card annually, but the cost is recovered in the first few overnight savings. It covers over 2,000 sites across 20 European countries.

European motorhome touring tips

  • Insurance duration: If you intend to be away for more than a fortnight, check for possible insurance issues. Holiday, medical, house and contents, overseas vehicle, and breakdown commonly have limited duration clauses of 30 days or less.
  • Passport expiry: Passports issued before September 2018 could be valid for over 10 years because unused time was added from your old one. The EU now only accepts passports which have been issued less than 10 years ago. It must also be valid for three months after your planned return date which could have implications with the 90-day rule.
  • The 90 day rule: If you plan to make regular trips into the EU or stay for extended periods then you need to understand this. You cannot stay for more than 90 days in any rolling consecutive 180-day period. It can be quite difficult to work out so use a free Schengen calculator app, which is easy to use.
  • Low emission zones: France has some permanent city centre zones, but most cover larger areas which are only enforced if pollution levels are high. Euro 4 vehicles and above are unlikely to be affected, but proof is via a windscreen sticker. It’s easy to obtain at certificate-air.gouv.fr, and costs just a few euros so get one for peace of mind. The site green-zones.eu gives useful information which includes an app. It stores your vehicle details and, in basic free format, will confirm if it's valid to drive through the designated zone, just beware of the charged extras.
  • Electric hook-up: Do not assume you’ll get a 16A electric supply, even on campsites. It is often quite limited and may only be 6A. Connection is not always the three-pin CEE plug, so you need a continental two-pin adaptor. If your motorhome is fitted with a double pole RCD or RCCB, reverse polarity is not an issue. Consider carefully if it’s worth any extra charge for electric, as gas is much cheaper to run the fridge. Your LED lights will be fine and the battery is charged by driving every few days even without a solar panel.
  • Gas: For short trips, your gas supply is unlikely to be an issue particularly if you use the larger 13kg bottles. If you intend to travel more widely for a month or more then you need to consider how to maintain your supply which is much cheaper than electric for cooking and running the fridge. The subject is often covered in MMM.

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