We don’t like Hotels, we’re not overly keen on Airbnb, we’d rather not fly, we like the warm sunshine and beautiful seas. Really? How do you expect to achieve that then “Mr know-it-all”. Well, thanks for asking.
We do, however, love caravanning (motorhomes too!) and are willing to drive for as long as it takes to visit parts of the world we want to visit. Let me just reign in your expectations here, we’re not about to tell you we’re taking our caravan to China. However, for some people we might as well be.
I’m hearing more and more people taking the plunge and taking their family in their caravan and going to France, in fact, the very south of France, which we think is great.
We’ll not discuss the possible impact of BREXIT, as such, or indeed pass any personal opinions on the French (not that we have anything bad to say about them). But those things aside, France is a lovely country to visit and perfectly doable with a Caravan in tow. We’ll pass on our experience, we’re as much of a travel expert and any self proclaimed travel experts. We’ve been to France in our caravan 3 times, so you’d better just sit down, get a cuppa, concentrate and above all; keep quiet ?
Where was I? Of yes, let’s start at the beginning.
Boat or Train? (Ferry or Le Shuttle)
This depends on where you’re coming from i.e. which part of the country you live in. We’re in the South East of England, or possibly just the East, we’re about 2 hours from Dover. We prefer Ferry, even though it takes more time. Of course it’s a personal thing, if we had a dog (which we’ve had in the past) we’d take Le Shuttle, simply because on the Ferry you have to leave your dog in the car, or caravan (?), not something we’d be prepared to do if we were taking our mutt with us. To us, a dog is part of the family and we wouldn’t leave one of the kids in the car, so we wouldn’t leave the dog. We find the Ferry is more relaxing and we can get a coffee and some cake and enjoy the 90-minute crossing. We’re never in a particular hurry so time doesn’t really matter.
A Tip For Booking A Crossing….
We have booked through one of the clubs before, and we did save a few quid. However, if you need to change the booking you can only do it through the club, and not online or via the channel crossing company direct. We needed to change our crossing for the next day it was a Friday evening, unfortunately the club office was closed for the weekend. The only way we could go home the next day (Saturday) is if we’d bought a new ticket for the Ferry, which is what we ended up doing, costing £100. So we saved £10 for it to cost us £100 extra. Just worth thinking about. It’s highly unlikely you’d need to do this, however, we now book online with P&O ourselves, so we can modify the booking online without needed to ring anyone and this can be done 24 hours a day. Once bitten twice shy! We also buy a flexi ticket, a bit more expensive, but you can travel up to 4 hours before and 4 hours after your crossing time, especially handy coming back.
We book the crossing first, then work out travel arrangements after. We have a list of things we want to see, we know our end destination, so we know where we’ve got to get too. Rather than treat the journey there, just as a journey to our end destination, we plan to take 3 days, as many as 3 stops but usually 2.
What You Need To Take
There are a number of rules and regulations governing travelling by car in France.
Check here for more details on what you need and general driving advice abroad.
As far as other stuff is concerned, you’ll definitely need sunscreen and maybe some sort of anti midge stuff. We take some with us and usually buy something when we’re down there. Obviously, France deals in Euros, we take a certain amount of cash in Euros and then just use our regular debit card for shopping and diesel etc. Obviously don’t forget your toothbrush, oh and passport, driving license etc..
Planning Your Trip
By failing to prepare you are preparing to fail, probably famous words written or spoken by somebody. However, they are certainly true. Actually, rather than fail, you probably won’t enjoy yourself as much as if you’d planned the trip. Some people think planning takes the spontaneousness out of a holiday, well, if you’re towing an 8-metre long box behind you, you’d better be prepared, else you’re in for a world of pain, frustration, shouting and even divorce. There, you see, these things need planning, don’t let anyone else tell you any different. If you’re an experienced caravanner you’ll know about planning trips, well, it’s the same for travelling abroad but worse. When I say worse, I mean more planning is needed.
Google Earth is your friend. I’m so glad Google Earth isn’t a subscription-based product, the amount of time Mandy spends checking caravan site locations, making sure roads are big enough to drag our caravan down. It really is great for “virtually” travelling down roads, just the other day we were booking our stopovers and came across a nice site. When we looked on Google Earth we (Mandy) could see that the road was very narrow with no passing places, so rather than risk it, we widened our search and found somewhere on a more suitable road.
As a rule, we use Autoroutes as much as possible, these are toll roads and you should be aware these do add up. https://www.viamichelin.co.uk/ can estimate the amount the tolls will cost you.
It’s quite possible you’re a fan of a map, well, I’ll tell you here and now, I am not. We do, however, take a map, just in case of technology failure! In the car, I have a few navigational aids. The car itself has built-in SatNav which I use for specific things. Point of interest (POIs), especially for things like Petrol stations and supermarkets. I have a couple of apps on my phone. Waze, this is good for traffic, but it doesn’t know we have a caravan on the back so has the tendency to take you down single track roads and across people front laws (I made that up). But it’ll take you the quickest route. ViaMichelin, which is good for autoroutes and general directions, it doesn’t know you’re towing a caravan as such. Lastly, CoPilot which you can put the size of your caravan/motorhome into, which in theory means it won’t take you down “unsuitable” roads. Unfortunately, their definition of an unsuitable road doesn’t match mine. There is a subscription and I wouldn’t hand on heart fully recommend it, as I don’t fully trust it. However, it’s probably better than nothing.
We consider the journey being part of the holiday so we take our time. I don’t mean we poodle along at 40mph, we just don’t rush, we don’t bust a gut trying to get as far south as we can in one hit.
We take our time, we’ve learned the hard way by thinking we should get to our “holiday” as quick as we can and drive all the way down just taking a nap when we’re tired. It doesn’t work for us. We treat the journey itself as part of the holiday. If you have a 2-week vacation, I’d suggest the west coast of France and not venturing down too far. Travelling in a caravan always takes longer than you think.
So, have a look where you’ve got to get to and plan a route to take in some sightseeing. When we’re planning our trips, we normally have places in mind that we want to visit on the way down, be in Giverny (Claude Monet’s house), Pont du Gard (ancient Roman aqueduct) or Carcassonne (fortified city). There are so many places to visit, where one day is probably enough to get a flavour of it.
Where To Stop?
Our first choice would be to prebook sites on the way down and on the way back. For example, this year we are booking 2 sites on the way down, allowing about 5 hours of driving per day. Aires (area in English) is always an option. An Aire is basically a parking area off the road, nothing like our laybys, more like a service station without petrol, shops and McDonalds. They are free to use and you can park overnight. Most have a toilet block, varying degrees of cleanliness, all the ones we’ve been to have been fine. They don’t generally supply toilet paper in our experience.
We’ve stayed in a couple and have felt reasonably safe. We choose ones that have lorries in. The first time we stayed a lorry driver from Romania came up to us as we pulled up and asked us about our caravan. Of course, me being a cynical twit thought he was just planning to rob us during the night. However, he had a genuine interest in the caravan and travelled to England often delivering good, he also had a campervan of some description. He told us it was a good place to stop, perfectly safe and was often patrolled by Police as it was on the main A road. I was a bit concerned when a lot of the lorries left the Aire before dark, but it was OK. We did get some traffic during the night, drivers stopping to use the toilets, I know this because we woke up every time we heard a car. Last time we were in an Aire, I took the motor mover handle into the caravan as a weapon, half as a joke. I think it depends on your attitude to risk. I’d rather spend 20 euro on a campsite, but this isn’t always possible.
It’s been suggested that you leave a dog bowl outside your caravan door even if you haven’t got a dog, just to deter any would-be intruder. If you trawl the forums you’ll always read that someone heard that someone’s friends’ brother was the victim of a gas attack, it’s never happened to them though, make of that what you will…
We’d wouldn’t stay in an Aire if it was too close to a big town or city, we just feel a bit safer away from the metropolis. My instinct would be to select one with no one else in, however, we’d always stay in one that was well used, preferably with lorries in. These are seasoned travellers and know where to stop. I wouldn’t recommend or try and put anyone off staying in an Aire, as it’s a personal choice thing. We’d rather not stay in one overnight, we have twice and once we stayed in a service station, which is much like the UK but free. You do get a bit more noise than I’d like in both, so campsites are preferable to us anyway.
Towing a caravan is much the same as in the UK apart from one major difference. The French drive on the wrong side of the road! I, myself, have been caught out a few times, coming out of a T junction and taking the wrong lane. Only once did I frighten the life out of us and a French man. Take your time and stay calm, you’ll be fine.
Last year we got an Emovis tag https://www.emovis-tag.co.uk You get a tag to stick to the inside of your windscreen, this allows you to go to specific lanes at the toll booths and drive through without the need to get your wallet out, or fumble around for some loose change. You get a statement when you get back from holiday. The Caravan and Motorhome Club often have deals on this. It was previously called Sanef.
Food and Drink
Many of the larger supermarkets are bigger than the UK equivalent. I don’t know if it’s just because they are different, but they seem to carry a larger variety of goods, it’s probably because they’re just novel to start with. We’ve not found France to me anymore expensive than the UK. Most food items are on par with the UK. What we have found is that if you want to buy “UK food” like baked beans and tea bags, for example, you’ll pay more than double for Heinz and Yorkshire Tea (just two examples we noticed) We ran out of tea bags and drank coffee instead (oh the suffering!) Milk and bread are pretty much the same taste so kids should be ok. Actually, we prefer French bread and can’t really figure out why, but they do something different.
Those partial to some wine are obviously in for a treat, not only is it a bit cheaper, there’s so much more choice.
As the French, quite rightly, speak French, it’s handy to have at least some words in your armoury…Over the past few years, I’ve listened to Michel Thomas CD’s on and off to learn some French and we get by. We can order basic stuff. Most people will speak English, especially when you’re a paying customer, but on the odd occasion when no English is spoken it’s amazing what you can explain without having to say anything that the other person understands. Personally, I’m always slightly embarrassed that my French skills really aren’t what I’d like them to be. Anyway, we get by and it’s not really an issue sticking to tourist areas. Just please don’t start shouting in English, they’re not deaf, they’re just French…
Calais & Brexit
We’ve travelled into and out of Calais a number of times. We’ve never stopped there, it’s just a place we get on and off the Ferry. Calais has spent some time in the news over the past few years and certainly in the time leading up to the BREXIT vote and result.
We travelled through Calais just a few weeks after BREXIT vote and we were a little surprised not to see hoards of refugees trying to clamber onto lorries and sneaking in Motorhome and Caravans. We saw absolutely none of this, in fact, we saw no people, no refugee camps and no real Police presence.
It was all unexpected. There were extremely high fences either side of the roads leading in and out of the ferry terminal, but there certainly wasn’t a queue of illegal immigrants queueing to get in. This makes me wonder about some of the news coverage we see and how accurate it is. A lot of it is sensationalised so that we watch programmes or buy newspapers.
Anyway, my point here is not a political one, it’s just don’t let the fear of what might happen with refugees or BREXIT put you off planning a trip to France, or any other European destination.
How Much Can It Cost?
I’ve created a vlog post where I tell you exactly how much one month in France in the caravan cost us. Now, I was a little surprised and you can, without doubt, save money, that is, it could cost you much less.