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Advice for planning a first caravan or motorhome trip to France

Or elsewhere on the continent

17 October 2019
Read time: 19m 54s

Our long term campsite assessor John Corrall has been travelling to the continent with his caravan for over 30 years. Here are his top tips for a first time trip with your motorhome or caravan to France or beyond.

Firstly, it doesn't have to be complicated! You can book yourself a ferry to get over there. You'll find most towns have a municipal campsite, many of which do not operate a booking system, you just turn up. You could ring ahead on the day to see how full they are, but that might spoil the fun. Read on, and judge for yourself how much planning and booking ahead you want to do. Of course, if you are not confident enough to do that yourself, the staff in the Overseas Travel section of the Caravan and Motorhome Club will do everything for you. They are happy to arrange your Site Booking, Ferry or Eurotunnel Booking and your Insurance. 

The white cliffs of Dover
The white cliffs of Dover

Planning: I’m thinking of taking a holiday in France/Europe, taking my own Motorhome/Car and Caravan; I’ve neither been to Europe/France before. What advice would you give?

Get used to using your Motorhome/Caravan in this country before you go because doing both for the first time during a trip abroad would be too daunting for most. Or you could try going with one of the “pre-pitched” tour operators, the biggest being Eurocamp or Canvas holidays. With this style of holiday, the tent/mobile home and equipment is already there - all you need to do is get yourself to the site. You can also book ferries or fly/drive arrangements with these operators. If you are planning to be away for some time, check your house and contents insurance policies regarding limitations and regulations.

Where do I begin?

Planning: Where do I begin?

Decide which region/s you want to visit. Don’t try to do the whole country in one trip.  Take in to account how far you would be happy to drive. Decide which crossing will best suit you. The cost will be a factor in this so you will need to price up some possible routes at this stage.

Decide what type of site/s you want to use (big and busy or small and quiet).

Decide whether you are going to book each element (ferry/site/s etc.) directly yourself, or whether you would prefer the help of the Caravan and Motorhome Club to book all or some elements.

Gather reference material about sites and do online research. If you are likely to use large sites, take a look at the Eurocamp and Canvas holiday brochures for site information, whether you are going to book through them or not. Take a look at Alan Rogers and Select Sites which both give useful reviews of hundreds of sites. Many continental campsites have their own website. These can be found by doing a little web research. Search for the word 'camping' combined with the name of the town (or region) you wish to visit, this often turns up results. Of course, this technique will give you the site information but not an unbiased review.

Tour Operators (useful for booking ferries and or sites) are:-

France Ferry
Brittany Ferry to France

While all of the above can book ferry crossings at competitive rates, the ferry operators may also be contacted directly:

Other campsite finding resources include:

Ferry prices vary greatly, and you are advised to shop around. Be flexible if you want to achieve the lowest prices. Leaving/Returning early in the morning or late in the evening will often save you money.

Tour or stay on one site?

Planning: Is it best to stay at one site or tour, and if I tour how long shall I stay at each campsite?

Only you will know, and probably only after a few trips to the continent. Everybody’s different and has different preferences.         

Do I need to book in advance?

Planning: Do I need to book all my sites in advance?

This depends on where and more importantly, when you are going. If you are going out of peak season, then you may well be ok without reservations. However, if you are going in peak season, then you really need to book in advance. Some (mainly bigger) sites will take advance bookings at any time; some will only take summer bookings when they open in the spring of that year. Coastal campsites generally get booked up for summer sooner than in-land ones. Advance bookings directly with sites will usually incur an admin fee and possibly some compulsory cancellation insurance.

What are French sites like?

What are French and other continental sites like? How big are the pitches? What are the wash blocks like?

There is no simple answer to that as they can vary so much. Just glean what you can from the references mentioned above about the sites you are visiting. If you have a large outfit or a twin axle of any variety you are advised to check in advance, with the campsite (or tour operator if applicable) that they will be able to accommodate you.

French Style Toilet
French Style Toilet

The dreaded 'hole-in-the-ground' style toilets are still found in the facilities at some sites, and indeed at most public toilet facilities in the country, but very few campsites will have these exclusively. They are currently no more popular with French users than with British. Even if the toilets themselves are of what we might call a conventional type, many sites do not provide toilet seats, toilet tissue or soap. Toilet cubicles and shower cubicles will often be used by both sexes, even if they are labelled as 'men's' or 'women's'. However, the standard of cleanliness at campsite facilities is usually high. Again, a site review will indicate what the facilities are like.

Chemical toilet disposal facilities are usually good. Wastewater drains can be difficult to find. Most will have a Motorhome service point. Laundry facilities are commonplace on French sites, but the use of washing machines can be expensive. Charcoal barbeques are banned on some sites, particularly those in pine forests on the coasts. All sites are closed to vehicles during the night hours, but there is usually a car park outside the barrier. Many campsites do not allow long swimming shorts in the pool, only brief style (speedo) shorts and a few also require bathing caps.

What’s it like to drive in France / on the right?

Driving: I’ve never driven abroad before. What’s it like to drive in France / on the right? And what about the “priority from the right” rule I’ve heard of?

France is a big country and far less congested than England. You’ll love the roads; they are generally straighter, better and most importantly far less crowded than most UK roads. Congestion does occur of course, in and around major towns and cities, particularly at rush hours and on Saturdays in August.

Most of their road signs are similar to UK designs or are self-explanatory. Most confident drivers get used to the driving on the right fairly rapidly, and the same goes for navigating roundabouts, although the first one is always daunting. Many of the driving regulations are the same over there as here, but you are advised to consult one of the driving institutions (AA or RAC) for the facts. As a guide, in France, you will need the following original documents in the vehicle with you:

  • Passport/s
  • Driving license/s,
  • V5 (or a Vehicle on Hire Certificate if you do not have it, e.g. if it is a company car),
  • Evidence of insurance,
  • And possibly a green card (consult your motor insurer regarding these).
Warning Triangle
Compulsory Warning Triangle

You must also carry:

  • A first aid kit (defined by some as the ability to give assistance in the event of an accident).
  • A warning triangle
  • A spare pair of glasses if you usually use them to drive.
  • A UK sticker on both the car and the caravan/trailer.
  • You are advised to carry spare bulbs and a high-visibility vest (one for each person in the car/motorhome) and a warning triangle.
  • It may be cheaper to buy a European driving kit

These rules vary from country to country; what is advisory in one might be compulsory in another. For what these items cost, you may as well take them, regardless of whether they are mandatory or just advisory.

French Police
The French Police

You must have beam benders fitted to your vehicle headlights (unless your vehicle has manually adjustable headlights), even during the day. These should be installed at the earliest opportunity, but at the latest before boarding the ferry. They are cheaper to buy at home than elsewhere. They can be complicated to fit, so rehearse at home, and if necessary, refer back to the shop that supplied them; this saves a dusky French panic.

Speed checks are increasingly common and can result in an on-the-spot fine payable in cash.

Switch headlights on when it rains.

Fuel, of all grades, is generally cheaper than in the UK. The pay desk and 24-hour pumps accept UK Credit and Debit cards. Bear in mind too that most shops, and a minority of petrol stations within towns, are closed on Sundays, so keep your fuel topped up where possible.

A péage tool booth
Péage tool booth

Motorways have tolls, and toll stations can cause severe delays in peak season. Toll fees are higher if you are towing a caravan. Most toll stations will take a Credit or Debit card for a standard height car automatically; otherwise, you will need a staffed booth where you can use either a credit card or cash. Some toll stations do not take payment, but instead, issue drivers with a ticket which is to be produced at the next toll station.

Rather than paying Motorway Tolls in cash, you can purchase an Emovis tag which recognises your number plate and raises the barrier. You open an account with them and receive a quarterly bill. You pay the same toll and a quarterly admin charge, so it is a convenience rather than a money-saving possibility.

Photo credit: - m-takagi
Vous n'avez pas la priorite

As for the priority from the right rule, this is not as widely used as it was several years ago. The rule was that vehicles joining the road you are on from your right had the right of way over you. This applied at roundabouts too, meaning that those already on the roundabout gave way to those joining. Confirmation that the rule is not in force is given at most junctions by a sign which is a yellow diamond on a white background, or, when on the approaches to a roundabout by the text: “Vous n’avez pas la priorite”.  The diamond sign with a line through it means the reverse or the end of a zone where the rule doesn't apply. Do take extra care in town centres though because whether it is in force or not, some locals still drive by it.

Is it easy to get on the ferry?

I am apprehensive about using a roll-on Roll-off ferry/ Eurotunnel for the first time. Is there anything I should know?

There’s nothing to worry about. The crews will give clear directions on where to go. Leave your vehicle in gear or Park, and make sure the hand brake is ON. Lock the car (if using the ferry), but do not set the alarm if that is an option. You will not be allowed on the vehicle decks while the ferry is at sea. In Eurotunnel, you will stay in your car /motorhome throughout the journey 35mins. Your gas bottle should be turned off, and gas appliances (e.g. fridges) must not be used on the Ferry or Eurotunnel. You are not able to use your caravan except for the toilet while in the Tunnel.

What are motorway services like?

French Service Station or Aire
French Service Station or Aire

What are the motorway service areas like, and what about stopovers on those and on major roads?

Motorway and trunk road service areas are usually superior to those in this country. They range from those being a large car park with a toilet to some having picnic facilities, restaurant/snack bar, shop and toilets. All are called 'Aires'. The more comprehensive variety tend to have non-french style toilets, but there is occasionally a small fee to use them. These service areas get very overcrowded in peak season with massive queues. Whether 'Aires' are safe as a stopover point, particularly rudimentary ones, is a topic of fierce debate, and everyone has their opinion. Read more about Aires on our blog.

Sleeping in your vehicle at the roadside is not generally more risky in France than it is in the UK. With the exception allegedly, of when near to city centres and international borders.  You are advised to use either a campsite or a small hotel. If you prefer or indeed need something impromptu, head for the centre of a small town, or possibly use the area immediately after a motorway toll station. Incidentally, you can often get free air (gonflage) for your tyres and usually a toilet here too.  Use common sense and assess the security of a place before bedding down.

What about route planning?

Where can I get route planning information and an idea of toll costs? Is it best to use motorways or major roads?

Try "Via Michelin" for recommended route and toll charges and or the AA for route planning. So far as using a motorway or not, this comes down to personal choice. Motorways tend to be very dull, whereas major roads may take you through the occasional rather charming town which may present an opportunity for a comfort break. It’s a case of trying both and seeing which suits you best. Don’t rely on your Sat Nav; treat yourself to a copy of the Michelin Map Book of France.

Should I avoid Paris?

Vignette Crit'Air
Vignette Crit'Air

Planning: The route planner takes me through or around Paris or other large towns; would this be better avoided?

The simple answer is yes. Inevitably the traffic around any capital is likely to be more congested, and this is exacerbated in France, which has a very centralised road system. First-timers will find the Paris orbital, known as the Peripherique, to be something of an ordeal. It's just like the M25; if it is slow, it is very slow, but if it is moving, it can be like a cross between the Wacky Races and Starsky and Hutch. Junctions are very close together and easy to miss. That said, many find it perfectly navigable, particularly at off-peak times, and prefer not to deviate from a direct route.

Some large towns operate a low emission scheme similar to the one in London. If you enter such towns and to not have the necessary badge on your windscreen, you will face a fine. The badge can be purchased for approx. £5 from the Critair organisation in France. It is a one-off cost. Bearing in mind the low price it is well worth having, as an emergency may take into a town you had not planned to visit.

Do I need medical insurance?


Do I really need an GHIC - the Global Health Insurance Card, and/or personal medical insurance?

Replacing the EHIC Card, the GHIC card is vital in the event that you need medical assistance of any kind, but it will only get you initial treatment. Medical insurance is not compulsory, but in my opinion, it’s foolish in the extreme not to have it. It costs nothing, and you can apply online.

Please see our Brexit Blog for the latest details.

What do I need to take?

What do I need to take with me? I’m frightened I might forget something.

Take with you what you usually take on any other camping trip or holiday. Arguably the only extra bits of camping gear you will need is an electrical adaptor, more of which later. Many folks pack for their first overseas camping trip as though they are going to the moon. It's worth remembering that France has a far more significant camping population than the UK and has shops to support that, often at lower prices too. Don’t get stressed over your packing list, don’t overload your vehicle, have a more comfortable journey and deal with any shortages when you get there.

What are supermarkets like?

French Supermarket
French Supermarket

What are the supermarkets and hypermarkets like?

Firstly, be aware that most shops, including hypermarkets, are closed on Sundays, and are thus busy on Saturdays and Mondays.  Most boulangeries are open Sunday morning and many on Sunday evening (they like their fresh bread!). Super/hypermarkets do not generally hand out carrier bags, so you should take something in with you or buy a sizeable re-usable bag with your shopping. The requirement for a coin (1Euro) to release a trolley is the norm.

The French do not favour fresh Pasteurised milk, and so is not stocked at supermarkets in anything like the volumes it is in the UK. You may have to search for it.  More varieties of Sterilised than you can shake a stick at though. Payment with UK Credit Cards is usually accepted.  It’s wise to take your passport in with you if you are doing a big shop in case ID is required. Other than that, you’ll find almost everything you’d find in the UK, and much more besides. The range of fresh fruit and vegetables is impressive. It may be worthwhile researching the major supermarkets in your destination region before you go, for locations and opening hours (a minority, in tourist areas, may be open Sunday mornings):

What about electricity?

The standard connector supplied these days for use with UK EHUs will be ok in most French sites but not all. Some require an adaptor for use with a standard French domestic-type socket. These adaptor cables are widely available in the UK (approx. £5), and French, camping accessory shops. That said, they can be expensive at campsite shops, so take your own. It is also a good idea to have an additional 12metre hook up cable as some sites electricity bollards are a distance from your pitch.

Reverse Phase Adaptor
Reverse Phase Adaptor

Some French sites’ electrical supplies are reverse-phase. You do not need to know what this means, but you do need to correct it if using UK appliances. So you will need a mains tester (if one is not already built in to your caravan/motorhome) to establish whether the supply is reverse-phase or not. If it is, you will need a reverse-phase adaptor to correct it. These adaptors can be bought online or may be easily made by creating a short (6inch) extension to your regular EHU cable, but wired up live to neutral, and vice-versa. This adaptor should be clearly labelled so as to avoid using it on a standard polarity connection.

What about gas supplies.?

Photo credit: - m-takagi
Gas Bottles

'Calor' gas is not available outside the UK, but if that is what you usually use, then consider taking an extra bottle with you. The French have an equivalent which requires a different regulator. Camping Gaz is widely available in the same formats as in the UK, and most campsite stores sell it. Gas bottles are allowed on ferries and Eurotunnel, so long as they are shut off and secured down.

What about the language?

I don’t speak the language, will I get by?

You will survive, yes. It is common courtesy though to learn and to use as much as you can. If nothing goes wrong (car accident, lost child, robbery or illness, for example) then you will get by with almost no language knowledge. However, if you use the words for please, thank you, excuse me, yes and no, and numbers to ten (without sticking up the relevant number of fingers) you will get by, without, probably, upsetting anybody as a bonus.

A phrasebook or dictionary may well come in handy for the unlikely event that you get really stuck. You will find that most site receptionists, and many shops and café staff, in tourist hotspots particularly, speak some English, and are prepared to use it if necessary. By contrast, you will find that many car mechanics, for example, do not speak any English at all. You will find that many German and Dutch visitors to France do not speak any French, and get by with using their rather good English.

Numerous apps are now available if you want to learn a few choice phrases before you go, including Duolingo, which is free to use.

Top Tips:

Documents: take a plastic file containing the following original documentation, and take a second containing copies of same:

  • Passports (ensure they are valid for the duration of your stay)
  • Global Health Cards (GHIC)
  • Driving licenses (including paper parts)
  • Travel insurance policy,
  • Invoice for the car
  • Invoice for the caravan or tent
  • V5 of car
  • Car insurance certificate
  • Green card (signed by the policyholder)
  • Caravan or tent insurance details
  • Breakdown insurance policy
  • Trip itinerary
  • Ferry tickets out/ return
  • Booking confirmation, including addresses for all sites
  • A letter of authority from the parents, if taking grandchildren etc.
  • A recent photo of any children in the party, in case they get lost.
  • A motor-accident information form; put this right at the front of the file so that you can find it easily. If the worst happens, this will be by far the most stressful time of the holiday.
  • List of phone numbers, including all relevant banks for lost debit and credit cards, lost mobile phone and all applicable insurance companies (medical/car/caravan); leave a copy of this with a relative at home, and do not merely rely on storing these numbers in your mobile phone.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that there is a correlation between how far you drive and how good your holiday will be; this is simply not so. At the planning stage, do not commit to over-long drives; know the limits of yourself and your passengers, and stay well within them. Keep in mind that an on-paper journey of 8 hours could well take 12.

Take in to account relevant strike/pitching times for your outfit. Don’t underestimate the sheer size of the country, which is easily done when looking at maps. Remember that, Calais to St. Tropez is the same distance as North London to Edinburgh and back again.

Take common-sense anti-crime precautions. Being foreign, you may be seen as being a duck-out-of-water, and as such may be singled out for victimisation.

If you’re new to driving on the right: many drivers come a cropper when pulling out of a service station or T junction, ending up on the wrong side of the road. Avoid this by forming the habit of waiting (within reason!) for a vehicle to pass in the direction you will be going, and then simply follow it.

Buy or borrow a guide book of the region or country you are visiting. Study it before the trip and ideally take it with you.

Use your UK bank cash card to withdraw cash from French cash machines. This is inexpensive and reduces the need for carrying large amounts of money on your person.

Help your fridge to cope with the ferry crossing by putting in one or two large frozen drinks at home. These will act as ice blocks, but of course can then be enjoyed once off the ferry, making room for local specialities.

Remember (it will be hard not to!) that many other Brits will be doing the same thing, and can be a useful source of help and reassurance.