This article was written by me on my previous website The 1970s Diet and is so darn good and comprehensive that I have shared it for you here. Whilst this guide is written with families in mind, in particular, my friend who is travelling for the first time – I feel it’s applicable to anyone wishing to have a road trip this year.
We have been travelling to France since our eldest was 6 (he’s now 11), my youngest 4 and Buddy who was 3 months old on his first European holiday. I have flown before when our eldest was 18 months old which was a horrific experience which I’ve written about in this post. I still cannot talk about it. It still haunts us some 10 years on! This blog post also details our very first trip to Brittany, France and how we totally under estimated the sheer size of the country compared to the UK.
I also don’t do boats. I hate them. I have horrendous sea sickness. But I do loveFrance as a holiday destination. It has it all. The weather, the beautiful beaches and the food. For us, the preferred method of getting to France is via the Eurotunnel. I cannot begin to tell you how much I love this tunnel. Its awesome. It beats checking in 2 hours before flying, hanging around, delays etc hands down. It’s easy to book. Check out their website here. The Eurotunnel is very cheap. It can cost as little as £200 return to get over to France and takes approx. 30 mins during peak season.
The check in is very easy – you rock on up with your car and it recognises your details, prints out a boarding letter for the lane you drive in (you put this on the inside mirror) and away you go. Sometimes, if you’re early, you can just go straight on. I would also recommend the flexi pass traveller which means you can go into the fast track lane. Or they will accommodate you if you’re late. Having said this the normal lanes are only really slower when you’re coming back from your holidays in Calais.
Once on board you are directed to how close you can park to the car in front of you – switch off your engine, get out and stretch your legs and use the toilet.
So without further ado here’s my guide to making travelling to France fairly fool-proof. I’ve given them a rating from novice, intermediate and experienced traveller but it’s entirely up to you!
Autoroute aka The Motorway (novice)
As ever with the French it’s all backwards for us Brits – the ‘A’ roads are the Motorways not our ‘A’ roads they are the ‘N’ roads and the ‘D’ roads are our country lanes equivalent. So if you are travelling via the Motorway which is the quickest and easiest way then you will see the motorway you are on and also the KM’s to the nearest town like this picture. The motorway signs are in blue and the name of the route is in red as you can see on the top of this sign.
Do not freak out if you see a sign for, say, Paris if you’re heading for Calais – it’s a bit like when you get a train – you’re not going to the end destination but you need to take that particular train to get to your destination. Sometimes you can think you’re going wrong when actually you’re not.
Also, they will let you know when you need to come off for Calais etc but they won’t give you loads of reminders like the UK. Once you see the sign to come off get into that lane. They’ve told you once they won’t tell you again. Once you come off the motorway they normally have a hairpin bend which, even after years of telling my husband off, he still likes to approach it at 70 mph. Slow down! It’s very easy to get cocky and carefree on French motorways. You will come a cropper.
Also don’t be having a chat approaching key junctions you have to come off at – guilty as charged ma lord. I also tell the kids to be quiet if we have to concentrate eg navigating the Paris circular – which was surprisingly easy. Allow for at least one mild to moderate row on your journey there and back. See above and also “oh I don’t know why I just did that” eg coming off when you shouldn’t have can cause one partner (me) to seethe with internal “why did you just do that!” rage for a few junctions!
Remember, if you go wrong it’s not a major deal but it can add 30/60 minutes to your journey. Unlike the UK, it’s harder to just ‘spin it around’ and go the right way as the country is double the size.
N Roads (novice)
These are our A roads but better. You will find lots of roundabouts where you’re told you don’t have priority. Years ago if you approached a roundabout you had priority but then the French got with the programme and its the same as our roundabouts. The N roads are the scenic route but you will find lots of lorries etc travelling on them as they are avoiding the toll charges. Still a pleasant way to travel although you are relying on your passenger to let you know when its safe to overtake.
Sat Nav (novice)
Sat navs are brilliant generally and even more so in France but make sure you’ve got a map. We also print out the AA route map and also know which major towns we need to be heading for. It will tell you where the tolls (peage) are and how much. More of which later. We choose to go on the motorways as its much quicker and we’ve never really been stuck in any jams. The French are great for keeping the traffic moving even if there’s been a major incident. They just get some arrows out and you carry on as you were.
Service Stations/Aires (novice)
You’ve also got so many service stations with toilet facilities and in addition you have picnic lay bys called Aires.
Some are much better than others but the sign will tell you what’s available as you can see in this one. Some will just have the little picnic and tree sign and can be delightful. We’ve found some real gems with lovely toilets, picnic benches and a play area (no petrol station). The major ones with a petrol station will always have decent toilet facilities. However, some are limited with a hole in the ground for having a wee even for ladies. I can’t stand these toilets and don’t know why the women of France have not had them taken away. But there you are. Always take toilet roll with you and worse case scenario go in the woods like the French do.
NB the petrol stations are self-service like ours and you pay at the garage. Sometimes if it’s not working they may require you to go in and leave your card then fill up. This is rare though. Also you can fill up and pay at the machine beside the pump. It will be in French but its quite easy. Remember ‘V’ is what you press once you’ve put in your PIN number i.e validate. Also ‘unleaded’ is sans plomb and ‘diesel’ is gazole.
Motorway Toll (Peage) aka Wacky Races (novice)
When you approach these you’ll see a sign and it will count you down. Then you quickly chose a lane. You’ll see a union jack sign. This enables the driver to take the ticket/pay the money or you can just get your passenger to do it which we normally do. Check the height barrier though. You would have needed to check what the height of your car is (see roof top box) and have the money handy. Once the gates open its Wacky Races time – everyone just puts their foot down.
If you want to be more experienced you can buy a Sanef reader to put in front of your rear view mirror and it will automatic lift the gates. Your account will just be debited at the end of your journey in France! We always do a cheer when it works and for the very first time we’re a bit nervous but it hasn’t failed us yet. We have really graduated to hard-core road trippers with this baby. Here is the link to French Sanef Tolling Website for more information and its in English. If you buy this you need to get in the ‘t’ lane like the French. By the way the French call this a ‘badge’ once it didn’t work and like a twat I kept saying “J’ai un sanef” translated I have a name of the motorway company” like saying I have an M25. When she finally worked out I was sane she said “ohhh vous avez un badge”. Yarp that’s the thing.
TravelJohn sick/pee bags (experienced)
As a novice a plastic bag will do. These can be found on Amazon and can hold sick and wee! Once they’ve been utilized a gel type thing in the bag makes the liquid go hard. I haven’t yet had to use one for wee but knowing they’re in the car is a psychological boost for Mrs week bladder. They are a bit pricey normally £8 for 3 but worth every penny.
French Law (novice)
Before departing make sure you’ve read all the French road travelling rules and regulations. Here’s a link to the RAC’s information on the subject. You’ll need a red triangle (which we always forget), high viz jackets for everyone in your car and breathalyzer kits to name but a few. It’ll also tell you the rules of the road. The French like to keep their indicator on whilst overtaking on the motorway. It’s highly irritating and even more so when my husband, every now and then, likes to adopt this with “the French do it” to my “you’re not French switch off the indicator” – see mild row above.
DVD players (intermediate/experienced)
Kids these days are pampered so car journeys are no exception. We have graduated to buying them DVD players after we sold our last car which had an inbuilt on screen entertainment system. It keeps them quiet and means we can concentrate. They also have (novice) a small travelling box where they can pick their own entertainment eg pens, Nintendo, books, toys etc.
Car Cabin Facilities (novice)
We always have our Ipod and charger for phone plugged into lighter holder. In addition, I always have the cool box with the day’s supplies to hand. In the front, I’ll have some biscuits handy to break up the boredom. I also have a change of clothes for the kids easily accessible in case of sickness or accidents and toilet roll. By the way, I don’t really like the French juice so take my own from Aldi. I also make sure I have breakfast supplies ready for the morning as you won’t have anything in stock until you’ve come back from the supermarket. That’s if you’re going self catering of course.
Roof Top Box (intermediate)
If you feel you’re going to be a serial road tripper than this is essential. We picked ours up new on Ebay for about £180 but you can go to Halfords and get advice/have it fitted for a little bit extra. My husband always nags about having soft bags to go into it. He’s right of course, as you get more in, although it does mean the trunki becomes a bit redundant. Don’t forget to measure your car with the roof top box on as in France there are lots of height barriers especially near beaches. This is to deter overnight camper vans who have their own little parking spaces. We take ours off once we arrive. By the way, parking in France is so easy and normally free by the beaches etc.
Decent Bike Carrier (experienced)
Once you’re more experienced at driving in France and think it’ll be your annual holiday than I would invest in a decent bike carrier. We did by a cheapo number (£90) that hooked onto the back of the boot but it was very distracting. For starters we kept questioning how it could possibly hold all the bikes, what if they fell off scenarios were running through our minds and what with the wheels spinning around it was somewhat distracting. Bike hire is everywhere in France so you could just do that but as we feel we’ve graduated to experienced car travellers we invested in a proper bike carrier. It has its own little tow bar and the bikes sit on the trailer. It also has its own number plate and we don’t feel its going to fall off anytime soon. This did set us back approx £300 for the tow bar plus £150 for the carrier but worth every penny. We detach it once we arrive.
So there you have my guide to road travelling in France. Let me know if I’ve missed anything. Finally here’s a post I wrote a while back about everything I love about France and a few things that I don’t!