The News Room‎ > ‎

A Few Tips For Your First French Trip

posted Mar 20, 2013, 3:40 AM by site admin
Thanks to Sky for taking the time to write this article from his experiences and Donating it to the site . A fellow member from www.wildcamping.co.uk which we all post on.


Having been wilding full time in France since the beginning of August last year, I thought I would pass on a few tips that may save future travellers from some of the difficulties I've encountered and maybe save them a little money too.

It had been my intention to spend August/September in France, then October/November in Portugal and December to April in Spain – most of it in Spain because I can speak a fair bit of Spanish. As it turned out, I liked France so much I decided to stay.

This was my first trip abroad in a motorhome so it was all new to me. I'd lived full time in a van previously for a few years in the UK (that I'd converted myself to a basic level), but had very little experience of coachbuilts or camp-sites.

Gas Bottles

If like me you have 6kg bottles in a tiny cupboard, it will be worth every penny to get a Gaslow or GasIt system fitted. I didn't, but I ended up spending as much money on bottle deposits, new pipes and adapters etc. (at high French prices) than a Gas It system would have cost me (and I would have eventually got that money back with cheaper refills). I was going to do this conversion before I left the UK, but they had closed down for a two week summer holiday at the time I needed to do it. 

Because my gas cupboard is so small, the only bottle I could fit in it was the ButagazCube. The trouble was only one would fit in there so I had to carry a second in my back box. 

I should have left one of my 6kg bottles in the UK and brought just one to France (to use between Cube refills). Instead, I ended up with two empty 6kg bottles in my back box along with the spare Cube, but hindsight comes too late doesn't it?

If you have 13kg bottles or bigger, you'll be fine; just get the adapters in the UK before you leave (they're cheaper than in France) and only take one bottle. You can then get a French bottle and just use the UK one between refills of the French one.

The main reason I got into this pickle was because I couldn't find someone to give me a straight answer as to what I should do and what adapters I would need. I visited eight or nine dealers and accessory shops only to find that most staff didn't even know what to do in the UK, let alone abroad. Sadly, I only discovered this forum a week or so before I left otherwise I would have found the answer on here.

Batteries & Charging

I wanted to fit a solar panel or buy a generator, but I couldn't make up my mind which to go for – again because I was getting conflicting advice. In the end I didn't bother with either –and as it turned out I didn't need them. An hour's drive every couple of days to move onto the next spot was always enough to recharge my batteries.

I will however, be adding a solar panel in the future. These work out cheaper than generators and are a lot more environmentally (and neighbourly) friendly as well as being free to run. You'll only need a generator if you intend to run high current devices like hair-driers or microwave ovens.

I fitted a second leisure battery in parallel with my existing one and kept a separate charged battery under the passenger seat along with a set of jump leads and charger for emergencies. I needed to use this twice to start the van because I had accidentally switched over to the van battery instead of the leisure battery and depleted it watching TV. I've now disabled this switch – stupid idea to have it in the first place in my opinion.

Lighting

I converted all my internal lights to SMD LED devices as soon as I got my van. Luckily, I had the foresight to research this on here before I left the UK. LED bulbs cost a fortune in the UK and even more so in France, but if you get them on eBay from China, they cost next to nothing. £15.00 to £20.00 each in the UK and 20% dearer in France. The ones from China cost me £1.25 each. As I needed about a dozen it was a considerable saving.

Television

I bought a 12/230v LED television with built in Freeview and DVD player because of it's low power consumption. This combined with LED lighting meant I used very little power each evening. 

Van Accessories

These are much dearer in France – by as much as 50% in places, so be sure to take everything you need like levellers, chocks, EHU cables and adapters, hose-pipes and adapters and loo chemicals etc. 

The good thing about French dealers and accessory shops is that the staff know their subject and are more than happy to help you. Unlike the ignorant and grumpy English ones I'd met who were only interested if I was looking to buy a new van.

Aires de Camping Car

You will have heard of Aires elsewhere, but they are a lot better than some people will have you believe (probably those who prefer camp-sites). Obviously, there are the odd exceptions, but in my experience that's mainly because they've either been neglected or abused – I only found two or three like this.

Mostly, they are terrific. You don't always get a nice view and some can be a bit noisy, but most that I've stayed at have been spot on (another one is never too far away if you don't like the first anyway). 

The only thing that annoyed me about quite a few of them is that they were near churches – I'm an atheist and find church bells an annoying noise pollution. I'm sure most of you will be the opposite and enjoy the sound of the campanologists and their clappers. 

The general advice is no furniture outside, no awnings or laundry drying etc. However, in my experience most people put out a chair or two and I only ever heard of one instance when someone was asked to put them away. Considerate parking and not playing loud music or TV is more important (I used headphones).

I found it best to arrive at your intended Aire between 1400 and 1500 each day. Any later than that often saw them full up as some only have space for a few vans.

Mostly, overnight parking is free, but the odd few do charge a few Euros – I just avoided them.

Wild Camping

There are very few restrictions and in general you can park almost anywhere with no problems. Very few car parks have height restrictions and I never saw one that had over night parking/camping restrictions and a lot have outside water taps and toilets. 

Obviously, be sensible and don't park near people's property and in busy town centres. In some town centres, there are blue-painted parking boxes. This doesn't mean you have to pay, but it means you should display a disc (a bit like a disabled badge holders disc) to show what time you arrived because there are time limits. These can normally be purchased in the shops that have the blue lines outside for just a few Euros.

There are lay-bys everywhere; just choose the quieter ones off the main roads. Once you are out of town and away from main roads you will be amazed at just how quiet it is. The roads are almost deserted most of the time anyway and very few people drive at night. 

I like fishing, so a lot of the time I opted for river and lakeside options. This is almost impossible in the UK, but all it costs in France is 
€80.00 for an annual permit that allows you to fish just about anywhere at no extra charge. Whatever you do though; don't fish without one – the authorities can confiscate ALL of your fishing gear if you're caught.

The are unmade roads all over France that are called Chemins. There are very few restrictions on their use and I found many places where I could park for the night and go for long walks and cycle rides.

Electric Hook Up

Because of the LED lights and TV, I didn't need to hookup at all through August, September and October as it was warm enough and light enough until bedtime. A short engine run every couple of days kept everything charged. 

However, once November came along, I found I had to start using the heating in the evening which soon got through the gas. Luckily, a lot of Aires have free electricity as well as free water and waste disposal. Needless to say, I took advantage of this and would stay at each Aire for the maximum time allowed (mostly three days at a time). I always tried to pay back the local community by shopping in the village rather than using supermarkets as much as I could.

Be careful not to have too many things on at once. It's very easy to overload the trip and leave yourself without electricity. Luckily, the ones I used were OK up to about 10 amps, but after accidentally tripping one out once (embarrassing) by forgetting my water heater was on when I put the central heating on, I decided to limit my usage to 8 amps or less (to allow for any surges). This equates to around 2KW of power; which is the same as my electric heating. 

Water & Waste

As mentioned above; mostly this for free. The French (like us) really don't like paying taxes unless they have to and because of this will nearly always avoid the Aires that charge for it. This means that the majority don't charge – if they do it's just a couple of Euros for water anyway (waste is always free). 

By making sure I always topped up with water at the free ones; I only ever had to pay for water once.

You can nearly always get drinking water from outside taps at public toilets and in big car parks (where they hold local markets) as well. Just avoid the ones that say Non Potable (not drinkable).

Camp-sites

I chose to stay at one once. That was when the temperature at the Aire I was staying at reached fifty degrees one day in late August or early September. I retreated to a camp-site with shaded parking and a swimming pool. It cost me €16.00 (with a discount ACSI card) per day for the two days I was there plus €5.00 for the use of their WiFi. In the end I decided I'd find my own shade elsewhere even though it was a relatively cheap price. Still, I managed to do my laundry while I was there (a little cheaper than the launderettes) and have some really long showers.

ACSI Card

I only mention this because I mentioned it in the previous paragraph. They are only of use if you want to use camp-sites – I'll never bother again, far too many people around for my liking.

Basically, it gives you off season discounts at camp-sites all over Europe. Details can be found here.

Laundry

A lot of towns have launderettes and the washing fees are quite acceptable. However, the machines don't spin dry very fast and will always leave your clothes dripping wet. This means if you use their tumble driers it can be very expensive. Buy yourself a washing line for a couple of Euros that you can suspend between your van and a tree – your washing will dry in an hour in summer and pretty quickly in winter too (unless there's no wind or it's raining).

Ferry crossings

These vary tremendously in price so do your research. I was quoted as low as £40.00 (one way) and as high as £500.00. I ended up travelling from Dover to Calais on a single ticket for £40.00 and will be travelling back Le Havre to Portsmouth for €55.00 (an extra €12.00 if I'd wanted a cabin).

Insurance

Van – to get full twelve month European cover the best deal I found was with Equity Red Star. A little under £300.00.

Travel – The best deal for a six month policy I managed to find was through Staysure (only for over 50s).

Breakdown Cover
ADAC; definitely, the best cover available and only around €80.00. The AA wanted nearly £600.00! 

Security
I was a bit nervous about this initially as I was going to be on my own. Don't get me wrong, I'm no scaredy cat 
 and I did lots of martial arts when I was younger - I even got a black belt in Karate. However, I'm in my mid 50s now and have a really bad back. Through fear of what I'd read about gassing and muggings, I bought myself a telescopic baton and a can of pepper spray (both perfectly legal in France). Anyway, my fears were completely unfounded - everyone has been incredibly friendly and half the time now I don't even bother locking my door at night. 

Books vs Kindle

I swore I would never use a Kindle, but I was given a Sony e-reader by a very friendly couple I met (they had changed to Kindles). Now I love books and imagined I would hate using this, but eventually I ran out of reading material and was forced to use it. I was surprised that I took to it as readily as I did – thanks John & Doreen. 

A couple of months later, I met someone who had just upgraded their Kindle to the latest colour one and I managed to buy their old one from them for €40.00 – full of books. Best €40.00 I ever spent – now I wouldn't be without it. I found this to be much better than the Sony and the battery lasts forever. It also has WiFi, so I can download new books from Amazon when I'm near a WiFi source.

Food Shopping

Carrefour, Intermarché, SuperU/HyperU and Lidl etc. are the cheapest. Watch prices closely, they can vary tremendously. On one particular shopping trip I just grabbed a bag of onions expecting them to be the usual €1.50, but they actually cost over €5.00 when I looked at the receipt later.

You can buy favourite teabags like Tetley and PG Tips in a lot of supermarkets, but you'll pay three or four times the UK price for them. So if you're a bit of a teapot make sure you take plenty with you.

The French don't drink tea much, so the type of tea (like Lipton's) that they sell here (same in Spain) is pretty naff. 

Chocolate is around 50% dearer here, so if you have a sweet tooth bring some with you.

Cooking

I like to cook and I'm pretty good at it, but the last thing I wanted to do was spend a lot of time cooking. This would have meant more gas bottle changes and a good chance I'd make my van greasy and smelly.

I don't like junk food at the best of times – especially the processed, pre-prepared food that most people seem to like to eat today. I suppose it's my age and the fact that I like to know what goes in my food makes me a bit fussier. So, I opted to eat mainly rice (which I love) and occasionally pasta. Using simple,fresh ingredients and as much boiling (as opposed to frying) that I could.

This was great in summer when I was moving around a lot more, but once it got colder and I started staying in one place for longer (on EHU) I made a change that I NEVER would have expected to make – I discovered pre-prepared meals that didn't need to be kept in a fridge or freezer. These are available for between €1.50 and €4.00 each and are available in all supermarkets and branches of Lidl (Lidl being the cheapest). With the potential saving in gas, time and premium prices for fresh food I decided I had to give them a go.

Initially, I would float these in a frying pan full of boiling water for about ten minutes to heat them. Eventually, I decided as I was mainly on hook-up I may just as well get a microwave so I could heat them in two minutes as opposed to ten minutes. I could then use it for cooking rice too – always my preferred method for perfect results in ten minutes.

So having made that decision I went into Carrefour and bought a cheap microwave, electric kettle and toaster – the whole lot for less than €50.00. My gas bill suddenly halved – brilliant! I did see a plug-in two-ringed electric hob being used by a couple of people once and almost bought one of those when I saw it in an Intermarché for €25.00. I decided against it at the time, but may get one if I see one at that price again (normally they're about €50.00). 

Fuel

The best prices I've found are again at Carrefour and Intermarché. Currently I'm paying €1.28 per litre for diesel at Carrefour which is the cheapest I've found since I've been here. 

Beer & Wine Etc.

Drinking in bars here in rural France is very expensive so very few people do it. Of course Friday evenings you'll always find a few British ex-pats congregating if there are any in the area. 

I've always been a real ale drinker, but there's none of that in France so I had to change my drinking habits. I've always liked red wine, so it was time for me to do some experimenting.

After spending far too much money on very mediocre and not particularly cheap French wines I gave up trying to find one that suited my uneducated palate. I like full bodied wines like Malbec, Shiraz and Pinotage so I found most French wine too 'thin' – with the exception of a Roche Mazet Merlot (they do a Cabernet Sauvignon too) that can be found in most supermarkets for less than €3.00 a bottle.

Sadly, I have to admit that most of the time I've stuck to drinking Spanish and South African wine from Lidl because it's reliable and very cheap. The two I favour are a Spanish Tempranillo/Cabernet Sauvignon mix called Baturrica at €2.99 a bottle and a South African Cimarosa Pinotage at €2.19 a bottle. 

Don't get me wrong; I'm not knocking French wine at all (their more expensive varieties are the best in the world), but in my limited experience I've found that cheaper French wine is nowhere near as good as the South American, South African or Australian stuff that we've become used to getting in UK supermarkets for under a fiver a bottle.

Spirits are a little cheaper here, but a lot that we're used to are not available (e.g. Gordon's gin and Captain Morgans or Wood's rum). Armagnac or Calvados can bought for around €10.00 a bottle though which is pretty good.

Satellite Navigation & Maps

I've always disliked in-car navigation devices because the mapping is so notoriously unreliable and can often get you into trouble by putting you somewhere you don't want to be. However, I made an exception for this trip as I was going to be on my own (I'm not very good at reading maps whilst driving). 

A fellow member on this forum sold me a Tom Tom Go Live with all the European maps and trucking software on it. This allowed me to input the height and width of my van and it really kept me out of trouble. It also allowed me to avoid all toll roads. He was also very helpful on the phone and even sent me a new battery free of charge when after a few days use, the original one died (no fault of his obviously). 

In addition, he put lots of POI way-points on it for me; Wildcampingspots (from this website) Aires, LPG stops, Supermarkets, fuel stops etc. Many thanks for all your help Fairytooth– a brilliant service. 

Guide Books

I drove to Kent a couple of days before my ferry booking and called into the Vicarious Book Shop in Folkstone. I wanted to get the 'All The Aires' guide books for France, Spain & Portugal, but ended up spending over £100.00 and came away with more books than I really needed. I didn't mind because I love books anyway, but there was really no need to spend that much – I just couldn't help myself.

So, to save you some money – just buy All The Aires France and a French Road Atlas. There are many more books to choose from if you want them, but these are all you actually need.

Phones, WiFi & Computers

Initially, I had my UK contract iPhone, but that worked out too expensive to use and as the contract was almost up, I decided not to renew it and bought a French PAYG sim card from Orange. Data usage on ordinary PAYG sims in France is expensive unless you opt for a special data usage deal – there are many available depending on your budget. Remember to keep data switched off if you're not using it or it nicks all your credit - I lost €47.00 without even looking at my phone. 


If you want mobile internet on your computer, you can either tether it to your phone or get a dongle the same as you would in the UK. Again, prices vary and how much you spend will depend on your budget and usage. I would say give the free WiFi a go before you commit to anything.

Free WiFi (pronounced WeeFee) can be found at a lot of places. An easy one to spot is the big yellow M in the sky – McDonald’s (there's more nutrition in the packaging in my opinion). You will find a lot of cafés, restaurants, tourist offices and hotels offer this to their customers (you'll have to ask some for their security code). If you invest in an external antenna like this, you'll be able to access it without having to sit inside or park your van up against their window. I have one of these antennas and they work really well – from where I am at the moment I have no WiFi signal, but if I plug this in I can pick up five different sources (not that I can use them as they're private).

To run your laptop in your van, just buy a 12v charger. These can be bought on Amazon for as little as £10.00 if you go for an unbranded (non-original) one. This will keep your laptop battery topped up for when you sit outside using it, or it will run it as if it's on mains when you're on the van.

As a point of note for the non-technically minded; a mobile phone or WiFi connection is just a radio link. Radio signals have trouble getting into metal boxes like my Autoquest because they act like a Faraday cage which means you'll never get a decent signal inside it without an external antenna. If your van is plastic, you shouldn't have this problem, but you'll still get a big range improvement by using one.

Language Barrier

Although I had been to France many times before this trip there had always been a French/English speaking person around so I only needed to be able to say please and thank you etc. On this trip though, I was alone and had no one else to turn to for help – mistake! 

Although I'm saying this right at the end; the first thing you should do is learn some basic French. It doesn't need to be much, but if you are prepared to try you will be amazed at the difference in attitude you'll get from French people. I had heard this said before, but didn't believe a word of it.

Anyway, after a few embarrassing attempts at communicating when I first got here (contrary to popular belief shouting louder doesn't work) I decided to start studying it quickly – I used Michel Thomas (recommended) recordings along with a few phrase books I already had). I would suggest you learn the following as a bare minimum before you leave the UK (if you can't be bothered – at least write them down so you can refer to them):


  • Please, thank you, sorry and excuse me.
  • Sorry, I don't speak French.
  • I'm English (as if they didn't know)
  • I don't understand.
  • Do you speak English?
  • Is there anyone here who speaks English.
  • Can you help me please?
  • Where are the toilets?
  • How to order drinks/meal and how to ask for the bill afterwards.
  • Count up to twenty.
  • Thanks, I'm just looking (for when you go into shops)


Always carry a small French/English dictionary and a French to English phrasebook as well as an English to French phrasebook. This can be loaned to anyone trying to communicate with you that doesn't speak English – at least they can then point to the words, the same as you can.

Written French is a little harder to get to grips with than speaking it is, but you will be amazed at just how many words you already know. As sixty percent of English comes from French anyway; you just need to learn how to say them with a French accent. If you can imitate Inspector Clouseau you're halfway there.

It only takes fifteen minutes a day over a week or so to learn the above, so there really is no excuse. I wish I hadn't waited until I was in France before I learnt them.



Comments