Thought we would share some thoughts on our trip to France in the summer of 2015. If anyone out there has wondered or feared what it is like to tow outside our shores, then maybe this will give some food for thought. To date, this is our only trip abroad with the caravan but we have driven abroad on numerous holidays, so right-hand side driving holds no fears generally. Hopefully this blog will help anyone thinking about it for a first time or prompt seasoned European travellers to comment on own experiences or offer further advice.
The Boss wanted to go to The Alps, he told me it was to guarantee warm and sunny weather, but clearly there was some ‘hill’ he wanted to ride his bike up. Last time we went to France I had to sit in the back while the tandem travelled in style stretched from dashboard to boot in a Ford Focus. Not this time, the tandem and his solo bike were carefully placed into the caravan via the front window.
We found and booked the sites utilising the Caravan Club website, for our next trip we are considering the ‘Camping Cheque‘ network as we are planning a 50 day trip (guess who’s 50 next year) in 2017 and need to keep cost in hand, you can also book Channel Crossings through the Caravan Club but we decided to book this ourselves. Many of our choices are made for a simple reason, we are ‘tight’ with our money. So we cashed in Tesco clubcard reward points on Euro Tunnel return tickets and got a great deal, ie Free. We have other reasons to prefer the train; you can choose a travel time to suit you perfectly, quick arrival/boarding process under normal conditions, quick journey, and cost. We also hear stories of caravans grounding on ship loading ramps at some terminals which we don’t fancy much. Any advice on cheap Sea routes into Europe are welcomed in comments section below. Driving onto the train is fairly straightforward, the loading ramps are very wide, you drive onto the back of the train and drive all the way through every carriage as you will depart via the front end of the train. It is fairly narrow driving through carriages, not near the mirrors but near the wheels, just get yourself straight, keep checking the mirrors and avoid see-sawing the steering wheel.
Some forward planning I forgot to mention. You MUST check the legal driving requirements for each country you are going to drive in, typically this will include items like warning triangles, high-viz vests, fire extinguisher, complete bulb sets and even alcohol breathalyser in some countries. Make sure you check!!! Normally about £30 on your Amazon account will cover all this stuff and you should carry these items anyway. Daytime Lights are often required too, not a problem (or choice) for us Volvo drivers.
One of the best investments we made was the Sanef ‘Liber-T‘ windscreen tag that was used on the Toll ‘péage’ booths. You can purchase this in the UK before your holiday from http://www.saneftolling.co.uk. Many of the motorways (Autoroutes) in France have Toll sections, you tend to drive in and out of Toll ‘péage’ sections and to be honest, on a previous trip we found the cost a bit of a lottery, not in a dishonest way, just that it is hard to quickly decipher the tariffs when it was easier to just pay the amount on the screen. To be very clear, you could expect to budget £100 in tolls from Top to Bottom of France. Many people will not use Toll Autoroutes and I don’t blame them, quite often you will see a beautiful tree lined road running parallel to the Autoroute, almost always empty and free of charge too. However, we were on a tight schedule to cover many miles in a short time plus dragging a caravan through City Centres is not ideal. A motor-home without a schedule would almost always take the scenic, free and leisurely option.
Why buy the windscreen tag? The best reason is that the locals do not realise they are available to UK residents, so sit in their long queue sniggering as you drive up the ‘Liber-T’ lane expecting an embarrassing disaster to befall you. Then ‘ping’, up goes the barrier, I do admit there is always a split second panic as you wait for it, and you are through, there are even some 30kph non stop lanes you can use. Also, the booths are normally set up for left hand drive cars, so your passenger does the communicating/paying or you have to strrreeetttcchh across or get out while the cars behind tap their steering wheels, surely the French would not toot their horns!!! One final piece of advice, we did not stick it to the windscreen or ever leave in view, these are valuable things to a thief as you get the bill in the following month, we would just hold it near the mirror as we approached the barrier.
Speed Limits while towing on French Autoroutes. Please check before you travel rather than take my word, when we travelled there were different speed limits based on the Gross Weight of your Car/Caravan combined. Less than 3.5t (us at the time) was 130kph (approx 80mph!!!!) in dry conditions and 110kph in wet conditions – or – Over 3.5t, 90kph (approx 56mph) dry or wet conditions. So know your weights as these are very different limits. I enjoyed Autoroute driving, they are not as congested as UK motorways, rarely have traffic hold ups and they don’t hang about which actually means you need to overtake less (and I tow at a decent speed) thus making life easier.
Some thoughts on Right-Hand driving. It is difficult to put this across, but it really quickly becomes quite a natural process, have your passenger stay alert for the first few junctions just to give two sets of eyes and to help decipher unfamiliar road signs until you are used to them. If you are towing a caravan you will be using your left mirrors before performing overtakes, get used to speed/distance calculations on the Autoroutes and as a general precaution don’t attempt overtakes on single roads unless you are 100% certain that the view is clear as you need to put a lot of your vehicle over the centre line before you can see. If you are a confident driver in the UK then you should pick up continental driving easily. Concentrate at junctions and plot your exit line before pulling out. At roundabouts I found that it was similar to UK and you give way to traffic on the roundabout, but keep very aware and focused as some roundabouts/some drivers give priority to entering traffic as we encountered on our Tandem at the ‘Arc de Triomphe’, that was fun!!
This blog could go on for page after page but I will close it with a few thoughts on what to expect on a French site. We stopped on three sites. Two great. One not so great (outside disco, entertainment, bouncy castles, not for us, but families may disagree). On the two sites we liked there was a really “chilled out” ambience where pitches were occupied by the French, Dutch, German, Italian and British in equal measure, all very friendly and all in the same relaxed mindset, and a real bonus to sit out every night drinking very cheap, quality wine in the warm evenings. Pitches tend to be less green/lush than your typical Caravan Club site so can appear worn and dusty with more use of trees and shrubs between units. Tents often share the site and it is not uncommon to see a group of 4 or 5 tents occupy a pitch between caravan pitches. Some of this may sound negative but we did not see it that way and found this trip the most enjoyable and memorable caravan holiday to date. If you are 50/50 on a European trip, go on, do a bit of ‘google’ homework and just go for it.