Travel by Camper Van in France

We travel a lot in my family, either day trips or weekends away…but also long distances, usually by plane or car. One method I’ve always wanted to try, the RV or camper van, looks even more appealing now that my kids are older and especially with Covid. My good friend, Deb Lewis, travels around France, Italy and Spain by camper and I asked her some questions and got some really great advice! I hope it helps you if you’re wondering about taking the plunge into travel by Camper Van as well! – Anne @AquitaineTravelGuide

Why a Camper Van :

My husband Mehdi has always loved the idea of owning a camper van – I haven’t…to me it was something reserved for the older generation and I always cut the conversation short if he mentioned it. How wrong I was….

In Autumn 2014 my Dad died suddenly, and then in early 2015 Mehdi had several serious health issues. We had some tough and stressful times. So that summer, when amazing friends of ours offered to let us borrow their camper van to give us some downtime away from all the worry and stress, we jumped at the chance.  We went to Lacanau (beach community in the Medoc) and what can I say? It was a total revelation for me!

We spent 4 nights there and, honestly, we could have been in another world…yet we were only 1 and 1/2 hours from home!  We were so relaxed, the kids loved the camper van experience, and we all enjoyed spending quality time together and getting close to nature. 

I was hooked almost straight away.  Even though we didn’t travel far and wide with that first trip, I loved the idea of the freedom and flexibility a CV would give us.  I couldn’t stop thinking about how useful it would be to own one, especially here in the Nouvelle Aquitaine with so many wonderful places to visit literally on our doorstep.  Not only could we go on long summer holidays, we could also decide on a whim to take a weekend break or overnight stop to the coast, or the mountains if the weather is good. 

As soon as we got back home from Lacanau, I was on “Le Bon Coin” searching for camper vans to see what our savings could get us.  After losing Dad, I really felt like – What the hell, life’s too short, so let’s go for it!

We researched for a couple of months and visited the Salon de Bordeaux which has lots of Motorhomes (camping car in French) to visit. Our budget didn’t stretch to new, but boy are they beautiful !

In March 2016 we took possession of “Coral the camper”, a second hand Adriatik Coral 670 DK from 2005.  Actually bought from an acquaintance who wanted to upgrade, so we were comforted as we knew who we were buying from.

Coral might be 15 years old now, but she has everything our family wants from a Camper.  The kids have their own bunk beds at the back, we have our double bed over the drivers cabin, and we can also go away with each of our mums as we can convert the 2 dining tables to an extra double and an extra single bed. We have everything we need in the kitchen area, a separate bathroom with toilet, shower and sink, and there’s heating and even a TV.     

Since buying Coral, we have taken longer summer holidays to Spain (over the Pyrenees to Costa Brava and Dorada), been over the Alps to tour the Italian lakes, toured the Brittany coastline and this year we toured the Normandy coastline and the DDay beaches. 

We have also had great little trips over long weekends, bank holidays etc to amazing spots in the Nouvelle Aquitaine – Biarritz, Pyrenees and the Basque Country, Arcachon Bay, Lacanau, Biscarosse, Ile d’Oléron, Rocamadour in the Lot, Millau and the Aveyron and more recently the Dordogne

Coral has been a Godsend particularly this year as the Covid-19 pandemic has made organising holidays a bit of a nightmare.  Having our own motorhome has allowed us to continue travelling, giving us peace of mind as we are completely independent and don’t have to eat out or use shared toilet or showers if we don’t want to. And also it has allowed us to be completely flexible, no need to prebook.  Indeed we only decided on our Normandy tour this summer the day before leaving and after having checked out the COVID case map.

License Needed and Insurance :

For a classic camper van weighing no more than 3.5 tons, there is no need for a special driving license, a french Permis B is fine – even I can drive Coral (although I get a bit freaked out as she’s pretty big!). Above 3,5 tons you need a Heavy Goods Vehicle license or Permis C in France. 

You need to be insured, as you would a car. 

Where to Rent :

You can rent directly from owners through various websites like Le Bon Coin, although personally I wouldn’t advise it for a first experience. 

There are several companies specializing in renting campers from private owners – WikiCampers and Yescapa are just 2 in France.  We did actually rent Coral out one summer through Yescapa, but have since decided we prefer to keep her to ourselves.  I must say that their service was excellent, they provide lots of great tips and advice for renters and owners alike.  They also organize insurance for your trip, ensure that the Camper up for rent has the up to date control technique, and is fully registered and insured by the owner. They draw up official rental contacts, giving added security for both parties. 

Tips for a better trip :

It’s important to remember that a Camper Van is not like a car, there are roads that your navigation might send you down where a Camper Van shouldn’t go, so two sets of eyes on the road are a must.

Do not venture down a road, over a bridge, or in a tunnel if forbidden for over 3.5 tons or over 3m in height.

And I would even add, when in doubt – don’t!  It’s better to turn around and take another route instead of getting stuck down a narrow, windy road.  As every camper is different, a tip is to have a post-it near the steering wheel showing the height and weight of your vehicle as a reminder.

Campers are so big and a small accident or breakage is easily done.  On our first trip out with Coral, Mehdi managed to hit a tree reversing at Hostens lake, and he broke the back lights – oops! Moral of the story – when maneuvering ask a passenger to get out and guide you as it’s not always easy to judge distances or see overhanging tree branches just with your mirror and reversing camera.

Parking can be limited in some towns and villages, so look out for the signs and make use of the App mentioned below to help you find places to park.

All passengers should have seatbelts – for example our camper van has 5 sets of seatbelts but actually sleeps up to 7.  We therefore cannot legally drive with 7 people in the Camper.

Internal fixtures and fittings can sometimes be quite delicate, so when travelling with children, ask them to get a grown up to open windows, blinds etc to avoid accidentally breakages.

What to Bring Along :

To me, an outside table and chair set are a must. Along with a sun blind for shade on sunny days (usually already attached to the side of the camper).  A Gas BBQ for outdoor cooking, torches, paper maps.

Bikes are handy too – a lot of motorhomes have a bike rack on the back.  If you have bikes with you, it makes accessing town centers a lot easier, as you can park out of town and cycle in.

When we rented out Coral, and as suggested by Yescapa, we provided a folder of handy information, along with a checklist of things to remember before setting out – for example, make sure all cupboard doors are closed properly, gas turned off, windows closed, TV aerial down etc.  And of course the all-important – how to empty the toilet (eugh! – not my job thank goodness!).  So if you’re renting, it will be helpful to ensure the owner provides you with this for your trip.

Handy websites for information needed to travel, or books to read :

Park4Night is a brilliant free App which shows where you can park overnight, or just park up to visit a town, refill water, or empty the used water tank.  There’s usually photos of the spot with other users comments, noting the cost (if any) and a direct link to your choice of satnav to navigate you to the destination.  I use it lots to plan our trips, and have found some excellent places to stay.  I would say this is an absolute MUST for any camper van trip. 

In general we like to alternate between nights in motorhome areas Aires de camping car usually provided by each town or village Mairie (city hall) for a cost up to 16€ per night, and nights in a campsite so the children can enjoy the facilities on site. Sometimes we like “freestyling” (as I call it) – parking up in the middle of nowhere, if allowed.  Depending on the country you visit, freestyle camping may or may not be allowed so read up before you go.

Some Aires de Camping car are just like car parks with vehicles all packed in close together on tarmac and in my opinion are really best avoided unless there is a particular tourist highlight nearby you wish to visit. With a bit of searching and reading the comments on the App, you can find some lovely, calm spots close to nature or with beautiful viewpoints – for example this summer we found a wonderful private aire with a perfect view of the Mont St Michel, just a 3km cycle ride away, lots of grassy areas for the kids to play and for us to eat outside – all for just 11€ per night, including being able to refill the water tank.   

We have the Michelin “Escapades en Camping Car” guide book which follows us everywhere, as it gives great ideas for itineraries in France, and they have a European version too.

There is also an excellent French Network called “France Passion” (France Passion : La France des terroirs en camping-car (france-passion.com) which you can sign up to on a yearly basis.  For a small annual fee, you have access to a guide book of over 2000 independent farms and vineyards who welcome Motorhomes for overnight stays for free.  The idea being that the user benefits from a safe and calm overnight stop, and the property owner can offer their produce or services. 

We stayed on an Ostrich farm in the Drôme once, and were able to try Ostrich pâté from the little farm shop and also show the kids ostrich eggs and watch them in the fields / 1120 Chemin des Bruyeres, 26250 Livron sur Drome / +33 (0)6 01 74 73 14 / Ferme de l’Autruche Drômoise | La Drôme Tourisme (ladrometourisme.com)

I also read up on different campervan websites and blogs, where users share their itineraries, to get hints and tips for forthcoming trips.

Top three places to go in Nouvelle Aquitaine :

This is a hard one as there are so many lovely places to visit!

1.Inland Basque Country, Around Espelette, Ascain and St Jean Pied de Port – With its stunning viewpoints, rolling hills and architecture.  There is so much to see and do from hiking, playing in the river, Le petit train de la Rhune, and then of course Biarritz and St Jean de Luz are not far away.  It really is ideal for a mini touring holiday.

2. Dordogne : so rich in history and oh so beautiful – We particularly loved the area around Sarlat, La Roque Gageac, Beynac et Cazenac, Domme. The towns, villages and chateaux are almost straight out of a fairy tale.  Then up to Les Eyzies de Tayac and Montignac for some prehistoric visits. There is plenty to do, and it’s perfect for a motorhome adventure.

3. Arcachon Bay – A particular favorite of ours for a quick weekend stop is Andernos les Bains, but there are so many wonderful places to stay. There’s a campsite right on the Pilat dune which provides the most memorable sunsets looking out over the ocean.

The list could go on as we have also had wonderful trips to Ile d’Oléron and Vieux Boucau amongst others….

We do have heating, and so in theory could use Coral all year round, but the earliest we have ventured out is April and the latest is October.

Contrary to what I have always thought, Camper Vans are great for young families. When we ask our children what their favorite part of going away in Coral is – they always mention, sleeping all together in such a small space, playing board games together and our cinema nights on rainy or cold evenings during our Autumn adventures.  That’s when I know that we did the right thing investing in a motorhome whilst the children are young, having this special time with them is precious and creates such wonderful memories. 

Thank you so much for your time and great incite, Deb! Looking forward to our own trip now! 🙂

Check out French Passion for free places to park your CV – in farms and vineyards where you can meet the producers, take a tour, buy their products and cook with them! https://www.france-passion.com/en/

Professional RV couple Nina en Paul (and their furry friends) give great advice and tips for travel all over Europe and the USA https://wheelingit.us/category/europe-tips/?fbclid=IwAR2P9wCsUlbECrV_QCTfsUfMrkz6CpQLKmEUgXfspHpibTkZNgidVxb_qL0

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