Motorhome Travel In France I – Finding Campsites, Aires & Wild Places To Stay
Paul and I are in process of planning our next mini-trip in Europe. This time we’re going to stay at home, in France and explore some of the fabulous French Atlantic Coast.
It’s a gorgeous place and we’ve already got a bunch of “must see” spots that we know we want to visit, but we’re also keeping our plans fairly loose. Thankfully both our nimble little motorhome, the time of year that we’ve planned to go and the many thousands of travel-friendly sites in France allow us to do exactly that! Zen and the art of motorhome travel….right?
It’s the joy of European RV travel and it’s tons more flexible than the type of planning we used to have to do for “the beast” back in the USA. But even with our new fly-by-the-wind style we do have a few tools and tricks under our belts to ensure things go smoothly and we end up in exactly the kind of places we really prefer. That includes traveling in the right seasons, knowing how to find the best places to stay, being aware of road rules (including the obscure ones they have in France!!), and using sites to help us plan for and minimize road costs.
It’s all useful stuff, but it’s also a lot of material, so I’ve decided to write it up over several posts as little “mini-series” on planning for motorhome travel in France. Hopefully you’ll find it useful should you decide to come this way one day yourselves! Enjoy!
1. French Camping Seasons & When To Book
Like all countries France has a “high season” and a “low season” for motorhome travel.
High season is summer, particularly July & Aug. That’s when kids are out of school and when campgrounds, especially in the mountains and along the coast, are likely to get crazy full. So if you’re traveling in summer and want to stay in developed campgrounds in those areas, it’s a really good idea to book ahead. However if you stick to in-land travel (basically just stay away from the popular spots), or you travel in the off-season you’re unlikely to need any bookings at all.
Campgrounds are also highly seasonal for when they open and close, so you’ll find most sites in France open in the beginning of April and close end of Sept. There are a few campgrounds that stay open all year, but the majority do not. Thankfully there are tons of other options (see #2 below) for places to stay in the off-season, so as long as you’re willing to be flexible (and possibly forgo full amenities), you won’t have a problem parking up.
2. Where Can You Camp/Stay In A Motorhome In France?
There are actually FIVE different types of places you can stay in a Motorhome in France:
2.1 Developed Campgrounds
Developed campgrounds are everywhere in France. They are ranked by a star system similar to hotels from one star to five stars, according to their amenities. One-star places are the cheapest/simplest and are only required to offer the minim pitch size (less than a hundred pitches per hectare) and a minimum set of amenities such as showers, toilets and washing areas. Five-star are the fanciest/most expensive and will offer guaranteed larger pitches as well as service in multiple languages (including English) and extra amenities such as on-site pool and gaming areas, gym, on-site restaurant and so on etc.
In addition, campgrounds may be run by the city or by individuals:
Municipal Campgrounds are managed by the local municipality. They tend to run around the two-three star range, but you can find a few 4-star options too. They are always family-friendly and tend to provide everything you need for a reasonable price (~EUR 10-25 per night)
Private Campgrounds are managed by individuals and run the gamut from one to five star. These can be very simple, family-friendly affairs or they can luxurious and highly specialized. So for example you can find adult-only campgrounds (if you want to avoid kids) and naturalist campgrounds (for those who prefer to do it all in the buff). Prices can run anywhere from EUR 15 to 100 or more per night.
In all cases “fancier” campgrounds cost more, but prices are also seasonal ticking higher in summer, and dropping lower at the beginning and end of the season. Plus you can nab extra discounts in the off-season if they’re part of a membership club (see #4 below). Lastly the star-system is decent, but is not an absolute guarantee of quality. Always read reviews (see #3 below) before you go.
2.2 Aires De Camping
As you travel across France you’ll come across several different types of “aires” (=areas) such as “aire de service” (service areas) and “aire de repos” (rest areas) etc. You can access all of these in a motorhome, but the type that’s especially attractive for overnight stays are “aires de camping” (camping areas).
These are semi-developed places specifically for motorhome travelers and there are thousands of them all across France! Usually they’re just overnight spots, but some aires do allow multi-night stays. Also, some are really basic (just a parking lot), but many provide at least some services (e.g. grey water disposal & fresh water fill) while others will go the extra mile with “fancy” amenities such as electrical hookups and bathrooms.
However the three things they all share in common and which makes them SUPER attractive to motorhome travelers are that they are universally inexpensive (there’s either a small fee of EUR 2-10 or sometimes they’re even FREE!), they are first-come-first-serve (no reservations needed!) and they are open year around*. So when French campgrounds are closed for the season you always have lots of alternative, flexible, cheap options to stay. Again, we use websites/apps & books (see #3) to help us find and chose these spots as we travel around.
NOTE/ Some Aires do close in winter (especially in the high mountains), and many will turn of water during the coldest months. However the main parking areas often stay open.
2.3 Camping-Car Parks
Camping-Car Parks are a specific type of “aire de camping” that have been gaining in popularity in France over the past few years.
They are identical to “regular aires” in that they’re semi-developed places for motorhomes where you can park short-term, year-round. However they do tend to be a little nicer/more developed than regular aires so they have a few more amenities (generally separated parking spots, bathrooms etc.) and also cost a smidgen more (~EUR 6-15). Plus they are accessed electronically (by card) and (perhaps the biggest difference) they take reservations!
The way you use them is that you buy an access card for EUR 4 either online or at the place you plan to stay, then you load-up the card with cash (at the site, online or using your phone) and use it whenever you need to enter or exit a park in the system (costs deducts automatically from the card at every use).
There are ~200 of these parks at present in France and it’s a growing trend. We’ve already used a few so far and my prediction is that more and more aires will join this program over time.
2.4 Municipal Parking Lots
The wonderful thing about France is that motorhomes have pretty much the same rights as cars with regards to parking in regular parking lots.
According to the French “code de la route” (driving law), motorhomes can park anywhere cars can tant que le stationnement n’est ni dangereux, ni gênant, ni abusif (articles R417-9 through R417-13) = as long as you do not park in a dangerous, obstructive or abusive way. That opens up a TON of possibilities!!
Now individual towns DO have the right to bar/prohibit motorhomes, but it has to be specifically marked. So if you see a parking area or “aire de stationnement”, it should clearly say if motorhomes are not allowed. This tends to happen in popular locations (e.g. in coastal towns), but is rare in smaller, off-the-beaten-track spots.
So basically if you’re driving through a small village and fancy a stop, typically you can just go to the city parking lot and do so. Just check that there aren’t any specific prohibitions, and treat it with respect. This isn’t a campsite, so don’t take up the whole lot or break out your chairs & BBQ, but go ahead and park-up or enjoy a quiet night if you wish. Oh the extra nice thing about this? It’s typically FREE!
2.5 Wild Camping
Wild Camping is basically camping on public land “in the wilds” and for many campers finding this kind of site is the ultimate thrill. There are no amenities or hookups, but you’re deep in nature and it’s FREE! In the USA we’d call this boondocking and it’s definitely something that’s close to our hearts.
Now unfortunately in France there is not a ton of public land open to motorhomes. National & Regional parks usually allow tent-campers & backpackers on their trails but prohibit motorhome parking unless it’s in a designated area. Also wild-camping is generally prohibited all along the coast, in protected natural sites, and on the perimeter of classified historic monuments. That said, there are a few places you can look for wild sites:
- Road Pull-Outs & Gravel Lots – Outside of towns you’ll often see road pull-outs or gravel lots, especially along the smaller D-type roads. Some of these can be very large and scenic, and parking overnight is generally legal (as long as you aren’t parked dangerously or obstructively!), So if you see a spot that calls your name where you can safely park out-of-the way, then go ahead and stop.
- Parking & Rest Areas – As I mentioned in 2.4 (above) motorhomes in France have pretty much the same rights as cars when it comes to parking. So, if you see a spot that looks interesting (e.g. an informal parking or rest area), and there is nothing signed that specifically prohibits motorhomes (always check this!), then you can happily park up. Once again, just make sure you’re not parked dangerously or obstructively.
- Private Land & Farms (with Permission) – Parking your motorhome is allowed on private land as long as you have permission from the land-owner. Now it’s not really the “done thing” in France for folks to just walk up to random landowners and ask if they can park on their land (although I’m sure some have done it!), but thankfully there are official ways to find these spots! Rural camping areas, often called “aires naturelles” can easily be found online. Also dedicated clubs such as France Passion (see #3 below) allow campers to park on farms, wineries and other cool private land all around France.
3. How Do You Find These Camping Spots?
So now that you know all the types of camping you can do in France, how do you actually find these spots??
Well the wonderful thing about our modern world is that there are lots of really good apps & websites for locating camgrounds, aires and wild camping spots both in France and across Europe. In our travels so far, we’ve found the following to be invaluable:
- Park4Night – this is the #1 app we’ve used so far, both in France and in Spain, and the first app I recommend to every motorhome owner. It’s super detailed, has tons of reviews & contains absolutely EVERYthing from campgrounds to wild camping spots. Available online or as an app (Android or iPhone)
- CamperContact – created by Dutch campers, it specializes in places to park & overnight stops (rather than developed campgrounds) so it covers everything from Aires to parking lots. It has photos (always nice) and a good number of reviews. Also (extra bonus) you can download all the info to your TomTom or Garmin if you have one. It’s got 7,025 points in France. Available in website form or as an app (Android or iPhone).
- Search4Sites – again, another nice app with lots of very detailed reviews. It’s a UK-based site and is used mainly by UK-based motorhomers, so there are lots of English-speaking reviews on this one (which can be an advantage). Plus it does have lots of extra details not covered by other apps (e.g. dog-friendliness, motorhome size etc.) and a very active Facebook group to accompany it (always nice). I’ve found it mostly useful for campground reviews when I want the “extra scoop”, but I’ve also used it for a few Aires. Available in online version, or as an app (Android or iPhone)
In France specifically, we also carry a book just for Motorhome Aires. Sometimes it’s just nice to be able to have paper in your hands, and the guide is pretty useful. We have the Michelin book, but there are a few different ones:
- Michelin Guide – Escapades en Camping Car (released every year). This is the one we have.
- Camping-Car – Official Guide Aire de Service Camping Car (released every year). The “official” guide.
4. Campground & Club Memberships Worth Joining
Lastly I want to talk about campground memberships & clubs.
There are many different clubs that you can sign up for in Europe, but like all memberships they’re not really worth much if you don’t use them! So our recommendation is always to wait & see what kind of traveler you are before you sign-up for a bunch of stuff. That said, there’s two memberships that we’ve found to be particularly useful both in France and beyond:
ASCI – if you only wanted to sign-up for one membership, this is the one I’d recommend! ASCI is basically the European equivalent of “Passport America”. For the mere price of ~EUR 18 per year it provides discounted prices at thousands of campgrounds across Europe, with only one catch. The discounts are only in the low season! Since we travel mostly in the off-season, we’ve been able to use this membership at almost every campground we’ve been to so far in France & Spain. We made up the cost of membership in our first few stays and have saved hundreds of euros since! SO worth it! Click for their website HERE.
France Passion – I mentioned this in #2 as one of the best (and easiest) ways to find wild camping spots in France, and it really is. France Passion is HUGE, covering 10,000 (!!!) free rural stops at private wineries and farms all across France. Stops are typically just overnight, and the normal etiquette is that you buy something from your host (so technically, the stop isn’t really “free”), but if you want to get off-the-beaten-track and enjoy some gourmet stops along the way, then this membership is for you. Click for their website HERE.
Coming Up Next -> Part II – Navigating Road Travel, Autoroute Tolls & Road Rules