France is a fantastic destination for a touring caravan holiday. Open roads, the relative absence of heavy traffic, wide-open spaces, history and cuisine, it’s all there! In this blog, we look at the need-to-know information when driving in France, plus suggest some travel ideas where to visit on your next France trip!
Just how foreign is it?
Listen to the language, taste the food and experience some of the local customs and it is likely to hit you pretty early on that France is, indeed, a foreign country – that is all part of the adventure and excitement, after all.
It might come as something of a relief, therefore, to discover that the rules of the road and the law relating to driving whilst towing a caravan are broadly the same as at home in the UK – though of course, you are driving on the other side of the road. But it is imperative that you stick to any local laws and regulations when you travel – on pain of invalidating both your motor insurance and the tourer insurance that safeguards your caravan.
What kit will you need?
When travelling in France, there are certain things you need to carry on board to be legally compliant. These include:
- Warning triangles
These must be erected in the road behind your vehicle if it has broken down and is on the hard shoulder.
Note that even if it is off the road and on the hard shoulder, you must still erect your warning triangle behind it to indicate to other approaching drivers that a potential hazard is ahead.
If visibility approaching your stopped vehicle is good, the triangle must be approximately 30 metres behind it and visible to approaching vehicles though not blocking the carriageway. If visibility is obstructed by a bend, you must place your warning triangle on the other side of the bend so that drivers know there may be an obstacle as they go around the corner.
- Fluorescent jackets
At the time of writing, you must carry a fluorescent jacket for the driver.
If your vehicle breaks down and is partly or fully off the road, passengers must exit the vehicle and stand a safe distance away from it whilst keeping well back from the road. The driver must wear a fluorescent yellow jacket once they leave the vehicle and it might be highly advisable for the passengers to do likewise.
- Evidence of insurance
You may need some evidence on you of appropriate insurance and/or tourer insurance.
The police in France are typically charming but also often far less tolerant of “attitude” from people, French or foreign, than their UK counterparts. So, avoid arguing about what is the norm in the UK or whether or not what they’re asking for makes sense.
If they ask to see evidence of your insurance, make sure you have it/show it.
You’ll also typically need a Green Card from your insurance company – a motor insurance green card is a document produced by car insurers to prove that a driver has adequate insurance cover for driving abroad. At the time of writing (February 2020) we are still transitioning through Brexit until the end of the year, so some of the insurance document requirements may change).
You may also need an International Driving Permit (IDP).
- Breathalyser kits
After what even French people will admit was an absolutely chaotic introduction, with the law apparently contradicting itself, the current position is at best unclear.
At the time of writing, it is a requirement that you carry one of these in your vehicle. Given that should you use that one, you will immediately technically be breaking the law, that means in effect you need two.
In practice, the French authorities are not enforcing the law but even so, given that these kits are a trivial price, it might be prudent to make sure you have two with you.
- Spare bulbs
You must carry a full set of replacement bulbs for your vehicle while travelling in France. Although once widely ignored, the French police are now much more inclined to pull vehicles up in situations where they appear to have defective lighting.
- Your driving documents
By law in France, all drivers must carry their driving licence and what is effectively their registration document, with them at all times.
By contrast, in the UK, the general advice remains not to carry your registration document with you in the car.
Random stops and checks of vehicles and paperwork are perhaps rather more commonplace in France than in the United Kingdom.
If you want to avoid in-depth discussions with and apologies to the Gendarmes, make sure that your paperwork is all readily available in one place and includes:
- your registration document;
- your MOT certificate;
- the certificate of insurance (remember, it needs to be valid for France and if you are in any doubt, get some touring caravan insurance quotes before you leave);
- your Green Card;
- your driving licence;
- your IDP;
- if the vehicle or caravan is not yours, a letter from the owner authorising you to take it abroad within specified dates.
Plus, you’ll need your passport (which should have at least six months left on it).
- GB plates
There must be some indication on your vehicle as to its country of origin. For the United Kingdom, that is a GB sticker.
Note that however fashionable and politically correct it may be at home, in stressful situations when they’re making a list of faults, the Gendarmes may be intolerant of localised plates such as “Ecosse”, “Cymru” or “Yorkshire” (etc.). They will typically mean nothing to them and your loved origin plate might become another tick in a “not conforming” box – something you could do without.
This is only a subset of the requirements for driving and towing a caravan in France. It will be advisable to research the full details, as they relate to your situation, on a reputable site.
Rules of the roads
One of the local idiosyncrasies most likely to catch out the British driver in France, for example, is the application of speed restrictions.
Not only may these vary from one stretch of road to another, depending on conditions, but different speed restrictions apply even on motorways in France according to the weight of your caravan. If it weighs less than 3.5 tonnes, for example, your speed limit maybe 130 kph (81 mph), but this falls to 90 kph (56 mph) if your trailer weighs more than 3.5 tonnes.
Drinking and driving
The most sensible advice, of course, is to avoid driving if you have had anything alcoholic to drink.
The AA points out that you must be especially careful if you have held your driving licence for less than three years. Under new restrictions, the blood alcohol level has been reduced from 0.05% to 0.02% for such drivers.
As we touched on previously, legislation in France also requires that you carry a breathalyser in your car at all times – although no penalties are currently imposed if you break that particular law. The device must bear the quality standard mark “NF”, be unused and not past its expiry date. Single-use breathalysers are typically valid for 12 months only, so if you bought one for your last trip to France, its period of validity might have expired by now, and you need to buy a new one.
Satnav speed camera alerts
If you have a satnav that alerts you to the presence of speed cameras, it is illegal to use it in France, and you must disable the function if you are using one. The penalties are severe – you face a fine of up to €1,500 or may even have your car impounded. Most newer satnavs have the ability to have the radar facility disabled but do check with your manufacturer.
Bonus travel tips for your tour de France!
On French motorways, stopping-off picnic and rest stops (called Aires) are far more commonplace and typically more picturesque than their UK equivalents.
Those that are formal service stations with food and other facilities will have excellent and well-maintained toilet facilities.
Those that are simply picnic spots will have reasonable toilets and water facilities but might be unlikely to have toilet paper!
A Europe-valid bank or credit card
Some exits from motorways in France may be entirely unmanned and automatic.
Before being able to leave the motorway, you will need to pay your fees and if you don’t have a card in automatic situations, then this going to cause difficulties and embarrassment.
Check with your card provider, prior to departure, that you have adequate credit and that your card is valid for Europe.
Check for access with overnight stops
It’s not unusual to see some caravan owners trying to get their vehicle and caravan into totally inadequate hotel car parks when treating themselves to an overnight stay en-route in France.
Remember, if you are using a hotel and not your tourer for en-route accommodation, check with your hotel in advance to make sure that it has caravan access. Even some hotels specifically designed for motorway travellers may well be unsuitable. Also, let your tourer caravan insurer know that you won’t be staying in your caravan overnight, to ensure that full cover remains in place.
Tour de France – destination ideas
The French Riviera, the Loire Valley, Mont Blanc, Paris … there are so many places to choose from when you take a trip to France – so where will you go? Here are just a few ideas to whet your appetite as to tours in France!
France is a vast and beautiful country but some parts of it are rather better known than others.
If you are going on holiday to France at peak times, you may be interested in a caravan tourer route where you may be less likely to find other British caravanners.
Avranches to Ducey
If you land at one of the northwestern French ports, why not take a drive towards the town of Avranches?
This is very close to Mont St Michel and occupies a hilltop. It has a great ruined castle to explore, some nice old buildings, a pleasant public garden and something called The Scriptorial – an incredible museum housing ancient Normandy documents going back over 1000 years.
Head from there to the small village of Ducey – a nice place for lunch and you can also explore the small but charming Chateau.
Ducey to Mayenne
A relatively short drive will take you to the very pretty town of Mayenne.
This has a lovely chateau and museum on cliffs overlooking the river and you can hire a boat to explore stretches of the river through the town and into the countryside.
Mayenne to Laval
Laval is the departmental capital of La Mayenne in France. It is a very pleasant town which offers an old town to explore with winding streets and ancient buildings. It too has a Chateau overlooking the river, some nice eating places and if you need some retail therapy, some reasonably good and chic shopping.
Laval to Angers
Angers is a very impressive town on the side of another major river and has some truly lovely streets, buildings and a very impressive castle.
In the medieval period, this town was once arguably as important if not more so than Paris and this shows today in some of its layout.
Angers to Chinon
This can be a very pleasant drive through parts of the Loire Valley and the town of Chinon and surrounding villages are all very pleasant.
Don’t be to put off by the sight of the large nuclear power station not far from Chinon – you pass it fairly quickly though it may cause you to think about whether you have appropriate caravan insurance!
If you are touring northwestern France in your caravan, you may be interested in thinking about some of the following less well-known places:
- Bagnoles sur l’Orne. This is a small spa and lakeside town in amongst some very pretty cliffs and hills in the Orne department of Normandy. It has a very genteel feeling to it, some great walking and climbing opportunities, the casino where you can try your luck and you can even hire a pedalo on the local lake;
- Chateau-Gontier. Sitting in another southern part of the La Mayenne department, this is a very pretty town with some impressive buildings overlooking the river. The surrounding countryside is also very attractive in a gentle way and while you are in the area you can visit the very large animal sanctuary and the local abandoned Roman town of Jublains;
- Redon. This is a very appealing town in eastern Brittany with some lovely old ecclesiastical architecture in the centre. Even more attractive is the fact that it is at the junction point of a large canal and river system meaning that it is a popular stopping off point for river cruisers and longboats etc;
- Jallouville and south to Avranches. Some of the beaches on the western Cotentin peninsular (Normandy) are stunningly beautiful and often completely isolated. If you like quiet beaches and small towns, this area may be for you though it is worth noting that the tide can go out a very long way here and the sea, at such times, may be almost invisible! Some care must be taken before walking across the sands when the tide is out due to quicksand and should be avoided by pedestrians and vehicles alike – unless accompanied by a local professional expert (in passing, don’t forget to check your touring caravan insurance will cover you in France);
- Nantes. This is one of the largest cities in France and may not perhaps immediately have occurred you as being a natural holiday touring spot but it is a fascinating city with a wealth of attractions and an incredibly important chateau at the centre. Of course, roads in the centre may not be ideal for the caravan but if you are parked up somewhere in the area, the city centre is well worth seeing;
- Villedieu-Les-Poêles. This is a small town nestling in the Normandy countryside in France but it is famous as a centre of copper kitchen utensil production. It is a very pretty town in its own right but the multitude of shops selling copper items makes it even more so. While you are there, remember to visit the bell foundry in the centre of town, where they continue to make bells for churches around the world and all the bells for the ships of the French Navy.
We hope you find this blog both full of useful information and good for travel ideas in France. Bon voyage!
Further reading: Guide to caravanning in France.