This was a post I started to draft last year when we were preparing for our first trip abroad. I never got around to finishing it but as we are currently getting ready to do it all again it seems like a good idea to note down some of this information to refer to again.
Living in Europe offers up so many destinations when you have transport that you are confident with. When we had the ‘van, after the work Tom had done on it in the early years, I’m not sure we ever trusted it for long journeys within the UK, never mind on mainland Europe. Nowadays we’re using the trailer with our family car, which makes a huge difference to the types of trips we want to plan. Once you start looking, the possibilities are endless. Ferry travel will get you direct to the Netherlands, France or Ireland, or there is the shuttle to France. There are then any number of onward destinations you can choose. Our goal is to build up to lengthy cross-country trips staying in various locations for a few nights at a time, but for a change, we’ve decided to start out small and see how it goes whilst we get used to the trailer and the boys are still very young.
For our first trip we ultimately chose to visit northern France for a week. We’d considered the Netherlands and bookmarked a few beautiful family-friendly sites. The idea was that the ferry from Hull was just a short 90 minute journey from home, an overnight journey to Rotterdam would be refreshing for everyone, and then the trip to the campsite wouldn’t be much longer than a trip within the UK would be. All in all an easy trip to break us in.
That’s when we learned our first lesson. We’d come up with this outline plan after some basic research early in the year. Then life got in the way for a while, it got closer to summer, and we decided to finally book in June. Ferries are a lot more expensive after February! Like, £800+ per round trip levels of expensive. Suddenly a quick jaunt to the continent was not the most cost-effective holiday and a practice-run trip looked like being a major investment. At the same time as we were regrouping over our plans, we also realised it was about time we finally completed our youngest’s passport application if we were going to use the leave that we’d booked some time before and earmarked for this holiday. So it was in quite a rush that we booked and planned our eventual trip to Brittany.
The booking process
Ferry websites are slow. Very, very slow. The-good-old-days-of-dial-up slow. There are no centralised comparison websites. There are lots of advertising websites that are unhelpful. And it is by no means clear which companies even exist, never mind which routes each does. After lots of work, we eventually determined what route options were open to us. That was just the first hurdle.
There are many permutations. You don’t have to have the same outward and return routes. You appear to have to restart the whole search process each time you want to look at a different time or route. It’s also possible to perform the same search twice in succession and receive a different result. This was the case for us because there was a sneaky special offers tab that you could start your search through which provided different prices to the general booking tab. You must book either a seat or cabin for overnight ferries. This is obligatory but not included in the initial search or price. You go on to select one of these. You find out that there are no cabins available on the route and date that you’ve committed to and now spent a significant amount of time on. And you have to restart the search. And then you restart it again because it’s suddenly half the price of any other search so far and you realise you’ve forgotten to put the trailer details in this time! That’s something to note – the trailer is effectively the cost of an additional vehicle when it comes to ferry travel, which does make sense really, but is an added cost compared to a campervan or standard tent. The ferry websites we used are: P&O Ferries and Brittany Ferries.
We had decided that as we were now travelling significantly further to the ferry (so we could head to France from the south coast – it being around 1/3 of the price) we definitely wanted a cabin so that we could rest and drive onward feeling safe. I had never driven abroad before and didn’t want my first time doing it to involve a trailer, cranky toddlers, map reading and general exhaustion! It was up to Tom to get us there, then I was game to put in my miles once settled. (This turned out to be a very good plan for more than one reason – read our review of Chateau de Galinée and the family sickness bug!)
That didn’t happen. At around midnight the week before our trip we finally settled on a plan involving driving through the night and sleeping on the early morning ferry trip, and pressed the ‘Submit Payment’ button. It was a weight off our minds. Until we realised we now needed to book a campsite. We went to bed before we feverishly started trying to sort the whole thing there and then to avoid another entire evening spent growling at the laptop.
Fortunately, camping website developers have mostly received the 21st century memo and there is an abundance of easily accessible information out there about French campsites, on both UK websites, and in several languages on campsite companies’ websites, so the most difficult decision we ended up with on booking a site was which configuration of the pools and water slides we preferred. Try these sites for inspiration: Cool Camping, Camping-Castels.
We are heading further afield this year, to Belgium. We took heed from our experience last year and the information we gathered from friends who regularly drive abroad, and booked the ferry in February at a bargain price. It was useful to be prepared for the inefficiency of the booking system, and we were significantly less stressed out by it this time round. We found it more difficult this time to research campsites, though. There just isn’t the same level of interest in travelling to Belgium from the UK, so there is very little that is in English. With help from Google translate, my basic German and passable French, we got to the bottom of varied complex pricing structures involving electric hookup, tourist taxes, booking fees, site passes and pitch sizes.
In contrast to UK sites, European campsites are all about the size. You need to know what kind of pitch you want and the perimeters of the area so that you can choose the ‘basic’ or ‘luxury’ levels for your emplacement. Given we haven’t a clue about the general size of pitches that we’re used to, we just went on the basis of the trailer tent measurements and made sure we felt we’d have some space around it.
Our overall takeaways from the booking process are:
- Be prepared and book well in advance;
- Look out for hidden extras in pricing;
- Remember this is a holiday you are booking, no-one will enjoy it if you maim your spouse after a protracted research session, so have a break when it all gets too much!
In addition to actually getting there and having somewhere to stay, we realised that we needed to know about a number of other things for our trip. What could we take? Were there any ferry restrictions similar to airline travel? What did we need to do or take to adhere to French law? What tips could we find about driving and towing abroad?
Research is our forte (we are geeks) so we set to it and found out as much as we could.
There are some restrictions on what you can travel with on a ferry, including the size of gas bottle you can take (the total volume is 45kg but the maximum per cylinder is 15kg). Details can be found on the ferry company websites, such as here.
You need to take several essential items of kit to have in your car at all times in France. Even if they’re not required, failure to be prepared is an offence if you are stopped. You need:
- a warning triangle of specific dimensions (£4.99 from Amazon)
- sufficient hi-vis vests for all occupants of the vehicle (£4 from Amazon)
- breathalysers – this is a strange one as you are legally required to carry a breathalyser, but French authorities have never fully implemented the law that would introduce an 11 euro fine for not carrying one, so there is no actual penalty. Given the low cost, we thought it would be safest to get a couple just in case (£3 from Amazon)
- headlight adjusters to ensure the beams of your lights don’t dazzle oncoming motorists when you are on the other side of the road. You will see many people in the queue to leave the ferry hopping out to apply these stickers – they are essential from the moment you leave the boat, irrespective of time of day, but for obvious reasons you can’t really apply them much sooner (£3.50 from Amazon)
- spare bulbs – if stopped, you will be required by police to replace any broken bulbs immediately in order to be deemed safe to drive. (£7-£10 from Amazon)
- GB sticker (if your number plate doesn’t already have the GB logo) – this is a Europe-wide requirement (<£1 from Amazon
- Clean Air stickers for certain regions – particularly Paris and increasing areas in future as this is rolled out. There are details here.
We managed to easily find all of these items online and have provided links above to each. It’s shocking to see the exorbitant prices these items go for in physical stores, and, when left to the last minute, on-board the ferry. You can also find kits containing all of the essentials in a single package like this Amazon bestseller from the AA – Euro Travel Kit.
For Belgium, we found that they have very similar requirements. The Clean Air stickers, spare bulbs and breathalysers aren’t required, but there are no additional requirements. It’s wroth noting though, that most of the routes you will take to get to Belgium will require driving through France as well, so you’ll have to comply with both nation’s laws. They have an unusual “priority to the right” rule in Belgium which were looking forward (!) to experiencing! Priority to the right.
In terms of other ‘essentials’: campsites in Europe do not routinely provide hand-soap or toilet roll in their facilities. You can obviously buy these at local supermarkets but you probably want to come prepared for your first night at least. You may also need an electric hookup adaptor. We bought this one but in the event we didn’t need to use it last year because our site was equipped with UK-compatible hookup.
We would also recommend, as for any long-distance trip, that you carry car maintenance essentials such as oil, washer fluid etc. You’ll be driving in unfamiliar territory on unknown routes and you want to know that you can take care of any issues without having to worry about whether your phone has connected yet to French mobile networks and that your data settings are on the correct roaming option so that you can frantically google when the next services might, or might not, be! Also on that note, we’d recommend looking at your insurance and breakdown cover so you know what options you have. You can get EU-wide breakdown cover just for your trip. Some examples here.
For driving, we found useful resources on RAC Drive about regulations. You may have read about the limits on vehicles when towing in our post Goodbye Bongo, Hello Concorde!, which restricts us to 60 mph on the motorway and 50 mph on national speed limit roads. It was useful to know that no such regulations exist for towing at our weight in France (nor in Belgium). We have noted this year that there are new speed restrictions in place on French secondary roads, they have been reduced from 9o km/h to 80 km/h with effect from 1 July 2018.
We’ve already covered a lot of this in our review of the site, but we absolutely loved our French holiday. The children had an amazing time and we actually found it really easy. Driving through the night – we all went to bed at 7pm, then woke at midnight and transferred the children – successfully – to their car seats – worked incredibly well. There was no traffic, we had no stress about whether we would make the ferry on time, and the journey for the children was easy as they slept through it, but they did it at an appropriate time, rather than falling asleep through boredom as we travelled through the day and then having disrupted sleep. We’ve opted for similar timings this year as it worked so well.
Having a cabin was an extra cost that wasn’t necessary as it was a daytime crossing, but it was very useful. It gave us some space to get real rest, and also allowed the children some freedom of movement within an enclosed space. We took breakfast cereal and milk and had a meal in our cabin that helped start the day off properly and add to the relaxing element of it.
We also found it incredibly easy to go through customs. As opposed to airline travel, which we’ve done numerous times with the children and are confident with, it was still so much easier just to sit in the car and not have to divest ourselves of everything, removing children from pushchairs and carriers, removing shoes and accessories, and then juggling all of our possessions until we find a bench to get ourselves sorted again. We were asked on both legs of the journey to get out of the car and show the officers beneath the tarp covering the trailer, which could admittedly have become much more of a hassle if they’d asked for the whole thing to be opened and inspected. It seems that they thought by lifting the cover they would see the contents, rather than just the lid. Happily they were satisfied even though they couldn’t. Once on the ferry, we found the trailer didn’t affect where we were placed. We were with motorhomes on one leg, and cars on the other.
The camping culture in France is very different to the UK, with much larger, more commercial sites being the norm. Our research shows us that Belgium is similar. It was a different experience for us, but it felt like a real holiday, and we had a great time. So much so that we’re going for twice as long a trip this year. This is just the start of our European adventures!