How to undertake a driving holiday to the Continent
It’s a great pleasure to introduce Amelia from Pillows & Pitstops talking to us about her experience driving from England to France with kids; It may sound simple but there are many important things to consider when crossing over to the Continent
In this post we cover:
- Where and how to cross from England to France
- Timing your trip to France
- Rules of the Road
It’s still so easy – pack the car to the rim, hop in and strap up, plug into a good family audiobook and there’s no need to move so much as a little toe before the cars are passing you on the ‘wrong’ side and the Boulangerie is calling…
France is (currently!) a super easy holiday for us Brits with little ones who travel with double their body weight in luggage. Toys, favourite snacks only available in Britain, the special blanket, a door bouncer, enough pool buoyancy aids to keep the Titanic afloat – holiday without them at your peril.
Your only limit is boot space so the jigsaw puzzle that is the night before’s packing is part of the fun of the holiday. But it’s easy to get complacent driving on the Continent. After all, with the Channel Tunnel, in particular, it feels like an extension of our own Motorways – only faster and with the odd charge!
As the founder of Pillows & Pitstops, – an invaluable online guide to help parents to find fun ways to break their journey – I am obsessed with road journeys and want to remind you here of a few differences between British and French ones while offering a few tips to avoid scary surprises.
Rules of the road are changing constantly and we all need the occasional nudge even to remember the basics.
Crossing England to France
I always find that different families have their own favourite way to cross the channel that separates us from the Continent – although I’m still yet to meet one who favours swimming or rowing…
- The ferry from Dover to Calais is generally the cheapest way to cross. Invariably children find it a huge adventure to pack their little rucksack of toys and books, climb the car deck stairs and find a spot in the huge ferry lounges and cafes. During the short 90 minute crossing, you get just about time to eat a bag of crisps, play with the ferry company’s merchandise in the shop and do a word search before you’re on the deck watching the dockhands bring in the boat. Definitely the exciting option.
- The ferries to/from Portsmouth and further into the west of England take considerably longer but are a preferred route for many who are holidaying in the west of France or driving down to Spain. Taking from 3 hours to 11 hours (overnight), you’d be advised to get a cabin for the longer crossings which then become Night #1 of holiday! With cinemas, children’s entertainments, cabarets and lovely restaurants it’s the way to have yourself a ‘travel experience’. Be warned you do pay for the privilege in peak season.
- EuroTunnel has become a well-loved option these days as it is simply effortless. Turn up half an hour before (or less), go on the first train available (usually), drive on, sit in/stand by your car inside the tunnel-like train carriage, and 30 minutes later – hey presto – you’re driving on the right. Remember that arriving into Dover puts you in the far North East of France so is a considerable hike to the western coast…
Personally, we go for the Tunnel – motion-sickness is way easier to combat than on a boat, it limits the risk of leaving the favourite comforter in the car deck (which is closed off strictly during sailing) and, to be honest, we will grab an easy life when we can!
Still interested in Flying? Are We Nearly There Yet have this great comparison between flights vs ferry to France to help you make up your mind!
Timing your trip to France
Look into whether you can tailor the timing of your trip. It will make a difference to the whole experience, I promise.
- We seem to feel able to tackle considerably longer journeys in one fell swoop on the Continent than we would ever consider in the UK. Just because you’re on holiday doesn’t mean you don’t get tired. Stop. Even overnight. (Check your route out on www.pillowsandpitstops.com and you’ll find great recommendations for overnight journey-breakers that you’ll just fall in love with)
- Try to avoid Black Saturdays (end July/early Aug). All Saturdays in August can be pretty horrific on the main roads. Remember, every motorway finishes in a toll booth, aka bottleneck. Why not look at travelling over on a Friday, breaking the back of the journey, then doing a civilised overnighter?
- Come off the road for mealtime stops. Please. French ‘Aires’ (service stations) vary hugely and you never know quite which end of the spectrum you’ll be getting unless you know it well. Either way, travelling in the summer you can rest assured the loos won’t win any Top 5 Toilets prizes. Only a few km off the motorway you’ll find wonderful French towns where you can linger in a marketplace over your croissants, or slather your chips with mayo in a traditional town bar amongst the locals. You will often find a playground too so running off steam is an easier option here too.
Rules of the Road
The French police are renowned for being on the scary side. Why risk meeting them? Cram a quick spot of revision of the most important French road rules.
- The use of hands-free sets is now illegal when driving a car. You can still use Bluetooth but may be best to just avoid overall.
TIP: Let your passenger make the “We’re lost and can’t find the campsite” call!
- Unmarked police cars are now roaming the French highways fitted with speed cameras.
TIP: The unmarked police cars will most likely be French marques – Renault, Peugeot or Citroen. So that means 95% of the cars on the road!
- If you’re new to driving (under 3 years experience), the drink drive limit is now 0.2%. If you’re experienced it’s 0.5% which is still less than the UK’s 0.8% so take care.
TIP: Don’t even have the one if you’re a novice driver.
- Usage of speed camera detectors is NOT allowed. All such radars should be switched off from sat navs before entering France.
TIP: Not worth the risk – the speed limit’s pretty generous anyway.
- You can be fined if you don’t have – Breathalysers, reflective jackets, warning triangle, headlamp converters, spare bulbs, GB sticker.
TIP: There doesn’t seem to be any reinforcement of this law and no fines are made so don’t panic too much if you’re without and leaving tomorrow! But if you’ve got time, get on Amazon, don’t buy at the pricey terminal.
- Children should be 10 or older to legally sit in the front seat of a car (with the exception of rear-facing baby seats)
TIP: Just keep your little royalty in the back where they should be.
So enjoy the wonders of the French Family Holiday. They are truly memory makers and the journey can even be character-building all round too (!) BUT prepare in advance if possible and just keep in mind that you’re not at home so ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans….
Thanks so much to Amelia for sharing these invaluable tips. Coming from a vast country where there’s no way to visit any of your neighbours without several hours on a plane the idea of “popping over to the Continent” by car is indeed very exciting!
About the Blogger
Amelia Atkinson is a Surrey-based mum-of-two who spent years travelling ‘home’ to family in Yorkshire, traipsing the motorways and suffering the pain of expensive motorway service stations. As a hospitality and travel professional herself, she decided to leave the roads for journey breaks and discovered the wonders of what lies beyond.
Disclosures: All opinions expressed are those of the guest author. This post contains affiliate links which may earn us a small commission at no additional cost to you. You can see our full disclosure policy here.