From cosmopolitan cities to beautiful beaches and magnificent mountains, there's plenty to explore in France – whether it's your first trip across the Channel or you're a regular visitor.
The best way to really get to know any country is simply to hit the road, and a campervan gives you the freedom to travel where you like and take what you need with you.
If you're dreaming about a trip across the Channel in your campervan, you might be wondering where you'll park up for the night. While there are plenty of campsites available with all mod cons, there's something to be said for just setting off, seeing where the road takes you, and making plans as you go along.
With a campervan and the multitude of overnight parking stops – known as Aires – found across France, you can do exactly that.
But before you set off, make sure you've got insurance for a campervan. Having the right cover in place is essential for every trip, and with Motorhome Protect your policy can include unlimited European cover as well as breakdown cover in the UK and Europe.
What is Aires?
Aires are motorhome and campervan stopovers in France (the word Aire simply means 'area' in French). They offer basic essential services such as a place to stay overnight and waste disposal.
There are around 4,000 Aires across France, which means you'll rarely be far from somewhere to stop for the night – and they are often free to use (or very low cost).
The name comes from the French 'Aire de service' – literally 'service area' – and some of them are the same as a motorway service station in the UK with parking, fuel, toilets, restaurants and a shop, in addition to approved parking bays for motorhomes and campervans and facilities such as waste disposal points.
You may also come across an 'Aire de repos' or rest area, a more basic stopover place found at the side of the road that's unlikely to have any facilities, but you can stay there overnight.
Most commonly, Aires are found in local communities – they are often just a big gravel car park designated by the local council as being suitable for use by motorhomes and campervans.
Who can stay in Aires and for how long?
An Aire is an approved place to stay for the night, but it's not a campsite. Only motorhomes and campervans are allowed: that means no caravans or tents, and the campervan must be a campervan, not just a van with a mattress in the back.
Occupants are expected to cook, eat, and sleep within their campervan and not place anything outside; that means no tables and chairs outside, no awnings and no generators.
You may not even be permitted to use levelling chocks or a levelling system – although most sites are on flat ground, so you won't usually need to.
As Aires are designed to be used while touring, stopping is generally limited to 24 or 48 hours.
What facilities do they have?
Facilities available at Aires usually include fresh water, waste disposal and wastewater disposal. You may need to pay separately for these – for example, fresh water is normally around €1 for 50 litres – so keep some change handy.
If the water is safe for drinking, there will be a sign saying 'eau de potable'. For improved hygiene, you should also consider using a disinfectant wipe or spray before drawing water.
For the wastewater, there is often a grid in the ground which you can use for free. Wastewater from sinks must not be discharged onto the ground or into containers that need to be placed outside.
Only use the designated facility for toilet waste disposal, removing any grids before emptying.
Some Aires also have electric hook-up, for which you may have to buy tokens. Bear this in mind if you're arriving late, as the place that sells the tokens may be closed!
Occasionally you'll find an Aire with toilets, and there will usually be toilets in the nearby village or town. But you will have more choice, especially in more remote spots, if you are self-contained: providing your own toilet and washing facilities and your own power.
How to find an Aire
To make the most of your trip, you need to arm yourself with plenty of information.
A series of guidebooks called All the Aires has a wealth of information on Aires in France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. It's a good idea to have a guidebook with you even if you plan to use apps to find Aires along the way, in case you find yourself in an area where you can't get a signal.
When planning where you might stay for the night, bear in mind that your first choice might be unsuitable or full – so it's worth coming up with a shortlist around mid-afternoon. If you're visiting an area that might attract more visitors, it's best to arrive late morning to secure your place.
When it comes to finding the Aire, look out for a sign showing a motorhome.
How to use an Aire
Aires are available on a first-come, first-served basis: you can't pre-book or reserve a space.
When you arrive, you can park wherever you want if there is space. However, always park in designated bays if provided and never obstruct roadways or service points. And be aware that in Aires with marked bays, if you have a particularly large vehicle or a trailer you might find you are too long to fit into the bay.
On sites that charge a fee, you will need to pay at a machine (and make sure you have change, as they may not accept cards) or in a local shop, bar, café, hotel, tourist information office, etc. Look out for the sign telling you where to pay.
Do this as soon as possible after arriving but bear in mind that a lot of facilities in France close for a couple of hours in the early afternoon, so the place where you pay could be shut around that time. Similarly, if you arrive late in the evening you'll need to pay in the morning.
Be a good neighbour
Aires are designed to encourage visitors to the area. They are often funded by the local community, so be a good neighbour.
The signs are usually in French and English, but even on those that are just in French there will be pictures showing what to do. Follow the rules of each site, don't leave litter, don't play loud music and don't let your dog off the lead.
It's also fair to spend the equivalent of campsite fees locally in the village shops and cafés or to buy some fuel nearby.
And it's worth making the effort to speak some French if you can – the locals will appreciate it!
Plans for Aires in Scotland
Closer to home, did you know there are also plans to create a network of Aires in Scotland?
Highland Council hopes they could be a "safe place" for some of the thousands of vehicles that visit the area every year, the BBC reports.
It's thought the sites could also help tackle the problem of waste being disposed of in lay-bys and streams.
Protect your home on wheels with campervan insurance
Whether you prefer regular weekends away or longer holidays, protect your campervan and its contents with campervan insurance from Motorhome Protect.
We have a panel of leading insurers in the UK, so that we can search the market and find the right cover for your needs.
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Policy benefits, features and discounts offered may very between insurance schemes or cover selected and are subject to underwriting criteria. Information contained within this article is accurate at the time of publishing but may be subject to change.