Driving in France – Practical advice for travelling with kids

My parents would often plan a holiday with the idea of ‘something for everyone’. This might mean a theme park for the kids, a museum for my Dad and good shopping or food for my Mam. As you might well realise, shopping and museums don’t make ideal partners and theme parks are an entirely different kettle of fish. So when picking a holiday destination and with something for everyone can be difficult if we aren’t prepared to travel.

For most of us lucky enough to live with driving or ferry distance from France it represents a fantastic opportunity to not only holiday but to travel. By using a car, camper or motorhome, as opposed to a plane as a means to get abroad, we are not confined to being based in a single location and can split our holiday among different activities to suit the family. We also have the opportunity to change plans to suit the weather. If we were planning on going to Brittany and the weather’s not playing ball we can change plans and head towards La Rochelle, Bordeaux or even the Mediterranean.

Big picture first: Think out your travel deal-breakers and come up with a rough plan

The most important advice for making driving a viable transport option for holiday is to have a plan. If you want flexibility have a plan B and a plan C if you need it. It is helpful to consider your deal-breakers when considering your options to make sure you are all on the same page when making travel decisions. When we sit down to plan we think about how to get the best weather for the entire family; dry, not too hot for us to sleep, not so cold that the kids can’t spend time in the water. We can handle a little rain but wouldn’t like to feel we were stuck in the motorhome for a day, or even worse days, at a time. When we plan we need to build in flexibility to allow us to find the best weather for us. Next order of business is to think of places we would like to see or visit, as mentioned above this might include a theme park for the kids and something more cultural for the parents.

With our deal-breakers considered and a few things added from our bucket list we can start to plan out a rough itinerary. Generally we like to keep the itinerary quite vague. We used to plan day-by-day but since we started travelling by motorhome we have the freedom and flexibility to go with the weather. This means that we don’t head where the weather won’t suit but it might also mean that we are content with not seeing everything when we planned to. If it’s raining in Paris this trip we might skip it a see it next year or if the weather is reasonably mild we might take a chance.

Not all driving days in France are created equal

About seven or eight years ago we were taking a family holiday in France when we arrived at the ring road at Nantes to be greeted by rush hour traffic. Rush hour generally isn’t something one thinks about when going on holidays. Rush hour is slow at the best of times but if, like us, you get stuck in traffic with a hungry infant and no means to feed him or her the whole think can feel a lot longer.

Much like the rest of the western world, France employs a five day work week running Monday to Friday. Unlike the rest of the world however the French are militant about work-life balance, a 35 hour work week and summer holidays; they’ve got my vote. This can result in us observing a familiar pattern with midweek rush hours, Friday holiday traffic and Sunday return-home traffic however this pattern can be more extreme in France with it’s infamous 100+ kilometer tailbacks every year at the weekend between July and August. With the exception of the more extreme traffic fluctuations France is similar to home so a bit of common sense and mindfulness of the busy days in holiday season should keep us out of trouble.

The other thing to bear in mind about France is that, with few exceptions, commercial traffic is prohibited from operating on a Sunday so it can be a quieter day to travel. It’s worth looking at tools like Google Maps for predicted traffic hotspots though as the aforementioned weekend rush can be extreme on a Sunday too as holidayers return to the big cities. This year for example we drove past an 18km tailback of cars heading into Bordeaux from the south, there were no tailbacks at the north of the city and the roads were manageable aside from that. thankfully we were on our outbound journey so we just needed to look across the dual carriageway in amazement at the largest tailback we had ever seen. The other thing to consider is that because commercial traffic can’t operate on Sundays most of it will be parked in service areas and rest stops making stopping in these areas more difficult so don’t waste an opportunity to use the loo if you get it!

So, if you know roughly where you are going then it’s good to plan your ferry crossing to suit. If you’re heading to Brittany then Roscoff makes the most sense. It’s a similar for story for Normandy (Cherbourg) and the Grande Est (Calais). Aside from proximity it’s worth bearing in mind the day and time that you will arrive. Many of the ferries from Ireland to France dock at around noon in Calais. If you are heading to the west coast then a trip from Calais will put you at Nantes by 3pm if you make good time. So plan to get around Nantes before stopping for any considerable length of time. The same is true for most cities so Google Maps is your best friend here. It’s not a crystal ball but is should give you a rough idea of how to break up your journey or which ferry might work best for you.

Our tip, if departing from Ireland, would be to take the Brittany Ferries trip from Cork to Roscoff. This unique crossing sets down at 7am (local time) in the port of Roscoff and can be taken on a Saturday to arrive on Sunday so it gives the benefit of an early arrival and very little commercial traffic. If you are planning a long drive for the first leg of your trip this crossing is hard to beat. Travelling from or through the UK presents a much wider range of options with multiple departures each day particularly from Dover to Calais. The crossing is also a lot shorter too so doesn’t require an overnight stay onboard.

Breaks, toilet breaks, snack breaks, more breaks

While adults can (generally) wait for an appropriate time to take a break the same is not true of children who not only need more frequent breaks but invariably need those breaks urgently. As with the itinerary, planning out breaks can save a lot of headaches – and belly aches.

The younger the child the more preparation is required as feeding times tend to be more rigidly scheduled. For older children there is a bit more flexibility. We figure out what our last meal will be before we leave and the first meal after we arrive and pack twice as much food and snacks as would normally be consumed during these two meals at home. We pack the snacks into a backpack or cool-pack which is accessible by one of the adults and feed and water on a schedule – too much juice means too many toilet stops after all.

That last point brings about another important fact to consider – toilet breaks. If you want to ensure your car doesn’t take on the smell of an unwashed urinal you’re going to need to make sure that anyone who needs to go can do so. If you are taking the motorway then you will be able to stop at one of the motorway aires which will at a minimum have a picnic area, toilets, hand wash and waste facilities. The distance to the next aire is signposted regularly as is the range of facilities available at the next stop. In addition to the bare minimum facilities some of the aires (generally every second are or so) will have additional offerings such as a petrol station, shop and restaurant. Aires are generally signposted 2km out which allows sufficient time to check if a break is needed before passing by.

If you’re off the beaten track then the availability of aires and stop off points can be more unpredictable. Generally chain restaurants are a good bet for a clean loo and occasionally a play area for the kids. Google maps or your favourite satnav will help you find your nearest one. Shopping centres (not open on a Sunday) are another solid option and are found n the ring roads around most major towns and cities. Again, satellite navigation will be your friend here. If all of the above fails the French are reputedly very tolerant of public urination but be careful as this reputation might not be well deserved.

Many of the issues with taking breaks are mitigated if you have a camper van or motorhome. Snacks and a loo are never too far away but on long drives stopping at an aire can provide a welcome break from driving and an opportunity to eat more than a simple on-the-road snack.

Boredom is the enemy

For a trip of longer than about half an hour we find that the kids easily become unsettled. Having some form of game or entertainment to pass the time can save everyone from the inevitable ‘Are we there yet?’. Travelling in Ireland rarely merits such a distraction but when facing into an eight hour drive it’s practically a necessity.

iPads, tablets, Nintendo Switch and everything in between represent the most immersive form of entertainment available for our children. While we normally keep screen time to a minimum we stretch it out for a long road trip. Reading can be difficult for long road trips, board games are difficult to play with seat belts on and kids of different ages have very different viewing tastes so a single television program or movie can be a tough call. Our kids are most comfortable, travel easier and fight less when they each have their own entertainment in the form of a tablet computer. We use the Kindle Fire HD8 as it can be gotten for very little int he Black Friday sales. Monitoring the bandwidth usage means that Youtube, Netflix etc aren’t going to work for more than a couple of days in France before running out of bandwidth so we can pre-load all the necessary games or download TV shows. We also have a mobile Plex Server which works a bit like Netflix but allows us to bring lots of their favourite content to stream locally without needing an internet connection.

Whatever your kids favourite travel-compatible pastime, find it and invest time in making sure it will work on the road. Take a day trip or two before you go and field test it just to make sure that it works and will provide enough entertainment to last a round trip. The kids like books? Pack lots that they will be happy to read. The kids have books but love Scrabble? Buy a travel set and make sure they will be able to play while strapped into their normal travel seats. The kids like electronic games? Make sure whatever they play isn’t dependent on a lot of internet bandwidth and make sure you have a means to keep everything charged on the move.

Road trips might not be for you

While I’m clearly drinking the Motorhome Kool-Aid I realise that a holiday with a lot of driving isn’t for everyone. The queues at airports this summer are proof of that. It might be something you are considering but aren’t sure about or maybe you’ve never taken a ferry trip before. The easiest way to get started is to take a short trip and see if you like it. Brittany and Normandy have plenty to offer families and have plenty of beautiful campsites, hotels and attractions within an hour or two of the ferry ports. If you are taking a short trip then most of the above advice can be dispensed with as long as you brush up on your French driving rules.