Ideas for families

How to survive a family road trip to the South of France

Paul Trueman and his family headed down to the Côte d’Azur for their summer holiday. Find out how they did it.

This summer my family and I headed down to the South of France for a two-week holiday. We drove all the way from our home on the coast in North Devon - partly to escape the staycation crowds in Croyde - and after such a long road trip I’m delighted to say we’re still married (and neither of our children have been given up for adoption).

Our plan was to head to a campsite in Frejus that I had been to with my parents as a teenager. I had hazily fond memories of sun-baked days by the pool, honing my table-tennis skills and trying to figure out the subtleties of Petanque. On this basis, I had managed to sell it into the rest of the members of our Official Family Outings Committee: my camping-sceptic wife, 13 year-old daughter and nine year-old son.

I also remembered those long, slightly sweaty drives south with my parents, in a world before cars had air conditioning and children had Netflix downloads and tablets to keep them entertained on a looooooong day’s drive. If we could make it work then, how hard could it be now? Right? RIGHT?

The Trueman family pose for a selfie in their car

In the end we had such a great holiday that we’re planning on doing it all again next year. So, if you’re thinking of venturing a little further afield on your next trip than a Normandy beach, this blog is here to help.

Preparing the car for your journey

I’m absolutely not a car mechanic - I can barely change a tyre - but even I know that if you’re about to hammer your car for a few thousand miles it’s probably worth getting it checked over before you go, and definitely worth checking the basics like your tyre treads, water and oil.

Don’t forget to make sure you have roadside breakdown cover for travelling abroad in case that ‘funny noise’ you didn’t get looked at, develops into a ‘ruinously expensive disaster’ that sees you spending two days camped out in a French garage learning to love the smell of gauloises and disappointment, while your partner breaks the news on Facebook of your imminent divorce.

Then there’s the particular kit you need if you’re not going to be busted by the local gendarmerie. Take a look at Eurotunnel’s definitive blog on this as it’s really useful.

The benefits of additional luggage space

This is where taking your own car really comes into its own. You don’t need to worry about coming in under the airline’s weight restrictions. Pack as freely as you like. Buckets and spades for the beach? Pop ‘em in. Day-glo unicorn inflatable lilo with twin cup-holders? In it goes. If not on your summer holiday, then when? Express yourself.

(Full disclosure: the Trueman family doesn’t own its own unicorn lilo. YET.)

The Flexiplus experience

We broke our journey into three parts. First a drive of about 6 hours on Thursday as we headed south-east from North Devon to Folkestone, to catch Le Shuttle the following day. We then planned to tackle most of the journey through France on Friday before stopping overnight in Avignon, leaving us a lie-in and a leisurely few hours to Frejus the next day in time to check in.

The Trueman children start filling up from the buffet

Calais to Frejus is, on paper, about 11 hours drive (not counting breaks) so it’s definitely ‘do-able’ in a day, but you need to be prepared for heavy traffic around weekends, as half of Europe heads to the south of France.

It meant we spent the first night of our holidays catching up with our very hospitable friends in Folkestone and enjoyed a rather lovely takeaway pizza on the beach. Begin your holiday as you mean to go on, we say. We got up bright and early (well, early at least) the next morning and headed off for what turned out to be one of the unexpected highlights of the holiday for our children.

For adults, Flexiplus means never having to say sorry when you miss your shuttle slot. Got stuck on the M25? No problem, just hop on the very next one. For children, it also means a stop-in at the Flexiplus Lounge, where our two did a passable impression of the Trolley Dash (for children who have never seen Supermarket Sweep), helping themselves to large, generous helpings of all manner of breakfasting goodness in record time.

Emma as she prepares to raid the Flexiplus fridge

Pastries, yoghurts, cereals, porridge breads, macarons (you know you’re on your hols when you have a macaron for breakfast), we all piled into a smorgasbord of sweet and savoury snacks that were hungrily devoured on Le Shuttle. As someone facing a day behind the wheel, I was particularly grateful for the chance to load up on caffeine at the drink-all-you-like Starbucks machine. I didn’t have to tell it my name before it made my drink either - always a bonus.

While it costs more than a Standard journey on Le Shuttle, for us Flexiplus took all the stress out of the early morning start. Knowing that we could simply catch the next train meant we didn’t wake up in a tizz worrying about time, and knowing that we’d all be generously fed meant we didn’t have to plan breakfast before we headed out. Perfect.

Things to do on long drives with your family

Sentences you absolutely don’t want to hear from your children as you roll off Le Shuttle and hit the autoroute: “Dad, my tablet’s only got 12% charge.”*

Having spent ages making sure our two had plenty to keep them occupied en route, downloading stories, TV shows and films onto their devices, we had completely forgotten to recharge them overnight. Total #fail. There are, after all, only so many games of I Spy over a day-long journey that a family can tolerate before things turn nasty.

*There was also a memorable incident involving an empty water bottle, a child who needed another pee, and a stubborn father who wasn’t about to stop so soon after the last loo trip, but that is best kept between the Truemans.

Understanding toll roads and peages

If you’re planning a long journey you’ll definitely want to use the faster, smoother toll roads that criss-cross France, rather than the slower ‘National’ roads. You simply pick up a ticket at the automatic toll booths as you join a new road, and then as you reach your destination or join a different road, you’ll be asked to pay for that journey at a ‘peage’ toll booth.

You can pay with cash but it’s slower and the queues can build up as you wait for people to count their euros. Ideally get a credit card that doesn’t carry charges for usage abroad and go through the card-only booths.

You could go totally pro and buy the Emovis RFID tag that sits in your car and automatically pays up, meaning you barely have to stop at the tolls. It’s a savvy option for anyone who travels a lot in France, but possibly overkill for the rest of us. We used our credit card and sailed through pretty easily, but there’s no doubt that the tag is the fastest, simplest approach, once it’s set up.

The joys of Aires

I was delighted to find that the roadside stopping spots (known as ‘aires’) are just as varied, and occasionally downright basic, as I remembered them. You’ll be able to tell what’s coming up as the facilities of each are on the signs in simple symbols (e.g. knife and fork means there’s food available).

Paul’s son as he prepares to make another toilet stop en route

They range from the pretty swanky stops, complete with hotel, petrol station and restaurant, to the barest of facilities: hard standing, a loo and that’s your lot. There are nowhere near as many sightings of them anymore, but I was nostalgically happy when my son encountered his very first traditional French ‘squat and drop’ toilet. Given that he is a child of the 21st century, rather than the 12th, he hadn’t a clue what to do.

At their best these aires offer a welcome respite from the road, where you can get decent coffee and food and a chance to stretch your legs. You can even stay overnight for free in some of them, either in your car, caravan or motorhome, and they have water (and waste water) facilities. Think of it like ‘Wild Parking’.

Booking accommodation en-route

That said, we had decided early on that waking up, having spent the night in our car by the side of the motorway, was not an adventure that the Trueman family needed to experience. We had booked an overnight stop just outside Avignon and close (but not too close) to the motorway.

The family in their hotel in Avignon, with a pool in the background

We managed to find two apartments for just £70 each, as part of a golf course hotel with its own swimming pool. If possible after a day on the road (particularly if you end up somewhere hot), I’d recommend an overnight stop with a swimming pool so you and the family can blow off steam and cool down. If the South of France appeals, this is a good read on ideas for where to go.

Planning your journey

After a good night’s sleep at our Avignon overnight, and a drive of just a few hours the next morning, we arrived in remarkably good spirits for our two week holiday. We’re already planning our road trip to go back next year! I’d definitely recommend booking your Eurotunnel as promptly as you can, as you save money by booking early.

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