How to Motorhome Camp the French Way!
If you’re planning a motorhome trip to France, the chances are you’ll want to stay in a French aire. But what is an aire, how can you stay in them and how do you find them? We answer all your questions about motorhome aires in France here.
What is a motorhome aire?
The French word aire literally translates to ‘area’. Over the years it has come to describe an area designated for overnight motorhome parking and to provide access to essential services such as fresh water and waste disposal.
The French love motorhoming, and aires have been developed over the years to encourage motorhomes and campervans to visit rural parts of France where tourism wouldn’t normally be found. This brings money into the area and encourages local commerce, as motorhomers stop for a drink in the local bar and spend money in the shops.
There are well over 5,000 aires across France. Most large towns and cities will offer somewhere for motorhomes to park, and many rural villages too. Along popular routes and wherever there is a tourist attraction, you’ll find a French aire.
Motorhome aires can be run by the local municipality or a commercial company and every aire is different! From gated aires with designated places to a patch of grass or gravel on the outskirts of a village, you’ll find something to suit your needs wherever you go in France.
You can also see aire de repos which translates to rest area. These rest areas can be found at the sides of roads and are designated rest stops where trucks and campers park up for a meal stop or overnight stay. There may be a litter bin, but usually there are no other services.
These can be good in an emergency, but its likely there will be a lot of traffic noise from passing vehicles and parked up refrigerated lorries – make sure you have ear plugs if you decide to sleep in a aire de repos!
Is a motorhome aire the same as a motorway aire?
This type of motorhome aire should not be confused with a motorway aire, properly called an aire de service, which is a fuel station and motorway services.
These are definitely not safe (or peaceful!) places for motorhome stopovers, even though they often have an area of the car park designated for motorhomes.
How much do French aires cost?
It really depends on who is running them. Commercial camping aires in France can cost upwards of €10-12 and you might have to pay extra for services.
Completely free aires in France do exist, but it’s more common for municipal aires often offer free parking areas for motorhomes, with a cost for services. The cost of motorhome services can vary – you might pay €1 for 50 litres of water for example.
Which vehicles can use an aire in France?
Aires de camping are for the use of motorhomes, campervans and other self-contained motor-caravans such as RV’s or overland vehicles, otherwise known as a camping car in Europe.
Towing caravans, or those wanting to sleep in a tent, car or other vehicle which is not self-contained, are not allowed to use aires for overnight stopovers.
We do not know of any specialist caravan aires in France, or Spain for that matter, probably because caravaners tend to go to their destination and stay put, rather than touring.
What services do aires have?
Every aire is different! Some have a full suite of services including electricity and some have very basic offerings, with a few having no motorhome services at all.
Services may be provided through a Flot Bleu type of system where all the necessary services are housed within a large plastic column. You have to pay to unlock the column and access fresh drinking water (eau potable) black waste disposal and electricity. Alongside the plastic column is usually a drive over grate where you can dispose of your grey waste water.
The cost is usually only a few euros. Some of these systems now accept credit cards and contactless payments. Many accept cash and jetons (tokens). But just to keep us on out toes, some Flot Bleu accept different jetons so building up a stash may not help!
If the machine you’re using will only accept jetons, they can usually be purchased at a local tabac or paper shop, sports centre or town hall.
If you can plug into the Flot Bleu for electricity, you’ll usually get an hour’s charge. Some aires (mainly the commercial ones) do have separate electricity boxes dotted around, but there often aren’t enough for all the motorhomes that park up. In these circumstances a splitter is a good piece of kit to have as it allows you to split the power from one socket between two vans.
Other aires may have a purpose built area for services which is free to use or has an honesty box system. There is usually no electricity supplied.
Sometimes the services have not been designed well leading to a risk of cross-contamination between toilet cassette waste and fresh water.
You will usually need your own hose and fittings at these types of services. Remember that the hose provided where you empty your toilet is for rinsing down the area afterwards, not for fresh water.
Some aires also have toilets and showers, which you may have to pay for. In our experience, these are not usually as clean as you might want them to be.
Are there motorhome service areas without parking?
Yes. All around France there are thousands of motorhome aire de service without parking. These may be in a garage or supermarket, along a main road or in towns and villages. Just look for the distinctive blue and white sign. Usually, you have to pay for the services provided at a motorhome service point.
Are French aires safe?
We would say that using aires in France is safe. After three years living in a motorhome in Europe, and much of that time spent in France, we have stayed in hundreds of aires without incident or concern.
Some aires are gated, which helps if you want to leave your van for a day out. Many though, are not but this has never deterred us – we have always felt safe. Follow our top tips for staying safe when you’re staying on an aire;
- If you arrive at an aire and it doesn’t feel right, listen to your instincts and go elsewhere.
- When going out for the day, close your windows, put your blinds up and hide any visible valuables. Thieves want to know it’s worth taking the risk of breaking in and may just move on if they can’t see inside.
- Be prepared for the worst, even though it’s unlikely to happen. We carry self-defence spray and a heavy Maglite torch.
- Double check that your habitation door, cab doors and storage bins are locked before going to bed.
- Consider your key arrangements. Do you carry a spare or secure it somewhere around the vehicle?
- Keep valuables in a securely installed and well hidden motorhome safe or special hiding place.
- Don’t go out and flaunt your stuff; your watch and camera may feel like everyday items to you but to thieves looking for an opportunity they are advertising your lifestyle. People living in poorer parts of Europe and the UK will see living in a motorhome as a luxurious existence, even though we know it’s not.
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What are the rules for motorhome aires in France?
All aires have rules, whether they are run by the local council or a commercial company. The rules are often derived from local by-laws which exist to ensure that large groups of travellers do no arrive and stay for months. Often the rules will be displayed in English and French.
The rules differ from region to region, but generally always include information on the following;
- Aires operate on a first come, first served basis and cannot be booked.
- There will be a maximum length of stay stipulated in the rules. No more than three nights is common.
- Whether you can put out an awning, use external cooking equipment, hang out washing or put out a table and chairs.
- You must only use one space (if they are designated). If you’re towing, your van and trailer must fit in the designated space.
- Tents, non self-contained vehicles and caravans are not allowed.
- Observe the quiet time rules. No noise after 10pm or before 7am is common.
- Dispose of litter and waste correctly and in the designated places.
Often these rules are about making sure you are not ‘camping’ but ‘parking’, and so the traditional aspects of camping are not allowed. In reality most people do use chairs or hang a bit of washing out, but it’s done discreetly and always packed away overnight.
Is there anything else I should know about rules?
French aires are pretty chilled, with lots of like-minded people making use of the facilities. There are a few unwritten rules to be aware of when you use an aire for the first time;
- If the aire is empty, don’t park right next to the only other motorhome there.
- Similarly, if the aire does not have designated spaces, leave enough room between your van and the next so that you can’t hear each other using the loo!
- The aire may not be suitable for large or heavy motorhomes (this could be due to access or designated space size) – think over 5,000kg or 7m long. Don’t try and get in if this is the case, as you’ll take up more than your share of room.
- In some super popular aires, there is just enough space to open your door or window and it’s obvious when you arrive that this is how you need to park.
- Even during non-quiet hours, don’t blast your music – it won’t be to everyone’s taste.
- Keep dogs on a leash.
- Don’t return late at night and make a racket getting into your van.
- Don’t hog the service area. Be as quick as you can and work efficiently.
- Clean down the service area after use. Wash away any remnants of grey waste and rinse down the toilet cassette area after emptying.
Helpful motorhoming resources;
How do I find the best aires in France?
Motorhome Parking Apps
The app is essentially a community database where users upload and share details and images of aires, campsites, service points and wild camping spots they have found or stayed in. Others then use the facilities and share reviews and images.
With over six million app downloads, that’s a large community checking out and finding the best overnight parking for motorhomes.
Park4Night is free to download, and if you sign up as a community member (also free), you can also share places and leave reviews, as well as access some spots which are only shared with members.
If you want to use Park4Night offline and on multiple devices, then there is an annual fee of €9.99 or €2.29 a month.
All the Aires
We also carry a copy of All the Aires, published by Vicarious Media. This is a large A4 size paperback covers over 3,900 aires of France and includes an aires in France map. The book is split into two, with one covering northern France and one covering southern France.
The books are broken down into colour-coded regions with maps, making it easy to search geographically around your location. A picture and a description are included and each aire is inspected by All the Aires periodically.
We have found aires in the books which don’t appear on Park4Night and vice versa. The books are a handy addition if you don’t want to pay to use Park4Night offline, or just prefer to use a list of aires in France which is in hard copy.
The downside is that the reviews are not in real-time as they are on Park4Night, so if an aire is closed temporarily or there is an issue with the services, you might not find out until you arrive.
Although this French aires book is updated and republished most years, in reality aires don’t change much so there is no need for motorhome owners to update the book any more than every five years or so. The next edition of All the Aires in France is due in 2022.
There are a growing number of commercial aires which have barriers and are more strictly controlled, but are generally very well run and often have additional facilities such as showers and restaurants. The largest provider is called Camping Car Park France , who run over 250 commercial aires in France.
The first time you stay in one of their aires, you’ll need to buy and load a Pass’Etapes Card (like a credit card) which you purchase from the machine at the entry barrier, (or you can order one online in advance here), which costs €5.
You need to load the card with euros, which you can either do at each place you stay, online or via their app, if you know you’ll be using their facilities. The average cost of a night’s stay is €10-12.
Is a France Passion site an aire?
France Passion is a great scheme that allows you to stay with French farmers, wine produces, cheese makers and so on, on their land and free of charge. The France Passion guide costs €30 and includes access to their web based site for searching.
France Passion do not provide aires and their sites don’t provide any services.
Is staying in an aire the same as wild camping?
Staying in an aire in a motorhome is a totally different experience to wild camping in a motorhome. The former is a bit like staying in a very relaxed (and much, much cheaper) campsite where there are services.
Motorhome wild camping means finding a spot which is free, without any services, and often in a rural or out of the way spot.
When is the best time to arrive at the aire?
Popular aires fill up quickly, especially in summer. The optimum time to arrive is around noon, as people will have departed and others yet to arrive. But there is never any guarantee, so it’s best to have a second option up your sleeve just in case!
One year in the height of summer, we attempted to stay in the aire in Gordes in Provence. We arrived at 5pm, and naive us, we thought we’d get a space but it was rammed! We didn’t have a second choice so as we drove down the mountain, I was searching on Park4Night. We found a commercial aire in Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, which was €9.60 for the night with electricity and access to the river which ran past it. Luckily or us, it worked out better that time but we certainly learnt that options are good!
Are aires open all year round?
Many French aires open 365 days a year, but some do close in the winter months. You’ll find this information on your motorhome overnight stop app and in the All the Aires books.
Are aires open in France now?
Some gated aires closed during the height of the Covid pandemic. France currently has few restrictions and most aires are fully open, although where there are services like toilets and showers, they may remain closed.
Before travelling to an aire, check using one of the apps for up to date information, and always use Gov.UK and the official French government website to check about travel restrictions and conditions in France before your trip.
What should I do when I get there?
If possible, get to the destination and check out the aire before you park up. You don’t want to risk entering and not being able to turn around if the aire is full, especially when everyone is watching!
Some city centre and coastal aires can be very tight, with little room between each vehicle, so it’s best to look at and assess the space first.
Familiarise yourself with the layout of the aire and visit the services before parking if you need fresh water or to empty your waste.
Park in your chosen spot, plug in if you can, and get the kettle on. Before making tea, pop out to check the rules and arrangements, and pay if required.
Where are the best aires in France?
These are just some of our favourites! Just click the image to see the details and location on Park4Night.