Campsites are wonderful for staying in one place for a week or a fortnight. If you’re staying in a tent, or a touring caravan, they are generally your only option. Sometimes, however, they can be restrictive, especially if you wish to arrive or depart at a time to suit you rather than the campsite, you don’t wish to book in advance or you’re not sure where or when you want to stop for the night. Continental Europe – and France in particular – provides hundreds of legal overnight stopping places that give you complete freedom to come and go as you please if you’re touring in a motorhome or campervan.
What’s in a name?
Each country tends to call the overnight stops by a different name. In France they are called Aires de Service/Stationment pour Camping-Car, in Italy Aree di Sosta. Germany names them Stellplätze or Reisemobileplätze. Whatever their name, they are very similar in the way they work. Some are little more than parking areas, others will look akin to a small campsite. Whatever the option, they are usually far cheaper (often free) than staying at campsites. That’s great for touring on a budget or extended touring.
Aires de Service
French law dictates that aires are only for motorhomes. With more than 2000 aires throughout the country, they are sited in many villages and towns, along riverbanks, in the mountains or along the coast. They can be dedicated spaces or may be a small section of a municipal car park in the village square or, often, a sports complex or leisure centre. There may be a small charge (anything up to five or ten Euros) for an overnight stay, though this is usually at the busier town and city aires, where the cost will give you 24 hours parking – a great opportunity for visiting larger towns and cities.
Most aires, though not all, provide facilities for emptying cassette toilets, waste water, rubbish disposal and filling up with fresh water. Occasionally, electric points are also available. Again, these facilities are often provided free of charge, while others request a small fee, usually 50 cents or one Euro. Aires are usually extremely well signposted.
If you’re travelling beyond the borders of France, German Stellplätze are open to all motorhomes while many are also open to caravans. A very useful (essential if you use Stellplätze regularly) guide to have is the annual Bord Atlas, which provides maps and details of every Stellplatz, including the type of unit allowed on site. Like aires, there may be a small charge involved, but you’ll often find electric hook-ups on site and almost every Stellplatz provides essential facilities. Like aires, Stellplätze are well signposted upon entering towns and villages.
The France Passion scheme is a tourer’s dream for overnight stays. Upon the purchase of an annual membership book (currently £27), detailing all the available places to stop in France, motorhomes may stay for one night free of charge at private residences.
These are usually farms, vineyards, orchards or restaurants, with the idea being that, in exchange for a free overnight stop, you may wish to purchase a bottle of wine direct from the vineyard, a local jar of honey or sample some regional produce. There is, however, absolutely no obligation to do so but it is a wonderful way to discover a region and chat to producers that are passionate about their work.
Your motorhome must be completely self-contained as waste facilities are not provided (use the facilities on aires) and you do not book in advance; simply turn up, being mindful of any time or date restrictions.
If you don’t like the idea of staying on an aire, I’d recommend the excellent municipal campsites throughout France. There are thousands of them across the country, managed by the community, and are usually very inexpensive. I have stayed at lovely sites recently for just 10 or 12 Euros and, because they are rarely full, there’s no need to book in advance.
They don’t have all the facilities of a large, luxurious privately-owned site, but they will have electric hook-up, some basic showers and toilets, and maybe a handful of facilities such as a small playground or bar.
A guide to using Aires and Stellplatze
Aires (and Stellplätze) work on a first come, first served basis without reservations. It’s rarely a problem, but popular tourist towns can fill up fast at weekends so be prepared to look for an alternative.Where payment is required – either for the overnight stay, using electric hook-ups or obtaining a fresh water supply – it is usually via coin operated service points. Occasionaly, these service points require the purchase of a token (jeton), available at a tourist information centre, town hall or local shop (the service point will indicate where). To avoid getting caught short, it’s worth stocking up on a few commonly-used tokens. Always have a good quantity of change for service points too – 50 cent and One Euro coins are the most common denominations required.
Use the service points to empty cassette toilets (nearly always available free of charge even if there is a charge for fresh water) and fill up with fresh water whenever possible, just in case facilities are unavailable at the next stopping point. Carry a couple of bottles of fresh water with you.
Aires in the UK?
While the UK is way behind the Continent in provision of Aires, CAMpRA – The Campaign for Real Aires in the UK – is campaigning for the provision of simple overnight stops for a self-contained motorhome or campervan. You can read more about them and find out how to get involved here.
The Bord Atlas guide to German Stellplätze (in German), the France Passion guide (multi-language) and ‘All the Aires: France’, a very useful English-language guide with pictures, descriptions and directions to all French aires, are available from Vicarious Books. These are must-have guides for those keen to use alternatives to campsites.