European road trips with kids: How to get to France / Italy / Spain with your sanity intact…
Will Cooper is a dad of two and travelled to France with his tribe in early 2023:
There’s nothing better than a family road trip to the south of France. Well, actually, there is: The first beer at the end of your family road trip to the south of France. And for many people that’s a beer most-needed as the prospect of over 10 hours in a car with kids can fill you with dread… but DON’T FEAR! Here are some tips to help you (and your family) actually - yes - enjoy it.
Why not fly?
Flying with a family is expensive. Four seats, plus luggage, on a ‘budget’ operator in school holidays to - say - Barcelona can easily set you back £1,200+. And then you may well also need a car when you get there: a five-seat mini-van (think Skoda Karoq) for a week in August from Marseille airport costs (at the time of writing) £1,100. So immediately that’s almost £2,500 on transportation before you factor in wherever you’re staying.
An overnight ferry with a four-berth cabin can cost as little as £250 one way. Obviously you’ll be paying for petrol, but even that to the south of France and back would likely set you back no more than £400 in an average family car - so that’s less than £1,000 for the round trip; a huge saving on flying and hiring.
Driving is also better for your family’s carbon footprint. According to the BBC the carbon footprint of one person flying to the south of France is equivalent to one person getting a ferry and driving - but as soon as you add in others to the car, it becomes considerably better for the environment as the overall footprint is smaller.
Driving also means you can take all your stuff. Everything. Pile it high. No luggage limitations. For young families, when you consider how much stuff you can need, this - plus the cost - makes the drive the sensible option…
Get an overnight ferry:
Yes, the Eurotunnel may be quicker and often cheaper, but an overnight ferry is arguably far more convenient. You embark late in the evening, sleep in a proper bed in a private cabin, and are off on the road in France before breakfast. There are multiple routes and carriers from the south of the UK to France, with Portsmouth-Caen being the one I’m most familiar with (https://ferrygogo.com/ferry-to-france-from-uk/) - you’re on a fast road south in minutes, and will be halfway down the country well before lunch.
A single crossing with a four-berth window cabin cost £270 for us last year, and our two kids (8 and 10) couldn’t have been more excited: Driving on as the sun set, finding the cabin, then going out on deck as we departed. All brilliant experiences. Cabins are cosy, but they’re not tiny. And the ensuite is exactly what you need. You could go for a cheaper option and pay for recliner chairs, or even just bunker down on the floor somewhere - but if you have a young family the cabin is worth the £80(ish).
Break up the journey: Fresh ‘aires’
Driving in Europe - especially France - is nothing like the UK. Autoroutes are wide and often empty (especially the toll rolls), and so you can even make use of the less-used cruise control option in your car you may not even know you have.
They also have rest stops - aires - that can put even Tebay and Gloucester to shame. Aires are split into multiple types:
Aire de service: usually every 40-50k on a motorway. Full on services, with all the shops, restaurants, petrol stations and facilities you’d expect, and usually a decent kids playground too. Motorhome drivers can often stay here overnight too in dedicated areas.
Aire de repos: usually every 10k or so. These are basic spaces with just a WC and picnic benches - but they’re generally pretty spacious with plenty of space, and so a perfect place to have lunch.
Aires de jeux / loisirs: midway between the two, with decent playgrounds and sometimes shops.
There are plenty that also offer a bit of everything, or are in mad locations that are absolutely worth the stop. For instance, we stopped at the Aire Du Viaduc De Millau (https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Attraction_Review-g196627-d14988744-Reviews-Aire_Du_Viaduc_De_Millau-Millau_Aveyron_Occitanie.html) which has amazing views of the bonkers Millau Viaduc - the tallest bridge in the world, which we then drove across as we continued south.
It’s absolutely worth looking at which aires look good on your route in advance, and plan your stops (aside from any kid - or adult - toilet emergencies) in advance. They’re almost all a million times better than anything you get in the UK, and some are worth the detour for by themselves.
Break up the journey: Stopovers
We were heading for the southernmost point of France last year - just south of Perpignan on the mediterranean coast. That’s easily an 11-hour drive from Caen, without stops. Because we’d saved money on flights we figured we could afford a stopover each way: and on the way we decided that could only be Paris.
We needed somewhere central, with parking, and ideally at a decent price. The Mercure Paris Centre Eiffel Tower was exactly that (https://all.accor.com/hotel/2175/index.en.shtml), and we got a junior suite - separate bedroom for the adults - for around £200 a night. Given you could see the Eiffel Tower from the window, this was an incredible price.
Driving in Paris is fine. As with any city you have people squeezing in and out of tight spaces, but had absolutely no issues.
One thing though: since 2017 all cars are legally required to display a ‘clean air’ sticker - a Crit'Air vignette - on their windscreen to drive in the city centre, or face a EUR185 fine. You need to order them in advance for £5, and can get all the details here at the RAC: https://www.rac.co.uk/drive/news/motoring-news/law-change-for-uk-drivers-in-french-cities/
Tablets, books, phones, portable DVD players, music… you’ve done them all. But there are a few things that are unique to driving abroad that can get even the most reluctant of kids interested.
One I have fond memories of in France is the number plate game: each French department (county) has a designated number, and cars registered in each have that displayed on their number plate - albeit quite small on new number plates. As you travel through the country the kids tick off those they’ve seen - or, even better - colour in a map, filling in each department when spotted. You can find a downloadable map of the departments with both their names and numbers at Bonjour La France: https://bonjourlafrance.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/map-france-departments-5-407k1151x1167.jpg
We also downloaded some I Spy checklists from the great France For Families website last year - both for motorway driving and smaller roads: https://www.franceforfamilies.com/travel-options/entertaining-the-kids-in-the-journey/
There are lots of other ideas there too.
So there are a few ideas for how to make what can be a difficult, long journey into something a bit more exciting - and bearable - for you and the kids. Do share any ideas you can think of too.
WRITTEN BY WILL COOPER
Will is a Digital Editor at the BBC, and lives in the North West with his wife and two kids