Cheap French Family Holiday How-To

Update 2014: These tips were written before the ban on taking your children out of school during term time. The new ban now means it is almost impossible to book a two-week family holiday in France for under £1500 if you have school-age children. Consider ABTA's campaign to stagger school holidays. Most of these money-saving tips still apply, but only if you have preschool children, children over 18 or no children at all.

You should be able to get a two-week family holiday in France for under £600 in late May / early June, and for under £500 in September. That's all-inclusive for two adults and up to three children, with a decent, convenient ferry crossing (not just a Dover crossing). For a hundred pounds more you can be surprisingly fussy if you're prepared to search around.

Book a mobile home, not a gite nor apartment

Mobile homes are plentiful and cheap. You won't be going in peak period, so the campsites will be quiet anyway.

These days mobile homes are pretty well specified. You'll typically get one double and one twin bedroom (possibly with a third bunk bed overhead), in addition to the usual array of sofa-beds or convertible beds. You'll also typically get a small showerroom, a kitchenette with oven/grill, hob and fridge (probably with a small freezer section) and a lounge/dining area with a gas fire. If you want more space, you may be able to hire a 3-bedroom mobile home or challet instead.

All campsites will come with a shop, playground and outdoor swimming pool. There will also be toilets and showers, but you'll have those in your mobile home anyway so it's unlikely you'll need to use them. Some campsites may also have an indoor pool, bar, sports facilities or private access to a beach. Wireless internet will usually be available for a very cheap price, but only near the reception or bar building.

Avoid tents, no matter how nice the bumf makes them look. It'll all end in tears. You can't afford peak season, so whilst the days will be mostly sunny and warm, the nights may be cold and sometimes wet.

Use a cheap brand tour operator, or foreign operator, or look for special offers

Big name operators like Eurocamp tend to have higher prices, and you'll only get bargains with last-minute special offers.

Smaller name operators, and unfamiliar foreign operators, tend to have lower prices all year round. Typically they'll offer two weeks for the price of one in low season. Smaller operators won't tend to offer many extras such as children's clubs or coach trips, though.

Examples: - Formerly known as Haven Europe, now incorporated with German company but plenty of English staff. Website is excellent and indicates which campsites have English speaking staff. Large company which owns entire campsites. ABTA registered. - Small but very reliable family-run operator focussing on no-frills family holidays on simpler campsites. Superb, I can't recommend them highly enough. ABTA registered. - Bucket shop for various discounted holidays, look for "Camping in France". This is where the big-name operators sell off their unsold holidays, so you may book with Leisure Direction but end up on a bigger name campsite. Changed hands a while back and spent a year or so without ABTA membership. Now affiliated with WorldChoice travel agents. I'd double-check on the ABTA membership, mind; book with a credit card if they're not ABTA registered, so you're covered if they go bust.

Don't be tempted to try to book the mobile home and the ferry separately, it'll always come out more expensive and you won't have a holiday rep to fix any problems for you. The holiday operators, even the small ones, bulk-book the ferries and get them at massive discounts that you cannot possibly get near.

Want to explore? Go to Southern Brittany or the Loire/Dordogne valley

These areas have lots of historic buildings and interesting countryside. Concarneau and Vannes are particularly picturesque historic towns.

Northern Brittany - along the English Channel - has lots of rain, so avoid. There is a convenient clump of mountains called the Black Mountains which prevent the worst of this rain spreading south.

Anything near Quimper or further south is generally much sunnier. Brittany is also the place to go for rock pools. Get a guidebook or use internet satellite mapping to spot some small sandy beaches.

Remember that Brittany is a Celtic nation like Wales, you will see signposts in both Breton and French. Breton is very similar to Welsh but is not spoken as widely as Welsh is spoken in Wales.

Want lots of sun, sand but don't want to drive all the way to the Med? Go to the Vendee

The Vendee doesn't have much history and is relatively flat and featureless. But it has miles and miles of empty sandy beaches and gets lots of sun - same climate as the Med! Visit La Rochelle for a picturesque historic town.

Go in May, early June or September

These are the really cheap periods. An early/mid May or mid/late September holiday could start from 300 quid. Be aware, though, that not all campsite facilities may be running in the cheap periods. For example, the shop and swimming pool will probably be open, but the restaurant and the nightclub probably won't. Do you care? France is overwhelmed with good restaurants, you'll find plenty within five miles and probably one or two within twenty minute's walk.

On smaller campsites, out of season, you may need to order bread from the shop one day in advance. I thoroughly recommend getting fresh baguettes and croissants every day. French bread is made without preservatives and goes stale very quickly. It's also much better than British bread when fresh.

If you're tied to school holidays, look out for special offers for very early and very late bookings. The last week in August can be surprisingly cheap. You'll also find better deals on two-week holidays than a single week - if you only want 10 nights, you'll sometimes find it cheaper to pay for two weeks and state that you're leaving a few days early!

The children's activity club and childcare will probably only be available during school holidays.

Take the ferry and your own car

Don't fly and hire a car. Hiring a car is very expensive in France. Take the ferry. If you don't have a reliable car, hire one in Britain, it'll be cheaper. Make sure you're clear that you want to drive it to France and back.

Avoid outbound crossings on Fridays and Saturdays, they're the most expensive.

You may need to do a fair bit of schedule-fiddling to match up your desired ferry crossing (not all western channel crossings sail every day), arrival date (some campsites don't allow you to arrive on particular days) and budget. Get yourself a calendar and a pencil and do your homework, you can easily save two hundred quid.

Brittany Ferries website has all the timetables.

Brittany or the Vendee? Consider Portsmouth

If you're going to Brittany or the Vendee, consider a western channel crossing from Portsmouth. You'll save a load of driving time over a short crossing from Dover or the Eurotunnel. Also, Portsmouth never has strikes!

Caen, Cherbourg and St Malo have all got excellent links to motorways, especially Caen. Consider breaking up your journey at Mont St Michel or Rennes.

There are loads of things to do on board Brittany Ferries. There are usually three cafes and restaurants, which offer good food at okay prices. There's also usually a bar and a toddlers' soft-play area, like an indoor padded climbing frame. There's usually also at least one cinema and other rooms with films showing on TV.

Unless you already live near them, avoid Plymouth and Poole. They're a nightmare to drive to/from, one set of roadworks will ruin your schedule and you'll get diverted onto a maze of minor roads.

Avoid Roscoff if your family gets sea-sick. Roscoff crossings take more than 10 hours and cross a much more exposed area of sea, which can get very choppy. If you're going out of season, it'll probably be a bit windy, too... bleugh!

Central or southern France? Consider Eurotunnel

Eurotunnel never goes on strike and has two tunnels - one spare if the first is closed. It's very, very fast - 30 minutes - and puts you directly out onto the motorway. You can also turn up early or late and they'll usually let you on the next available train. They have spare trains and spare drivers literally sitting around waiting to be used if demand suddenly peaks; they can increase departures to six times an hour! If you get stressed about being delayed or missing your boat, Eurotunnel is usually only an extra fifty quid and well worth it. Sometimes operators have Eurotunnel special offers and you might get away for far less than fifty quid.

Bear in mind that other than a toilet, there is nothing to do on board Eurotunnel. You just sit in your car or walk around your car or stand by the window staring at your car (there's nothing to see out of the window once you're in the tunnel... it's dark in the tunnel). The journey is only 30 minutes, you'll cope. If you do need the loo, the instructions on how to open and shut the fireproof doors between carriages are, erm, comprehensive, and you may find it easier to just take the stairs to the loo in the deck below or above (the carriages are double-decker).

Book your own motel instead of a long overnight crossing

Long overnight crossings are a false economy. Cabin prices are prohibitively expensive overnight, so you'll be temped to sleep in reclining chairs - it won't work, there will be a group of excited teenage backpackers on the same deck chatting all the way through the night and you'll not get any sleep.

Conversely, on day crossings, you can get a cabin for £25. Don't bother unless you particularly want privacy and quiet. The reclining seats are usually empty in the day anyway, or you can just bag a table in one of the cafes.

France has a large number of two-star motel chains, bookable online in English and offering spartan but clean double or twin rooms with en-suite and TV from 30 quid per room per night. They'll be easy to find on the outskirts of town, near industrial estates or supermarkets (which will be quiet overnight, of course). Most tour operators will allow you to book the ferry for the day before you arrive and the day after you leave. It's a perfectly common request.

Consider the motel's flat-fee breakfasts, they're generally very good value and plenty of choice for the price. Typically for 3 quid you'll get an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet including cereal, cold ham, cheese, fresh baguettes, croissants, orange juice and coffee. Load up on breakfast, it's much better value than going to a motorway service station later on.

If you arrive at your motel late at night, you may find reception closed. Typically you will be able to use a hole-in-the-wall kiosk to insert the credit/debit card you used to book online, and it will dispense your keycards or door codes for you. The important thing here is to remember to bring the same credit/debit card you used to make the booking.

Examples: - This chain also offer family rooms, with one double bed and a mezanine above the bathroom with a further two single beds, for a tiny premium. There's one in St Malo which is easy to find next to an Intermarche supermarket and a McDonalds, only five minute's drive from the historic walled city where there are plenty of great restaurants. - - - All much of a muchness. All fine.

Avoid Formule 1 motels. They're not en-suite, they have shared bathrooms. They're very cheap and nasty, and tend to be used by people who only need the room for half an hour, if you get my drift. Avoid, avoid. I cannot stress this enough.

Consider different outbound and return French ports

Especially with Brittany Ferries, you can usually pick better sailing times and sometimes save money, by using a different French port on the way back than you do on the way out. Caen, Cherbourg and St Malo will all sail to Portsmouth, so mix and match. Ports are heavily signposted so there's no reason to worry about learning the route.

Stick to the A-roads and N-roads

France is twice as big as the UK, but with the same population. It's pretty spread out. There are two main classes of trunk road:

A - Autoroutes. These are usually 3-lane motorways. In Brittany, they are part funded by the tourist board so there are no tolls. In the east and south, they may have tolls every thirty miles or so. I recommend paying the tolls, you're only going on them once on the way there and once on the way back, the time saved is worth it.

N - National routes. These are usually 2-lane dual carriageways.

Stick to A and N roads as much as possible. Lesser D and C roads tend to be very wiggly, slow and easy to get lost along.

Be aware that sometimes the gendarmes (traffic/community police) sometimes check your toll tickets to see if you've been speeding (ie. have you arrived earlier than you should have). If you think you might have gone too fast, just pull up into a layby ("Aire d'" something) and relax for a while before driving on to the next toll. You'll see sports cars doing this.

Motorway service stations are as much a rip-off in France as they are in the UK, and the food isn't much better. Look out for "village etape" signs which show you larger villages near the motorways where you can find a proper baker or mini-mart, then buy some fresh bread and make your own sarnies.

Smaller rest areas may have "interesting" toilets, notably Arabic footprint toilets. Look for the WC sign to find a flushing toilet.

Check whether gas is included

Bottled gas will be used to heat water, run the cooker and the gas fire. Out of season, it may get cold in the late evenings and early mornings, and you may use three or four bottles in two weeks. Some operators include as many bottles as you wish, others include only one or two and charge extra for the rest. Gas could be charged at ten pounds a bottle or more. Make sure you bear this in mind when budgeting.

If your operator offers all-inclusive gas, don't be surprised if you get given half-empty bottles in September. They're just trying to use up all the half-used bottles before the end of the season. It's no big deal, just make sure you know how to contact your rep. If you look vaguely competent and it really is the tail end of September, the rep may just let you take bottles from outside empty caravans and switch them over yourself. Remember that bottled gas has reverse thread, the seal tightens the other way.

Book your own travel insurance

Frankly my opinion is that if you're booking via ABTA or with a credit card, and you have breakdown insurance, and you're not stupid enough to travel with the crown jewels draped temptingly out of your pocket, you can probably get away with just an European Health Insurance Card which means the NHS will pick up any foreign hospital bills for you. France isn't the third world. The only health benefit you'll really get from travel insurance is that they'll fly you home in a plane ambulance if things go really, really wrong; whereas with the EHIC card alone you'll just get the local hospital.

EHIC cards are free of charge and you should get one even if you also buy private travel insurance.

That said, with a young family you probably want a bit more reassurance and possibly some cover in case you get delayed. Fine.

It's usually much cheaper to arrange your own travel insurance than to take the operator's insurance. Use a comparison website to pick the best deal. You should be able to insure two adults and three children for under fourty quid. You might even be able to get a whole year's worth of insurance for less than the operator will charge you for a fortnight, which is handy if you intend to do a few booze cruises later.

Theft cover is usually woefully low. Keep your valuables in your car (locked out of sight) if your car insurance has higher limits than your travel insurance.

Sample sites: - - -

Remember, at these prices, don't expect the cover to be generous. It'll repay the absolute basics, nothing more. In particular, it'll probably not cover laptops nor jewelery.

Book your own European breakdown cover

That Martin Lewis off of GMTV says it all on his website As with travel insurance, arranging your own breakdown insurance instead of going with the operator's offer will usually save you at least twenty quid, and you can probably get a year's worth of British AND European breakdown insurance for far less than you'd pay a big name like the AA or RAC for British cover alone.

The provider that consistently gives me the best deal is for combined annual European & UK cover. They don't pay me comission, so I encourage you to shop around, but do include them in your consideration.

Don't forget to upgrade your motor insurance

You will need to upgrade your motor insurance to cover driving in France. This is sometimes called a "green card". It'll either be already included in your car insurance, or you'll have to pay twenty or thirty quid for it. Either way, ring your motor insurance company and check.

Bring your own bed linen

This will save money. Pillows and either blankets or duvets will usually be supplied for free, but bedsheets and duvet covers will be extra. Although mobile home beds do tend to be a bit shorter and narrower than normal beds, you should be able to get your existing bed linen to fit with a bit of creative bedmaking. Fold up blankets to fit duvet covers if they don't supply duvets. Consider taking a flat sheet instead of a fitted undersheet. You may find spare pillows and blankets in the storage cupboards under the sofas or under the double bed (the double bed usually lifts up on a piston).

Hire a cot or highchair if you need one

They're usually pretty cheap to hire from the operator or the campsite, and will save a lot of luggage space in your car.

Pay the breakage waiver

It'll only be a tenner or so, and could save you a hundred quid or more if you break something.

Look for the ABTA logo, or pay with a credit card

With a credit card, if the tour operator goes bust, you'll get 100% back.

With any other type of payment (eg. debit card), you will only get 90% back IF the operator is a registered ABTA operator.

No ABTA logo, no credit card? You'll get nothing if they go bust.

Get a good guidebook

I used to be a huge fan of Michelin Green Guides, but I've found recent versions more and more difficult to use. I now generally find Dorling Kindersley the best, as these have a good balance between lots of photos, maps of major towns and sufficient detail of smaller locations.

Brittany DK Eyewitness Travel Guide - Dordogne DK Eyewitness Travel Guide

"The Vendee" by Angela Bird is the must-have book for that region. The Vendee is very difficult to write about, it doesn't have much history so you need someone extremely knowledgable to pull out the interesting stuff. Angela Bird focusses on family-friendly stuff, including lots of arts and craft places, and child-friendly museums. I visited the Vendee many times before buying this book, and only when I returned after buying it did I realise quite how much I had missed.

The Vendee by Angela Bird

Otherwise, for all areas, the Michelin Green Guides are still good, as are the Globetrotter and AA Essential ringbound series. I'd avoid Insight Guides, as they don't have much detail, and avoid Rough Guides, as they're aimed at backpackers.

Check to see if newer, more up-to-date editions of your guidebook have come out.

If you already have a GPS and it can support French or European maps, consider getting the map upgrades, it'll save a lot of arguments and upgrades are usually cheap. Also get yourself a good road atlas. Michelin red ones are the best for France. Frankly I wouldn't bother getting lower-scale maps unless you plan doing some country walks. I usually buy two or three lower-scale maps, the yellow Michelin folded maps, I never use them and I never learn.

Get spare bulbs, a warning triangle and hazard jacket

It's a legal requirement to carry spare bulbs, a warning triangle and a yellow high-visibility vest in your car in France, and the gendarmes do sometimes get bored and do stop-checks. Buy a complete spare bulb kit for your car off eBay, you'll pay a third of what you'd pay in Halfords. Bulb kits are usually one of a small number of standard varieties, each given a H-number, just look on eBay for that H-number. You can go to Halfords' website to look up the H-number and then check eBay for the best price! For example, a Vauxhall Astra takes a H7 bulb kit. You can buy cheap warning triangles and hi-vi jackets in your local street market, or in larger supermarkets, or places like Wilkinsons.

You are no longer required to put blackouts on car headlights, but you should be even more considerate about dipping your headlights at night - British headlights are designed to push the light to the left, where the oncoming French traffic is.

Driving in France is no big deal. Stick to the dual carriageways and avoid the town centres until you've built up some confidence. There are no "give way to the right" junctions outside really remote rural areas anymore. All the roundabouts work just like ours, only anti-clockwise.

Rennes bypass can be a bit of a git. There's a bit where it throws you off the dual carriageway for a few miles onto a suburban main road fronted by retail park stores, as you head off the ring road and onto the N24. Just slow down and pay attention to the signs. If you have a GPS, listen to it. It's only two junctions, so just concentrate. The rest of France is a doozy these days.

I also recommend carrying the following in your car. Remember, this is probably the longest and highest-speed non-stop journey your car will make this year.

  • 1 litre tap water
  • 1 litre cheap motor oil
  • 1 litre windscreen wash concentrate
  • 1 pair jump leads

    Again, local street market or large supermarket for the best prices on those.

    Oh, and check your oil, coolant, screenwash, spare tyre and tyre pressures a couple of days before you go.

    Make cheap phonecalls over the internet from the campsite's WiFi

    Sign up to the campsite's wireless internet, and Skype and other VOIP providers will let you make phonecalls from your laptop.

    If you have a mobile phone which supports Wireless Internet (proper WiFi, not 3G), use Fring to make proper phonecalls from your mobile, using the campsite's WiFi via Skype credits or any other VOIP provider.

    Avoid using 3G mobile internet abroad. Even after the new price caps come in, it's stupidly expensive.

    Eat fresh

    Don't be tempted to buy a whole week's groceries in one go. French food tends to not have preservatives, and tastes all the better for it. Just buy two days' food at a time. Food in France is a bit more expensive than the UK, so don't buy loads of stuff which will go to waste.

    For a cheap meal, try beef hachettes (like beefburgers, but meatier) or spicy red Merguez saussages together with some fresh veg or salad. Wine, chocolate and fish will be bargains.

    Don't try cooking chips in the caravan. Buy them from the campsite take-away, if it's open.

    Stuff you won't find in France, or at least not the same as home, includes the following. Consider bringing your own supply.

  • Salad cream
  • Tomato ketchup
  • Brown sauce or Worcestershire sauce
  • Cheddar cheese
  • Red label tea bags
  • Marmite, Bovril or Oxo
  • Squash concentrate (eg. Ribena, Robinsons)

    The cooking knives in the caravan will invariably be blunt. Bring one sharp medium-sized knife.

    And finally... check your passport

    Make sure your passport has at least three months left before it expires. And your children do need their own passport these days.

    Public Domain - Andrew Oakley - 2009-05-08

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