TOP TIPS - Getting the most out of Aires
Fit a solar panel to your camper – if it’s the right size and power rating you will never have any worries about hookup availability or topping up your leisure battery. If you look around you from the roof of your camper on any Aire, you will notice that the vast majority of European camper vans have solar panels now. Power hook-ups on Aires are usually few and far between anyway, and can often cost extra. My 85 Watt monocrystalline solar panel will top up my 110Ah leisure battery by midday on a sunny morning – we're self-sufficient for electricity and hook-ups are a thing of the past now. Consider replacing any internal halogen and flourescent lights with their LED equivalent – not cheap, but a good long term investment and a great power saver. But what about the cost of a solar panel? It could easily be less than a week on a four star campsite in summer - you'll soon recoup it. I funded mine with an eBay selling blitz - you'll find a way if you want one badly enough.
Buy 12v adapters for any gadgets you wish to run or recharge - mobile phones, laptops, TVs etc. and look for 12v alternatives to other electrical devices. If you must have 230v power, either fit an inverter in your van, or if you don't need a lot, buy a 20Ah car starter power pack (eg Halfords Power Pack 200) with a built-in inverter, and keep it topped up from a 12v socket when driving. That said, for the same price you could probably buy a second leisure battery and an inverter, but power packs are portable and can be used for other purposes around your house and garden.
On the subject of solar energy, If travelling in the Mediterranean area, consider securing a black PVC ‘Camping Shower’ bag on your roof, about half full of water with all the air let out of it. On a clear sunny day by early evening you’ll have more than enough steaming hot water to wash yourselves and your dishes, all for free. Make sure you attach a webbing straps to it for safely hauling it on and off the roof – 10 litres of water weighs 10 kilos.
Always carry levelling chocks - you know it makes sense. Things won't roll off surfaces or fall out of overhead lockers, and your fridge will work more efficiently if it's level.
Empty your loo and grey water and top up your fresh water at every opportunity, especially before leaving an Aire – the service point at the next aire may not be working properly, or there may be a long queue to use it. The best time to use a service point is in the evening - the worst time is first thing in the morning. There is no point carrying up to 100 litres+ of grey water in your van's waste tank. It adds to the weight of the vehicle, reduces fuel efficiency, and will take forever to drain away. Don't buy expensive manufacturer-recommended chemical loo fluid either - your local caravan/motorhome shop or chandlery will probably sell their own lower-priced brand. Forget buying packs of 'specialised' loo paper too - Sainsbury's Basics bog roll will do exactly the same job for far less.
Carry 2 plastic jerrycans, one for refilling clean water and one for collecting grey water - that way you can often by-pass the queue of vans at service points, as there are often more taps and drain points than there are camper service bays. Just because a camper's parked at the service point doesn't mean you can't refill or empty at the same time with your jerrycans. Then you don’t have to manoeuvre your camper around the Aire to service it and risk losing your parking spot, and you don't end up queueing for ages on the morning you want to depart. If you don't fancy heaving jerrycans about, a cheap solution is to use your bike. Rest the jerrycan on a pedal, run two webbing straps from the jerrycan handle to the handlebar stem and the sandle stem to keep it steady, then walk the bike alongside you. The trouble with wheeled water carriers is they take up a lot of storage space. A lot of people just use buckets to collect grey water and carry them to the drainage point.
Carry a pair of drain cover lifting handles with you (only a few pounds online) – believe it or not you may have to lift a metal grille to empty your loo inoffensively(!) The Lacanau-Ocean Aire springs readily to mind there, and there must be others. They might also come in handy if the drain gulley is backed up, and there's a linked drain cover nearby.
Make good use of the internet to research and plan your trip. This site is intended as a starting point, and you could certainly tour most of the Cote d'Atlantique on the basis of our reviews and POI file. However, you might want more comprehensive coverage of Aires Camping-Car and the excellent French language CCI site is well worth a look. Open Google Translate in a new tab if you need it. If you have a SatNav (highly recommended) you can download POI files from this site and from CCI that list the locations of French (and other) Aires. You can easily navigate between Aires using these files.
As a general rule, look for bigger Aires to stay at in the high season – you’ll have less chance of finding a space on a small Aire. The Aires reviewed on this site are mainly medium-sized or large - we deliberately selected them for that reason. Only the Hendaye Aire could be described as small.
Keep a collection of loose Euro change – Aires often have ticket machines, and some won't accept non-French bank cards. Sometimes you'll need to pay for the use of an automated service point.
If the Aire is for camper vans only, the best time to arrive is in the morning when others tend to vacate their pitches, typically 8-10am. If the Aire is also a car park, for example at Chamonix, the best times to arrive are either first thing in the morning before the car park fills up, or early evening when the car owners are more likely to be heading home.
Be aware of ‘Airetiquette’ – don’t occupy a bay then spread your awning, chairs, tables etc into the next empty bay. Expect the same of others, and if the only available bay has someone’s furniture in, politely ask them to if they can move it, preferably in their own language. If you've paid for a ticket and they haven't paid for two, that bay is yours for the taking.
Remember that European campers’ side doors open onto the opposite side to ours, so you may end up with clashing doors if you park too close. It might be expedient to reverse in to keep your side door on a different side to your neighbour’s and give both of you a bit of extra privacy.
In larger Aires, the further you park away from the entrance/exit or any nearby roads, the more likely you are to have a quiet time. This is especially true if the Aire is cursed with a temperamental ticket barrier. I pity anyone parking within 30 yards of the entrance at La Palmyre.
Ignore the urban legends and wild rumours about narcotic gas attacks, and don’t waste your money on so-called narcotic gas detectors. If Aires were unsafe the French wouldn’t use them – they're not fools. French Aire users are friendly, polite, considerate, and as keen for a safe and quiet night as you are. Aires are not riddled with shifty foreign cartoon villains lurking behind trees in black capes going "mwoohahahaha" and trying to gas you in your sleep. The vast majority of Aires we’ve stayed on are calm, orderly, and quiet. The odd few that weren’t (usually due to passing idiots, not camper owners) were still very convenient and low cost compared to a campsite. If you're daft enough to leave equipment and furniture outside your van at night without locks on, expect theft.
Having once stayed in a crowded Aire where an old VW camper caught fire in the night, I’d strongly advise parking in a way that enables you to pull away quickly in an emergency. If using chocks, think about which way you place them so they don’t obstruct your wheels. Tidy away chairs, bikes etc each night so they don't block your exit. Common sense really.
If you want extra security overnight, consider making and attaching some nylon webbing straps with quick release clips to the insides of your doors. Cab doors can be strapped together across the width of the cab, or have the seatbelts looped through the door handles then clicked shut in the usual way. Rear boot doors can have webbing straps anchored on the rear wall of the van, and a strap on your side door can be anchored to the side of a kitchen unit or cupboard. The quick release clips are for your own safety in the event of an emergency.
Learn some basic French – the chances are you will be sharing an Aire with a lot of French camper owners and very few (if any) English, so friendly greetings and a few simple polite sentences will go a long way. If you’re serious about learning French try an evening class at your local College – worth every penny in my opinion.
Fuel economy - Just because you can drive at up to 80mph on French Autoroutes doesn't mean you have to. Keep your speed at or just below 60mph and you can enjoy up to 10% greater fuel efficiency, not to mention greater road safety and a far more relaxing journey. Try wherever possible to buy your fuel at supermarkets rather than at Autoroute service stations. You can save up to 20 cents a litre this way, which is around 16 Euros per tankful on most Long Wheel Base campers. Free SatNav POI files can be obtained online for all the major French supermarket chains, so finding and navigating to them is no problem. Further efficiency can be gained by treating your fuel system with cleaning additives like Power Enhancer' BG 244 (Diesel) at recommended intervals. I am not on a commission from Power Enhancer here either, I've used it and I like it, and that's all there is to it.
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