We’ve stayed at hundreds’ of Aires in various locations across France. As well as other countries, such as Germany, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Lichtenstein and The Netherlands. These all have a sort of similar stopover system, although not necessarily using the same terminology. France is the most familiar to us British and is known as a Motorhome Aire or Aire de Service de Camping Car.
So, what exactly is an Aire? How do you find one? and what can you expect when you stay on one? We’ll try and answer all of those questions and help you on your way to hopefully joining us on our love for the Aire system, not just in France but across Europe.
1. What is An Aire?
An Aire is basically a designated parking area for use by fully self-contained vans and motorhomes. It’s provided by the local authority, Mayor or private land owner. Some are just daytime parking, most are for overnight use and they can be located in any number of locations. There is no set rule and no hard or fast way of knowing where an Aire will be, how big it is or what facilities it will have.
The original development of the Aire system was a result of French government recogintion to the importance of providing facilities for Motorhomes. Realising, encouraging visitors to stop in or near a town brought huge economic benefits in return.
Significantly, the big difference between Motorhomes and caravans was noted by the government. They recognised that Motorhomes are fully self- contained with fitments such as on board water tanks, along with the tendency for Motorhome owners to drive on regularly. Not forgetting, the other big difference to caravans, the fact there is no separate car to drive from the caravan site.
In practice we have rarely come across an Aire where someone has not put out the levelling ramps and certainly, if it’s good weather, in a great location the reclining sun chairs and awning will be out too! Basically, it’s common sense and being respectful, don’t misuse space if it’s jam packed full with others and definitely put everything away if you lock up and go out for the day.
Yes, some aires can be so full that there is only enough space to open the door between you and the next van! Other’s in the middle of a town or city are obviously for the purpose of convenience and will have perfectly marked out bays for you to stick to.
One private initiative is France Passion, this is where local landowners allow you to stop on their land for either a small fee or the expectation that you will buy a product from them in return.
This could be an orchard, vineyard or small holding where they produce small items such as honey or grow fruit or vegetables. To find these you need to sign up to the France Passion guide each year, you’ll be sent a book and window sticker (fees applicable to join) an App would be great though.
2. Service Points – How Do You Fill Up With Fresh Water And Empty The Waste?
Some Aires but not all of them have a facility for emptying grey water, filling up with fresh and a place to empty the cassette toilet. These are known as a service point and can be either:
It is not unusual to have a Service Point and no parking area or you can have both, it just varies and very often you’ll find a Service Point at a motorway services, supermarket, towns, villages and some fuel stations.
There is an increasing tendency to charge for service points of all types. This can be a credit card option on the service unit or at an entrance to an Aire, where you pay for parking in addition, by means of a parking machine. Coin payments on the unit itself or buying a token (Jeton) at the local tourist office are sometimes used.
All payment methods give a limited usage, usually a few minutes. The use of barrier operated entrances has become more noticeable too recently, so you may have to pay to enter to use the service point, even if you’re not stopping the night.
It will probably cost a few Euro’s to use a Service Point to it won’t break the bank.
Last but not least some service points are free!
3. How Do You Find An Aire?
There is no set way of knowing where an Aire or a Service point will be and whether there will be both when you do find one. They will, however, be signposted and it’s usually very distinctive, here’s a common sign for you to get an idea:
Also, one lesson well learnt is to head for water, no matter what kind…..Canal, river, beach, somehow you’ll usually come across the Aire, sometimes just a few motorhomes will be parked up or it can be dozens, especially in peak season in a popular place.
If you want to be a bit more prepared here’s the best options:
4. Where do you Park?
This can be on grass, gravel, dust, sand, tarmac, concrete, it’s completely random and you won’t really know for sure until you arrive. There can be marked bays or just park up where you can, it could be next to a pretty canal, alongside a river or close to a beach, tourist attraction or in the centre of a town or overlooking a beautiful vineyard even at the bottom of a ski slope. The locations can be incredible or just functional, peaceful or noisy, messy or extremely clean and tidy, convenience though is key.
5. Are Aires Free or Do you Pay?
This varies and generally it depends on where it’s located. If it’s a sleepy village then it will usually be free, elsewhere there may be a charge and this could be anything from a few Euro’s to between 10 and 20 Euro’s a night.
The Gendarmerie (local Police) used to collect fees by knocking on your door of an evening or morning. This is now unusual, following the introduction of automated pay machines as well as barriers, installed to prevent vans entering and leaving without paying.
There is one issue we find when trying to pay at an automated machine, they are usually card only and some don’t recognise a UK credit/debit card. As much you want to pay and stay, you simply can’t! We’ve been lucky with friendly locals paying for us with their French cards, we’ve paid them back in cash, of course!
Overall, pay or not, an Aire represents excellent value for money and convenience, they are so close to all amenities and saves the hassle of trying to park elsewhere or catch transport.
6. What Facilities Are Provided?
Don’t get too excited on this one, facilities are pretty basic, don’t expect a campsite or caravan park, it’s really just a parking space where you can stay overnight, expect to use the facilities in your own van.
Occasionally, there may be a public toilet, but remember, in France they do still use the old style hole in the ground type so they may not be to your liking! There won’t be showers, although, sometimes, if your in the height of season by the Mediterranean, for example, there may be a cold shower, it could be outdoor or behind a very basic door!
Electric can sometimes be found on a service unit but these are limited usage and it can be inconvenient, as it may mean that you need to park next to it for a couple of hours to get charged.
It is very unusual to get electric bollards on a French Aire, if you do see any, they are usually full of power lead extensions dangling off in all sorts of directions to other vans and again, limited to certain usage and definitely a low amp of around 6amp. It will be no good to power all your appliances full blast but will do a nice trickle charge on the leisure battery.
7. Motorway Aires
These are very different to the Aires that you’re encouraged to stay at throughout France, infact, they are basically the same sort of thing as our motorway service stations and we only use them for that purpose, exactly as we would in the UK.
Fine for taking a break, food, drink, toilet stop but no more than that, never stop overnight at a Motorway Aire, even if its the kind without the Fuel station. When we do stop we always have one person stay in the van at all times, so yes we take it in turns to use the facilities if there are any, so we know that no one has tampered with the van, especially the tyres.
If you’ve heard of robberies, alleged gassings or letting tyres down, then robbing the occupants, these have often been at motorway Aires, where people have stopped the night in the van.
There is no real need to stop at a motorway Aire, there are far nicer places just off the carriageway to stop safety for the night, it’s just not worth risking you and the van. The only time we’ve done it is when the main A26 motorway was closed one December due to thick snow, everyone had to pull off the road and just sit it out whilst the snow ploughs’s made a clear enough path to open one lane of the motorway!
8. Aires In Winter
Many Aires resemble ghost towns out of season and few service points stay in working order with most drained down for the Winter and sealed off from use. This can leave you struggling and many a time we have driven miles to try and get fresh water and empty the cassette toilet. Even resorting to using the kettle to fit under an awkward size sink in a public toilets or actually buying large bottled water to fill up the tank.
So don’t be fooled into thinking that just because it’s across the channel that everything stays open all year round! Ski resorts are an exception and will be geared up to the Winter season where you will find some service points open and Aires that are generally busy, even full, with Skiers enjoying the snow.
9. Aires in Other Countries In Europe
Aires or stopovers here are known as Stellplatz, they are excellent, there are loads of them, very neat, tidy, nearly all have parking fees payable at a meter. The ground is usually cleaner than France and often they’ll be a clean public toilet at the parking area or close by, they normally always have electric available.
A book can be bought listing all the Stellplatz in Germany, called ‘The Bord Atlas’ or Reismobil Stellplatz, this can be ordered online or bought at some motorhome dealers or service stations in Germany. The locations of a Stellplatz can be superb, next to vineyards, lakes, mountains and rivers but for us, we love the ones located at Thermes, these hot mineral water spa baths are dotted around various thermal areas in Germany and are a great way to spend a relaxing evening dipping in and out of the various pools before heading back to the van.
Has a mix of stopovers very similar to French Aires throughout the country in great locations, usually a fee applies of between 10-20 Euro per night.
Stopovers are more on a privately owned basis but there are lots of them in some really great locations. Also, there’s a really good system of being able to stop at many boating marinas, with the added advantage of having use of the facilities, such as hot showers, toilets and possibly a laundry and power supply to plug the van in to. All are subject to fees averaging around 15-20 Euro per night. Some private stopovers will take bookings.
There is a mix here of a limited number of local authority stopovers, with a majority of private ones in a variety of locations and lots of new ones cropping up. The facilities can be basic but many do have a toilet and hot shower and possibly electric.
They can be extremely over subscribed through our Winter months, when many people head south to the sun. When we visited we didn’t actually manage to get into very many of them, being turned away time after time with a lot being full for months. Private Stopovers will charge and it may be possible to pre-book these, local Authority ones tend to be free with no pre-booking.
There are Aree di Sosta throughout Italy, very similar to French Aires, lots of them in really good locations. A mix of private and Local Authority provided areas which are either free or payable, prices ranging from around 8 – 20 Euro per night.
No real Aire system, majority campsite stays only. A rise in wild-camping due to the Apps available.
Campsites only, although some have a facility to stay in the car park belonging to the campsite, which is an Aire type parking. We were told that tourists should be logged in on a nightly basis, for authority requirements, therefore, only campsites are offered. Also, due to the war here, there are possibly unexploded land mines in some areas. No doubt, there are still those wild camping!
Camper parking allowed on coach park, with use of facilities for coaches, small fees apply.
No Aire system…we wish!!