Here’s my top tip for family travellers: if you’re driving to the South of France this year, never tell anyone where you’re planning to stop overnight.
It turns out everyone has an opinion on how far your family should have driven on the other side of the Channel before you are allowed a break, as well as how much luxury you should allow yourself on the way.
But whether you are a hard-core family who can make it to Limoges without falling out with one another, or whether you can’t get further than Chartres without needing a night between the sheets; knowing your French hotel chains and their limitations will help you to make the best of the dreaded one-night stop.
Here’s the good news: French hotel chains can be surprisingly good value.
The bad news is that you often get exactly what you pay for.
The trick is to plan in advance (especially if you are going in the school holidays) and to carefully consider all of the alternatives.
French hotel chains run on a strict star-based system – and since this is a Frugal Family column, I’m not even going to go above 3 star. If you are used to Premier Inn and Travelodge being at the budget end of things in Britain, you might be surprised to discover that the cheapest French hotel rooms don’t have their own bathrooms, which isn’t ideal when your children need the loo in the middle of the night.
Those after their own facilities might want to step up to an Ibis Budget (the old Etap chain for vintage Francophiles) or a Premiere Classe, where at least your own bathroom comes as standard. All of these can be booked online, and this is advisable, particularly in August, where everything fills up fast.
Budget hotels look cheap, but families will find the costs mount up
That’s because most of the chains have very few family rooms – preferring to go for a triple room option, where the bunk bed is often slung over the top of your double.
Even those of us with four children must often resort to getting two rooms between them. At least families of five needn’t run to three.
As an example, the Formule 1 in Rouen Sud will set you back 62 euros (£53.50) for a one-night stay for four in two rooms (31 euros per room). The Premiere Classe in Le Mans will set you back (33 euros per room).
Budget hotels are often in unlovely areas, which should also be taken into consideration. Just off the motorway is good for parking, and means you don’t have to negotiate a French one-way system into the middle of town, but on the other hand you’ll be stuck with managing your evening entertainment at whatever chain restaurant is on the same retail park.
If you’re lucky it’s a Flunch, which produces nice fast food. Less lucky and it might be a Buffalo Grill, which is a little short on authenticity, but big on Wild West styling. You might also feel edgy about leaving your entire luggage in the car in some areas, but you’ll struggle to fit a holiday’s worth into the rooms at a budget hotel chain. In my experience, a full car in an unmanned carpark makes for an uneasy night’s sleep.
Those looking for alternatives to a motorwayside stop as they hack their way through France have other options. One is to spend a little more and opt for a Logis hotel. Some of these have family rooms and are usually next to good restaurants. At least your overnight stop will feel more authentic. Again, book early – most August dates are already looking busy.
Or try one of the bed and breakfast accommodations, many of which will take families of four in one room.
If you are willing to take a chance, both Airbnb and Booking.com offer apartments that are viable for one-night stopovers (though beware the peculiarities that come with booking direct: last time we ended up feeding someone else’s cat) and may be cheaper for families thanks to the different bed configurations. You can also save if you have a kitchen by bringing dinner from home and heating it up.
Of course, the truly hardcore among my frugal friends tell me all of this “proper bed” luxury is unnecessary money spent. France, after all, has many excellent municipal campsites that allow a one-night stay, and if you’re prepared to pitch and unpitch a tent, you could get away with a one-night stay for less than £30. Try pitchup.com if you want to book a plot in advance, or you can chance it and just turn up.
Personally, though, after eight hours driving, I’m prepared to take the financial hit and pay for a bed. We’re planning to get to just after Le Mans before stopping for the night. I reckon that’s just about right. Please don’t judge.