What’s the cheapest way to get your family to the Mediterranean for two weeks’ sun and sand this summer?
The answer doesn’t necessarily involve Ryanair, you may be relieved to hear. Firstly, get to the Continent on a car ferry – or via the Channel Tunnel – and drive to the sun.
Motorways through France are fast and efficient (at a price, of course) but even with the tolls and the petrol, the cost for a family will be a fraction compared with what you would pay for return flights even with a budget airline.
Motorways through France are fast and efficient and the cost for a family will be a fraction compared with what you would pay for return flights, even with a budget airline (stock image)
As a child, most of my family’s summer holidays involved taking our battered car on the arduous drive to the South of France, where we would stay in an inexpensive rented caravan or an even cheaper hired tent.
Costs were further mitigated by the fact our parents opted to take most of our food with us. French campers were fascinated, and probably appalled, to observe the concept of canned baked beans.
Our early expeditions to the sun happened before the advent of the French motorway (and the breathalyser) so driving had its challenges, not the least of which were the bizarre rule on French roads that gives priority to all traffic joining from the right, including horse-drawn wagons, of which in those days there were still plenty.
The old rule of having to give way to traffic coming on to a roundabout was a traffic nightmare which still causes the occasional post-traumatic stress dis-order flashback.
The French motoring holiday became fashionable in the 1970s and 1980s with the growth in self-catering gite holidays and the rise of the pre-erected tent campsite managed by the likes of Canvas Holidays and Eurocamp (men and women who began their lives as student employees of these camping operators went on to become senior travel industry executives).
But while taking the car abroad has continued to be a significant part of the holiday business, it has never reached the heights one might have expected back in the glory days of continental motoring trips.
Frank suggests driving to your summer holiday this year to take advantage of the savings before Brexit causes various costs to change (stock image)
I suspect that a substantial number of British motorists simply found, and still find, the prospect of taking their car abroad too much of a challenge. The first barrier is the prospect of having to drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road.
And then there are the anxieties about language: how do you communicate with the garage when you stop for petrol or what will happen if you suffer a mechanical breakdown, or even worse, an accident?
On our first trips across the Channel, as you left the French port there were large signs everywhere reminding drivers to keep to the right of the road. Now there aren’t any. Nobody, it seems, needs to be reminded which side people drive on the Continent.
Actually you’ll be surprised to find that once you’re on the Continent, keeping to the right becomes second nature immediately. On the early part of your journey, you will almost certainly find yourself on motorways and other dual carriageways where it’s impossible to head down the wrong lane.
Buying petrol in other countries, you’ll not be surprised to learn, is just like it is in the UK.
You tell the sales assistant which pump you’ve used (in preparation it would be handy to know the words for ‘one’ to ‘ten’ in French or whatever), the amount appears on an electronic indicator and you are invited to present your credit card (you have, of course, made sure to equip yourself with a card that doesn’t carry hefty service charges when you use it abroad, and you never volunteer to pay if they offer an amount in sterling, always pay in the local currency).
There are local rules you should observe. The AA, for example, will tell you that you need to have a red triangle, a high-vis jacket and a spare box of lightbulbs – and that you mustn’t have any sort of device which warns you about speed cameras.
I have to say that when it comes to abstruse European motoring requirements, the only thing I take is a pinch of salt, but don’t follow my example.
Insurance used to be a major problem when it came to taking your car abroad since you had to go through the rigmarole of arranging a ‘green card’ at huge trouble and vast expense. The advent of the EU made all of this superfluous.
With the advent of Brexit, I fear the worst on this (and other aspects of taking a car abroad). So, for this reason at least, if you fancy boldly going with your car where surprisingly few have gone before, 2017 might be a very good year for taking the leap.
Brittany Ferries (pictured) has launched ‘économie’, which it describes as: ‘A no-frills service offering even more choice to Spain and France’
The ferry business has undergone significant changes in the past 50 years. You couldn’t drive on and drive off a car ferry until the 1960s. But from then onward, ferries tended to get bigger and better until they began to resemble cruise ships more than car/lorry transporters.
Given the success of no-frills airlines, however – which have had a huge negative impact on cross-Channel travel – it was inevitable we would see no-frills ferries.
Brittany Ferries launched ‘économie’, which it describes as: ‘A no-frills service offering even more choice to Spain and France. If you’re looking for a lower fare and are content to travel without the cruise-style experience offered by our cruise ferries, the économie service is perfect.’
The ferries Etretat and Baie de Seine have smaller public areas and ‘less space onboard’.
Both ships have self-service restaurants ‘offering limited but tasty French cuisine’. Both have shops selling tobacco, spirits (at French prices), confectionery and gifts ‘but these are limited when compared to our cruise ferries’. The cabins are ‘comfortable yet functional’.
What passengers will notice most is the price: a one-way cross-Channel fare for a car and two people costs from just £79. One of the most fundamental changes affecting ferry travel is how we buy our tickets.
Now it’s all on the internet, so compare and contrast. There are all sorts of special offers and deals which can save the diligent a fortune.