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How to Camp for Free in France with Aires de Service

Aside from all of the castles, beautiful landscapes and cheese that it has to offer, France also has an amazing network of aires de service (service areas). These provide free or low-cost car camping to visitors.

We stayed at these aires de service every night on our journey across France. This left us with more money to otherwise spend on the aforementioned cheese and accompanying wine!

Camping cars parked at the French coast

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What is an “aires de service”?

Aires vary hugely so it’s hard to give an exact definition. An aire is a low cost or free private camping area in France. Often, they are run by the local town council.

There are various names for this type of camping, though aire de service is by far the most common. Aires Communales are run by the local community to encourage local trade; these are often the most looked after.

The aires de service I am mainly referring to, are found either within or just outside settlements of all sizes. They are intended as a place for car campers to stop for the night.

I say ‘car campers’ as the French refer to RVs/motorhomes as ‘camping cars’ and it also helps to define who can use the aires. The standard aire de service is a car park/parking lot, so hence it is not suitable for tent campers. We did find a couple of aires that were set into a forest, but this was unusual.

This article updated 2020. Please note that our personal experience with aires relates to our own road trip across Europe in 2011. I have been advised by some readers that some aires are now subject to stricter restrictions regarding the type of vehicles that can use them.

Small or large aires?

We preferred to find and stay at the smaller aires de service; our car was dwarfed by the much larger motorhomes, and so the smaller aires had a less claustrophobic atmosphere. Some people, however, prefer the larger ones because of the community feel.

Our van in the Aire de service in Comps, France
Aire de service in Comps, France
JR eating lunch with campervans behind at the aire de service, France
Lunch at an aire de service in France

What kind of facilities do Aires de Service have?

The majority of aires de service are free, though some will ask for a fee.

Most will offer:

  • An off-street parking area
  • Means of waste disposal (for motorhome chemical toilets and grey water)
  • A water fill point (eau potable).

Waste disposal almost always seemed to be free. Water is usually a flat fee for a specific amount or time e.g. 2 Euros for 100 litres or 10 minutes of fill.

Sometimes there is a low amperage electrical hookup available, again usually with a fee.

Travelling France in a converted car, we did not use any of these facilities, we instead looked for free aires de service with washrooms and a nice location. Our requirements (free, small, washrooms, nice location) did narrow the options down, but we still never had an issue finding a place.

Our van in the Ally aire de service, France
Parked at the Ally aire de service in France (the best one we found!)
Campervan on the road in France, bordered by mountains
Driving in a campervan in France

How to find free Aires de Service in France

There are many different guides you can buy or download to help located aires.

Since we knew we would not have access to the internet for the majority of our time in France, we purchased a USB stick from Campingcar-infos with the entire database of aires de service loaded on it.

The Campingcar-infos USB stick provided us with the following information:

  • Location (usually with GPS coordinates)
  • Facilities
  • Fees, if applicable
  • Sometimes there are photos and/or reviews

This turned out to be a great buy as the database did not only feature French aires, but also campsites and service areas for the rest of Europe. The only catch is it seems to be only available in French.

If you do not have your own Francophone at hand, the book or app/website with an auto-translator may be the way to go.

Approaching Saint-Jean-de-Chevelu by road, stone houses
Approaching Saint-Jean-de-Chevelu, France

How to choose your Aire de Service

Not having a set route through France, we had the flexibility of looking at the guide in the afternoon and seeing which aires we were close to.

Due to the concentration of the aires throughout France, we sometimes checked them out before heading to another one if it was too busy.

Sometimes it was just not really what we were looking for. Other travellers head for a specific aire every day or just use the one closest to where they want to be that night.

Read next: 5 Mistakes to Avoid on a Road Trip in Europe

Locating Aires

Even with the guide, aires can sometimes be tricky to find. The listings may state that the aire is ‘500 metres outside of town’ which can be a bit ambiguous. Be prepared for a  few circuits to find it!

Most aires are signified with a blue sign with a motorhome on it like the picture below.

Aires de service symbol

Otherwise, you could always try a bit of ‘Pardon monsieur/madame, ou est l’aire de service pour les camping-cars s’il vous plaît?

Discovering new places in France with free Aires de Service

Our favourite aire de service was in Ally (pop. 600), within the mountainous Cantal department (Auvergne region) of France. Like the town, it’s tiny, with just a few spots for camping cars.

There’s a washroom building with one stall (and surprisingly, not one of the squat variety), a sink and a power outlet. We were very excited to see the latter, having relied on an inverter for power so far.

The town of Ally is quaint, with wonderful views and lots of windmills (both the modern and traditional kind). The local boulangerie makes excellent macarons.

I really doubt we would ever have stumbled on Ally if there was not an aire there. Yet another reason why we love aires! I’d love to hear about your own experiences using aires de service.

Have you ever stayed at an aires de service in France?

Aires de service are the cheapest accommodation available while exploring France! Read on for a complete guide to finding and using aires de service while travelling this beautiful country. offtracktravel.ca
Alongside all of the castles, beautiful landscapes and cheese that it has to offer, France also has an amazing network of aires de service (service areas). These provide free or low-cost car camping to visitors. It's the best way to travel France and save money for wine, cheese and croissants! Click here to discover more about free camping in France. offtracktravel.ca

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Robert Ellis

Friday 23rd of July 2021

Very surprised that you got away with parking a car in aires in France. The legal status is that the vehicle must be designated as a camping car on the carte gris or as a motorhome on the UK equivilent.

The vehicle must be self contained.

At our local aire the gendarmes will even move on home made van conversions where the designation is not valid. Cars have no chance.

If you want use aires then get a motorhome.

Gemma

Wednesday 4th of August 2021

Thanks for sharing your experience Robert! No, we had no difficulties. But this was not in the last few years - I wouldn't be surprised if things have tightened up.

H

Friday 31st of May 2019

Hi what a great article - so helpful for novice newbies like me. My question is about kids.. we are hiring a VW T5 this summer and driving around France, will have 2 kids in tow as well. We are totally new to this, have no route yet and slightly nervous (!!)... Are the aires suitable for kids or should we stick to more traditional campsites? Also do u know if you can put awnings up or is it just pitch the camper only? Any and all advice very welcome.!

Gemma

Sunday 2nd of June 2019

Hi there,

Aires aren't super kid friendly but we did see people with children using them. For awnings, we found that it really depended on the specific aires.

Brian Samuels

Saturday 25th of May 2019

Hi Avi. I travelled for a two year contiuous period, using the French aire system in France, quite extensively. Unless the French have changed the rules somewhat, I found that in all cases, cars were prohibited from using these aires, specifically placed there, for \"camping cars\" (or motorhomes); I DID witness on occassion, the French Gendarmerie, (or police), \"move on\" cars, vans, and any other vehicles that didn\'t comply. In most cases, i found caravans, had their own, separate areas in the towns, to park, where motorhomes were not allowed able to . I didn\'t once, witness any caravan using the aires at all. If what you say is true, the French must have totally \"relaxed\" the rules, regarding the use of the Aire system. Cheers B.

Avril Sanders Royle

Friday 29th of March 2019

Hi Do Aires de Services or Aires Communales allow a car and caravan? Thanks Avi

Gemma

Friday 29th of March 2019

Hi Avi,

Each aire has individual restrictions but in general, yes, most do accept cars and caravans.

Ceri

Monday 6th of August 2018

Hi Gemma, have been searching the map for Ally. Cannot seem to find it, nothing listed in the index of my French map. Any further info appreciated. My husband just loves Cantal cheese. Many thanks.

Gemma

Monday 6th of August 2018

Hi Ceri! Ally is located just west of the D922, about 45km north of Aurillac. We loved exploring this region!