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!
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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.
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.
How to find free Aires de Service in France
There are many different guides you can buy or download to help located aires.
- There is an official book published every year, available through Amazon (2019 edition)
- Michelin also publishes their own aires de service guide (2019 edition)
- A couple of readers have recommended this guide (but keep in mind the maps are not great!)
- Various companies offer online listings, including Campingcar-infos
- Android apps such as the one provided by Campingcar-infos
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)
- 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.
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
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.
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.