Driving On the Continent with Small People
I have seen a couple of tweets lately requesting advice on travelling to Europe from the UK with a little one. My family is distributed across 3 countries, so, by default, I have become quite adept at commuting from one to the other over the last 16 years - and since 2007, alone with a baby / toddler.
Flying from place to place has its challenges, especially with young children but at least there is a vague structure with people to ask if things start to go wrong! Not so driving ... any number of things can get in the way of moving from A to B and how the trip progresses really can change by the minute.
Far be it from me to try and teach Grandma to suck eggs, but I'd like to share some of the little things I have learnt over the years regarding packing and general travel tips which made my long journeys with a small person easier or at least a little more tolerable!
I have included info on the following points in the hope that some of it might be useful to someone:
1.Things not to forget when packing the car for a small person,
2. Legal requirements for driving on the continent,
3.Travel in France (tolls, services and facilities),
4. Use of Navigation Systems in France.
You may think you are travelling within the EU and therefore don't need them ... you DO! You may also be asked to produce them as pieces of identity for hotels.
Ø Changing bag
Probably the most obvious item but the most often forgotten or or worse, buried at the bottom of the boot under 3 weeks worth of packing!
§ Pack up a separate changing bag with as many nappies, wet-wipes and cream as you will need just for the entire journey (plus spares) along with at least one change of body / t-shirt / trousers and socks for those explosive accidents. This will save you having to unpack half the car looking for more spares along the way.
§ Service stations are not renowned for their cleanliness, although in Germany they are getting better. France has a long way to go and certainly has not grasped the idea of baby-friendly changing facilities yet. One highly recommended addition for your changing bag is a waterproof roll-up / fold-up mat, or at least a towel to lie your baby on. Similarly in France, don't ever rely on there being paper towels or toilet roll. Pack accordingly!
§ Lots and lots of little plastic bags! These are indispensible (if you forgive the somewhat controversial pun) for nappies, wet / dirty clothes and general rubbish.
Ø Mini-packets of 10xtissues - hundreds of them! (Better than a box as more portable and the tissues stay clean. Can be stuffed into pockets, hand-bag, changing bag and tend to be more durable than box tissues, so can also be used for 'mopping up' ... interpret as you will!
Ø A large tub / pack of wet-wipes in the glove-box. You will not believe the things I have used these for! One day I will blog on this.
Ø Several cotton muslins.
Of all the presents I was ever given when I had my baby, my 20pack of muslins was by far the most useful ever. When travelling, they are the most versatile of accessory; they don't take up much space but can be used for anything from hanging up at the window as an additional sun-visor, to wrapping around a child's head pirate style to protect from wind / sun / cold. They are also brilliant for lying a child on to change him, or for drying him off after a wash.
Ø Babyfood / food for toddlers
§ Don't depend on service stations selling baby food. Most of them do, but in France you will find the choice is pretty limited and is pricey along the motorways, so probably best to pack up enough to last the journey and keep cool, somewhere accessible.
Ø In-car entertainment
§ Irrespective of age, music is always a great distraction to children, especially if reasonably interactive. Pack up a variety of CDs - lively for the mornings and some calmer softer music for sleep times. Audio books are wonderful for older children and are a welcome change from the Wheels on the Bus for the bigger kids! (I haven't resorted to the DVD option yet!)
§ When I travel down to see my folks I generally take my 3yo's plastic Ikea bathroom stool with us! Odd though this might sound, it serves both as a stool (obviously) in their bathroom, but, upside down in the car next to him, it doubles up as a sturdy box into which I pack a huge variety of smaller toys. Lego is fabulous as it is diverse in its usage and a carefully selected handful of different bricks / animals and people along with a couple of dinosaurs, a tractor and some books will generally keep him occupied for hours.
v Driving on the continent
Ø If you are bringing your own car from the UK, you will need to buy deflection stickers for your headlights. By default, headlights do not shine directly ahead, but slightly into the side of the road. When driving on the 'other side' however, this can be blinding for oncoming traffic and is actually illegal. The stickers simply deflect the beam away from the middle of the road. These can be bought at Halfords or any similar car accessories store. They can also be bought on most continental ferries but at a hugely inflated price. (Don't forget to remove them again once back in the UK!)
Ø You will need a reflective security jacket accessible in the car for every member travelling including children. Accessible means, not buried under 3 weeks worth of luggage in the boot. Police do look for them as part of their random checks.
Ø It is now also a legal requirement in most EU countries to carry a warning triangle and a standard approved EU First Aid kit. You may incur an on-the-spot fine at a random police check if these items are not accessible.
Ø Yes, France does like their 'random' police checks. You may be asked to empty your car. (Only happened to me once in 16yrs however, despite being stopped over 20 times).
v Driving in France
France, like most countries it has its own unique peculiarities, some of which are not very predictable and which can therefore be pretty testing on the nerves! Hopefully the following tips will spare you a little pain! Some things to note:
France charges by department for the use of its motorways, which means you have to stop at various points along your journey to a) take a ticket and then b) some kilometres later, pay, depending on how far you travelled along that stretch of motorway.
§ Don't forget, toll booths will be, for the most part, on the LEFT side of the car! If you are driving alone in the front, you may have to get out to take the ticket / pay.
§ Put the ticket somewhere SAFE! i.e somewhere where it won't blow out of the window should you open it whilst driving, and somewhere you can access it relatively quickly! Emptying the car to look for it at the next toll station is stressful. People behind you get cross and honk a lot!
§ Some toll pay-stations have baskets not unlike a low-lying wide-angled basket-ball net! If you have the right change for a fixed price stretch of road you can just throw it into the net (aim well or you'll be grovelling around under the car looking for it, see previous point!) and the barrier will open automatically. Don't expect any change. You won't get it!
§ Toll booths generally do take credit cards over the counter and I find this to be the easiest, most stress-free way of paying. They don't ask for a signature so your are underway again very quickly. (Be wary of putting the credit-card into the ashtray slot for ease of access, however ... in some cars there is a slit at the back just wide enough for such a card to slip through. Voice of experience here!)
§ Should the booth not be manned, you will need a pin-number for your credit-card and not all cards are accepted (debit cards are NOT). Having some cash in the car is always a good thing just in case.
§ If you do happen to lose your ticket (not uncommon!) you will be charged a standard fee which will probably be the maximum price for the full stretch of motorway, irrespective of how far you travelled. If you can't pay, they don't let you out! Simple!
In Germany and Austria, these are improving all the time and the bigger chains are generally clean and well maintained. France, however, is a completely different story!
§ Toilets in France are often quite horrific, to put it bluntly. To add to the pain, in the smaller service stations it is rare to find specific baby- changing facilities and the overall hygiene in the wash areas leaves a lot to be desired. Make sure you have a waterproof mat or at the very least a towel to lie baby on for changing and take everything you need for cleaning and drying him. To be honest, I have opted to change mine on the driver's seat of the car as a cleaner alternative on occasions in the past!
§ If there are two of you, things are, of course, substantially easier as one can 'go' while the other holds the baby. Travelling alone with a tiny person is not quite so simple. The easiest way, therefore, to combat the above, is to aim for the larger service stations if you can... indicated by the full restaurant sign as opposed to just the cafe-type services (cup and saucer sign). The larger restaurants generally have dedicated baby changing facilities and a decent shop.
§ One great little tip if travelling by yourself with a baby too big for a carrier, is to nip into the restaurant first and grab a high-chair. These are often on wheels. I would ignore the strange looks and 'wheel' my baby to the toilets, enabling me to 'go' in relative comfort myself, without having to balance baby on my lap! (great thigh training however!) or put him down somewhere evilly dirty/wet.
§ Unlike Germany and Austria, I have yet to find a service station in France with an openly accessible microwave for warming milk / baby-food. They are, however, normally very amenable with regard to doing this for you if you ask.
§ Petrol stations are fairly regular along the major motorways in France, however, be warned, on the Nationals they are not! If travelling a long way, I would advise never to let the car go under one quarter full as you may be unlucky. Monday is closing day in France and this is acknowledged by almost everyone, including local petrol stations.
§ 24/7 stations: Yes these do exist, but they are rarely manned and are very fussy about the type of cards they take. Even the most common VISA and Mastercards are sometimes rejected.
§ If you have SAT NAV and notice a local petrol station just off the motorway, I would advise that you take the 5 minutes to divert and fill up there. Petrol prices at motorway services in France can be astronomical!
Ø Hotels / B&B en route
§ France has any number of hotels and Bed and Breakfast places along the major routes and the rooms are generally ok. The Routier hotels tend to be clean, if basic. If travelling with a baby, I would, however, ALWAYS ask to check the room first and get a visual on the cot if you don't have your own. Sometimes the rooms are cold in winter and the bathroom facilities not ideal for washing / bathing a small person. I have had to sleep my baby in a laundry trolley before now, hence this tip!
§ I do not generally like to put down a brand in an open forum such as this, but be very careful if booking in to 1* /2* chains such as Formula One ... these are clean, very basic but cheap and hence are a great attraction to backpackers / groups of kids on events holidays. The lack of individual room facilities and the (often) plastic bathroom cubicles with very unsubstantial soundproofing means they can be extremely noisy, particularly in high season. Always ask about other reservations first, especially if you are travelling with a baby.
Ø Monday is closing day in France, as already mentioned above and includes pretty much everywhere. (This does not apply to motorway services of course). If travelling long distances on the Nationals, make sure you pack enough water, food and general supplies before you go as it may be difficult to find a cafe or restaurant open when you need it.
Ø Speed Traps
France love their speed traps and fixed cameras are not marked yellow as in the UK. If you see a warning sign on the side of the road indicating that a camera could be in the area, then there generally is one!
Favourite locations for mobile traps are the off-ramps from motorways set at 90kms/hr. or convergences of lanes from two down to one after a dual carriage way. If there is a police gun on such a stretch you are probably looking at an on-the-spot fine of up to 100Euros when they pull you in a few hundred metres later.
Should you be stopped and fined, you will be given the option to pay now, or have the bill sent home. If you pay cash immediately, you may save up to 50Euros. A bill sent by post will always be higher and you will incur additional costs again for the international transfer. It is therefore always advisable to carry up to 100Euros cash in the car when travelling. Just in case ;-)
Radar detectors are, by the way, absolutely taboo ... if you are found with one in your car, it will be confiscated there and then and the consequences could be heavy.
Ø Navigation Systems
In France : .... great on motorways which have been there for 30 years. That is all!! Do NOT depend on it if you are travelling well into the country, particularly around the Massif Central... it can be more than the nerves can stand!
Take. A. Map!!
I hope there was something in here which is of use if you are travelling on the continent for the first time. All that is left for me to say, is 'Don't be scared' by the list ... these are simply things I have learnt over 16 years of driving around and which have made my life a tad easier driving alone with a little one. My little one loves the car, and I adore driving with my little one .. it's just one big adventure! Hope you do too :-)
Have a great holiday!