What happens when you break down in France (10 things I learnt)

364-2012-08-16 16.13.08-thumb-300x251-363.jpgWhen you go on a family holiday and your car gets a longer holiday than you do, you just know something didn’t go to plan.

This year our camping trip to france had a little ‘incident’ that left me pushing my French skills to the limit, learning new words concerning vehicle parts, pleading with insurance companies and waiting, lots and lots and lots of waiting.

Still, it was a great holiday! Read on to discover what happened when we broke down and what we learnt.

Lesson 1: Always always always check your oil and water before you go on long journeys.
I did, really and truly I did! I checked a couple of days before we left. When we left from our home in Kent for the half hour drive to catch the Eurotunnel train at Folkestone everything was fine.
When we left the train in Calais and started the long drive south through France, everything was fine.
Eventually, perhaps about 4 hours into France we were getting low on fuel so we stopped to fill up. It was also a good time to have a break so we had 15 minutes or so, double espresso for me. Things were good, our friends daughter decided to come in our car, we were well on our way to the land of sandy beaches and red wine. What could possibly go wrong?

Lesson 2: Always always always check your oil and water every time you get petrol on a long journey

OK. I didn’t. really and truly I didn’t check 🙁
I’ve learnt from that.
I’ve never checked before and part of me thinks I wouldn’t have found anything wrong if I had. When we started off from the petrol station, everything seemed fine. Then things didn’t seem right…
Spotting the signs
Air Conditioning: After we left the service station the air conditioning didn’t seem to be so effective. I put that down to the fact we’d stopped, had the doors open, it was warmer anyway as we were further south. Yeah, just perception – no problem really.
Cruise Control: We were going up a hill which didn’t feel particularly steep and yet the cruise control cut out. That normally only happened on steep hills. I thought the hill must just be steeper than I thought.
Fuel Economy: My analytical mind likes to know data. I’ve always reset our trip computer when we leave home for holidays so I can see how we are doing. I try and drive conservatively to get the best fuel economy I can. I’ll still drive to the speed limit (it’s a long way!) but I’ll try to read the road ahead so I can slow for traffic without using the brakes. So perhaps I should have noticed something was amis when the fuel meter started changing from 10 litres / 100km to 11 litres /100km. I thought perhaps the road had more hills, perhaps the wind had changed. We had an extra person in the car too. Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps… still, we were going along fine and making good time

370-map-thumb-300x473-369.jpgThe final sign
Suddenly, the temperature gauge was in the red. I mean suddenly, it wasn’t showing higher than normal before, it was suddenly at the top. I was approaching an autoroute exit, I decided to stop. I put the car into neutral to take the pressure off the engine…. and then the engine stopped. I put the hazard lights on and continued to coast down the slip road, eventually stopping about 100 metres in front of the toll booths. At least we weren’t on the side of the autoroute, the cars and lorries were travelling much slower where we’d stopped. Our friends travelling behind us said there was a lot of smoke the second before put the hazard lights on.

I did the normal male thing. I lifted the bonnet and looked. Quite how looking will fix the engine I have no idea, but I didn’t have any better ideas. I could see there was no water in the reservoir. No problem I thought, give it a little while to cool down, put more water in (we had plenty of water for drinking along the route), then we’ll carry on. I thought I’d try starting the engine anyway, I wasn’t quite pleased with the way the engine had stopped as we coasted along. There was a horrible noise… it was clear to me then we’d need a little help.

Out come the reflective jackets and warning triangle

Lesson 3: Ensure everyone in the group knows enough to carry on by themselves

Our friends had never driven in France before. We met at a campsite in Cornwall a few years ago. That year the constant bad weather persuaded us to look further south for a campsite where the weather would most likely be better. Protip: holidays are cheaper if all the children want to do is play on the beach and the weather is good enough for them to be able to do that.

We’d told them about how great things were last year and that they were welcome to join us so they did. By following us it would be much easier for them, right? Well, it would have been if we hadn’t broken down. Fortunately I’d printed them a route to the first hotel using google maps. Unfortunately they don’t speak any French and the little hotel I’d booked us in didn’t speak English. Still, we were still hoping to be on the road again 5 minutes after a mechanic arrived so told them to carry on and we’ll catch up later.

Lesson 4: Prepare all your insurance documents and phone numbers before you travel.

So, there we were broken down on the autoroute. Fortunately I plan ahead. I had phoned our insurance broker the week before to get the international breakdown number. International breakdown was an option on our fleet insurance although I’d never seen any details about what was covered (Note: That’s a mistake I almost came to regret!).

I phoned the number, listed to the ‘if you are in Europe and need immediate roadside assistance, press 2’, pressed 2 and spoke with Oscar at the RAC. Oscar was great, I later found out he’s French but he spoke with a london Frank Bruno like accent and clearly told us what we needed to do;
“You’re on the autoroute so we can’t help you there, you’ll need to phone the emergency services on 112 and they’ll arrange to get you off the autoroute. Once you’re off, call me back and tell me where you are and I’ll get a local garage to come to you”
He took our insurance details and I phoned 112….
Good job I speak a little French, the ‘pompier’ (firewoman) that answered said I need the gendarme (policeman) and she transferred me. The gendarme said I need the mechanic and he transferred me. The mechanic said he’d send someone to us.

Just like the beginning of Dicken’s ‘A Tale of Two Cities‘ (read it for free on that link) where he famously begins “It was the best of times, It was the Worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness..” I was about to meet my on English / French opposite, “Help is on the way, Help is not on the way”. Oscar called back, “Hello, Mr Root, did you speak with the emergency services?”
“Yes thanks, they’re sending someone to help, I’ll phone you back when they take us off the motorway”
“Oh, that’s good. Unfortunately I’m having trouble finding your insurance policy on our system, can I try checking by your postcode”….

Great. Just great.

Lesson 5: If you have to breakdown, breakdown on a weekday during working hours.

361-2012-08-16 16.37.10-thumb-300x225-360.jpgSo, RAC said we weren’t covered. Fortunately I had our brokers number in my documents file, so I phoned them. They said we were covered and they’d investigate and call back. It took about an hour for them to discover that although we’d paid for cover, it apparently wasn’t on our insurers system that we’d paid and that therefore the RAC didn’t know we’d paid either. It was being fixed as we spoke…and by this time I was speaking from the back of a recover lorry so I was hoping it was being fixed very quick! I shudder to think what would have happened if our brokers office was closed. Well, actually I can guess it would have cost us a lot of money and we’d have had to reclaim it later I guess.

When we reached the garage I called Oscar and was relieved to find he’d been called by our insurers and everything was fine, he’d be able to help. He spoke to the mechanic for me. It was clear the mechanic was saying fixing our engine was not a small fix. Our car wasn’t going anywhere for now. Oscar paid the mechanic and then spoke with me again to talk about what options we had. He said it’s too late in the day to get a hire car for us now. He’ll organise a hotel for the night and send a taxi to collect us. In the morning they’ll get a hire car and we can carry on our journey.

When I say everything was fine, I mean that we had 14 days of cover for a 16 day trip. You see, although our insurance covers us for up to 31 days in europe apparently the breakdown cover only covers 14 days. That would mean we’d have to come home early. I decided to ignore that fact for now, hoping our car would be fixed and we’d return home in that anyway. In the end, it didn’t seem to cause a problem, we had the hire car until the day we returned.

As we were camping we couldn’t take everything with us to the hotel so we got a small bag of essentials together and waited for the taxi. The taxi took us to an Ibis hotel in Lemans. As I watched the taxi meter going up past 50, I was glad we had insurance.

Lesson 6: Be prepared to make the most of a bad situation

We went out into the town for dinner and treated ourselves to a pizza. We had a look around the town. I emailed the hotel we were meant to be staying at to cancel our room (our friends had already tried but not being able to speak French they didn’t get very far).

In the morning we phoned the RAC to ask about our hire car arrangements.

Lesson 7: Hire Cars have limitations

We were camping. We had a roof box. In order to continue we needed a car with a big boot and that could take a roof box. The RAC said we were entitled to the largest type of hire car as our car was in that category (it’s only now I realise just how big the boot of a Mondeo Estate is). We also needed roof rails for our roof box. This left two problems.
1) There weren’t any large hire cars in Le Mans. No, really. That place that’s famous for car racing, had no large hire cars with any of the national hire car fleets the RAC could use.
2) There weren’t any hire cars with roof rails fitted. The RAC said Roof boxes aren’t allowed by the hire car companies.
I said I’d pay the upgrade to the next level or car (a minivan/people carrier size). It would cost us about 300 but we could carry on with the holiday. The extra space would hopefully be enough for us to take everything from the roof box.

We went for a walk around the town in the morning to fill time. I phoned every hour to see if there was progress. It was becoming clear there was a problem. At 3pm we had a call to say they’ve found a car, it’s in another town so they’ll send a Taxi.
80 of taxi fare later (yes, it was a long, long way away!) we arrived at a local garage with attached Hertz hire car rental garage. They had one car left, a Peugeot 5008. It had no roof rails. It was a 7 seater but it was similar in size to our Mondeo (actually, the boot was slightly smaller). Que a frantic phone call to the RAC – “We’re not going to fit into this car!”
It was apparent there was no other solution. There were no other hire cars available, so I made a suggestion. Despite the RAC telling us all day that we weren’t allowed to, the Hertz hire owner said we were allowed to put a roof rack on the car. The only problem being he was a Renault garage and had none that would fit. He phoned a peugeot garage nearby and they had none in stock but could get one tomorrow.

I should also point out a couple of other things here. Firstly, if we had a caravan we wouldn’t have been able to have a hire car. They never have tow bars. I have no idea what you’d do if you broke down with a caravan. Secondly, we were already very lucky. Speaking with Oscar he said if we’d been any further south there really weren’t any hire cars at all. They’d been flying people home all week.

Lesson 8: Prepare to compromise
I made a suggestion to the RAC. We’d take this car and I would BUY a roof rack tomorrow, could they please please please meet us part way and find us a hotel for the night (it was about 6.30pm by this time). My only leverage was being very very nice (as I had been all the way through) and pointing out if they’d found a car in the morning like they’d said a over a day ago I would have been able to go the French equivalent of halfords and buy something. At 6.30pm there was no where I could try. Sure, it would cost me what ever a roof rack would cost but I was willing to do that.

They agreed and found us another hotel in Le Mans. It turns out the hotel had a few other English residents who’d also broken down. So, we had another night in Le Mans and another meal out. Then we got to see the light show projected onto the Le Mans Cathedral. If you break down, breaking down near Le Mans turns out to be quite pleasant.

We left early and arrived at the Peugeot dealer in Le Mans at 8am. They didn’t open until 9am but their service area was open so I asked there in my best French for ‘la galerie pour la 5008’ (roof rack for a Peugeot 5008), trying to describe a ‘coffre, pour haute’ (roof box… I guessed). I understood him saying they’re called ‘rails de toit’ and they had one in stock. He check the VIN number on our hire car to make sure they were compatible and he fitted them for us too.

Lesson 9: Write down the address where you left your car

We then had to drive North to return to our car and collect our things. The RAC gave us the address but as we drove along we were certain this was not the right place. En route they called to say our car wasn’t yet at that address, it was still at the recovery garage. The address they’d given was the garage that were going to (try) and repair it. Once we’d found our car, we transferred the roof box and all of our camping equipment. The holiday could once again continue. Sure, it was delayed, but at least we could carry on and meet up with our friends.

We still had several hours of driving to go. We had to que for almost 3 hours to cross the Gironde on the ferry (it was now Saturday, peak season late in the afternoon. My original plan was to arrive mid morning on Friday and according to our friends they drove straight onto a ferry).

358-2012-08-21 20.51.27-1-thumb-300x352-357.jpgArriving at the camp site near sunset gave us just enough time to pitch the tent and sit down for a well earned supper of French bread, cheese and red wine.

Lesson 10: The hire car stays in France, you get yourself across the channel

While we enjoyed the beach, I kept in touch with the RAC whilst they had our car moved to another garage and looked at repair options. Unfortunately the engine was dead and a replacement wasn’t available before we were due to return home. Although that may have been in our favour, because the quote for a new engine in France was more than the car was worth (it costs less over here for some reason). As it was, the RAC were going to recover our car to the UK where we planned to get it fixed. However, the hire car we were in wasn’t allowed to cross the channel with us. We had to leave it at the port. The insurance doesn’t cover the cost of crossing the channel and our Eurotunnel ticket doesn’t really work for foot passengers (tempted as I was to walk in pretending to be a car) and beside that we had far too much equipment to carry across. So, we met up with our car once more in Alencon and put all of our camping equipment inside (including the roof box, which fitted inside once the seats were down) and carried on north via the hotel we’d already planned to stay in at Rouen.

Crossing as foot passengers by ferry is as expensive for four people as crossing by car but we didn’t have a lot of choice. The RAC did offer us another hire car from Dover but as we live in Kent it was simpler to ask the ‘Mum and Dad Taxi company’ to collect us.

367-2012-09-06 18.54.32-thumb-300x225-366.jpgWe were warned our car may take up to 4 weeks to return, as it was it was back about 5 days after we were. I liked the way the French mechanic clearly labelled our keys with the status of our car.

I hope you never break down on a long journey but if you do I hope your recovery is a lot easier than ours was.

4 thoughts on “What happens when you break down in France (10 things I learnt)”

  1. Thanks for the nice blog about your experience. I am myself wanting to drive to the north in a French second hand car (I am a foreigner from South America) and this experience you described is indeed enlightening! 🙂

  2. Love the plain talking description of how it is to conk out in France. Having recovered hundreds of holidaymakers I similar circumstances I highly recommend having proper assistance as being stuck here without it will seriously damage your finances!

  3. Eventful to say the least. We driving from Ireland to France soon. We are staying 6 for weeks And We can only get cover for 31 days. HELP.

    1. Drive faster? 😉

      Seriously though, perhaps you can take out two policies to cover specific dates (though you’d have to check the terms carefully to make sure it’s allowed). I’ve always found local insurance brokers useful for when policies I need don’t fit the mass market packages.

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