When we first learned about aires we were excited about the prospect of being able to park in ski resorts for such a small amount of money. As touring seasonnaires, the biggest cost we thought we would have to account for was parking or staying in campsites, but aires offered a very cheap alternative. We will readily admit, we knew very little about how aires worked and nothing about the customs and etiquette involved – something we have learned is quite different in winter.
What do you need to know about staying on aires in winter? There are some fundamental things that it is useful to know if you’re planning to stay on aires in winter – particularly if you intend to use them as your base for a skiing or snowboarding holiday:
- Electric hook up
- Access to fresh water
- Disposing of waste
- Toilets and showers
- Access and parking up
- The costs of staying on a motorhome aire
- The rules and etiquette
- Finding winter aires for skiing
The concept of a ‘camping car aire’ might be entirely new to you, or you may only have used them when touring in summer – if so, we suggest you read this article on the difference between aires and campsites before you go any further – that way you’ll be better equipped to decide if aires are for you, or, if you would prefer some of the luxuries and practicalities of staying on a serviced campsite.
In this guide we’ve covered all the most important things you need to know to help you make the most of your motorhome ski trip if you’re going to stay on aires.
How Are Aires Different In Winter?
Depending on the size and location, and how well looked after they are, aires can offer exactly the same facilities in winter as in summer but often things are a little different. Most aires that are open in winter have some restrictions, whether that’s fewer spaces, limited utilities or different rules altogether. For example the large motorhome aire in Les 2 Alpes is restricted to just 12 spaces in winter as the rest of the aire is utilised by transfer coaches that increasingly stay in resort for the week whilst their passengers live it up in the hills. (See James’s video for all the details on this aire)
We’ll go through some of the most important things here so you are fully furnished with all the information you need and to make sure you have all the gear you’re going to need for your stay.
For the purposes of this article, we’re referring to all dedicated public motorhome park ups as aires but in the rest of Europe, they’re also known as sostas and stellplätz, depending on where you are.
Electric hook up
Electric hook up is not a given at aires. A few have nice new electric posts with single outlets but more often than not they have less well maintained (and sometimes downright sketchy!), multiple outlets which might once have been weatherproof. If you look through our aire reviews, you’ll see that in each location we have listed the hook up type (where it exists) and how you access it – whether that’s via a token (jeton) or that you can simply plug in.
Many aires only have electric hook up at a service Flot Bleu, in which case, you’re restricted to 20 minutes or so.
If you’re using any of the apps to find places with EHU, make sure you check the user reviews from winter months because on a few occasions, we found the aires to have electric posts but they had be decommissioned for the winter.
The power supplied can vary. It can be as little as 6amps which will just about keep your battery topped up and the lights on, but if you’re looking for the full hair drier and power shower experience, you’re better off choosing aires with a reliable 10 amp supply. 16 amps is not unknown but not usual on aires in France.
Access to a post. Depending on how busy things are, you might find that your parking spot is not located directly adjacent to an available socket. This is why we recommend having a jolly hefty arctic cable of 25 metres. This is overkill for most situations where 15m will do you just fine but it’s the difference between being able to pick your spot, and having to find a space close to a socket.
Winterised cable management tips:
- If you have the space and budget, grab yourself some cable protector. This means you can run your cable across roads or pedestrian thoroughfares without fear of it getting damaged by hefalumps in ski boots or manoeuvring motorhomes or vans.
- Hoik up your cable in heavy snow. We use fishing rod stands to make them visible to marauding diggers clearing the snow.
- Remember not to leave your cable coiled in the snow – the small amount of heat it will produce in these conditions is often enough to melt the snow around it, then freeze, encasing your precious umbilical chord in a solid lump of ice. We have witnessed a number of abandoned cables that have succumbed to just such a fate.
Access to fresh water
By fresh water we don’t necessarily mean drinking water. We mean water you can use to fill your water tanks and use for washing. There are a number of arguments for and against drinking the water supplied at aire taps – we’re in the camp of not drinking it and have 5 personal reasons for not doing so:
The supply itself can be contaminated – especially in early and late season when the run-off from the mountains contains a multitude of chemicals used in the manufacture of snow by the blowers. Whilst the regulation on this is tightening, it’s still not universally adopted so better safe than sorry.
The Outlet – be that a tap or hose. Not everyone can be trusted to use the right outlet for the right job. In most aires, you will find at least one area specifically designated for waste disposal, sometimes two – grey and black. However, you might also find that people use the fresh water drainage area to dispose of either grey water (which can have food contamination) or worse still, black water – double yuk.
Essentially that means you can’t rely on the fresh water outlet being entirely sanitary and it doesn’t take much for that to then contaminate your tank. It’s not something worth panicking about unless your immune system is severely compromised but it’s definitely not something you would want to drink.
Your hose, bowser or watering can. We use catering grade hose for fresh water filling but any clear hose will do. This way you can keep an eye on any dirt or bacterial growth – that’s not as easy with watering cans and bowsers so make sure they’re clean before you set off.
The Tank. Most people regularly sanitise their tanks – if you don’t, you should. Your tank therefor shouldn’t really be a particular worry but added into your motorhome ecosystem, it can pose a small threat.
Water filtration. If your van has a water filtration system, make sure it’s clean as a dirty filter is worse than no filter at all.
Once you have established a fresh water supply you might need to carry a bunch of different magic tools to enable you to access this elixir of life. If you can’t get the water out with one of these inexpensive devises, you are probably doing something wrong! (each item has a link to an amazon page where you can find the doofer we’re talking about).
- Rubber tap fitting
- ½” male connector
- ¾” male connector (this one has an adaptor for 1/2″)
- 2 x female connectors for your hose
- 1 x male to male
- Cambuckle strap or quick grip (for push button fittings)
Each of these items can be found below on Amazon for a few quid. We’ve have both plastic and metal versions depending on which you prefer – we have a mix and we double up on everything.
If you can’t use the onsite water supply, or there isn’t one, you can use an aire de service before heading up the mountain or simply use bottled water.
Disposing of waste
The best option for managing your grey waste (the stuff from your sinks and shower if you have one) is to open your grey tank once you have parked up, and use a bucket or some sort of vessel to catch the grey water as it drains directly from your van.
A couple of things to remember if using this technique:
- Empty that bucket frequently in the right place – otherwise you will end up with a horrid mess under and around your van. It may even freeze making a horrid frozen lake or pasta water avec Head and Shoulders. Gross.
- Remember to close it when you leave as anything left in your tank will drip out as you move and that’s just unpleasant for everyone in your wake.
- Don’t have a closed vessel as you’ll really struggle to deal with it if it freezes
Where is the right place to dispose of grey water?
Most aires will have a grey water drain – some this is in the Flot Bleu, some have drive-over drains and others have drains in huts or under cover.
Some have issues. Open air disposal areas can get covered in ice and snow and seemingly disappear altogether.
If you are in warmer conditions and wish to use your grey tank, there are lots of places all over Europe designated specifically for servicing your habitation facilities and they’re often easier to access than the mountain aires but a little tip from us – it is much better to travel up or down switchbacks without water on board. It moves and destabilises the vehicle in a place where it is not accounted for in the design as it is with the fuel tank.
The dark underbelly of the motorhome world… dealing with the loo. In our van (despite having a resident plumber) we share this duty.
It’s pretty important that you do this properly. Firstly, it’s an environmental hazard and secondly, it’s a health hazard for you and everyone else in your van and in the general vicinity.
Most people reading this will have Thetford cassette. Some will have a composting loo or variation on the theme, a few will have a squatty-potty and some will have nothing. Those with a bucket live by your own rules!
It is not legal in this country to dispose of human waste in normal waste disposal areas and drains. There’s a frequent argument about dog poo and nappies being ok but the fact is, you should be disposing of your black waste like a grown-up who knows that human waste is gross and freaks people out.
On serviced aires, there is usually a dedicated place to dispose of black waste. Alarmingly, it’s sometimes closer to the fresh water supply than is comfortable (see the bit about fresh water above) but it’s on you to make sure that you are careful and don’t splash s4!t everywhere. You might find any of the following options for disposal:
- A toilet (the familiar or a kneetrembler)
- A Flot Bleu hole within the machine (door usually pings open when you make payment or insert jeton)
- Hole in the floor
- A marked drain
You’re looking for the ‘WC’ signage that indicates this is appropriate for black waste.
We won’t go into ‘how-to’ in details here but here are a few of our top tips:
- Toilets are very good places to empty toilet cassettes – the waste goes into the right system
- Try to limit the height from which you poor to avoid splash-back
- Wear surgical gloves – this is not overkill
- Wipe your cassette down with an antibacterial wipe (not environmentally friendly but we pick our battles) or spray
- Don’t overfill your cassette
- Try not to travel with a cassette that is more than a quarter full (those who know, know)
- The cleaner you get your cassette, the less likely you are to have any issues. If you don’t have access to a dedicated rinse hose or tap (many have them nearby but DO NOT USE THE FRESH WATER SUPPLY), use a dedicated bottle of your own. Add a litre or so of water after each deposit, close all the escape hatches and give it a really good shake – pour and repeat
Rubbish and Recycling
If you’re in France you’ll never be more than exactly 3.5cm from a comprehensive recycling station. They have a marvellous system that works perfectly. Use it and follow their very easy to understand instructions. Germany and Austria have a similar system.
Italy is a bit useless for recycling but most sostas have a bin of sorts and it’s not tricky to carry your rubbish until you find somewhere to dispose of it.
Toilets and showers
Some aires have a public toilet on site or nearby – on winter aires that might be in an adjacent car park or at a ski lift. In France they are often heated and super fancy with a self-clean cycle that starts the second you close the door after leaving. Just a quick tip – don’t get stuck in during one of these cycles – the water comes from EVERYWHERE and isn’t the free spa treatment you might anticipate.
Super-Pro tip: Gentlemen, don’t loose yourself in YouTube or Facebook whilst conducting your morning ablutions. There is a very handy safety feature in these facilities – designed to enable emergency services to get inside in the event that someone keels over and needs assistance – an automatic door release. This also triggers the ‘Vacant’ green light on the outside. James learned of this clever little feature quite unexpectedly and even more interesting is that if you sqwak, grab the door and close it (automatically locking it) so you can finish in peace, you also instigate the clean cycle. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Many aires won’t have a toilet nearby (within midnight trudge distance) and this is why a campsite is sometimes favoured by those in vans without facilities.
Showers are extremely rare on mountain aires however there are a few – Vars and Grand Serre to name a couple.
If you need toilets and showers, utilising the local swimming pool is a favourite of many vanlifers and there are a number of awesome aires within walking distance, or a free bus ride of some breath-taking spa facilities. What you save on campsite fees can go into the pamper-kitty in places like Monetier les Bains where you can treat yourself to a world class natural spa with an epic view of the Serre Chevalier ski area.
Access and parking up
Campsites that are open in winter pay attention to their access, making it as easy as possible for motorhomes and caravans to drive in and park up. That includes clearing snow from roads and pitches, gritting where necessary and clearing the entry points to maximise turning circles for all you caravaners.
Aires are more self-service and whilst some are regularly cleared, others not so much. Here are our top tips for making sure everything is tickettyboo when you arrive at an aire.
If you have a really big rig, check out our listings – if there is particularly restricted access, we note this in the details. If we haven’t yet covered the aire you’re planning to stay, Google Street View can provide some indications (although don’t rely on this as in winter things can be very different)
Arm yourself with a grain shovel
We have done a detailed blog on the one we chose here (after a ridiculous amount of research) and get ready to dig as soon as you arrive. If you need to dig yourself a spot, doing it before you manoeuvre in is much better. This is another reason for not turning up after dark – it’s just easier.
Trust us on this one. If you haven’t got a beer in the fridge, immediately you arrive, take them out, chuck them in the snow and get on with the job in hand. By the time you have completely the following tasks, they will be at the perfect temperature.
- Fill up. If you fill up before you start, you might save yourself a trek with water carriers
- Level up. A lot of people don’t do this in summer because the parking is more level but snow is a pain like that and levelling up will make your whole experience less…..wonky
- In gear, handbrake off. Handbrakes freeze really fast and they’re a bugger to un-stick.
- Mat/ step down. Whether it’s snowy or muddy or both, the mat needs to go down first so that you don’t drag mess into the van. If you’ve got an electric step it’s strongly advised not to use it in cold conditions – they can freeze up and it’s not unknown for people to drive off with them extended and break them in a costly moment of forgetfulness.
- Screen cover on, plug in (if EHU is available), gas on – in whichever order you like.
- Waste water. Pop your waste water vessel under your van and turn your tap to fully open.
- Heating on, fridge on.
- Beer o’clock.
The Cost of Staying on a Motorhome Aire
Most people choose aires as a middle ground between wild camping and a fully serviced campsite. They offer a degree of security – you don’t risk getting moved on in the night and you can be fairly certain that the authorities are quite confident you’re not going to get squashed by an avalanche.
Whilst they are less well equipped than their fancy campsite sisters, aires sometimes benefit from a far better location, perched in resort with epic views – campsites, due to the space they require and their summer facilities, are mostly based a little further from the bright lights or resort facilities.
As you would expect, your accommodation options come with a sliding scale but there is some crossover between pricy aires and budget campsites.
You can expect to pay anything from absolutely nothing, to €20+/night for an aire in mountain areas and each has a different payment method. Some are barriered entry and you must pay prior to entry or get a ticket as you would in a car park. Some are bookable and payable in advance (Val Thorens and La Plagne for example) although this is rare. Some require you to insert tokens that you can buy from machines, the tourist office or local shops and pay and display a ticket and some have parking attendants or police that come and collect your fees daily or when they get around to it.
Sometimes the parking fee is paid separate to the electric (Praz de Lys for example) and sometimes it’s included.
All this means that there is no universal methodology behind paying for aires so here are our top tips:
- Coming soon – our directory of winter park ups – if your site is listed, that will give you full details of how to pay
- When you arrive, check for signage and if you’re not ofay with the local language, furnish yourself with the Google Translate App with camera function
- Have a couple of payment methods at your disposal
- A travel credit card like Revolut
- Another card if that doesn’t work (but consider any fees)
- Cash in coins
- Collect jetons – not all jetons are the same but we try and keep a few different ones in the van because you never know when you might need them and not be able to get hold of them
Check the maximum stay – for example in Alpe d’Huez there is a maximum number of days you can stay and they are very keen to discourage people adopting season long residency (but as long as you’re not a problem you will get away with it) so you need to top up your payment ticket every now and again. In Montgenèvre you actually have to leave and return to the aire to benefit from the best prices and whilst it’s not really in the spirit of the payment scale to do this, we think that by hauling all your stuff out and back in again, you paid your dues.
The Rules and Etiquette
The big topic. The survival of the winter aire is under threat. More resorts than ever are going car-free and aires are being given over to car parking and worse still, building development.
It’s a simple economic issue and motorhomes bring in very little to the economy for the 4 months a year they monopolise prime real estate in ski resorts.
We know the argument – motorhomers buy passes, eat out, drink, and buy groceries in resort blah blah. We don’t do that anymore than anyone else staying in resort and yet we pay a fraction of the cost of accommodation in terms of benefit to the local economy. Many bring in all the food and beverages they require and never eat out.
This is why it is imperative that winter aires are treated like the Galapagos Islands and the Great Barrier Reef. We can use them and protect their future at the same time.
9 Winterised Dos and Don’ts of staying on an aire
Do have a plan b! With the exception of a couple of aires, you can’t book or reserve spots (NEVER DO THAT FOR ANYONE) so if you turn up and it’s full, you need to have an alternative plan.
Do be friendly – we’ve met some awesome people in aires and whilst some like to keep to themselves, most are up for a natter – even if that’s mostly using the international language of hand gestures! It’s the best way to find out where the snow is at its best and sometimes helps with finding new people to ride with if you have a mixed ability van or any non-skiers onboard.
Don’t park like a prat. You don’t need two spaces and you’re perfectly capable of parking in a fashion that doesn’t compromise any one else’s experience – if you can’t you shouldn’t be driving a big van. If you have a huge rig, you need to be even more considerate as you won’t pay anymore than Dave in his California. Keep in mind that some aires actually stipulate a length restriction (also noted in our reviews and listings).
Don’t leave food outside of your van to chill – we lost a kilo of frozen spinach to a neighbour’s dog one night and we daren’t think about what happened on the inside of their van a few hours later. Boxes of wine don’t seem to have the same appeal so are usually safe!
Do pay! Just because someone isn’t checking or chasing you around for cash doesn’t mean you should avoid paying. Here are the main reasons people don’t pay:
- They don’t feel that it’s their job to find someone or somehow to pay. Wrong.
- They’re too busy/lazy to make the effort
- They can get away with it so why not?
- They believe that as they’re in a van they are now part of the entitled movement of vanlifers who should never have to pay anything to park because #vanlife
- They’re skint. Wild camp then – that’s free and you’re allowed to do it as long as you play the game
We do know that it’s sometimes a bit tricky to find where you pay and there have been occasions where despite best efforts, we’ve not been able to cough up. It happens but please make a concerted effort – these are facilities (even if it’s just a safe place to park) provided by local authorities to welcome you to enjoy their mountain. Give them the respect they deserve by making this usually quite nominal contribution to their coffers.
If you look at the most popular aires (Montegenèvre is a perfect example), the charges made, enable the commune to provide facilities that work, clear snow with heavy machinery and give hundreds, if not thousands of people a year a ski-in and out location – for less than €10 a night.
Don’t participate in camping behaviour. We have read a number of blogs that state if you see others rolling out awnings and setting up picnic tables, you can do the same. Bollocks. The rules are clear (private aires may sometimes have different rules) and camping behaviour is not in the spirit of an aire. Keep your parasol and your wind breaker in your garage.
Caravans aren’t permitted. For the most part. There are a small number of aires that permit caravans with the permission of the Maire but they are rare and it is against the foundation of the aire legislation. Whether that bothers you or not is irrelevant. The argument is that allowing caravans sets a precedent and before long you may see 5th wheels and tented villages taking liberties. Sorry, it’s just tough.
Do not play music outside and keep it down inside. There are places where noisy seasonnaires disrupt the peace and funnily enough, these are some of the places that are either closing or are under threat.
Be a good citizen! Clean up after yourself and your tribe, take ordinary precautions with regards safety and security (they are public places), help others when they’re having difficulties and enjoy this extraordinary luxury!
There is a reason that we don’t have these types of facilities (numbering thousands across Europe) in the UK. We can’t be trusted as a society to respect them. Heck, we can’t even keep laybys tidy in the UK! It’s no different. Someone always has to spoil it for the majority.
We couldn’t honestly believe that for the most part people didn’t abuse them – we know sometimes they get grubby and sometimes people take advantage, but largely, they’re regarded as a privilege and it’s our job as users to make sure they are around forever.
Finding Winter Aires For Skiing
And finally – how do you find all these marvellous places?
There are three main ways:
Our New Website (obviously)
We are soon to launch a new directory which features the growing number of aires and campsites listed in detail and fancy maps that allow you to geolocate, search by region or you can simply use the search bar at the top of the pages. Check them out. They are all reviewed in winter and are updated regularly by the bunch of snomads we call our tribe. We are dedicated to this cause and do everything we can to ensure that the information we provide is accurate, up to date and most importantly, presented with the winter traveller (with all the complications that brings) in mind.
If you want a video account of some to the most popular aires, check out the Winterised YouTube Channel here (don’t forget to like, subscribe and tick the notification bell).
There are free and pay for versions – if you have a few, you’ll cover yourself for most areas.
Guide Books and Maps
Pinch of salt required here as they’re out of date before they even go to print but we love them for a spot of itinerary planning!
- All The Aires (South and Northern France)
- All the Aires Mountains (out of print and very out of date but nice to have all the same)
- Italian Aree di Sosta Camperlife
- Marco Polo Maps of the Alps
- Ski Resort Map
So you’re all set. We hope that’s answered many of your questions but please feel free to get in touch via Facebook if you have any questions we haven’t covered here.
What’s the difference between and aire and a campsite? The difference between an aire and a campsite is that an aire is a parking facility exclusively for motorhomes and campervans provided by a local authority. A campsite is usually a private enterprise which also allows tent camping and caravans. Read More Here.
Can I take my motorhome skiing in Switzerland? Yes – there are lots of very good serviced campsites in Switzerland, close to ski areas for winter camping. Read More Here.
Can I take a caravan skiing? Yes – taking a caravan skiing is becoming increasingly popular in Europe where there are m any campsites that welcome caravan skiers in winter. Read More Here.
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