Recently I’ve enjoyed travelling less and less, especially when it’s work related. I dread the airport experience when I have to drag two large cases full of camera and audio gear through check in. But, when you have an opportunity to go to the biggest advertising festival in the world - which happens to be a massive party on the French Rivera - you make an exception. I am, of course, talking about the Cannes Lions Festival.
The first flight
This was meant to be a busy but routine trip with a short flight down to Nice from Heathrow. I was planning on being in France from Sunday-Thursday. Two months earlier I’d done trips to New York and Rio with all my gear so this seemed like a doddle.
I arrived at the airport on Sunday afternoon with my flight delayed by an hour or two. No big problem. There was a storm going over France but my client’s flight had left a few hours before mine was due to depart. I head to the check in desk to sort out the rigmarole that is usually caused by my massive bag of tripods and light stands. On the last two trips it has been fine. I was ferried between multiple check in desks and even managed to lose my passport along the way (thankfully it was handed in and notified so I retrieved it after 30 minutes of panicking).
It took me 2-3 hours to make it through to the terminal, but it was fine because of the flight delay. Oddly, however, there was no gate showing on my delayed flight with less than an hour until scheduled departure. I grab a burger at “Gordon Ramsay’s Plane Food” with their “25 minute express meal” - which is a fantastic idea for those who only have an hour before their flight. I reckon in total the food took 35 minutes, but as I was eating and frantically refreshing the departure board, my flight still had no gate. I noticed flights around mine getting cancelled so the writing was on the wall.
Sure enough, as my scheduled departure time came and went, the departure board swiftly changed my flight status to “cancelled”.
Now I’ve never had a flight cancelled so I didn’t know what the protocol here was, especially as I was already in the terminal with my bags checked in. There is no announcement, no directions and no communication from the airline. Luckily I stumbled across a help desk and told to go to gate A21 to be “escorted out of the terminal”.
There were a lot of flights cancelled that evening, So Gate A21 was a wonderfully British mega-queue of people in the same position as me. I even recognised a few advertising people who were also on their way down to Nice.
So while in this queue I had to figure out how I make it to the south of France by that evening or the next day. British Airways had no more flights from Heathrow they could book me onto, but a quick Skyscanner search found a suitably gouged £700 flight from Gatwick the next evening. I don’t have £700 to purchase a flight at this point, but I do have an untouched AMEX card that has given me some problems in the past. I had no choice but to book it. I didn’t know how else I’d get there…
The rest of the evening was relatively uneventful. I wait a few hours to get out of the airport, collect my bags and back through passport control (which is bizarre when you haven’t left the country) and drove 2 hours back home.
The second flight
The next morning I check in for my new flight, with rays of optimism beaming down from the morning sun. A familiar “flight delayed” status shows on my screen. Uh oh. Throughout the day I keep checking my app and flight tracker to find out more information about my flight. I was hoping not to go through the same thing as yesterday.
Fortunately, before I’d even left for the airport, the flight was cancelled. Unfortunately, that meant there was no way I’d be in France for my recordings the next day, unless…
I drove there.
The mad idea
Now, I’m a fan of driving. I love cars. Just a few months earlier I did a UK road trip with a mammoth 9.5 hour drive overnight from the highlands of Scotland to the South East of England.
Before going on this trip I’d floated the idea of driving down so I didn’t have to drag my equipment to and from the airport.
Imagine a nice leisurely cruise down to the South of France, air con blowing, tunes flowing as you eat up the miles.
Trouble was it was 3pm when my flight got cancelled and my car was in for repair. I needed to be there at 12pm the next day and driving overnight to work the next day was not very appealing. Plus I’d spent my last £700 on the flight the previous day and had no cash to hire a car. I also didn’t know if you even could hire a car to drive in France.
I call my client and let him know I think I might drive and I might need my invoice paid ASAP. He said:
“You’re absolutely mad but I’ll sort anything out you need”
My client is good people.
The invoice couldn’t be paid immediately, but I made a call to my Nan who saved the day. She sent me some money so I could hire the car, pay for fuel and the tolls.
I knew that if I hired a car from a local place or an incumbent (Enterpise, Avis etc) I’d probably be hit with a mileage limit or an endless supply of forms to fill (and whatever other barriers and fees they might hit me with). Fortunately, I’d used a service called Virtuo a few times that allow you to hire cars via an app and add things like extra mileage very easily.
Virtuo saved the day here. You can drive their cars in Europe (so I thought) and I could book a nice A-Class Mercedes with 2,000 mileage limit for just £470. But the nearest one was in Stratford. Fortunately there is a 50 minute train that can get my to Stratford. I jump on the train and start to plan my solo road trip to Cannes.
I collect the car and it’s absolutely lovely. Brand new, smells good and ready to be driven the hell out of for the next 18 hours. Next step is to drive back to Canterbury to collect my bits and set off. I might note that this is about 5pm, so peak rush hour in London. It takes me almost 2 hours to get back to Canterbury. The longer it takes me to leave the UK, the more tired I’m going to be for this mammoth drive.
I thought it might be worth checking if I actually can drive this car in France. I didn’t want to do it in case it might be an answer I don’t like. I call Virtuo support and they pick up immediately (good start).
“Hi there, I’m just in one of your cars and I need to head to France this evening, just checking I can drive your cars in France?”
“Hello sir, you need a permit and that needs to be before the car is rented”
To give Virtuo their credit, after a little back and forth, they managed to get me the permit while I was on the drive. Another little panic over.
Next challenge: Eurotunnel (or “Le Shuttle” as it has now rather amusingly been rebranded).
I’d like to note I’ve never driven in Europe before. Apart from on mopeds in Majorca with my sister where I consistently tried to drive the wrong way around roundabouts. So I’d never taken “Le Shuttle” on my own.
I book my train for £183 (hope you’re keeping count of how much I’ve spent) with a scheduled departure time of 9:30pm. I only live 30 minutes from the Eurotunnel so that was a bonus.
It’s such an odd setup there. You arrive, grab your ticket and then go into what I can only describe as a “holding zone”. There was a terminal with duty free and a Starbucks. You drive in, park up, grab supplies and then drive through passport control. It was completely desolate when I arrived. Only a handful of cars there. Also, you won’t believe this, my train was delayed by an hour.
Fortunately, they put another train on around 10pm, with an arrival time of 10:40 UK time and 11:40 France time.
If you haven’t been on “Le Shuttle” it’s quite cool. You literally drive onto a train and you are magically transported to Europe. One bizarre thing - I had phone signal the entire journey under the English Channel.
It’s 11:40pm local time when I arrive and I’m about to embark on an 11 hour drive down to Cannes.
After adjusting to driving on the wrong side of the road, the first few hours were kinda fun. It was exciting being in a new country and a new challenge was ahead. The first service stop was interesting. It was about 1am and I wasn’t; certain if they were 24 hour or near the motorway. Luckily it was uneventful and they are very frequent in France.
Now in the UK we have very few toll roads. A lot of the tolls I go through are done on number plate recognition and you pay online. Not in France, so I found out. There are toll roads everywhere! And when you’re in a right hand drive car solo, you have to get out of the car, run to get your ticket/pay and run back to the drivers side to drive through the barrier. I probably ended up doing this 6-7 times each journey. The total for the tolls for the whole trip was around £200.
Around 1am I notice my route was taking me near Paris, as we drove right past Charles De Gaulle Airport (actually there was a bridge directly under two of the runways). 20 minutes later we’re actually driving through the centre of Paris, so that put any tiredness at bay.
The next few hours were a struggle. It was hard to stay awake but I knew I was on a deadline and wanted to make it as far as possible before having a nap. It was dark and boring.
Around 4am I pulled over to take a nap. Very odd pulling into a service station, finding an empty part of the car park and getting a blanket out.
I set an alarm for an hour and continued the next leg of the journey. It dawned on me I still had 6 hours left and I was bloody tired. The worst part of the journey was when I arrived in Lyon at about 8am. It was rush hour in France’s third biggest city and I just wanted to sleep. I still had 3-4 hours of driving to do. I called my mum and told her I wish I’d never attempted to drive down to the South of France.
The tiredness really kicked in again after this. La Rhone river was stunning and we drove along it for some time, but that didn’t stop me almost falling asleep. I rolled the windows down (on the motorway) and tried to push through.
It was relatively uneventful from here down to Cannes, I got a nice boost when there was less than an hour to go.
Arriving in Cannes
I arrived about midday on Tuesday and we had a recording at 4pm that day. I had to get to my apartment, shower, unpack, collect my pass and get all the gear setup.
Fortunately the setup and recordings went well all week. We had some incredible guests such as Sir Martin Sorrell and Rory Sutherland. We even published two recordings while out there.
A hectic week but my 3rd time in Cannes was a success. The sun was beaming down, we had a permanent space to record and the rose was flowing.
I finished up work about 10pm on Thursday and had the choice to sleep overnight and tackle the drive the next day. But I wanted to see if I could break the journey into two and see how many miles I could eat up that evening. So I got in the car and set off (eventually at midnight).
The journey home
I got to about 4am before I pulled over for my nap. I was happy to sleep for as long as needed given I had less time pressure this time. Turns out napping in the back of the car is not my forte. I woke up two hours later and set off. 30 mins later I was too tired. Another nap needed. 45 mins later another nap. It was getting annoying, I was reallyhoping it wouldn’t be like this the whole journey.
With 4 hours left I decided to pull over one final time, have a coffee and a croissant. I spent the £183 to book the “Le Shuttle” home as a little extra motivation.
Those final few hours down the Calais were the best part of the journey back. France is a beautiful country (with many many wind turbines).
Also their lane discipline is incredible. In the UK you get people sitting in the middle or fast lane just because they are idiots. French people were using the lanes like they should be, which was a pleasant surprise.
I arrived to Calais 1 hour before my departure time. I grabbed a snack and checked the departure board. Delayed by 1 hour, could you believe. Trying to stay positive I thought I’d use this extra hour to take a nap. 30 mins later when I wake up, I check the departure board.
“Boarding closed” for my train. WTF?!
After a fair bit of panicking, cussing myself for doing this drive in the first place, I get through and onto the next train no problem.
I arrive home, cook some pesto pasta and have the best sleep I’ve ever had. What a trip.
- If you’re planning to drive overnight to the South of France solo, don’t. Do it in two legs, find someone who you can share the driving with and enjoy it.
- Podcasts, audiobooks and music can get very tedious and they don’t keep you awake.
- Caffeine stops working at a certain point.
- The A Class was awesome, so were Virtuo who I rented the car from.
- French drivers lane discipline was surprisingly good
- Their motorway limit is 80mph, a pleasant surprise
- Car rental: £470
- Fuel: £200
- Tolls: £210
- Le Shuttle: £366
- Red Bull: £15
Total: £ 1,261
So it’s certainly not cheaper than flying, it’s not very convenient and if you don’t plan it very well it can be a bit of a silly idea. But it was a fantastic adventure, a good endurance challenge and made for a good story.
Would I do it again? Absolutely*
*if I left in good time, planned it well and had a co-pilot