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Driving in France

With 5 of us, I decided it was easier to get a car for our trips outside of Paris. Any advice for driving in France? How are the freeways in terms of moving quickly? While slower than the train I'm hoping we don't lose to much time given we don't have to be on a schedule.
thanks

Posted by
33 posts

You shouldn't have any problems driving in France, except that roads through villages are much smaller than we're used to. People park for a few minutes often, blocking one of the lanes. Just be patient, soon someone will let you go around the blocking car.

On the autoroutes, it's very tempting to speed. Don't! I got picked up by a camera and got a nice fine, plus a €35 bill from Avis because they charged me for giving my name/address to the French police.

And I really don't care for driving in the big cities, such as Paris and Lyon. My head keeps spinnnnning . . .

Posted by
353 posts

To add to Bill's advice, be sure to keep to the right when driving. The left lane is used only for passing. Major highways are called Autoroutes and have tolls. They usually don't accept U.S. credit cards, so be sure to have euros on hand. You typically take a ticket when you enter the highway and pay at a booth when exiting.

Posted by
8889 posts

The freeways are called Autoroutes, and have road numbers beginning with 'A', A1, A2 etc. once you get outside greater Paris (or the immediate surrounds of other cities) they charge tolls.
The other roads are "Route nationale" (numbers beginning with 'N'), or "Routes départemental" (beginning with 'D')

The Autoroutes are definitely faster, but once you are outside large towns you can maintain a steady if slower speed on the Routes nationale, and you get to see a lot more countryside.

Most important bit of advice: Make sure you research the road laws and the road signs before you arrive. There is no excuse for breaking the law or ignoring road signs.
And make sure you have a good map. Maps at a scale of 1:1,000,000 are good enough for long distances on Autoroutes, but for detailed sightseeing you need a scale of 1:200,000.

For route planning, the best resource is: www.viamichelin.com
This gives you routes, times and costs (fuel and tolls). The times assume NO STOPS. You will need to add break time.

Posted by
1425 posts

I found this podcast about driving in France to be very helpful. Look for episode 16.

Stop by your local AAA office to get an international drivers license.

Posted by
1683 posts

Important to know is that passing a speed limit sign you must slow down before and not after passing the sign, can save you tickets. For driving safe learn indeed rules and also phrases you can come across before arriving in France, get the most up to date info.

Posted by
131 posts

What trips are you planning outside of Paris?

Driving in France can be a pleasure - but more so on little back roads through villages, and less so going long distances on the Autoroute.

Posted by
1157 posts

We toured Normandy and Brittany using a Michelin paper map plus the all important GPS with European maps. Our own GPS was great to store the addresses of our hotels, B&B's, various places of interest like museums around the D Day beaches, restaurants in various towns, etc. The GPS sometimes will lead you down the shortest routes which are little more than cow paths so the road map is essential as well. We filled up whenever the gazole gauge was a half full just to be safe. You might look for a book "Driving in France" which eplains all the rules of the road. Driving in France once outside the cities is a breeze.

Posted by
5697 posts

Roundabouts. GPS directions often say take the 'nth' exit ... but they may be wrong! Or what you thought was a driveway counts as an exit (or vice-versa)! Know the direction you are heading (i.e., Arles or Avignon) if you don't see your exact town listed. And go around again if you're unsure. But the nice lady will say "rerouting" if you're not on her planned route.
FYI, we WERE able to use a U.S. chip-and-signature card for a €0.80 toll in France.
Happy driving !

Posted by
6727 posts

Be sure to review the rules of the road. They have something called 'right priority' which is very different from the rule in the US. Basically the car on the right has the right of way when entering the road even when it is on a minor road and you are on a major one. In the US the people on a main road generally have priority; not so in France. This is the one difference that can have catastrophic consequences.

Posted by
1425 posts

And no right-on-red in France!

Good point on the weird right-hand priority rule in France. In that podcast I linked above, the host starts discussing it around the 40 minute mark.

Posted by
2916 posts

I find the right priority a little disconcerting, partly because it's so rare that the driver on the principal road doesn't have priority, either because that road has a "priority" marking or because the side road contains either a stop or yield sign. On my recent 2 1/2 week trip, I'd estimate that about 98% of the time I had priority over an entering street on the right while I was driving on a principal road. The reason I find it disconcerting is that the consequences of making a mistake can be disastrous, so I regularly slow down and look closely to make sure the side road has a stop or yield.

Posted by
2251 posts

"But the nice lady will say "rerouting" if you're not on her planned route"

And nice she is. We changed the nav in our rental car to a pleasant British female voice. Far more calming than the American sound.

Posted by
139 posts

The rule we followed for roundabouts and such was follow signs to your destination, or the biggest town near your destination, lot easier than looking for street names or route numbers.

When you pass thru little villages you'll see a sign with the name of the village and that's basically a speed limit sign, there's not usually one of those unless the speed limit is lower than normal. Then on the way out of the village there will be the same village name sign with the name crossed out which means the speed limit goes up again.

And there is an odd sign you see a lot that has to do with the priority on the right system they have there. There's a red triangle with a thick up arrow with a horizontal line through it. It's basically an intersection sign but also means you have right of way in intersection even if there's someone on the right. You can see it on this site.

I found a bunch on the various signs in France and what they mean, but didn't find one good page with all the ones I needed so I had to cut and paste one for myself.

We found the toll road remarkably empty between Lille and Normandy. Only returning to Lille on a Friday afternoon did we ever run into traffic.

Posted by
5262 posts

The autoroutes through the countryside are delightful, very fast and little traffic, what American freeways must have been like back in the 1950s. But they're not "freeways," mostly they have tolls, one reason the traffic is so light. Driving will give you flexibility for stops and routes, but a bad idea in Paris and other big cities. With five people and luggage, you'll need a big car or minivan. It will be manual shift unless you specify automatic (and automatics aren't always available). Try for a diesel for cheaper fuel and better mileage. Happy motoring!

Posted by
1845 posts

Yes, driving in France is great! Just stay on the right unless you are passing, bring lots of money to pay the big tolls, and take your time figuring out how to pay the tolls in the machine without a person in sight. We've had some good laughs with hubby trying to figure them out!

And, I find it interesting that on the toll roads there are not very many exits. You can stop for the bathroom, get a bite to eat and get gas, and never have actually left the highway.

Posted by
15045 posts

First of all, are you talking about day trips from Paris? That means parking in the city and driving in the awful traffic. I hope you mean renting a car on (or after) leaving Paris.

You are expected to know all the rules of the road, including speed limits, which aren't always posted.

GPS is a very good idea (I would still be somewhere is Beaujolais today if I hadn't had it) - signage in some places is sketchy. Also learn the vocabulary for road signs - the are only in French.

The driving limit for alcohol is only 0.5%. It is strictly enforced.

European cars are generally smaller than what you're used to. Be sure to rent a car that is large enough for 5 people to be comfortable in and to store all your luggage out of sight when the car is parked.

My driving experience in France is limited, but in Alsace, where the roads are good and well-maintained, if you aren't on the "freeway", there are no shoulders. In Burgundy, the roads had some potholes and were generally narrower than in Alsace. Driving a large car on scenic back roads can be challenging.

Don't be put off - driving is pretty easy and you will be able to get to wonderful places you would miss otherwise.

Posted by
3713 posts

In addition to the great link provided by randebeidel, take a look at gemut.com. The excellent free download brochure is about a lot more than just renting a car. They are in Oregon, so you can call for advice easily.

Like others have said, the size of car for 5 plus luggage may be problematic. Be sure to read the Myth of the Fullsize Rental Car. That page also has links to more info on renting larger cars, vans and station wagons.

Posted by
197 posts

Brad: Driving in France is easy--just remember to obey the speed limits. Seriously, obey the speed limits.

Posted by
3936 posts

We mostly enjoyed driving around the South of France. But what lesson did we learn? Park at outdoor parking lots if possible. We parked in an indoor garage in St Paul de Vence and the corners between the levels were really tight, and we ended up putting a huge scrape down an otherwise almost new, unmarked car (you could see the corner was pretty banged up, so I guess it happened quite often). I guess you'd call what we had a midsize (they call it a 'mini crossover') - with 5 people, you won't have a little tiny car. I found a lot of the indoor parking spots tight/narrow as well. Sometimes it may not be avoidable to park inside.

We had an integrated GPS in the car (both times we rented in France, we lucked into cars with integrated GPS), which was invaluable as one of our days there was major rain and the route we wanted to use was flooded, so we just hit reroute and it sent us another way. If you have a GPS with Europe maps, I'd take it - even not using it for maps, it's great to let you know how long it'll take to get somewhere - and you can see the diff in time. We first had the GPS set to avoid tolls, and it was going to take us the better part of 4 hrs to get from Avignon to Carcassonne. After almost two hours of what felt like infinite roundabouts, I changed the 'avoid tolls' to 'allow tolls' - that final 2 hrs went to about 45 min! So if you are in a hurry, don't be afraid of the toll roads. GPS is also great for showing delays and keeping track of the speed limit.

Posted by
2753 posts

Don't know how they drive in Denver, but if it's like the East Coast, you'll be fine.

If it's more leisurely, like perhaps LA, you will feel like you've been thrown into the deep end. As noted, just stay out of the way, obey speed limits and pack paper maps in addition to trusting a GPS. Do not drive in cities!

Posted by
430 posts

Tons of excellent advice here BRAD. But I don't think you should necessarily avoid driving in big cities. You shouldn't be eagerly scheduling such driving for the fun of it, but if you have to, you can manage it. We drove into Bordeaux because there was something we wanted to do there. We took a few laps around the same streets before we decided where to park, but no big deal.
We always plan to keep our rental car until the day after we arrive in Paris. If we arrive and get settled in early enough, we can turn the car in on arrival day, but scheduling it for the following day gives us the freedom to relax and make spontaneous decisions as we're driving towards Paris. It's not that I like driving in Paris, it's that I don't want to spend the whole arrival day worried about getting there on time to turn the car in.
We don't usually target big cities on our vacations, but we've driven in Paris, Bordeaux and a total of 8 of the largest 50 cities in France. You can drive in those cities, you can park in those cities. Just be sensible, cautious and predictable. (No sudden lane changes, no sudden stopping because you think you've missed a turn, etc). I think someone else said "stay out of the way." If you get "lost" you can always find someplace to pull over and find your way again. If your French is workable you can even ask for directions, but maps have virtually always done the job for us.

Posted by
2916 posts

I'll add to the above list: Go around a rotary as often as you need to if you're unsure which turn to take from the rotary.

Posted by
1014 posts

Last year, I set my GPS to no toll roads. It took me through wonderful and quaint villages. Gas is cheaper, usually bought at Carefour or other stores. Have cash, just in case your cc does not work. CC should be a chip and pin. Pin should be 4 digits only. It will take longer to get where you are going, but we wanted to see France, and doing it this way, we did. With cheaper gas and no tolls, Our trip to Spain was probably $125 or more cheaper each way.

Posted by
25 posts

I was reading all of this great advice and as I am planning a trip to France this summer and I'm planning to drive here's a few things I found helpful. I've been following a great blog with some pertinent information on driving and renting cars and found it very helpful: adventureswithsarah.net I actually found it on facebook. The blog even shows pictures of road signs etc. I also found out in France that they require a Breathalyzer device in the car. When I booked my rental with Auto Europe, I booked it on the phone and they confirmed that there would be one in the car. I also saved some $$ by booking it on the phone as well. I was also able to download the app for ViaMichelin on my IPHONE and then register for free and save my trips.

Hope this helps!

Posted by
59 posts

If breathalyzer is a requirement, that must be something brand new because we rented a car at CDG and return to there and drove 2,500 miles in France and we didn't have one. That was in September of 2014.

Posted by
8889 posts

The breathalyser requirement was a proposal that got postponed and then cancelled because it was totally impractical. Forget it.

Posted by
25 posts

I mentioned the Breathalyzer because it states that it is a requirement in Rick Steve's France 2016 pg. 1099. Its good if that was canceled. Thanks

Posted by
2916 posts

I think the breathalyzer requirement might have stayed on the books but all penalties for noncompliance were repealed. I believe there was a political issue surrounding the principal company that was manufacturing breathalyzers. I recently rented a car in France and have no idea whether a breathalyzer was in it or not.