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Driving in France OR Taking the Train?

We are planning a trip to France this summer, starting in Paris and fitting in as much as we can from there - Mont Saint Michel, and then other places.
5 adults (2 teenagers and 3 adults)
My husband is usually an excellent driver - U.S. and U.K. - the U.K. took some getting used to, but he did fine.
He does not speak French. I can brush up a bit on my French before we go.
He thinks that driving will be difficult there.
Should we drive or should we travel everywhere by train?
I'm confused when I look at Rick's France itinerary.
He writes: "For a 10- to 14-day trip that highlights Paris, Provence, and the Riviera, fly into Paris and out of Nice. After touring Paris, take the TGV train to Avignon, rent a car there, and drop it in Nice (or use trains, buses, and minivan tours to get around)."
Yet just a few lines below the above suggestion, he contradicts himself a bit and this is where I get confused. He suggests picking up your car in Paris from Day 1 in his "Whirlwind Three Week Tour of France by Car".
Confused as to whether we should rent a car, take the train, and if we should rent a car, at what point? I've heard that driving in and out of Paris is not particularly pleasant.
Thanks so much.

Posted by
784 posts

For five of you, I'd recommend renting a car as it would probably cost about the same or even less than train tickets. It will also give you a lot more flexibility. Driving in France is much easier than driving in the UK, more like driving in the US. GPS can be helpful, but personally I've always managed well with good detailed maps. Most maps have the international road signs defined in a sidebar. When driving through a town or village, just follow the "Autre Directions" signs. Be aware of speed cameras on the Autoroute, and laws against drinking and driving are strictly enforced. I reserve a car through AutoEurope before leaving home.

Posted by
11503 posts

I don't see a contradiction .. its two different itineraries.. with the shorter one ( 10-14 days) you are skipping some of the stuff between Paris and south.. you only have 10 days.. you have to edit out something.

How long is your trip..
Driving in and out of paris is not a highlight for most people. .even my father.. who was born, raised and learned to drive in Paris.. makes a point of renting a car at the airport and staying out of the city with it. if he wants to drive around the rest of France he does so.. if he wants to visit Paris he parks it outside paris in a cheap long term parking lot and then just trains into city.

What makes sense for your family depends a bit on your time allowed..

Posted by
6245 posts

Personally, I don't think that cost ($$) should be the only consideration. Yes, for a group of 5, a car may end up costing less (although you are going to need a larger car than many would typically rent - be sure to account for your luggage...and comfort, not to mention gas, parking and the "cost" of the hassles that come with having a car in some places). For me, it would depend on where exactly you're going. Out in the lovely French countryside and small towns - a car is wonderful. But in big cities, or for long distances, not so much.

Going to Mont St Michel - a car lets you easily include nearby Normandy & Brittany, and allows you to avoid the Mont St Michel day-trip-crush (get there late afternoon, stay the night on the Mont, then depart in the morning when the crowds roll in). Other parts of France are also wonderful with your own car. Driving in Paris (or even just getting out of it after picking up the car there) isn't my idea of fun.

Car or train? It's not really an either/or question. Often train and car is the best choice. Depends largely on your itinerary and also your preferred style. I often mix trains (for connecting big cities) and shorter term car rentals (for those places that a car helps) and find the mix works well.

I would add/agree that away from the big cities, IME driving in France is pretty easy (easier than in the UK).

Posted by
3982 posts

Be sure you have lots of change for the numerous toll booths. That being said, my husband felt comfortable driving in France and said he would do it again-but that might be because he had just driven in Ireland! Only really bad part was trying to find place to return car in Paris-my husband thought that would be easier than returning to airport. Rental return much easier to find at airport!

Posted by
396 posts

The 10-14 day trip and the three week trip are two separate itineraries. I think the paragraph you quote goes with the 10-14 day trip itinerary. And the Whirlwind 3 Week tour is a separate trip with different goals, hitting more regions in France. For the 3 week tour he's assuming that you'll pick up a car at the De Gaulle airport and skirt around the city toward Giverny, afterwards completely leaving the region to drive to Honfleur. This avoids the worst of the traffic of the Paris metropolitan area since you won't be driving across Paris but rather more around it.

We also found driving in France very easy, although we avoided driving in Paris. It's just like the US, driving into large cities can be more stressful. The quality of the food offered at their highway rest stops is amazing : ) There are chefs cooking the food fresh for you. Loved it. I thought David's comment about mixing car and train for the trip was spot on. Decide on a general shape for your trip and then see if any long segments make more sense by train. Or if it turns out you're only visiting cities, you may be able to just use the train. If the last nights of your trip are in Paris, consider dropping off the car in a mid-sized town outside the city and take the train in.

Posted by
7617 posts

It is easy to drive in France and if your agenda is small towns in Provence, the Dordogne, Burgundy, Normandy or the Loire, then you want a car for that. If your agenda is Paris and the Riviera then you don't want a car. If I were planning on the Dordogne or Provence, I would take the train south to Bordeaux or Avignon and pick up the car there unless I planned to spend a few days on the road on the way to visit interesting spots e.g. from Paris you could spend a day or two in the Loire and a day or two in towns south of the Loire before the Dordogne or Provence.

We have often rented cars and driven in France and it is no more difficult than in the US. A train is a burden in Paris or on the Riviera.

Posted by
224 posts

Regarding Carolyn in Seattle's comment:

"When driving through a town or village, just follow the "Autre(s)
Directions" signs. Be aware of speed cameras on the Autoroute, and
laws against drinking and driving are strictly enforced."

Three points:

  1. I believe she meant "Toutes Directions," and if she didn't she should have. If a choice is available, "Toutes Directions" is almost always a better choice.

  2. Speed radar is common (both individual cameras as well as tronçon cameras, which measure your time over an interval and issue tickets if it's shorter than it should be) not only on Autoroutes but on National ("N") roads and on some Department ("D") roads as well. It would be potentially costly to assume that, if you were not on an Autoroute, that speed radar would be absent.

  3. I think it would be more accurate to say that laws against drinking and driving can lead to severe penalties when enforced, rather than to say that they're "strictly enforced."

To answer your main question: I would rent a car and drive rather than take a train. Larger vehicles, such as Citroën minivans or Volvo SUVs, are not all that rare at rental agencies. But I would have your driver(s) familiarize themselves with French signage and basic road rules (especially speed limits, the concept of la priorité à droite, and roundabout protocols). Those will come in handy.

Posted by
4129 posts

I don't think driving is particularly difficult in France. There is a body of knowledge, that some of the others here have alluded to, that is good to know before you go, e.g. "toutes directions."

That said, on some routes the trains are faster. Travel to Provence is a good example—I'd pay more to take my family that way than to drive, within reason. (if I were spending any time in Provence I would want a car, which I would arrange to pick up at the train station).

For your trip, if Normandy is on your itinerary, I recommend a car. If minimizing driving is important, you could get the car in Rennes or Caen, but there's no other reason I can think of not to get the car in Pars,

With 10 days and 5 people, I am not sure you have time for much beyond Paris + Normandy + return, though you might be able to squeeze in a quick pass at the Loire.

Posted by
7617 posts

I didn't notice 10 days -- you have time for Paris and Normandy and should do Normandy first and end in Paris. Since you shouldn't drive that jet lag day, it makes sense to head for Caen by train and spend the night or Bayeux and then pick up the car the next day. Tickets purchased 3 mos out are 15 per person. That way you finish in Paris and don't have to waste a day rushing back the day before your flight. Here is some of what we did with 5 nights in Normandy
With the time you have I'd plan on 4 nights in Normandy and 6 in Paris. You could do your own tour of the beaches, American Cemetery etc with just a little pre-planning. There seemed to be ample parking when we did it with a tour. With 5 people, the cost savings of doing it yourself are enormous. I would also like to get Etretat in -- that was an amazing sight.

Posted by
32065 posts

A few points to consider......

For five people (essentially five adults) plus luggage you'll need to rent a larger vehicle, which may or may not be equipped with an automatic transmission. Are you comfortable with driving a standard?

Also note that each driver listed on the rental form will require either the compulsory International Driver's Permit, which is used in conjunction with your home D.L, or a notarized translation of the terms of your D.L. in French. You can easily obtain I.D.P.'s at any AAA office for a small fee, and these are valid for one year.

You'll also have to budget for tolls, parking and be sure to get a good CDW package. Have a look at for tips on driving in France. You could also phone them on their toll free number or send an E-mail.

In terms of efficiency, it's often better to use the high speed trains which travel at up to 300 km/h and you can buy advance tickets for those. No car can match that speed! Whether to use the car or train will depend on exactly where you're visiting. I don't tend to use pre-formatted Itineraries so didn't have a look at the transportation options on the link you showed.

Posted by
5697 posts

Yes, train and car can make a great trip. We have rented a car on different trips for Normandy-to-Loire-to-Paris, using train Paris to Caen, and for visiting Provence, using TGV from Paris to Avignon and Avignon to Nice. Avoid driving in Paris!!

Posted by
15450 posts

Aside from Ken's point that you need a car that will hold all the luggage (out of sight when parked), consider how comfortable 3 people are going to be in the back seat on long drives. Back seats usually afford limited views of the passing scenery and the middle seat may have none.

I found it physically easy to drive in France, but more than a little challenging to navigate. Luckily my rental car had built-in GPS or I would never have gotten anywhere once I was off the tollway.

Posted by
183 posts

Thank you all so much for your super-helpful replies!
If we do rent a car, we will probably rent them in some parts. I'm not sure yet. I'm going to read all of your replies to my husband later. If we rent a car, he will be the only one driving.

Posted by
12154 posts

Car or Train?

Here's two things that factor in for me:

  1. Itinerary - Am I going city to city or do I want to see lots of small sights along my route? Each time you stop using the train (or other public transport), you have to make a connection. Even in the best circumstances (all places served by regular routes), connections eat up your day. In the worst circumstances public transport means small, off the beaten track, stops are nearly impossible to visit. I find myself using a car more and more but it's related to the type of itinerary I prefer.

If I'm traveling from city center to city center, a train is by far the preferable option, no traffic, no directions, and everyone (no one has to drive or navigate) can relax/nap/read along the route - probably worth some extra cost. Traffic and expensive parking, make a car costlier and less convenient in cities.

  1. Cost - I've found the "break even" point between point to point train tickets and a car is about three people. Normally for four or more people, the cost is better using a car. That said, remember rental cars in Europe aren't large and they don't come with big trunks. For two teenagers and three adults, most cars that seat five aren't going to be comfortable. We traveled with 2 adults and three kids (8, 12, 16) with one carry-on bag each. We were comfortable in a seven passenger car, but wouldn't have been if we were larger people or carried more bags. Rental car rates rise quickly as you move up from the economy option - so you have to factor that in. Also, insurance is a factor. Amex has full CDW on some of their cards for a really good price (worth looking into).

I wouldn't worry at all about roads, they're fine in France. Toll booths can be a little bit of a challenge. I found a card that worked at one toll booth didn't necessarily work at the next. I only had to resort to cash once, but it pays to have some cash with you. For fuel, I didn't have too much trouble finding a place to fill up even though I occassionally wasn't "doing it right" and had to pause and figure it out.

Posted by
7617 posts

Let me concur with a point made here above -- almost no car you rent will be able to stow 5 suitcases out of sight. Even if luggage is out of sight, you are always at risk of having it stolen as you don't know where gangs of thieves operate (never park if you see sparkly glass on the ground). So when driving it is prudent to get to your lodging and stow your luggage before driving to tourist stops. This makes having a base for at least a couple of nights wise. If you are driving long distances and have to stop for lunch or whatever, make sure you don't open the trunk at the stop (stow all loose items at a stop beforehand so you just hop out of the car for lunch and don't open the trunk). Take all valuables like computers, cameras, ID and money with you into the restaurant. We have messenger bags for this purpose. That way if your belongings are stolen they won't have the hard to replace items. It is unwise to road trip stopping at tourist sites while the car is fully loaded with all your stuff.

Posted by
16893 posts

The main difference between the two plans described on the itinerary page is that when heading toward Avignon (over 700 km), a high-speed TGV train is faster, the motorway tolls and fuel costs would add up higher, and you could spend at least a night just in Avignon before you need the car. When heading toward Normandy (closer to 300 km), although you could do that by a slower train, you're more likely to stop and see things with your car on the same day, including Giverny (which is on the train line to Rouen, not the train line to Caen and Bayeux).

Posted by
3938 posts

I wish I could get my husband to drive a car in the UK - my sister lives there, drives an automatic, and I'm always telling him when we go over he should give it a whirl - no go. That being said, we've rented a car twice in France with very little issues (a parking garage mishap was pretty much it). And we'd do it again. I'd say a GPS comes in very handy - not only for giving you faster vs slower routes (which is good for time management, and also lets you know if there are delays/roadwork, and to help if there are detours), but also as a good indicator of the speed limit, as you may not always see a sign.

First rental we rented upon leaving Paris, drove to Caen and Mont St Michel, and dropped off up north as we were ferrying to the UK. Second time, rented in Avignon after taking the TGV from Paris, drove to Carcassonne, all over Provence and Cote D'Azur and dropped in Nice. The car was great for getting to little towns and villages where a bus or train would be much harder to schedule. But for 5 people - you will need a bigger vehicle to hold everyone and their luggage. We had I guess what you'd call a midsize (Citroen Cactus - smaller than out Ford Escape, but bigger than a VW Jetta), and after putting a huge scratch down the side of it trying to maneuver a tight turn in a parking garage, I'd recommend parking in outdoor lots - I know next time we rent, we won't use a parking garage.

Posted by
4272 posts

As I noted on another thread (with a link to the French legal code), the French govt requires an IDP and or a license translation-- no mention of its being official or notarized. That language comes from car rental website policies which are often generic requirements not tailored to the specific county in which the rental occurs. Another requirement often listed on car rental websites is a requirement to bring an expired license if your current one is less than 1 year old.

Posted by
183 posts

Again, thank you all so much for your incredibly helpful replies and tips. I'm continuing to share them with my husband before we make a decision. At the moment, we're leaning towards a mix of train and car - renting a car in the smaller, possibly less accessible places. Overall, a car may be a bit too cramped for all five of us, plus carry-on luggage, etc. Cost is important, but comfort is a bit more of an issue right now.

Posted by
50 posts

Your trip is pretty much the combined itinerary of our last trip and our upcoming one.

As a family of 4, we rented a car while staying near Disney Paris and we drove into Paris. I am not sure where other people drive or park, but we are used to driving in Boston and on occasion NYC. We are also used to paying Boston and NYC parking garage fees. The fees for parking in Paris are exactly what I would expect to pay in Boston and NYC and perhaps even less. Even including the Arc de Triomphe rotary in which five cars immediately around me were pointing in different directions, I don't recall any problems driving. If driving in Boston and NYC stresses (or doesn't) you out, Paris won't be any different.

We bought a Garmin preloaded with Western Europe & North America maps for our trip a few years ago. It came with lifetime map updates and I have used it as my primary navigation in the US. We are using the same garmin for our upcoming france trip and we are driving. Having a good map (hard copy and electronic) and a good navigator helps wherever you go.

We drove into Paris from Disney Paris to take the train to Caen where we rented a car to drive around Normandy and stay overnight at Mont St Michel. This was stupid, but I wanted to take at least one train trip even though it was a slow one. 20/20 hindsight, I would have driven straight from our hotel to MSM and Normandy rather than take the train. We are going to drive to Southern France rather than take the train on our upcoming trip. Yes, I know there are TGV trains, but the tickets were expensive and the timing was sort of a wash. (use viamichelin webpage to help calculate fuel and tolls). We were going to take the train from Marne de vallee (spelling?) and stop in Nimes to pick up a car, but we calculated that we would have to get up early to drop the car off and make sure we caught the train and then we would need to spend some time getting another rental in Nimes so driving wouldn't take that much longer and we could go at our own pace.

Train tickets, train passes, reservation fees, etc. are not cheap either and we prefer the flexibility of driving particularly given our hotel is not directly on any public transit line. The one caveat is I hope Paris doesn't have an odd/even driving ban while we are there.

Perhaps get the milles bourne card game before you go ;-P

Posted by
32065 posts


Here's the official information from the Embassy of France.....

"You may drive with a valid U.S. driver’s license if it is accompanied by a notarized translation in French. It is strongly recommended that you carry an International Driving Permit. You must be 18 years of age or older to drive in France."

It does specify a "notarized translation in French".

Posted by
365 posts

A side note since this hasn't been mentioned. You are going to be rushed and stressed if you try to follow the RS itinerary day-for-day. To me this is an area where his books fall short. The issue isn't the transit between towns, that isn't too hard, it's the timeline in town. RS and his researchers are very familiar with the regions and local transit systems, they have no trouble getting around from site to site, museum to museum. This is sometimes termed "the curse of knowledge". It can be difficult to put yourself in the shoes of someone who doesn't know what you do, and this comes to the fore in the RS timelines. For the visitor consulting maps and having to figure out the metro or bus system, it can be difficult to do things as quickly as the RS book suggests. Although his suggestion for Mont St Michel was spot-on; arrive late afternoon, stay the nite, leave next morning.