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First time car renters -- south France

DH and I have a two week trip in Spain in early October. Lucky us. He now has a business meeting in Paris Sept 23-25, so I will go to France with him, "do" Paris while he works. Lucky me. Fortunately his company travel agent is able to convert our Spain flights to open jaw to Paris, return from Madrid. Lucky us. But since this possibility has just occurred, we have done no research yet.

We want to rent a car outside Paris, and then drive south. mostly visiting villages and chateau. If we can rent bikes and cycle along a canal for a few hours, that would be lovely. We will drop the car on French border, and proceed to Spain by train.

We have never driven in Europe, but our son tells us it is easy once we learn the road signs. Two questions: what would be a good smaller town outside of Paris for our car pickup? And where should we drop the car six days later?

One route idea we had is to gently head from Paris toward St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, then west-to-east through the mountains, and then drop the car at Peipignon. Does this make sense?

Posted by
31521 posts

ab,

I have no comments to offer on the route you're planning, but wanted to mention that you MUST obtain International Driver's Permits for driving in France. These are used in conjunction with your home D.L. and are compulsory as they provide a translation of the terms of your license.

Posted by
2753 posts

My comments would be, how comfortable are you driving? And where have you driven? It seems you're from Albuquerque, I find the European driving style to be more like our East Coast. Have you ever driven in Massachusetts or Connecticut or goodness forbid, Boston? If you did and survived to tell the tale, you can probably handle France.

On the other hand, if you're used to the bigger spaces and calmer driving style of the West, it may be quite a shock to your system. Also realize you will most likely be driving a stick, and the car will be quite tiny. So make sure you have enough room for luggage. Just the other day I saw some tourists in LA who had a Mustang convertible and they had to cram their big rolling bags sticking up from the back seat. Luckily they had the top down!

Posted by
252 posts

Hi abqglobe. I concur with your son, driving in Europe is quite do-able (and, fun); we've made 17 trips and all of them have included car rentals. Since this is your first trip I suggest that you start by contacting a broker (i.e., Auto Europe popular among this web community) who can assist you with pricing, drop-off fees, etc. Additionally, AE's web site has lot's of useful info for driving abroad, e.g., the IDL. Depending on where you are staying in Paris and the day of the week (and, time of day) that your are departing you will be able to determine the best pickup location. I've often used Orly for south bound trips but this year I rented a car from Avis on a Sat. morning from a location near the 4th and we easily drove straight out of the city to the auto route (saving time & money getting to CDG).
I'd also inquire from AE or any broker the drop off fee for driving your rental to Madrid (sometimes the fee is far less then the train tix).
Lastly, you can use the SEARCH feature on this site for suggestions as to itineraries - there are so many wonderful choices in the Loire, Dordgone, Biarritz.
Safe travels.

Posted by
31 posts

Hi everyone --

Thanks for the help! Driving a stick is no problem, and we lived in Philadelphia for six years and survived driving there. :-) Even so, we plan to use secondary roads, not motorways or toll roads.

I have read mixed things about using AE or other consolidators. If things go well, it is great, but if you have any problems with, say, Avis, like they don't have the class of car your reserved or some other hiccup, then you are in a bind because you have prepaid so you can't cancel. Therefore some people advocate going directly with Hertz, Avis, Budget or Enterprise. I have also read negative things about EuropCar when there is a hiccup. Thoughts?

My head is spinning because we have only been thinking about this for two days!

GPS: renting SatNavis expensive, and neither of us likes navigating with an iPhone -- very difficult with bifocals!. Has anyone loaded European maps on their GPS (ours is a 5" garmin) and used that? And if we did, would the "voice" give us directions in English or French?

Posted by
2251 posts

I found driving in France relatively easy, and really quite California-ish. I wonder though, does it make sense to you to hop a train or two and rent a car when you get down south? Do heed the traffic camera signs, the cameras are all over the place, and there are no warnings that they are coming up!

Also, we had a very good experience using Auto Europe/Europcar, no problems at all. Bring a good quality paper map whether using nav or not, and study it before you leave. Acquaint yourself with the merging law and road signs.

Posted by
605 posts

Check out Ebay for GPS's with European maps loaded. We bought a TomTom with French maps for $35 (used) and it was just fine.

I'm from Boston and I found driving in France to be a significant improvement from my day to day road experiences. The AutoRoutes are fantastic and the road that links the Loire to the Dordogne was free.

-Matt

Posted by
1851 posts

We have used AutoEurope many times and no issues except for the time when we picked up our car in northern Italy. We had reserved a Fiat Panda (small economy car) and all they had to offer us was an Alpha Romeo Giulietta (luxury at no extra charge). Gee, that was rough. I would recommend photographing every ding and scratch on the car (make sure you have set the time and date to local time on your camera) before you leave the rental lot so there is no question as to when the damage occurred. Also familiarize yourself with the car before leaving the lot. We did not do this the last time and there were a few panicky minutes when we needed to back out of a toll booth and couldn't get the car in reverse. Apparently there's a button on the gear shift knob that you have to depress and then pull up on the gear shift to get into reverse.

We used a Garmin Nuvi with European maps loaded on it this last time in southern France. I highly recommend it. You can get paper maps for the major roads but when you get into a small town or a city they don't help at all. You can print out the google maps directions in advance but if you miss a turn you're lost. You choose the language that you want it to use (English). It was fun hearing the mangled French pronunciations on it.

Have fun. We love France and the French and will be back there in December for the Christmas markets in the Alsace.

Posted by
1851 posts

Forgot to mention. There will be extra charges for taxes, etc. that aren't covered in the contract when you sign up online. Overall, we think our rentals have been a real bargain. We just spent less than$450. US for rental fees, diesel, taxes for 16 days for a midsize car with a good size trunk (Peugeot).

Posted by
31 posts

What fun!

Now I am deep into car rental websites. DH will talk to our insurance and to the credit card company tomorrow to find out what they might cover (I will give him that "assignment" at dinner!)

Regarding the GPS, I have looked at eBay. We really like Garmin. If we just bought the maps, I'm not quite sure what to get. City navigator NT Europe Maps? Would that include the UK? (son is going there next year) Or maybe we should just buy a Nuvi with the NA and EU maps loaded, and give our daughter our older Nuvi ... HELP!

As soon as we decide the "starting" and "ending" points for the car rental, we can start filling in the middle! I've just got to get it all done quickly; Sept 22 will be here soon!

Sue

Posted by
3713 posts

For all the nuts and bolts of renting a car and driving in Europe, go to Gemut.com. Explore the website thoroughly and read the brochure, What you should know about renting a car in Europe. Then contact Andy for help with the car rental. They are actually in OR.

We have gone through them for cars we have rented in France and several other countries. Ours have always been EuropCar rentals and we have no complaints. Andy seems to always find a better price than we can. He can also tell you if you can drop the car where you want.

Please be aware that, at least with EuropCar, the person who drives the car should be the one whose credit card is used to pay for it. Otherwise, you will automatically be charged for a second driver. Similarly, you will need to pay extra for anyone else who will drive. I think these extra charges may be paid upfront, but I know they may be assessed when the car is returned.

All drivers will need to have an IDP (International Driving Permit) available through AAA. Although I'm always the navigator, I still get an IDP for each trip in case I need to drive for some reason.

We had a great time driving in France, even though we did get 2 speeding tickets. Be sure to take a look at the posting from stephanie, Five speeding tickets in 2 days..., on the France forum. There are some great links specifically about driving in France.

Posted by
31 posts

Our US Garmin shows us the speed limit and how fast we're going. We have it set so it "beeps" when we exceed the speed limit. Of course, it only beeps when DH drives! I wonder if a Garmin loaded with French maps will do the same? .... ;-)

Sue

Posted by
9363 posts

If your GPS is set up in English, it will give English instructions whether the maps are US or Europe. And if the maps are current, yes, it will still indicate if you are exceeding the speed limit.

Posted by
524 posts

Driving in the south of France is easy, especially if you're referring to Provence. It is also a long way from Paris, but if you have plenty of time you can easily do what you outlined. If not, you can take the TGV from Paris to Avignon (2.5 hours) and rent your car at the TGV station where you arrive. The roads are well marked and if you get the Michelin may of France that Rick sells in his travel store you will be able to navigate the whole area. Be sure to watch your speed and be aware that they have traffic cameras that record violations and then send the ticket to your rental car company who will bill you. If you base yourself in the general area of Avignon, but not IN Avignon, you can head in a different direction every day with good roads to get you there. You will want to check out the train schedules to Spain from this part of France to make sure you don't have to go back to Paris. Otherwise, consider a flight from Marseilles.

Posted by
31 posts

Thank you!

DH now wants to spend a couple more days in Paris so that he can explore it. That will reduce our time to four nights in the south before we hop a train to Barcelona, where we are to start our Spain trip. Perhaps just basing in Provence and forgetting the Basque region would be best.

I am still trying to figure out our best GPS options. It looks like taking our current 5" Garmin and downloading Europe maps ($99) might be best.

Stay tuned.

Posted by
2753 posts

We rented our Tom Tom GPS from Avis along with our car. Just easier that way and guaranteed to have the correct maps. Just make sure the agent checks out the unit beforehand, make sure it's working and set for English (you can choose American or British, we went with Nigel).

Posted by
11292 posts

The advantages of getting European maps for your Garmin: 1) You already know how to use it, saving much time and hassle. 2) You can pre-program in your hotels and any other places you know you will be going, before leaving home, saving much time and hassle.

Yes, if it's set to English speaking now, it will continue to do that in France. One problem is the pronunciation of French by the English voice; it can be very hard to recognize the place names that way. The navigator will sometimes have to look at the GPS to know what the voice is referring to.

Just be sure to set it to kilometers instead of miles, so the speed limits and distances match the local signs. And pay close attention to the "avoid toll roads" settings, to make sure they are activated and de-activated when you want them to be.

Posted by
597 posts

We just returned from 3 weeks in France, and one week included driving a rented car. We rented a car with GPS and, although we had never used one at home, we found it extremely helpful. I would do that again. If you want to see chateau, I would recommend heading by train to Amboise (or somewhere in that area) and rent your car there. We drove from Bayeaux to Amboise to Nimes and found the toll roads a fabulous way to drive; the countryside was wonderful and they skirt the major towns so we never worried too much about rush hour traffic. And the back roads are lovely too. Some of our most unique experiences were in the small towns we went through on back roads. We dropped our car in Nimes, so can't say what would be good near the Spanish border. Don't worry about the road signs; you will figure them out. Just be prepared for very narrow roads!

Posted by
15045 posts

I spent 9 days driving in Burgundy and Alsace. My rental had built-in GPS. It beeped when I was exceeding the speed limit, invariably because I hadn't slowed down quick enough at reduced speed zones - entering villages and toll plazas. There are no warning signs ("reduced speed ahead"). It was reading the electronic speed limit signs. I don't know if the American GPS functions the same way? Learn the legal speed limits before you go. They aren't always posted and drivers are expected to know them.

One of the problems I had with the GPS was that there are places with similar, sometimes identical, names in different regions and the GPS would not give me options. It would just choose one that was in a completely different part of the country. Having a Michelin map helped then, so I could input somewhere along the route. I had the option of buying a single map that covered both areas or two separate ones. I opted for 2, which would show more detail and I did need that detail more than once. These maps are big - 120 cm. x 75 cm. and double-sided. The scale is 1 cm = 2 km. If it were any smaller, the minor roads and villages would not show up on it.

The limited access highways were great to drive. I averaged about €0.10/km in tolls on the toll roads. Gas up before you get on these highways, where gas is significantly more expensive. All the other roads were 2-lane with no shoulders, even the main roads.

Posted by
100 posts

We (elderly couple) have driven in France several times, so we have no doubts about the ease of it. This year we will take the TGV to Bordeaux before we rent our car to drive to Bilboa, Spain and later back to France. Don't get into international rental car drops. Don't forget to have a chip-and-pin card for both unattended gas stations and unattended toll booths. And I recommend the Michelin 200,000:1 map book so that you can drive back roads for fun.

Posted by
31 posts

Thank you, everyone, for the helpful advice!

To sum it up: stop worrying, rent outside of Paris (a couple of good suggestions for location), have GPS, and pay attention to speed limits. Toll roads are nice and fast, but the small rural roads lead to adventure. :-)

BTW, we would be inclined to bring our own GPS unit. Our Toyota has built-in GPS and it is dreadful: the navigation is clunky, and the screen is not visible to the driver or navigator during midday -- too much glare.

Now we are in a dilemma: drive for four days from Paris-area to the Spain border (yes, we want to avoid international drop off), or change our "plan" completely: stay for three more days in Paris and venture up to Normandy, and on day four fly to Barcelona for our tour. DH has now found so much that he wants to do in the north of France (Normandy) that he is leaning to staying and then flying. I would like to drive south....

I will start another thread with the flying question.

Sue

Posted by
781 posts

I have rented cars from Hertz in Europe since 1995 and have never had a problem,this year we will have four different car rentals,France,Germany,Austria and Spain.We have a Garmin NUVI with European Maps,it only got confused in Tuscany.
Mike

Posted by
7136 posts

If you really only have 4 days to fill between Paris and Spain, then I would make short hops by train ...
1) Dijon+Beaune
2) Lyon
3) Avignon+Nimes

Posted by
1878 posts

If you can mange it, you might consider dropping the car at Coulioure, a very picturesque town that I hope to visit. Or at least try and visit there. I mean if you have a couple of nights to stay there, otherwise sure, drop the car at Perpignan.

France is great, maybe my favorite out of 15+ countries that we have visited in Europe. On your way south I suggest going to the Dordogne region which is in Rick's book. Also the Pyrenees with the Cathar castles if you are interested in castles and dramatic scenery.

I have driven in France on two different trips, and have found it one of the more difficult countries to drive in, despite that the driving is on the right. The parts in the country are really easy, it's just when you get into a town of any size, you really have to keep your wits about you. People drive fast and zip around in their little cars. Don't arrive during the evening rush hour (5 p.m.) as we have a knack for doing. With good planning you can avoid the challenges that we faced. I drove into Paris by accident twice trying to drop a car at Orly -- not recommended.

Posted by
31 posts

We have (most of) a plan!

We have seven nights in France before we are due in Barcelona. DH will be in meetings for three days.

We have decided to spend six nights in Paris, which means I am a "tourist" for five days and DH is a tourist for two.

Then we will take a morning train south -- perhaps Avignon? -- spend one night in a new location, and the next day take an afternoon train to Barcelona. This should give us an afternoon, evening and a morning (and perhaps early afternoon) to explore. We will not rent a car, so we will do all of our exploration by foot. We want to keep it simple.

Would Avignon be a good choice for wandering around?

Our other decision: plan 2 weeks in France in 2017. Win-win!

Posted by
7136 posts

Yes, to overnight in Avignon is a good idea.
Day 1 am - Morning train to Avignon
Day 1 pm - Afternoon excursion to Nimes (Arena + Maison Carree) and Pont du Gard
Day 2 am - Morning in Avignon (Pont Saint-Bénézet + Palais des Papes)
Day 2 pm - Afternoon train to Barcelona

Posted by
31 posts

David --

Thank you! I will book our trains and hotel today.

Now I am making lists for our 2017 trip. :-)

Sue

Posted by
2753 posts

Just to mention, GPS is nice and all but you still need old fashioned paper backup. If nothing else, lay out your trip on the map before you start each day so you get a general sense of which direction you're going, which major towns you'll pass, which autoroutes, etc. So you'll know if the GPS is giving you good info or not.