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Driving in France

Hi All!
I have been trying to figure this out on my own for awhile now so I would appreciate any advice! I am planning a trip to France with my mom in July/August. I am planning on flying into Paris and starting the trip outside of the city. My preference would be to drive, however I have seen a lot of posts that driving is a nightmare. I have confidence to drive I just want others input before I make my decision. I was thinking of starting by getting a car in Paris and driving to Giverny. From there I want to drive to Bayeaux. Would that be easy enough to handle? I want to have a car once I get to Bayeaux to be able to drive to the D-Day beaches and area museums. Does that sound like a feasible drive? I appreciate any advice! :)

Posted by
8516 posts

Yes, it's quite feasible. If you have a gps, you won't get lost. If you don't like driving too fast, just stay in the right lane. We drive in France every summer and haven't had any problem. Paris to Bayeux is an easy drive.

Posted by
8894 posts

Driving should not be a problem. Using a GPS makes it easier. Also, I recommend getting the smallest car you can for ease of driving and parking in tight spots. Can you drive a stick shift?

Posted by
12040 posts

My experience has been that although traffic in Paris is awful, once you get outside the main feeder arteries of the city, traffic is very manageable in France.

Posted by
3696 posts

Have done this with and without GPS... either way just follow the signs to get out of Paris (I rent at CDG) The drive to Bayeaux is easy and quite pretty. I think you will really appreciate the flexibility of going at your own pace once you are near the beach area. We drove and explored the whole area and it was great. I do bring my own GPS with Europe maps so I don't have to figure out how to use a new one...plus cheaper. Car rental return can be a bit confusing... as it is in any airport, but again just follow the signs. You can throw some picnic food in your car and plan for a few roadside stops.

Posted by
31 posts

Thanks so much everyone! I appreciate it. I think I will pick up the car at CDG and take it from there. The flexibility of being on my own schedule seems like it will be worth it. I will also make sure to have GPS. :)

Posted by
2284 posts

I am really surprised that anyone would call driving in France a nightmare. Paris, yes, but not the rest of France. We have driven through Normandy, Brittany, part of the Loire Valley, down to the Dordogne and Lot River Valleys and over by Verdun. The roads are excellent and the drivers are, for the most part, courteous. The only thing my husband complained about is that the drivers tailgate. Make sure you understand how the signs work. You won't find route signs. You navigate by knowing what city to head towards.

Posted by
1309 posts

Agree that driving in France is fine. We used GPS and the signs and did fine. After Giverny, if you have time you might like Honfleur. Beautiful small town and from there you can get to Bayeaux. You didn't say how many days you have or if Bayeaux and the D-Day beaches is as far as you plan to go. If you also have time you might want to drive to Mont San Michel as it is unforgettable. Apologize for suggesting destinations. I dislike it when others tell me what I should and should not see but I do appreciate having more info and researching other locations I might be interested in. Have a great trip!

Posted by
31 posts

Thanks Carol! I am still trying to plan how many days I will go for. I have eight planned as of now but will go up to two weeks! I definitely want to stop by Mont St. Michel so I will add that into my itinerary and thank you for the info on Honfleur. I will do some research!! Figure I might as well do as much as I can so the info is much appreciated :)

Posted by
31 posts

Does anyone have any suggestions on D-Day tours or museums that I should see also? I've been researching a bunch but would prefer to hear from those that have already been there rather than just read random posts online. Thanks!

Posted by
28147 posts

Bayeux and Arromanches both have very good comprehensive and well presented - in English - museums. Well tended, well done.

Posted by
893 posts

Driving in Paris can certainly be a nightmare for those that are not comfortable driving in a big city with crazy traffic and sometimes confusing road markings. Driving around Paris to get to another destination is much easier. Just be sure to read up on the rules of the road in France. The biggest difference can be the "priority to the right" rule in which you sometimes have to yield to someone coming from a side street. (In other words - you don't always have the right of way even if you're driving straight through an intersection without a stop sign) Know the speed limits of different types of roads (it's not always marked - it's assumed you know what it is based on the type of road and the markings) and that the speed limit decreases on the highways when it rains.

Posted by
31 posts

Thanks Dina and James for the tips! I was curious about the tolls so that is good to know and I will definitely read much more into rules of the road. I like to be over prepared anyways! Nigel, thank you for the museum info!

Posted by
1353 posts

Laura, I agree with all that Driving everywhere in France with the exception of Paris is enjoyable. I would however strongly advise picking up and dropping off your rental car outside of the city! If you do pick it up in the city ask about where, and how to return before you leave the counter!

Posted by
31 posts

Thanks Jill! Do you have any suggestions for another pick up/ drop off location outside of the city? If not, no big deal! Thanks again!

Posted by
1353 posts

On our last trip we picked our car up in Dijon after a few nights in Colmar, then we returned it in Rennes between our stay on Mont St. Michel and Paris. I would check the autoeurope website and see what the possibilities are.

Posted by
3 posts

I agree with the others - use a GPS (you can rent one with the car rental), and it is best to take a train to CDG and rent a car there so you don't have to deal with the Paris streets and highways. In addition, be sure to get the Michilin map for the area you are visiting. You will understand better where you are and invaluable if you get off track.

Posted by
258 posts

This past August, we drove from Neuilly-sur-Seine (which borders on Paris on the west) to Giverny, Versailles, Normandy, and Chartres using a friend's subcompact and our daughter's Garmin navigation system. We didn't have any problems on any of the four days we were driving. I wouldn't want to go into the middle of Paris, but outside of Paris, we had a great time. Enjoy!

Posted by
31 posts

Thanks so much everyone! Your advice is all VERY helpful! :)

Posted by
2829 posts

Most people overstate the "dangers" of driving in Paris. Driving in Paris is just something that requires attention as driving in NYC would. A bit more, not much more. Driving on Paris highways is absolutely fine.

Posted by
9110 posts

'Most people overstate the "dangers" of driving in Paris.' And, it's probably mostly people who haven't driven there.

Posted by
1353 posts

I have driven in Paris - will never do it again, and don't think I'm overstating the warning. I grew up and learned to drive in Denver, have driven in Germany, France, Austria and Italy and numerous major US cities. I found in Paris lanes don't really exist, or if they do nobody pays attention to them. One way streets suddenly turn one way going to other direction. It seemed like a free for all to me. Most stressful driving experience of my life. Also part of my point here was we found returning our rental car very difficult in Paris. If there is no need to drive in Paris then why would you want to?

Posted by
8293 posts

My husband loved to drive in Paris ... I did not love sitting beside him while he did so.

Posted by
2284 posts

Did anyone say driving in Paris was dangerous? I must have missed that. I think the point is that it is very unpleasant, as in tons of traffic. We've rented two cars in Paris, and it wasn't too bad getting out of the city, but I would never try to return a car to the city. I don't think the car return locations are well signed, at least the ones we used.

Posted by
3006 posts

Andre - But driving in NYC, or at least Manhattan, is a nightmare. I've been driving in San Francisco since I was 16 and feel comfortable doing so but I would never, EVER recommend a tourist try it! Particularly when there's no need because the city is served by public transit. Ditto for Paris, except it's 10 times easier to get around without a car than SF is. I can't fathom why anyone would drive into Paris on purpose.

Posted by
8894 posts

I drove into Paris my first time there. Prior to arriving in Paris I had been driving around Europe for 2+ weeks with no problems. Our plan was to go to our hotel in Paris, drop our bags and return our car. It may have been the most stressful driving I have ever done. I have not driven there since, but I have now spent a few weeks in Paris over several trips and I know my way around more. I am used to city driving and have driven in many US cities across the country. Would I chose to drive IN Paris? No!

Posted by
96 posts

Laura, I noticed that early on in this discussion someone mentioned driving a stick shift. Very important question. Most of the affordable cars in Europe are manual. You'll probably end up with a car that is bigger and more expensive than you'd like if you need an automatic.

Posted by
37 posts

If you plan to spend any time in Paris before you start your driving journey, you'ld be better off picking up your rental at Gare d'Austerlitz or one of the other train stations, rather than having to go all the way back to CDG.

Posted by
4 posts

I have set up our car rental drop-off at Gare de Lyon, thinking to take a taxi to our hotel from there. After reading this thread I am concerned...those of you experienced with Paris, where would you recommend dropping off or is this not too bad to find? We are coming in from the Loire.

Posted by
31 posts

That actually might be good idea Dede! I had originally planned to start my trip with Normandy and end with Paris, however if I start with Paris it might be a little bit easier. That way I can pick up the car somewhere other than CDG and I might not be as stressed driving after just coming off a flight and rushing around! I don't know why I did not think of that before :)

Posted by
9110 posts

Megan: You're fine. Here's the trick. You'll come in and get on the peripherique south of town and head east, then north (counter-clockwise) - - the entrance sign will probably say Peripherique Exterieur and the 'towns ahead' signs will be toward Metz and Nancy as well as the de Gaulle airport. Stick with he signs toward the airport. NOW PAY ATTENTION: as you are almost across the Seine there will be an off-ramp while you're still over the water - - take it. You'll go around the damndest clover leaf you've ever seen, but have faith. You'll dump out on the Quai de Bercy which runs along the right (north) bank of the river. As you pass the Esso statation, get in the right lane and the road will change to Quai Rapee, but you won't notice the name change. You've got one right turn onto Van Gogh and another right (within a block) onto Rue de Bercy (same name, almost, different road). You'll see the big clock tower on G. Lyon as you make the first right. The car places are in the big parking garage on your right just after you make the second right (twenty yards?). Some folks suggest dropping the car in Versailles or something, but to me that's just a pain in the rear.

Posted by
355 posts

Last year when I was in France, I picked up my car in Paris, near Les Invalides, and rented a GPS. With the GPS, it was very easy to drive out of Paris. But I agree with most of the posts. Driving in Paris can be stressful, driving in the rest of France is fine. One thing to keep in mind when you are driving on the highways (A routes/toll roads) is that the far left lane is for passing ONLY. I'm not sure how people drive around Boston, but in CA, people think it is quite acceptable to drive in the far left lane, called the "fast lane". In France it is for passing only. So, use it to pass and then get back over to the right ASAP. Otherwise, you will have some very annoyed french motorists behind you! Have a great time. I love driving in France...

Posted by
31 posts

Thank you for the tips Linda and James! People driving in Boston can be kind of crazy. I myself like to stick to my one lane so it seems like I will be a good fit for right lane driving! I must admit I am actually excited to get on the French roads!

Posted by
1525 posts

In Paris, as in any of the larger European cities, if you make every turn exactly as you had planned (or as your map indicates) you can manage to drive directly to your destination with little fanfare. The problem arises when you make a mistake - or when you are faced with three seconds to make a decision that really needed five. Then you are at risk of losing your bearings faster than you can imagine. Even for the best of drivers, the potential for stress is high. I have experienced that stress a few times and in my opinion, life is too short to volunteer for that stress when it isn't necessary. (I will note that it is generally a great deal easier to drive out of the city than in, as each mile away from the center gets progressively easier vs harder) I would cross-check rental car locations with the places outside of Paris that you were intending to visit anyway. If you can match-up locations, I would use the trains to get in and out of the city. For example, picking up the car in Giverny and dropping it off in Chartres (as we did). Then finding the rental place is relatively simple - even if you make a mistake - and the train is simple and efficient, too. At the very least, you will save a little on gas, tolls and save the risk of accident. It's also easier to be certain you can find a convenient gas station to top off the tank before you return it. Otherwise, driving in France is easy. Note that while rural roads can be lovely to drive, you will often average only about 30mph on them due to the multitude of villages and curves.

Posted by
2916 posts

I've dropped off and picked up cars at Gare de Lyon. It was a lot easier to get to and find than some other places in the city, but that's not saying much. Paris is probably the worst city for driving I've ever been to, and I've driven in NY, DC, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Boston, among other difficult driving cities. You could drop it off at Orly instead and take a train in if you don't have too much luggage.

Posted by
188 posts

Gps suggestion, we bought a TomTom with unlimited map updates of Europe and US for about $200 a cople years ago. Probably other brands that have that also. I agree with all others that GPS makes the driving much easier.

Posted by
49 posts

Probably by now you've made yor plans, but my two cents: In mid-April we rented a car on the outskirts of Paris near the freeway leading toward Rouen and eventually drove the coast to the Bayeux area. No problems....for details of GPS, gas stations, see our trip report "Paris, Normandy, Loire Valley."

Posted by
381 posts

We stayed in Paris for 6 days about 2 years ago than drove so Sarlot. I would not rent while you are in Paris itself. You just don't need it, the subways make it so easy to get around. Rent the car when you are ready to leave Paris for the trip outside the city. I found the roads to be very good. Next to some of the road in Italy, driving in France is a piece of cake! The one thing I would bring is a GPS that you are use to. I was very happy I brought my Garmin. It would have took me forever to figure out the rental car GPS. For the Garmin I was able to purchase the France chip right on line. The GPS saved me hours and probably a divorce about arguing which way to go.

Posted by
1170 posts

Driving in Paris or France is nothing compared to some of our larger cities.

Posted by
5 posts

Do not drive in Paris. Driving in France outside of Paris is a pleasure. We combined a trip to Paris with Normandy and the Loire Valley and rented the car for the Normandy-Loire Valley piece. We rented the car from Hertz in Montparnasse station, leaving our luggage in the hotel that we just checked out of and taking the metro to Montparnasse. Then the only Paris driving that I had to do was to pick up the luggage and get out of the city. Paris to Giverny is about an hour, then Giverny to Bayeux is another two hours past that. The motorways (autoroutes) are fast and the speed limit is 130 km/h (80 mph). Some advice: If you know how to drive a stick shift, rent one. They are cheaper and most automatics are big cars. Rent a car with GPS built-in, so you don't have to worry about anybody stealing it. Get a diesel if you can. Diesel fuel ("gazole" or "gasoil") is cheaper in France and diesels get better mileage. Beware of gas pumps that sell "GPL" (gazole poids lourd, or diesel for trucks). It's cheaper and the same stuff, but you're not allowed to put it in a car (the pump nozzle is wider). Carry lots of euros for tolls on the autoroutes. Tolls are outrageously high - we paid 18.50 euros for one stretch! Some autoroutes are free, such as the one off the Normandy beaches. Do not speed (there are speed cameras everywhere), stay to the right, and watch for passing motorists, and you should be fine. I found autoroute driving to be as pleasurable as freeway driving in the U.S.

Posted by
4 posts

My dad drove a rental car a few years ago when we went to Loire Valley, Mont St. Michel, Arromanches, the beaches. The driving was fine outside Paris. Also there are speeding cameras and they do ticket based on these photos. Some advice from me and them: make sure you request an automatic if that's what you want or can only drive. We rented an automatic, the car had trouble before we got it and they gave us a manual instead. Be on time to pick up the car; we were 45 minutes late and the agent blamed us because she was hoping that we won't show since the car was broken. As for the manual care, good thing Dad drives manuals. Bad: we counted the number of times that he stalled it leaving Paris. LOL GPS was great to have. Don't underestimate the driving distances. We just made the American Cemetery as it was closing and the nice guard let us in since we were leaving for Paris the next day; he turned away 3 cars behind us.

Posted by
1 posts

It is relatively easy to doand easy to add Mont St. Michel, Carnac, and other sights as well. There are also very good and inexpensive (relatively) tours from Bayeux and Caens to the D-Day beaches and museums, if you prefer not to drive. Although this part of France is fairly easy to navigate, we had found an English-language GPS to be a tremendous help in all of France. If you have a portable one from Garmin, Tom-Tom, or the like, you can buy maps of just France/Benelux or all of Europe for around $100.