How to Get Around in France

 

Stop sign in France
Unmistakable in Any Language

Planning Your French Getaway

If you’re planning a trip to France, you’re probably overwhelmed with the number of decisions that you have to make.  Unless you can spend at least a year there, you won’t be able to see or experience a fraction of all that France, the most visited country in the world, has to offer.

One of the biggest decisions is how to get around once you arrive. And, like most of the decisions involved in planning a trip to France, it won’t necessarily be an easy one.

There is one obvious decision to make, though:  If you’re planning to stay in Paris for all or part of your trip, don’t even briefly consider renting a car while you’re there. The public transportation system in Paris is exceptional, while the driving and traffic conditions are a nightmare for non-Parisians.  Parking is expensive and nearly impossible to find anywhere near where you’ll want to park.

Using public transportation in Paris is a snap with the Citymapper, an app for Android and iPhones.  Citymapper is the app that Parisians use to navigate the City of Lights.  Citymapper shows you how to get where you want to go on foot, by the ubiquitous rental bikes  (Velib’),  by Metro, bus, or taxi.  It’s easy to use, and won’t take up any room or weigh an extra ounce in your luggage.

The Pont du Gard near Nimes

When to Rent a Car in France

For travel outside of Paris, a rental car can open many opportunities to experience France in ways that you’ll miss if you travel by train, plane, bus, or some combination of them.

For instance, I took the train from Antibes to Nimes last year. The train ride was great: lots to see, very comfortable, and remarkably fast. Nimes is an intriguing city with lots of remnants that are at least a couple thousand years old, a town artisan and farmer’s market that stretches for blocks, and an ancient town center that is lovingly maintained for countless centuries by the Nimois.

The train ride made the trip stress free and gave me an opportunity to watch Provenance flash by as we sped to our destination.  But the Pont du Gard, a nearby Roman aqueduct built around 2,000 years ago, is one of the most photographed sights in the region, and one that I didn’t want to miss.  But there was no easy way to visit without a car. Not only did we miss the Pont, but we also missed market day in the Place aux Herbes in Uzès.  Rats.  All because I didn’t rent a car.

At the same time, I didn’t have to worry about parking on the narrow streets of Nimes, or getting sideswiped in a tight parking space by a careless driver.   There are trade-offs to car rental, but there are also times when it’s imminently sensible.

Autoroute in Provence
Highway along the Cote d’Azur

If you’re traveling with children, even teenagers, renting a car in France is almost a necessity.  I’ve traveled in France with my two daughters from the time they were toddlers through their late teens.  The extra luggage they needed as they got older and their restless energy as teens would have made public transportation a nightmare.  And balanced against the expense of purchasing four train tickets for multiple destinations, the difficulty of shepherding children on foot through busy towns and cities, and the sometimes long hikes to get to and from a train station and a point of interest, renting a car can save time, money, and many headaches.

Things to Consider

Shop before you reserve.  Rental fees vary considerably.   I use favorite travel websites, including Expedia and Travelocity and then compare on the websites of the big name rental car companies.  My favorites are Alamo and Avis.  They’re not always the cheapest, but they’re usually within a few bucks, and I’ve never been scammed by hidden fees or charges when I’ve used them.  I can’t say the same for some of their competitors.

The displayed prices that some companies use to are a fraction of what they charge you when you show up at the rental counter.  Damage waivers are expensive, and you will almost certainly need one.   They’ll add at least $15 to your daily rate, depending on the coverage and the company.   But they also add a lot of peace of mind.

Choose the right size rental car.   The number of people traveling with you is not the only criteria.  A subcompact may have an inviting rental fee, but if you’re planning to use the auto routes (France’s network of toll freeways) where the maximum speed can range up to 80 mph (130 kph), you may live to regret not choosing a mid- or full-sized car.

Do you need a damage waiver? My auto insurance is with State Farm in the US, and they’ve assured me that they do not extend insurance coverage to rental cars outside of the continental United States.  Your insurance company may be different, particularly if you live in the UK, so definitely check with them before you pay for the waiver.  Also, some credit card companies offer rental car coverage, but there are caveats.  If you decide to rely on your credit card for insurance coverage, make sure you understand what the restrictions and benefits are by contacting your card company and asking them directly.

In general, you plan on buying the damage waiver.  During my last trip to France in October 2016, I rented a car through Sixt to travel from Annecy in the Alps back to Charles de Gaulle near Paris.  I was stunned to find that the actual rental fee was double the price that I’d found online when I reserved it.  The new price did include the damage waiver.  After I had returned to the US, Sixt contacted me to claim that the car had a scratch sustained during my rental.  I had not caused any damage to the car, but there were some stressful exchanges with Sixt as I explained this to them repeatedly.  In any case, the damage waiver paid for the repair.

One more anecdote: We have friends that often travel to France and always lease a car through either Europe by Car or Renault Eurodrive.  The fee includes liability and physical damage insurance.  During one of their stays in Nice, their beautiful new Renault was sideswiped while it was parked on the street overnight.   The accident was hit and run, so our friends were stuck with the damages.  The leasing company honored their insurance policy, though, so they weren’t required to pay anything for the extensive repairs.   Hit and run accidents are not uncommon in France or anywhere else, so make sure you have adequate insurance coverage before you drive off in your rental.

Should you rent a gasoline or diesel car?  I’ve rented some turbo diesels, some Peugeots, some Renaults.   I recommend a turbo diesel, with Peugeots 3008s near the top of my list.  They get excellent gas mileage, and they’re fun to drive.  The proximity sensors are very helpful in tight parking areas.

Petroleum, both gasoline and diesel, are expensive in France, typically well over 6 U.S. dollars per gallon.   A mid-size turbo diesel Peugeot will get between 30 and 40 miles per gallon, which takes some of the stings out of the high prices.

My personal favorite is a Peugeot TDI.  The newer models, like the 3008, are impressive.  Lots of electronic bells and whistles, including proximity sensors and backup cameras to help with tight parking spaces (which most of them are).  Also, the adaptive cruise control has some great features that make driving the auto routes less stressful and much safer.

Do you need to rent a car with GPS?  If you have an iPhone another smart phone with GPS built in, you don’t necessarily need to pay extra for GPS.  There are a few things to consider, though:

  • If you choose to rely on your phone for GPS, you could rack up big roaming charges if you have a U.S.- based carrier. Make sure your phone is GSM (global system for mobiles) and not CDMA (code division for mobile access).  AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM, which is the standard in Europe.  If your phone is CDMA, it won’t work in France, or anywhere other than the US.
  • If you do have a GSM smartphone, make sure that it’s “carrier unlocked.”  If you have an iPhone, check the settings to see if you have a category named “Mobile Data Network” or “Cellular Data Network.”  If you have one listed in Settings, your phone is unlocked.  Otherwise,  contact your carrier to find out.
  • If you have a smart phone that’s carrier unlocked, or an iPad or another tablet with GPS and GSM cellular data, you can get a prepaid mobile data SIM card when you get to France.   Orange, SFR, and Bouygues are the big providers; you can get a SIM card at any of their thousands of retail stores.
  • Using a French prepaid SIM card will lower your cost of phone and data service while you’re traveling, but your cell phone won’t receive calls to your U.S. number, and it’s not exactly convenient to sway SIM cards frequently.  If you’re traveling for two weeks or less, check with your service provider to see what kinds of roaming phone, text, and data plans they offer.  My carrier is AT&T, they had an unlimited texting plan with 3 GB of data and reduced calling rates for a flat fee.   Once you exceed the 3 GB, the price of data is extremely high, so be very cautious if you use this option because GPS services use lots of data.

Bottom line: in my experience, most newer rental cars in France have built-in GPS for no extra charge.  It’s usually easier than hassling with mobile phone plans, but if you’re not fluent in French, make sure you have the rental agent set the unit’s language to English before you drive away.

Will you be able to read French traffic signs?  The short answer is yes, for the most part.  Even if you don’t speak or read French,  road signs are pretty universal.  Stop signs in France are just like stop signs in Ohio, and traffic lights are red, yellow, and green with each color meaning the same thing it means in Seattle and Kennebunkport.

Speed limits are round with red borders, like this one for Meursault:

Meursault Speed Limit Sign

The end of a speed zone is denoted with the same round sign in gray, with a slash through the designated speed limit.

No Parking

The No Parking symbol is shown above, in this case with the stipulation that the area is reserved for buses.

Do Not Enter – Detourstr

The Do Not Enter sign is universal.   The above sign instructs drivers not to enter, and to detour to the right.   You don’t need to know that “contrôle routier” means “road control,” the symbols and colors are sufficient.

Rappel – Falling Rock

No need to ask Siri for a translation of this one, it just means “Caution, Falling Rock.”

Most of the road signs you’ll see in France are this easy to interpret, whatever your native tongue. Thanks to the EU, standards for traffic control and road signs are pretty universal throughout Europe.  Between smart phones and GPS units with voice prompts, navigating French highways and byways is remarkably easy.

The Bottom Line

Traveling through France by car is one of the best ways to see more.  In places like Brittany, where the coastline is a geologic marvel and the biggest Kodak Moment on planet earth.  Without a car, you’ll see a fraction of Brittany.  With a car, you can explore at leisure.

France has countless nooks and crannies full of serene beauty.  You can see lots of them whether you bike, take trains, cabs, or buses.  A rental car will usually let you see and do far more than any other mode of travel.

Driving in France is a snap if a little on the expensive side by North American standards.  Don’t let your fear of driving in an unknown place hold you back.  France is purely fantastic, and a rental car will help you discover it.

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