Driving in France: read this first—must-knows
In many ways, driving in France is no different from driving in other countries. Yes, tailgating seems to be the national sport but other than that, French drivers are not bad.
However, if this is your first time driving in la belle France, here are some things you should know.
Driving in France: renting a car, or leasing?
If you are staying in France for more than three weeks, there is a special program for non-European visitors that could save you money.
It’s a special leasing program with many benefits. First, you get a brand-new car that you choose ahead of time. Second, insurance is included, with zero deductible. Third, cars with automatic transmissions don’t cost much more than those with manual transmissions, as is usually the case with rentals. AND the car comes with a cool red license plate!
To learn more about this program, take a look at this article.
Avoiding disaster at the pump: advice on French gas stations
Some French cars use diesel fuel rather than unleaded gas, and it is important to keep them straight. Putting the wrong fuel in a car can ruin its engine, and ruin your vacation.
Diesel fuel is marked Diesel or Gazole (note: not all gas stations carry diesel fuel.) Unleaded fuel is marked Sans Plumb.
You can usually pay at the pump using your credit card, but if your card doesn’t have the right microchip it won’t work. If this is the case, you can pay inside the gas station, usually before you pump.
Some gas stations, like the ones next to supermarkets, have little pay booths near the exit. This is for those people who don’t pay at the pump. If you are one of these, pump your gas, remember your pump number, and pay on your way out. However, these pumps are only activated after the last person to use them has paid. If this hasn’t yet happened, the pump’s screen will still show the amount of fuel pumped and the price to pay. Just wait until those numbers reset to zero, which means the prior customer has paid, at which point you can fill your tank.
Going in circles: how to use French roundabouts
The British may have invented the roundabout (aka traffic circle) but France has more than any other country—as many as half of all roundabouts in the world!
So, prepare to go in circles when you are in France. The key thing to remember: the cars already in the roundabout have the right of way, not the car entering it. Don’t forget this unless you want to learn all about French tow trucks and how well your car insurance works.
Most roundabouts are small but some are so large they have more than one lane, for example an inner lane and an outer lane. French drivers, who are used to this, will enter the circle at the outer lane, move to the inner lane as they make their way around the roundabout, then move back to the outer lane for their exit. Unless you are used to driving in big roundabouts, I suggest you do what I do and stay in the outer lane. Otherwise, you might have an accident and get to learn about those French tow trucks.
If you are in a roundabout and you miss your exit, no problem, just go around again. Do not repeat what I once saw a French driver do: stop in the middle and back up. Mon dieu!
Paying the price: how French toll roads work
When driving long distances, you will typically take an autoroute (aka freeway or motorway.) For these you usually have to pay a toll, which is based on how far you drive. Here’s how these toll roads work.
When you enter the autoroute, you’ll come to a toll booth that dispenses tickets. You drive up to the barrier that blocks your lane and a ticket will print out next to your window. Take this ticket and the barrier will go up so you can enter the road. Don’t lose this ticket.
When you leave the road, you’ll come to another toll booth, called a gare de péage (usually just called péage) where you pay. This is where things get tricky.
Each lane of the péage will have a screen above it with a symbol, indicating how to pay.
Symbols to know
A lower-case letter t indicates that this lane is for cars that have an automatic payment device in them called a télépéage. If your rental car is equipped with one, you can use these lanes and sail on through. You’ll get charged later.
Two white rectangles on top of each other means that you can pay by credit or debit card. You drive up to the machine, insert your ticket, and the amount you owe will show on a screen. Put your credit or debit card in the appropriate slot, wait until it’s authorized, then remove your card and you are on your way. However, not all foreign cards work—they must have the right kind of microchip in them. If yours doesn’t, the machine will reject your card and you will have to back out of this lane, while all the cars behind honk at you and their drivers shake their fists. It’s very dramatic and makes for a memorable vacation moment, just not the good kind.
An image of cash means you pay by cash, either inserting it into a machine or tossing it in a basket. This line is usually long and slow but you may have no choice. The same goes for the line with a cashier (see below.)
An image of a man means you can pay by cash or credit card and there’s a live person there. This is becoming less common in France as automated machines replace cashiers.
A green arrow means you can pay by cash, credit, debit, or télépéage.
A red X means the lane is closed.
Driving in France: beware
If you have a problem, you can press the help button (bouton d’appel) and a voice will come on via a speaker but that person might only speak French.
Sometimes there will be a péage where autoroutes come together or split apart. In this case it will be a big one spanning the entire road and you’ll pay for however far you have gone so far. Road signs will warn you a kilometer or so before you come to one of these. A short distance later you’ll come to a new péage where you will take a new ticket for the next part of your journey.
On occasion a stretch of toll road will be so short that there is only a fixed amount to pay, and you’ll pay it when entering (no ticket.)
The GPS in your rental car will usually be set properly, but not always. There’s a setting called Avoid Toll Roads and you definitely want it OFF, otherwise you’ll find yourself on slow roads instead of the autoroute. Even if you manage to get onto an autoroute, the GPS will immediately tell you to get off. If this happens, check your car’s user manual and find the setting so you can change it. Otherwise, you might find yourself lost in the mountains on a narrow, winding road, as once happened to my nephew.
The French like to drive much too fast, unless they are driving much too slow. French drivers sometimes stop in the most unusual places, to look at a map or discuss what to have for lunch. And they love to tailgate; I think it must be a national sport.
If you’d like to read a funny article about driving in French, here you go.
How do you like driving in France? Do you have any must-know suggestions to add? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below