Driving in France

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For a first-time visitor to France, a tour may be the best bet. A single traveler will do well with a railpass, but for two or more persons who want to explore France more thoroughly, a car is best.

CAR RENTAL — Rent your car from a U.S. office before departure, because major rental companies charge more for rentals made within Europe. All major car rental agencies (e.g., Hertz, Avis, National, etc.) operate in France, so you can comparison shop before renting. All have agencies at major points of entry, but if you start your rental at an out-of-the-way place like Nimes, not all companies will be available.

If there are only two of you, get the smallest car available because 1) the highways are excellent, but in some small villages there are narrow streets; 2) parking is easier, and 3) gas is expensive (in March ’05 it was €1.13 per liter, equivalent to about $5.75 a gallon). The smallest cars usually come with manual transmission only; to get an automatic, you may need to rent a slightly larger car.

Of course, if you are four, you will need a larger car. On my last trip to France I used a Peugeot 206 diesel four-door, which worked marvelously well, both on the toll roads (I confess to edging up to over 90 mph before realizing it and slowing down) and on sharply rising mountain roads with hairpin turns.

To rent a car, a U.S. driver’s license is sufficient. Car insurance will vary. I use a Diners Club card, which extends total coverage free, although the card costs $95 a year. When returning the car at an airport, the signs leading to rental agencies are marked “Location,” which in French means “rental.”

AIRPORT ARRIVAL — Your most likely arrival point is Paris’ Charles de Gaulle International Airport, a huge, sprawling airport with three widely separated terminals (it even has two different lots for Hertz).

If you plan to spend time in Paris, the better course is to delay getting a car, which you won’t use in Paris. Instead, take the free bus shuttle to the RER (pronounced “air-uh-air”) station in Roissy (a few minutes away) and take the train to Paris (14 miles away) at a cost of €7.62, or about $10, per person. Keep your ticket, because once in Paris you can transfer to the Métro using the same ticket.

You can pick up your car in Paris when you’re ready to leave. Driving out of Paris is not especially difficult — much easier than London.

BEST ROAD MAP — The Michelin “France Tourist & Motoring Atlas” is unquestionably the most useful. It takes 312 9"x12" pages (about 234 square feet!) to cover France (plus six more pages for Corsica) and includes 75 town plans, with 39,700 place names in the index and a detailed map of the Paris area.

It costs $20 (less by mail order for a 2-year-old version). The book weighs three pounds, so carry it in your checked baggage. It’s a good idea to take another map showing all of France on one page to orient yourself.

ROADS AND SIGNS — The highway system in France is excellent. Of course, mountain roads have hairpin turns, e.g., on the Route Napoleon near Grasse.

Motorways are indicated by blue signs; highways are on green signs, and smaller roads have white signs. There are also “super highways,” which are toll roads; their signs are also blue, but under the direction name it says “péage” (which means “pay”). The cost is about 15 cents a mile, which is worth it in terms of time and gas savings if you are in a hurry.

The speed limit is 130 kilometers per hour (about 81 mph), but cars going 90 mph are common. There are frequent rest stops, ranging from basic ones to elaborate ones with gas stations, restaurants, shops and sometimes even beds. As you approach rest stops, white panels indicate the amenities available.

Roundabouts (rotaries) are common in France (not on motorways), and you must yield to cars already in them. As you approach a roundabout, a sign shows all the exits, but if you are not sure which one to take, you can continue around again.

One caution about directional arrows, particularly at intersections — they tend to be somewhat angled, and sometimes it’s not quite clear which way they point.

HOTELS — When driving through France without a fixed itinerary, you have to find hotels along the way. With the drop of the U.S. dollar (down 30% over the past two years), travelers are understandably concerned about hotel costs. You need not be.

There are chains of super-efficient motels which are very reasonably priced. For example, B&B Hotels (read “motels”) cost between €33 and €48 ($45-$65) a night for two persons, and there are over 115 of them, usually on the outskirts of cities.

With this chain, don’t expect room service! You get a clean, comfortable bed, a modern bathroom with shower, TV, telephone and Internet connections, a desk and free parking. Breakfast is the only meal available; at about $7.50, it’s “all you can eat” and includes eggs. For four people, the room has a loft with another bed for about 20% more.

Most of their B&Bs are air-conditioned and have accommodations for the handicapped. You can find these B&Bs on the net at www.hotelbb.com or, from the U.S., you can phone B&B Hotel at 011-33-172-36-51-06. (The parent company is Golden Tulip in Amersfoort, Netherlands.) Pick up a directory at your first B&B. They accept Visa and American Express credit cards.

There are several such chains. For example, Hotel Premiére Classe (visit www.premiereclasse.fr) has 215 motels with similar prices; they accept Diners Club, Visa and American Express. Formule 1
(www.hotelformule1.com) is a similar chain. Campanile — a sister to Premiére Classe — is a more upscale chain with nice restaurants in over 400 hotels plus full services; it is more expensive but reasonable ($60-$80).

Finally, another group of hotels called Logis de France (www.logis-de-france.fr) consists of 3,000 hotel-restaurants throughout France, reasonably priced with full services. Get a free directory, with a good map of France, at your first stay.

“Classic” hotels in France, such as the Negresco in Nice, can be extremely expensive. Even a Marriott Courtyard (reasonably priced in the U.S.) can be expensive — at de Gaulle the Marriott Courtyard’s cheapest room was €250 ($325), whereas B&B was €46 ($60).

One word of warning — don’t try to find hotel rooms in France in August! This is the peak tourist season, with a huge number of French taking the month off. However, Paris itself is not crowded then because so many of its residents are off to the Riviera!

RESTAURANTS — There are no poor meals in France. By law, restaurants must post a “prix fixe” menu and price outside, which includes a choice of hors d’oeuvre, main course and dessert (but not coffee). Some restaurants post as many as three different menus at different prices, so you can “window-shop.”

Keep in mind that the price includes taxes and gratuity (although you can leave some loose change on the table), which together in the U.S. add at least 25% to the price of the meal. In general, meals turn out to be somewhat cheaper than in the U.S.

CONCLUSION — You go to France to have a great time. . . so get going!

VINCENT JOLIVET
Kenmore, WA

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

For a first-time visitor to France, a tour may be the best bet. A single traveler will do well with a railpass, but for two or more persons who want to explore France more thoroughly, a car is best.

CAR RENTAL — Rent your car from a U.S. office before departure, because major rental companies charge more for rentals made within Europe. All major car rental agencies (e.g., Hertz, Avis, National, etc.) operate in France, so you can comparison shop before renting. All have agencies at major points of entry, but if you start your rental at an out-of-the-way place like Nimes, not all companies will be available.

If there are only two of you, get the smallest car available because 1) the highways are excellent, but in some small villages there are narrow streets; 2) parking is easier, and 3) gas is expensive (in March ’05 it was €1.13 per liter, equivalent to about $5.75 a gallon). The smallest cars usually come with manual transmission only; to get an automatic, you may need to rent a slightly larger car.

Of course, if you are four, you will need a larger car. On my last trip to France I used a Peugeot 206 diesel four-door, which worked marvelously well, both on the toll roads (I confess to edging up to over 90 mph before realizing it and slowing down) and on sharply rising mountain roads with hairpin turns.

To rent a car, a U.S. driver’s license is sufficient. Car insurance will vary. I use a Diners Club card, which extends total coverage free, although the card costs $95 a year. When returning the car at an airport, the signs leading to rental agencies are marked “Location,” which in French means “rental.”

AIRPORT ARRIVAL — Your most likely arrival point is Paris’ Charles de Gaulle International Airport, a huge, sprawling airport with three widely separated terminals (it even has two different lots for Hertz).

If you plan to spend time in Paris, the better course is to delay getting a car, which you won’t use in Paris. Instead, take the free bus shuttle to the RER (pronounced “air-uh-air”) station in Roissy (a few minutes away) and take the train to Paris (14 miles away) at a cost of €7.62, or about $10, per person. Keep your ticket, because once in Paris you can transfer to the Métro using the same ticket.

You can pick up your car in Paris when you’re ready to leave. Driving out of Paris is not especially difficult — much easier than London.

BEST ROAD MAP — The Michelin “France Tourist & Motoring Atlas” is unquestionably the most useful. It takes 312 9"x12" pages (about 234 square feet!) to cover France (plus six more pages for Corsica) and includes 75 town plans, with 39,700 place names in the index and a detailed map of the Paris area.

It costs $20 (less by mail order for a 2-year-old version). The book weighs three pounds, so carry it in your checked baggage. It’s a good idea to take another map showing all of France on one page to orient yourself.

ROADS AND SIGNS — The highway system in France is excellent. Of course, mountain roads have hairpin turns, e.g., on the Route Napoleon near Grasse.

Motorways are indicated by blue signs; highways are on green signs, and smaller roads have white signs. There are also “super highways,” which are toll roads; their signs are also blue, but under the direction name it says “péage” (which means “pay”). The cost is about 15 cents a mile, which is worth it in terms of time and gas savings if you are in a hurry.

The speed limit is 130 kilometers per hour (about 81 mph), but cars going 90 mph are common. There are frequent rest stops, ranging from basic ones to elaborate ones with gas stations, restaurants, shops and sometimes even beds. As you approach rest stops, white panels indicate the amenities available.

Roundabouts (rotaries) are common in France (not on motorways), and you must yield to cars already in them. As you approach a roundabout, a sign shows all the exits, but if you are not sure which one to take, you can continue around again.

One caution about directional arrows, particularly at intersections — they tend to be somewhat angled, and sometimes it’s not quite clear which way they point.

HOTELS — When driving through France without a fixed itinerary, you have to find hotels along the way. With the drop of the U.S. dollar (down 30% over the past two years), travelers are understandably concerned about hotel costs. You need not be.

There are chains of super-efficient motels which are very reasonably priced. For example, B&B Hotels (read “motels”) cost between €33 and €48 ($45-$65) a night for two persons, and there are over 115 of them, usually on the outskirts of cities.

With this chain, don’t expect room service! You get a clean, comfortable bed, a modern bathroom with shower, TV, telephone and Internet connections, a desk and free parking. Breakfast is the only meal available; at about $7.50, it’s “all you can eat” and includes eggs. For four people, the room has a loft with another bed for about 20% more.

Most of their B&Bs are air-conditioned and have accommodations for the handicapped. You can find these B&Bs on the net at www.hotelbb.com or, from the U.S., you can phone B&B Hotel at 011-33-172-36-51-06. (The parent company is Golden Tulip in Amersfoort, Netherlands.) Pick up a directory at your first B&B. They accept Visa and American Express credit cards.

There are several such chains. For example, Hotel Premiére Classe (visit www.premiereclasse.fr) has 215 motels with similar prices; they accept Diners Club, Visa and American Express. Formule 1
(www.hotelformule1.com) is a similar chain. Campanile — a sister to Premiére Classe — is a more upscale chain with nice restaurants in over 400 hotels plus full services; it is more expensive but reasonable ($60-$80).

Finally, another group of hotels called Logis de France (www.logis-de-france.fr) consists of 3,000 hotel-restaurants throughout France, reasonably priced with full services. Get a free directory, with a good map of France, at your first stay.

“Classic” hotels in France, such as the Negresco in Nice, can be extremely expensive. Even a Marriott Courtyard (reasonably priced in the U.S.) can be expensive — at de Gaulle the Marriott Courtyard’s cheapest room was €250 ($325), whereas B&B was €46 ($60).

One word of warning — don’t try to find hotel rooms in France in August! This is the peak tourist season, with a huge number of French taking the month off. However, Paris itself is not crowded then because so many of its residents are off to the Riviera!

RESTAURANTS — There are no poor meals in France. By law, restaurants must post a “prix fixe” menu and price outside, which includes a choice of hors d’oeuvre, main course and dessert (but not coffee). Some restaurants post as many as three different menus at different prices, so you can “window-shop.”

Keep in mind that the price includes taxes and gratuity (although you can leave some loose change on the table), which together in the U.S. add at least 25% to the price of the meal. In general, meals turn out to be somewhat cheaper than in the U.S.

CONCLUSION — You go to France to have a great time. . . so get going!

VINCENT JOLIVET
Kenmore, WA