Driving in France

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Man and wife are planning a driving tour through France , Fall 2013. Any information from readers with recent past experiences will be appreciated.

Just home a few days now, and travel to Paris frequently, leading tours. This time it was purely recreation and research, traveling by train and car. There were four American ladies total, and we had just spent a week in Paris in a lovely apartment. So my first suggestion, is pack LIGHT.

We took two separate car trips, taking the TGV, to and from Paris, to a destination, then renting a car.

First, due to lack of mobility with our suitcases, (we each had a carry on and full sized bag), we hired a driver to take us to the train station (20E). Therefore missing the pleasure of hauling suitcases through the metro stations to get from near the Palais Royale to Gare Montparnasse.

Our first car trip was to Brittany, where we visited Carnac and Mont St. Michel. We traveled to Rennes on the train, where we picked up our first car, a small SUV type thing called an Opal Zafira. It barely had enough room for the luggage, but we managed to stuff it all in. There are no toll roads in Brittany, which is a plus. Remember most highways aren't really highways at all, but just roads going from one town to the next, with a roundabout in each town or village. This really slows down travel, but it's also a beautiful way to see the countryside.

Another downside, was EuropCar, which I had rented both cars from. Even though I paid for the rental in full, there was still a hold on 800E on my credit card for not taking their full insurance (not noted on my printed agreement nor do I remember reading it online). I did buy the most inexpensive package of about 50E. I also wanted to switch this 'hold' of the money onto a credit card, instead my debit card, but she was unable to 'un-process' it and put it on a different card. I chose Europcar on what seemed like lower rates and on the basis of free mileage. I don't believe anyone else offered free mileage. You need to remember to return the tank full, and of course, we get to town and train station, and have to travel back to the outskirts to fill up the tank.

When we returned to Paris, we walked to our hotel with bags, which was fine for me, but did have a few complaints from the others. We made arrangements again for the driver to pick us and our bags up the next morning, as we didn't realize our next train trip was from a completely different train station, Gare de Lyon, as we were heading to Lyon.

Being on the train is great, but like I said, four American ladies with suitcases. It doesn't seem like the French really travel by TGV. They might use it to get from one place to another, but we were basically the only ones with ever expanding suitcases. So we had a plan of attack, two ladies handled the carry ons, and the two stronger ones took care of the big luggage. (Also, printing out the tickets on the American computer cut off the seat numbers, but with the aide of the ACCUEIL attendant, figured out how to use the kiosk (you can set it to English) and print out the boarding passes. Because there were four of us, it sat us together at a table seat each time. Your seat number is a must, because both times there were people spread out in these cozier sections, but we had them reserved and they had to find another seat.

Now in Lyon, I had ordered a big car again, which turned out to be a beautiful black Mercedes, a 'large' car in France. Unfortunately, we had suitcases. I went back into the EuropCar and asked if we could upgrade to a larger car, but there was no way as this was the one we had ordered. This car was not paid for in advance. My credit card hold penalty for not taking their insurance was 1800E, which this time I held on a credit card that I did not intend to use. (The previous hold did not interfere with any purchases, but I wanted to be safe cash-wise.) We would be attending a music festival for 5 days, so we opted to fill up the car and put the extra suitcases on the non-drivers' laps, figuring we wouldn't have to travel with the suitcases. Fortunately the backs of the backseat folded down, so one passenger side was put down, with two suitcases, large and small, stacked on top of it. Two women squeezed in the back and another suitcase was put on their laps, with the third passenger having a carry on on hers. Highlight of this car, was the GPS. It took us a while to figure it out as the configurations were exactly jumping out at us for what to do.

To set it, you hit Navi, but for the longest time we couldn't find the control knob, which ended up being on the console next to the drivers' side. From there we change it into English, and coded in all our destinations. The car was a pleasure to drive, but it had a weird feature of actually turning off the motor when you would come to a complete stop, and then turning itself back on when you took your foot of the brake. We found that this was the ECO button, and it would turn itself on when the car started. In hindsight, the car did really well on gas, but it was scary and inconvenient when you were slowing down for a roundabout and would take a few seconds for it to engage the engine. Upon returning the car, I was informed they would put the charge on that credit card. I said I would like to pay for it with the debit card, but that would have entailed going out to the lot to check the car. Of course the lot was not close to the train and we had a train to catch in the next 20-30 minutes, so I said no.

For some reason, both of the car rental ladies seemed to enjoy doling out inconveniences, with the second lady actually laughing at us, saying we would have to figure it out, meaning how to get the suitcases in the car.

In this part of France there were toll roads, which probably cost us about $20 from Lyon to Bourg en Bresse, where we stayed, and back, with site-seeing included. Remember to have change for these, and that American credit cards do not work in the machines. I always take my Michelin Road Guide book when I travel, and it was actually more helpful than the GPS, if you want to avoid the toll roads, as there always alternate routes, and France is so beautiful to just drive through. Also, maneuvering the roundabouts means that you know what 'direction' you're going in terms of 'cities'. So, for us in the first journey, we left Rennes, direction Lorient and Vannes, the places you need to get to before you get the next 'direction' Carnac.

Even though I've been to Paris about ten times, this is only the fourth (fifth, if you include a driving in Paris fiasco - WARNING, avoid driving in Paris), but I know one time, a friend and I did a self-drive tour at a different b-n-b every night, and that really wasted a lot of time. We would barely spend a few hours in a city, then onto to the toll roads which don't necessarily let you off where you need to get off, and then finding our way in the pitch black to someone's home.

I wish you wonderful travels, and truly, get the giant map book, once I found myself on the Gorge of Galamus, and that was scary because my luggage hadn't shown up but my adventurous side had. Also, please make sure you know enough French to get by as the further you get away from Paris, the less people speak English. In Carnac, no one we crossed spoke English at all.

Thanks you for reply. It is very informative, especially the rental car information. Jerry

My husband, stepson and I did a driving tour a few years ago. We went from Paris to Normandy to the Loire Valley then Beaune and finally the Alps, and we only got lost once. That wasn't due to our exceptional navigational skills but to how well French roads are marked. Basically, you start out on an autoroute (freeways designated with a number such as A-1) and after you exit towards your designated town, you follow signs to "Centreville". When you get into the town, there are directional signs for most hotels & sites. Secondary roads, such as "N" routes, are well-marked as well and often take you through some beautiful countryside.

A few observations:

1. Don't attempt to drive in Paris. What we did was spend a few days in Paris & then picked up the car on the outskirts in the direction we were heading. We used EuroCar & had good prices & service with them.
2. Make sure you know what kind of fuel your car uses, most likely diesel. At gas stations, you're supposed to put on a protective glove when you pump. (Not everyone does.) Look for a dispenser of plastic gloves near the pump or ask the attendant.
3. There are modern facilities on the autoroutes. However, the rest area on secondary roads might include a path up into the woods to relieve yourselves. Make sure you have tissues or toilet paper.
4. It's a joy to use freeways all over Europe. Drivers always stay in the right except to pass, and traffic usually moves right along.
5. Make sure your car is locked at all times & don't rent a hatchback if you have the option. Suitcases, cameras, etc. visible through the windows are very tempting for thieves.
6. Before you leave a town in the morning, stop in at a local store & buy a baguette, some cheese, or other components for lunch. The secondary roads have scenic areas with picnic tables perfect for an inexpensive lunch.
7. Invest in some good, detailed maps. We had Michelin maps for every area we visited.
8. I agree with the other person who responded. Learn a little French. English is spoken at most places tourists visit but not always in places like the gas station. People always appreciate when you try to speak their language & are more willing to help.

I hope this was helpful. Enjoy your trip.

Thank you for your tips on driving in France.