Driving in France: Overview and Tips
A year-and-a-half ago, my husband and I took a two week road trip in France. (Spoiler alert: we LOVED it!! Breakdown of our itinerary coming in a future post. . .) But I have to admit, I was initially a little nervous about driving in France. Ok, a lotta nervous. Mostly about accidentally breaking the law and having to deal with a ticket being mailed to me, or, even worse, an actual police offer. I did lots of research and listened to several podcasts, and felt pretty prepared before we left, but I thought I’d jot down some thoughts and tips I found particularly helpful on our road trip. (I will cover the rental car process in another post. This is just rules of the road.) Join Us In France has numerous podcasts and an entire page dedicated to the subject — it is an absolutely invaluable resource!
Easy to Drive
First off, driving in France was much more intuitive than I had anticipated, and something I would do again in a heartbeat! My normally intrepid husband initially refused to even entertain the idea of him doing any of the driving (because he understands no French at all. I speak some.), but after a couple days there he said that he would have felt comfortable driving, too. If you don’t read any French, don’t worry; the roads in France are quite navigable, especially once you know what the signs mean. (And also once you figure out which signs are important. The French seem to love them some road signs, often to a fault. I mean, I really don’t think you need to be told not to make a left turn as you’re merging onto an autoroute. . . Do you??!) So don’t let the multitude of advice here and elsewhere scare you off. It was much easier than I anticipated.
Should You Drive?
Do you need to have a car to get around much of France? Definitely not! France has an excellent train system that goes quickly and easily between all major cities. In fact, if you’re mostly visiting cities, you don’t want the hassle of a car at all, and should rely on public transport. (For the love of all that is sane, don’t drive in Paris!!) As much fun as it was to take a road trip, a car is only necessary to get to more out-of-the-way-places, usually rural sites.
The one thing about traffic lights in France that occasionally threw me off a little as I drove, was that it was not uncommon for them to be off on the side of the road (instead of hanging above the road). Sometimes they were hanging up, but keep an eye out for signals on what is essentially the sidewalk! Other than that, traffic lights in France are pretty much the same as in the US, and self-explanatory (if you’d like a more thorough treatment of the subject, Americans in France does that in their post on traffic lights.) To the best of my knowledge, turning right on red is NOT allowed. If any sort of turn is allowed it will be marked with either a green arrow (you have right of way turning right), or a yellow/amber arrow (you may turn, but you don’t have right of way–yield to pedestrians/bikes/other traffic).
In my opinion, most of the road signs are self-explanatory. However, several of the signs you see frequently aren’t intuitive, so do research common French road signs before you go. (Again, start with Join Us in France, but their page isn’t comprehensive. See Wikipedia’s page for a comprehensive list. I recommend saving the Wikipedia page as a screenshot to your navigator’s phone to reference quickly. More on your navigator in a minute. . .) To me, there were just a few non-intuitive signs when driving that I had to watch out for. The first is that sometimes you must yield to vehicles merging from the right. This is a yield sign with CÉDEZ LE PASSAGE (literally, “yield passage”) written beneath. This yield-to-the-right situation came up much less frequently than I was concerned it would, but it’s definitely a good one to know.
A blue circle with a red border and line through it means “no parking”. A circle bordered in red mean “no cars”. (I seem to recall my poor husband having to frantically look up both of those.)
The last very important thing to watch for are village signs –the name of the village/town in on a rectangular sign. The speed limit immediately, automatically drops to usually 50 KPH and will not be marked — the village sign is your only cue to slow down!! Then when you exit the village/town, you’ll see the same rectangular sign, this time with a strike through the name.
This means the speed limit has returned to its previous, higher limit. Again, usually no speed limit sign, you just have to know. (I found my sign image on this blog, which has other helpful tips too!)My GPS did warn me of these drops in speed with frantic dings, which was helpful, but you should still be aware of it. Because. . .
There is No Leeway on Speed Limits
What speed limit is posted (or not posted!) is exactly what you should be doing; there’s no five-over-is-close-enough fudging, and you can’t slow down after you reach the speed limit/village sign either. When you reach the sign you should be going whatever speed is posted/expected! And don’t think because you don’t see an official of the law that you’re safe; there are all sorts of speed cameras around, and your rental company will indeed forward any tickets that get sent to them. (Thankfully, I don’t speak from personal experience. But it made me paranoid.) Speed limit signs are much scarcer in France than they are in the US; there are standard speed limits for different types of roads. The speed limits are listed and described at this helpful page.
Bring a GPS or have a phone with lots of data to use. (I considered just using paper maps, but that would have been a terrible idea! Yes, I was nuts.) We personally found that sometimes our GPS directed us to a particular site a different way than was marked by the official signs to the site (e.g., a sign pointing the way to Chenonceau), and we found that the official road signs got us there faster and more directly. Judicious ignoring of the GPS may sometimes be in order. Signs and GPS notwithstanding, still be prepared to get a little lost sometimes; this is where an “enjoy the journey” mentality keeps it fun. 😉 But definitely have some sort of electronic navigation. However . . . (!!!)
Absolutely no cell phone use is allowed behind the wheel. None.
Fairly recently France moved from no-use-of cell-phones-while driving to no use in the car whatsoever. In addition, you are expected to drive safely and in control of your car at all times, and officers of the law have leeway to give you a ticket if you’re driving distracted for any reason. If you need to fix your GPS, park your car. If you need to look up a random street sign, park the car. Pulling over to the side of the road doesn’t count. In light of this, I highly suggest you having a second adult in the front seat to be your navigator/reference driver! Sometimes you need some help driving in a strange place (or deciphering a strange sign) and there won’t always be a convenient place to park.
Roundabouts are commonly encountered, much more often than in most of the US. Personally, I love them. If it’s a two-lane roundabout, the inner lane is just for going around (and around if needed), and the outer lane is for merging and exiting. Don’t try to exit from the inner lane! The French enter and leave them fearlessly, so drive alertly, and equally fearlessly. Rick Steves covers them briefly here, and you can find an even better explanation (with a diagram!) over here.
If you’re driving in France for any sort of a long distance, you will likely encounter a toll road, (péage). This is because the long stretches of freeway are actually privately maintained, and the tolls fund that maintenance. Bring cash to pay for it (remember: cash is king in France!). I think we did pay for some tolls with our credit card occasionally, but have cash to be safe. . . Look for lanes that have money on the signs to see where you can pay with cash (rather than use a tag). I don’t recall the tolls plazas being tricky to navigate; they seemed like the ones in the US.
Once you’re on a toll road, you often can’t get off for many long stretches of time. But fear not! There are places to stop where you can get gas and food and stretch your legs. There were usually places to picnic too (and many picnickers); think of the stops as more like rest areas than gas stations. The French take even their road trips more on the leisurely side. . . after reading an amusing overview of autoroute stores here, I recommend what we did on our road trip — grab a sandwich for lunch when you get your morning pastries!
Parking & Gas
Parking in France is much like it is in any US city; just check the parking signs at the sites I linked above to be sure you’re not parking in a forbidden zone. If it’s paid parking, I found it to be well-marked. Parking spots do tend to be cozy. The nice thing about exploring smaller cities is there is usually lots of free parking. Michael wants me to mention that parallel parking is frequently required (can you tell who hates parallel parking?).
Of course, if you’re driving around, you will need fuel for your car. Overall, gas stations are much like they are in the States. It is not uncommon for even smaller cars to use diesel, which in French is gazole. You will get you best price for gas at supermarkets (supermarchés) like Cora and Carrefour, which have the added advantage of more extended hours. If you’re out in the country, gas stations will close down for the weekend and holidays (you can still find automated ones to use, but they’re not always obvious!). So if you pass a supermarché stop and fill up, and start your weekend with a fueled car. For a little more explanation read these articles here and here.
International Driving Permit
Lastly, it is recommended that you have an International Driving Permit if driving in France (or any foreign country). An IDP is essentially a translation of your valid drivers license. I say it’s “recommended” because I don’t think the car rental company even asked for it! (More on renting a car in another post.) To obtain an IDP, fill out this form and bring it to your local AAA office with $20 and two passport photos. It will be valid for a year. You still need to carry your US drivers license with you in France. Car seat laws are basically the same as in the US.
Whew! Despite all the many things I’ve talked about, like I said, don’t let driving in France scare you — it’s not as hard as it may sound!And so very worth it to explore parts of France that you can only reach by car.
To end on a slightly humorous note, in the event that you do for some reason get pulled over, I was advised that if you do know any French, don’t let the gendarme know that, ha! Be polite, but respond in English. Unless you’re in a big city, chances are that the gendarme won’t speak English and won’t feel like fooling with you. . .apparently the dumb tourist card works sometimes. (But please obey all posted laws. And please eat a croissant for me if you go to France.)