On my recent trip to France, I had initially planned to just take the train around the country and relax as the scenery went by, but like any good trip, there were of course surprises. Being the good little planner I was, I had already booked my train tickets ahead of time and felt confident and relaxed about my upcoming journey.
…Then they announced the transit strike.
When a transit strike is announced for a day that you’re supposed to be traveling halfway across a country by train, it kind of throws a wrench in your plans. It’s actually a good thing I’m diligent and follow the news that’s happening in the places I’m about to travel to, because otherwise I might not have known about this wrench in my plans and would have shown up and been quite surprised, indeed.
So, I got in contact with the train company and canceled my tickets. When the refund was issued, I used that money to do something I had hoped I wouldn’t have to do…I rented a car in France.
Of course, at this point I’m now on the hook for a car in another country so I set off reading up on the French rules of the road. I was happy to learn that, thankfully, this North American driver was in for roughly similar rules of the road and generally easy driving. Still, there are a few things I found helpful to know ahead of time, and a few things I learned along the way, so I wanted to write up this post for all of you who might be heading to France and hitting the open road. So, without further adieu, here are the things you should know if you’re planning on driving in France…
You should probably get an international driving permit.
Opinions online will vary wildly from “you don’t need it” to “it’s absolutely necessary”, but I found that, while I didn’t end up using it while I was there, I’m glad I had it. I’ll explain. An International Driving Permit, for those of you who don’t know, is a document that you carry along with your driver’s license, that translates the license into many languages and allows you to drive in a lot of different countries around the world. It’s good for a year from the date issued, and can easily be picked up at any AAA location for $20 if you’re in the U.S. If you’re not in the U.S., check online to see what local places you can get yours at as it varies from country to country. Some people online said that they found the permit necessary for renting a car at all, but when I showed the permit to the lady at the car rental counter in Paris, she told me it wasn’t necessary for renting the car, but if we did get pulled over by the police, they would want to see it. We didn’t end up getting pulled over by the police at all, so I can’t say what they might have done, but it did give me the peace of mind that we had the documentation that is recommended just in case the police did happen to pull us over. So, I say get it. It’s not that hard to get and it will give you peace of mind if nothing else. Plus, it’s a cool scrapbook souvenir for your trip album…or is that just me?
Be prepared to pay expensive tolls…with cash.
If you’re European, you can disregard this section. Many highways in France are toll roads, and the price of the tolls really depends on which road you’re on and how far you’re going. The toll booths on the road have different lanes you can drive into. Some of the lanes are only for people who have the transponder (sort of like the FasTrak transponder you might have if you’re a Southern California commuter). There are also lanes that accept credit cards, but beware, especially if you’re from the U.S. (possibly other countries too…but I’m not sure)…our credit cards DID NOT WORK in the credit card machine. It just read it and said there was an error. I think it might be because the U.S. is behind on the whole chip and pin thing the rest of the world seems to be on board with. We have the chips, but not the pin for some reason. Anyway, the card didn’t work in the machine. Thankfully, I had thought of this ahead of time and we had gone into a credit card OR cash line, and we were able to pay our tolls in cash. Some lanes are only cash as well. Prepare ahead of time and bring a lot of cash with you for the long road journeys to make sure you don’t get stuck anywhere. Also note that the €50 notes are too big to be accepted in the machine, so try to have smaller bills and change. That’s not easy when the stupid ATM kept doling out €50 notes at me, but I found ways to break those bills before the long drives.
When you’re going through the toll booths and you want to pay cash, look for a lane with a green downward arrow. Sometimes also you’ll see a picture of money as the icon, but not always.
How the toll booths work
When you go through a toll booth, you’ll first grab a ticket on your way in. Make sure to follow the proper cash booths then as well. Then, you’ll drive on the road. When you reach another toll booth, you’ll insert your ticket and it will tell you how much your toll is. Again, this will depend on how far you went, so tolls will vary based on distance traveled. You then pay the toll and it lets you through. Pretty easy process, but make sure you’re in the proper lane and you have lots of cash handy!
Other booths we encountered simply had a toll machine every so often on the road, and you pay as you encounter them. It varied from road to road. But either way, be prepared!
The rules of the road
For the most part, driving in France is pretty easy, actually, but there are a few rules of the road you should know that differ from our road rules here in the U.S.
Priorité à droite
This is one of the main rules of the road in France you should be aware of. Quite, simply, you need to give people on the road the priority when they are to your right. This goes for meeting at a stop sign, merging onto the highway, changing lanes, etc. Also, if you’re on the highway, be aware that the left lane is really just for passing only. I know that technically, here in the U.S. the left lane is also for passing. But in France, they seemed to take that rule more seriously. If you’re driving along a highway, keep to the right until you need to pass somebody. Then merge to the left and stay in that lane until you’ve passed whoever you want to pass, then move back over. I was actually surprised at how diligently people followed this rule in France. While here it’s more of a suggestion, there it really was followed by 99.9% of people I saw on the road. And if somebody is coming up behind you, definitely move over as soon as you’re able to if you’re in the left lane.
The traffic lights are a little bit different
The traffic lights, in many ways, are the same as they are in the United States, with one small exception that you should be aware of. Here (in the U.S.), when you stop at a light, there is usually a light across the street or farther away from you, and you stop behind the white line that delineates the start of the intersection. In France, the traffic lights are usually along the right side of the road and you will stop right next to the light itself. Not a huge difference: red still means stop, green still means go, it’s just that you’ll stop at a slightly different spot than you would at home so it’s good to be aware of that going into it.
Watch out for the speed trap cameras while you’re out and about, especially on major highways. We saw a few as we drove around the country. As long as you keep going the speed limit, you’ll be fine. If you do decide to speed, note that usually there was a warning sign before a speed camera, so if you do happen to speed while you’re in France, you’ll be warned that a speed camera is coming! It it catches you, it will issue a ticket. Since you’re in a rental car, the rental car company will get the fine and, of course, will pass it on to you. Best to avoid it and just follow the rules of the road.
French road signs
One last thing, I wanted to give you this link for French Road Signs. Make sure to review it so you know what the various signs mean prior to getting on the road. Most of them are pretty easy and self-explanatory, but still…best to know before you’re on the road.
Have you driven in France? Any rules of the road or things you think people should be aware of that I didn’t mention here? Leave a comment!