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Driving in France in a hired car - facts about French car hire

Compare car hire prices in  France

France is a great country to drive in as a visitor from abroad.

The signage on the roads is extensive and good. You can really sense when driving in France that there is a lot of attention to detail when new roads are laid - and there are plenty of them in France.

A good example of this is the E60 which is the new motorway running from east to west, where they have created junctions that will lead to motorway bridges, even though the bridges are yet to be built.

When driving in France there are constant reminders of distances to destinations, junctions as well as advise on road conditions which you may need to take into consideration when driving. The signs are usually large and easily read.

The French have however not seen any reason to translate many signs over to English (example of this are toll booths on motorways) as everyone is expected to speak French.

Things usually work out just fine if you exercise common sense and a little bit of patience. It is a good idea to carry a credit card when driving in France due to the many toll roads which will require payment at regular intervals.

Traffic in France
The traffic culture in France is more ‘northern European’ than for example Spain, Italy and Portugal. The French do however still practice tailgating – driving very close to the rear bumper of the vehicle in front, often resulting in terrible accidents although the damage is usually only material. It is therefore best to be mindful not to suddenly hit the brakes too hard without checking the rear view mirror first.

French drivers are a lot less expressive and not as keen on the horn as drivers are in the other Mediterranean countries, and they often give you space in traffic and move carefully to the right.

Paris and other very large French cities such as Lyon and Marseille are a whole chapter for themselves. Unless you have got a very good reason to drive in to France’s fabulous capitol city, it is under no circumstances advisable to bring a car to Paris and the surrounding suburbs when driving in France. You are more likely than not to spend countless hours stuck in a queue. You are likely to have more success, providing you are coming from the north and travelling to the south of France, using the A26/E17 via Reims and Troyes to Dijon.

You will always risk encountering queues on the French motorways from the beginning of July to the end of August, particularly around Bordeaux.

Read more about the road conditions on French motorways on Bison Futé
(in English)

Route planning when hiring a car in France
After receiving the hire car at the airport, the trip usually goes straight to the holiday destination. The shortest route is usually the best, particularly if you are unfamiliar with the area. In France this almost always means the motorway.

If you are driving long distances in France or even through the whole country and have got plenty of time and wish to save some money it can be beneficial to take an alternative route rather than following what the navigation system recommends in the first instance.

The reason for this is the widespread French phenomenon - toll roads.

Toll roads in France – Peagé
It is expensive to drive on the French motorways.

A 100km (62 miles) stretch of motorway can easily cost around €0.80 per 10 kilometres on the most expensive routes or €8 for every 100km driven (prices June 2010).

It may not sound too bad, but a trip through France from the Belgian/Dutch border to the border between France and Spain can easily run a total of €100-€140 for motorway charges only. To put it into perspective, this is the same as you might use on petrol on the trip if driving a normal, fuel efficient car.

To give an example, the stretch of motorway between Bayonne (Virsac) on the A10 to Niort Oest in June 2010 cost €17.50 to drive. This northbound stretch of motorway is 135 miles long from one toll booth to the other in the south west of France. The local carriageway D137/D150 runs parallel with the A10 in the south west of France and is completely free to use.

The French motorways are very good, but even in France these need repairing and maintaining from time to time. The price for using them however remains the same even if all lanes but one are closed.

Save money in a hire car in France – avoid driving on the French motorways
Saving money demands that you either have got plenty of time or drive long distances at night.

The high charge for driving on the French motorways has resulted in many French drivers avoiding them all together. As a result of this the rush hour traffic on the large dual carriageways can be a nightmare. You can avoid the rush hour traffic by driving between approximately 9.30 am and 5.00 pm.

Dual carriageways in France seem to have been created on the principle that they must run through all towns and cities, regardless of their size, and this can slow you down considerably on your travels (unless travelling at night).

To sum it up: As a rule of thumb driving on a dual carriageway in France will take 2-3 times as long as utilising the motorway. Driving on the dual carriageway is however free as opposed the incredibly expensive French motorways.

You access the dual carriageways by following the green signs, whereas the motorways are usually indicated with blue signs and the word “peagé”.

If there are both green and blue signs you will in most cases have a chance to exit the motorway before the “peagé" toll road (blue route) commences. Sometimes you just need to follow the "Toutes Directions" or "Autres Directions" signs.

If you see a sign with the subtitle ‘Rappel’ it usually means that whatever the sign is indicating continues beyond it, for example a speed limit.

Save money in France – avoid expensive motorway petrol stations (L’autoroutes)
It is often expensive to purchase petrol by the motorway in France.

Petrol stations called E. Leclerc with a white/blue/orange logo sell petrol at a particularly high price (June 2010) but on the flip side it is worth mentioning that E. Leclerc have got the best stocked shops selling fresh produce of great French quality (the Germans could learn a few things from them in this respect) and they often offer free wifi if you have brought your wireless device.

This is why you may experience a strange sight in France – the E. Leclerc shop full of Frenchmen but just a couple of foreign registered vehicles by the pumps.

To provide an example: In June 2010 the price for unleaded petrol in France was between €1.28 and €1.42 per litre. E. Leclerc were selling it at over €1.50 per litre.

It is worth taking notice that many local (cheap) petrol station close for 2 hours at mid day and are often closed in the evening and on Sundays. Not all petrol stations accept credit cards.

Don’t place all your trust in the navigation system. Information regarding petrol stations depends on the producer of the navigation system receiving correct and up to date information on the location of petrol stations from the companies themselves, and this is far from being the case in all instances. Many of the petrol stations on your satellite navigation system have been closed down for good.

Diesel is often called gazole, gasoil or gas-oil in France and is still 10-20% cheaper than petrol. It can therefore be advisable to book a diesel hire car if you are planning on travelling long distances in France.

French speed limits – watch out for camera traps when hiring a car in France
Road safety has greatly improved in France over the past 10 years.

One of the main reasons for this improvement in safety is the widespread implementation of roundabouts. Another reason is the introduction of speed camera ‘traps’ on motorways and dual carriageways. The first one was installed in 2004 but now there is an abundance of them.

Driving at around 125 mph on the almost empty French motorways was not an unusual occurrence in the 90’s. This is no longer the case. The fastest of the ‘everyday-drivers’ may drive between 80 and 85 mph where the speed limit is 75-80.

The camera traps should be taken seriously when driving in a hire car in France, and if you are not used to driving in France you will almost certainly get ‘blitzed’ at some point as even the slightest disregard to the speed limit will trigger the cameras.

When driving a vehicle registered in the UK it is unlikely that the fine will ever reach the British owner.

Matters are different when hiring a vehicle in France. Fines will be charged to your credit card by the hire company. It is therefore important to keep a good eye out for the below sign:

France speed cameras

This sign in France indicates that there is a speed camera ahead. The sign is large, gray and white (no reflectors) and can therefore be difficult to spot in the dark. They are usually on the right hand side of the road.

The camera itself (gray box) is usually at the side of the road to the left or right, 0.5-2 miles in front of the sign and as they are positioned at a similar height to most cars’ headlights they are almost impossible to spot in time.

It is of course always best to respect the speed limit at all times. This can however prove rather difficult at first when driving in France as the speed limit is quite a lot lower on certain types of road than what you may be used to. It is also worth mentioning that the speed limit changes frequently in France (as indicated by signage)

The general speed limit in France is as follows:

  • Cities: 30 mph
  • A – road equivalent: 55 mph
  • Dual carriageway: 70 mph
  • Motorway: 80 mph

The speed limit applies to cars with or without trailers weighing under 3500 kilograms as well as motorbikes.

Car hire information – Speed limit in France when it is raining
Certain parts of sunny France receive quite a lot of rain.

When driving in rainy conditions, the following speed limits apply:

  • Cities: 30 mph
  • A – road equivalent: 50 mph
  • Dual carriageway: 60 mph
  • Motorway: 70 mph

IMPORTANT: When driving in fog or very heavy rain (visibility less than 55 yards) the speed limit drops to 30 mph on all roads – also motorways.

In France, as it is in many countries in Europe, you must carry at least one high visibility vest in the car, and it mustn’t be in the boot. In principle, anyone stepping out of the car at the side of the road should be wearing a high visibility vest.

A hire car in France will of course be equipped with a high visibility vest. Not carrying a high visibility vest in the car will result in a fine of €130.

Overnight stays when driving in France
You must not drive a car unless you are well rested. Fortunately there any many, rather inexpensive hotels in France to choose from such as Ibis and the even less expensive Etap. Note that there may not be any staff available at the Etap at night.

It is possible to book a room on the internet and gain access to the hotel using a code received by e-mail at the most modern budget hotels in France.

There are many areas in France where it is not advisable to leave your car parked on the street overnight. It is therefore a good idea to avoid ruining the holiday by booking a hotel where the vehicle can be parked in a secure car park.

This applies even more so if you drive to France in a vehicle with foreign number plates.

Most Ibis and Etap hotels have got a secure car park and it is often free of charge to park there.

Priorité a Droite – right of way to the right in France
You may come across the following signs in France:

France road signs

The sign with the ‘x’ in the middle as well as the yellow sign with the black line running though it indicate that the right of way is to the right – ie who ever comes from the right hand side has got the right of way, regardless of whether there are lines on the road surface indicating this, or even if entering a main road from a side road.

This unusual rule is in the process of being eradicated.

Many Frenchmen and women are also unfamiliar with this rule and it is therefore best to take it with relative ease when travelling in areas marked with these signs (usually narrow streets in Paris or small villages out in the countryside).

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Driving in France in a hired car - facts about French car hire
Article: Driving in France in a hired car - facts about French car hire
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Published: Thursday, September 22 2011
Latest revision: Thursday, November 17 2011

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