Rent a Car (And Drive!) in France

Bonjour !

If you rent a car in France, and you don’t know what you’re doing, you might end up getting confused.

Maybe you’ll just see an ominous flash while speeding up the highway.
Maybe you’ll find out you’ve been waiting in the wrong line at the toll booth–then have to find a way to drive in reverse between lots of angry drivers.
Maybe you’ll be driving happily on a deserted road…then hear your engine sputter and die.

Today we’ll help you avoid these not-so-fun situations, while driving in France!




Et toi ?

Do you have any personal story about driving in France?
How would you advise a foreigner to drive in your own country?

Bonne journée,

Géraldine

Join the conversation!

  • Bonjour … I do not think that France accepts an international license.

    Also, Americans can drive for one year in France with a valid US license.

    Lastly, if an American is planning on driving in France longer than one year, they must EXCHANGE their US license for a French license (people from 15 of the 50 US states can exchange their license) or APPLY (for the holders of licenses from the other 35 states) for a French license by taking the written and practical test.

  • J’aime Bordeaux très bien, mais le périphérique (ou le Rocade)… c’est un cauchemar! Mais on doit l’utiliser avec une tonne de patience et un peu de bon humeur. … la vie dans le sud ouest 🙂

  • One of the enormous charms of the French traffic system is the nationwide standardisation of traffic signage, lay-out of junctions, and road ‘furniture’. Once you have understood it (and it’s so simple and intuitive) you can find your way EVERYWHERE in France safely. If only the Brits followed the French example! Apart from the Motorways, the UK signage system is haphazard, idiosyncratic to a fault, poorly maintained and sloppy in the extreme. And the UK road surfaces are a national disgrace.

  • Tout d’abord, à cette occasion, excusez ma contribution en anglais.
    Driving in France is a subject very close to my heart. I tour by motorcycle in France every year to meet friends and to improve my French. I love it, but imagine this…
    The rain is horizontal.
    You’ve just come off a D Road by mistake and followed the traffic up to an autoroute péage.
    The rain is trickling down your neck.
    Your fingers are numb and wrinkled inside your wet gloves.
    You approach the billet automatique but it doesn’t acknowledge you so you can’t get a ticket.
    The traffic behind gets VERY exasperated behind you and you can’t reverse back.
    You speak on the intercom but there is no one there.
    You can’t hear anyway because you’re dressed like an astronaut with ear plugs and a helmet.
    There are no instructions in English.
    Eventually someone somewhere realises there is a problem and the barrier goes up.
    You still don’t have a ticket.
    At the next junction you come off the autoroute to explain at the péage what has happened.
    There are offices with darkened windows so you can’t see in.
    You knock on the door but there is no one there.
    What next??
    Eh bien, I mounted the kerb, rode the bike across the grass between the barriers and the offices and rejoined the autoroute.
    How did I eventually get off the autoroute? – Somewhere near my destination of Toulouse there happens to be a mechanic who is working on one of the barriers and I persuaded him to let me through!
    All this (and worse) is true but I continue to love France and the péage.

  • Salut Géraldine – merci pour cette épisode très utile, comme d’habitude. La semaine prochaine on va conduire en Espagne de Bretagne, pour les vacances. Pour moi, c’est une nouvelle expérience parce que je n’ai jamais visité l’Espagne avant. Le voyage, c’est long, mais on va voir de belles régions de France en route, et on prévoit passer un nuit à Bordeaux.

    Bonne semaine à tous

  • My sister and I went to France some years ago and she was insistent on renting a car-we both knew how to drive manual transmission cars and that’s what we rented at CDG airport. We are from the U.S. and manual cars here are put into reverse by moving the lever to the right and pushing down. It took us a while to figure out that the lever needed to be moved to the right and then pulled up to engage the reverse gear in our French rental.

  • J’ai vécu ici depuis 7 mois et je trouve la fascination française avec
    leurs indicateurs de voiture très amusants … et un peu effrayant.
    Parfois, ils les utilisent, parfois ils ne le font pas, parfois c’est
    comme suivre une mini discothèque …..

    • Ahahah ! En effet, Kelly.
      C’est le moment d’apprendre “Eh oh ! Et le cligno ?!” ou “Le cligno c’est pour les chiens ?” 🙂
      Ca marche en temps que piéton aussi.

  • Nous avons loué une voiture a Biarritz et avons conduit a Bordeaux. Tout était bien sur la route ouverte mais conduisait au milieu de la vielle ville – quelle cauchemar! Nul part ou se garer sauf un parking @ 20 euros par jour!

  • Bonjour Géraldine,
    Je confirme les difficultés avec les cartes américaines aux péages. Le pire, c’est que je l’ai trouvé complètement imprévisable. En gros, une carte à puce marche dans les machines francaises, mais dans les péages d’autoroute, on ne sais jamais. J’ai appris à porter assez de liquides pour les régler.

  • Last spring we were based in Tours and driving a rental car to visit the chateaux in the Loire valley. We were a bit confused by the signs that said “Rappel” and a number. We asked and were told this is just a reminder of the speed limit, not a change.

    Also, there are various large signs depicting tourist sites (these are usually tan or brown) with drawings. They were beautiful but didn’t have information on what exit or road to take to get to that area. Example: http://l7.alamy.com/zooms/4

    Also, the signs that look like a black bomb in a red triangle were mysterious. Someone explained that this means a side road is coming up, but we have the right-of-way on the main road. http://www.drive-france.com

  • We really enjoyed the Renault we rented in Vernon to drive around Normandy. The only trouble we had was with the roundabouts! We were staying with a friend on a farm in Rouen. The Garmin kept telling us to get off the 3rd exit off the roundabout, but it was wrong. We had to go to the next exit on the freeway and turn around. It was also dark out. We wound up doing this 3 times until we figured out to get off the 2nd exit. We were really late to our host but we told him we were lost. That was our adventure.

  • There is a special program for long-term car rentals for visitors to France. If you rent for longer than three weeks it is usually cheaper than a regular rental, plus the car is brand new (you select it) plus an automatic transmission is only a little cheaper than a manual transmission. All the French auto makers participate in the program.

    Technically, you buy the car at the beginning and resell at the end (with 100% insurance / no deductible included), but the paperwork is simple and you don’t take a risk. You may have noticed these cars on the road as they have special red license plates.

    It’s a great program for people who have extended stays in France but can’t buy a car and store it when they are not there. Highly recommended – I’ve used it close to a dozen times.

  • Bonjour Geraldine! Quel épisode amusant! J’ai pris des vacances en France 12 fois.

    Lors de mon premier voyage dans les villes grandes et petites, j’ai rencontré à plusieurs reprises le panneau: « Toutes Directions » . Bien sûr, j’ai appris plus tard que ce panneau n’signifie seulement simplement “Continuez jusqu’à ce qu’il y ait d’autres signes”.

    Mais pour moi, un touriste, j’ai été déconcerté! Comment qu’une direction pourrait-elle être tous directions? Ha!

    Quand enfin, je l’ai compris, comment je me suis arraché à moi-même. Merci beaucoup pour vos épisodes! Berkeley (Oregon, USA)

  • One thing that North Americans need to understand is that on les autoroutes, the passing lane on the far left is strictly for passing – you should never stay in that lane unless passing another car, after which you return to the right. Sadly, most North Americans ignore this sensible rule. I often think that we wouldn’t need our 10 lane highways if everyone followed this practice!

    • Great tip, Jay! You’re right, the left lane isn’t for driving, unless there are tons of people. Drive on the right as soon as you can.

  • Tourists may also be surprised to find they’ve been billed for a traffic violation after they have returned home. Typically you’ll get a written notice of your infraction, then the fine will be charged to the credit card you used for the car rental. This happened to my husband and I a month or two after our vacation. Another couple we know had the same thing happen to them while vacationing in Italy.

    We also had some difficulty with using US credit cards for tolls and parking. They would work in some areas and at some tolls but not others. For some reason Versailles was problematic in that regard. I still don’t know why because we had no problem using the cards once we drove closer to Paris. My credit card company had no explanation either. Thank goodness we had enough “l’argent liquide” to get our rental car out of the parking garage one early Sunday morning.

    We also had the same experience as Susan with the GPS in our rental car. It’s worth it to take the time to go into the settings and adjust them to your preferences, otherwise it can be a very long and sometimes harrowing journey. And I agree with her comment regarding familiarizing yourself with the towns along the way. It will help you tremendously at the roundabouts.

    • I agree Cyd. Credit card can be very mysterious. Always carry cash if you have an American card, especially one without chip!

  • Je suis anglais, et donc quand je conduis en France tout est à l’envers pour moi. Alors… J’avais dîné avec mes amis, je conduisais et j’étais un peu fatigué. Je parlais avec mon amie alors qu’on revenait en voiture pour retourner chez elle, on est arrivés à un rond-point et j’ai conduit dans le sens des aiguilles d’une montre autour du rond-point à l’anglaise! Merci à Dieu, ce fut la seule fois où je l’ai fait et après avoir visité et avoir conduit en France encore quelques fois, conduire à droite est normal pour moi!!

    • Merci a Dieu en effet, James, et grace sans doute a la pauvrete de circulation sur les voies francaises pendant le nuit ……:(

    • My friend Robert was driving his French van the wrong way round a roundabout in St. Quentin. The other drivers didn’t seem too concerned, but a cat trying trying to cross the space stood stock-still in disbelief, staring at Robert.

    • Heureusement qu’il n’y avait personne.

      Au Royaume-Uni, pour nous, le rond-point en sortant de l’aéroport est toujours décisif. Il faut se concentrer très fort et après, c’est bon. 🙂

      • Oui, le Royaume-Uni semble avoir l’amour du rond-point de l’aéroport. Je ne les aime pas non plus – il est beaucoup plus facile d’avoir une voie de glissement. J’ai trouvé que les aéroports de Stansted et de Gatwick avaient les pires ronds-points.

        • C’est mon avis qu’on se depeche trop en sortant d’aeroport – n’importe ou – car les soucis d’arrive sont tres ennuyants et l’on veut s’en eloigner des rapidement que possible, ayant pour resultat des erreurs de conduire, dont la cause est manque evitable de serenite.

  • English speaking viewers need to know that “location de voitures” is the sign that indicates where you can rent a car, not simply a place where cars are “located.”

  • Bonjour,
    My husband and I rented a car to drive from Nice to a small town near the Pont de Gard. It was quite an adventure because, unlike our GPS in the United States which automatically chooses the quickest highway route, the french GPS was set up to automatically AVOID highways! As a result we ended up driving north into the foothills of the Alps through tiny Verdon villages on winding mountain roads! It was gorgeous but nerve-wracking and we were quite late getting to our bed and breakfast. (We managed to text our hosts at one point but phone service was almost non-existant in the Verdon!) Our hosts were extremely kind and waited up for us though!
    Also, in the round-abouts you need to know the name of the next town on your route, not just your destination, to know which exit to take. So be sure to familiarize yourself with your route on a map in advance!

    • Also GPS often gives street names rather than route numbers, especially in towns and cities. However, street names are rarely posted on roundabout signs and are often missing at intersections. Always have a paper map backup!

      • For roundabout, here’s my personal tip. If you’re not sure which road to take, do another round, so you have the time to check again. 😉

    • Great tip Susan!
      Indeed, you can set up your GPS to avoid tolls. 😉 A nice way to visit the countryside. My father-in-law loves to do just that.

  • A few thoughts:
    1. I have a feeling you normally need to be 21 to hire a car, don’t you?
    2. I believe on average one person dies on the Périphérique every day – to be avoided if possible!
    3. And the speed limit on highways/motorways is 110 when it’s raining (not that many people take any notice).
    4. On an autoroute à péage where you take a ticket when you join it and pay when you leave, note that the person (or machine) you pay can see how long it has taken you to get from where you started and therefore work out your average speed; and you can be reported to the gendarmes if it’s more than 130 (or 110) kph!
    Bonne route !

  • Salut Géraldine
    I wrote about our amusing experience driving in France on my blog – it took a little getting used to to drive on the other side of the road, and we noticed that there seemed to be only two kinds of roads 🙂
    http://thefogwatch.com/driv

    Best wishes
    Jerry

    • Salut Jerry – tout à fait ! Nous conduisons en France dans notre voiture britannique, et pour un passager, les routes étroites sont très alarmantes parce que de nombreux Français conduisent au centre de la route ! Ton blog est génial – merci.

  • Alors, Madame, c’est trop de problèmes! I want to look at the captivating landscapes of la belle France, not try to decipher des signes de circulation mystérieux! Je préfère les trains. ????

  • Cou cou Geraldine! En utilisant Ouicar (super genial) j’ai embauche la voiture d’un comedien bien connu chez Theatre de Preau a Vire, bien que je sois anglais age de 79. Malheureusement pendant le location j’ai ecope d’une amende pour depasser la limite de vitesse, cette-premiere a ete livre a lui le locateur 🙁 ………mais il en etait si aimable et serviable et l’amende j’ai paye moi-meme et facilement en ligne. C’est mon premier infraction exces de vitesse depuis quarante ans de conduire.

    • Bonjour Peter,

      Chouette ! En effet, ça permet de rencontrer des gens sympas. 🙂
      En effet, les amendes, ça surprend…

  • Tout d’abord, à cette occasion, excusez ma contribution en anglais.
    Driving in France is a subject very close to my heart. I tour by motorcycle in France every year to meet friends and to improve my French. I love it, but imagine this…
    The rain is horizontal.
    You’ve just come off a D Road by mistake and followed the traffic up to an autoroute péage.
    The rain is trickling down your neck.
    Your fingers are numb and wrinkled inside your wet gloves.
    You approach the billet automatique but it doesn’t acknowledge you so you can’t get a ticket.
    The traffic behind gets VERY exasperated behind you and you can’t reverse back.
    You speak on the intercom but there is no one there.
    You can’t hear anyway because you’re dressed like an astronaut with ear plugs and a helmet.
    There are no instructions in English.
    Eventually someone somewhere realises there is a problem and the barrier goes up.
    You still don’t have a ticket.
    At the next junction you come off the autoroute to explain at the péage what has happened.
    There are offices with darkened windows so you can’t see in.
    You knock on the door but there is no one there.
    What next??
    Eh bien, I mounted the kerb, rode the bike across the grass between the barriers and the offices and rejoined the autoroute.
    How did I eventually get off the autoroute? – Somewhere near my destination of Toulouse there happens to be a mechanic who is working on one of the barriers and I persuaded him to let me through!
    All this (and worse) is true but I continue to love France and the péage.

  • I came here from Australia and generally find the French to be good drivers. But, what is it with the tail gating? They drive so close to the rear of my car and they overtake at stupid places for no real gain…like in a queue of traffic. What is French for tail-gating (driving too close to the car in front) and what is the best way to deal with them?

  • Don’t forget that if you have a right hand drive car, such as a British vehicle, the toll booth is on your passenger side. Quite tricky to pay when you don’t have a passenger to pass the money to the booth attendant! We now have an electronic tag, which can be purchased in the UK before you travel, and allows us to use the automatic lanes. It’s so much easier than queueing to pay.

  • We were jetlagged so we accidentally put unleaded gas in our diesel rental car. In the USA diesel is from the green pump, but in France diesel is from the yellow. It ended up costing us $500 to the rental car company, which we were happy to pay, since we thought it would be more!

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