This article is part of a two-post series on renting cars and driving in France. This post in particular is specific to driving in France. If you want to learn about renting cars in France, then check out the other post here.
Recently, a friend asked me about driving in France. She wanted to rent a car and asked if I had any tips for her on how to go about it. I thought this would be a great question to share, as driving is an easy way to see France on your own terms. However, you should always be careful about driving in a new country. Here is the question she asked me:
Hey Danielle! Hope you’ve been well! I had a couple questions about renting a car here and was wondering if you could share some details/experience with me. What company did you use and how much was it? And what guidelines are there besides being at least 21?
For anyone else with similar questions, here are my best tips for how to go about driving in France, especially as a Canadian or an American.
I hope you drive stick!
Manual is the most popular engine type in France (and Europe in general, for that matter). In North America, it’s quite the opposite. Luckily, I learned how to drive stick years ago in Canada, so I was able to drive whatever car I chose. There are automatic cars here in France, but they tend to be more expensive to buy and rent, so you may have to pay a little extra to drive one. If you aren’t someone who drives manual often, finding an automatic car may be a good idea if you are headed to busy cities or are worried about having to coordinate too much at once in a foreign driving environment.
Driving in the Mountains
When driving in Lyon, I could not risk being distracted at all. Luckily, another friend with us also drove stick and so we took shifts driving. In the mountains, the roads were often only wide enough for one-and-a-half lanes of traffic and there were not many guardrails. If there is a guardrail, it will likely only be a foot and a half tall, and not really effective for stopping anything, more just for spatial awareness. On the narrowest of roads (such as the famous balcony roads that I will explain later) every couple hundred yards there would be a “bubble” where the road widened for a few yards before narrowing again. These “bubbles” are to let cars pass each other. If you come nose to nose with someone on one of these roads, the person closest to a bubble would have to reverse to that bubble and let the other car pass. Thankfully, we never had to reverse once as we didn’t see many cars that day, but let it be known that if you are in the mountains, being able to drive manual forwards may not be enough. Also, balcony roads are common in the mountains, especially in the Alps. This is when the road is carved into the mountain itself, and the rock goes up one side of the road and over the road, creating half a tunnel if you will. These roads often offer beautiful views, but don’t let this distract you – these roads are famous for their complexity and difficulty. Saying this, don’t drive in wet, rainy, windy, snowy, or any other conditions other than dry and sunny. Seriously.
Driving in the City
In town and on flat ground, driving is much easier. Road signage is good but don’t expect a vast amount of warning. You will need to have a vague idea of where you are going beforehand or all of a sudden you will have to change 4 lanes in a space of only 10 yards. There are also very few places to turn around, pull over, or play around with the GPS settings, so figure that all out beforehand. The drivers are more aggressive in Europe than in place like North America, so if you’ve driven big-city before, this will not be new for you. But if you’ve only really driven countryside and small-town, you’ll feel like everyone is RIGHT behind you. Parking is scarce. If you see a space, take it. It doesn’t matter if you are half a kilometer from your final destination, just take it or you won’t get another chance. As such, you will see people parked up on the wider sidewalks and pedestrian boulevards. Is this legal parking? Ehh… Take your own risks, but I wouldn’t leave that car there for too long. Also, nearly all parking is parallel parking – and tight parallel parking at that. Have your friend get out of the car and help you out because you may only have a few inches to spare on either side (the benefits of having a Smart car in France). Remember that bikes always have the right of way over vehicles and opening your door on someone riding a bicycle will cost you 150€. Oh, and half the streets are one-way.
Driving in the Countryside
Driving in farm country is a pretty laissez-faire experience. Expect one lane dirt roads (sometimes with grass in the middle!), few road signs and no designated shoulders. Also, if you need directions, very few people will speak English. Just be careful when crossing train tracks as there will not likely be any barriers to stop you in case one is coming. Be sure that you stop, look twice, and roll down your window to listen before crossing.
Driving on the Highways
This is the closest to driving at home for me. Signage is great and the rules are straightforward. Just note that the speed limits change based on the weather. The standard is 130 km/h on highways, but if it’s raining, it changes to 110 km/h. In Canada the standard in 100 km/h or 80 km/h so that gives you an idea how quick they drive here. And like probably everywhere else in the world, most French drivers will speed. I obviously don’t endorse this practice, especially while abroad, because it’s possible that you will get a ticket. Truck drivers (and buses too, I believe) have separate speed limits and special rules so you will see them driving much slower and almost always in the furthest right lane. When passing, there is one distinct difference here in France: When you signal left to pass, you need to keep that signal on for the entire time until you’ve passed the car and then signal right to re-enter your lane. Always keep one signal blinking during the pass. This lets cars know that you are actually passing a car and not just making a lane change. If you find this confusing, the way around it is either don’t pass anyone, or change lanes for a while before returning to your original lane.
Most highways in France are toll roads, which confused me first time I did it. At the toll station, pull up to one of the lanes (it kind of looks like you are driving through border control but you aren’t). Check the signage above the lanes to sort out which are for pass-holders, buses, trucks and regular, one-time-user Joes. Push the button to get a ticket, and then wait for the arm to lift so you can drive though. Keep that ticket safe or you will run into problems later. If you come to another station before you are done your journey, there should be a lane that allows you to continue through. Or, if you want to be safe, just get another ticket. When you get off the toll highway, insert your ticket and pay the toll, which is usually very cheap, about 3-8 euros. The first time I used a toll station, I didn’t know to get a ticket so when it came time to leave, I couldn’t. Thankfully, there is a help button to talk to someone. I explained what happened and the man on the other side asked where we had driven from and we were able to pay the toll without a ticket. But the second time we knew what to do! Be careful at the toll stations though as the road approaching and departing a station looks like a giant runway with up to 10 or more lanes and no lane markings, and sometimes people need to go across to a special lane on the other side from where they are. Also, do take the tolls routes. Yes you pay an extra couple of euros, but the alternative roads often take hours longer and you use up more than the value of the toll in gas. Therefore, it’s usually just worth it.
If you are not familiar with roundabouts, the first few are going to be one of the scariest things you’ve ever driven. But by the third one, you’ll be much more comfortable. We have a lot of roundabouts near where I live in Canada, and so I don’t even think about them anymore. Actually, I prefer them to intersections, provided everyone knows what they are doing.
The secret to roundabouts is knowing how to get on one, and how to leave it. All roundabouts in France move counter-clockwise. When you approach one, slow down or stop, and yield to anyone already in the roundabout. Signal right and once you see a gap in the flow of traffic, enter the roundabout. While you are in the roundabout, signal left so anyone behind you knows that you are staying in the roundabout. When it is time to leave the roundabout, signal right again and move to the outside lane to exit. Most roundabouts will have a sign beforehand showing you which lane you should be in for what exit. If you miss your exit, don’t worry. Just go around again and try a second time.
Driving in Paris
A general note about driving in Paris: it’s insane. I would never even think about driving in Paris and I’ve lived here for a while now. There are special lanes for two wheelers, buses, taxis and cars, and bicycles do often travel in the lanes and roundabout with you. Speaking about roundabouts, Parisians like to throw in another trick that is only valid in Paris: The roundabouts have stop lights. So even though you are inside the roundabout, you may have to stop (which goes against the very purpose of a roundabout in the first place, but c’est Paris). I can picture one particularly nightmarish roundabout where six or seven streets come together at Denfert-Rochereau, including many one-way streets. There are stoplights to enter the roundabout, and also stoplights inside the roundabout itself. If this sounds confusing, it is. If you have never done a roundabout before, don’t make Paris your first experience. Also, Parisian roundabouts yield to whoever is on the right. So if you are in a roundabout and see someone ahead is approaching the roundabout, you better slow down because they won’t – they have right of way. Again, this applies only to Paris for whatever reason and is why I will never get behind the wheel of a car in the capital.
Bis and Bison Futé
Any sign with bis, bison futé or any other obvious variable added on is giving you directions to a scenic route. These are perfect for busy days when the roads are too congested. Therefore, a sign saying “Lyon bis” or “bis Lyon” is showing you the scenic route to Lyon. Bison futé means “cunning bison”. So be a cunning bison and take the scenic route instead of following the herd to the main roads!
- Try to fill up on gas outside the centre of downtown. Europe is cramped sometimes, so gas stations in big cities will not be huge rest stops, but rather just a couple of pumps, a spot to parallel park and a sign that says Essence (gasoline) or Diesel (diesel). Try the outskirts of town and the suburbs for a more familiar setting. Gas stations on the highways are more expensive than those connected to the supermarkets. Sans plomb means unleaded.
- The French drive on the right hand side of the road (in case you don’t at home).
- The alcohol limit is really low in France so even one drink can put you over.
- All devices must be hands free (cell phones, etc.) or Bluetooth.
- Sometimes a license will need to be in French in order to rent a car. In Canada, we are lucky because all of our licenses are default English and French. If yours is just in English, check that this is okay. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. An international driving license often solve this issue.
Did I forget something?
Ask me below and I will give you any answers I have! Also, feel free to check out my video from my Lyon roadtrip to see the driving in action!