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Don’t be discouraged from touring France by car. There are 5 critical things to learn that will make the trip safe and fun. Unfortunately, most guidebooks do everything they can to discourage foreign travelers from taking to the road. But you can enjoy the freedom of driving. If you love road trips in your native country, take one in France too. There are many instances when the control and flexibility of driving a car is the best option.
When I planned a week-long trip to France, I knew I was not bound for Paris or other large cities. My primary destination was St Malo, of All the Light We Cannot See fame. Yes, I loved that book enough to plan an entire vacation around it. I looked at public transportation options, and they were just not very appealing – it looked like driving was the best option.
But as I researched, I was coming up empty-handed on practical tips for driving in France. I had never driven outside the US, despite loads of work and pleasure-related trips abroad. I was afraid of driving in a different country than my own.
Fortunately, I got first-hand information from friends who live in the EU, as well as bits and pieces from various web sites. A few avoidable surprises did come up, but I managed.
Hopefully, when you take your auto tour in France, you can avoid all the pre-trip angst I went through as well as the surprises that came up for me.
1. Get a reliable GPS system for Touring France by Car.
You have two options.
a. Use the car GPS. I rented a car at the Brussels airport. (Even though I am comfortable driving a standard transmission, I prefer not to when road tripping, so I rented an automatic sedan and, yes, plenty of automatics are available in the EU). Well, I sat in the car for about an hour, getting the car GPS all set up and working. It was as frustrating as all car GPS systems seem to be, and I came close to crying. Maybe I did cry. Technical issues like this can send me over the edge.
b. Plan 2 is to use your phone GPS. One warning here – don’t let your phone roam when abroad, or expect a costly bill when you return home. Hopefully, your phone is unlocked; then you can pick up a local plan at the airport. In larger airports, you can find a phone store and do this pretty quickly. Rick Steeves has an excellent how-to article on using cell phones in Europe. Alternatively, check with your carrier before you leave home and add a temporary international data plan.
I ended up using my phone GPS with the Michelin App as it was a lot easier to program than the car system. Apparently, the car GPS was programmed for Belgium, and accessing French destinations required a secret formula that kept eluding me. I did keep the map on display, though, and seeing it on the larger screen helped even when it wasn’t telling me what to do.
2. Understand the toll roads in France
France has outsourced many (most) of their highways to a private company. The good news is that the toll-roads are in excellent condition. No potholes. The bad news is they are all tolls. And, by US standards, pretty pricy tolls.
To estimate the number of Euros needed for your route, the French Motorways Company has a user-friendly website.
I HIGHLY recommend paying tolls in cash. Sometimes (many times?) US credit cards don’t work in the booths. Trust me, like anywhere else in the world, you do NOT want to be the person holding up a toll booth lane with no way to pay. This is one place the workers seem to lose any ability to speak English.
At one toll station, I inadvertently got in a credit card-only lane, and I was at a standoff for some time with the worker who would not take my cash. He finally gave in, but it wasn’t the most pleasant moment of my trip. I do wish I had a photo of his scowly face to show you, though. What I do have is a photo of a poll station where you can see the lighted signs along the top. Watch these and go to the one with money or money + cards.
3. Beware, you are being watched
France uses camera surveillance to not only monitor speed but to catch drivers not wearing seatbelts, talking on their phones, overtaking on the right (illegal), and other unsafe driving maneuvers. You won’t get pulled over real-time, instead expect a budget-busting ticket on your return home.
The ultimate way to avoid a ticket when driving through France is to know the speed limit and set cruise control, even on minor roads. Speed restrictions are very conservative in France. You may feel like you are crawling especially if you typically drive in the western US. All the same, resist the temptation to speed up. Practice deep breathing and enjoy the scenery.
4. Make sure your accommodations can handle parking
For tourists used to US road trips, you don’t think about whether a hotel will have a parking lot. But if you are touring France by car and traveling to small towns and villages in France, think Medieval. I stayed in a beautiful hotel in central St Malo, and fortunately asked about parking when I booked, which guaranteed me a spot – a teeny, tiny place that let me practice my multi-point turning skills. I rather enjoy pretending I am a puzzle piece when parking, but if you don’t, prepare to be a bit stressed when parking. It will build character.
5. Character building opportunities if you don’t research the road you will take.
Remember that bridge photo at the top of the post? It is the Pont de Normandie bridge that crosses the Seine River and is the entry point to Normandy. When built, it claimed was the longest “cable-stayed” bridge in the world. Cool. Unless you have a bridge phobia. I do. Oops. I forgot to check the route ahead of time. So image this…
I am driving along singing out loud to the very cool playlist I created just for this trip. It just got to a song I added as a funny reminder of past road trips with my children. My son often burned custom playlists onto CD’s (yes they are that old), for our listening pleasure on the road. One day a song by Ludacris came on. It had a fun rhythm and jazzy little melody, so I started enjoying the song, thinking, “hip hop is really growing on me.” Now, my son is the second oldest, and his youngest sister was a preschooler dozing in her car seat behind me. The words started penetrating my consciousness. Oops. (slaps head).
The song went off, but I did like it, and so I downloaded it later for my own private consumption. I still like the song.
So, there I am driving along, patting myself on the back that I am doing just fine driving in France. Ludacris and I are bellowing out, “I want to lick you from your head to your toe…” I drive around the bend in the road and see this:
Oh my F*ing God! This is the bridge of my nightmares, and there is only one way out – to drive over it. I did it. Hands gripped white in the steering wheel. Looking straight ahead, in the center lane, screaming Ludacris’ lyrics like a mantra.
This is a moment of solo travel that builds character.
Courage is not the absence of fear; but the conquest of it.William Danforth
I earned a few more grey hairs at that moment, but I also felt like I squashed one of my demons. Maybe not obliterated, because I still don’t like bridges, but I faced it and survived.
Of course, I also had to cross that darn bridge on the way back. Trust me, I tried to find a go-around, but unless I wanted to take a couple of extra days, I had to cross the bridge a second time. I made it – and it wasn’t as bad the second time.
I will never like bridges, but now I know I can do them if I have to. If you have a comparable phobia of bridges or something else, look over the route and make sure there are no character building obstacles in your way.
Despite the bridges, tolls, and fears of getting a ticket, I am glad I chose to tour France by car. It allowed me the flexibility I wanted; I was able to explore small villages in my own time, take a leisurely drive along the Emerald Coast of Brittany and pick the optimal time to visit historical sites such as Mont Saint Michel. But more on that later.
Bottom line – if you like driving and want to explore places off the beaten track, absolutely take a road trip in France. Keeping in mind these 5 tips, you will do just fine.
PS – If you are interested in my complete “bad*ss woman touring France by car” playlist, the button below will take you to it in Spotify. It is an eclectic mix of tunes.
Also – if you enjoyed this story and have plans to tour Europe you may enjoy this article too.