We’ve just finished two weeks of driving around the South of France, and for the most part, it was a very pleasant experience.
After picking up our rental car at the TGV station in Avignon, we visited St.-Remy-de-Provence, Arles, l’Isle sur la Sorgue, Fontaine de Vaucluse, Gordes, Roussillon, Bonnieux, Lourmarin, Aix-en-Provence, Cap d’Antibes, Antibes, Juan-les-Pins, Cannes, Sainte-Maxime, Saint-Tropez, and Bormes-les-Mimosas, without any trouble.
Granted, as Southern California drivers, we are used to demanding driving. But only once did we get really frustrated, and that was trying to reach our hotel in the old town of Arles. When we found the street we were supposed to turn down, a pylon blocked our entrance and we didn’t have the passcode to lower it.
We spent the next 45 minutes driving in circles before finding an alternative.
But compared to driving in the white towns of Spain, this was a cake walk, and virtually all our experiences were pleasant. Sure, there were one-lane roads with no shoulders accommodating two-way traffic. And there were some pretty tight squeezes — especially in parking garages.
But as a rule, the roads are quite good and well marked. On the freeways, most other drivers don’t tailgate, use the left lane only for passing, and use their turn signals.
Countless roundabouts keep local traffic moving without the use of stoplights. And we were always able to find parking within reasonable walking distance of where we were going. However, this was May, and we can’t speak for July.
Based on our experiences, here are our driving tips for France:
1) Bring a GPS with European maps. Our Garmin Nuvi was a big help whenever we wanted to go from one town to another. It tends to route you the quickest way, so if you decide to take the scenic route, you may hear “recalculating” quite a bit. But if you do make a wrong turn, it will help you get back on track quickly. And responding to “Enter roundabout and take second exit” is a lot easier than figuring it out as you go along.
2) Rent a car that you’ll be comfortable in. We reserved a Volkswagen Passat, because it’s similar to what we drive at home. At the rental counter, the agent wanted to know how many people would be in the car. We said “Just the two of us,” and she was surprised because we’d rented “such a big car.” She got us to upgrade to a diesel, which worked out well. It didn’t have the greatest pickup on a steep grade with the AC on, but we only spent 61 euros on a tank of fuel.
3) Buy the collision damage waiver. If you have an American Express card, sign up for their program, which covers you for up to 42 days for one flat fee. For California residents, it’s just $17.95 per rental. It doesn’t cover liability, so check with your auto insurance company to see if they do. Ours didn’t outside of the U.S., but Hertz did. Nothing takes the fear out of driving abroad like knowing that if you get a scuff here or there it won’t be a hassle.
4) Travel with plenty of change. The French tend to hoard their change. In fact, trying to get someone to change a 50 Euro note, which is what you’ll most likely get from an ATM, is like pulling teeth. And whenever you try to make a purchase with a 10 or a 20, the cashier will ask you for exact change. This may seem harmless enough, but you often need change — for tips, toilets, parking, and tolls. And for all those people who insist on exact change.
5) Be prepared for parking challenges. Just because a hotel says on its web site that it has parking doesn’t mean that there will be a park for you – especially if it’s located in the medieval heart of town. Read the fine print, because sometimes they have only a few spaces and they must be reserved in advance. Generally, hotels that don’t have much parking will let you drop off your bags and then direct you to a garage or lot not too far away. In villages, the lots are usually free. In bigger towns, there are parking lots where you buy a ticket from a machine and place it on your dashboard. In parking garages, you must pay the ticket at the collection machine before you exit. You’ll need to insert the validated ticket in order to raise the exit gate.
6) Try to relax. When you approach the toll booth section of the freeway, chances are, you won’t be 100% certain which lane you should be in. Unless you’re fluent in French, you’ll see signs with verbs you’ve never seen before. And you’ll likely come to an intersection where the signs to your destination are pointing both right and left. Don’t worry. If you go the wrong way, you’ll see something you wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Do your homework so you know the rules of the road and are familiar with the traffic signs. Allow some extra time for unexpected delays. Then, just go with the flow.
Although driving in France can sometimes be intimidating, renting a car provides complete freedom, independence and the opportunity for spontaneity. You’ll be able to get off the beaten path, stay at country hotels, and come and go as you please.