After spending almost a year living in and gallivanting around France, I have come to learn a few things – some of them the hard way. Whether it’s when I had to fork over 30 euros for having the privilege to park in Paris, or when I was involved in a car accident, there are definitely things everyone should know before embarking on a pan-Hexagonal journey.
The French are very bad drivers
I tried to find a kinder, more gracious twist to this point but despite my best intentions there simply isn’t any other way to say it. French people are awful drivers, period! They’re impatient, unfocused, selfish, impolite (when driving, of course – I would never dare to imply that in a general manner…). The worst part is the criss-cross habit they all have – it seems like they physically cannot stay in the same lane for more than two full minutes. I wonder what would happen if I made them.
French roads are very different from North American ones
The basic speed rules are quite easy to comprehend: 110-130 km/h on motorways, 90 km/h on national roads, and 50 km/h within cities (with frequent 30 km/h zones). That’s the simple part.
But when it comes to other topics on driving in France, that’s a whole other story. The infamous yield to the right, the roads that are barely wide enough to fit one car let alone two, cars that park nose to nose on one-way streets, the lack of railings in precarious zones… all this definitely takes a while to get used to, when coming from the new continent!
Not all Google Maps itineraries are optimal
With France being one of the countries with the most expensive toll roads in Europe (70 euros to get to Paris from Clermont-Ferrand!), make sure you take a close look at your itinerary before leaving. More often than not, by opting for a slightly longer stretch on a national road instead of the motorway, you could save a little fortune in tolls. Maybe I’m rotten cheap, but I’d choose the extra hour drive to keep my euros – it’s all about the scenic route, right? The absolute best reference tool for your itineraries in France is undoubtedly Via Michelin – not quite as pretty than Google Maps, but much more efficient.
Etap Hotels are probably the best quality/value hotel chain in France
I’ve stayed in many different chains but I’ve favored the Etap Hotels lately. They’re cheap (around 45 euros for a double with private bathroom), they’re everywhere, and they’re modern. The only downside is that they’re usually located a bit out of the center and reachable by car only, but if you plan on going on an epic roadtrip, I strongly suggest these hotels if you are budget-strapped. You don’t get a whole lot for your 45 euros but hey – it’s still just 45 euros.
There’s no point in driving to/in Paris
With so many trains getting to the city in record time, and a metro station at every other corner, who actually needs a car in Paris? Having one is mostly an annoyance, and a costly one at that. Unless you like to frolic around and throw money our of your pockets (if this is the case, let me know where you’re at this weekend), you’re much better off getting to the capital by train and relying on public transportation to move around. And, let’s be honest here – no matter how thrilling the Arc de Triomphe roundabout sounds (because apparently for some people it is), no sane person would want to actually be sitting in a car there. On either side of said car.
Picnics are the way to go…
Despite the quaint charm of bistros and terraces, if you are budget-minded, taking every meal at the restaurant can be quite costly and could impact the quality of your trip. There are many ways to save money on food while on the road, and one of them is to pack a picnic. Find a grocery store, get a fresh baguette, cooked meats, smelly cheese, a bottle of rosé, and for less than 10 euros you have a quintessential French meal on the go. Killing two birds with one stone, really!
… and if you must go to a restaurant, ask for the Menu du jour
Pretty much every bistro or restaurant in France will have a daily menu for a set price, usually pretty cheap for the value. If often consists of a main dish, a small appetizer and a coffee for less than 10 euros. Your taste buds don’t get much of a choice, but if the suggested dish is to your liking, it’s a seriously good option to consider.
Total gas stations are the most expensive ones – always
That one I don’t really understand. Regardless of the location, I noticed that Total gas stations are always more expensive than others (BP, Casino, etc.) – and by several centimes. Keep that in mind when you need to fill up – it’s absolutely worth it to drive a few kilometers more and save a few euros to cheaper gas stations. If you can manage in French, this is an excellent website to plan your pit stops or see where is the next cheap gas station on your itinerary (and they have a mobile version, too!).
If you plan on traveling by train extensively, get a discount card
Probably the best thing that happened to French transportation since, well, ever. If you are eligible for one of them, you could save up to anywhere between 25% and 60% off your fare, every time you use it. They do cost a little bit of money, but it pays itself very quickly. I have saved hundreds of euros with my 12-25 youth card!
France is probably one of the most amazing countries I have been lucky enough to visit. I know very few places that could compete with it! And if your trip is planned the smart way, it could make it even better.
What are your tips for traveling in France? Do you prefer to drive, take the train or a mix of both? What are your favorite roadtrip destinations?