The Challenges of Renting a Car in France

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Renting a car in a foreign country strikes up fear in a lot of people’s hearts. Before our most recent trip to France, whenever I would gleefully describe my 2-week plan to others – which included renting a car during the first week and driving through the Loire Valley to the Normandy region – the person I was talking to would inevitably frown at me with disapproval in their eyes, and ask the following three questions:

  1. You’re renting a car in France?! …quickly followed by…
  2. Who’s driving?! …and…
  3. Don’t they drive on the wrong side of the road?!

All of these questions were asked in the most horrified tone. For some people this was all too overwhelming to even contemplate. But I’m here to tell you that if you can keep a sense of humor, and do a bit of research (more than I did!), you can and will survive it! AND, the rewards far outweigh the perceived treachery. But first, here are the answers to the above questions, that I heard on repeat:

  1. Yes, I am renting a car, and here’s why: I’ve done the group tour bus type of travel, and while this is an excellent way to get a feel for an area, I would personally get frustrated when I couldn’t stay in a lovely locale just a little bit longer, but instead be rushed to get back to the bus for another long nap-inducing ride. I would dream of staying in the last spot and take notes of specific places I’d like to return to, only to be interrupted by our tour guide who would already be on to the next town, or discussing the logistics of our next hotel. Don’t get me wrong, we had some fantastic tour guides, but sometimes, you just want to do your own thing and call the shots! Most of the time, I would fall in love with a town, and all I wanted to do was linger and soak up the beauty a little bit longer!
  2. ME! Yes, believe it, I will be the driver, with my mom, aunt, and daughter riding along. And yes, they DO trust me! (maybe not anymore after the trip – ha!) I like to drive, and being able to stop whenever and wherever we feel like is golden in my book. I’m stifling any fear I might have in favor of freedom!
  3. Nope – the French drive on the “correct” side, or that is to say, on the right side of the road just like in the United States, so at least I’m in luck with that point.

Given these conversations, none of my “bravado” prevented a couple of snags from occurring. There are a few problematic things to discuss about the French roadway systems, all of which you will benefit from if you ever want to do an epic road trip like ours! Let’s chat about our biggest challenge – tolls….

I mistakenly assumed that the tolls we would come across in France would be similar to the US, where one of 2 options would occur. We would need to stop at toll booths occasionally, simply pay a dollar or 2, and be on our way. OR, even better, just keep driving un-interrupted while cameras capture our license number and send us the bill later or in this case, add it to our rental car fees. Neither of these easy processes occurred however.

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The first toll we came to had 6-7 lanes to chose from with signs depicting unknown symbols above each lane. We were driving pretty fast when we came upon it, so while braking, and attempting to not cut off other motorists speeding toward their own chosen lanes, I panicked and just picked the lane that required the least amount of swerving on my part, which happened to be towards the left of all the lane options. Once my car was next to the toll machine (no humans in sight), of course the writing was in French. Now I did study my French ahead of this trip, but I brushed up on polite greetings, how to order food, and how to ask directions. It never occurred to me to find out what a toll booth machine’s translation might be ahead of time. Pushing the English flag button didn’t help! This is when fear actually started to seep into my “I got this” attitude. There were buttons to push (I pushed them all) and payment options (we tried them all) including trying ALL of our debit and credit cards in the car, as well as inserting Euros and coins!

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…and everything I tried did not raise the barrier arm in front of my car! It appeared that what the machine wanted was a ticket of some sort to scan. (A ticket? What ticket? Where would someone get a ticket from?) After quickly discussing with my travel mates, we decided I must be in the wrong lane – I need a lane that will accept our money! (MORE FEAR…Now I’m actually sweating) I have to put my car in reverse and chose another lane. Cue the angry French drivers! I back up [just one car behind me moved, and without any obscene hand gestures. Phew!] and pick another lane, virtually at random, because I can no longer think logically enough to analyze the pictures above the lanes – I am only trying to get out of here as fast as possible. And my confident façade to my travel mates was quickly crumbling…will they ever trust me again?! Praise the Lord, this lane accepted our credit card! AND it kicked out a ticket – what?! We were all confused by this process, but were relieved to just be let through to the other side to continue our journey.

Now these toll booths are very common on the “A” routes in France. Sometimes just inserting a ticket would work, sometimes a card would work, and sometimes it would spit out a ticket but sometimes not. It was a true mystery to all of us. It became a running joke that these tolls were my nemesis! I even hit the help button one time and muddled through a conversation with a lady who spoke very little English. Paired with my very little French, it was more than a struggle, but she was very patient with me and eventually just manually raised the traffic arm in front of us. Seriously, French people were always so helpful to us!

TIP: So here are the goods, if you’re still with me! If you follow these tips, you will not be in toll booth hell like we were. Bookmark this!

Most French “A” routes are toll motorways, and they are marked at their entrances with the word “Péage”. The process is to get your ticket from a booth at the start – you simply hit the button for the ticket to start your journey. (We must have entered the motorways at other locations besides the start, hence we didn’t have the ticket at the subsequent tolls) Tolls are paid either when you leave the highway, or when that section of the route ends. But sometimes, there are toll points along the way, especially near cities or bridges.

There are several signs you will need to interpret ~

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The first one on the LEFT is the further most LEFT lane, and is only for those with a remote payment transponder, called “télépéage” (with the speed indication) – NOT YOU!

The middle image is the CENTER lane and for those with the transponder OR pay by credit card. COULD be for you because of the credit card option.

The right image is the RIGHT lane and for all forms of payment. This is for YOU!! Just stay to the right to be safe!

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HOWEVER, the image shown above with the same orange T paired with the Green arrow are at ticket pick-up booths and are open to all traffic at the START of a motorway. Simply pickup your ticket for this section of your journey. This sign is not to be confused with the one above for the left lane, local travelers!

An invaluable and up-to-date resource to check out BEFORE venturing out in your rental car for your magical road trip of a lifetime, is this site below. I definitely regret not accessing this information ahead of time…learn from my mistakes my friends! 😉

https://about-france.com/driving.htm#tolls

Now, about tackling the French gas stations! 3 tips for all travelers with rental cars:

  1. Keep your gas tank full, especially before the weekend! The gas stations are not open 24/7 like in the states, and we had one heck of time finding a gas station on a Sunday!
  2. If you don’t have a credit card with the International chip, make sure you have cash (euros, of course), so that you can pay the human at the gas station (during the week, see tip #1) because the pumps will not accept our American chip cards.
  3. When all else fails, and you’ve been driving around the countryside all weekend, forcing your credit card into every gas pump you come across, find a sweet French lady to help you…

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Here is our Angel! She was so helpful, and accepted 50 euros in exchange for using her own credit card to get us gas! So throw away all your preconceived notions about rude French people! She just kept saying how much she likes to help people…I’ll never forget her. ❤

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There you have it! If you’ve been feeling adventurous for that epic international road trip, just do it! What could go wrong? (Except everything, as shown above-hehe!) But, really…do it anway. You’ll feel a real sense of accomplishment, and gain so much confidence as a traveler. Bon voyage!