Driving in France can be a bit intimidating. Driving in Paris can be more than intimidating. Here are a few pointers to help you get used to the new rules and customs:
- Don’t. Don’t even think about driving in Paris. What is the point? The metro is so convenient and efficient, Paris is riddled with traffic jams, taxis are easier and easier to come by with the advent of apps like Uber and LeCab. You are just asking for trouble if you choose to drive in Paris. Even if your plan is just to rent a car and drive directly out of town, add up the cost of tolls and gas (much more than in the U.S.) and compare to the price of train tickets (then renting a car once you arrive). It may be more cost efficient and certainly less of a headache to train + drive.
- Do. Do rent a car outside of the big cities. French roads are very well maintained and very well marked, much better than in the U.S. So don’t be scared off by the idea of renting a car in the countryside. You’ll see so much more than if you only use trains and buses. I usually rent through Autoeurope and for an economy-sized car, it’s usually not much more than U.S.$100/week, much cheaper than in the U.S. Definitely don’t rent a larger car than necessary. Roads are narrow, parking is tight and gas is expensive.
- Use a GPS. Rent a GPS with your rental car. Or if you are planning to drive during 1 or 2 weeks or more in Europe over the next couple of years, it may just be cheaper to buy a GPS in Europe. U.S. GPSs generally won’t work in France, but most GPSs you can buy in France (at the FNAC, for example) will work all over Europe, including in the UK.
- Priorité à droite!! If there is one rule you need to learn that is different from U.S. driving rules it’s priority to the right. This means that unless otherwise marked, the car on the right has the right of way. Yes, unless otherwise marked, even when you are on what looks to be a main road and there’s a car coming in from a small side street to your right, that other car has the right of way. Most drivers are smart enough to slow down anyways, as not all French people follow the priority to the right rule all the time, but technically they are correct in just zipping ahead. One spot where you might not except the cars merging onto a highway from the right to have the right of way is on the Périphérique, the beltway around Paris. But indeed, the traffic coming onto the highway has the right of way. Here are a couple of useful signs to know:
The sign to the left with the black X means that the upcoming road coming in from the right has the right of way. It’s just a friendly reminder, but don’t forget: absent any markings, that road still has the right of way, not you. The sign to the right with the yellow diamond means you are on a principal road and “priority to the right” does not apply… until you come across that same sign again but with a black strike through it.
- Rotaries/roundabouts: Most rotaries are marked with a “Cédez le passage” (yield) sign and hence treat them like a normal rotary in the U.S. But there are some notable exceptions: most of the large rotaries in Paris, including around the Arc de Triomphe. This means that those cars coming into the rotary have the right away. I know, insane, but that’s the way it is.
- Aggressive drivers: The French can be aggressive drivers. They can be bad drivers. But generally speaking, they are better drivers than Americans. Maybe it’s because the driving exam is so difficult or maybe it’s because they have to drive on such narrow roads. The key thing to remember is that they are trying to get from one place to another in a short amount of time. They will judge your speed and hence determine their next move. So the worst thing you can do is drive erratically, slow down unexpectedly, or drive hesitantly.
- Speed cameras: There are a number of speed cameras in Paris and also along the highways, and just about everywhere else in France. If other people are all slowing down in a specific spot, it’s probably for a reason. The rental car company will eventually track you down for reimbursement if you get a ticket. You only have about a 5-kilometer/hour margin of error.
- Gas: If you’re outside a big city, it may be hard to find gas station with real people working there on a Sunday. Often these gas station only take French credit cards with microchips. So if you don’t have a French card and you’re not near a major highway or city, it’s best to avoid having to fill up on a Sunday.
Do you have any more tips for tourists planning to drive in France?