The challenge was to rent a car in France, drive around for ten days and return with my sanity, marriage, and bank balance intact. It was a mighty task, but I was up for it. Despite what might appear as insurmountable obstacles, the entire experience was actually relatively painless, and dare I say, even enjoyable.
It began with a web search of affordable rental rates. We had planned to pick up a car in St Etienne in the Rhône-Alpes and then drive south to Provence and the Languedoc region, covering around 800 miles in total. After a few days of comparing prices, vehicles and rental conditions, I decided to go with Autoeurope (www.autoeurope.com), based on the fact that their rate was among the lowest plus everything except a small train station pick-up fee was included in the US dollar price (actually the price was even a bit lower than that offered directly by Europcar -- which is the rental company that we got the vehicle from). The dollar had been doing a lovely downward spiral since I booked my flight to France so I wasn't willing to take the risk that it would fall further by the time I arrived.
Always pre-pay you car rental in the U.S.: The savings over what you'll pay when you arrive is often up to 50%. Our car was less than $53 per day including all taxes, which is really quite a bargain -- if only the gas to fill it was as well. As far as insurance is concerned, I must admit that I was never really clear on my coverage. Paying with American Express I know guarantees secondary coverage, but when we picked up the vehicle from Europcar, the insurance issue was never raised or offered. I do know that when they took a credit card imprint, an amount of $900 was itemized as the driver's responsibility in case of damage (thankfully this was never applied).
We chose a mini wagon category of car (because my husband is very tall) and ended up with a cute, almost new Renault Clio which was surprisingly spacious. I would definitely suggest opting for the smallest vehicle you can feel comfortable in that fits your luggage. We took large duffle bags rather than suitcases purely because we knew we would need to fit them in a limited size trunk. In France and indeed throughout Europe, smaller is better, both in terms of gas consumption and finding parking spots. I am not suggesting that you rent a SmartCar (that is unless you are really traveling light), but you should really reconsider renting anything above a compact or economy sized car unless you are a group of four adults traveling together. You will notice that most cars on the road are pint-sized and when you do see a great big gas-guzzling SUV, it looks strangely out of place (plus it is usually circling, looking for a big enough parking spot).
The car pick-up was effortless and took less than five minutes. The Europcar agent didn't speak English and we don't really speak French, but the directions were for the most part easy to understand. No map was offered, nor was a GPS unit -- although it turns out that you can rent a GPS unit for approximately $17 a day (plus it comes standard in some of the larger luxury rentals). My husband and I actually love the idea of getting lost in foreign countries and discovering unexpected treasures so GPS was out of the question (although there were a couple of instances where it would really have come in handy). We had invested in a heavy Michelin France Road Atlas which was for the most part very helpful, although for some reason we were often heading for a town that happened to be right on the spiral bind of the book and the exact road required would be obscured. We supplemented these maps with Google maps print outs which were relatively accurate (although there were some strange inconsistencies).
The first observation we made about driving in France was the "Giratoire" or "rond-point" -- what we know as a roundabout. They are everywhere -- on highways, country back roads, major thoroughfares and tiny villages. They are large and small; some have sculptural installations in the center and even Roman relics. They provide sign posts to various destinations in each direction and although at first you may find it annoying to have to slow down every few miles and give way to your left before making your way through the intersection, overall you will be thankful for roundabouts as you can go around and around until you find the direction you want to go (sometimes there will be up to ten place names for one direction so you hardly have time to read them all in a single rotation). An additional plus: Although you have to slow down for roundabouts, you don't have to stop and wait like you do for a red light, saving you both time and money on fuel.
When navigating, it is important to not only look at the route to your final destination, but also to learn the names of all other possible towns and cities along a certain road in order to find your way. You may only be heading to a village 30 miles away, but the signage will post to a larger town ten miles past your destination. In general, signage in France was exceptionally good -- clear, concise and helpful. Almost everywhere you drive you will see a sign saying "Toutes Directions" or "Autres Directions" -- meaning all or other directions. Following these signs will invariably lead you to a larger intersection with multiple signage to go north, south, east and west. These are particularly helpful in larger cities where ring or periphery road will take you along the outskirts of the city to avoid the congestion of the "Centre Ville" -- center of the city. Yes we did get lost on occasion and spent some time back-tracking and doing U-turns, but overall, a combination of map and street signage was enough to get us where we wanted to go, so there was no need to embarrass ourselves and ask locals for directions.
Speed limits are clearly marked and at times quite intelligent. Major roads may have a sign indicating one speed for wet conditions (i.e. 100 kilometers per hour) and another for dry conditions (130 kilometers per hour). City speed limits were usually around 50 kilometers per hour and down to 30 in small villages. Often it is the narrowness of the road or the fact that it is made of 1,000-year-old cobblestones that will make you slow down anyway. I am fluent in the miles versus kilometers thing, but for my husband, it still took some adjustment -- basically it is 1.6 kilometers to a mile. We did see a few members of France's gendarmerie (police force) with hand-held speed guns standing by the side of the road, but there were always signs telling us that speed limits were enforced electronically, so there was fair warning.
We only took one major toll road, although had we wanted to, there were plenty to choose from. A distance of approximately 100 miles on the A7 cost just under $25 in tolls. If you do decide to take toll roads, you should always ensure that you have plenty of Euro coins. Most toll gates do accept notes, but having the correct change is a lot simpler. The major difference I found between French and U.S. highways was the lack of congestion. We only came across a couple of minor traffic delays during peak hour or road works and in many cases, had lanes and entire roadways to ourselves.
The price of petrol is definitely a sticking point. At home we often complain about rising gas costs, but we should consider ourselves lucky that we don't have to endure European prices. The cheapest gas we saw for what they call "95 sans plomb" - Unleaded - was €1.44 ($2.22) per liter which roughly adds up to $8.88 per gallon (one liter is 0.264 gallons). The most expensive gas was €1.67 ($2.58) -- over $10 a gallon. Filling our Renault's small tank cost a little less than $90 and in our ten day trip, we filled up three times, plus a fill up on the final day to return the car with a full tank. The gas stations themselves were often accompanied by large grocery stores and even hotels. On major highways, signs indicated not only the distance to each of the next dozen or so gas stations, but also the names of the gas companies -- so if you had a particular inclination towards Exxon as opposed to BP, you could drive the extra ten miles to that company's station. One oddity was that many of the stations, even on major roads were closed at night or on weekends -- fill up on a Friday just in case.
Brown signs mark historical sites and places of interest and are in such abundance that a short trip from point A to point B can end up taking all day if you decide to investigate each Roman relic, panoramic view, vineyard, medieval castle or prehistoric cave. In general, we found the roads to be exceptionally good. Even in the middle of seemingly nowhere, roads were in excellent condition and lines looked like they were freshly painted. On many of the country roads we drove along (especially in the Gorges du Tarn), there were no road barriers, including steep mountains and sheer cliffs. If you are a bit squeamish or suffer from vertigo like I do, you may want to avoid some of the sharper inclines. If it came down to a choice between depending on trains, planes and buses and having the freedom to roam the country by car, driving in France would win hands down. Driving gives you access to so much more, like the ability to stop at a produce stand to buy fresh cherries, the chance to see an ancient abbey on top of a hill and make your way up there just to take a peek, or picking up that one special memento from a tiny brocante (bric-a-brac and antiques) store in a picturesque village you had no intention of stopping in. Seeing France from behind the wheel may be a little expensive, but the memories will be priceless.
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