Within most major cities—including Paris, Lyon, and Marseille—public transportation is efficient, comprehensive, and cheap. In smaller towns, such as Rouen, Arles, or Antibes, it’s easy to navigate the city center on foot. See each chapter for specific details.
Air France (www.airfrance.com; tel. 800/237-2747 in the U.S.), with its low-cost offshoot HOP!, is the country’s primary carrier, serving around 30 cities in France and 30 more destinations throughout Europe. Air travel time from Paris to almost anywhere in France is about 1 hr. British Airways (www.ba.com) links London with Paris, Bordeaux, Chambery, Grenoble, Lyon, Marseille, Montpellier, Nantes, Strasbourg, Toulouse, and Nice. Low-cost airline easyJet (www.easyjet.com) also links London with a dozen French cities. The budget airline offers additional internal flights between Paris, Bordeaux, Lyon, Nantes, Toulouse, and Nice, and connects French cities to dozens of other European destinations.
The most charming châteaux and country hotels always seem to lie away from the main cities and train stations. Renting a car is a good way to travel around the French countryside, especially along the Normandy beaches, the Loire Valley, the vineyards of Bordeaux, and in rural Provence. Day car hire is inexpensive, so visitors may want to rent a vehicle just for a day en route if they wish.
Driving schedules in Europe are largely a matter of conjecture, urgency, and how much sightseeing you do along the way. Driving time is 2.5 hr. from Paris to Rouen, 3.5 hr. to Nantes, and 7 hr. to anywhere in Provence.
Rentals -- To rent a car, you’ll need to present a passport, a driver’s license, and a credit card. You will also have to meet the company’s minimum-age requirement: 21 or above at most rental agents. The biggest agencies have pickup spots all over France, including Budget (www.budget.com; tel. 800/472-3325); Hertz (www.hertz.com; tel. 800/654-3001); and Europcar (www.europcar.com; tel. 877/940-6900). We highly recommend AutoSlash.com over other online car rental services. It applies every available coupon on the market to the booking, yielding surprisingly low daily rates. If the cost of a rental drops, it automatically rebooks, again lowering the price.
Note: The best deals are always booked online, in advance. Though the rental company won’t usually mind if you drive your car into, say, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, or Spain, it’s often forbidden to transport your car by ferry, including across the Channel to England.
In France, collision damage waiver (CDW) is usually factored into the overall rate quoted, but you should always verify this before taking a car on the road. At most companies, the CDW provision won’t protect you against theft, so if this is the case, ask about purchasing extra theft protection. Automatic transmission is a luxury in Europe. If you prefer it to stick-shift, you must specifically request it—and you’ll pay a little extra for it.
Gasoline -- Known in France as essence, gas is expensive for those accustomed to North American prices, although the smaller cars common in Europe use far less gas. Depending on your car, you’ll need either leaded (avec plomb) or unleaded (sans plomb).
Note: Sometimes you can drive for miles in rural France without encountering a gas station; don’t let your tank get dangerously low.
Driving Rules -- Everyone in the car, in both the front and the back seats, must wear seat belts. Children 10 and under must ride in the back seat.
In France, you drive on the right. Drivers are supposed to yield to the car on their right (priorité a droite), except where signs indicate otherwise, as at traffic circles. If you violate the speed limit, expect a big fine. Limits are 130kmph (80 mph) on expressways, 110kmph (68 mph) on major national highways, and 90kmph (55 mph) on country roads. In towns, don’t exceed 50kmph (31 mph).
Note: It’s illegal to use a cellphone while you’re driving in France; you will be ticketed if you’re stopped.
Maps -- While most French drivers are happy with Google Maps, traditional motorists opt for the large Michelin maps of the country and regions (www.viamichelin.com) on sale at all gas stations. Big travel-book stores in North America carry these maps as well. GPS navigation devices can be rented at most car-hire stations.
Breakdowns/Assistance -- A breakdown is called une panne in France. Call the police at [tel] 17 (if calling from a landline) or [tel] 112 (if calling from a mobile phone) anywhere in France to be put in touch with the nearest garage. Most local garages offer towing.
The world’s fastest trains—known as Train à Grande Vitesse, or TGVs—link some 50 French cities, allowing you to travel from Paris to just about anywhere else in the country within hours. With 32,000km (20,000 miles) of track and 3,000 stations, SNCF (French National Railroads; www.oui.sncf or call tel. 36-35 at .40€/min. in France) is fabled for its on-time performance and comfy trains. You can travel in first or second class by day and couchette by night. Most trains have light dining facilities.
For information or reservations, go to the website www.oui.sncf. You can also visit any local travel agency. If you have a chip credit card and know your PIN, you can use your card to buy your ticket at the easy-to-use billetteries (ticket machines with an English-menu option) in every train station.
OUIGO (www.ouigo.com) is a subsidiary of SNCF that offers cheap TGV travel to 19 destinations throughout France. Flat-rate tickets start at 10€ per adult and 5€ per child. Taking a cue from Europe’s low-cost airlines, OUIGO charges 5€ per piece of baggage larger than an airline carry on.
Rail Passes -- Rail passes as well as individual rail tickets are available from Rail Europe (www.raileurope.com; tel. 800/622-8600 in the U.S.). Options include a five-day rail pass usable for a one-month period in First Class for $354. Eurail (www.eurail.com) offers regional rail passes throughout Europe, including a France pass for $223, allowing four days of first-class travel within a one-month period in First Class, including a Eurostar trip from London to Paris.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.