The last time we were in France, we rented a car for the entire three-week sojourn. Though we love the ease and convenience of European train travel, there were places we just couldn’t see without the freedom of a vehicle.
As is often the case with new experiences, we learned a thing or two about driving around France, and if you have an eye toward doing this in the future (or you just want to revel in someone else’s misadventures), you might want to keep reading.
Near Miss #1: Private highways and toll roads
Before we left, I went to some trouble to obtain Euros. Our regular bank doesn’t sell foreign currency, so several years ago I opened a barely-funded checking account (think $3.00 balance) at a different bank that does. When I went to buy Euros, I was told the account was “inactive” due to, ya know, inactivity. As I said, our primary checking account is elsewhere. I deposited $1 to “jiggle the mouse,” so to speak, but then was told I had to wait 24 hours before I could get foreign currency. Ugh. Another reason to hate the banking industry. Thank goodness it was summer and I had time to deal with this nonsense. Anyway, I went back the next day and got our Euros.
Meanwhile, the husband was at home sipping gin & tonics in the backyard, asking me why I was going through all this fuss. “You’re wasting your time,” he said. “We could,” he pointed out, “get Euros when we land in Paris.” Definitely not. When I arrive somewhere after a long flight – jet-lagged, dehydrated, and potentially short-tempered – and already have to wait for luggage, crawl through customs, and deal with a car rental, I do not want another thing on my “airport to-do list.” Also, the rates would be higher. No. Absolutely not. It was definitely worth it to go through some banking rigmarole pre-trip.
Concomitant to this discussion was our ongoing argument over how many credit cards to bring. This consisted of me loudly insisting that we bring two – our primary card and an old one we never use anymore but keep because of credit score algorithms and all that – and the husband rolling his eyes and referring to me by the
epithets nicknames he has lovingly bestowed upon me: Head Safety, Nervous Nelly, & Cautious Kitten.
Back to France. We were driving along, enjoying the scenery, when we came to a toll. No problem. We know how tolls work. Insert card, then…rejected?! Uhhhh. Merde. The message is in French… not entirely sure what it says. Traffic is building up behind us. Quick! Use the other card! Same thing. Shit. Wait! We have cash. Whew! Close call.
Variations on this scenario recurred intermittently the entire time we were in France. Sometimes our main card was accepted. Sometimes it would only accept the backup card. Sometimes neither. During our disastrous stay in Annecy, I called the credit card company in a huff, knowing these problems had nothing to do with our creditworthiness. They were stymied. They couldn’t even see the rejections on their computer screen. What we did find out is that highways in France are privately owned, which explains the inconsistency of card acceptance. The gratifying upside to all this stress was hearing the husband utter “you were right” about my insistence that we arrive with plenty of Euros in our pockets and a backup card. Almost makes it all worthwhile…
Lesson: Get cash before you start driving (if you want to get it at the airport, do so at your own risk, but you know what I recommend), and always carry two credit cards – a main, and a backup.
Near Miss #2: Grocery store gas pumps
You know that sticky situation you sometimes get into: you’re almost out of gas and there’s no station in sight? Surprise, surprise… it happened in France. But wait! There’s a supermarché and it has two gas pumps. Big, deep exhale. We’re saved. Pull up. Insert card. Nope. Oh crap, not again. And these pumps don’t take cash. Fortunately, we found an actual gas station before we were forced to run afoul of French hitchhiking laws. We tested our luck at a grocery store gas pump just one more time on that trip (with the same unhappy result) before vowing to avoid supermarket gas stations altogether.
Lesson: Keep an eye on the gas needle and be wary of supermarket gas pumps.
Near Miss #3: Roundabouts
OK, there were no actual near misses, per se. The husband did all of the driving on this trip (per the rental agreement – I don’t want you thinking we have an inegalitarian, patriarchal relationship) and, as a Brit, he has copious experience with roundabouts. Still, it’s worth pointing out their ubiquity in France to anyone who doesn’t, especially because he often notices people using them incorrectly. I’m seeing them more and more where we live in America, but they are by no means common. I find it interesting that American transportation departments install roundabouts and then just expect the public to figure out how to use them properly, when what really happens is people just fumble their way through. Perhaps they now teach correct roundabout usage in driver’s ed, but that doesn’t help the 241 million of us who aren’t in high school. Lucky for us, we have the 268-page sleeping aid known as Roundabouts: An Informal Guide put out by the US Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration. (I considered linking to that online tome, but thought better of it.)
The point is, there are many, many roundabouts all over France, both in cities and on rural roads and highways. I don’t actually know if roundabout laws vary from country to country, but having at least some familiarity with them is better than none.
Lesson: If you don’t have these where you live, study up on how to use them properly. Know who has right-of-way and how to enter and exit safely. (You don’t want to be Clark Grizwald, circling a busy roundabout ad infinitum trying to figure out how to get off.) Most importantly, don’t stop once you’ve entered the roundabout! The whole point of these things is to provide a continual flow of traffic. Also, use your blinkers (that’s American for “indicators”) in a roundabout. Several US states have instructional websites, but I’m linking to Minnesota’s because it’s user-friendly and has a nice little video.
DIRECT HIT!: Speed cameras
We received – quite unexpectedly – a speeding ticket in the mail a month and a half after we returned from France. (A full three pages of single-spaced French legalese, it took some studying to determine that it was in fact a speeding citation, and even more intense scrutiny to figure out how to pay it.) We don’t know where or when the offense occurred, but we do know that, sometimes, the speed displayed on our car’s GPS didn’t always match the posted limit.
We briefly considered returning to France to fight the $53.87 fine in the French court system, if only for one more croissant, but we realized this didn’t make the most sense, economically speaking.
So there you have it. Don’t be afraid to drive in France. Just learn from our foibles and you’ll be just fine. Oh, and you might want to check some of the many websites detailing everything you need to know to drive in France. Wish I’d thought to do that…
How about you? Any driving stories from your travels? Surely you can surpass these tame tales…