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.

euros.jpg
Bring more than this

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.

Image result for highway toll booth france
Source: http://www.thelocal.fr

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.)

roundabout
source.www.dot.nebraska.gov

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.

Image result for french speed limit sign
In this context, rappel means “reminder.” Source: http://www.ukfrancebikers.com

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…

12 thoughts

  1. Great article!! So informative and I LOVE your storytelling ability. It’s a joy to read.

    Interesting note on roundabouts. I used to loathe them until I talked to a civil engineer that showed me the statistics on just how many deaths they prevent st intersections. Makes sense when you think about the difference between getting T-boned by someone running a stop sign and getting hit by someone going out of their turn on a roundabout.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very interesting read. I don’t drive but interesting to see the struggles you can have when driving in a foreign country. Roundabouts are pretty common in England but you don’t tend to see them very often in the US, I think California is the main place I’ve seen them from the 12 states I’ve been to.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Offering my 2c as someone who has driven in France a lot (for someone who does not live in France).

    #1 Take money out of any ATM at the airport when you arrive – the rates will be BETTER than both buying them at home or exchanging money at a bureau de change – generally your bank will give you the average of the best sell rate of the day. Depending on your bank, and the type of account you have, they may even waive the foreign transaction fee, but even if they don’t you might still come out ahead (quick math: currently the dollar is trading at $.88 against the Euro; withdrawing from an ATM will probably get you within $.01 of that – so let’s say $.87; Travelex, one of the companies that runs those currency exchange booths is offering $.79. This means that if you exchange $100 at the booth, you’re only getting $79, whereas you’ll get $87 if you use the ATM. Even if you have to pay a $5 fee and 3% surcharge for a withdrawal, you break even – if you withdraw the equivalent of $200, you come out $7 ahead ). The only time I have ever (since 1995) brought large amounts of cash with me was on the trip I just returned from because we were told that no ATMs in Sudan would accept our cards.

    #2 if you don’t already put travel notifications on your credit and debit cards before you travel – do; it won’t prevent all mixups, but it prevents the vast majority.

    #3 You might piss off the drivers behind you, but if you’re roundabout-uncertain, stick to the right lane, that way you won’t have to emergency merge before missing your exit; however, don’t ever worry about missing your exit, because you can just go around the roundabout again – there’s no limit!

    You’re making me think I should pen an upcoming post about misadventures on the road in France – I may have a couple…

    Like

  4. I’ll have to think about testing out the bank rate vs. ATM when next we go abroad. Doesn’t solve the problem of simply not wanting to deal with it when I land, but I’d be curious to see how it works out financially.

    Yes, I always put travel notices on my cards before I travel. Definitely good advice. The France thing – the rejections and my cc company’s inability to see them – was such a weird, inexplicable thing.

    Even if you go round and round the roundabout, the person behind you will probably only be pissed off for one go-’round, as they’ll likely exit!

    I’d love to read about your misadventures! They suck at the time but make such good stories.

    Like

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