My Top 7 Tips for Driving in France

Over the last few years while I’ve been working as an area trainer in France, I’ve spent many, many hours on the road.  While I wouldn’t describe myself as an expert, driving in France is certainly an area where I have a lot of experience. 

I thought it would be helpful to share some of my tips and the things I’ve learnt over the past five years.  Driving abroad can be challenging, but it can also be exciting and open doors to many new adventures and opportunities.  Whilst there are some obvious similarities between driving in the UK and France, there are also many differences that you need to be aware of. 

Here are my top 7 tips for driving in France, I hope you find them useful.

Relax & Enjoy the Drive

Driving on the opposite side of the road to what you are used to will feel disorientating at first, even if it’s only briefly.  The first time I drove overseas I was really nervous (you can read more about that here) and even stuck a note to my dashboard with the words “DRIVE ON THE RIGHT” as a reminder!  It turns out it wasn’t necessary at all. The first time you overtake someone by driving on their left, it will feel a little strange.  Apart from that, it is relatively easy to adjust to driving on “the other side” of the road.  Just take your time and make sure you give yourself a little bit more distance than usual, so you have more time to react if you need to.  

Of course, it is important to be vigilant, but don’t overthink it as this will likely leave you feeling more confused than anything.  Many people worry about driving the wrong way around roundabouts, but this would be very difficult to do, especially as the roads are very clearly sign posted. Relax and enjoy the drive, as in my experience the French roads are far better maintained than roads in the UK and driving in France can be a really enjoyable experience.

An interesting side note: there’s an old French law known as priorité à droite, where people on the road had to give way to those joining the road, either from a side street or roundabout, therefore giving priority to the right.  As you approach French roundabouts you will see a sign saying “vous n’avez pas la priorité”.  This is to indicate that you must give priority to those already on the roundabout, because in most places this rule no longer exists.  Be cautious of priorité à droite though as there are places in France where this rule still applies; usually in smaller towns and villages where it will hopefully be signposted. 

Take a Break

Stop as often as you need to at the Aire de Repos, the French equivalent of service stations.  I say equivalent, but I’ve found them to be far superior to English service stations.  If you are concentrating a lot while you are driving, as you most likely will be the first time you drive overseas (or anytime you drive really!!) you will need to rest regularly.  I remember reading somewhere that the French government recommend taking a break every two hours when driving and although I can’t find any evidence of that now, it does seem like common sense, especially when driving long distances.  

There are two different types of Aires; those which have fuel stations, shops, restaurants, picnic areas and toilets and the smaller Aires which just have a toilet block, picnic areas and sometimes play areas for children.  The signs leading up to the Aire clearly indicate the difference.  At work, I spend a lot of time driving on my own so only ever stop at the quieter Aire de Repos during the busy tourist season and when it’s light.  After dark, I only stop at the Aire de Repos with fuel stations as I know there will be staff around, they are always well lit and are surprisingly busy at most times of day or night.

Be Aware of Speed Limits

This is important no matter which country you are driving in, but speeding fines and other penalties in France can be harsh, so take care.  There are also some variables with speed limits that you need to be aware of.  Speed limits decrease when it is raining (from 130km/h to 110km/h on motorways) and speed limits on main roads outside of built up areas has changed in recent years from 90km/h to 80km/h, but is still 90km/h on dual carriages.   Speed cameras are more discrete than they are in the UK, as it should be in my opinion, but over the past 12 months a large number of them have been covered up or defaced by gilet jaune protesters.  It’s also important to be aware that the speed limit changes to 50km/h every time you enter a town, village or built up area, but you may not see any signage to warn you of this.  The sign below not only indicates which French town or village you are entering, but also that the speed limit has changed to 50km/h.

Drive a Left-Hand Drive Car

This may not always be possible, but if you are considering the pros and cons of taking your own car to France vs. flying and hiring a car, my recommendation would be to hire a left-hand drive car.  I recently read a blog post that advised people to bring their cars from the UK to make driving easier.  I understand the logic for this, as it may be easier to drive a car that you feel more familiar in.  However, in my experience it is far easier to drive a left-hand drive car on French roads. 

In my first year working in France I brought my own car from the UK and I found it made many aspects of driving difficult.  Pulling out of junctions was a challenge because my vision was limited, I found myself climbing over the passenger seat to make payments at the péages (toll roads) and on more than one occasion got stuck behind a painfully slow tractor on windy country roads because I couldn’t see past it to overtake safely.  If you have a choice and can hire a car rather than bring your own from the UK, it will make your life much easier.  Don’t worry if you reach for the hand brake with your left hand a few times, you’ll soon get used to it!

Fill up with Fuel

Fill up you car with fuel whenever you can and don’t drive with your fuel tank almost empty in rural areas of France. Small, rural town petrol stations often have limited opening hours, where a two-hour lunch is the norm and they generally close for the day at around 5.30pm.  In my experience, they rarely open at weekends, particularly after lunchtime on a Saturday.  This may not be the case in busy, tourist areas, but it is the case in many towns and villages.  I’ve also visited fuel stations in small rural villages during the week only to find them closed with handwritten notes in the window saying that they are on holiday this week or that they have ran out of diesel and won’t be getting their next delivery until later that week.   While this is quite quaint, it can also be a little distressing if you are about to run out of fuel.  Make sure you fill up when you can to avoid this being a problem for you.

Take Everything You Need

It is compulsory for all drivers to have the following safety items in your car when driving in France:

  • Reflective safety jackets for the driver and each passenger
  • Warning triangle
  • Spare bulbs
  • Headlight deflectors
  • GB sticker if you’re bringing your own car to France.
  • Crit’air sticker for some larger towns and cities
  • Breathalyser (this is still a requirement even though the €11 fine for not carrying one has been postponed indefinitely)

Obviously it would be better to pick them up in the UK before you travel, but you can also find these items in most large French supermarkets. 

Don’t forget to take your driving licence, passport, registration paperwork and insurance documents with you when you are driving.  These requirements may change depending on what happens with Brexit on 31st October 2019.

The legal blood alcohol limit in France is considerably lower than it is in the UK; just 0.5 mg or 0.2mg if you passed your test in the last 2 years.  My advice?  Don’t drink anything if you are planning to drive. 

Plan Ahead

Last, but definitely not least, plan ahead.  As with most things in life, it is better to be prepared.  That way you will be calmer and more relaxed when driving and able to deal with any issues that do arise with the minimum amount of stress and delay.  I have been driving abroad for many years now and still never travel long distances without plenty of planning and preparation.  Do your research, make sure you have everything you need and most importantly of all, enjoy the drive.

So they are my top 7 tips for driving in France. I hope you found them useful.  Have I missed anything?  If you want more information about driving in France or any other essential advice, I’ve found these two websites to be particularly helpful:

The AA’s Guide to Driving in France

À bientôt,

Catherine xx

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