My first experience of driving in Europe was after my boyfriend and I took delivery of a brand new right-hand drive Alfa and drove it out of Naples at peak hour in a thunderstorm with said boyfriend telling me to lean out the passenger window and tell him when it was safe to overtake. How I didn’t lose my head, literally, I don’t know but after that experience I vowed I would always drive a left-hand drive car in Europe.
Despite a few misgivings about driving on the opposite side of the road, I very quickly became so attuned to it that I never had to pause and think about which side of the road I should be driving on. Roundabouts were the only road hazard that would give me a slight pause, but when all else fails, follow the car in front.
The most economical way to rent a car in Europe is to do it from outside the continent. There are plenty of car rental agencies online and it is easy to make comparisons on their sites for different vehicles. I recently arranged from Australia to rent a car with a Sat Nav for 4 days and it cost €167.64, unlimited mileage and no deposit required. Later, when I was in Beaune I rented a car for one day and I was quoted two prices, the first was €46.92 with a limit of 200km and the second price was €89 again with limited mileage. Needless to say I took the little Fiat 500 at the cheaper price. What I hadn’t factored in was the €1500 deposit that they take when you rent it. I gritted my teeth, passed over the credit car for a reading and hoped that I wouldn’t have an accident. The deposit was of course not removed from the bank account but it did make me very aware of driving cautiously.
At least both agencies were content with my Australian Driver’s Licence that along with my Passport was sufficient identity for rental purposes.
Sometimes the agency charges a pick-up fee if you arrange to pick the car up from the airport rather than in town. Also if you are staying in a city when you first arrive, delay picking the rental car up until the day you are leaving on your road trip so that you don’t have to pay for a garage or street parking which can be very expensive in major European cities. Some streets are so narrow I have watched trucks clip side mirrors and keep driving because the damage is only to a rental car. Remember also that rental agencies often close during the afternoon siesta so if you need to pick up or drop off the car during that time, you will need to make arrangements for returning the key. When we picked the car up in Brive-la-Gaillard, our train arrived soon midday so we arranged to pick up and return the car keys to the staff in a café near the train station.
When there are two of us I don’t usually rent a car with a Sat Nav system but it really comes into its own when driving through the larger cities or when travelling on your own because it avoids the need to stop and look at a map. Even with the Sat Nav finding your way into the Avis rental car park at the Gare de Lille can be an exercise that is fraught with wrong lanes and exits and a lot of swearing between driver and navigator.
I prefer using maps because I mark down where I have been and have a lovely time later reminiscing about the road, the scenery and the towns etc. I tend to use the Michelin maps that are very detailed. Although one bookshop in Brisbane stocks a few of these maps if you have time you can pre-order them from a wonderful travel and bookshop in London called Stanfords http://www.stanfords.co.uk and they will post them to you.
If I want to go somewhere quickly I use the Motorways (blue signs with white writing) but be aware that many of these have tolls. I use my credit card rather than trying to find the spare change to pay for the péage. The motorways are very well maintained usually have at least three lanes and have speeds between 110 to 130 km. These roads are marked in red or red and yellow on the maps and are labelled A or E for example: A28 that links Rouen with Abbeville in the north-east.
The next level down are the roads with either the letter N (N31) or D (D6014) that are marked in red on the Michelin maps. These roads usually permit speeds between 70 and 80 km. These roads link the larger towns and villages and will get you to your destination quite speedily.
The smaller D (D116) roads, marked in yellow and white weave their way across the countryside, winding between villages and fields. They often change their numbers, for example the yellow D4 leaves Tourny in Normandy, morphs into the D1 and then into the D46 and into the D41 as it crosses other routes. Although scenic the speed limits will slow your travel considerably as the speed limit drops to 50 km as you approach a small town or village and even down to 30km as you pass through the built-up areas. This can almost double the time spent driving to your destination. These roads are narrow which is one reason to rent a small car; many do not have road markings and often have agricultural vehicles travelling slowly along with no opportunities for passing. I was recently caught in a line of 12 cars behind a tractor that drove for 5km before turning off.
One of the most useful sites I use when trying to work out a route is the Michelin site, www.viamichelin.co.uk that is comprehensive in the amount of information available. It gives you a choice of route options such as the tourist route, the quickest, the one without tolls/ péages and provides times, fuel consumption and distances. It maps out tourist sites, hotels and restaurants and provides directions including road categories and will mark in green roads that are the most scenic routes.
Don’t forget to fill the car with petrol (essence) before returning it. Finding a fuel station is rare on the minor roads and many small villages don’t have a service station. The petrol stations on the Motorway are marked with green hemispheres but the fuel sold at these tends to be more expensive than the fuel sold through the many supermarkets such as the Carrefours and Intermarchés that also sell diesel (gazoil) and unleaded fuel (sans plomb). There are very few manned pumps in France but most of the pumps I have used take credit cards, however have some cash available, as some won’t take international credit cards.
Before driving off, check that the rental car comes with the warning triangle and the high visibility vest that is mandatory for all vehicles in France. There is also legislation requiring all cars to have the Norme
Française (NF) breathalyser but due to production problems this is still not being enforced. Remember the alcohol limit is 0.5mg per ml.
Parking is often challenging and is tightly regulated, with alternating sides of the road in some places, and restricted hours particularly in larger cities or in the centre of the villages. Parking locations are easily identifiable with a large white P on a blue sign. I have even become used to seeing a car veer across the road towards me, not always indicating, only to slide into an available car space on my side of the road. If there is a space, a driver will always see this as a challenge to try to fit their car into it so make sure you have sufficient space to exit.
Don’t be put off driving in rural France, as it provides wonderful opportunities to explore old buildings and villages that are off the major roads and you do see some surprising sights.