Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Truth About Driving in France

My Experience
Travel Thursday

I never considered myself brave, until I was released in a foreign country driving on my own.

I opted for a car for just over two weeks, but returned it a few days early. I thought it would be nice for the leisure of exploring areas on my own, and it was convenient but not without daily anxiety.

I thought the cost would be around $600 or so to rent including gas (petrol). But it was much more, a figure I still don't even want to fully face... I think about $1,250 and if I would have kept it throughout the duration to Nice instead of taking the train it would have been about $1,650. Why?

(The conversions are for Americans driving abroad, so I apologize to my readers elsewhere in the world.)

Average liter of gas (petrol / "sans plomb" in French) was: 1.65 euro x 3.79(1 gallon) = 6.25 euro per gallon.
Then convert the 6.25 x 1.45 for the dollar conversion = $9.06 per gallon! I believe it was a 12 gallon tank, so $108.72 to fill up an economy car.

Then there is the toll roads... which I tried to avoid because I had no idea they were so expensive for Americans. I probably spent $50 on them, and that was by not using them very much. Had I gone to Nice from the Aquitaine region, it would have been about 80 euro to use the toll road, so an additional 80 x 1.45 = $116 for tolls. For anyone not accustomed to the French toll roads, I highly suggest visiting the Autoroute webpage for the toll charts prior to your trip. I did once I already had the car and why I opted for the train, plus the stress of driving alone was entirely too much.

Each morning I about had a panic attack before venturing out for sight seeing. After handling all other misfortunes you can read about in my previous post R&R in Loire (misplaced laptop, passport, camera; pickpocketing on Eiffel Tower; and a man exposing his genitals to me while photographing by the river) all of which I handled with grace.

Where I stood when he um... approached me in his car. 
(Candes-Saint-Martin, France. Thanks for ruining a good day... jerk.)

But one day driving in the Loire Valley was enough to cause me to lock myself in my chateau watching Will & Grace episodes for the next 24 hours. I even closed off via email to family and loved ones. It doesn't sound like a big deal, but when you're on your own trying to navigate a map, manage the narrow highways and confusing town centers figuring out their right of way system, one way roads and roundabouts, in foreign road signs in a different language, and not eating very much, it can be a lot to manage.

But on that one day...

I proceeded through a green light on what I was sure was a two way road, but it got so narrow that two cars couldn't fit. Did I miss a sign? I tried to pull over as far as I could to let the two cars going the opposite way pass but dented the front bumper on the curb as a result (another 360 euro x 1.45 = $522 because I've always been told rental car insurance was a rip off.) I received dirty looks, and a woman rolled down her window to tell me there was something in front of my car so I couldn't go forward, when I replied "Je ne comprends pas." (I don't understand.) She replied, "Ahh American." It was just like out of the movies. Too scared to go forward I tried turning around and attempt what felt like a 20-point turn. A man came out from the restaurant where he worked and saw me struggling and tried to direct me in French. Then he offered speaking very slowly "Je conduirai votre voiture" (I will drive your car) because he had previously driven an auto bus. I had to put my faith in God that he wouldn't drive off with my car and belongings. When he maneuvered it perfectly and stepped out the car, my eyes welled up, I refrained from hugging him, but said, "Merci! Merci!" over and over.

 Beynac, France. Not where I got stuck, though the road was similar size.

It didn't really get easier after that. Within 20 minutes, I saw a car that had flipped over and the car in front of me stopped to help pull the people out. I almost stopped, but would have been no help, and probably would have cried again at that point (I broke down in McDonald's just before, eating french fries with drippy tears and mascara is not really tasty.)

I finally found Chateau de Chenonceau after what felt like hours, and took the toll road on the way home, but not before going over a very narrow one way bridge with France's sort of "free for all right-of-way system".

The Euro Rail Pass was looking very good at this point. But I still really want to see the Dordogne River and it's neighboring castle villages, and I'm so glad I did. It was nerve wracking with narrowing river side cliff roads, but the beauty was worth it. I also learned to park at the bottom of each fortress village and instead climb the very steep cobblestone roads to reach the castles, to which my bottom is now half the size it used to be. For that I'm grateful.

Also on the positive side, the Arc de Triomphe which I was stressing about the most was not that bad. Thank goodness I have a great sense of direction, so many times I had to wing it. One toll road was closed for a portion of my journey and I had to return to the small highways for a 2 hour delay on my drive from Bourgueil to Dordogne, (when the bee in the car experience occurred- if only I had that on film). But I would have never seen so much of France's back roads if I hadn't driven.

That said... I will never do it on my own again. Don't want to think about it, as I'm still awaiting the final bill from Avis & promise to refrain from bringing it up again, and will focus on positive blogging once again!

If case you missed the other two driving posts, you can catch them here, R&R in Loire and Driving in Loire.

Happy Traveling!


  1. haha Well, I have been there, Japan costs the same for is damn expensive and so are the tolls, when I took my Japanese driving test to get my license, that made the bar exam look easy. Why couldn't you go forward?

  2. What a brave girl! I have such admiration for you! 'Such strong determination to see the beauty! :)


  3. These pictures of France are so beautiful! Keep up the great photography work

    x mordrian



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