Naturally we do a lot of driving in France and whilst most of it is blissful and carefree, there are times when you're left wondering if there's such a thing as a driving test in this beloved country.
It seems as though indicators are an optional extra which most French motorists feel they can do without. We've often considered it safest to be on a bike in France as the French have the utmost respect for cyclists; many's the time we've observed a motorist slowing down behind a pack of cyclists, indicating and pulling out carefully - before carving up another driver at the next roundabout...c'est la vie!
The following is a Bluffer’s Guide for the newcomer's first venture on French roads. The information we provide here is sourced from 3rd parties and is not regularly updated - we recommend that you contact a relevant, authorative body such as Driving Abroad, the AA or RAC before travelling.
Rules & regulations
First & foremost, serrez à droite! (drive on the right). There are many such signs on the way out of channel ports, but few in Aquitaine itself.
French road network
It's divided into autoroutes (motorways), indicated by an A then a number; routes nationals (main trunk roads, often dual carriageways, like our A roads), indicated by an N and a number; routes departementales (secondary routes, like our smaller A and B roads), indicated by a D and a number. There are also country roads with no number.
Most autoroutes charge tolls (péages); you’ll find péage stations occasionally in the middle of the motorway or when you exit. Péage channels and queues are divided into ones which accept coins, credit cards (most cards accepted), and ‘télépéage’ - a system for regular motorway users, avoid!
However, now it's possible for UK residents to skip through toll points on French motorways courtesy of a transponder fitted to your windscreen. To do this you need to register your vehicule and payment details online with Sanef UK.
Fill up with fuel off the motorway as it's much cheaper at hypermarkets.
All cars on French roads must be equipped with: reflective triangle & yellow security vest - the latter should be kept in the car, not the boot. Always use your hazard warning lights when stopped on the roadside. Drivers should carry the registration certificate, valid driving licence and insurance documents. Drink-driving limits, seat-belt laws, child seat regulations are all similar to the UK. You are not allowed to put a child under 10 in the front seat. The Driving Abroadwebsite contains a useful guide to French road signs. Motorists should be aware of new regulations being introduced in France. The latest one for instance is the requirement to carry a reflective safety jacket and warning triangle (applies from 1 July 2008).
Traffic information reports
Congestion forecasts can be found at the Bison Fute website. It's a useful resource when driving across France in high summer.
Autoroutes and some dual carriageways have regular 'aires' - service areas. There are two types – aires de repos, essentially just a toilet & picnic table, and aires de service, offering the full works: petrol station, restaurant/cafeteria, and often a hotel. In Aquitaine the Bordeaux-Cestas (nr Bordeaux) and Labenne (nr Biarritz) service areas are recommended! The quality of food on over at auto-route service stations is far superior to UK motorways! Plus it's cheaper as you don't have to pay a toll to exit and re-join the motorway!
Traffic police have the power to impose on-the-spot speeding fines, and are not afraid to do so – we talk from experience, trying to catch a plane! If you don't have the cash to hand, they will keep your car until you find the money. Please respect speed limits, and remember they are in kmh! France has wet-and-dry speed limits so be vigilant about the conditions.
Route plans & maps
The table above right shows distances in miles to Biarritzand Bordeaux from the main ferry ports. There are lots of excellent online resources such as AA route planner and driving time.
Car insurance & breakdown cover
Don't forget you'll need to extend your insurance and arrange some European breakdown cover for your trip. As well as the AA and RAC, you can also try Voyager Insurance for breakdown assistance.
Keeping costs down
1. Avoid road tolls - driving coast to coast will set you back up to £100.
2. Fill up your diesel tank when you get to France and find a supermarket to do so - much cheaper than service stations. For latest information on which side of the Channel is cheapest for fuel, visit the AA's Fuel Price Comparison
3. Buy breakdown insurance - try Voyager Insurance
4. Buy car hire insurance independently - companies such as Insurance 4 Car Hire offer cheaper options than the car hire companies' charges for covering the excess.
5. Stay in a budget hotel en-route to your final destination, rather than a luxury B&B - see our stop-over suggestions
6. Don't leave the motorway for lunch as you'll pay to exit and re-join at the toll booth. Use on of the services stations for a pretty decent and inexpensive lunch.
Mileages from Ferry Ports to Biarritz (BTZ) and Bordeaux (BDX)
Our Drivers' Top Tips
1. If you're driving to the beach, try and get there early in the morning or leave at lunchtime. In August the coast roads and car parks jam up quickly. The RN10 between Biarritz and St Jean de Luz is notorious for jams in the summer.
2. 24 hour petrol stations do not normally take UK credit cards if you intend to pay at the pump. Also, most petrol stations do not open in the evenings or Sundays so fill up whilst you can!
3. If you are travelling from the north coast ferry ports to the northern-most resorts of Aquitaine (e.g. Soulac, Montalivet, Lacanau, Cap Ferret), take the Royan Point de Grave ferry crossingand miss out the Bordeaux ring road. You'll save a couple of hours' driving. Ferries run every 30-45 minutes in summer, the crossing takes 30 minutes.