An International Driver's Permit is not required but can be useful in emergencies, particularly when a foreign language is involved. Drivers in France must be over 18 years old to drive, but there is no top age limit (if your faculties are intact).
If you're driving from the United Kingdom to the Continent, you have a choice of the Channel Tunnel or ferry services. Reservations are essential at peak times.
Gas is expensive, especially on expressways and in rural areas. When possible, buy gas before you get on the expressway and keep an eye on pump prices as you go. These vary—anywhere from €1.40 to €1.80 per liter. The cheapest gas can be found at hypermarchés (large supermarkets). Credit cards are accepted everywhere. In rural areas it's possible to go for miles without passing a gas station, so don't let your tank get too low.
Parking is a nightmare in Paris and many other metropolitan areas. "Pay and display" metered parking is usually limited to two hours in city centers. Parking is free on Sunday and national holidays. Parking meters showing a dense yellow circle indicate a free parking zone during the month of August. In smaller towns, parking may be permitted on one side of the street only—alternating every two weeks—so pay attention to signs. In France, illegally parked cars are likely to be impounded, especially those blocking entrances or fire exits. Parking tickets start at €17, topping out at €175 in a handicapped zone, for a first offense, and there's no shortage of the blue-uniformed parking police. Parking lots, indicated by a blue sign with a white p, are usually underground and are generally expensive.
France has 8,000 km (5,000 miles) of expressway and 808,000 km (502,000 miles) of main roads. For the fastest route between two points, look for roads marked for autoroute. A péage (toll) must be paid on most expressways: the rate varies but can be steep. The N (route nationale) roads—which are sometimes divided highways—and D (route départementale) roads are usually also wide and fast.
There are excellent links between Paris and most French cities, but poor ones between the provinces (the principal exceptions are A26 from Calais to Reims, A62 between Bordeaux and Toulouse, and A9/A8 the length of the Mediterranean coast).
Though routes are numbered, the French generally guide themselves from city to city and town to town by destination name. When reading a map, keep one eye on the next big city toward your destination as well as the next small town; most snap decisions will have to be based on town names, not road numbers.
If you have car trouble on an expressway, go to a roadside emergency telephone. If you have a breakdown anywhere else, find the nearest garage or contact the police. There are also 24-hour assistance hotlines valid throughout France (available through rental agencies and supplied to you when you rent the car), but don't hesitate to call the police in case of any roadside emergency; they're quick and reliable, and the phone call is free. There are special phones just for this purpose on all highways; you can see them every few kilometers—just pick up the bright orange phone and dial 17. The French equivalent of the AAA is the Club Automobile de l'Ile de France, but it only takes care of its members and is of little use to international travelers.
Rules of the Road
Drive on the right and yield to drivers coming from streets to the right. However, this rule does not necessarily apply at traffic circles, where you should watch out for just about everyone. There are no right turns allowed at red lights unless you have a blinking arrow. Every person in the car must wear a seat belt, and children under 12 may not travel in the front seat. Speed limits are 130 kph (80 mph) on expressways (autoroutes), 110 kph (70 mph) on divided highways (routes nationales), 90 kph (55 mph) on other roads (routes), 50 kph (30 mph) in cities and towns (villes and villages). French drivers break these limits all the time, and police dish out hefty on-the-spot fines with equal abandon. Do not expect to find traffic lights in the center of the road, as French lights are usually on the right- and left-hand sides.
You might be asked by the Police National to pull over at busy intersections. You will have to show your papers (papiers)—including car insurance—and may be submitted to an alcotest (you guessed it, a Breathalyzer test). The rules in France have become stringent because of the high incidence of accidents on the roads; anything above 0.5 grams of alcohol in the blood—which, according to your size, could simply mean two to three glasses of wine—and you are over the limit. This does not necessarily mean a night in the clinker, but your driving privileges in France will be revoked on the spot and you will pay a hefty fine. Don't drink and drive, even if you're just crossing town to the sleepy little inn on the river. Local police are notorious for their vigilance.
Some important traffic terms and signs to note: sortie (exit); sens unique (one-way); stationnement interdite (no parking); and impasse (dead end). Blue rectangular signs indicate a highway; green rectangular signs indicate a major direction; triangles carry illustrations of a particular traffic hazard; speed limits are indicated in a circle with the maximum limit circled in red.
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