France boasts one of Europe’s best motorway ( autoroute) networks, totalling over 9,500km (some 6,000mi). Because of the continuous expansion of the network (2005 saw the completion of a continuous motorway route from Calais to Spain via Bordeaux and 2006 of the A89 from Bordeaux to Switzerland, barring a short section in Dordogne), you shouldn’t use a motoring atlas that’s more than a few years out of date. A good guide to French motorways and their services is Bonne Route ! by Anna Fitter (Anthony Nelson).
Because of the toll system, driving on motorways is considered a luxury by many French people; consequently, they have the lowest traffic density of any European motorways and are France’s safest roads (although that isn’t saying a great deal) and your risk of dying on a motorway – with the notable exception of the Périphérique – is around four times lower than on any other road.
Some motorways have colourful names, such as Autoroute du Soleil (A6/A7), Autoroute l’Océane (A11), Autoroute des Deux Mers (A61). Signs on motorways inform you about interesting local sights and features, and regional motorway maps are distributed free by operators. On motorways there’s an excellent system of electronic information boards on overhead gantries, where everything from safety warnings to the time and temperature is displayed.
Most motorways are toll roads ( à péage), which are among the most expensive in Europe, although there are plans to privatise half the motorways in southern France, which could reduce charges by up to 30 per cent. Motorway travel costs an average of €0.07 per kilometre for a car, e.g. €65 from Calais to Montpellier and €75 from Calais to Menton (not a great deal less than it costs to fly with a budget airline from London to Nice – and the petrol in an aeroplane is free!).
There are five toll categories on most motorways, e.g. motorhomes and cars towing trailers or caravans are charged more than cars alone. Rates aren’t standardised throughout the country and vary with the age of the motorway and the services provided (some are two or three times higher per km than others). A new system of tolls has been introduced in some areas with higher tolls during peak periods. There are no tolls on the sections of motorways around cities. An Autoroute Tarifs leaflet and other traffic information is available from the Association des Sociétés Françaises d’Autoroutes (08 92 68 10 77, www.autoroutes.fr).
On most motorways, a ticket is issued at or shortly after each joining point. At the toll-booth ( péage) you may need to press a button to obtain your ticket or it may be ejected automatically. When you reach another toll-booth or exit from the motorway, hand your ticket to the attendant; the toll due is usually shown on a display. Tolls may also be levied at intermediate points. On some stretches, tickets aren’t issued and a fixed toll is charged. On these roads there may be unmanned toll-booths for those with the correct change, shown by the sign ‘ Monnaie exacte’. Throw the correct amount into the basket and wait for the light to change green.
If you don’t have the correct change, choose a lane with the sign ‘ Sans monnaie’ (which means ‘No change’ and not ‘No money’!). There’s often a separate lane with a ‘ CB’ (for carte bleue) sign where you can pay by bank or credit card, provided it has a microchip (there’s no need to enter your PIN). Insert your ticket first, then your card and press the red button if you want a receipt. There’s usually less of a queue in CB lanes, which are also handy if you really don’t have any money!
If you use motorways regularly, it’s worth investing in a remote control ‘box’ ( télébadge) to stick inside your windscreen, which enables you to drive through the Télépéage lane without even having to wind down your window (and usually without having to queue); the toll is deducted automatically from your bank account. You pay an annual subscription of between €10 and €20 depending on the region (more in the Alps) plus a deposit of around €30, which is refundable when you return the box (both added to your first bill), but if you use the motorway on your way to and from work you can benefit from a reduction of up to 35 per cent in toll charges.
Télébadges can be obtained from offices of your local motorway company (Société d’Autoroutes – listed under Autoroutes in the yellow pages), which are normally situated near toll stations. You need to supply your bank details, proof of address and, to qualify for the work-use discount, confirmation from your employer that you drive to and from work. Some 600,000 people use the system.
Tolls are also levied for the use of major tunnels, e.g. Mont Blanc (Chamonix to Entrèves, Italy, 11.6km/7.2mi), Fréjus (Modane to Bardonecchia, Italy, 12.8km/8mi) and Bielsa (Aragnouet to Bielsa, Spain, 3km/1.86mi), and bridges, e.g. the Tancarville, Saint-Nazaire and Normandie.
Rest Areas & Service Stations
Most motorways (and routes nationales) have rest areas ( aire de repos or simply aire) every 10 to 20km (6 to 12mi) with toilets, drinking water and picnic tables. Toilets and telephones are also provided at motorway toll booths. Camping isn’t allowed in rest areas, and toll charges are valid for 24 hours only.
Twenty-four hour service areas ( aire de service) are provided every 30 to 50km (19 to 31mi), offering petrol stations, vending machines, shops (selling newspapers, gifts, food, snacks and hot drinks), a café or self-service restaurant, and possibly an à la carte restaurant. Service areas cater for babies, young children, the elderly and the disabled, and some also have motels and provide tourist information services.
Service stations often also have facilities for minor car repairs. In the summer, roadside attractions are set up at service areas in an effort to stress and tiredness. These may include bouncy castles and clown shows for children, free nappies and meals for babies, and eye tests and even massages for drivers! Not surprisingly, service stations have better (i.e. cleaner) toilet facilities than rest areas.
Although they’re usually of a high standard, motorway restaurants are mainly self-service rather than haute cuisine and don’t offer the best value. You will save money by leaving the motorway and finding an inexpensive and friendly local establishment. Petrol prices on motorways are the highest in France and it’s much cheaper to fill up at supermarkets, although garages within 10km (6mi) of a motorway are allowed to advertise their prices on the motorway, which has helped to bring down motorway prices in some areas.
If you break down on a motorway, you must park your car on the hard shoulder ( bande d’arrêt d’urgence) and place an emergency triangle 30m (100ft) behind it. Free emergency telephones ( poste d’urgence) are mounted on orange posts every 2km (1.25mi) on motorways and you may walk along the hard shoulder to the nearest phone, indicated by arrows. Each telephone is numbered and directly connected to the motorway security centre (Centre de Sécurité). Say whether you’ve broken down ( tombé en panne) or have had an accident ( accidenté), and give the number of your telephone and the location of your car, i.e. before ( avant) or after ( après) the emergency telephone.
A breakdown truck ( dépanneur) or first-aid help ( service de secours) will be sent, as required. The standard charge for the recovery of a broken-down vehicle from a motorway is around €97 (€119.50 if it weighs over 1.8 tonnes), which applies whether the vehicle can be towed to a rest area for repair or needs to be taken to a garage or any other location designated by you (within reason!). A multi-language service is provided in English, German, Italian and Spanish on some motorways, e.g. the A7 between Lyon and Marseille.
Minor repairs of up to around half an hour are usually done on the spot. For anything more serious you will need to be towed to a garage. There are fixed charges for emergency repairs and towing, e.g. €65 for requesting a breakdown service and around €100 for repairing a vehicle on the spot (up to 30 minutes’ work) or towing it up to 5km (3mi) beyond the next motorway exit. Note that charges are increased by 50 per cent for breakdowns between 18.00 and 06.00 on weekdays and throughout the weekend and public holidays. If you’re unable to continue your journey, breakdown companies must provide free transport to take you and your passengers off the motorway and provide assistance in finding accommodation and alternative transport.
Unlike French motorways, main trunk roads ( route nationale) are jammed by drivers (including those of heavy goods vehicles) who are reluctant to pay or cannot afford the high motorway tolls. If you must get from A to B in the shortest possible time, there’s no alternative to the motorway (apart from taking a plane or train). However, if you aren’t in too much of a hurry, want to save money and wish to see something of France, you should avoid motorways. The money saved on tolls can pay for a good meal or an (inexpensive) hotel room.
Routes nationales and other secondary roads are often straight and many are dual carriageways, on which you can usually make good time at (legal) speeds of between 90 and 110kph (56 to 68mph). On the other hand, many trunk roads pass through towns and villages, where the limit is reduced to 50kph (30mph), which can make for slow progress.
All ‘N’ and ‘D’ class roads have white kilometre stones on the right and some have smaller stones every 100m (325ft). On ‘N’ class roads the tops of kilometre stones are painted red and have the road number painted on the side. Kilometre stones on ‘D’ class roads have yellow tops. In general, signposting is good, even in the most remote rural areas, thanks largely to the vast numbers of tourists who invade France each year. However, in some areas you will find that signs disappear or everywhere is signposted except where you want to go, and signs out of towns may be non-existent.
Usually only large towns or cities are signposted as you approach a ring road system, so you should plan your journey accordingly and make a note of the major destinations on your route. Road signs in towns and cities are often mind-boggling in their number and variety.
Note that signposts indicating straight ahead usually point at or across the intended road, i.e. to the left or right, rather than vertically as in most other countries. In towns, only the town centre ( centre ville) and ‘all directions’ ( toutes directions) may be signposted. If you don’t want the town centre, simply follow the toutes directions or ‘other directions’ ( autres directions) signs until you (hopefully) see a sign for where you want to go.
On mountain roads, driving conditions can be treacherous or even prohibitive, and studded tyres or chains may be obligatory. Many mountain passes are closed in winter (check with a French motoring organisation).
Paris is a beautiful city but should be avoided at all cost when driving, especially if you need to park there, which is usually almost impossible. If you cannot avoid driving in Paris, at least give the Place Charles de Gaulle/Étoile (at the top of the Champs-Elysées) a wide berth. One of the worst free-for-alls in the whole of Europe, it’s a vast roundabout where 12 roads converge, all with (theoretical) priorité à droite.
Because of the impossibility of apportioning blame in this circus, if you have an accident, responsibility is automatically shared equally between the drivers concerned, irrespective of who had right of way. The Place de la Concorde is, if anything, even worse, and a road to avoid unless you have a death-wish is the Boulevard périphérique (usually referred to simply as the Périphérique), an eight-lane race track around the city centre on which there’s an average of one fatal accident a day! (There’s an inner ring road, which is slower but safer.)
In June each year, the French Ministry of Transport issues a ‘wily bison’ map ( Carte de Bison Futé) showing areas of congestion and providing information about alternative routes ( itinéraire bis), indicated by yellow or green signs with the word Bis. The map is available free from petrol stations and tourist offices in France and from French Government Tourist Offices abroad as well as via the internet (www.bison-fute.equipement.gouv.fr). Information about long-term roadworks can be found on www.trafic.asf.fr.
There are around 90 information rest areas throughout France, indicated by a black ‘i’ and an Information Bison Futé sign. Green-arrowed holiday routes ( flèches vertes) avoiding large towns and cities are also recommended. Colour-coded traffic days and traffic jams ( orange for bad, rouge for very bad and noir for ‘stay at home’) are announced on the radio and television.
Up-to-date information about roads can be obtained by phoning the Centre Régional d’Information et de Coordination Routières (08 06 02 20 22), by tuning in to Autoroute Info on 107.7FM or via the internet (e.g. www.cofiroute.fr, www.info-autoroute.com or www.trafic.asf.fr).
General information about motorways, tolls and driving in France can be obtained from French Government Tourist Offices abroad. Disabled travellers can contact the Ministère de l’Equipement, des Transports et du Logement, Direction des Routes, Service du Contrôle des Autoroutes (01 40 81 21 22). Details of planned new roads are provided in The Best Places to Buy a Home in France (Survival Books).
This article is an extract from Living and working in France. Click here to get a copy now.