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The main car rental companies have offices in all railroad stations, airports, and larger cities. European rental cars will have manual transmissions unless you request an automatic. We recommend reserving a vehicle in advance, before coming to France.
In order to rent an automobile in France, you must be at least 20 years of age and have had a driving permit (license) for at least one year. Visitors staying less than 90 days and carrying a valid EU, international, or U.S. (state) license may drive in France. In the U.S., international licenses may be obtained from the American Automobile Association (AAA). It is mandatory to choose insurance coverage as offered in the rental terms.
Vehicles drive on the right in France. Unless otherwise posted, speed limits are 50 km/h in towns, 80 km/h on the Paris ring roads (le périphérique), 90 km/h on country roads, 110 km/h on national highways, and 130 km/h on restricted access highways, or autoroutes. Driving in bus lanes is prohibited. The maximum legal concentration of blood alcohol is 0.5 grams per liter.
The French rules for priorité à droite (yield right-of-way) are the opposite of the U.S.: A vehicle entering from the right has priority in cities and towns. Outside these areas, indicated by a yellow diamond sign, traffic on the more major road has priority. U-turns are not permitted, nor is crossing a solid white line.
French law requires that all vehicle occupants wear seat belts. Children in particular must be restrained in approved child seats: rear-facing infant seats for children less than nine months old; child seats for children from nine months to four years old; booster seats for children from four to ten years old. On motorcyles and scooters, helmets are required for driver and passenger.
Drivers must carry driving permits, international insurance cards, and vehicle registration cards. For drivers of rental vehicles, the last two documents are provided by the rental company. The fines for not wearing seat belts, driving through a red light, driving while intoxicated, and driving without a license are extremely high, even including confiscation of the vehicle.
In case of an automobile accident you must fill out a statement. You will find one in the glove box of your rental automobile, or you can request one from your insurance company. If there has been a breach of the law call the police so they may prepare a report. If anyone is injured, immediately call SAMU or the fire department.
Most of France's autoroutes are toll roads. Rest areas are located every 10 kilometers, auto services and food service can be found every 30-40 kilometers, and motels are found every 100 kilometers or so. Service stations on the autoroutes will have children's areas equipped with diaper changing stations, bottle warmers, and high chairs.
Road maps are available from bookstores and service stations. The maps published by the IGN provide the most detailed coverage of France. Michelin has maps of all of France as well as each region. The website of Mappy has custom point-to-point routing with driving times and distances, as do Via Michelin and Google Maps.
In Paris and other large cities in France, traffic is most congested on weekdays from 07h30 to 09h and 17h30 to 19h30. Week-end travelers begin to fill the streets and roads beginning at 16h on Fridays, especially near les portes, the exits from Paris. Traffic becomes difficult again on Sunday evenings, when they return. Outside of these times, traffic moves with minimal delay, even in Paris.
Autoroutes between Paris and the south of France, in particular the A5, A6, A7, and A20, become extremely congested when vacationers fill the roads. This occurs during school holidays, just after school ends (about July 1), when August vacations begin (August 1), and just before the next school year begins (about September 1). More precise information about French holidays and the school calendar is available. Road condition information is available from regional centers.
In urban areas parking is strictly regulated. Parking is permitted only in spaces painted in white. Those marked in yellow are reserved for commercial and official vehicles. Areas with yellow curbs may be used to drop off or pick up passengers, but parking is not allowed there.
If you see the word Payant, then parking fees must be paid. Payment machines (horodateurs) are located at intervals along the street where coupons may be purchased for 15 minutes to 2 hours of parking time. The coupon must be left inside the vehicle, visible through the windshield on the driver's side. The fine for non-payment is about 17 €. No parking is permitted on certain main routes through the center of Paris, labeled axes rouges (red routes).
Many downtown areas have modern and secure underground parking structures. Rates are higher than parking on the street, but they offer more space and longer parking periods.
If you are unable to find your vehicle after parking it illegally, it probably has been impounded. To find out, call the Préfecture de Police. They will give you instructions on how to retrieve your vehicle. Be prepared to pay a fine and a towing fee when you claim your vehicle. Don't wait too long since storage fees are very high.
France is increasingly concerned with environmental issues and the fight against air pollution. Measures restricting motorists have therefore been established for days when air quality is poor. Cars are restricted by their license plates, alternating days between even and odd numbers. Public transport is free on such days, and a good number of French people use bicycles.
Very few French people hitch-hike (faire de l'auto-stop), however, they will readily stop to offer a ride to those who raise their thumbs along French roads. To obtain a ride, display a sign naming your destination. If you want to be certain of getting a ride, an organization called Allô-stop matches hitch-hikers and motorists in exchange for a modest fee (a registration fee plus 22 centimes per kilometer). During the summer months reservations must be made one week in advance. Note that hitch-hiking is prohibited on autoroute ramps.