Driving the Motorways of France and other driving nightmares


Written by:

Joe Becerra

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Driving the Motorways of France in a Rental Car

We recently spent two weeks driving the motorways of France in a rental car as we made our way to the Rhone Valley and the Languedoc wine regions. We flew into Paris, picked up the car at the Hertz rental car office at the Charles de Gaulle airport. We have driven in Europe extensively, and each time there are nightmares of the road to experience. Be prepared and heed some advice.

Ford rental car
Our Ford rental car in France

Picking up the rental car is usually very painless, but driving out of the rental agency area is a challenge. Every rental car takes some getting used to, but the problem is you cannot ease into driving the car. As we drove out of the Hertz car rental area, we were immediately thrust into the throes of traffic. Too many choices and too many drivers who drive by their own set of rules. Here is where a GPS comes in handy. If you don’t have one, you are sure to get lost immediately.

We purchased a portable GPS system a couple of years ago, and it is a lot cheaper overall than renting a car with a built-in GPS device. Practice using the GPS at home. It takes some getting use to. We also found ours easier to program with a stylus pen.

Once you get to a motorway, you are going to have to deal with what we call “The Nightmare of the Péage.” When you get on the motorway, you will pick up your ticket. That’s as easy as it will get. Take the ticket, the gate opens, and you are on your way. Sometime later you will have to pay for the stretch of the motorway that you had driven. It is always a nightmare the first time you have to pay. No one is usually working the péage; everything is automated. If there is a person operating the péage, they leave when they see a rental car. Forget about trying to use your credit card unless you have one with a chip and not the strip. In the U.S. the chip is non-existent, but everyone else in the world is using credit cards with a chip. We tried all our credit cards but to no avail.

Too many slots!
Too many slots!

It’s a puzzle at the péage to find out how much you owe in Euros. They put the amount in the hardest location to find. Once you find the amount, you need to dig out the cash in euros and then find the slot to put the money into. In the meantime, traffic behind you is lining up at a furious rate. You see people losing their patience, and the tension builds. All pay stations seem to work the same way in each European country we have traveled. You can avoid the péage by driving on national roads. It may take longer, but you can avoid the “The Nightmare of Péage.”

This station was near the drop point for the car. It would not take our credit card.
This station was near drop point for the car. It would not take our credit card.

Getting gas is also an adventure. Make sure you know where the gas cap is located before you leave the rental station. We always worry that we have used the wrong type of petrol. Most rental cars take diesel, but they usually call it Gasoil at the pump. Then we wonder whether to fill up first and then pay or vice versa. We watch what the others are doing. We found that our credit cards worked when a station attendant was present because they can run it through a machine that takes a strip. If the station has the credit card machine at the pump but no attendant, your credit card will not work.

When you park your car in the old central part of a city, there is usually a fee. You need to go to a pay station, put in your money and bring the ticket back to the car. Usually, there will be a couple of natives lined up behind you while you try and figure out how the pay machine works. If you’re lucky, the person behind you can speak English and will help you out. Yet another nightmare! Never park your car inside a parking structure. Believe me, you will regret it.

Hertz Narbonne
Hertz Narbonne

The final nightmare of a trip with a rental car is locating the correct drop-off point for your car. In our experience is has never been easy. This last trip, we dropped our car off at the train station in Narbonne, France. The Hertz office was barely visible, and it was only an office. It had no parking lot for you to enter and leave your car. We drove around for 30 minutes to find a parking place nearby.

Just before we left the U.S. someone on a travel radio show recommended that you apply for and obtain a credit card from British Airways. They issue this card to folks in the U.S., and it has the chip. Get one before you head to Europe, and it will help you avoid some of the nightmares of traveling in a rental car.

  • Joe Becerra

    Joe Becerra has been traveling to wine country and enjoying wine since 1965. He is a retired educator, and now have the time the opportunity to share his wine travel experiences through this Website.

5 thoughts on “Driving the Motorways of France and other driving nightmares”

  1. Great summary of the difficulties we encountered. You might remind your readers to bring smaller denomination Euros just for the peages.

    • That is a very good suggestion. I would also add that the smallest paper currency is 5 Euros. Below that it is coins.

  2. Our Ford Explorer was the perfect size for 5 passengers and luggage. The back seat was quite roomy for 3 people. The car was easy to handle, unless trying to negotiate some of the very narrow streets in small villages.
    Everyday was a driving adventure!

    • You mention the narrow streets in villages. Many are one-way and if you happen to miss a turn, there is no such thing as just going around the block to get back. This is where is GPS device comes in very handy.

  3. Joe, you are spot on. While we only met warm, hospitable, helpful people throughout France (in Paris as well as in numerous villages) , the driving proved nearly impossible at times. Our attempts at refueling must have provided the natives with great comic relief since there are no pictorial indications of what one needs to do. We “discovered” that the green arrow booths on the peage (usually on the far right) were quite willing to take our cash. Returning the Hertz car to the same office (Louvre) was nearly impossible. Apparently they can’t advertise their business on the streets, so we were left to again “discover” the return entrance which was on an entirely different street. We suggested that they provide an illustrated map when the car is first issued as well as refueling instructions. Finally, the GPS saved our marriage from unmentionable words on endless unnamed roads!

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