We recently returned from a four day trip to Disneyland Paris in France. To keep costs down, my husband Shilts drove us from the West Midlands down to Dover (through the night) and got on a ferry to Calais and drove us to Disneyland Paris. Here are his top tips when driving in France.
In the days leading up to the trip (which I was secretly looking forward to – I’ve long harboured ambitions one day of driving down to the French Riviera) I began scouring the world wide web in search of advice for driving in France. A plethora of websites and advice later, I felt I had most of the information I needed, but somehow, I still felt a little underdone.
So, in order to put that right and maybe provide myself with a bit of a checklist for the next time we venture across the Channel, here is my guide to motoring in France; (please note, all of the information is relevant to a trip taken in August 2018 – regulations and official guidance may change over time so always double check!)
Before You Go Driving in France
A few things to check before you set off;
- Firstly, check your car insurance policy covers you for motoring in Europe. Ours came with third party only cover as standard, and in order to give us that extra protection, I enhanced the policy for the days we were over there to give fully comprehensive cover. This cost around an additional £25.00 to do.
- Similarly, I then check my breakdown cover. We have this provided through our bank account, and as standard it only covers the UK. I therefore added European breakdown cover to the plan and went for the enhanced option so that in the event of a breakdown, we would be covered for a hotel/accommodation stay and/or repatriation back to the UK if required. Again, this cost somewhere in the region of £25.00. Remember to start the cover from midnight the day of, or day before your travel – plans can change!
- Finally, the last thing to check is your satellite navigation system. If yours doesn’t have European mapping installed, I highly recommend an upgrade!
Kitting the car out
Again, something that you need to do prior to your travel is to kit out your car with the required items. By law, in France (as of August 2018) you are required to travel with;
- A hazard warning triangle;
- A GB sticker (if your car is not fitted with EU plates);
- Hi-visibility jackets for every passenger in the vehicle;
- Headlamp deflectors;
- A spare bulb kit;
- and a breathalyser.
I was surprised to read just how much the on-the-spot fines can be for not carrying some of these items, for example, €135 for not carrying either the warning triangle or the hi-vis jackets, and €90 for forgetting your GB sticker. We bought this AA kit* and simply bought some additional hi-vis vests and a breathalyser separately.
Make sure you keep the kit inside the car behind your front seats, not in the boot.
Do I need a clean air sticker?
You may also have read somewhere about a clean air sticker. At first, I was unsure whether I needed one of these as we were heading towards Paris. It is a little bit like the low emission zone in London, and if you wish to drive in Paris city centre, you have to apply for and obtain a clean air sticker prior to visiting the city. The rules on this only apply to the area inside the Parisian equivalent of the M25, the Boulevard Périphérique. If you are visiting Disneyland (which is situated to the far eastern side of the Paris area), you don’t require one of these stickers. If you were intending on paying a visit to the French capital by car on your trip, you will need to apply for one at least 2 weeks in advance of your trip.
Don’t fit these before you need to. As we had a 4 hour car journey from our home in the West Midlands to Dover ahead of us (which we completed in the night) it would have been unsafe to have fitted our deflectors before we left. The ideal time to fit them is as you are waiting to board your ferry in Dover. Once we had found our queue in the port, I simply affixed the deflectors to the headlights before we boarded our vessel. On the way home, we stopped at a services in Maidstone, about 30 miles up the M20 from Dover, and I removed the deflectors ready to resume the journey home. My advice however, read the fitting instructions before you fit them. I attempted this at around 5am after a 4 hour journey; it’s safe to say my brain was a little mushy at this point and the fitting was a lot more tricky than it should have been!
Driving in France – Drive on the right
Put simply, they drive on the right in France. You hit a dual carriageway as soon as you leave Calais, and we spotted more than one British plated car pootling cheerfully down the outside lane with an irate local steaming up behind them! Driving on the right becomes easy once you have negotiated leaving the port and you are heading out of Calais itself. Just watch for those cars merging to the right of you, it can be a little disconcerting at first!
The French Police Nationale are apparently notorious for catching speeding motorists, and being a Briton abroad, I did not want to have to engage at all with an angry police officer over excessive speed. Fortunately, the autoroute speed limits are more than fair. Everything on the continent is measured in Kp/h as opposed to Mp/h, and with a top speed limit of 130 Kp/h on the autoroute (about 81 Mp/h), you do feel that you are making good progress on your way. It also helps that the autoroutes are a lot less used than British motorways. The road between Calais and Paris felt a lot less busy than the M6 or M1.
I decided to buy a small chart for my windscreen that looked like this
You can buy one here (affiliate link)
It was very helpful to have a guide in front of me so that when the speed changed, I knew what the correct speed was in Mp/h to suit my car dashboard. Another thing to note; if you are towing a trailer or caravan, there are regular instructions where you have to reduce your speed incrementally on gradients. Separate signs are in place for towing vehicles, so watch out for these.
Travelling safely with the kids
One thing that I thought was interesting was the rules on child seats. Since Freddie, our youngest son came along, it has been convenient for Emma to sit in the back. She can sort him out if he gets upset for any reason or needs food/drink. Olly has therefore often travelled in his car seat up front with me. I’ve got quite used to my sidekick over the past 8 months. However, French motoring rules state that children must be seated in the rear of the car, and the only exception to this is that if you are travelling with more children than can physically fit in the rear of the car. So when we arrived in Dover, it was simply the case that we switched Olly and Emma round. It was quite unusual to have Mrs S up front with me!
The route from Calais to Paris
There are a number of options that I looked at for how to complete this journey. By far the most direct and straightforward route is to take the A26 between Calais and Arras/south of Lens and then join the A1 to Paris. This road takes you down as far as Charles de Gaulle airport in Roissy. From there we made our way around the Boulevard Périphérique. Then picked up the road to Chessy/Marne-la-Vallée and the Disneyland resort. Which brings me neatly onto the subject of…
Maybe one of the reasons that the autoroutes are relatively quiet is that they require the payment of tolls to use them. The toll system (péages, en français) is quite smart. You first encounter a toll booth on the A26 if you are doing this route, it is quite a clever system. The southbound toll station is located at Setques, about halfway between Calais and Arras. Take a ticket as you pass – nothing to pay yet. You then continue along the A26 and then subsequently the A1. Your next encounter with a toll station is Chamant, just before you begin approaching the greater Paris area. Simply insert your ticket and the toll machine tells you what your fee is for the journey you have done. In this case, our trip from Calais to Paris cost us around €21 one way.
Here is our top tip for this (for which we can’t claim any credit at all as we were tipped off about it ourselves, thank you Danielle!) The queue at Chamant for those people paying cash was very long, even at around 10am when we reached the péage. However, we had known this would be the case. Before we went we obtained a pre-pay travel money card from the Post Office. We were then able to load this up with euro before we travelled. This meant we could then use one of the automated card toll booths, pay on our card, and not incur any currency charges for card use abroad. Brilliant! I highly recommend this. This meant we were in and out of the toll stations both ways in no time at all. This is especially important for the return journey if you have a ferry or Eurotunnel to catch!
Anyone who has travelled anywhere on a UK motorway will appreciate how cruddy, on the whole, our service stations are (with a few notable exceptions). They are in most cases, quite old, dirty, very busy, and expensive. The facilities in France frankly put ours to shame. Dotted about once every 15km along the autoroutes are some wonderful service areas, called aires. You have to get quite good at reading the signs in advance of them, as they tell you what the aire has or hasn’t got. For example, some aires are simply car/lorry parking areas with picnic facilities. Others have got full restaurant and shopping facilities.
We stopped at a really nice aire going south not far past the toll station at Setques called Aire de Rely, and had a really pleasant breakfast. We also stopped off at a nice one on our way down to Paris on the A1 called Aire de services d’Assevillers. This is located approximately half way between Calais and Paris, ideal for breaking up a long journey. Finally, we suggest avoiding the Aire de Vémars that is situated just before Charles de Gaulle airport – not pleasant at all!
We only made the one stop coming north, and that was at the Aire de Wancourt, just prior to the junction connecting the A1 and the A26. It was decent enough and we had a good lunch there. However, we didn’t find it as clean and well-kept as the two southbound ones that we recommended.
The beauty of a French road trip is that as disappointing the return journey may be, there is always a ferry/train ride to look forward to (or not, depending on your sea legs!). You have to plan your return journey to coincide with your ferry/train. It will take you somewhere in the region of 4 hours (with a stop) to travel between Paris and Calais. However, whilst the autoroute should be plain enough sailing, be prepared for a bit of a shock once you enter the Calais port area.
Firstly, you will not fail to notice that there are plenty of people angling for a lift across the Channel. Therefore, be security conscious on the approach. Secondly, the enormous fences that have been put up are pretty imposing. Thirdly, you are in for a fair wait at passport control (although with Brexit rapidly approaching, we probably haven’t seen anything yet!). Give yourself plenty of time at the port. Be prepared to wait anything up to an hour just to get through passport control. I think we queued for around 30 minutes.
If travelling by P&O Ferries, we recommend booking the flexi tickets. They allow you flexible sailing up to 4 hours earlier or later than your booked crossing. We took advantage of this both ways, as we arrived into the port earlier than anticipated. Therefore, we were bumped forward onto earlier departing ferries which was great!
When refuelling, check that you are using the correct pumps! Look for sans plomb if you require unleaded petrol, and gazoil if you need diesel.
Take care at traffic lights, remember that there is no amber between red and green. Check for priorities too and remember that traffic to the right of you may move before you do! Also, don’t forget to go anti-clockwise at roundabouts!
Cedez la Passage – means Give Way.
Overtaking in France is fine, but just make sure you always return to the inside lane as quickly as possible; French motorists tend to tailgate slow moving vehicles in the outside lane. For your own safety, complete your manoeuvre and move back across!
I hope you have found the above useful in some way. Driving in France is a very pleasurable experience, and I enjoyed it immensely. Some day, I will complete the ambition and drive the full length of the country. Happy motoring!
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