With so much public transportation in France I often get bombarded with the question of whether or not a rental car is truly needed. Unless you’ve traveled sans car (aka bike touring/backpacking) a lot or have traveled in France before using public transportation I would say most people need a car.
Some days you’ll use the car to get closer to a destination and then ride your bike the rest of the way to the race. Other days you can cycle from your hotel. Long transfers are where the car is key, as you may be making your way to some obscure town not served by mass transportation.
Vehicles and roads are smaller, so things like packing and organization are critical. In a section below called Driving Basics I’ll go into detail about driving itself, but speaking from experience most people can get comfortable quickly when it comes to driving in France. As for licensing I’ve found that an international driving permit can easily be had at any AAA Travel location. It will allow you to rent and drive abroad in European countries, most of the time all you need is your regular license the International permit isn’t bad safety net.
Where to rent is often a question, but for most travelers they feel comfortable using recognizable names that also do business in the States. The company Europcar seems to have a good presence in France so perhaps give them a look too. Another company I’ve used is autoeurope.com and claims it will find the best rate amongst multiple companies such as Avis and Europcar. The feature I found most helpful about autoeurope.com was that it clearly explained what I was paying for and what I wasn’t so there would be no surprise fees.
Also be aware that some automakers have long-term rental programs that allow you to “rent” a car for trips longer than two weeks. Basically it’s a way to get you into one of their cars and then they can sell it used when you’re done. What is appealing is the fact that most guarantee you the EXACT car you choose—something that is important if you’re traveling with others. I arrived in Paris for instance and picked-up a 0 mile, factory fresh car with GPS Navigation. If you’re interested check out renaultusa.com. You’re reservations need to be completed within 3-4 weeks before leaving but you deal with their helpful New York office which I’ve found to be simple.
For those of you who want the ultimate European Tour de France experience consider a camper/RV rental. The roads of Le Tour are lined with camper vans, and they provide those of you who want to follow the race closely the ultimate in flexibility. The cost initially may seem like it is more but you won’t have issues booking hotel rooms, which is often the single most challenging aspect of planning a Tour de France vacation.
Outside the Tour de France, July is a huge month for French vacations so add this to the extreme demand put on the smaller cities visited by Le Tour, and it’s easy to see how rooms are at a premium. I’ve read more than one place that Germany offers the lowest rates for RV renters and my online price checking seems to confirm this.
If you can plan some extra time pick-up in Germany and plan your drop-off in Paris. A good starting point for research and camper rental is Idea Merge. I’ll also note that they rent VW Camper vans that can carry (up to 4, recommended for 2). You can rent an optional bike rack with the VW.
Driving in France can be more time consuming and challenging than in the States. Many of the trips will involve passing through small village after small village. Slower speeds and multiple changes of direction can test your mettle.
Driving to the stage inevitably will take longer than you expect so I always try to build an extra hour of “padding” into my figures. Unless you’re on the Autoroute only count on covering 60-70 Kilometers an hour—add in mountain passes and this figure drops quickly. The Autoroute is typically 130 KPH speed limits but remember that you’ll have some toll stations slowing matters.
The auto rentals are small so packing light is a must, also count on driving a standard transmission automobile. Making large transfers across France will involve using the Autoroute, which is similar to the interstate. Count on toll charges on the Autoroute and remember when buying gas, the price listed is in liters (3.79 Liters=1 gallon). Most rentals are diesel and you’ll be thankful when it comes time to gas up, one helpful tip to know is that diesel is referred to as gasoil or gazoil at the pump.
The roadside rest stops on the Autoroute offer a nice way to relax a little or take a break. The larger stops have nice lunch stops and surprisingly good cuisine at times. On the smaller roads stop and have a picnic. I always recommend carrying some snacks and water in your car as I have been in some pretty long traffic jams at times.
Pay attention to speed and always wear your seatbelt. Newly enacted seat belt laws force you to pay a $200 fine on the spot or your auto will held until you make restitution. In 2003 I witnessed Police using high-power long-range lenses/binoculars to catch offenders. Also be aware that the blood alcohol limit is very low and in the past few years they have begun to aggressively pursue DUI.
Also be aware that speeding is often enforced via radar cameras on the Autoroute. I have had a few friends tell me they were speeding on the Autoroute passing an underpass and noticed a bright flash go off. I’m not sure in a rental how you’d be tracked down but keep this in mind. For all of you techno buffs know that my Renault rental/lease cars in the past have had the GPS and show me on the navigation system where the speed/radar cameras are before I pass them.
The website http://www.ideamerge.com/motoeuropa/guide.html is an invaluable resource for information as it relates to European and French driving. For instance if you go to the site you can find examples of road signs, traffic regulations, common traffic phrases translated, and even how to get BBC on your radio.
Another great site is http://www.drive-alive.com/ which will map distances between cities and more importantly figure drive times and toll charges you’ll incur. Be careful about using this for cycling because it will often map the Autoroute, which you CANNOT ride your bike on.
When driving and planning it is important to understand the road designations. The better you understand the roads you’ve picked, the less likely you to have travel pitfalls. At the beginning of Section two we will discuss the mapping further.
A=Autoroute (tolls apply) or Motorway such as A7. They have the feel similar to the Interstate in the U.S. and most of all don’t plan on cycling here!
N=National: A road such as N91 from Grenoble to Bourg d Oisans. An “N” is a major road that can be as small as one lane each direction. Occasionally you can cycle these roads though don’t target them as primary cycling routes when other routes exist. The N91 mentioned above as it’s the only road from Grenoble to the base of many famous climbs of the Alps. So it’s a favorite of cyclists.
D=Departmental: A smaller road like the D100 near Hautacam in the Pyrenees. These are less trafficked and cycling is fine or often great on “D” roads. You’ll ride them often.
C= Communal The smallest roads which are very quiet but also very rustic and often not so well marked. In the States many would only pass for a golf cart path as they can be very narrow. I personally enjoy them but be aware that because they are used by farmers that you can have fecal mess to dodge….
How to Find the Exact Roads Used by Le Tour
The roads used are now published on the Tour website (www.Le Tour.fr) in June, or you can also pick-up a copy the 2007 VeloNews Guide to the Tour de France—it has the same timetables and roads used for the race. It will have the roads used in the route as well as what time organization estimates the race will be on that road. If you’re following on your own this information is ESSENTIAL. Just be aware that the VeloNews guide won’t be available typically until June and in 2005 didn’t have the same amount of detail as the online version available for free.
This info is a necessary resource, but don’t panic if it’s late to arrive. The 2004 version came late and caused some panic and doubt—the organizers must document the information so patience is needed as it pertains to this document. In past years this info has been available in May. Just know the delivery date is not concrete and can fluctuate.