Up hill, down dale, for those whose legs and lungs aren’t up to hiking or biking the Luberon hills, a car is the only way to go.
Train travel between cities in Europe is terrific, and when parking will be costly and complicated, I’d never consider anything else. During my stay in the south of France, however, I got around primarily by car because so many of my destinations were little places with less frequent public transportation connections, I wanted to be able to drop in and drop out at will, and parking was no problem. I’ve been on autoroutes and little country roads, and I’d like to give a boost of courage, followed by a little advice, to anyone fearful of driving in France.
Reserve your rental before you leave home. The best rates are only obtainable in advance, so it pays to line up your rental car before you leave home. I rented through Kemwel, paying only $378 for 13 days’ use of a very nice four-door air-conditioned manual transmission Citroen, including basic CDW insurance. (The "super" CDW they try to sell you may be covered by your credit card – check before you leave home.) After checking out several companies on the web, in the end I got a better deal by calling Kemwel – a third the price they offered online. I picked up the car at the Marseille train station (easy straight drive out of town to the autoroute) and returned it at the Marseille airport. A minor fender scuff I acquired in Arles (oops!) either went unnoticed or was covered by the CDW; I never heard a word about it.
Rules of the road. These really aren't that different from home. At a four-way stop or an unmarked intersection, the driver on the right has the right of way. Road signs are in the symbols used all over Europe: important ones to know are the red circle/diagonal over a blue ground (no parking) and the red circle with white horizontal bar (no entry). Most road signs are very intuitive, and stop signs look just like the ones at home. The trickiest thing by American standards is the roundabout, an intersection where roads merge into a circle, found on almost any road once you're off the autoroute. Always turn right into the roundabout and yield to traffic on your left (actually this is pretty intuitive too). Drive around the roundabout, looking for the sign that points to your destination, and take the road indicated. If you're not sure, just drive around the circle as many times as you need to until you figure it out. If you take the wrong road, chances are you'll soon encounter another roundabout where you can easily go back the way you came and fix your mistake.
Avoid driving in large cities. Unless you are accustomed to driving in hectic large cities, and probably even then, it’s wise to avoid driving around in large cities. Signs are in foreign languages, there often seem to be only one-way roads going the opposite direction from where you want, and in many French cities, the shortest route between two points isn’t even close to a straight line. It’s smart to pick up your car in a smaller town or at the airport if you can. When I was ready to leave Marseille, I picked up my rental car at the train station, which turned out to be very conveniently located to the autoroute. Don’t be shy about asking the people at the rental company how to get to the highway or town you want. I would generally choose not to return a car in a city if I had a choice, but if it's necessary, try to return it at the train station, which can usually be located without a city map by following signs to "Gare."
Get maps before you leave home. It’s not that maps aren’t available in France, but you’ll have to take the time to find and buy them, and it’s so much easier to figure out your basic routes in advance. If you will be driving in the countryside, get the yellow Michelin maps for the region(s) where you’ll be. These maps show even the smallest roads between towns, blown up large enough that you won’t need a magnifying glass to see them. Amazon.com carries them if your local bookstore doesn’t.
Town and city maps. You can often do without these, but if you are heading somewhere specific (for example, if you have a hotel reservation), it helps to know where you’re going. You can retrieve street maps online for some places. MSN Maps and Directions has some, and some hotel websites also give directions or have a map. Alternatively, get a guidebook with basic city maps so you can figure out your route before you arrive. (You won’t need town maps in the Luberon, where every village is quite small. Just park wherever you can and walk toward the church, which is inevitably near the center of town.) If you aren’t able to get a map, don’t despair. Signs to "Centre" will take you to the middle of town, which is usually where sights of interest are located. Signs to "Gare" will take you to the train station, where you will usually find an information office that can help you on your way.
Driving the autoroutes. The autoroute is not a lot different from an interstate highway. People do drive at high speeds, but it’s not as bad as Germany. The most important rule is stay out of the left lane at all times unless you are passing. This rule is strictly respected by all the drivers on the road with you. You can rely on frequent tolls. Periodically you’ll find a booth, usually unmanned, spitting out little tickets. Take a ticket and keep it with you. It will be used when you leave the autoroute or reach the next toll station to calculate your toll. It’s an ugly story if you don’t take your ticket or lose it – you can be charged the maximum toll. While the autoroute is costly, it is also highly efficient. Frequent rest areas and gas stations are set up along the way.
Driving country roads. Once you leave the autoroutes, the roads can be astoundingly narrow. Fortunately, the cars are pretty narrow too. In agricultural areas, watch out for slow-moving tractors which may swing out onto the road very abruptly. In some areas, bicyclists can also take a share of the road. Be patient with them. Make it easy for others to pass if you notice a car or two following close behind you: pull off the road and let them by, or at least stay as far to the right as you can so they can see around you easily. It’s much safer and less stressful to let others speed on by and then continue tooling along at your own comfortable pace.
Filling up. Gas stations are generally self-serve and work the same as the ones at home. If you are going to be out in the country or in smaller towns, keep in mind that stations may close for a couple hours at lunchtime and very early in the evening; they aren't open late even in larger cities. Stay on the top half of your tank for peace of mind. Gas can cost as much as three times what it does in the U.S., but don’t let this frighten you. French cars get fantastic gas mileage. I drove from Marseille up to the Luberon, over to Carcassonne (about halfway to Barcelona), and back to Marseille, with several detours, and put gas in the car perhaps three times, always with plenty still in the tank – perhaps $40 in gas for my entire trip. Unless you’re going to cover major distances in France, gas costs will not add up to that much.
Parking. Parking expenses in cities can add up fast, but despite the expense parking garages can be safer than street parking. If you park on the street, you’ll have to work to interpret the signs regarding paying for parking. Assume that you need to pay if you’re on the street and look for the method. In villages with a tourist presence, you may be forced into parking lots as well, although they are usually inexpensive. Less touristy places are likely to have ample free parking available. Big city or small town, be warned: leave nothing visible in your car, and if you can, leave nothing at all, visible or not. Thieves can be a big problem.