Everything I know about driving in France, I learned from Mille Bornes

From London, we took the Eurostar to Paris where we immediately rented a car to drive to Normandy. We made a quick stop in Giverny (photos coming soon) before stopping for the night in Bayeux. I want to dedicate this post to driving in France because it was a new experience for me.

We rented a car for three different excursions during our trip – up to Normandy, down to the Loire Valley, and to drive the Romantic Road in Germany. I’m a driver. I love going for long drives and road trips. I love the freedom to explore – to stop wherever you want and take whatever path you choose. During my study abroad in Austria, I desperately missed having my own car. I just knew there were towns and byways so close that I was aching to explore. I could have done more to travel by train, I know, but it was outside of my comfort zone and trains simply deposit you in the center of town. It was all those in between spaces I wanted to see. So when we were planning this trip, one of my priorities was to do what I had never had a chance to do – drive in Europe.

But I was secretly terrified to do it. I did lots of reading about French and German driving rules and what to expect. I even got an International Drivers License just in case (a total waste of $35, but I guess it might have come in handy if I had ever been pulled over). I was primarily concerned about all the tolls in France and how the tollbooths worked. I live in the West where we don’t have tolls and my only experience with them were my infrequent drives from Lafayette, Indiana to Chicago during my grad school days. There you just throw your spare change into a basket. But I knew things were a little different in France.

If you are reading this post because you’re anxious about driving in France, let me ease your mind. It was so easy! Even though I had ordered a Travelex card for the tolls (because the cards have a chip and PIN), we always went to a tollbooth with a person and used cash. We did come across one unmanned tollbooth on our way to Chambord, and I tried to use the Travelex card. It wasn’t accepted, so I pressed the button for help. A very friendly assistant answered. There were three booths at that particular station. Two accepted cards only and one accepted cash. We happened to be at a card-only station, and she directed us to reverse and drive to the cash station. Luckily there wasn’t anyone behind us, so we easily transitioned over to the cash booth and inserted some euros. And that was that.

Also, can I just say that the roads in France are perfect? They were nice and smooth and very clean. There were no billboards cluttering up the beautiful countryside. There are travel stations (called Aires) every few hundred kilometers. Some have gas and food and others just have picnic areas and bathrooms. I had read that it was cheaper to get gas off the highway, but for the few times we had to get gas, it was just more convenient to stop at an Aire.

I was also worried about how to pay for gas, which was another reason I had ordered the Travelex card. I was shocked to see that at all of the gas stations, you pumped before you paid. Cristen commented, “So trusting! When was the last time you didn’t have to pay before you pumped?” and I can’t even remember. So we just filled up the tank (ugh… the cost!! I was prepared, but it still hurts to spend almost $100 to fill up the gas tank of an economy car) and then told the clerk the number of our station and paid with our normal credit card. If we had been driving late into the night, we might have run into trouble, but we were always driving between 9 am and 9 pm.

One thing I probably should have done more of is look at European roadsigns. Luckily, I had played quite a bit of Mille Bornes. Do you know this game?

It’s just a card game, but it uses French phrases like limite de vitesse (speed limit) and panne d’essence (out of gas) and roulez (go). More importantly, it made some signs look familiar, but I still had to figure out what some meant – like this one:

Turns out it means Passing Prohibited, which makes total sense now that I know that, but I spent quite a bit of time wondering what it meant. And these two always threw me off:

I kept thinking that they meant, DO NOT ENTER, so I was confused when Sir Percy (Cristen’s GPS) would lead us down a road with one of these signs. But they just mean “No Parking” and “No Stopping” respectively. That would have been convenient to know.

We didn’t have any problems driving, even if our understanding of the roadsigns was a bit hazy. But if you are going to be driving in Europe any time soon, here is a handy comparison of all the roadsigns in Europe and what they mean. Of course, if you’re driving in Paris, you can pretty much toss all of that out the window because it didn’t seem like any rules applied there. But this entry is too long already, so I’ll have to save that for another time.



  1. Emma in Euroland · October 17, 2012

    I’m from the UK so am well aware of European road signs. However, venturing out in a car on the WRONG side of the road is one step too far for me! I plan to travel a lot during my year abroad in Germany, but I do think I will miss visiting those places in between, the country roads and the views of the bigger places from afar. Sounds like youre having a great trip and the Romantic Road is definitely something I want to do!

  2. Krick · October 17, 2012

    I’m loving the posts on your trip. I also really enjoyed the travel tips posted while you were on vaca. Keep them coming! PS Mille Bornes rules!

    • katie · October 18, 2012

      Thanks Krick! I’m glad you liked them. I had no idea if they would really be interesting or not since they’re so different from my normal posts. p.s. We should totally get together and play Mille Bornes sometime!

  3. cristen · October 17, 2012

    i would like a follow-up post that includes the wimpy arrows and hand-holding zones. i also enjoy that we always talked about not knowing certain signs but never bothered to look them up lol.

    • katie · October 18, 2012

      I tried to find a picture of the wimpy arrow but couldn’t! I should have taken photos of the signs when I was there. I figured I could just find them online, but it was actually really hard to do!

      And really, who can be bothered to look up what roadsigns mean anyway. 😉

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