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  3. How to Rent a Car in France

The Pros and Cons of Renting a Car in France

Picture those winding roads and hilltop villages, those 1950s films with crimson convertibles racing along the corniche on the French Riviera or climbing narrow mountain roads inching towards abandoned fortresses. Can't you just see yourself on a road trip?

scenic French roadSome of France's most scenic spots can only be accessed by car

Before you hand over your driver's licence for that little red number, there are a few things you should know about renting a car in France − or whether you even should.

Do you actually need to rent a car in France?

This is probably the first question you should ask yourself.

The answer is: it depends.

  • If you're visiting mostly cities, you won't need a car. It would be more of a hindrance than a help. Public transportation is plentiful and parking in French cities is difficult: ceilings are low, spaces are tiny, prices are sky-high. The excellent train network (here's what you need to know about train travel in France) will reach most cities and towns.
  • If you plan on visiting the countryside, then you probably do need a car. Some regions simply require driving, places like the Alps, its villages linked by narrow mountain roads, or wild places, like the Ardèche, with rushing rivers and not a train station in sight.
  • If you're visiting both, you could use public transport in cities and rent a car when you're in the countryside. France does have a magnificent road network, after all.
Lyon pedestriansFrance's large cities - like Lyon - are best seen without a car

So when do you need to rent a car in France?

First, know that France is a lot more than the sum of its cities, and much as these are stunning, there are many underrated and lesser known parts of France you should explore.

Here are some examples of when you might need a car - and when you should avoid renting at all costs.

Paris

No. Never. Not.

Burgundy

For city hops to Dijon or Beaune, no car is needed. But if you plan on driving the Route des Grands Crus and sample Burgundy wines along the way, then most certainly, yes. Or, you could rent a bike for part of the route.

French Riviera

Not in summer, when roads are bloated with traffic and driving is crazy. The one exception might be to drive into the interior for a day of village-hopping, in which case you could rent a car on the edge of town, head off into the mountains, and return it, painlessly. Along the coast, just use the train.

Basque country

If you're sticking to the towns − Bayonne, Biarritz, Saint-Jean-de-Luz − then no. Public transport is frequent and excellent. But you'd miss the interior, which is beautiful and unusual, and for this you'll need a car, as I did on this Basque country road trip.

Loire Valley chateaux

It depends. A few of the chateaux can easily be reached on a day trip from Paris. But if you want to see several scattered chateaux, you'll need a car.

Brittany

Yes, you'll need a car. You can catch the train to one of the main cities, but Brittany is so much more than pretty villages.

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I live in France and I have a car – but France is a large country so I don't always drive to my destination. Sometimes I take the train to a main city, and rent a car to explore the environs. When I do, I use Discovercars, because I like the way they compare costs from all the rental agencies that have cars available.

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My most recent car rental was to explore the Loire Valley chateaux. Of ten castles, fewer than half could be easily reached by train, so a car was essential for those. Without a car, I would have had to drastically cut my number of visits.

The villages of the Luberon in Provence were the same: there's a bus along some of these picturesque country roads, but some only come by once a day – not very convenient if you want to visit several villages and have limited time.

Oppede-le-vieux, beautiful village of the LuberonSome of France's most beautiful villages require a car to visit

Pros and cons of renting a car in France

If you're still undecided about whether you need a car for part or all of your trip to France, here are some more points to think about.

Pros: rent a car in France because...

  • Public transport is not that great outside main cities so if you plan to branch out, a car will get you to those attractions beyond the city center.
  • You'll be able to see things that are a little more off-the-beaten track, because most visitors to France do not come by car.
  • Roads are excellent and well signposted, and driving isn't too different from what you're used to (remember, the French drive on the right, in case you're from a country that does not). 
  • Having your own car will give you the freedom to come and go as you please, without being dependent on transport schedules or availability.
  • You'll save many hours of waiting in stations and airports, and of travel to and from your final destination. 

Cons: Don't rent a car in France because...

  • The cost of rental and fuel have climbed significantly, especially with the advent of Covid and the potentially unreliable fuel supply following from the invasion of Ukraine.
  • Cars are almost useless in large cities. Parking is expensive and often scarce, streets can be narrow, and traffic haphazard. Not only that, but many French cities now have pollution controls which ban certain types of car from the city center.
  • In high season, popular roads can get very crowded and parking near attractions could be scarce. Think about that before renting your car.
  • While driving in France is not radically different from other countries, there are unfamiliar signs and rules, some illogical, and roads can be narrow and winding. Well, maybe it's a little different.
France road signsRoad signs in France may be different, but they're usually understandable

How safe is it to rent a car in France?

Perfectly safe. Rip-offs are few, and I've found agencies to be honest across the country (there are a few rotten apples everywhere).

The only challenge in renting a French car is the actual driving. In most parts of the country, driving is quite straightforward, and will probably feel quite familiar. But there are exceptions, such as strange rules and odd behaviour, so I've written a separate piece on driving in France to paint an honest picture of my country's habits behind the wheel.

Where should you rent your car?

Where you actually pick up your rental can make a difference.

  • It's often a good idea to rent your car in locations outside a city center. Probably the easiest is to rent from an airport car agency, if you're flying in − no need to battle downtown traffic (although, word of warning, airport rentals are sometimes more expensive). Next in line is a TGV train station, which is often outside town and has the same advantages. If neither of these works, then rent from a train station in town. It may not be the best option, but streets around a station are traditionally well-signposted and this should make your life marginally easier.
  • If you're renting in Paris to drive out of town (not to drive IN town, as we've already agreed), rent from the train station located in the direction you're headed. If you're going south, for example, that would be the Gare de Lyon.
  • Before you choose your rental agency, make sure it's open at the time you plan to pick up your car, over lunch, for example, or on weekends.
  • Check reviews online. These days, no one is shy about signalling a rude receptionist or a dirty car, so find out what people are saying.
  • Look it up on a map or on Google Earth, to get a sense of the traffic and the neighbourhood. This will be helpful as you drive away.
  • You can rent a car in one city and return it in another, but there will be a cost, and probably not an insignificant one. 

Cost of car rentals in France

Rental costs

Like everywhere, cost is a major factor in the decision to rent a car and the cost of renting a car in France per day will vary. Compare prices here if you already know where you're going. Prices are higher than they used to be, unfortunately, with inflation and the scarcity that developed during Covid.

If you'd like to keep costs down, keep these points in mind.

  • You may be offered an upgrade when you rent your car. Think twice: a larger car will use more gas and cost more (not to mention those tiny roads and streets where you might get stuck).
  • Prices are much higher during the tourist season, and cars are scarcer then, so if you want to pay less to drive around France, the off-season or shoulder season are better bets. Prices may also climb during holidays, around Christmas, the summer or during school holidays.
  • Car rental prices also change depending on the city you rent from.
  • When you're filling up with gas, try to do it far from the motorway, where prices are significantly higher. 

This isn't about savings but it is about money... Be mindful when paying. Some gas pumps may not take a foreign credit card, or will only take one with a smart chip. Car rental companies will often require a credit rather than a debit card, so make sure you have one, or check to make sure the rental agency accepts debit cards.

Additional costs

One thing to watch for are hidden or additional costs when you rent your car.

  • Equipment: cars are usually fully equipped but make sure it has everything you need and if not, whether there's a cost.
  • Unlimited mileage (kilométrage illimité): if you plan on driving relatively long distances, make sure your rental offers this option.
  • Tax: expect to pay VAT of 20% above and beyond the cost of your rental.
  • You may want some extra insurance, which can be as expensive as the cost of the rental itself. Check if you're already covered by a policy at home.
  • Keep your car as clean as possible. While "normal" wear is expected during your rental, you may be charged for cleaning if you hand it back truly messy.
  • Check the fuel return policy. It is usually cheaper for you to fill up the car with fuel yourself than to let the rental agency do it.
  • Make sure you check your currency conversions when you rent so that you don't get overcharged.
  • And finally, tolls and gas. Tolls can be extremely expensive in France, and on some stretches cost more than gas. Consider taking side roads for those bits... The Via Michelin website will calculate mileage and costs for you.

How to rent a car in France: the mechanics

Each agency will have its own conditions and add-ons, which you'll have to check. They also have different age policies, fuel policies or driver requirements. But what they all share is the list of basic documents you'll need for your rental.

Documents you need for a France car rental

You'll need pretty much the same documents as you would in most countries:

  • a valid ID, usually a passport
  • a credit card with your name on it (remember, many car rental agencies don't accept debit cards for deposits, although this is slowly changing)
  • a driver's licence of course – see below. 

Driver's licence

Type of licence

If you're from Europe or the EEA, your national driver's licence is all you'll need.

Beyond that, however, the situation is a bit more nuanced. You CAN walk into an agency and rent a car with your national licence. However, should you run into trouble, have an accident or be checked by police, they need to be able to read your licence, and many do not understand English.

The easiest way around that is to have an official French translation of your licence (time consuming, difficulties in finding an accredited translator, and expensive) or to simply get an international driver's permit (IDP).

➽ Get your IDP licence!

Validity

Your licence must be valid for at least one year from the rental date.

Also, there's usually a minimum age, most agencies won't rent you a car if you're under 25 years old (some do from 21-25 but not everywhere, so check).

If you're over a certain age (usually 69 but this too can vary), you may be charged extra, or some agencies might not rent to you at all.

Your car rental comparison engine lists the age requirements for each car under "Rental Conditions".

French car insurance

It's always a tough decision: insurance or no insurance?

Yes, you definitely need insurance, because a shattered windscreen or minor dent can add up.

That said, you may not have to buy the expensive car rental offer.

Credit cards often provide car insurance coverage if you use their card, so that would be the first place to check. If your card does provide insurance, make sure it includes some sort of roadside assistance.

You can also buy insurance directly from an insurance company in many parts of the world. Just beware the deductible, which can be high.

What about the car?

You'll find most cars available for rental in France, from tiny budget cars to luxury vehicles. Here are some of the things you should consider:

  • the kind of fuel it uses − diesel or lead-free
  • the size of the car − a larger car may be more comfortable on the motorway but if you plan to be visiting France's beautiful villages, many have tiny streets and you don't want to scrape the village walls; also, parking garages are often tiny, and maneuvering can be a nightmare (I speak from experience)
  • transmission: most are manual, although the number of automatic cars  available for rental in France is increasing; they usually cost more to rent, and be aware that if you have a licence that only allows you to drive an automatic car, you won't be able to rent a stick shift car

Car equipment you need to have

Compulsory equipment

Most rental cars come with the necessary equipment but double-check, just to be sure: 

  • each car must be equipped with one fluorescent yellow vest for each person in the car
  • a red emergency triangle to signal a breakdown
  • spare brake lights (I've never understood this one but... it's the law)

Crit'Air sticker

Additionally, if you plan to go into cities, your car should have a Crit'Air sticker or vignette. What's that, you say?

In their efforts to reduce pollution, many cities have established a pollution grading system for cars. On particularly polluted days, the city may ban cars above Crit'Air 1 or 2 from the center of the city. Usually the ban is up on a bulletin board for all to see, at the entrance of the low-emission zone.

If you don't have a Crit'Air sticker on your car at all, or if the number is higher than 2, stay away from city centers when there are pollution spikes or you might get fined.

Winter equipment

If you're driving in winter, some parts of France require you by law to have either snow tires or chains. Make sure your car is equipped if you're in any of these departments between 1 November and 31 March. This also applies if you are simply driving through.

DEPARTMENTS REQUIRING SNOW TIRES

Ain (01), Allier (03), Alpes-de-Haute-Provence (04), Hautes-Alpes (05), Alpes-Maritimes (06), Ardèche (07), Ariège (09), Aude (11), Aveyron (12), Cantal (15), Corrèze (19), Corse-du-Sud (2A), Haute-Corse (2B), Côte-d’Or (21), Creuse (23), Doubs (25), Drôme (26), Gard (30), Haute-Garonne (31), Hérault (34), Isère (38), Jura (39), Loire (42), Haute-Loire (43), Lot (46), Lozère (48), Meurthe-et-Moselle (54), Moselle (57), Nièvre (58), Puy-de- Dôme (63), Pyrénées-Atlantiques (64), Hautes-Pyrénées (65), Pyrénées-Orientales (66), Bas-Rhin (67), Haut-Rhin (68), Rhône (69), Haute-Saône (70), Saône-et-Loire (71), Savoie (73), Haute-Savoie (74), Tarn (81), Tarn-et-Garonne (82), Var (83), Vaucluse (84), Haute-Vienne (87), Vosges (88), Yonne (89), Territoire de Belfort (90).

A final check

Before you drive off with your car from the rental agency, make sure you...

  • check the condition of your car, take pictures of any damage, or video
  • check that everything works, from the GPS to the windshield wipers to the air conditioner (especially if you're headed to hot climates)
  • find out what kind of fuel it uses and how the gas tank opens (you'll look pretty frustrated fumbling to open the catch of your car while others line up waiting behind you)
  • locate the nearest gas station so you can fill up on your way back to return the car
  • make sure you know where to hand in the keys and whether the gas tank has to be full
  • have cash on you, in case your card isn't useable, for gas and tolls

How French tolls and motorways work

These are the things you don't want to learn on the fly.

Most motorways will charge you to use them. You'll either pay a flat fee when getting on, or you'll get a ticket and use it to pay when you're getting off (this is the most common).

Toll signs

When you reach a toll station, you might be intimidated by all the signs. (Hint: you're looking for a green downward arrow.)

Speed limit sign

A lane or two – often at the extreme left – will have a speed limit sign that says 30: this is NOT for you but for those who get a little electronic widget because they pay by the month

An orange "t" sign

This orange "t" sign is for monthly subscribers. Do NOT enter here.

Two superimposed white credit cards

A white smudge that is supposed to look like two superimposed credit cards will also be visible above a few rows. Unless you have a French or an EU credit card with a smart chip, avoid these. The toll system doesn't take all cards, and if it doesn't like yours, it might swallow it and you may not get it back for weeks.

A green arrow pointing down

THIS IS IT. The arrow means this machine will take either cash or credit cards, so pull out your Euro bills or coins and you'll sail right through.

Other things you should know about French autoroutes

Make sure you do have cash. If you're wondering about the cost of a journey and how much cash you'll need, the Via Michelin or French autoroutes sites will cost out the tolls for you.

To enter the motorway and get your ticket from the machine, press the big green button. Put the ticket away somewhere safe, behind your sun visor, for example.

To leave the motorway, drive up to the machine, look for the blinking light and place your ticket in that slot. It will calculate what you owe, and another light will blink, where you're supposed to deposit your cash or insert your credit card. And finally, you'll be asked if you want a receipt.

Many of these machines have English instructions, but they may be hard to decipher for a first-timer and it's best to know what to expect before you have to grapple with unfamiliar buttons. If you want your instructions in English, look for the button next to a Union Jack flag.

While French machines are usually excellent, do make sure you have a few NEW crisp bills, because they have been known to reject old crumpled ones.

Best tips for car rentals in France

I think I've covered most things you need to know about renting a car in France BUT... here are a few more tips!

  • France does love its radars. In recent years, they've been going up like crazy! The only good news is that fixed radars are signalled, so you know they're up ahead. Mobile radars on police cars, on the other hand, are not. France is getting stricter with speeding, and that's a good thing, but sometimes they go overboard, and you'll receive a fine for driving 1-2 km over the speed limit. You can contest it, of course, they have science on their side... Just keep to the limit.
  • Be aware that chatting on your cellphone (or worse, texting) is illegal and accompanied by a hefty fine. Don't think that you're protected because you're foreign or in a rental car. The police will send your fine to the agency, which will slap on a hefty administrative fee and forward the fine. Don't be surprised if you end up with a summons once you're back home.
  • Oh, and don't even think of using a radar detector or GPS warning system. If caught, you might be fined up to 3000 Euros and even risk confiscation of your vehicle. Not a pleasant thought.
  • Also, just because you're a foreigner doesn't mean you can ignore the fine. It will be sent to your car rental company, which will simply deduct the amount from the credit card it has on file for you. You may not even know you've been fined until after you've returned home.
  • Welcome to the world of roundabouts. A few years ago there were hardly any. Now, they're everywhere but since they're relatively new, most people on the road don't really know how to use them, so stay alert. There's usually a sign that tells you who has priority – it's usually the person already IN the roundabout. But not always.
  • An emergency? Make sure you have the agency's emergency and your insurance's number with you, within reach. Can't find them? Europe has a region-wide emergency number: 112.

And then there's driving at night...

If you can avoid night drivin, so much the better.

  • If you do plan to drive at night, try to fill up early in the evening to make sure gas stations are fully open. 
  • Be aware that some service stations close or reduce their services at night. This means you'll either have to pay in advance for your gas or use your card in the automatic machine. 
  • Some stations don't have human attendants at night so if your card doesn't work, well...
  • Some gas stations are closed at night, perhaps they've run out of fuel or for some other reason, but that may mean there's a significant distance between pumps, so don't let your gauge drop below half-full.

French car rental vocabulary

Here are a few words and terms that might be of use when you rent a car in France.

  • Location - rental
  • Boite manuelle / transmission automatique - manual / automatic transmission
  • La clim - air conditioning
  • Un accident - an accident
  • Un vol - a theft
  • Assurance - insurance
  • Carte de credit - credit card
  • Ou - where
  • Quand - when
  • Combien - how much
  • Une décapotable - a convertible
  • Un quatre-quatre - a four-wheel drive
  • Gazole - diesel

Renting a French car: FAQ

Can you rent a car in France with a US licence?

Usually, yes. The law says you can. However, if a police officer stops you and doesn't happen to read English, you could have a problem. Get an International Driving Permit and save yourself any worry.

Can you rent a car in France and drive to Italy/Switzerland/Germany/Spain?

Yes, but you need permission from your rental agency. You must let rental companies know you plan to cross a border, and there may be an additional border crossing fee to pay. 

Can you rent a car in France at 18? What age can you rent a car in France?

You can drive in France at 18 but not rent a car. Usually, you'll have to be 25, although some agencies may let you rent a car at 21.

How much is a rental car in France? Is it expensive to rent a car in France?

Renting a car in France is moderate to expensive when compared to other countries. For example, Paris is more expensive than Madrid or London but less expensive than Rome and much less expensive than New York City or Chicago.  You can comparison shop and find reasonable rates here.

Can you rent a car in France without a credit card?

Not often − but it's changing. Some of the major car rental companies are slowly beginning to accept debit cards, but check first, because it's still more the exception that the rule. 

Bon voyage!

Enjoy your drive through France, a country whose beauty lies mostly away from its main roads. Here are some sensational French road trips to prove it! 

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