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I got the same reaction from a number of stunned co-workers. “What?!?! You are renting a car and driving in France? Are you crazy!” Apparently, the European reputation for being crazy, fast aggressive drivers had reached the awareness of my colleagues.
Their reactions were not particularly helpful to me. I was already a little nervous about driving a rental car on foreign soil. Doubts had been seeping into my mind. Most of them had to do with the potential financial implications of an accident. I was nervous enough about it that I did something very uncharacteristic and I gave into the car rental companies pitch and bough the CDW (collision damage waiver), just in case.
As I drove the car ever so carefully out of the rental car parking lot at CDG, I was a little unsure of myself and of what to expect from driving in France.
Seeing an opening in the steady line of cars, I pulled swiftly out into traffic, trying to fake confidence that I didn’t exactly feel yet. The first hurdle conquered, I took a moment to assess the situation and I discovered that it really wasn’t that much different than driving in the US. Many of my fears had been unfounded.
And then, as if I wasn’t nervous enough, I decided that the best way to get over my fears was just to dive right into the middle of them. I immediately drove right into the heart of Paris, France’s busiest city. I got confused. I got lost. I eventually got to where I was going, and I emerged from the experienced unscathed and more confident in my driving skills. If I can drive straight through the heart of Paris, I can drive almost anywhere!
On the flip side, it is true, drivers in Europe are generally more aggressive than drivers in the US. When I say aggressive, I don’t mean aggressive in the road rage way that we picture here in the US, but more like decisive and faster…definitely faster. When someone wants to change lanes in France, they look and if it is clear they go…immediately.
The only thing that I found that I had to be really careful about as an US driver was my habit to move into the passing lane and sit there. If you are sitting in the passing lane in France, chances are pretty good that within 10-15 seconds, someone will be coming up behind you giving you a polite little honk (because EVERYBODY is driving faster than you are!)
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Having a car in France gave us incredible freedom to explore small villages that were free from the crush of tourists and to find some unexpected surprises along the way. It also saved us money in the long run, because when I added it up, the car ended up being almost half the cost that taking expensive French trains and other public transportation options would have been, even considering the higher cost of fuel in France.
Tips for Driving in France (many of these could apply to driving anywhere in Europe):
- If you are in a roundabout and you haven’t figured out where you are going, keep your left signal on (right if in England), move into the inside lane and make another loop until you see your exit.
- Another tip about roundabouts – make sure to signal when you are about to exit. This lets the person trying to enter the roundabout know that they are clear and is just good, common courtesy (but in a roundabout with many exits, be careful not to signal too early as this can cause confusion).
- As mentioned above, the passing lane on the freeway is sacred space. Don’t go there unless you are actively passing, and move right back over when you are done. This is extra important on highways that only have two lanes.
At the beginning of the trip, my ever patient travel companion did make a comment to the effect of, “By the end of the trip, you are going to be a crazy European driver.” As I drove us home from the airport after our return to the US, I wove skillfully in and out of traffic just like those “crazy European drivers” that I had been intimated by at first, and I had to admit to my companion that he had been right.
So, the moral of this story? Don’t be afraid to drive in a foreign country. Car rental might be cheaper than other forms of transportation, and it might not be as bad as you think!
Anybody else have any tips for driving in a foreign country? Have you rented a car in a foreign land for your travels, or do you generally stick to public transit?