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Driving a motorhome in France: Basic facts you should know

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Driving a motorhome in France is not hard, but there are many things that can help you to be better prepared before doing so, especially if it is your first time.

Planning for this part of your journey can improve your confidence, get your head in the right space, and alleviate many of the anxieties, frustrations and even fear that you might otherwise feel.

Car park at base of Mt Titlis motorhome

If you are used to driving on the left hand side of the road, these anxieties can often be heightened. We have written this article to try and allay those concerns as much as possible by providing the facts and some of our tips, gathered through over 20 years of driving “on the opposite side of the road”, driving large vehicles, and driving in small villages, or massive cities.

As we travel in this way, we often meet a lot of people who tell us they would love to do a motorhome road trip but are too terrified to drive. Others have been frightened by people’s overzealous stories about how difficult it is to drive in France, or in Europe.

It’s true. There can be times where driving a motorhome in France can be a bit tricky and there have been times we’ve found ourselves on some roads and in some locations we’d have preferred to avoid. But, these are the exceptions. Most of the time, our driving in the motorhome is a breeze.

Important paperwork for motorhome travel

Whilst we generically refer to this section as relating to paperwork, there are now items that can be kept and shown using a smartphone or on email. Whichever way you choose to carry your paperwork, be it in physical form or digital, just be sure to have it and be able to access it when required.

  • Passports and visas- these go without saying. You need them to travel and you need them to prove your identity in other countries either to the police, to hotels, campgrounds etc. Depending on your nationality you may need a visa to enter France either immediately or if staying longer term. In the post-Brexit era, there may also be a further requirement of UK residents to carry additional paperwork. This is still a work in progress.
  • Emergency contact details – Have these handy somewhere should someone else need to make contact on your behalf. If you are travelling in a motorhome, it’s a good idea to have a note written and placed either in a conspicuous place in the cabin or placed in the glovebox.
  • Travel Insurance – we always recommend having travel insurance to cover a range of incidents that could occur whilst you are travelling.
  • Drivers licence – Generally your own driver’s licence is enough but many people still advocate having an International Driver’s Licence. Some rental companies still require it as part of their hire. The internet is full of opinions on these, and we have our own but will just say here, do your own homework and be satisfied with your decision and the risk (or lack thereof) that it might involve. You must be over 18 years old and hold a full open driver’s licence.
  • Medical paperwork as it is relevant to you and your travel. Once again, in an emergency, this could be very helpful.
  • Relevant vehicle paperwork – If you are hiring, ensure that you have got roadside assistance included in your hire. Know where the paperwork is and how you can contact them if required. The same goes for insurance, registration papers and if coming from the UK V5Cs and green cards. It’s also a good idea to have the contact details for the hiring company too. If you own your motorhome, you should have all your own paperwork relating to ownership and registration of your vehicle as well as details on your roadside assistance company.
  • If you are planning on using the France Passion network, ensure you are a paid-up member and you have the sticker on the windscreen. If you are a member of any camping associations, have your membership details with you.

We highly recommend having a mobile phone with access to data and voice calls in the event of an emergency. If you have a smartphone much of the above can also be saved to it.

Pre-travel planning

When people are away from home for a period of time, it’s fairly usual to remember to pay certain bills in advance or do what many of us do these days and have our bills on direct debit. This makes travelling very easy.

Often, when we travel we always seem to have some important business going on at home. Many times it’s been important property transactions that just seem to always settle when we are away. As such, we do some planning before we leave to ensure that we will have access to everything we need.

This includes access to online banking, having e-signatures ready for anything that needs signing and appropriate instructions in place at home (eg banks, lawyers).

If you are planning on transacting when overseas as a minimum you should ensure the following is possible.

  • Ability to send outbound emails from another country. Whilst this might sound completely ridiculous, we have had this issue in the past. Many years ago, our Australian email would only allow us to receive emails and not send them. We didn’t even think to check this and it caused enormous issues. This same company still has the same process, which kind of defies belief in this digital age. Needless to say, we changed providers.
  • If you are not using your usual mobile sim overseas (more of an issue with non-European, non-UK residents), be aware that any two-factor authentication messages normally sent to your mobile won’t be received unless you turn on global roaming or have access to wifi for wifi messages like iMessage. Failure to be able to get these verification codes could mean you can’t access your cash.
  • Be aware of transfer limits for online banking and payments and have any changes made ahead of your travel

These days, much of this can be overcome with complete access to data connections, but it just pays to think all of this through carefully. In a worst-case scenario, have someone at home that you trust who can transact on your behalf where possible.

Equipment required by law

There’s a lot of equipment to carry when you are doing a trip in a motorhome and much of it is at your discretion. However, there are several items that are mandatory, as required by European law.

Looking for a comprehensive list of equipment for your motorhome? We’ve got it for you here.

Tolls in France

If there’s one thing that can easily raise the heart rate of a motorhome traveller in France (or further afield in Europe) it is tolls. More specifically, it’s getting stuck on a toll road and having to pay when you had no idea they even existed, or that you were on a toll road. The anxiety rises if you get to the payment zone and don’t have any money or a toll transponder.

Taking a toll road is great for expediency, and there have been times when we have used them for this purpose. The cost of the toll also cancels out, sometimes, the cost of it taking longer to drive on the smaller, less efficient roads.

However, be mindful that driving a motorhome puts you into one of the higher classes, meaning that tolls can be upwards of €50 depending on where you are driving.

parking large motorhome in france
Larger motorhomes like this will incur higher charges on the toll roads

Autoroutes

France has many autoroutes, the name given to the main arterial highways linking the major cities all over the country. As far as a piece of infrastructure goes, they are magnificent pieces of work, allowing for the mass transit of vehicles, often at a very fast pace.

Most of them are privately owned, hence the toll. So how do you know what is and isn’t a toll road? These days, most of the online mapping tools and apps we use will tell us where the toll roads are and allow us to change settings to avoid them.

In France, as a general rule, it will be those roads with an “A” prefix. Note however that some of the A roads in the north of France remain government-owned and as such currently do not attract tolls.

Signage

On the roads themselves, the toll roads are designated by blue signs. Other main roads have green road signs.

Along the autoroutes or as you are about to enter one, the word péage will be visible. This is another clear indication that the road you are about to drive on or enter is a toll road. In French, péage means toll.

Toll tickets

Upon entry to most toll roads, machines generate a ticket that indicates the date and time you entered but most importantly, where you entered. This is important because you will be paying for the distance driven. The longer you stay on an autoroute, the more you pay.

If you don’t get a ticket, this can still be completely normal. Certain toll roads don’t charge for the distance and have a fixed rate for the journey.

When you get your ticket, put it somewhere safe. I know this sounds a little weird but it’s amazing how many stories I’ve heard of people either throwing it away, or losing it in a very short space of time.

You need to be able to find the ticket when you reach the pay station at the end of your trip on the autoroute. Failure to produce it will see you paying the maximum amount,

How to pay for tolls in France

Locals use electronic transponders called télépéage. These are by far the most efficient way of using the French toll roads. Each trip is recorded, you can sail through the toll gates without having to stop and worry about making a payment and there are various payment methods you can use to settle the account.

If you are planning on spending a long period of time in France or using the toll roads a lot, or both, definitely investigate this option.

Note however that to set up a Télépéage account you need to have a European Union bank account which will possibly rule many people out.

UK residents can use a service called Emovis tags and can receive a tag prior to travelling to France. They also have tags for Portugal and Spain.

Otherwise, the options are either cash or card. As a non-cash user, I would actually say here that sometimes having cash on hand for tolls can be useful. Whilst credit cards can be used, they should be the chip and pin variety. Even so, there are still many stories of cards failing at a toll gate, with a line of traffic behind you. This can cause great frustration and anxiety for travellers.

As you are approaching the toll gates, look ahead to decide as early as possible which lane you need to be in. This can be a bit tricky at peak times, but it is imminently painful if you get into the wrong lane in thick traffic. The French don’t take too kindly to visitors trying to wriggle their way out across multiple lanes.

As a guide, the following indicators exist at the toll gates. If a lane has a red cross above it, it’s closed. Green, it’s open. A blue sign with coins being tipped into a container means that cash is accepted but it’s an auto-pay gate. Change is not given.

A blue sign with a man means that the booth is operated by a real person and therefore change is possible. A blue sign with CB means credit cards only and the orange sign is for those with e-transponders.

Cost of tolls in France

The cost of the tolls vary depending on the type of vehicle you are driving, the autoroute and the distance.

For toll charges by autoroute, refer to the official Autoroutes France website.

Road Rules in France

Drive on the right

Driving in France means you drive on the right-hand side of the road. When entering a roundabout you approach it in an anti-clockwise fashion. When on the autoroutes or highways, the “fast” lane is the left-hand side in the direction of your travel. Overtaking is therefore done via the left-hand side.

Don’t drive in the fast lane if you aren’t prepared to do the speed limit (or faster) as you will aggravate the drivers and even though the horn is infrequently used, you might get a good dose of honking. At the very least, they will flash their headlights.

Driving on a side that is different to what you are used to at home can be challenging. We’ve always been ok with driving in Europe, but there are a few tricks to make sure you don’t forget.

Whenever you have been parked for a while, or stopped overnight, it’s always a good idea to remind yourself when you sit in the driver’s seat for the first time of where you need to drive.

Coming out of a supermarket or shopping centre can break your concentration, and driving out of a carpark can sometimes make you forget where you are. Again, remind yourself where you are.

Driver’s tip: We always refer to a small saying “as long as the driver’s bottom is on the centre line”, you are driving the correct way. So left-hand drive, right-hand side of the road, bottom is on the centre line, tick!

Speed Limits in France

Generally, the speed limits in France are as follows, but be mindful that in some areas, different limits may be signed separately.

  • 130 kph (80 mph) on toll roads (autoroutes)
  • 110 kph (68 mph) on highways without tolls
  • 90 kph (56 mph) on all other roads
  • 50 kph(31 mph) in towns

Traffic lights are used in France. Following green (go) a yellow light appears (slow down and get ready to stop) and then red (stop). After red, it goes straight back to green once more.

Some speed limits also change when the weather conditions are poor. For example, on the autoroutes, in wet weather the speed limit falls to 110 km/h (68 mph)

Speed cameras, both fixed and mobile, are used throughout France. Speed radars used by individuals in vehicles are prohibited by law.

driving a motorhome france and parking in a safe location under the trees

Giving way

Priorité à Droite. This is the rule that can cause confusion, even to locals. This old road rule means that at any intersection, all vehicles are required to give way to the right. Sounds simple enough, especially as most intersections are anchored by traffic signs to advise which vehicle must give way.

However, in the absence of any traffic sign, this old rule comes into force, and all vehicles must give way to their right. Sounds logical, and sounds easy enough to remember, however, there are two locations where it is more likely to slip your mind, and the consequences, if you do so, could be dangerous.

The two locations are on roundabouts and on country roads. Let’s talk about roundabouts first.

Usually, once you are on a roundabout, the approaching traffic must give way to those on the roundabout and you only enter when it is safe to do so. However, on roundabouts in France that are not signed, vehicles that are already on the roundabout must also still give way to those entering it from their right.

It means you really can’t just get on the roundabout and whiz around and get off where you want. You need to watch out for those on your right. This can be a bit tricky when you are also looking for your exit.

The roundabout at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris is a very good example of the Priorité à Droite rule in action.

The second area where you are likely to need to remember this rule is in rural areas and small villages.

Many of us would be used to driving on a major road where smaller roads come in from the sides and meet with the larger one. In many circumstances, vehicles on the small road joining the major one would be required to give way. In France, this is the case only if it is signed.

Otherwise, any vehicle on the major road needs to give way to the vehicle approaching on the right. This holds even if the vehicle is stationary. The exception to this is if the road is a dirt one. Failure to give way to a vehicle coming out from the right whilst you are driving at a fast speed is never going to end well.

See what we mean! It’s a simple rule with several variations in how it is applied.

Our best advice is that wherever you are, always keep your eye on the traffic signs and what they are telling you. Also, if you are out of the cities and on roads where your speed might be a bit higher than what you would maintain in the towns and villages, keep an eye out for those roads coming at you from the right. Even if you’ve seen a sign, it’s probably always best to take your foot off the accelerator a little, just in case.

The traffic signs for Priorité à Droite are yellow, white and black. When you see a sign that is a yellow diamond, surrounded by white with a black border, this means you have right of way. If you see the same sign with a black diagonal line through it, you must give way to the right at all times.

Use of headlights

We think it’s good practice to have your lights turned on at all times. It is however only law in France to do so in conditions of poor light or bad weather.

Use of horn

This is not Italy nor India. Horns are not part of the driving culture here and are only used when faced with an emergency.

Wearing seatbelts

Seatbelts are required to be worn by French law. There are also specific rules governing the use of seat belts for children depending on weight/age.

Use of mobile phones

The use of mobile phones in any way whilst driving is prohibited in France.

Drivers can still use them in the event of a breakdown if they are on the side of the road,but otherwise they can only be used when parked in an official parking spot.

Drinking and driving

It’s easiest if you just don’t do it at all. The blood alcohol limit in France is 0.05 and is policed.

Emissions

As part of their environmental strategy, France introduced a new scheme in 2017 whereby an emissions sticker showing the age and the cleanliness of the car with regard to pollutants. More details can be found on this website.

Parking

Pay attention to where you park, especially in major cities. Look out for any signs noting where you can and can’t park, and coloured lines also. A single yellow line painted on the road or along a curb is an indicator that parking is not allowed. A solid yellow line means no stopping or parking. A broken yellow line means you can stop but not park.

Some small towns even have a local parking system where you need to buy a “parking disc” from the tourist office or newsagent and display on your dashboard.

The solution to not getting towed or fined is to make sure you understand where you are parking every single time. Don’t assume all towns follow the same rules.

Also, just as a general tip, don’t park anywhere that looks unsafe, either for you or your vehicle.

motorhome france parking

General tips for driving in France

Keep the big vehicles like motorhomes out of the big cities unless you have an insatiable thirst for adventure and want an adrenaline rush. We’ve done it and survived in more major European cities than I care to remember but it’s not the best way to spend your time and given the choice, it’s something we’d prefer to avoid.

If it’s your first time driving on the right hand side, or it’s been a while, find a quiet area to take the motorhome for a drive first. Give everyone who is going to share the driving a dry run. Confidence behind the wheel is 99% of the solution.

Be prepared if you are driving in small villages to have to re-route, pull your side mirrors in or reverse back out of the small side street you mistakenly went down. This will all happen at some stage. The secret is to keep your cool and take your time correcting the situation.

Share the driving if you can. Being a co-driver is also good for learning and understanding what the driver is going through and makes you a better helper/navigator.

Get your petrol from petrol stations connected to supermarkets (like leClerc and Carrefour) as they will always be the cheapest. Otherwise, get your fuel off the highways. Fuel on autoroutes is always the most expensive.

On the subject of fuel, make sure you have fuel before the weekend hits just in case you find yourself in a town where they aren’t open. Many fuel stations these days are unmanned and you require a chip and pin credit card to buy fuel before you pump it.

In France, it is also a really good idea to keep an eye on truck strikes. They can both stuff up your travel arrangements by blocking road access (or severely impacting the time it takes to get to your destination) or fuel can become limited.

Get a GPS. These days having a GPS installed in your motorhome, even if you are hiring, should be a basic inclusion. They really do keep you out of trouble, and with the wonderful screens they have these days, give you fair warning of the exits and roads you need to take well in advance.

Even with a GPS though, you need to keep your wits about you, as sometimes they are not as up to date as they should be. Maintenance on roads and bridges can mean detours and an addition to your schedule in terms of time or distance that you hadn’t factored in to your plans.

Also, unless your GPS is great at advising of routes with no height restrictions, this is another area that can cause you to have to recreate a route. Sometimes, we’ve been led on a certain route, only to find out that the only way across the river in a particular area was by a bridge with a height restriction. There’s no getting around these types of issues, you just need to be prepared for them and find another way.

bridge height restriction
This bridge stopped us in our tracks

If you’ve got a nervous passenger, take the time before you start out each day to explain where you’ll be driving and the types of roads or traffic situations you might expect to find. That way you are preparing them as much as you can.

Drive to the conditions. If you are driving a large motorhome, you’ll know that it is a big, heavy rig. Slowing them down quickly is not something you really want to be doing. Maintain good distances between other vehicles, don’t drive in dangerous weather conditions, and when in doubt, slow down. Unless you are happy to match it with the locals doing 180kmh on the autoroutes, stay out of the fast lane.

Don’t ever think it’s ok to drive in bus lanes. These are reserved for buses, taxis and bikes.

If you are able, get some bikes to carry with you. Being able to get into the smaller towns using this mode of transport reduces the pressure on driving in small villages, or large busy ones and also finding a park (usually more frustrating that the driving)

taking the bikes off the back of the motorhome

Finally, last but definitely not least, do a quick walkaround your motorhome each day before leaving your overnight location (or any other spot you’ve been parked in for a while). When you are on the road for a while, sometimes the days all blur into one.

When you wake up in the morning, you might forget that the night before you parked yourself really close to a high curb, or a bank of rocks, bollards or near some other immovable object. Refreshing yourself with your surroundings will save you doing something you might wish you didn’t.

When planning your journey be mindful of the distances you are wanting to travel and your planned destination. If driving on the smaller roads, the time that it takes to get to the final location will be increased.

Have a plan for where you are going to stop for the evening (and a backup plan just in case you get help up). Our best advice here is to arrive during daylight. Trying to find the location of a campground, or worse, a France Passion site in the dark can test even those with the best patience.

Also, use this time to check that everything is secure for the drive ahead. Steps are up, vents are down, bikes are locked on and external doors locked in. Do the same check on the inside, making sure drawers and cupboards are locked into place and everything that could be a projectile is put away.

More Motorhoming in France resources

We’ve written many articles on motorhoming in France to help those who are starting out for the first time or those who are looking for inspiration for their itinerary.

Hire a motorhome in France

We use and recommend France Motorhome Hire (Apollo Campers) for round trip hires. They are professional, English & French-speaking and have totally transparent pricing. READ MORE. If you are looking for one-way motorhome hire in Europe, we recommend Anywhere Campers. READ MORE.

Buy a motorhome in France

If you are looking to buy your own motorhome in France, it’s important to make sure it’s done legally. We recommend France Motorhome Sales. READ MORE

Motorhome how-to guides

Motorhome itineraries in France

MOTORHOMES IN FRANCE

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