Vacation in France; questions about driving, etiquette, rideshare, etc.
June 21, 2019 12:06 PM   Subscribe

We’re heading to France for ten days on Sunday and I just had a few questions that have been on my mind. For reference, we’re in Paris for about 2 days, a day trip to Strasbourg, and then 6 days in the Provence region. My sister-in-law speaks decent French so she can help with certain things (traffic signage, for example).

1. We’ll be renting a car once in Provence, to use for the few days we’re there. What traffic rules should I be aware of? Is there anything especially different from driving in the US that I should know? Especially important signs, informal traffic customs/norms, etc.?

2. Most important phrases to know and make use of?

3. Any customs, manners, etiquette to be especially aware of during meals, while out and
about, tipping, etc.? Anything we should make sure NOT to do?

4. What rideshare companies/apps are widely used and safe? Uber, Lyft, other?

5. Any major regional differences in regards to customs, manners, etc. between Paris and Provence to be aware of?

6. Credit card use vs. euro?

7. Any other tips, thoughts, advice, recommendations you have! Thank you!
posted by rbf1138 to Travel & Transportation around France (28 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
IME most euro rental cars are manual and not automatic but it's been a while so maybe this has changed?

there's an accent variance between paris and provence (dialect as well tbh) so prepare yourself for slightly more having to ask ppl to repeat themselves if your french education is from an anglophone country.
posted by poffin boffin at 12:14 PM on June 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

We had a rental car in southern France (near Nice) and generally it was pretty chill. There were a lot of roundabouts. Obviously speed limits are in kilometers.

One thing to know is that all of the toll booths accept credit cards. So if you accidentally find yourself entering a toll road, can't turn around, and end up forming a long line while you press the "help" button... just dip your credit card.

Other than that mishap, I would say French driving was pretty uneventful (especially compared to Italy). Although if you are driving through old/small towns, there may be a lot of very narrow one-way streets.

Make sure you fill up the fuel before returning the rental within ~20km of the rental dropoff.
posted by DoubleLune at 12:17 PM on June 21, 2019

I'm from the Pacific Northwest, and I just rented a car for two weeks in France last month. It was largely a piece of cake. Here are some random thoughts:
  • As you're probably aware, there are tons of roundabouts in France (and the rest of Europe). If you're not used to them, that might be an issue.
  • Paris drivers were frickin' scary for me, but once we got to rural areas, it was all good. I live in Portland, and I spent fifteen months driving across the U.S. in an RV. I've dealt with a variety of bad drivers, but Parisians seemed especially crazy.
  • There are lots of toll roads in France. I don't like toll roads, so I set my GPS to avoid them. Didn't have to worry about it once.
  • For me, the only real issue during the two weeks was right of way on narrow streets. Generally, this is marked and obvious. (I can't remember what the sign looks like, but you'll get used to it quickly. One variation says that you have priority; the other variation says oncoming traffic has priority.) That said, on our last night, we had some guy get very angry at us because we apparently did something wrong in a right-of-way situation.
  • During our two weeks, we rarely used the highways. This was in part to avoid tolls. But it was also because rural France is beautiful! We didn't want to see it from a freeway. We wanted to see it from country roads. Something to consider.
That's about all I can recall from the driving side of things. As for your other questions:

I'm not sure what you want from #6 (credit card vs. Euro). You didn't really ask a question there, so it's tough to answer. I used a credit card for almost everything. (Well, Apple Pay on my phone, anyhow.) But I also carried about 200 Euro with me to buy from street vendors, etc.

I speak Spanish but zero French. I got along fine. I can say hello, please, thank-you, yes, no, and a few other simple things, and that's enough. A smile and a friendly attitude go a long way when you don't speak the language.
posted by jdroth at 12:46 PM on June 21, 2019

Nthing roundabouts. They're awesome, but if you've never used one you need to be brave and go when the traffic is open.

The rental car company will definitely want a card imprint, if that's what you're asking. You can also make sure they charge you in Euro and not in US Dollars at some exorbitant exchange rate that they have determined on their own to make extra profit. Your card's foreign exchange commission rate is almost always better.

Also: call your bank and let them know where and when you will be out of the country. Banks will shut off a card in a heartbeat if someone is suddenly using your number in another part of the world...even if you're the one making the charge.

Another tip with rental cars in Europe from my experience: photograph the car from top to bottom at the start and at the end of the rental, even if the agent says it's not a problem. I've had a few instances where I've been billed for 'damage' to the car after the fact. A couple of pictures on your phone will save you a world of hurt. Pay attention to any dings and scrapes on the sheet metal and the wheels.
posted by JoeZydeco at 1:15 PM on June 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

Don't pass on the right when you're on the highway.

Greet shopkeepers ("bonjour") when you enter a store and say thanks when you leave.

Drink some pastis and eat some brondade!

Also go read that super interesting post on the blue about langue d'oc.
posted by ropeladder at 1:16 PM on June 21, 2019

Towns have markets on certain days and you'll want to know which ones are on your route so that you can make plans to attend or to avoid the blocked off streets.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 1:18 PM on June 21, 2019

1. Péage means toll
2. Might not be an issue any longer with the updates in credit cards but I remember having to buy my family gas (I was living in France) because their cards (USA) didn’t have chip and pin.. not sure if chip and signature would suffice or not
posted by raccoon409 at 1:26 PM on June 21, 2019

IME most euro rental cars are manual and not automatic but it's been a while so maybe this has changed?

Almost forgot: Automatic transmission is everywhere and the majority of cars have it - just make sure your reservation confirms it or you may get a manual when nothing is left in the lot.
posted by JoeZydeco at 1:33 PM on June 21, 2019

Don’t miss Montmartre in Paris.
posted by arm426 at 1:39 PM on June 21, 2019

Response by poster: We booked an automatic, no need to worry about that!
posted by rbf1138 at 1:41 PM on June 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

For driving, there are many sensors on highways that will automatically ticket you if you speed. Also, pass only on the left. If you like podcasts, Join Us in France has one specifically on driving and some general tips as well. Unattended gas stations require a credit card with a pin--if you don't have one of these keep an eye out for gas stations with attendants, which seems to keep daytime hours only.
posted by poodelina at 1:47 PM on June 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

1. We’ll be renting a car once in Provence, to use for the few days we’re there. What traffic rules should I be aware of? Is there anything especially different from driving in the US that I should know? Especially important signs, informal traffic customs/norms, etc.?
Get Waze for driving around. There is a large community of users in France, so the app is pretty good. It also allows you to anticipate tight turns in the mountains, which might be useful, depending on where you go.

2. Most important phrases to know and make use of?
Bonjour ! When you enter a shop, address a waiter/seller/cashier, start with saying Bonjour (Good morning/afternoon). If you don't do that, people will think that you're rude and will treat you in consequence.

3. Any customs, manners, etiquette to be especially aware of during meals, while out and
about, tipping, etc.? Anything we should make sure NOT to do?

Tip only if the meal is exceptional. Don't expect the waiter to hover constantly over your shoulder and fill up your glass. Entrée means appetizer, Plat means entree.

5. Any major regional differences in regards to customs, manners, etc. between Paris and Provence to be aware of?
The accent, mostly.

6. Credit card use vs. euro?

Most places will take credit cards, though the smallest mom and pop stores may have a minimum limit, usually 10 or 15€. A lot of places will not accept bills over 100€, so try to get smaller bills.

7. Any other tips, thoughts, advice, recommendations you have! Thank you!
Have fun :)
posted by snakeling at 2:24 PM on June 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

You can learn from my screw-up. I bought ice cream cones at a small cafe in Paris for myself and kids just so we could sit down because we were exhausted. Owner got upset when we tried to sit (there were many empty chairs) and shooed us away. I said something about this online years later and was severely reprimanded for my poor etiquette. Apparently, you need to order a meal to sit down. There may be further nuances here someone else can explain. (The poor etiquette I was reprimanded for was trying to sit at whatever kind of establishment this was. When it was clear he wanted us to leave, we did so without comment.)

Aside from that, everyone we met in France was super nice.
posted by FencingGal at 2:46 PM on June 21, 2019

Nthing market days, which can be madness for driving and parking. (Markets are usually over by 1:00 PM, so you can venture into market areas after that) Otherwise, choose non market days in the big towns (Aix, Arles, Isle sur Sorgue), or just park on the outskirts because, well, the markets are great!

In all towns, try not to drive too close to the old centers, which are a maze of narrow streets and sudden one-way streets. Before we knew better, we drove through old parts of towns and villages where we had to turn in the side mirrors to get through.

If you're going to Aix, there was a ton of construction all over last year. Check on that. It's a wonderful small city, but see about parking away from the town center then walk or bus in.

Arles has two huge market days. We somehow wound up doing exactly what I'm advising against because our rental was up in the old part of Arles. We somehow got up there on a market day, and there were these mechanical "posts" that came up from the road!!! to block non residents. We couldn't get through without a resident pass on market days. Nightmare. Avoid--not Arles, which is wonderful, but the old center. Go there on non-market days and park near the railroad station. There's a great little free shuttle that circulates through Arles regularly that starts and terminates at the railroad station. Or just walk up the hill to the arena, Roman theater, etc.
posted by Elsie at 2:48 PM on June 21, 2019

All good stuff here ... I'd add:
- The French are really not big on indicating at roundabouts so be aware of this.
- ditto Zebra crossings which they are very bad at, both as pedestrians and motorists.
- I agree about the small roads, if you have a bit of time they are much nicer. But the toll roads are super efficient if you just need to get somewhere.
- I have never driven in any other country with better service stations than France. They really do it well. Lunchtime is sacred even on the autoroute, if you have to have a big long drive, you'll find the services crowded between 12-2. It's worth stopping earlier or later.
- Get one of those payment cards you can load up and use, you'll save a lot on bank charges. A bit late now for ordering Monzo etc but you should be able to pre-order one now to collect at the airport e.g. from Travelex. They are really good. Contactless (for under €30) is very common now and makes life super easy.
- Don't expect US levels of table service, and don't let it get to you ;) Just enjoy it all the more when you get back.
- Doggy bags are not a thing. Portions are nothing like US size anyway.
- Toll booths are useful for getting rid of change. Usually there's a handy spot in the car to keep it.
- 100% agree about always always greet the waiter or salesperson. France is quite a formal country.
- Always make a bit of an effort with the language yourself, even if someone with you speaks it well. Most people appreciate that you are trying and in a tourist area they will just switch to English then anyway after a few pleasantries.. From experience: it is quite stressful being the only speaker of a language if everyone then defaults to you to do everything, order and arrange everything etc. NB I am possibly projecting here from my in-laws: "can you ask him for an omelette please" ;) etc etc. Struggle on! It's all part of the fun of trying.
- Menu du jour is always much much better value than ordering individually from the menu. Lunch is always cheaper than dinner. So lunchtime + menu du jour lets you sample some restaurants that might otherwise be crazy money.
- rideshare ... where I am this just doesn't exist. I wish! Maybe it's in Paris now? Waze is good for traffic.
- People really love cyclists and hiring bikes is a nice way to explore
Enjoy! :)
posted by tardigrade at 3:04 PM on June 21, 2019 [4 favorites]

Agree that you should avoid driving (and especially parking) in old city centers. Our rental car got towed when we parked on the site of the Arles market the night before the market. I learned a lot of useful parking and towing related vocabulary, and some interesting facts about the various branches of the French police, and the tow lot itself ("fourrière") was almost charming, but all in all there were better ways we could have spent that day.

Otherwise driving was very uneventful. We used Google Maps or Apple Maps navigation, which was fine but TERRIBLE at pronouncing French place names.

We used rideshare in Nice (Lyft I think). I used Uber in Paris but that was several years ago.

Oh, one thing that did confuse us was how to pay at the gas station on the motorway - we had to go inside to pre-pay. You can use a credit card at the tollbooth but not at the gas pump! What a country!
posted by mskyle at 3:11 PM on June 21, 2019

Re credit cards vs euros: Check your credit card to see what the foreign transaction commission is. Some cards, especially frequent flyer or business cards (e.g. Costco Visa, Capital One Spark) have a 0% commission. Most places, at least in a city, take cards, aside from street vendors or very small shops. US cards default to chip-and-sign even if you have set a PIN -- I carry a pen with me so that the staff doesn't have to hunt down a pen for me to sign the slip. I usually withdraw a small amount at an ATM on arrival, about 10 euros per day, to supplement my card. If you have an account with Fidelity Investments, they reimburse all ATM fees worldwide.

Tip and tax are included in the listed price. If the service has been exceptional, feel free to give the waitstaff a bit extra, but otherwise, the price on the menu is what you pay. Le formule midi is a 3 course lunch, often for 10-15E, and very filling. When I was a student, I would just have this fixed price lunch + light dinner from a local market -- bread + cheese + fruit

In Paris: Not sure where you are staying, but the train (RER B) from Charles de Gaulle will take you right into the heart of the city in 45 min for about 10E pp. Skip the Eiffel Tower and instead head to the Tour Montparnasse at night. It's an extremely ugly building, but that's actually a feature, not a bug, because you go up to the top and get to look out over beautiful nighttime Paris (including the Eiffel Tower's glitzy lightshow) without having an outer-space brutalist building in the way, spoiling your view. Montmartre is also a lovely place to watch the sun go down. Notre Dame is somehow even more beautiful -- I had to sit down on the steps leading down to the Seine and cry for a few moments.
posted by basalganglia at 3:14 PM on June 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

If you've never driven in Europe before brush up on these road signs. Particularly the "no yellow squares" sign; that indicates you no longer have right away (ie, you are on a small road) and must give way to people joining your street from the right. The "national speed limit" sign is also unusual for Americans; you often see it when leaving a small town's limits. You're expected to know the speed limits too; 50kph whenever you enter a small town is the most important one.
posted by Nelson at 4:22 PM on June 21, 2019

I’m going to preface this by saying I have had almost 100% good experiences in France and Paris, and have found people to be quite nice and friendly, but I also think it’s because I had friends who lived in France who told me some of these etiquette tips ahead of time, plus I make the effort to speak at least a bit of French.

You might like these two episodes of the Earful Tower podcast:
Cultural miscommunication and mismatch between Americans and Parisians
Tips for blending in while in Paris

The tips I found most helpful, as a non French person:

1. You have to say, “Bonjour Madame/Monsieur” as soon as you enter any shop or place of business, and “Au revoir, merci” when you leave. This has been raised a couple of times by other commenters and I cannot over stress how important this is. It’s at the top of the list of things that will help you fit in and not be thought of as rude.

2. You’re expected to keep your conversation quiet in public. Try to match the volume level of the locals around you. This doesn’t apply to large groups of school children, who are pretty noisy.

3. Try to have exact change when you pay for things. Parisian shop clerks have an obsession with correct change. They have an aversion to breaking larger bills which can seem pathological if you are not used to it. So your coins become precious precious things.

4. Keep your hands on the table when you are eating. I think Americans are taught to keep their hands in their laps when eating? (I’m not American so I’m not sure. It’s not what I was taught.) But that’s considered unsavoury by the French, who are taught to keep their hands (but not elbows) on the table during meals.

5. Make at least some effort to start out with simple French.
I learned French in school, so my survival French is fine, and I can have a very simple conversation. But honestly, most people seem to just appreciate the effort of attempting the basics in French and not just starting off speaking in English (I don’t think you would do this but I’ve witnessed people do it, just approach a stranger and start rambling requests in English, and it’s terrible).

It doesn’t matter if you don’t speak perfect (or much) French. I have been to Paris many times and had many interactions with Parisians, and I can think of only ONE time that someone was rude about my imperfect French. Literally every other person made good faith attempts to understand me and was helpful and in many cases actively pleasant and kind.

Important phrases: (I’ll let you find the translations on Google Translate so you can hear audio of how to pronounce them)

Thank you
Excuse me
I’m sorry
Where is
How much
I’d like [to]
I’m sorry, I don’t speak French. Do you speak English?

Numbers from 1 to 20 are good too.

Have fun! I love France and Provence and Paris are particular favourites.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 4:32 PM on June 21, 2019 [4 favorites]

I just remembered, you can just echo the shopkeeper’s “Au revoir, bonne journee” when you leave the shop. Perfectly polite and easy!
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 5:01 PM on June 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

Reading the other comments reminded of two other things:

1. You have to ask for your check at a restaurant, as in many other European countries. Even though I know this, I still sometimes find myself sitting in a French restaurant wondering why the waiter hasn't brought the check. D'oh!

2. At casual places, you can't order a slice of pizza (or an ice cream cone, in the upthread example) and expect to sit at the tables outside the establishment. You have to pay for the use of the table. If you want to sit at a casual place, let them know when you place your order. There may be an extra charge.

I like Hurdy Gurdy Girl's advice except for the "hands on the table" thing. Maybe that exists but I've never noticed it. It seems...strange? Or maybe I'm just a clumsy American lout with his hands in his lap? :)
posted by jdroth at 5:30 PM on June 21, 2019

On driving, I asked a question about this two years ago and found the answers quite useful. If I had to point out two things from that thread that I didn't know that are useful to know, they would be:

- Default speed limits. In France, speed limits are standardized based on where you are (within a town, on a highway, etc.) and even if speed limits are not explicitly signed you are expected to be aware of how the system works. Here are the default speed limits (in French, but Google Translate will work fine). If your rental car comes with a good GPS, it may indicate the current speed limit of where you are, which is helpful.

- Absolutely no use of cardinal directions on road signs. If you drive in the US or Canada, you are very used to seeing North/South/East/West (or even Nord/Sud/Est/Ouest if you happen to find yourself in Québec). France, and as far as I can tell all other European countries, does not use cardinal directions on highway signs whatsoever. Instead of "95 South" you will see signs for the cities that are on the way, i.e. "A7 | Aix-en-Provence, Marseille" etc. With GPS, this is easier now but it's still worth keeping in mind.

It is pretty much impossible to say bonjour too many times in France -- I mean in terms of the number of interactions in which you say it, not the number of times you say it to any one person. If I think back to my recent trip, I said bonjour (or bonsoir in the evening) every time I entered a restaurant; every time I entered a store; when I stopped at a boulangerie or patisserie; when I got on the bus; every time I checked in or out a hotel or stopped at the front desk; when I paid a cover for a club (!); even when other guests stepped into the hotel elevator -- you get the picture.

As with the other responders, I echo that saying bonjour at the beginning of every conversation or interaction is the #1 way to avoid unpleasant or frosty service in France. (And "excuse me" excusez-moi is not bonjour!)

On restaurants, a couple of things that I think are helpful to know:
- The server will not normally bring you your check (l'addition) until you ask for it, which I actually find nice because I don't feel that I'm being rushed.

- Because I appear to be perpetually thirsty, I always ask for a carafe d'eau, or a pitcher of tap water, at restaurants, and have never had a problem getting one and have never been charged for one (though I think they can charge); be aware it will definitely not come with ice.

- Be aware that French restaurants tend to keep stricter hours than in the US. It is very typical for a restaurant to be open only, say, 12:00-14:00 and then 19:30-22:00 (and note that the 24-hour clock is ubiquitous and universal in France). If you are traveling through rural or non-touristy parts of France, and you want to have lunch at a restaurant, I would strongly recommend that you make an effort to eat lunch at the standard lunch hour (12:00-14:00) to avoid being shut out of options. In larger cities such as Paris you'll have more options -- look for cafés or brasseries that are service continu or 'nonstop service' -- but if you're used to US restaurants you will be surprised at how many places are closed between lunch and dinner even in Paris.
posted by andrewesque at 6:01 PM on June 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

A good app to download is MAPS.ME for detailed street and road maps for the region you will be in, which can be used offline.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 6:19 PM on June 21, 2019

Excellent suggestions already, about roundabouts (ronds-point), shopkeeper etiquette (bonjour Madame! Merci Madame!), and the absence of hot food options between 2 and 6pm.

Might I also add:
1. They are set up for Chip-and-PIN cards, and American credit cards often don't work. Carry cash just in case.
2. Smaller bistros will want cash (l'espece) anyway rather than credit card.
3. Go to the Orange store at Charles de Gaulle or the first sizeable town to get a local SIM (passport required) so you can use cellular data to get Google Maps for navigation.
4. Be very careful in Paris Metro - there are zones and you will need to voluntarily pay extra for crossing multiples zones. The Metro police love nothing more than to catch the unaware tourist and charging the exorbitant on-the-spot fine. It means nothing that the turnstyle let you through. It's easy to read all the warnings and got caught all the same. Ugh. Ask me how I know.
5. Some toll roads will require cash in euro coins to be tossed into a gaping mechanical maw.
6. Apparently the French consider touching food with hands to be barbaric. No American-style pizza or sandwich eating here. They dare each other to use utensils for everything, including shell-on shrimps. Also, put bread on the table, not a plate, and prepare for raised eyebrows if you ask for butter with bread.
7. Even if you majored in french literature at university, just ask "Vous parlez Anglais?" and let them demonstrate that their English is much better than your French. They will be very
friendly and forthcoming once you've allowed them to shown how well they've studied their English. And if they didn't study English, then it's all good and lots of fun gesturing can ensue.
8. If you are foodie-adjacent, use the Maitre Restauranteur as a guide. It's more prevalent and accessible than the Michelin stars, and not capricious and uninformed like Yelp or Tripadvisor. A good indication of quality that's 'fait-maison.'
9. Givenchy is so unbelievably beautiful and worth a visit. You will appreciate Monet in a different light for the rest of your life.
posted by dum spiro spero at 7:50 PM on June 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

10. Snakeling is absolutely right - specify 20 euro notes if given a choice when withdrawing from the ATM. Trying to break a 100 euro note will get you the super major stinkeye from most places!

11. In more casual brasserie-type places, it's quite ok to walk up to the cash register to close out when you're ready.

12. Enjoy the food and wine, art and culture and have fun!
posted by dum spiro spero at 8:23 PM on June 21, 2019

"pardon" if you need to get by someone, "excusez-moi" if you want their attention
posted by brujita at 9:32 PM on June 21, 2019

13. In Paris, the local rideshare app is LeCab, and the city bikes (Velib) are lots of fun. It helps to set things up ahead of time.
posted by dum spiro spero at 10:22 PM on June 21, 2019

To respond to some of the points above, since 2017 the Paris metro has be de-zoned for visitor passes, monthly, and weekly passes. If you buy a book of ten metro tickets, these are zone 1 only.

The big supermarket chains (Monoprix, Franprix, Auchan, Casino, Picard, Carrefour) will accept non chip credit cards and print out the receipt to sign.

We say bonjour to everyone!

If you want to sit outside at a cafe but you’re not sure if it’s for meals only, you can go to the bar and say ‘deux pour boire dehors?’

France has lots of competitors for Uber, arranged in order of cheapness:
posted by ellieBOA at 11:37 PM on June 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

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