From Toulouse to Paris
July 14, 2019 11:38 AM   Subscribe

I will be solo attending a retreat outside of Toulouse, France, and am thinking of adding a few nights in Paris to the end of my trip. I'm looking for a few suggestions and advice on transport (and any stops between).

I fly from London to Toulouse at the end of this month. The retreat I'm attending is 5 nights, and is about an hour's drive from the Toulouse airport. I'm thinking of traveling up to Paris and taking the train back to London after a few nights there (or in between).

My questions are - if you were doing this, would you rent a car, or would you take the train? There is an option to take public transport to a nearby spot and the folks who run the retreat will pick me up from there, so it's not necessary to have a car, though I've read that exploring the area around the retreat is only possible with a car, and I might like to do that if I get bored.

If I do rent a car, is it difficult to drive from Toulouse to Paris? It looks reasonably straightforward according to google maps, with a couple of interesting options. I speak pretty much zero French (I mean, I can get by with hello, goodbye, thank you so as not to appear as a total jerk, but that's really the best I can do), so if anything goes wrong, will I be totally screwed?

From what I've read, my American driver's license should be fine if I'm staying less than 90 days. I live in England and don't have an international driver's permit or international license, yet. But if my research is faulty, I'd love to know before I get to the rental car counter. :)

Finally, if you were going to visit any places in France between Toulouse and Paris, would you? Where would you go and what would you do? Is it worth it to go out of the way a bit and try to hit Bordeaux and the coast?

For reference, I've been to Paris before, but only for a few days, and I've never been any place else in France. I'm relatively well traveled in the past few years, but driving alone in a foreign country would be a new experience for me, so while I'm up for adventure, I don't want to pile too much on.

Finally, any and all recommendations for Toulouse and its surrounding areas, Paris, or any place in between will be very welcomed!
posted by pazazygeek to Travel & Transportation around France (10 answers total)
I've taken the EasyJet from Toulouse to Paris, which was quick, cheap, but not particularly comfortable. I've also made the drive without any issue (GPS worked fine), but it's a bit of a long drive unless you're excited about some of the stops in the middle.

As for the drivers license, I think this may vary by rental car agency, so check with them to be certain.
posted by whisk(e)y neat at 11:49 AM on July 14, 2019

As an American, I can understand why you figure “ah, it’s just 6.5 hours, why not?” but I think you’d likely have a better time with a different mode of transportation. Gas is extremely expensive, there’s tons of tolls on roads and there are enough driving differences that if it’s your first time it can be a bit frustrating (if you need to drive into Paris to drop off a car or drive around small towns).

That being said, it is definitely doable, but I would rather spend the time that would have been in transit by just flying or taking a train.
posted by raccoon409 at 12:40 PM on July 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

I've rented cars many times in France with my American driver license. No problem whatsoever. However, I agree with raccoon409 that the drive on the autoroute is likely to be expensive once you add up the gas, tolls, and the one-way rental fee.

Moreover, depending on the day you travel, the roads could be absolutely clogged with vacationers returning from their summer vacation, or heading off for it. People will get up and start their trip at 2 or 3 am to avoid traffic jams, and then get stuck anyway. An organization called "Bison Futé" (the informed bison, from the herd-like behavior of vacationers) does forecasts, so check your travel day(s).

My own recommendation would be to take the TGV from Toulouse to Paris via Bordeaux (obligatory reservation), though if you're traveling on a bad day for auto traffic, plan to arrive at the departure station early and if your finances allow, book first class. It's not as bad as the Eurostar on a high volume day, because there's no ID check, but the stations can still be crowded.

If you do decide to drive, it's pretty easy, esp. with a GPS in the car (you can change the language). The main difference in navigating is that in the US, we tend to navigate by highway number (take I-95 to exit 17 in Northampton). In France, destinations have arrows, and people navigate by those (follow the blue arrow to Paris, then follow the green arrow for Angoulême, then at the third roundabout ....). Driving into Paris, though, is not for the faint of heart. I'd be tempted to rent one-way from Toulouse to Orléans and then take the regional train to Paris.
posted by brianogilvie at 12:54 PM on July 14, 2019

Best answer: If you want to see the surrounding area, why wouldn't you rent a car after landing in Toulouse and then return it in Toulouse? Or am I missing something.

The drive from Toulouse to Paris is really boring. Not because there aren't millions of things to see in between but because to see them you would have to get off the big autoroutes and take windy roads - which is the opposite of what you will likely be doing.

You haven't said what you are interested in? Food? Culture? Toulouse itself has a lot to do. And that part of France is just full of prehistoric caves. I once spent a week in that area doing nothing but driving between small food markets and visiting caves and I still felt like I ran out of time.
posted by vacapinta at 1:38 PM on July 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

When we did Paris–Toulouse in Fall 2017, we took the train. Taking the TGV from Paris to Bordeaux was a nice novelty for a North-American like myself. Unfortunately, you have to switch to a more conventional train to get to Toulouse (at least until 2020.)
posted by Johnny Assay at 1:58 PM on July 14, 2019

Highways in France tend to bypass anything interesting, so you would need to know where you want to stop ahead of time. Having a car in Paris is a pain and very expensive to park.
posted by dripdripdrop at 6:12 PM on July 14, 2019

I think the way to think about this decision is not primarily "car vs train" but more so what kind of trip are you looking to make.

If you're hoping to explore the countryside in depth, visit natural landscapes or small villages poorly served by public transport, or string together a customized multi-day itinerary hitting up a number of places, then renting a car makes sense. There are a number of key differences in driving between the US and France but on the whole it's very manageable for an American driver.

On the other hand, if you are just looking to make the trip directly, or break up the trip only with stops in major cities (like Bordeaux), then just take the train. Because so much of France was built up before mass automobile use, many of the most interesting sites that you would want to see are not in close proximity to the fastest automobile highways, and any given French city is going to be much more challenging to drive in compared to an American city of equivalent size.
posted by andrewesque at 6:31 PM on July 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I would definitely not rent a car just to get from Toulouse to Paris. In addition to the expense and the bother, there's also the problem of where you drop the car off in Paris. Driving in the city center is horrible, triply so for Americans not used to European city driving. If you do end up dropping off a car in Paris do so somewhere outside the Peripherique, maybe at Orly airport.

That being said, the part of France around Toulouse has a lot of lovely stuff that would be difficult to visit by train. If you want to spend a few days poking around, places I enjoyed there included Albi (amazing and odd cathedral), Saint-Cirq-Lapopie (picturesque village), Sarlat-le-Caneda (popular tourist town), Les Eyzies-de-Tayac (world famous paleontology museum), and Lascaux, the site of the famous cave paintings. (Or rather Lascaux-II the tourist reproduction, which is still excellent.) You could spend a few days touring the Lot and Dordogne, then drop the car off in a bigger city like Limoges or Bourges and take the train the rest of the way to Paris.

Another option would be to take the train to Bordeaux. It's a nice city, quite a big city, and relatively youthful with a big university. From there you could take a tourist day trip to Saint-Émilion, a lovely little village in the middle of wine country. I'll be honest; it's not my favorite region in France. Surprisingly industrial. But the city is great and has excellent train connections to Paris.
posted by Nelson at 8:17 AM on July 15, 2019

Best answer: I wouldn't even consider driving to Paris in this scenario. A 4.5 hour train ride that drops you off right at Gare Montparnasse is going to save you a bushel of irritation, plus you'll get to enjoy the countryside most of the way. I doubt you'd even save any money.
posted by wnissen at 11:31 AM on July 15, 2019

Response by poster: This has been a great help. The plan is to rent a car and explore while I'm in Toulouse, and then to return the car and just take the train straight to Paris.
posted by pazazygeek at 2:42 AM on July 21, 2019

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