The French Riviera is a great driving destination with panoramic look outs, walled medieval villages, coastal towns and some particularly scenic driving routes.
I’m often asked for advice about transport options on the French Riviera – mainly trains, buses and airport transfers – however, I thought it was due time I write a dedicated blog post about hiring a rental car on the French Riviera.
Rental car companies and contracts are a minefield of jargon and exclusions, so after many previous years of selling rental car policies for Europe plus personal experience here are some tried-and-tested tips that will save you time, money and stress.
You’ve landed in France – bienvenue! – and are heading to collect your rental car from the depot.
Here are my ‘Tips for hiring a rental car on the French Riviera’:
Two major considerations when hiring a rental car in France are that:
(1) French rental fleets don’t have vehicles you may be used to with ample passenger room and luggage storage
(2) French rental car companies guarantee bookings by category, not make or model. Bear this in mind so don’t get too attached to the specific make or model on your booking as the words ‘or similar’ are added to cover all vehicles in the category.
Collect your rental car when well rested and refreshed
My number one tip is to pick up your hire car when you are well rested and refreshed. Too many tourists arrive straight off a long-haul flight and go straight to the rental depot to collect their hire car before a lengthy road journey.
The French Riviera road network includes busy highways and some treacherous winding roads, especially the Corniche roads heading to Monaco, alpine roads to Sospel and back roads around the River Loup.
Driving while excessively over-tired is comparable to driving drunk – your concentration waivers and you are a danger to other road users, especially if it is your first time driving in Europe. If you can, rest prior to collecting your hire car.
Premium rental locations
Bear in mind that picking up a rental car at an airport or train station means you’ll pay a bit more for your rental. In France, it adds around €40 to your rental cost. If you can collect your rental car at a location not based at the airport or a train station this may save you money.
It is standard for French rental companies to take I.D copies from all renters. This is often your passport if you are not a French national, or driver’s license. Arrange an International Drivers Permit prior to arriving in France if you are not an EU member; it doesn’t replace your actual license it is merely a translation to accompany it.
If you want a car with automatic transmission, book in advance. Most European rental fleets have cars with manual (stick shift) transmission, and particularly in peak seasons cars with automatic transmission are booked quickly.
Car make and model
Try to understand that you won’t see 4WD Range Rovers, or Jeep Cherokees at most French depots. European rental fleets just don’t have the extensive car range with huge luggage storage and passenger room.
The cheaper car classes will most likely be Fiat Punto, VW Polo/Golf, Peugeot 308, Opel Astra/Vectra. You can rent Mercedes S-Class, Audi A8’s and BMW 7-Series but rental rates are much higher.
Where can you go?
Check the geographic restrictions with your rental car company on where you can take your rental car. If you intend to travel to Eastern Europe, rentals are usually much higher cost and some luxury cars can not be taken to Italy at all.
If you intend to pick up your car in one French city, for example Nice, and drop it off at another city in France, for example Lyon, you usually don’t have to pay one-way fees because you are in the same country (do check though with your specific rental company!). However, you will pay one-way fees if you drop the car off in another country and it can be pricey.
Pre-hire inspection report
It’s crucial that you obtain a pre-hire inspection of your rental car while you are present.
You will understand after traveling in France that minor vehicle damage is common – broken wing mirrors, small dents etc. Something deemed a minor repair in your home country could be costly in France such as dings in your side door or cosmetic paint repairs.
Don’t skip this step – especially at the airport rental depots during peak times the staff may be unwilling to assist you due to lots of customers, but for peace of mind it’s important you aren’t stuck for the previous renter’s damage.
Find out exactly what the rental company offers you as driver support – breakdown assistance, replacement vehicles etc
Try to book a rental company that has an English-speaking contact centre (unless of course, you speak fluent French).
It’s vital to know that many small owner-operated rental companies compete fiercely with the global brands on price, however they often do not have English-speaking contact centres – which may create issues for you if you break down in rural Provence or the high country of the Riviera Alps and need a replacement car.
Generally speaking, the bigger global brands Europcar, Hertz, Avis, Thrifty and Sixt have English-speaking staff.
Be wary of pick-up and drop-off times – this is France and you’ll find depots closed in the middle of the day (often between 12:00 and 13:30), after hours, weekends or bank holidays. Check and double check the depot hours. If you bring the car back late you will be charged for an extra day’s rental.
It may seem a simple thing but check if your car is a petrol or diesel vehicle; there’s always a chance you have been given a diesel car and the rental company omits to tell you.
Always take the opportunity to fuel up on long journeys as fuel stations may be limited in rural areas.
Often, fuel stations that operate adjacent to supermarkets – for example, Casino brand supermarkets – offer slightly lower fuel prices than the prices you find at the stations along the French autoroutes / highways.
Refuel your car before returning it to the depot. If your fuel tank is not topped up, the fuel price per litre to refuel from the rental company is always inflated, plus they add a refuelling charge. Get a fuel receipt in case there are any post-rental fuel charges that you might need to dispute.
If you require baby car seats, booster seats, GPS systems book these in advance. In peak Riviera tourist season, especially the months of June through to August these can’t be guaranteed if you walk into a depot.
Also, check if your credit card covers you for CDW/theft insurance – many rental car companies will try to sell you additional CDW/theft insurance which incurs big deductibles in the event of an incident but you may already be covered for free by your home country credit card company so it pays to check if you have coverage for France and/or Europe.
If you are covered by your credit card, make sure you sign this on your French rental contract ‘I decline CDW, LDW, Theft insurance (and your signature)’. You can also request a copy of your contract in English; it’s not compulsory for French companies to provide this but you are entitled to one.
My Top Tip! If the French rental car company asks at the depot if you want to be billed for extras in Direct Currency Conversion (DCC), decline. This is a useless service whereby if you have a non-European credit card it converts your French rental charges to US dollars, Australian dollars, New Zealand dollars etc (whatever your home country currency is). The DCC rate favours the rental company, not you, so decline the conversion and ask to be billed in euros.
Tolls on French roads
French highways are well maintained and you’re likely to encounter péages (tolls). Try to take coins and small notes with you in your car as sometimes the card machines can be fickle with non-French issued credit cards.
For French Riviera toll prices, go to http://www.vinci-autoroutes.com/fr/page/tarifs to download the pricing guide (most standard cars are Classe 1).
For longer driving distances, one of my favourite websites to estimate driving times, fuel estimates and toll costs in France is www.viamichelin.com Note: Add 10%-15% time buffer to the travel times given as does not take into account stopping at traffic lights, major congestion etc
My Top Tip ! To see rental discounts for France and the French Riviera, head to www.zalyn.com where you can enter a date range and origin (for example, 21 May to 28 May and Nice) to receive details of special discounts and offers from rental car companies.
Many tourists arrive in France and have never driven on European roads before. It is definitely an experience! Here are some driving tips:
Left lane / right lane
The left lane is for the fastest drivers, and if you can’t keep pace you should move to the right lane. If you sit in the fast lane, you will experience other cars tailgating you right on your bumper, flashing their headlights and blowing their horn.
Rarely will these cars pass you using the right lane, so keep up your speed or move to the right lane otherwise you may be in for an unenjoyable road journey.
One of the biggest dangers on French highways is the difference in speed between lanes.
If there are only two lanes, the left lane will have vehicles traveling much faster than the vehicles in the right lane which are often large trucks or motorhomes.
Adjust your speed for other traffic and bear in mind that driving like this requires high levels of concentration so make frequent rest breaks as you will get tired. French highways are well set up with rest stops, restaurants and fuel stations.
Know the road rules to avoid traffic infringements
Just because you are driving in an unfamiliar country, it doesn’t mean you should relax your standard of driving. It pays to learn the road rules of the country you are driving in.
Rental car drivers are increasingly being served traffic infringements for driving in restricted zones, speeding, failure to stop at red lights, parking in ‘no-parking’ zones or tailgating.
Your credit card may be charged weeks or months later after your trip – it will be a non-waivable administration fee that the rental car company charges in lieu of providing your details to the police to issue the traffic infringement notice. Unfortunately, you agreed to the charge when you signed the rental contract so the traffic infringement will stand.
Traffic jams / speed cameras
For French road information including traffic conditions, road closures, webcams and regional toll costs (tarifs de péage) go to http://www.vinci-autoroutes.com/
Another useful French website detailing major road works, main closures or highway disruptions is http://www.bison-fute.gouv.fr/ They have a calendar of peak travel congestion (handy for travel planning during French school holidays which have different dates according to regions), and regular updates by department (area) in France.
For maps and information on the location of speed cameras in the French Riviera region (Alpes-Maritimes) visit http://english.controleradar.org/provence-riviera-speed-cameras.php The site also covers other French regions.
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Image credits: Metropole Nice, Le Stuff, Europcar, Volkwagen, Goodfon, La Peche, Vinci Autoroutes, signals.fr, Bison Futé