Motorhome Travel In France II – Navigating Road Travel, Autoroute Tolls & Road Rules
We’ve always been slo-mo travelers, preferring shorter drives (2-3 hours max) and longer stays (several days) wherever we go. It’s how we rolled when we were fulltiming in the USA, and it’s how we still roll here in Europe. There’s so much to see, and a few hours drive is all it takes to bring us into a completely new environment, so why not just enjoy the journey?
In France that mode of travel has translated to how we use the roads. We take paid freeways when we they make sense, but most of the time we prefer the backroads (known as D-type here) that meander through the countryside past small villages and hidden gems. Makes sense, right?
But that also brings up a bunch of questions. How exactly do we decide which road to take? And what are the rules of those roads when we do? Is there an easy way to estimate toll costs & time differences (yes, there is!)? and is it different for heavier motorhomes (yup again!). How do we minimize our costs (there are ways!)? And finally are there any obscure French road rules we need to know about (oh yes indeed….ever heard of “priority from the right” for starters?).
Well, here’s all those gems of knowledge in one single post….
1. Types Of Roads & Speed Limits In France
There are 3 main types of roads in France that you should know about:
Autoroutes (A-type roads) – these are freeways of France, the fastest and most direct way to travel long distances. The standard speed-limit is 130 km/hr* on these roads (110 km/hr when raining) unless otherwise indicated, and they’re all designated by “A” followed by a number (e.g. A64). Most of them are pay (toll) roads, but some of them are free of charge.
Nationales (N-types roads) – these are the “old” freeways of France, the roads that truckers used to use before Autoroutes came to be. So they tend to be good quality, wide roads that follow fairly direct routes between towns. Plus they are all FREE! If you want to avoid paying tolls, but are worried about driving your motorhome on smaller D-type roads, then these are the roads you should look for. They are all designated by “N” followed by a number (e.g. N10). Standard speed limits here are 110 km/hr on 4-lane/dual-carriageway roads and either 80 or 90 km/hr on other roads, depending on the department**.
Départementales (D-type roads) – these are the smallest, most scenic roads in France and they are all FREE, but they can vary a ton in size. Some are spacious 2-lane roads whereas others are narrow enough that you have to scoot to one side if someone comes the other way! In our experience however they’re all pretty good quality, and one of the most scenic ways to experience motorhome travel in France. They are designated by “D” followed by a number (e.g. D25. And if they’re really small, there’s also a letter! e.g. D25J). Speed limits here are either 80 or 90 km/hr, depending on the department**.
Speed Limits In Towns – When you enter a town in France you will see a sign with the town name on it. Once you pass this sign the standard speed limit automatically drops to 50 km/hr, unless otherwise indicated (pay attention -> 30 km/hr signs are really, really common in rural towns!). On leaving the town you will see the same town-name sign with a red strike-through line. Once you pass this sign, speed limits go back to the “regular” 80/90 km/hr** (again, unless otherwise indicated).
*Speed Limits For Heavy Motorhomes – If your motorhome weighs over 3.5 tonnes you are subject to slower speed limits on the faster roads:
- 110 km/hr on motorways (drops to 100 km/hr when raining)
- 100 km/hr on dual carriageways
- Also/ you must also heed all signs with 3.5t on them, EXCEPT if there there is a picture of a truck (in which case the limit/restriction is only applicable to commercial trucks).
The speed limits on rural roads and in urban areas/towns for heavy motorhomes are the same as for regular cars.
**Why The 80-90 km/hr Range? On 1st July 2018 France passed a law changing speed limits on rural roads from 90 km/hr to 80 km/hr. It was a law passed by the “city people” and in very French fashion was NOT well-received by the countryside. So a heated debate ensued and a mere 12 months later another law was passed allowing individual departments to go BACK to 90 km/hr if they wished. Most departments have decided to do so, but for the moment France is still a mish-mash with some departments at 80 km/hr, others at 90 km/hr, and a few still deciding. If you want to be “safe” just set your limit at 80 km/hr and you’ll be good to go for now.
Will I Actually Get A Fine If I Speed? YES, you will! In France you are allowed a 5 km/hr “freebie”, and then every km/hr above that you get a fine. So for example, if you’re traveling 86 km/hr in an 80 km/hr zone, you will get fined for traveling 1 km/hr above your limit. Automatic speed cameras are everywhere (you can find a decent map HERE), plus you will also sometimes see Police set-up with hand-held speed cameras at the exits of small towns. The fines for speeding are strict & severe, and the ticket will get sent to your home country if you don’t live in France. You’ll want to pay it pronto too, otherwise the fees rack up rapidly.
2. Planning For (And Minimizing) Autoroute Tolls
Sometimes we just need to get from one place to the next, and in those cases A-type “autoroutes” are the easiest and fastest way to go. In France most of these are pay (toll) roads.
The way you pay on autoroutes is at multi-lane toll booths where fees are collected by either cash, credit card, or with an electronic transponder (télépéage). The options for payment will be signed above each booth, so always check before you drive in if you have a preference. As you approach the booth the height/size of your vehicle will automatically be scanned and the appropriate fee will be indicated on the panel. Once you’ve paid, the gate will rise and you can drive on through.
How much you will have to pay depends on the size of motorhome you drive:
- Class 1 tolls are charged for vehicles below 2 m tall. Regular cars & smaller vans will fit in this category.
- Class 2 tolls are charged for vehicles between 2 -3 m tall AND below 3.5 tonnes in weight. Most smaller motorhomes and regular caravans fit in this category. These tolls generally cost ~1.5x more than Class 1.
- Class 3 tolls are charged for vehicles taller than 3 m OR above 3.5 tonnes in weight. Taller/heavier motorhomes fit in this category. These tolls generally cost ~2x more than Class 1.
- Class 4 tolls are charges for vehicles taller than 3 m OR above 3.5 tonnes in weight with three axles or more. So taller/heavier dual-rear-axle motorhomes, motorhomes with trailers and taller/heavier dual-rear-axle caravans all fall in this category. These tolls typically cost ~3x more than Class 1.
You can get accurate estimates for toll costs, travel time and fuel costs through either autoroutes.fr or the excellent viamichelin.com website. The former has multiple selection options for motorhome type/class (from regular to heavy class), while the latter works across multiple countries. Just plug in your entry and exit points, enter your vehicle info and it’ll give you all the info you need.
If you want to avoid tolls, you can obviously stick to N or D type roads and once again the viamichelin site can help you decide if that’s right for you. Just click “avoid motorways” to see the difference in distance & time for any given route. If you’re traveling longer distances however, it’s generally worth taking some toll roads, and there are a few well-known travel routes across France (north to SW, north to SE etc.) that do a good mix of both; minimizing tolls while still keeping travel-time sane. The about-France website has the most detailed info on this that I’ve seen, so click over there if you want the details.
Do Rooftop Attachments Count Towards Motorhome/Caravan Height? Well according to the fine-print on autoroutes.fr, there are things that count towards your measured height and things that do not:
- Accessories like antennas, roof-boxes, satellite dishes, rooflights, solar panels or other attachments DO NOT count. That means if you’re a Class 2 motorhome to begin with, and you add these attachments to your roof, then you still qualify for Class 2 toll charge (even if your vehicle now exceeds 3 m in height).
- Permanent changes to the roof structure of the motorhome such as as rooftop sleeping pods or air-conditioners however, DO count. So sadly if you add an aircon to your rig and you’re suddenly taller than 3 m, you’re going to have to pay Class 3 tolls.
What If I get Classed Incorrectly? Well there’s a trick!! If you find yourself at a toll booth which is showing a Class 3 charge (and you think it should be Class 2), then you simply push the button to speak to the attendant, and when they answer say “je suis un camping car” (= “I am a camping car”). In 95% of cases they will automatically downgrade the toll to Class 2. There are many folks on the “edge” of the classification system who successfully use this trick to lower their tolls.
Can I Buy An Electronic Transponder For My Motorhome? YES, but only if your motorhome is Class 2. Sanef/BipnGo (French-based site) and Emovis (UK-based site) both sell tags for Class 1/2 vehicles that you can buy online and use across all your eligible vehicles (simply by transferring between holders). You attach the tag to the middle-top of your windshield and then you can just zip through any non-height-restricted toll booth lane with the orange télépéage “T” sign on it without having to open your window or stretch like an elastic band to reach a pay station. Plus you can use the tag in Spain, Italy & Portugal too. Super snazzy right!!!
The tags don’t cost much (typically a very modest monthly fee or only a fee the months you use it, depending on which service you sign up for) and you pay the same tolls as you would without the tag. Unfortunately they don’t sell them for Class 3 or 4 vehicles, so if you’re a heavier motorhome you have to go though toll booths the “old fashioned” way.
3. Obscure French Road Rules Worth Knowing
Rules of the road in France are not tooooo different from most other countries. You stop at red lights, go on green, you stick to the speed limits, you stop for pedestrians at pedestrian crossings etc. However there are a few obscure ones that you might not know if you’re coming to France for the first time. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but here are 7 odd-ball rules well worth knowing:
3.1 Priority From The Right – this is probably THE most obscure and THE most absurd road rule in France! The rule is that unless you are on a priority road, you are supposed to give way to all cars coming onto the road from the right. Sounds crazy, right? Well thankfully most major roads (including N & D types) are priority roads these days and will be indicated as such by a yellow diamond sign, so for the most part you don’t have to worry about this. However occasionally on smaller rural roads or in smaller towns, you’ll see the yellow diamond with a black strike-through on it, or a triangle sign with a black cross (or simply nothing at all!) which means you do not have priority. So unless the intersection or side-road has a stop or yield sign, you need to yield to all traffic coming from the right. Got it? Yeah, this one is a dozy!
3.2 Stick To The Right on Freeways (Except When Overtaking) – most Europeans are familiar this rule, but Americans might not be. In France you must stick to the right lane while driving, and only use the left lane for overtaking. You never just “cruise” in the middle or left lanes (they are only for overtaking) and you never, ever overtake on the inside/right lane of a freeway (that’s totally illegal and a BIG no-no!!!). One you’ve overtaken a vehicle you must move back to the right lane….it’s literally an offence not to 🙂
3.3 Know Your Roundabout Rules – Roundabouts can be mahem for folks who are not used to them. The first thing you need to know about roundabouts is that traffic already on the roundabout generally has priority*** over traffic entering the roundabout, so you need to let cars already driving around pass you by before you get on. Typically you’ll see a yield sign (an inverted triangle with red border) that says “cédez le passage” (= give way) when you approach a roundabout to indicate this. Also which lane you take matters. In a multi-lane roundabout, the rule is that you take the outside lane if you plan to take the first or second (straight through) exit of the roundabout whereas you take the inside lane if you plan to take the third or further exits. Lastly you are supposed to indicate when you’re about to exit a roundabout, and if you’re on the inside lane make sure you check for cars zooming around the outside before you move over to take the exit.
***”Old-Style” Roundabouts Still Exist! There are a few stressful exceptions (e.g. Arc de Triumphe in Paris is a really famous one) where priority is actually given to traffic entering the roundabout system. This is basically the roundabout version of “priority from the right” and IMO it’s insane. Thankfully they’re quite rare these days!
3.4 Traffic Light Stops Can Be Well Before Intersections – another kinda odd thing in France is that traffic light stops are sometimes placed well BEFORE an intersection. This is especially common in smaller towns with narrow roads and is done to allow larger vehicles (e.g. commercial trucks or buses) sufficient space to swing out and turn into your lane. So the rule is, look for the white dashed line on the ground & stop there, even if it’s 40 feet before the actual intersection!
3.5 Dash Cam Devices Are Allowed But ONLY For Private Use – you are allowed to have a dash cam or video recorder in your windshield in France, but it must not obstruct your field of vision and the video that’s recorded can ONLY be used for private purposes. So for example, you can use the video as evidence for Police if you’re in a traffic accident, but you cannot publish it to the internet (e.g. YouTube, Facebook etc.).
3.6 Speed Camera Warning Devices are BANNED – radar monitoring devices are not allowed in France, so if you have one in your motorhome, remove it before you get here.
3.7 Mobile Phone Use Is BANNED (Even When Stopped!) – this is not exactly an odd-ball road rule, but it’s worth mentioning nonetheless. Mobile phone rules have become really strict in France. They are banned completely while driving even while stopped or pulled over (e.g. at a stoplight, or on the side of the road with hazard lights). The only acceptable use is when your car is in a designated parking spot or parked completely off the road. If caught, you are liable for a large fine, or even an immediate suspension of your licence regardless of nationality. Basically this is hard core, so don’t mess with this one.
How About Drinking?? You might think that France, being the wino-friendly country that it is, takes a fairly loose approach to drinking, but I’m here to tell you it does NOT. In fact the limits in France are quite a bit lower than other countries (such as UK). You are allowed a maximum of 0.5mg/ml of alcohol per litre in your blood, which is roughly equivalent to one small glass of wine per hour. So, if you want to drink, just do it after you park the motorhome for the night!
That’s it for my road rules & tolls post. Hopefully I’ve covered all your burning questions, but if not feel free to ask away in the comments section below. And I’m not done! I’ve still got one more for the series, so for all you France motorhome enthusiasts out there’s more good stuff to come. See you in the next post….
Coming Up Next -> Part III – Checklists, Crit’Air & Pet Transport rules in France (it’s more complicated than you think!)
Good external websites to reference:
- Annieandre.com -> 11 things you absolutely need to know about driving in France (very well-written, clear tips)
- About-france.com -> Driving rules for France (excellent detailed site with all kinds of info about routes & road rules)
- Francetravelplanner.com -> How to pay tolls in France (a good website with step-by-step pics)