A fast two-hour train ride from Paris will get you to Lyon, France's gastronomic center. A 90-minute drive puts you in Champagne, where you can sip bubbly in the town where Dom Perignon perfected it. A flight to Marseilles lets you soak up the Mediterranean sun while visiting classic Provencal towns like Aix, St. Remy, Arles and Nimes. Or maybe you just want to hop a Velib' bike and cruise the streets of Paris like a local!
Here's our guide to getting around France.
Flying to and Around France
Chances are, you'll fly into Paris if you're traveling direct from the U.S. -- most likely landing at Charles de Gaulle (CDG) airport in Roissy, though some flights arrive in Orly (ORY). There are also direct flights from the U.S. to Lyon and Nice. Air France, US Airways, United, Delta, British Airways and Lufthansa fly to CDG, while OpenSkies flies to Orly.
Air France is the country's major airline for interior flights, but other European carriers, including discounter Ryanair, also serve various airports.
Keep an eye out for strikes and work slow-downs, which seem to happen at least once a year. Check your airline's Web site prior to travel for any news.
Air travel resources:
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Renting a Car in France
If you're sticking to major cities during your trip, there's no need to rent a car. You're much better off transferring by train or plane -- and driving in the city can be a hair-raising experience.
But if you're looking to explore the little towns and villages France is famous for, renting a car will give you the freedom you need. All the major rental agencies serve France, and if you're staying three weeks or longer, there are also lease programs from Renault and Citroen which offer fully insured, brand-new cars at very attractive rates.
Here are some things to remember when renting:
- You'll get the best deal by reserving your car before you arrive in France.
- To rent a car in France you must be at least 21 years old (or 25 years old for some agencies) and have a major credit card.
- Some agencies may require you to have had your driver's license for at least a year. An international driving permit is not required for American renters.
- The majority of cars in France are manual transmission; you'll pay a premium for an automatic (these also tend to be larger cars, which will guzzle more gas).
- If you're going to be leaving luggage in the car while visiting sights, be sure you book a car with a trunk or covered hatchback large enough to hold and conceal everything. The lowest rental-class cars often have miniscule trunks.
- Insurance coverage and collision damage waivers very widely among rental agencies. If you're counting on using your credit card insurance coverage, reconfirm it before leaving on your trip.
International Car Rental Tips
- Gas (essence) and highway tolls are far more expensive than in the United States. Many of the France's largest, fastest highways are toll routes. In addition to cash, Visa and MasterCard (but not AmEx) credit cards (cartes bancaires or CB) are accepted at most toll booths. To be on the safe side, it's a good idea to choose a lane with a human being in the booth. Otherwise, if you have trouble with your card processing at the unmanned booths, press the button for assistance.
- Rent or bring along a GPS, unless you enjoy getting lost (which does have its rewards in France!).
- The blood alcohol concentration limit for driving is 0.5, as opposed to 0.8 in the U.S. -- so be particularly cautious when drinking and driving.
- Children under 10 may not ride in the front seat.
- Combining rail travel and car rental can be convenient, with many rental agencies in or near train stations.
- Roundabouts -- intersections where several roads lead to a central traffic circle -- are common in France. Don't freak out. You can go around the circle as many times as it takes to find the street you want! But notice that drivers signal when they're going to turn out of a traffic circle, and be sure to do the same.
- On multi-lane highways and autoroutes, the French stick to the right-hand lane, except when passing. Always use your signal, and don't pass on the right.
Car rental resources:
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France by Train
France created one of the earliest high-speed train systems, and continues to add destinations. The TGV (Train a Grande Vitesse) serves 150 cities in France and neighboring countries, at speeds up to 200 miles per hour. It's operated by SNCF, the state-owned railway company, which also offers regular inter-city services on its 20,000 miles of rails.
Rail Europe, the SNCF's official representative in North America, offers a wide variety of rail passes -- but all must be purchased before arriving in France. If you're 60 or above, look into senior passes, which are good for 25 to 50 percent reductions on rail travel, depending on the day and time of travel, as well as how far in advance reservations are made.
If you don't speak French, the best option is to reserve on the Rail Europe Web site. If you understand French, you'll save some cash by reserving directly via the SCNF sites. (All links are below.) You can opt for first- or second-class seating, but the second-class option is perfectly nice and costs less. If you're picking up reserved tickets at a train station, allow plenty of time. Most U.S. credit cards don't work in the automatic kiosks, and lines can be long at ticket windows.
Regular train tickets need to be inserted into an automatic stamping machine to be validated before you get on the train. The French verb for this is composter. You'll see other travelers doing this before going onto the platforms, so just watch and follow suit. TGV tickets purchased online and printed out do not need to be validated.
As with air travel, keep up on any news surrounding strikes.
SNCF.com (for regular trains)
TGV.Voyages-SNCF.com (for TGV)
Traveling by Boat in France
If you're planning a visit to Corsica, France's largest island (aside from lands overseas), one possibility is to go by boat. The fastest trip is on the high-speed NGV (Navire a Grande Vitesse), which departs from Nice. There's also regular ferry service from Marseille, Nice and Toulon. You can even get to Corsica from Italy, with ferries departing Genoa, Livorno, Savona, Naples or Sardinia.
Getting Around by Bike in France
France was a pioneer in bike-sharing, where you subscribe, then pick up a bike in one self-service location and drop it off at another. A number of French cities offer the service, so keep it in mind for short hops. It's a good idea to first check out the system online, since fees differ depending on how long you keep a bike, and plans vary from town to town.
In Paris, more than 20,000 bikes are available in the Velib' system. You can buy a one- or seven-day subscription online or at any Velib' station. Dozens of other French cities offer similar programs; check the local tourist office for information.
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--written by Gayle Keck