The French autoroute system is a joy, being well maintained and full of drivers who actually understand the concept of lane discipline and are happy to let faster drivers go past them, understanding – in a way that the British sometimes struggle with – that it isn’t a challenge to their masculinity.
But it isn’t half expensive: Calais to Marseille will set you back around €100 in fuel, and €80, or very nearly the same again, in toll fees.
Here’s our guide to minimising the cost of travelling in France.
The first trick is to avoid autoroutes in the first place.
This is, in theory, anyway, easy to do as they’re clearly marked "Péage" on the blue and white road signs – and if you assume that any ‘A’ road is a toll-charging autoroute, you’ll be right far more often than you are wrong.
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Just as fare splitting – when you split a journey into stages – can save you money on a train ticket, so entering and exiting the autoroute can save you money: One example that has been given is the journey from Lille to Paris on the A1; the cost if you stay on the autoroute for the full journey is €15.60 but if you leave and then immediately re-enter it three times, you can pay as little as €11.
I haven’t tried it myself but Autoroute-€co, a French website, claims to be able to show you where savings can be made.
If you do avoid the autoroute network altogether, thereby dodging the cost of tolls, you might not be that much better off.
Taking our fictional Calais to Marseille route. The cost of fuel and tolls using the autoroute network will be around €180 for a journey of 660 miles that takes around ten hours to drive.
If you use Mappy to identify the same journey but without incurring any tolls, you come up with a 17-hour journey that covers 745 miles and costs €120 in fuel. This is a €60 saving but at the cost of an extra day on the road.
As with so much of life, the trick is to balance cost and convenience.
Tips for driving in France
Doing the maths
Mappy will give you the route with and without tolls, and an evening with a sharpened pencil and some paper will enable you to plot a route that maximises the convenience of the autoroute network, while minimising the cost by using routes nationales and minor roads as much as possible.
In addition to Mappy, Michelin has an online calculator that should help.
The cheats’ version
About-France.com has toll-free routes that cover the two most popular journeys for British drivers.
The first, from Calais to southwest France, uses about €28-worth of tolls to save two hours’ traveling.
The second, Calais to the Mediterranean, recommends spending around €20 to save at least an hour.
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The routes nationales network, which is free and the equivalent of our A-roads, can be identified by the use of green road signs and the letter ‘N’.
However, the system can be confusing, as an N road sometimes changes number and letter to become a ‘D’ road, which is why French drivers always follow a destination rather than sticking doggedly to a road number!
Just to confuse things further, the French also show European route numbers, or E-road network, which are shown in white against a green background.
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Why not amble?
If you’re in a hurry then the toll system might be expensive, but it is quick.
However, if you’re happy to just amble along and enjoy the scenery, then plotting a route across France using minor roads is fun and helps you see parts of the country that just wouldn’t be possible if you stuck rigidly to the autoroute.
Do you have any tips you’d like to share with other readers? If so, we’d love to hear them in the comments section below.