Driving in Paris & rental car tips

After two weeks in the non-stop city bustle of Paris, we decided to take a trip out of town.  We needed a bit of space for our boys to run and were worried about another Paris heat wave.  After exploring train options and cheap flights from Paris, we chose instead to redeem some points for a week-long minivan rental.  We found the car we needed at Paris’ Gare du Nord (north train station), and I headed there after getting the boys in bed a few nights ago.  After picking up the van, I headed across the city to pick up a couple of car seats from a friend, and then back to our place in northern Paris.

Let me just say, driving in Paris is a rush.  And not just because I hadn’t driven in two weeks, although that definitely added to the feeling of liberation.  I characterize it somewhat like a really great video game, except of course that you could die—or wreck the car, incurring hundreds or thousands of dollars in unwanted expense.  But seriously, having grown in as a Boston driver (yes, we Boston drivers have a reputation), I was excited to tackle Paris, and I was NOT disappointed.

I was driving at 9pm, which definitely made it doable.  Not sure how things would’ve gone if I’d tried to cross Paris during the day.  There were cars and a number of buses on the road, but traffic—though aggressive—was relatively light.  My GPS-assisted course took me right in front of Moulin Rouge—not a place I would otherwise have seen on our trip (nor would I recommend the road to you, especially if traveling with children)—and then straight to the Arc de Triomphe and its famed traffic circle.

Arc de Triomphe traffic

The traffic circle at the Arc de Triomphe: think of it as a free-for-all

The Place Charles de Gaulle / Étoile traffic circle has justly earned its reputation, with roughly 100 feet (10 lanes?) of traffic traveling around the Arc at any point, with 12 street entries/exits to the roundabout, including the famed Champs-Élysées.  It is not for the faint of heart.  On my way through it the first time, I somehow had it easy—maybe the traffic lights for Champs-Élysées traffic were red.  I was really impressed with myself.  But on my return trip, YIKES.  Paris traffic laws require traffic in the intersection to yield to traffic entering.  Not normal.  Apparently it’s because no one would ever be able to enter intersections with so much traffic on the Parisian roads…  So my ¾ trip around the circle on the way back was crazy.  I maybe should’ve just made another round, but I was able to make it out my necessary exit without incident.  WHEW.

The next morning we left the city, battling a bit of traffic on Paris’ ring road (la Périphérique), but all in all, it wasn’t so bad.  Then the autoroutes took us quickly and freely to the mountains of Switzerland.

If you’re thinking of renting a car, here are a few practical tips:

  • Try to avoid having to drive within the big European cities.  If you can pick up or drop of a car on the outskirts, you’ll probably be better off, especially in cities with great public transportation.  Not only will you avoid the inner-city traffic headaches—you’ll also save on overnight parking (which can easily cost 20-30€/night, including at hotels).
  • A GPS will really be helpful.  A lot of car rental companies charge a pretty penny, although sometimes you can get a discount (e.g. Hertz with AAA membership yields half off).  Smartphones can also solve the trick, but if you lack the necessary data coverage abroad to get detailed maps, you may be stuck with a paper map and/or gas station directions.
  • Redeeming points for car rentals isn’t always a great deal—and most car rental points are hard to come by, except from earning through previous car rentals—but when it comes to renting larger vehicles (especially minivans), you can get some exceptional value when using points for rentals.  So my recommendation is to save rental points for minivan rental needs—they’ll go a lot farther and you won’t be stuck with $1000+ rental charges.
  • When looking for the best prices on car rentals using dollars rather than points, a great place to start is AutoSlash.  They’ve got a trove of coupons.  Also, most car rental reservations can be canceled without a penalty up until the day you are scheduled to pick up the vehicle.  If you enter an existing reservation into AutoSlash with pricing, they will watch for better deals for the same dates, location, and car type.  If they find one, they’ll let you know and give you the opportunity to rebook through them at the lower price (without a fee).  Pretty handy!
  • Two other websites that are said to have great rates are the Chase Ultimate Rewards shopping portal and Costco’s Travel website.   That said, I generally find the same rates across most of the online portals, so a coupon deal with AutoSlash might be your best option.
  • Beware of car rental companies you’ve never heard of (often these will be listed as “off-airport”), or ones that you know are the cheap players.  While it can be tempting, and sometimes you might get truly lucky and save several hundred dollars (which, I admit, I’d go for), the customer experience can be pretty awful, and when your kids are exhausted and you just want to get to the hotel or vacation rental, an extra hour at the car rental place can put you over the top.  I’ve yet to have a bad experience with Hertz (as a Gold Plus member, which I believe is still free if you sign up), so if it comes down to less than about a 10% difference between Hertz and others, I will always spend the extra on Hertz.
4 replies

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Gaulle, the roundabout intersection of 12 avenues (or 6, depending on how you count them)—truly a driving adventure, and not for the faint of […]

  2. […] and second for a visit to the beaches of Normandy.  I wrote a few tips regarding car rentals here, including a bit near the bottom about the perils of using a lesser known car rental company.  I […]

  3. […] to Switzerland last weekend.  After two and a half weeks of walking and public transportation, having our own car was heavenly.  We felt so independent and in control!  It was awesome.  We were searching for […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *