(Or on any road trip, Really)
I love road trips. Travelling by train, plane or on foot is great, but nothing beats the sense of freedom that you get in a car. The moment you get out on the open road and realize that you can go anywhere at anytime regardless of tickets, schedules or tracks is wonderfully liberating.
We started off our trip last summer in Paris. It didn't make sense to drive around a city in which it's more enjoyable to walk and more convenient to take the metro. Driving in Paris is also scary as hell.
Once we got out into the rest of France, though, a car became necessary to see all the things we wanted to see.
Driving around France in a reasonably peppy manual transmission hatch-back was a blast (even though I ended up with the decidedly less cool "or similar" rather than the Fiat 500 advertised by the rental company). Having done it once, there are definitely a few things I'd be sure to have with me next time.
Without further ado, here are the top 10 things you should bring if you go on a road trip in France.
France has a wonderful highway system. I really can't say enough good things about it. The problem for foreigners like me is that they have elected to pay for that wonderful highway system using tolls.
Toll booths are literally everywhere. And I mean everywhere. Every time you enter or exit a highway, every time you change regions or directions; every time you leave a city you will be paying a toll. Some of these tolls are quite pricey.
If you're planning on doing any driving outside of a town or city, make sure you have a decent amount of cash with you.
North American credit cards work on most of the toll roads but for some reason, they aren't accepted at many booths. There doesn't seem to be any way to know which roads will accept your credit cards and which won't. Like many things in France, there doesn't seem to be any particular rhyme, reason or organization to it. You just have to try it and hope it goes through.
Many times on the trip, I was stranded at an automated gate without cash and with a lot of very angry French drivers behind me honking. I was able to get through each time using the help button, but it often took 15 or 20 minutes to wait for an attendant, get them to understand my problem and provide my particulars for them to mail me the bill.
As a side note, no one ever did mail me any bills from the toll roads so I suppose if you want to save a bit of money and don't mind holding up the other drivers you could always pretend your credit card is malfunctioning at every toll booth.
My advice: bring cash. Your highway travels will be much smoother.
Unlocked Smart Phone
Any time you're on the road it's a good idea to have a cell phone. On our first trip to France several years ago, Aleks and I did not have one.
We had a hell of a time confirming reservations (which resulted in our stay at the hotel in this story), contacting family, researching tours and activities, or getting directions.
Last time we went to France, the trip was drastically improved by having a phone (and especially by having access to google maps).
By downloading the local transit apps, I quickly became a master of mass transit in the cities we visited. Using google maps, we were able to find our way around even the most winding and narrow allies. We were able to call AirBnB hosts and set up tours. It was well worth it for us to have a data enabled phone.
Unfortunately for us Canadians, the cell service providers are about the worst gang of criminals to form since the prohibition era. We pay an absolute premium for roaming. Because I didn't have an unlocked smartphone, I gritted my teeth and paid the exorbitant prices that Rogers demanded of me because it was worth it for me to have the security and convenience of cell service.
Next time I will absolutely have my phone unlocked or buy a cheap, used unlocked phone.
Service plans and sim cards are super cheap in Europe and include data plans that far exceed Canadian plans.
If we'd had a phone that was useable in Europe, we could have had cell coverage comparable to home for about 30 Euros. Because we didn't, we ended up paying more than 4 times that.
Don't be like me and throw your money away with companies that gouge. Bring your own phone and switch out the sim card. It'll hardly cost you anything.
If you take my advice and bring an unlocked smart phone, you might not need a GPS system, but if you are at all concerned about coverage or don't want to bother with setting yourself up with a European sim card, you should definitely have a GPS device of some kind.
On the major routes and highways, the signage is generally fairly clear and easy to follow.
As soon as you get off the major highways (and I highly highly recommend you do) navigation can be quite a problem. Roads are unmarked. There are almost no signs to indicate directions to nearby towns and villages. The roads wind and twist with the landscape so that you end up quite turned around. You can never be quite sure the road will take you in the direction it looks like it will take you.
We spent a lot of time roaming the smaller towns and rural roads and we loved every minute of it. Though our service failed at several points, we were well served by Google Maps. Had we not had our smart phone, though, the trip might quickly have become frustrating as we wasted hours of time taking detours and doubling back.
If you don't have a smart phone or if you want the extra insurance of a device that functions without cell service, I would highly recommend bringing a GPS device with European maps loaded.
Because I'm cheap and slightly poor (I mean look at me: I'm an obscure author and a niche musician. It's like I've gone out of my way to ensure that I could never shoot for higher than lower middle-class), I used my phone for photography on this trip. I was actually quite pleased with the results. I ended up with some great photos and a few good videos. As a regular point-and-shoot, it's pretty hard to beat the quality and convenience of an iPhone or similar.
As we travelled around France, though, I found more and more situations where my iPhone just wasn't cutting it. Low light photos were often grainy. I couldn't get any of the more artistic shots that I would have liked, with a nice bokeh, lens filter or long exposure.
Since then, I've done a ton of research on the best travel cameras that offer the size and convenience of a point-and-shoot with the manual control and the lens interchangeability of a DSLR.
In the end, I went with the Sony A6000 and have been loving it immensely. It's cheap, lightweight and almost pocket sized (at least in comparison to a DSLR) and comes with a pretty reasonable 16-50 mm f/3.5 kit lens. The kit lens has great autofocus and the A6000's automatic settings are wonderful and easy to use overall. It has specs that compete with far more expensive cameras. The only draw back when comparing a mirrorless to a mirrored DSLR is the sensor size. All other specs like resolution, frame rates and pixels are comparable, but the APS-C sensor is slightly smaller than a full frame sensor and thus your images will be cropped slightly smaller. It hasn't made any difference to me, though some might find it annoying if they wanted to be picky.
If you want to use some higher quality lenses or are willing to forgo the autofocus feature, you can get adapters for nearly any lens from any brand, though Sony makes a good selection of lenses to pair with their alpha line cameras.
Sony's cameras are also very popular with street photographers who are using old SLR lenses to achieve artistic effects. I just purchased a $30 adapter to fit my dad's old 1980's Nikon 50mm f/1.8 and I absolutely love it. You can get fantastic top-quality SLR lenses for next to nothing online or from thrift stores and garage sales in order to fill out your collection.
Though I went with Sony, most major camera companies now make a mirrorless DSLR with similar features. I've read good things about similar cameras from Canon, Olympus and Nikon.
I wish I'd had my A6000 for my previous trips, but it will absolutely be a travel essential from here on out.
GoPro / Action Cam
I still have pangs of regret when I think of the shots I missed on my road trip through France. I dream longingly of the time-lapse videos and driving montages that I could have captured if only I'd had a decent camera.
I tried to capture a few Top Gear and Departures style videos on my phone, but being a cheapskate and a novice (at best) photographer, I wound up with no useable footage. Between my phone sliding off the dashboard when taking the twists and turns and my stingy 16 gigabytes of memory (I went with the $0 phone that came with my last contract) I had to delete most of them for more photo space. It wasn't a big loss. Most of the videos ended with the camera slipping off the dashboard into my lap filming up into my nostrils. It's probably for the best anyway, since a film of me fumbling for my phone over and over again while speeding along could have been held against me in court to prove a distracted driving charge.
Although I'm sure it wouldn't have turned out quite as good as what I imagine in my head, I still dream of the adventure filming I could have done if I'd had a GoPro. There were a lot of places where photography was either inconvenient or risky (for me or the device).
I would have loved to capture more of our canoe trip down the Dordogne river, but I mostly kept my phone sealed in a dry bag because I'm both clumsy and unlucky and therefore pretty well guaranteed to lose a valuable piece of technology in the water.
It would have been great to have clip-on, durable cameras for my sailing bachelor party in the Dominican, for my hang-gliding lessons in the foothills or for our off-roading and caving trip in Cuba. My priority was to have a good mirrorless DSLR, but my next travel purchase will likely be a GoPro or similar.
I love a well thought out music playlist for atmosphere. I always write with music on that suits the story I'm trying to tell. For me, the same is true with travelling. I love a collection of music that sets the mood, suits the landscape and fills you with awe and wonder as you drive past incredible sights.
Sometimes, though, the drive gets boring, the scenery becomes dull and the hours stretch on.
I hate driving in the middle of the day. I get drowsy and find the light to be either too bright, causing me to squint and tire, or too bland, causing me to drift off and let my attention wander.
Mornings are ok (though I am definitely not a morning person) because the drive is just starting out, I'm eager to see the next sight and the light is inspiring. I absolutely love driving in the late afternoon and evening because again, the light is dramatic and this is usually around the time I start to pull out of my afternoon slump. There is also something about driving at night that I generally enjoy. I'm usually awake and alert late into the night and often drive at hours far later than what most people deem to be civilized or reasonable.
One strategy I've started to use to keep myself alert and interested is to put on an audio book when I feel myself losing interest or becoming drowsy. The story usually keeps me engaged enough to make it to the next rest stop.
I'd never really been one for audio books until I signed up for an Audible account a few years ago and now I can't get enough. I always make sure I have a few books picked out and downloaded for any road trip. I often try to pair my book choices with the landscape and scenery.
On our trip through France we listened to a couple of Bill Bryson's travel books. On our road trip to Ontario, we did a lot of late night driving and listened to World War Z (incredible cast of voice actors in this one). Driving through the Rockies to Vancouver we listened to The Hobbit.
A good audio book can keep you alert in the long boring stretches and in some cases can even renew your attention and interest in the landscape passing by.
France actually has some really nice rest stops with decent washroom facilities. Unfortunately and inexplicably, many of these rest stops have decided that toilet seats are an unnecessary luxury. The toilets themselves are regular every day toilets, but the French have not seen fit to include a seat. I'm sure everyone has felt the unpleasant (not to mention unclean) shock of going to sit on the toilet only to be met with the shocking cold of porcelain before slipping right through into the bowl.
At first I'd thought that the French had only deemed men unfit to use toilet seats, but my wife quickly informed me that the women fare no better.
Usually these washrooms did have the standard cleaning supplies but at a couple of stops, they had run out of toilet paper. In both cases the attendants at the till developed suspiciously convenient hearing problems and refused to understand the words "toilette" and "papier." Though my pronunciation is pretty poor, I am quite certain that I was close enough to get my point across. Despite embarrassing myself with some bad miming to demonstrate my dilemma, they shrugged and carried on with their day without refilling the empty toilet paper dispensers.
No matter where you are road tripping, though, rest stop washrooms are an unpleasant and often dubious experience. Stopping at one is like playing roulette except that the odds aren't as good. Bring your own sanitary supplies.
When my wife and I were teenagers, we used to tour with a youth performance group. The artistic director was a severe germaphobe (though who can blame her, travelling for weeks at a time with a bunch of sweaty, greasy pubescent teenagers) and she used to hand out (and insist that we use) hygiene kits when travelling. The idea has stuck and ever since then I've always travelled with a little baggie of essentials.
In addition to a travel pack of toilet paper or kleenex, I like to keep a travel bottle of hand sanitizer, a Tide-to-Go (because I always get something on my shirt), a "Toobs" toothbrush/toothpaste kit, deodorant and some wet wipes in my pack at any given time. Wet wipes are also great for refreshing you in the afternoon when you're starting to feel dozy and greasy after a long day of driving. A couple swipes over my face and I'm usually refreshed for at least a little while. My wife also likes to travel with dry shampoo to de-grease and refresh her hair.
If you can fit it, bring a soft, foldable cooler in your luggage. The rest stops around France often have some great picnic and park areas and if you're travelling in the summer it's nice to sit outside and get a little sun and fresh air when you stop for a break.
You'll also save a lot of money if you stock up at a grocery before hitting the road. My wife and I would buy a couple of fresh baguettes and snack on those while we drove along. We'd also keep some veggies and cheese and if we were going to be stopping for a longer break (don't drink and drive! France has some of the strictest alcohol limits in Europe) we would sometimes crack open a small bottle of Kronenbourg with lunch.
France has got to be one of the most snackable countries in the world. We often found ourselves living quite happily off of baguettes, a little cheese and a cucumber, tomato or carrot for breakfasts and lunches. I much prefer this to the North American tradition of stopping at drive throughs or picking up chips and coke at gas stations.
Travel Kettle and Mug
Maybe I'm unusual in this department but I absolutely live off tea. Just plain black English tea. Aside from water and alcoholic beverages, it's pretty much all I drink. On my desk at school I have a 2 litre kettle and a 2 litre thermos. This gets filled and drained twice a day.
I also like driving with tea. I always like to have a cup on the go in the car. It helps me stay alert.
Apparently this just isn't done in France. Of all the things that are strange or unfamiliar or just plain bad about France, this was about the worst for me.
We'd be driving along and I'd need tea or gas. We'd pull into the next rest stop and all the other drivers would be standing around the cafe counter or the coffee machine sipping on doll-sized 2 oz. cups of coffee.
There were never any lids. Ever. Even if you wanted to take the single mouthful of coffee with you on the road, you couldn't.
One time, I spotted a 12 oz. cup - though still no lid - behind the counter at a rest stop cafe and I practically fell to my knees, weeping in gratitude.
I asked for a tea in the large cup. The woman at the counter said "Non, zis is not for tea." She proceeded to hand me a dainty little shot of tea (the tea bag was almost larger than the cup) and looked through me to the next person in line as though I'd disappeared.
Again I pointed to the 12 oz. cup, pleading with her to give me the larger one and add just a little water. I was willing to pay whatever she asked. She said "Non, monsieur, it is impossible." I have no idea what the 12 oz. cup was for or why it was impossible to serve a little hot water in it, but it haunts my dreams to this day.
Coffee drinkers fare no better, by the way. My dad had similar trouble getting brewed coffee and even if you do stumble upon a rare medium sized cup, there are no lids to be had in France.
The point of this little anecdote is that if you enjoy your hot beverages in sizes larger than a water ration on the HMS Bounty, bring your own cup and kettle.
For all of the electronics mentioned above, it's important to have a steady supply of power. Personally, I like the ones with a power inverter and North American plug. This way, you can charge your USB items and still have a plug available if you need to charge a laptop or make some tea in the kettle (please pull over to boil water... don't make it whilst driving).
I use this one in my car, but there are some slimmer USB only options available as well.
France has some unique requirements in terms of safety equipment. You can be fined if you do not have reflective vests, pylons, headlamp converters, spare bulbs and single-use breathalyzer sticks. Check with your rental car company to ensure that they are supplying you with the necessary gear.
What do you like to bring on a road trip? Share your own tips and experiences in the comments below.