Think long and hard, because I hardly recommend it to anyone who doesn’t absolutely need it to get around. As a resident, I don’t drive in Paris myself because getting around is so much easier on public transportation that I never even considered buying a car. Mr. Hall had a car when he arrived in Paris and quickly sold it after going broke paying for the parking space. Some friends of ours that have cars seem to spend all of their time driving around looking for a good spot. Obviously a car comes in handy if you live outside Paris in the suburbs, since taxis get expensive and public transport gets spotty after dark. It’s handy when you need to carry home large objects from the store or if you can’t carry more than four shopping bags at once. People with babies and large families usually feel better with a car. But I’m talking about residents. What about all of the visitors pouring into Paris throughout the year? Let’s discuss the pros and cons of renting a car during short stays in Paris and France.
First of all, do you really need a car? Most North Americans wouldn’t dream of getting around without one, but like New York City, Paris is actually much easier on foot. Busses, the Metro, the RER, and taxis are everywhere most tourists would ever need to go, including places outside Paris like Versailles and Disneyland Paris. The money you save with public transportation discounts can be spent on taxis if you’re out late at night or have your arms full of shopping bags. If you’re brave and even adventurous, rent a bike or inline skates and see Paris from a completely different angle. I found that I could get around faster on a bike than most people in cars and busses anyway (sneaking up pedestrian roads and other shortcuts helps). There are plenty of organized bike tours like the Bullfrog Bike Tours to help you get used to navigating Paris by bicycle.
The pros of car rental, in my opinion, are few, but valid. You can get around the city in air-conditioned comfort, without having to share with strangers. You have freedom from the public transport schedules and destinations. You can go where you want when you want, and you can even leave town and drive to the Champagne region or the Loire Valley for the weekend if you get tired of the traffic. If you’re travelling with small children, disabled or elderly family members, or lots of equipment (kayak?), renting your own minibus can save you a lot of hassles. If you do go this route, read the Driving Me Crazy Parts 1 and 2 for some tips on road rules and the international driving license. And when you reserve your car, don’t forget to ask for an automatic if you can’t drive a standard transmission (stick), and make sure they show you how it works before you drive off (automatics in Europe work a bit differently, as my Canadian friend found out recently).
If you’re going to be in Paris in August, there’s one last good reason to rent a car: most of the Parisians are gone for the month. No one on the roads but you, the insane taxi drivers, and thousands of other tourists trying to figure out how to get in and out of round-abouts without getting squashed by a double-decker tour bus. All of the Parisians are on their annual August holiday, and I believe, judging from all of the Paris plates I’ve seen in the past few weeks, that they’re coming down here to the Riviera. So in case you’re planning on a French Riviera trip in August, just don’t do it. Go to Paris, nice and tranquille.
Now the cons. There are many cons. Some tack on preposterous fees onto your “only 100ff per day!” rate. But car rental agencies aside, the gasoline is much, much more expensive here (which is why so many people still drive the cheaper diesel-fueled cars). My tiny Lancia Junior (like a smaller version of a Ford Festiva) costs about 260ff to fill, which is about $35 right now (and the Dollar is quite strong at the moment, it’s usually worse). Parking for free is an exception to the rule in Paris, where parking garages and meters will eat up your spare change, and many hotels don’t have their own parking areas (worth checking into that before you book). The Parisian method of parking usually involves a bit of bumper car action, and big trucks going down narrow streets equals much in the way of nicks, scratches, and crushed side-view mirrors. Keep this in mind when you’re discussing what you’re insured for on your rental car.
The other cons involved are more mental than anything. Some people are up for driving in a foreign city, others aren’t. If you’ve got nerves of steel and aren’t phased when cars on your right make left turns in front of you without signalling, then you may be able to make it without being reduced to tears. Huge — but useful — generalization: the French have little respect for laws and other drivers. Double parking, going the wrong way down one-way streets, cutting you off and dangerous speeding are quite common. Keep your foot near the break pedal and stay alert. Signal your intentions to turn and when in doubt, pull over and put your hazards on. Paris is well-signed, but you should get some literature from your rental agency about the meaning of the various signs and road markings. Wear your seatbelt (required) and even though everyone else seems to do it, don’t lay on the horn if you’re stuck behind a delivery truck for forty minutes, you can get ticketed by an annoyed policeman.
Good luck and safe driving!!!
This article is one of the 78 original “Secrets of Paris” articles published between September 1999 and July 2004. After disappearing into the internet graveyard for almost 15 years, I’ve republished them in autumn 2019 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Secrets of Paris: “1999-2019: Twenty Years of the Secrets of Paris” Broken and dead links have been updated or deactivated, but otherwise the article remains unchanged.