Taking Your Car With You to Chamonix
Taking your car with you on holiday gives you absolute freedom to go where you want, when you want. However, there are a few things to consider before driving to Chamonix.
Whilst road tripping is undoubtedly one of the best ways to see a country, ensuring your car is up to the trip, planning your route in advance, and familiarising yourself with the road rules and regulations of the country you are visiting, will all help make the drive itself is as much a part of your holiday as your final destination.
Driving in Chamonix
You’ll possibly find that after driving to Chamonix you may not need to use your car very much as most ski resorts have excellent public transportation links, either bus or train, that you can use for free with your lift pass. Always pay attention to signs placed around parking areas in resort that may indicate a market or snow clearing taking place the following day and make sure you park in legal parking spaces.
Pretty much all petrol stations sell both unleaded (95 and 98 “sans plomb” octane) and diesel (gazole) fuel but you are unlikely to be able to find leaded petrol. If your car runs on leaded then look for “supercarburant”, a lead replacement petrol. Obviously the environmentally friendly choice is to make use of the local transport wherever possible but if you do need to drive then here are a few pointers to bear in mind when driving around resort and tips for driving on snow and ice.
Winter Driving Conditions
Local municipalities are generally very good at keeping the roads clear and you’ll hear the snow ploughs out long before dawn, ensuring that the roads are snow free for people to get about resort. However, driving on snowy, icy roads is a hazardous affair and requires extra care and attention. Here are some things to consider:
- Fit snow tyres – if you’re going to be spending some time in the mountains then consider fitting snow tyres to your vehicle. They have a deeper tread than normal tyres and hundreds of tiny slits that grip the snow as the wheel turns. They considerably improve the handling and performance of your car in snowy conditions.
- Snow chains – it is a legal requirement in France to carry snow chains in your vehicle and police will refuse you access to certain roads if your car is not appropriately equipped. Practice fitting them before you actually need them as you can guarantee that when you do, it will be at night, in a blizzard and in the middle of nowhere!! Keep a pair of old gloves with them as your hands will get very cold, very quickly. Watch our video about for a full run through!
- Keep topped up with fuel - unexpected road closures due to snow or avalanches can result in lengthy diversions. You don’t want to end up stranded at the side of the road.
- Slow down! - the first thing you should do on encountering snow on the road is reduce your speed. By keeping you speed low and using your gears to slow down you can hopefully avoid having to brake sharply and cause your car to skid.
- Use high gears - try to drive in as high a gear as possible to avoid wheel spin. The same principle applies when pulling away from a standstill – try to do so in second gear, accelerating gently.
- Keep moving - when driving up an incline on snow, do everything you possible can to keep moving forward. Hill starting on a snowy road is difficult and may result in you slithering into other vehicles around you. Always try to keep your momentum going, however slowly, so that you don’t lose traction.
Driving from the airport with a hire car takes the stress out of this as the winter fleet will be equipped with winter tyres from Geneva and snow chains can be provided if needed.
Route planning & road-tolls
The autoroutes in France are a network of toll-paying motorways that span the length and breadth of the country. There are a number of different companies that manage these motorways from one region to the next, a full list of which can be found here, along with links to their individual websites.
Motorists pay tolls for the sections of the road that they use, usually collecting a ticket from an automatic dispenser when they enter a section and settling up at one of the many toll booths or “péages” at the other end. The amount you pay depends on the type of vehicle you are driving and how far you’ve travelled within the toll zone but you will see the prices clearly marked as you approach the booths.
Tolls can be paid either in cash or by credit card or you can subscribe to an automatic payment system which allows you to pass through the “télépéage” lane (indicated by an orange letter T). The télépéage works with a small bar-coded gadget fixed to the inside of your windscreen which is then automatically scanned as you approach the toll barrier. The toll amounts are then debited from your credit card on a monthly basis for which you’ll receive a regular bill. If you’re planning on spending some time in France, then these “péage badges” are well worth investing in (especially if you’re in a right-hand drive car!). All you need to do is apply for an “abonnement Liber-t” through SANEF (website only in French) and register your details (including a credit card) on the site.
As a rough guideline, when driving from Calais to Moutiers (near the 3 Valleys) you can expect to pay around €70-80 in tolls each way.
Vignettes are compulsory in Switzerland on all national class 1 and 2 roads. They are a sticker that is placed in your front windscreen to prove that you have paid the applicable road tax. You can purchase your vignette from any of the border points, in fact they will stop you entering Switzerland unless you buy one. Or you can purchase them in any service station and convenience stores close to the border areas. The vignette is valid from 1 December of the preceding year until 31 January of the following year. The price does not include driving through the following tunnels: Grand St. Bernhard Tunnel and Munt la Schera. A special toll must be paid here.
These car stickers have been introduced to try and help cut down air pollution in major French cities. All vehicles need to display one including cars, motorbikes, coaches and lorries - the stickers are graded from 1 to 6, with 6 being the oldest and most polluting, therefore the vehicles most likely to be banned from entering the cities on high pollution days. Find out more and how to buy your vignette on the French Government website.
Taking the scenic route
Taking the scenic route is a good option if time is not of the essence or if you’d like to see a bit of the countryside en route. Although what you save in motorway tolls you will lose in time, but driving the back roads can be very rewarding in terms of all the beautiful places and viewpoints you’ll discover.
One thing to consider if you are planning a more scenic route, especially during winter, is to check whether any of the mountain passes or cols you intend to cross, are closed due to snow. If you’re relying on a satellite navigation system then the chances are it won’t know which roads are habitually closed during winter. A great site for the latest info on this is Bison Futé, (available in French, English & Spanish) which allows you to search by the name of the col or by department and amend your journey accordingly. Many of the most beautiful mountain roads that attract big crowds during summer – Col d’Iseran, Petit St Bernard etc, are closed entirely from early November until June due to snow.
Road rules & regulations
When driving in a different country, it is important that you are aware of any road laws and restrictions that may differ from home.
- As with most of the continent, the French drive on the RIGHT
- It is compulsory to wear seatbelts, both front and rear (if fitted) and children under the age of 10 are not permitted to travel in the front seat unless there are no seat belts in the rear.
- Speed limits on the roads are signed in KM/H.
- French drivers give way to the right .Sometimes this will mean that a car turning onto a road from a junction will have right of way of the car already on the road.
- French Traffic lights go straight from red to green with no amber stage.
- Driving licence and vehicle registration documents must be carried at all times when driving
- 3rd party insurance is the compulsory minimum
- Drink driving. If the level of alcohol in the bloodstream exceeds 0.05% then severe penalties including fines, imprisonment and/or loss of licence will ensue. This means that just one pint of beer can take you up to the limit. This is the same in Switzerland, whereas in the UK the limit is 0.08%. The police also use saliva drug tests to detect people under the influence of drugs whilst behind the wheel.
- Mobile phones may not be used whilst driving unless with a hands-free kit.
- In Switzerland you must drive with your headlights on during the day.
The speed limits on the roads can vary slightly from county to country and on the motorways in France they vary again depending on the weather. In built up areas stick to 50km/h (France) and 90 km/h (France) 80 km/h (Switzerland) on the outskirts of town. Dual carriageways that are separated by a central reservation generally have a limit of 110km/h (France) 100km/h (Switzerland) unless indicated otherwise and motorways have a maximum speed of 130km/h (France) and 120km/h (Switzerland). In France during wet weather these speed limits are reduced to 80km/h (49mph) outside built up areas, 100km/h (62mph) on dual carriageways and 110km/h (68mph) on the motorway. Speed limits are also reduced on stretches of motorways around built up areas and the minimum speed you can travel on the motorway is 80km/h (49mph).
If you are caught speeding by the French police, on-the-spot fines are expensive and will have to be paid there and then. If you don’t have sufficient money on you then you can expect to be escorted to the nearest cash point (complete with flashing lights in our experience!) so you can withdraw the necessary funds. The official is then obliged to issue you with a receipt as confirmation of payment. If you are caught exceeding the speed limit by more than 40km/h, you are at risk of having your licence confiscated on the spot. The use of radar detectors is also absolutely forbidden in France and failure to comply involves a fine of up to €1500 and the vehicle may be confiscated.
Triangles & High Vis
Since July 1st 2008, it became law in France that motorised vehicles must carry a warning triangle and a high-visibility security vest, intended to make stopping in cases of emergency, breakdown or accident safer for all road users. The change in the law doesn't affect motorbikes, but as of the 1st September 2008, anyone riding a bike outside of built up areas, must wear a high visibility vest at night, or during the day in the case of bad weather.
If you have passengers in your car then the wearing of seat belts is compulsory for both front and back seat passengers. Children under the age of 10 are not permitted to travel in the front seat unless there are no rear seats, they are already occupied by other under 10’s or they don’t have seat belts fitted. In this case, they must be strapped into an approved child seat or restraint, appropriate for their size. It is the driver’s responsibility to ensure that all passengers are appropriately restrained.
On roads in built up areas you generally give way to traffic coming from the right – “priorité a droite” and when approaching roundabouts, if you see a sign saying “Vous n’avez pas la priorité” or “Cedez le passage”, traffic on the roundabout has priority.
It is forbidden to use your horn in residential areas unless in immediate danger.
Legal Documents & paperwork
An important thing to remember when driving you car in France is that you are expected to have all your vehicle registration documents ready for inspection on demand. If you don’t, you could face a fine or even confiscation of your vehicle. In order to avoid a sticky situations with the law, always have the following documentation in your car with you:
- Full valid driving licence (not provisional) with the paper counterpart if you have a photo card licence.
- Original vehicle registration document - your log book.
- Motor insurance certificate
- Your passport
At least a month before taking your vehicle overseas, you should contact your car insurance company to ensure that you are adequately covered and are in possession of the necessary documentation. Many insurance companies will only insure a vehicle overseas for a maximum of 90 days at a time, so if you are planning on an extended stay, you may have to make additional cover arrangements. It is no longer essential to carry a Green Card when driving within the EU, however, it is instantly recognisable proof of (at least) 3rd party insurance cover – the minimum cover requirement – and is obtainable from your insurance company.
You should also ask your insurance company to provide you with a “constat amiable” - this is the form you must complete in the event of an accident involving another vehicle. It is a duplicate document upon which both drivers agree the events that led up to the incident, sign and then keep a copy each.
Whilst checking out your insurance policy you should also ensure that you have Breakdown Cover just in case of accident or mechanical failure. This can be part of your motor insurance or a separate company who deal specialise in breakdown cover.
Before embarking on a journey of several hundred kilometres, you want to be sure that your vehicle is mechanically up to the job. Breakdowns and repairs in France can be costly affairs so reduce your chances of conking out on the autoroute by servicing your car well in advance of your trip. If you’re planning a ski trip, then ask your garage to perform a winter service on your car, and they will adjust the engine fluids accordingly to cope with the colder temperatures in the Alps.
There are a few simple checks you can do yourself to prepare your vehicle for a winter trip. Your tyres are likely to make the most difference to your experience with driving on snow. If your resort is at a high altitude, and the road is likely to be snow covered, then you should consider investing in a set of snow (winter) tyres. They make a huge difference to the vehicles traction and your overall control. Check all tyres for condition, pressure and tread depth. For winter motoring, at least 3mm of tread is recommended and certainly no less than 2mm.
Remember to also check:
Battery: A battery rarely lasts longer than 5 years and winter driving, often in the dark with lights, heaters and windscreen wipers going, puts a lot of additional strain on it. Consider replacing it before you go if it is approaching the end of it’s life
Fluids: Check the oil and water levels and ensure they are topped up correctly. Pay particular attention to the anti-freeze and windscreen wash – use a proper additive at the right concentration so that it doesn’t freeze up on you're in the cold
Lights: Check that all lights are working, clean and correctly aimed. For driving on the continent you must fit headlight converters to adjust your beams so that you don’t dazzle on-coming vehicles when driving on the right. Converter kits are widely available but don’t leave it until the last minute as certain makes of vehicle may require a dealer to make the adjustment
Windscreen wipers: Check front and rear wiper blades for wear or splitting and replace if necessary
Number Plates: Your number plates should be clean and legible as it is possible to be fined if they cannot be read. Most European number plates now come with a dual country and Euro badge so the need for a conventional country sticker when travelling within the EU is not necessary. However if you are in an older car that does not have this then make sure you place a country sticker on the back.
The breakdown procedure on French autoroutes is set out by the French motorway companies and can be found on their website. The call-out and tow fees are, however, set by the French government, and can be found here.
If you do breakdown on a French motorway, follow these six simple steps:
- Pull into the hard shoulder and turn on your emergency warning lights.
- Put on you high vis safety vest.
- Exit the vehicle from the right hand side (the side away from passing traffic).
- Make sure yourself and your passengers are behind the safety barrier and walk to the nearest emergency phone. (DO NOT cross the motorway to get to a phone on the opposite side)
- Use the phone to alert the emergency services, this call is free and will make them aware of your exact location.
- Return to your vehicle and await rescue. All occupants should remain behind the safety barrier.
Their main concern is to get your vehicle off the motorway so your breakdown cover will not be any use in this situation. If your vehicle can be fixed on the spot then they will do that, but alternatively they may need to tow you to remove your vehicle from the motorway. Once you and your car have been removed from the autoroute then it is time to call your insurer and they can arrange for a local garage to come to you and to start the process of getting you back on the road!
Also see: Travel Insurance for Chamonix
Road accidents & what to do
If you are unlucky enough to end up in an accident whilst driving in France, then there are certain procedures that you must follow. If it is a minor accident where nobody is injured:
- Move to a safe place and alert oncoming traffic by placing your red warning triangle 30 meters down the road
- If two cars are involved, complete a “constat amiable” detailing the events that lead up to the incident. It’s important to fill this out as soon as possible so that events are noted accurately (there are written and diagrammatic sections of the report to complete).
- Try to establish who was responsible for the accident and if there were any impartial witnesses, note down their contact details on the form too.
- Take pictures of the aftermath if you have a camera handy
- Both parties should then sign the form and take a copy each. If a driver refuses to sign the form then take a note of their registration number. You then have 5 days to send it to your insurance company for the claim to be settled.
- If the drivers cannot agree on liability for the accident then the insurance companies will look at the evidence and assign responsibility as they see fit. It may mean that each driver finds that he/she is 50% liable
It is possible for drivers to agree to pay independently for the damage caused in order to protect their “no claims bonus”. Even if this is the case then it is still best to complete a constat at the scene so you have it as a back up.
If you are involved in a serious accident resulting in casualties, then contact the police as soon as you can, having moved yourself (and your vehicle if possible) to a secure spot. Still complete the constat, or have a passenger/witness do it if you are injured, and gather the contact, registration and insurance details of all parties involved. If you are hospitalised, then the authorities will deal with the paperwork on your behalf; if not, then you should still obtain a medical certificate stating your injuries and enclose this with your claim form.
Also see: Travel Insurance for Chamonix