Air

Flying around Provence isn't really practical or necessary, except perhaps for the jet-set; in theory you could fly from Marseille to Nice, for example, but you'd get there faster and cheaper by train, so there's really not much point.

Bicycle

Provence, particularly the Luberon, is great for cycling, with quiet back roads and a number of dedicated bike paths – although it's worth considering summer temperatures when planning your expedition.

By law, bicycles must have two functioning brakes, bell, red reflector on the back and yellow reflectors on the pedals. After sunset, and when visibility is poor, cyclists must illuminate with a white light in front and a red light in rear. Cyclists must ride single file when being overtaken by vehicles or other cyclists. Cycling off-road in national parks is forbidden.

The Fédération Française de Cyclisme is a useful resource.

Most towns have bike-rental outlets; the daily cost is €18 to €25.

Boat

Ferries connect the mainland with offshore islands, notably to/from St-Tropez and St-Raphaël, Port Grimaud and Ste-Maxime in warmer months (generally April to October).

Canal boating is a popular pastime in France. The Canal du Midi – France's most popular – stretches 240km east from Toulouse toward the Camargue and the Canal du Rhône. West of Toulouse, the Canal du Midi connects with the River Garonne, leading west to the Atlantic Ocean. Anyone over 18 can pilot a houseboat or barge, but first-timers must undergo brief training to obtain a temporary pleasure-craft permit (carte de plaisance). The speed limit is 6km/h in canals, 10km/h on rivers.

Prices range from €450 to over €3000 per week. A few online rental agencies:

Bus

Services and routes are extremely limited in rural areas, where buses primarily transport school children. Bus transport is useful only if you have no car, and trains don't go where you want, but you may get stuck until the next day. Tourist offices always have schedules.

Autocars (regional buses) are operated by multiple companies, which have offices at gares routières (bus stations) in larger towns.

Car & Motorcycle

Your own vehicle is essential for exploring Provence's smaller towns, many inaccessible by public transport.

Autumn to spring, driving is easy along the Côte d’Azur, but not in July and August, when intense traffic chokes all roads and it takes hours to go a few kilometres. For English-language traffic reports, tune to 107.7MHz FM, which updates every 30 minutes in summer.

There are four types of intercity roads, each with alphanumeric designation:

  • Autoroutes (eg A8) High-speed multi-lane highways with péages (tolls)
  • Routes Nationales (N, RN) National highways
  • Routes Départementales (D) County roads
  • Routes Communales (C, V) Tertiary routes

Autoroutes are always fastest (summer traffic notwithstanding), but they're expensive due to tolls – Marseille to Nice costs €17.60, Paris to Nice €77.10.

Pay close attention at toll booths: 'CB' (Carte Bleue) indicates credit-card lanes; yellow arrows are exclusively for prepaid drivers; green arrows are for cash. If you choose the wrong lane, you'll have to back up – nearly impossible in summer.

For traffic information, see www.autoroutes.fr.

Calculate toll and fuel costs at www.viamichelin.com and www.mappy.fr.

Fuel & Spare Parts

Essence (petrol or gasoline), also called carburant (fuel), costs roughly €1.50 a litre, €1.42 a litre for diesel. Autoroute service areas (aires) are priciest but open 24 hours; hypermarkets are cheapest.

  • Unleaded (sans plomb) pump handles are usually green; diesel (diesel, gazoil or gazole) pumps are yellow or black.
  • Many service stations close Saturday afternoon and Sunday, and during lunch in small towns.
  • Some petrol pumps dispense fuel after hours, but only with chip-and-PIN credit cards.
  • North American credit cards (with magnetic strip instead of chip and PIN) do not work at 24-hour pumps. To purchase fuel at night with magnetic-strip cards, take the autoroute.
  • When travelling in mountain regions, keep the tank full.
  • If your car is en panne (broken down), you’ll need services for your particular marque (make). Peugeot, Renault and Citroën garages are common, but you may have trouble in remote areas finding mechanics to service foreign cars.

Hire

All the major car-hire firms (including Hertz, Avis, Europcar, Budget and Sixt) have a presence at airports, TGV stations and major town centres. Smaller French firms like ADA and DLM sometimes offer cheaper rates.

Most companies require drivers to be at least 21, to have had a driving licence for at least a year, and to pay with an international credit card. Drivers under 25 usually pay a surcharge.

Online comparison services such as Auto Europe, Holiday Autos and Moneymaxim (www.moneymaxim.co.uk) offer good discounts, especially for longer hire periods, but make sure you check very carefully what's included in the package – especially insurance, breakdown cover, tax, unlimited mileage (kilométrage limité or illimité) and, most importantly, the excess.

Extra points:

  • Automatic transmissions are rare: reserve well ahead.
  • French rental cars have distinctive licence plates, making them a target for thieves. Don't leave any valuables inside.
  • Remember to check whether the car takes gazole (diesel) or sans plomb (unleaded), and whether it was supplied with a full or empty tank when you picked it up.
  • Rental cars should come with registration papers (usually in the glove compartment), but double-check before you drive off.

Insurance

Car-hire companies provide mandatory third-party liability insurance, but other important insurances cost extra, including collision-damage waiver (CDW, assurance tous risques), which covers the cost of the vehicle in the event of accident or theft.

Most hire agreements come with a hefty excess (known as the franchise or déductible, and usually between €750 and €1500, depending on the size of the vehicle). This is the maximum sum for which you will be liable if you have an accident or bring the car back damaged.

All car-hire firms will offer you the chance to reduce this excess to zero, but it is nearly always very expensive – often adding between €5 and €20 extra to the daily hire rate. It's up to you whether you take it out, but it's worth remembering that even a minor scrape will often incur a hefty bill.

An alternative is to take out separate excess insurance – if you damage the car, you pay the agreed excess when you return the vehicle, and then claim the sum back from your insurance provider (take photos and keep hold of all relevant documents such as accident reports, damage sheets and so on). It's more complicated but works out much, much cheaper than the rental firms. Some credit-card providers also cover CDW if you pay using their card; check their terms before you travel.

If you don't have a zero-excess contract, most rental firms will preload a sum onto your credit card to cover the excess when you pick up the vehicle. Make sure you have enough available credit on your card to cover this amount.

Major Hire Firms

Parking

Provence’s ancient villages and cities can be hellish on drivers, with narrow streets, confusing one-way systems and limited parking. Many hotels have no garages: guests drop off bags, then either claim a resident's parking permit from the hotel (if available at all) and find street parking or hunt down a garage. Ask when reserving.

In city centres, look for 'P' signs to locate parking (often underground); expect to pay about €2.50/20 per hour/day.

Road Rules

Enforcement of French traffic laws (see www.securite-routiere.gouv.fr) has been stepped up considerably. Speed cameras are common and hard to spot (they're the small grey boxes you'll see by the roadside). Sometimes the presence of a speed camera is indicated by signs (reading Contrôles Radar Fréquents) – but not always.

Mobile radar traps, unmarked police vehicles and roadside drug tests are also commonplace. If you see a flash, you've probably been caught. If you're driving a rental car, tickets are usually charged to your credit card, often with a hefty administration charge. If you're driving your own vehicle, you might receive a ticket in the mail, or you might not – minor infractions may not be worth the trouble for police to pursue, but there are no hard-and-fast rules.

Fines for many infractions are given on the spot; serious violations can lead to confiscation of licence and vehicle. If you have an accident, you will be drug tested.

Key points:

  • Blood-alcohol limit is 0.05% (0.5g per litre of blood) – roughly the equivalent of two glasses of wine for a 75kg adult. Stick to one glass to be on the safe side.
  • All passengers must wear seatbelts.
  • Children less than 10kg must travel in backward-facing child seats; children up to 36kg must travel in child seats in the vehicle’s rear seat.
  • UK and Irish vehicles must fit headlight reflectors to avoid dazzling oncoming traffic.
  • Only hands-free, speaker-phone mobiles are allowed – no handsets, no texting.
  • US and Canadian drivers, note: turning right at a red light is illegal.
  • All vehicles in France must carry a high-visibility safety vest (stored inside the vehicle, not the trunk) and a reflective warning triangle. The recent law mandating a single-use breathalyser kit has effectively been shelved; in theory you are still supposed to carry one, but you can't be fined for not doing so.
  • Drivers of two-wheeled motorised vehicles (except electric bicycles) must wear helmets. No special licence is required for motorbikes under 50cc.
  • Some roads in Haute-Provence require the use of snow chains in winter.
  • In forested areas, fire roads signposted DFCI (Défense de la Forêt Contre l’Incendie) are strictly off limits to private vehicles.

Speed Limits

Populated areas 50km/h

Undivided N and D highways 90km/h (80km/h if raining)

Non-autoroute divided highways 110km/h (100km/h if raining)

Autoroutes 130km/h (110km/h if raining, 60km/h if icy)

Priorité à Droite

The key road rule that catches foreign drivers out in France is priorité à droite. This means that, unless otherwise indicated, any car entering at an intersection (eg via a slip road onto a motorway) has the right of way. Drivers may shoot out from intersections directly in front of you: approach with caution!

Sometimes intersections are marked vous n’avez pas la priorité (you do not have right of way) or cédez le passage (yield); follow the rules accordingly.

Priorité à droite is suspended on priority roads, which are marked by a yellow diamond with a white border; it's reinstated when you see a black bar through the yellow diamond.

Purchase-Repurchase Plans

If you live outside the EU and will be in France (or Europe) from one to six months (up to a year, if studying), by far the cheapest option is to ‘purchase’ a brand-new car, then ‘sell’ it back – called achat-rachat. You only pay for the time it's in your possession, but the ‘temporary transit’ (TT) paperwork makes the car legally yours – and it's exempt from huge taxes. Such cars carry red licence plates, instantly identifying drivers as foreigners.

Eligibility is restricted to non-EU residents (EU citizens are eligible only if they reside outside the EU); minimum age is 18 (sometimes 21). You must order at minimum six weeks ahead and prepay your balance before the factory builds your car – and you get to pick the model. Diesel (gasoil) vehicles are more expensive up front, but you pay less for fuel. All plans include unlimited kilometres, 24-hour towing and breakdown service, and comprehensive insurance with zero deductible/excess.

Companies offering achat-rachat are Citroën (www.citroen-europass.com), Peugeot (www.peugeot-openeurope.com) and Renault (www.renault-eurodrive.com).

Train

SNCF’s regional train network is served by TER (Trains Express Régionales) trains; bookings and timetables are handled by the SNCF. A popular journey is the narrow-gauge Train des Pignes, which links Nice with Digne-les-Bains.

Reservations are not mandatory on most regional trains, but advance purchase is a good idea in summer.

Classes & Costs

Passes are sold at student travel agencies, major train stations within Europe, and at Rail Europe.

SNCF Discount Fares & Passes

Train fares vary widely according to demand and your chosen times and dates of travel. Generally the further in advance you book, the cheaper the fare.

The new Ouigo (www.ouigo.com) service allows cut-price travel on certain TGVs (including some to Aix-en-Provence and Avignon). Tickets must be purchased from three weeks to four hours prior to departure; tickets are sent by email and must be printed out, or downloaded via the Ouigo app (Android and iPhone). You're allowed one piece of cabin luggage and one piece of hand luggage and a pushchair; you can buy extra bags for €5 in advance, or a hefty €20 on the day of travel.

  • Booking via the website of SNCF (www.oui.sncf.com) is the easiest way to compare fares. A 1st-class fare costs 20% to 30% more than a 2nd-class one.
  • The cheapest fares are Prem's, which are non-amendable and non-refundable. Flexible tickets always cost more.
  • Children under four travel free. Ages four to 11 travel half-price.
  • Travellers aged 12 to 25 and those aged over 60 receive discounts.
  • Bons plans are last-minute tickets advertised on the SNCF website (http://www.voyages-sncf.com/bons-plans/derniere-minute).

Train Passes

Guaranteed discounts of 25% (last-minute booking) to 60% (advance bookings for low-volume 'blue periods') are available with several cards:

Carte Jeune (€50) For travellers aged 12 to 27.

Carte Enfant+ (€75) For one to four adults travelling with a child aged four to 11.

Carte Week-end (€75) For travellers aged 26 to 59, booking return journeys of at least 200km that include weekend-only travel, or a Saturday night away.

Carte Sénior+ (€60) For travellers over 60.

Two regional passes are also available:

Pass Zou! Offers discounts of up to 75% on TER trains in the PACA region.

Pass Isabelle Covers one-day of travel on TER trains for families (two adults and two children) within the Alpes-Maritime département.

Stamp it!

You must time-stamp your ticket in a composteur (freestanding yellow post at the entrance to train platforms) immediately before boarding, or you'll incur a hefty fine. Smartphones displaying barcode boarding passes are exempt.

Taxi

Find taxi ranks at train and bus stations, or telephone for radio taxis. Fares are metered, with minimum fare €6; rates are roughly €1.60 per kilometre for one-way journeys.

Reading Schedules

Transport schedules use abbreviations. The most common:

  • tlj (tous les jours) daily
  • sauf except
  • lun Monday
  • mar Tuesday
  • mer Wednesday
  • jeu Thursday
  • ven Friday
  • sam Saturday
  • dim Sunday
  • jours fériés (jf) holidays