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I'm debating if I should travel France by car or not, but I don't know what I need to take into consideration. I'm at the age where I'll be forced to travel first class if I travel France's Eurail. At the same time, however, I want to visit more rural areas such as Normandy, which I hear is really only accessible by train. I also don't have much experience driving in the snow without tire chains, but I do know how to drive stick/manual. The duration of this trip will be for a few weeks.

What are reasons for or against for traveling France by car in December? Or what do I need to consider?

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forced to travel first class? –  Vitalik Sep 19 '13 at 15:43
    
Where are you coming from? Would you come with your car to France or fly in? –  Relaxed Sep 19 '13 at 15:48
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@Vitalik apparently adult Eurail pass forces first class. But for the question, what are your criteria? speed, flexibility, reliability, how large is the area covered? if you only go to Normandy, the distance between 2 points is at most 200 km, so a rail pass is a waste. –  Vince Sep 19 '13 at 15:55
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I think many of the inhabitants of Normandy would be very surprised to hear their arrondisements can only be reached by train, that there are no more roads leading there. –  jwenting Sep 20 '13 at 8:35
    
If French railways are as bad as those in the Netherlands, you're better off with a car when it starts snowing, as the roads will be passable but the trains will stall at the first snowflake. –  jwenting Sep 20 '13 at 8:37
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3 Answers 3

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If you have some specific plan and are not moving constantly, consider booking specific trains directly. This will definitely be cheaper than renting a car for several weeks and will probably be cheaper than an Eurail pass as well. You can read more about elsewhere on this site or on seat61.com but since many trains have restrictions for Eurail pass holders, they don't provide as much flexibility as they used to, especially in France.

An important factor is whether you are traveling alone or not. With a group, traveling by car can be cheaper but if you are alone it's likely to be much more expensive. Depending on where you come from, you might find petrol to be quite expensive (less than in the UK or the Netherlands, though) and you have to remember that most motorways are toll roads (crossing France East-West will cost you about 60 € toll, that's excluding petrol and any other cost for the car). If you need to cover long distances (say go from Paris to the South of France), trains are also likely to be faster and more comfortable so the car's main advantage is really flexibility.

Regarding snow, I don't think it should be a big concern, certainly for Normandy or most of the South and West of France. Unfortunately, I think most rental cars will not be fitted with winter tires so if you are unlucky and there are a couple of snowy days in December, the best solution would be to “sit them out” wherever you are and just delay the next step of your trip for a day or two. Driving with tire chains is only ever necessary in mountainous area when there is a layer of snow on the road, which is almost never the case for long on main roads. If anything, ice or “freezing rain” is more often a problem than snow.

Finally, Normandy as a whole isn't a rural area at all. There are relatively large cities with heavy industry and decent connections to Paris by train. At the same time, if you want to visit the rural or coastal parts of Normandy, a car would certainly be useful and give you a lot more flexibility.

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As a rule of thumb a car is usually a necessity if you want to visit outdoor or rural areas, because public transport can be infrequent or even non-existent. On the other hand it is a burden in larger cities, because parking is expensive and you usually get around quicker on public transport.

Travelling large distances between large cities is usually much faster and more convenient on a train, car for one person is probably more expensive as well. In some cases you need it though.

You need to work out a plan of what you want to see and where to go, and based on this figure out when do you need a car, and when you are better off with a train. Travel guides (e.g. Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, etc.) usually contain a lot of information about public transport, so I would start from there.

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Whether parking is expensive depends on your baseline. Compared to the Netherlands, it's actually quite cheap in France. –  Relaxed Sep 20 '13 at 13:41
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There are two main differences between the modes of transpositions:

  • Train run at their own schedules. Cars run at yours. This is a significant difference and a car lets you get to the place you want at the right time. If you want to see sunset or sunrise in a particular location, for example, you should be driving your own.

  • Trains have fixed routes with certain coverage. In France, trains are plentiful but there remains tons of off the tracks locations. Nature and rural areas, as mentioned by Grzenio, are rarely reachable by train. You can sometimes go on via other public transport but they often wont reach and there is a long wait time to connect.

While I have not driven to Normandy I have rented cars in France a dozen times or so and trains a few. While traveling as a group, car costs are often much lower than train because the cost gets divided. You are also free to make unscheduled stops to take in the scenery or visit something that catches your eye. On a train, you've whizzed by it and its gone.

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Truth is, by train you often see a lot more scenery that you would “whizzing” by on a motorway. Flexibility and access to remote rural areas are points I included in my answer but the schedule point is debatable. You can just as well see the sunset or the sunrise wherever you want by train. Sometimes the train schedule will force you to be there early and wait, sometimes the car will require you to leave earlier to have some buffer for longer travel times and traffic jams. The main difference is being able to decide at the last minute and not worry about missing the train. –  Relaxed Sep 20 '13 at 16:29
    
On the motorway you can stop, either immediately or after a u-turn a few kilometers further. Being at some place at a specific time is harder by train, especially when there are connections to make and, at the end, transport is still required to reach the exact location where you want to be. –  Itai Sep 20 '13 at 18:27
    
This does not sound like a French motorway. Often, they are built in trenches, go from one suburban “commercial area” to the next. You see a sign mentioning a city or a sight and you have to decide if you want to get off based on that. The next exit might be tens of kilometers away and a U-turn means going through the whole hassle of paying/getting a new ticket twice. Stopping outside of service areas is actually forbidden. –  Relaxed Sep 20 '13 at 19:28
    
Of course, you can always plan to stop somewhere on the way or choose to drive on slower countryside roads but the motorways are not very conducive to serendipity and if you have some non-trivial distance to cover, you will see more from the train. For the rest, if the trains don't go where you want to go, then it's obviously harder to go by train. We already covered that, a more meaningful comparison would be trying to see the sunset in Marseilles if you are in Paris. How does the fact that trains run on schedule prevents you to be there on time? –  Relaxed Sep 20 '13 at 19:36
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