France has always been a great place to ride – amazing roads, little traffic, welcoming locals, great scenery and fantastic food. You just need to be aware that the language gap's not the only thing they do differently over there...
Even if you've been to France before, there are several new rules and things you need to remind yourself of before hopping on the ferry. Here’s a roundup of all you need to know (and by the way, the last one's the most important).
Speed limits across France have changed
What's changed? It's all change on normal two-way roads (ie not motorways or dual carriageways or main roads with a central divider) as of this summer. Instead of the former 90km/h (55mph) limit that covered all roads outside of towns and multi-lane roads, from July 2018 France has controversially adopted a blanket 80km/h (50mph) limit.
In theory it's just a two-year experiment, but it still means they have to change all the signposts and recalibrate the radars - no one knows if it will be in place in time (some local authorities are refusing to lay out cash on new signposts), or whether the Police and Gendarmerie will be zealously enforcing the new rules to hammer them home. So go easy...
What still the same? Everything else. 130kph (80mph) is allowed on motorways (110kph (68mph) if it's raining and on urban motorways).
Unless indicated otherwise, 50kph (30mph) is the rule in towns and villages but there are no signs – the limit begins as you pass the red-bordered village sign and ends as you pass the crossed-out sign on the other side.
Watch out for warning of speed traps from other motorists
On-the spot fines are the norm. If you can't pay or if you've grossly exceeded the limit (around 50kph over the motorway limit is enough), they can impound and even crush or sell your bike, so you've been warned.
It's common to find a speed trap hidden away under a bridge just before a major motorway services. If you're caught by a mobile radar, a chase car or bike will pull you into the services where there's a cashpoint, so pay the fine on the spot. Any kind of device that warns you you're nearing a speed camera (even if it's just a sat-nav with locations loaded) is strictly illegal. But you'll often be warned of a speed trap by oncoming vehicles flashing their lights at you – don't ignore it!
While we're on etiquette, it's also normal to thank cars that’ve got out of your way (and most will do so happily) with a waved right foot (since your hand will be occupied on the throttle). And it's very bad form not to acknowledge oncoming bikes with the general Euro-wide waved peace-sign gesture using your left hand.
If you don’t have a vignette, you could be fined
What's changed? Lots. France – or at least many of her major cities – has adopted a system of Vignettes (stickers) graded from 0 to 5, identifying the EURO pollution levels of various vehicles (0 is cleanest). Some cities now refuse entry at any time to vehicles with no sticker, or with a sticker showing level four or five. Others put temporary bans in place at times of particularly high pollution levels (in practice, usually after a period of hot summer weather). The good news is that stickers are only a few Euros and available easily from www.certificat-air.gouv.fr, and last the life of the vehicle. The bad news is that bikes first registered before 31 May 2001 aren't eligible for a Vignette at all, so are completely banned from many areas, and bikes registered up to the end of June 2004 only get a level four Vignette and can be banned from some areas if pollution levels are very high.
The main no-go area is Paris, within the Peripherique ring road – no entry without a Vignette from 8am to 8pm on weekdays. But Lyon, Strasbourg, Lille and Toulouse all have varying restrictions when pollution levels are high, and Grenoble has similar restrictions, but extending over a much wider area and covering much of the useful corridor towards many of the most popular Alpine passes. Fines for non-compliance are 68 euros in most areas, 35 euros in Grenoble.
What's Changed? As of summer 2017 it's now obligatory to wear gloves while riding a bike or scooter. And they're supposed to be CE-approved, too. In practice, as long as they're obviously proper protective gloves, you'll be fine.
It's also now required to carry a Hi-Viz jacket or tabard. You don't have to wear it on the bike, but it does have to be accessible and you do have to wear it if you're stopped and off the bike in a vulnerable position – for example on a motorway hard shoulder. There's also a recent restriction on in-ear speakers for sat-nav, intercom, phone or music, which are no longer allowed for the driver of any vehicle.
What still the same? You still need to have approved reflective stickers on your helmet, but almost no one does (including the locals), and as a visitor it's highly unlikely anyone will notice or care. Your headlight should be on dipped beam during the day (most modern bikes have dip on all the time anyway).
You also need to carry a breathalyser, but it's a law that was widely ignored from day one and few officers will even bother asking. There's no fine for not having one anyway...
You still don't have to carry a spare bulb kit; despite what some motoring organisations and pub experts will tell you, it's never been compulsory. On the other hand, if you get stopped with a light out and can't fix it on the spot, you might be stopped from continuing on your way. Your choice.
Just like any holiday, a trip on a motorcycle – be it in the UK, Europe or beyond – can be ruined by delays, lost documents, illness and more. There are plenty of travel insurance options, but you need to make sure you get a policy that includes riding motorcycles, and if it does, that it's for bikes of the engine size you'll be riding (many only cover up to 250cc). At its most basic, you should look for insurance that provides cover for the following:
In addition though, if you’re taking a motorcycle (or you're renting one while you’re away) be sure that your insurer will cover you for any medical expenses, should you have an accident. You must also think about where you’re riding – some policies won’t cover you if you’re trail or enduro riding, or if you’re on a race track. Remember – this isn’t about your bike being covered, it’s about your medical expenses, should the worst happen.
If you're only going away once, a single-trip policy will likely be all you need, but also consider an annual policy, which could extend to cover your family holidays too (a good insurer should also be able to offer cover for your whole family).
BikeSocial’s parent company, Bennetts, has a motorcycle-specific travel insurance policy – find out if it suits your needs by clicking here.
What's changed? In the old days, get flashed by a fixed speed camera in France and you'd hear nothing more. Those days are over. Sort of. Now there's an agreement in place where the French authorities can request your details and send notification of your fine direct to your door.
What they can't do (as yet anyway) is enforce that fine in the UK ; if you don't pay it, they can't come after you. In theory they can refuse you permission to use French roads until it's paid, so if you ride there again and get stopped, theoretically you could be in trouble. If you do decide to pay, pay quickly – it'll be cheaper, as the amount rises the longer you leave it.
What's changed? The price. From January 2018 the French authorities whacked an extra load of tax on fuel, and it's now mostly more expensive than in UK.
What still the same? It's still best to shop around if possible, and always try to avoid filling up on the motorway as prices are astronomical. Supermarkets are usually the cheapest option, although not always.
Look out for Total garages as just occasionally they're as cheap as supermarkets – there's some evidence this is the case where they're close to refineries.
Don't expect to find manned stations 24/7, especially out in the sticks. It's much more likely you'll need to use a credit or debit card-operated unmanned station.
Most UK cards will work in most machines, but there are odd exceptions. Try to make sure you have at least a couple of alternative options, and try them out when it's not critical. Not at 3am in the middle of nowhere...
What's changed? Nothing – still the fastest, if also the most boring – way to cross big lumps of France. They’re far cheaper for bikes than cars, but costs can still mount up on a long trip.
On some holiday weekends (and all year round at many toll bridges), passage is free for bikes – look out for signs directing you towards a separate lane off to one side. If you do need to pay, try and use a manned booth if you want to avoid credit card charges, although it doesn't cost as much to use a UK card for tolls as it does for other charges.
What's changed? Nothing really. You must carry your driving license, passport, registration document and proof of insurance and be prepared to produce them on demand. Failure to do so is punishable by an immediate fine.
Your UK insurance policy automatically covers you for travel within the EU, but usually only for the legal minimum (in most cases Third Party Only). Some insurers offer automatic extensions of full cover, but you need to check before travelling.
Breakdown insurance is highly recommended. Read the small print though; many policies insist you buy cover for the entire journey, so cover must include the day that you leave home and not just begin as you land in France, or you may find you have no cover at all.
What's changed? Nothing – France is still a great place to eat out, and there are plenty of well-priced hotels and B+Bs to be found. But away from the bigger towns, you're unlikely to find a hotel room – or even an open restaurant – if you turn up late at night.
Unless you've pre-booked, out in the sticks it pays to stop earlier in the evening and give yourself plenty of time to go on to the next town if necessary.
These days there are quite a few out-of-town convenience hotels – many with no staff, just an automated check-in system using credit cards – like Ibis, Novotel, BritHotel etc. Efficient, but bland to the point of sterility, and rarely with any secure parking for your bike.
Campanile hotels on the outskirts of medium-sized towns are a good compromise – modern, but usually family run, with proper restaurants serving regional food at good prices.
You can usually just turn up at campsites, but they can get very, very busy in July and August, and a lot shut up shop completely in early September.
Prices vary hugely – look for a Camping Municipal for the best value; they’re run by local towns/villages, are usually pretty basic but clean and cheap (sometimes just a few euros for a bike and tent). You can find most of them at: www.camping-municipal.org. Anything with swimming pools etc is likely to be geared towards families and be a lot more expensive.
Beware of priorité à droite! Image by Yodaspirine
What's changed? Nothing, but it's still the thing most likely to catch you out and put you in hospital or worse.
Priorité à droite is the archaic rule that gives drivers pulling out from the right priority over those already on the road – completely the opposite of what you'd expect. Which wouldn't be so bad but a lot of drivers won't even look as they pull out.
On main roads a junction with priorité à droite should be signaled by a triangular sign with a red border and a black cross on a white background. Elsewhere (and especially in towns and villages) you'll see a diamond-shaped sign with a white border and yellow centre: this means your road has priority. If it has a black diagonal line through it, that means your road doesn't have priority.
You can't trust the locals to actually take any notice of any of this though.
The bottom line is it's always going to be the bike that comes off worst, so always assume that anyone approaching you from the right has your very worst interests at heart...