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Driving For Members

Is it worth taking a detour to avoid France's steep autoroute tolls?

James Harrington
James Harrington - [email protected]
Is it worth taking a detour to avoid France's steep autoroute tolls?
Is avoiding France's motorway tolls worth it? (Photo by STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN / AFP)

Can you save money on your trip by avoiding French autoroutes altogether, or are there other ways to cut the cost of crossing France by car? Share your own views and experiences in the comments section below.

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In February this year, tolls on France’s motorway (freeway) network rose by an average of 4.75 percent. 

That nationwide average - as it always does - hides some regional differences. A journey from Toulon, in the Var, to Mandelieu, in Alpes-Maritimes (113km) now costs €13 in tolls, up from €12.10 in 2022 – an increase of 7.4 percent.

READ MORE: MAP: Where have French toll road fees increased the most?

Drivers heading between Lyon and Montpellier now have to pay an extra €1.90, up 6.7 percent on last year’s prices; and motorists have to fork out an additional €2.10 to make the five-hour journey along the A4 between Paris and Strasbourg.

These costs can rapidly add up, especially if you’re travelling long distances to get to a holiday destination. But could you avoid them, by taking alternative routes, for example?

In short, yes, you could. It is entirely possible to get from A to B without using a motorway in France, avoiding tolls. The question is: why would you want to?

If you have plenty of time on your hands

France’s motorways are, generally, two or three lanes of free-flowing traffic, apart from around cities and at toll points, which can become a pinchpoint at busy periods - such as the first weekend in August, which is traditionally very difficult on the roads.

They tend to be as direct as possible, and usually have a 130km/h speed limit, so journeys are relatively quick and straightforward.

Off the motorways, country roads are one, occasionally two, lanes, with a maximum speed of 90km/h. You may get caught behind slow-moving traffic, such as a tractor, or a bus. 

And the routes from A to B are more circuitous. 

A case in point: route-planner website ViaMichelin offers road users options for their journey, and calculates costs - even tolls - for a range of routes. 

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A trip from Lyon to Bordeaux, on the fastest, motorway toll-heavy route, takes about 5 hours 40 minutes, at a total cost of €107.50 - of which €50.70 are toll fees. 

The cheapest route, according to its algorithm, saves nearly €40 in costs, and cuts toll fees down to €6. But it takes two hours longer, nearly eight hours total travel time; eats up more kilometres, and - the website calculates this, too - costs more in carbon emissions.

Unfortunately for parents, it doesn’t calculate the number of additional, “are we nearly there YETs” from the backseats. Child fractiousness increases exponentially every hour...

If you want to see the views

France’s motorways cut through some incredible scenery, and even features plenty of roadside art to break the monotony - but there’s little doubt what you see on the autoroute isn’t a patch on what you can see off it.

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If you have a lot of time to use and don’t mind the costs of extra travel, then using national and departmental roads is a super way to see the sights of la France profonde. 

However, also bear in mind that many of these routes aren’t necessarily easy to travel, especially if you have a caravan, for example, so while passengers are admiring the terrific views, the driver is gritting their teeth trying to ensure that they don’t hit a low wall or overhanging tree/ career down a mountain / hit that hairpin too fast.

Even if you can enjoy the vista, you're still looking at France through a car window...

You don’t mind driving through towns

Motorways skirt France’s towns and cities. Sure, traffic may get a bit busy from time to time, around the larger urban centres, but on the whole, they’re designed for free and easy travel.

Other routes in France don’t skirt these towns, so you’ll regularly find yourself surrounded by buildings, driving at lower speeds, avoiding pedestrians and other road users, maybe even navigating your way past a market, or - in summer - a local festival; or occasionally getting lost as you make a wrong turn because the signage is a little confusing.

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France’s towns and villages are lovely. But if you’ve still a long journey ahead, they’re not necessarily where you want to find yourself.

You like getting bounced around

France’s motorways are smooth and well-maintained, designed to get you where you need to go quickly and with minimal fuss. The same cannot be said of France’s local roads, which - in a vehicle loaded with passengers and holiday essentials - is Not A Good Thing.

Most roads are okay but - and this seems to be especially true if you’re trusting your sat-nav - sometimes you’ll find yourself on a bumpy, pot-holed road to hell with grass growing in the middle of it that, apparently, shaves half a kilometre off your journey.

Or, if you’re towing a caravan, your sat-nav will take you up a steep, slow, fuel-chewing stretch of road. 

What about fuel consumption?

The easiest to cut fuel costs whatever road you're on is, wherever possible, to maintain a steady speed. Get up to an appropriate speed for the road and the conditions - in an appropriate gear - and maintain it as much as possible; keep a decent gap between you and any vehicles in front, lifting your foot off the accelerator if necessary. Stop-start driving uses more fuel; driving at higher speeds uses more fuel; getting too close to the vehicle in front and having to brake to back off, then accelerating again uses more fuel. Good driving is economical driving. It's not just French motorists who need to remember that...

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Tolls it is then…

It’s hard to argue with the view that relatively quick long-distance road journeys in France are easier on motorways. But there are ways to cut costs.

Get a ‘bipper’

Earlier in the summer, Transport minister Clément Beaune called on motorway companies to offer “a discount” to motorists during the summer holidays, at least equivalent to the 10 percent that was offered last year to those who paid in holiday vouchers.

They did - to drivers who subscribe to their electronic payment systems, or who pay their tolls using vacation vouchers.

In fairness, it is probably worthwhile to look into getting an electronic payment system. They frequently offer discounts on tolls - and, importantly, they can speed your way through the toll areas, as you can use the automatic booths to pass the tolls booths without stopping.

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Driving in France: What is Télépeage and how does it work on autoroutes?

At peak periods, they could save you quite a bit of time - and time, as the saying goes, is money.

Leave the motorway

Yeah, we know. But hear us out. Bizarrely, it can be cheaper to break down a long stretch of toll-road travel in France into shorter sections. You do this simply by leaving the motorway, paying your toll, turning round at the nearest suitable and safe point, going back on to the motorway, getting a new ticket and continuing your journey.

The website autoroute.eco.fr calculates how - and where - to leave the motorway at optimum points. It claims to be able to cut nearly €3 off the tolls of a trip between Paris and Lille in 2023; or €6 off the cost of tolls between Paris and Bordeaux on the A10.

If you can also time when you leave the motorway with rest breaks, you may also find a nearby town for a meal, and to top up with fuel while avoiding motorway service station premiums. 

Don’t use motorway service stations

We’ve mentioned why already. Honestly, France’s motorway service stations are generally pretty good - but you do pay extra for fuel and food. Taking a brief break from the autoroutes can save money, if you don’t mind taking a little extra time on your journey. Alternatively, if you have room in your vehicle, pack a picnic, and use a smaller aire de repos.

READ ALSO Driving in France: What are the French 'villages étapes'?

Of course, if you need fuel reasonably urgently, the next motorway service station may be your best option. At least it's easy to find.

Do use a route comparison website

We’ve already mentioned the ViaMichelin site. It calculates possible routes, the likely cost of travel, and how long it will take. It could save you a reasonable amount of money. Other route comparison sites are available.

You can also check out the cost of tolls along each section of autoroute - they can change - using autoroutes.fr.

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Comments (1)

Join the conversation in our comments section below. Share your own views and experience and if you have a question or suggestion for our journalists then email us at [email protected].
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Nigel 2023/08/03 19:50
Thanks guys - that's an excellent (and very comprehensive) article

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