The days to avoid driving in France this summer

Summer is HERE, and not just in the form of the first heatwave of 2019! Nope. We mean traffic... T.R.A.F.F.I.C! After the shortest night of the year (summer solstice), European schools gear up for the summer holidays. Fortunately, to keep order in chaos, the end of school is staggered from country to country and even divided into zones within countries.

Belgian schools let out on the last weekday of June. and France at the end of the first week in July. The Netherlands on the other hand divides its end-of-school-days in zones south, north, and middle and sends its children on holiday (in that order) on July 6th, 13th and 20th in 2019. Germany, a much larger country, consists of even more zones starting about mid-June through end-July.

According to Schengen.com (Schengen visa area's website), France remains the most popular travel destination in Europe with over eighty-one-million worldwide visitors per year!

Each July 1st-weekend, the mass exodus from anywhere in Europe, to France, begins with many more top traffic weekends following in July and August. At peak times it is not unusual for there to be hundreds of kilometres of traffic jams which can leave weary travellers stuck for many hours.

Black weekends are coming!

In 2019, the Belgian traffic organisation VAB has announced "Code Orange" for the weekend of 29-30th June. The ring around Lille in the north, and the Paris Périphérique (the ring around Paris - in south-east and south-west directions) as well as the routes Calais-Rouen-Le-Mans and Paris-Bordeaux-Spain are expected to be hot-spots.

Being stuck in traffic is bad enough-after all, doesn't everybody look forward to finally arriving at destination to begin that long-deserved (long-coveted) holiday? The heatwave which will strike France towards the last weekend of June will certainly not help matters! It is probably best to wait until July 1st to travel when temps are expected to drop but if you must... do be prepared. When travelling long distances it's important to have ample food and water in the car anyway; in scorching temperatures even more! While tempting, it is not recommended to drive at night as fatigue plays a deadly role in France's accident statistics.

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The heaviest travel weekends in France are expected on the weekends of 19-21st July, 26-28th July, and 16-18th August with each Saturday expected to be announced as a 'Code Red'.  It is recommended to avoid the weekends of 2-4th August and 9-11th August altogether. Each of these Saturdays is expected to be 'Code Black' travel days. The last weekends of August are heavy with traffic in northern directions.

It is, in fact, better to leave on Sundays.

Road Travel Preparedness
  • Water (2 liters per family member at least, more in a heatwave)
  • Avoid alcohol
  • Sandwiches, salads, fruit, nuts (in other words, healthy snacks)
  • Cooler with ice-packs
  • Sunglasses and sunscreen SPF 50
  • Wear loose clothing
  • Full tank (petrol stations are few and far between on the French motor ways!!) For the sake of fuel economy:
    • keep car temperature steady
    • use cruise control
    • drive 10 km/hr under the speed limit
  • Light blankets/ pillows
  • Limit screen-time (extending battery use) - have non-tech entertainment on hand as well.
  • Stay in touch with loved ones (NOT while driving)
  • If the Toll routes are your choice, you might consider obtaining the automated box to attach to the windshield (behind the rear-view mirror). Cash or credit cards are also accepted but look closely before selecting a toll booth. Traffic jams are often caused by drivers having to reverse out of a toll booth (which in heavy traffic is a veritable nightmare for everybody!) By the way, we recommend the toll routes. For sure the expense will need to be a part of the overall travel budget, but they are smooth, therefor gentle on the wear and tear of the car, and have less traffic most of the time, and smooth sailing = petrol conservation.
  • Handy websites to help prepare your driving holiday in France:

Pollution ahead!

Increased traffic brings increased pollution. As we mentioned in our article A Look at 2019 Travel Trends, travel increases our carbon footprint significantly in a short period of time. We'd like to remind you that in an effort to reduce the horrible effects of smog, especially around certain areas, France has implemented environmental zones and Air Quality Certificates. This applies to locals as well as tourists.

What is the CRIT'AIR or Air Quality certificate and do you need it?
In France, two different types of environmental zones (soon to be three) have been introduced in order to reduce pollutants caused by the road traffic, and to improve air quality. A registration certificate can be obtained here in the form of a round sticker issued to easily help identify a vehicle's environmental class by colour, based on air pollutant emissions. There are six colours. While the certification isn't mandatory everywhere, it is mandatory in certain predetermined areas. The zones are defined as:

  • ZCR or "zones à circulation restreinte" (traffic restriction zones).  Examples are Lille, Lyon, Paris, Strasbourg and Toulouse. Such zones are often implemented in city centers to remove polluting vehicles from dense traffic areas. Cars registered before 1 January 1997 (for motorcycles, before 1 June 2000) can't be certified and are banned. The ZCR zone represents a permanent restriction.
  • ZPA or "zones de protection de l’air" (air protection zones) are activated in case of high air pollution and bad weather, and therefor they are not permanent. They can cover anything from a metropolitan area, to a specific geographical zone. The limits of each environmental zone are defined in advance and ZPA restrictions are temporary and can include
    • top speed reduced by 20km/hr
    • banning of cars without a Crit’Air badge (circulation différentiée)
    • restrictions based on odd or even registration number
  • From July 1, 2019 Paris will be first in adding yet another zone, a "low-emissions zone" (ZFE) in addition to the ZCR and ZPA zones. It is expected that Lyon, Reims, Strasbourg, Nice and Montpellier will follow before 31 December 2020.  The ZFE will apply to unclassified vehicles and Crit'Air 5 i.e. 2 Wheels, Tricycles and Motor Quadricycles Prior to June 1, 2000; diesel cars and light commercial vehicles prior to January 1, 2001; petrol/gasoline cars prior to January 1, 1997; gasoline light commercial vehicles prior to October 1, 1997; trucks/ lorries, buses and diesel coaches prior to October 1, 2006; trucks/lorries, buses and gasoline coaches prior to October 1, 2001.

The cost of obtaining a certificate (sticker) for your car is quite low (under 8 Euro including postage fees). We recommend being safe rather than sorry by applying for your sticker before travelling to France. In the near future, more cities will introduce environmental zones. Avignon, Bordeaux, Cannes, Clermont-Ferrand, Montpellier and Rouen are on the list, as is La-Roche-sur-Yon. When you encounter these signs in any city center, it is best to heed them. Fines start at €68. Be prepared with the Green Zones App. Check the website here.

Due to its weather conditions and position as a main travel route south, the Vendée is located in pre-determined green zone (encompassing the entire department) where a number of temporary measures may be implemented at times of increased pollution. More about the  Vendée Environmental Zone here!

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Well, we certainly hope your trip to or through France includes a stop in beautiful Vendée. No matter which day you choose to travel, please drive safely. If however you choose to travel in Code Black circumstances, we wish you luck!