The status of autoroutes in France is complex. Originally, they were built by private companies mandated by the French government, and followed strict construction rules. They are operated and maintained by mixed companies held in part by private interests and in part by the state. Those companies hold concessions, which means that these motorways belong to the French state and their administration to semi-private companies. One of the consequences of this for the traveller, is that should you break down on a motorway, the recovery service that might be linked to your European Breakdown Cover is not permitted to aid you on the autoroute or at any of its service areas – you have to use the emergency telephones provided at the roadside, or drive to a normal road.
On many autoroutes you have to pay a toll (péage); more expensive than in the extensive US network, and about the same as the limited toll sections in the UK. But toll costs can mount up if you are travelling long distances. If time is not of the essence, consider using the routes nationales.
Sanef now offers their Liber-t tag to UK customers. This makes travelling on toll roads much simpler as the tag allows you to drive through the tolls without having to pay every time. Instead the electronic tag is placed in your car by the rear-view mirror, this is then scanned at the toll points and the payment is then taken from your bank account via direct debit a few weeks later.
Tolls are either a flat rate paid as you enter each stage, or based on how far your drive. When you pay based on distance, you take a ticket at the station where you enter. When you exit, you give the ticket to the attendant at the toll booth, and your toll will be determined. You can pay with either cash or credit card. Don’t lose your ticket, or you will face the maximum toll. Increasingly, péages are becoming automated, allowing you to use your credit card: this is a bit inconvenient for solo drivers in right-hand drive vehicles, but otherwise is not a problem.
One thing that impresses about French autoroutes is the number of rest areas (aires de repos), picnic areas with open spaces for children to play in, and service stations (Aires de service), with restaurants and shops. The aires de repos are about every 10-20 kilometres (12 miles), while the fuel stations are every 40km (25 miles). The rest areas tend to be well kept with clean toilet areas, although not all of them have toilets. Before you reach an Aire, a sign announcing it lists the services available along with the distance to the next Aire.
If you can, avoid buying fuel on autoroutes as it is much more expensive than if bought in a city or town: the cheapest place is at supermarkets.
Every 2 kilometres/1¼ miles there is an emergency phone, marked S.O.S that you can use if you break down or have an accident.