France: Avoiding the Worst Jams on Black Saturdays

Making life easier on the busiest days of the summer in France, especially this year’s ‘Black Saturday’ on 1 August.

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On highest days and holidays, the jams start very early on the French motorway network. Very early.

By 06:00 there are already hours-long delays on the busiest routes – all along the A10 Paris-Bordeaux and, particularly, A7 Lyon-Avignon – as drivers from Paris, mainly, head to the coasts.

Delays on the latter easily top five hours at the worst times.

The good news is that the jams normally peak by lunchtime (though can still last until the early evening).

The choice is between getting stuck in early to be sure of arriving at your destination eventually, or – as Dutch motoring club ANWB advises its members to do – delaying departure until the early afternoon.

This summer’s busiest days are Saturday 1 August for traffic leaving for the holidays and – expected to be only slightly less congested – Saturday 22 August for drivers heading home.

Delays occur for three reasons: sheer weight of traffic, accidents, and queues at the peage toll booths.

There is not much to do about the first two but signing up for the automatic toll tag from SanefTolling.co.uk – as many thousands of Brits already have – saves time with the free-flow lanes.

Apart from that there are some recommended alternative routes.

A notorious peage pinch point is at Niort on the A10 Poitiers-Bordeaux. Avoid this on the N10 via Angouleme.

Meanwhile, on the A7 Lyon-Avignon – the most congested stretch of road by far – the parallel N7 is almost as bad.

The difficulty is that there are no motorways across the mountainous south east.

The best you can do is a combination (north to south) of A43-A48-A51 Lyon-Grenoble – with a single lane central and scenic section E712/D1075 from Montestier – to pick up the A51 again at Sisteron.

The A51 connects with the Cote d’Azur A8 autoroute at Aix-en-Provence. This way is normally an extra hour over the notional 4h30 Lyon-Nice A7-A8, for instance, but could be time well spent.

(Petrolheads will hate it but also bear in mind the famous driver’s road N85 ‘Route Napoleon’ which runs directly from Grenoble to Cannes via Gap, Sisteron and Grasse. On a good day however this takes 7h30 from Lyon).

The other stretch of motorway to avoid is the A9 Avignon-Montpellier-Perpignan to the Spanish border.

The A75 via Clermont Ferrand – which is toll free except for the the stunning Millau Viaduct – hits the A9 south of Montpellier to miss at least some of the Spain-bound traffic.

The A20 Limoges-Toulouse connects to the A9 even further south but the A61 at Carcassone is another busy stretch.

In truth neither the A75 nor A20 are immune from major delays, particularly at Vierzon where they diverge – though a newly added extra lane might help this summer – but both are generally better options than the A10 or A7.

Another major bottleneck is the N20 Puymorens Tunnel in the Pyrenees, off the A66 near Toulouse. With work on-going to the south of the tunnel until November, it is best avoided completely at busy times.

Similarly, do everything to avoid the Mont Blanc Tunnel on a Black Saturday. Consider heading into Switzerland for the Great St Bernard Tunnel. Stick to the back roads to dodge the Swiss motorway vignette.

The advice in general is to keep abreast of the latest situation and be ready with alternatives at short notice (or prepare for long delays and see anything less than five extra hours as a bonus). Radio 107.7fm has information in English. @VinciAutoroutes tweets a graphic hourly showing delays on the major routes in the south. Bison Fute is the national traffic website though motorway operators’ site Autoroutes.fr is better.

See our France at a Glance page for the very latest or follow our traffic tweets @DriveEurope.

See the official jam calendar for France – or more here – and for the Mont Blanc Tunnel.

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