Covoiturage: Share a car with the locals and see France on a budget
Carsharing can be a wallet-friendly, low carbon alternative for travelling in France, John Sannaee discovers.
In a country with such a fast and efficient train network, you might not think driving would be a preferred way to get around. However, carsharing (covoiturage in French) has now become a firmly established method of transport.
Covoiturage.fr has been going for several years and is becoming increasingly popular as an economically way to travel, taking you almost anywhere you want to go (if you’re prepared to be a little flexible on your timetable). The idea is simple: drivers with empty cars log their start and destination points on the website, along with the number of passengers they hope to carry, and a price. Travellers looking to avoid the sometimes prohibitive price of a last-minute train input their start point and destination on the website and are provided with a list of potentially compatible drivers, along with routes and timetables.
When asked why they choose covoiturage, the most popular answer is the price – whilst the French train network may seem reasonably priced compared to the UK, the French are quick to bemoan soaring tariffs; carsharing presents an increasingly attractive alternative for those willing to be a bit more adventurous.
Whilst jumping in a stranger’s car may not seem the most prudent idea in the world, when I asked carsharers if they were worried about the potential risks, the answer was a resounding no. “Of course you should tell your friends that you’re doing covoiturage and give them the name of the driver and your arrival time and address,” admitted one enthusiast, but no-one seemed to think that the activity contained any real element of threat.
In fact, when questioned about the downsides of covoiturage, people tended instead to highlight the possibility of uninspiring conversation, plus the fact that the car does normally take longer than the train. “But,” one carsharer pointed out, “if you get along well with the driver they are often willing to drop you off right where you want to go.” The flipside of a few hours of potentially dull or minimal conversation is the possibility of stumbling upon a new best friend, or at least a friendly and 'in-the-know' local who can give you some helpful tips on how to make the most of your destination.
And what about people who don’t speak French? Whilst the French website is only in French (though they also run carsharing sites for the UK, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Poland, The Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg), a rudimentary grasp of the language or a trustworthy dictionary can help you navigate the site with minimal difficulty. Once you are in touch with a potential driver, they will probably notice your language skills - or lack thereof – and judge for themselves whether they feel able to make a few hours conversation in English (or bear the silence). Both the French and foreign carsharers I asked felt the language barrier should really be little more than a stumbling block for those with an intrepid spirit, or at least an open mind.
It may seem obvious, but it is worth noting that you are asking someone to share their car space – and they can say no. Nothing is sure until it is fully confirmed (and paid for), and this does leave a degree of uncertainty that a train ticket eliminates. However, if you have no ticket and a tight budget at the last minute, covoiturage provides a useful, even enticing, alternative – putting the human touch back into travel, whilst cutting down on petrol and euros.