Advice For Driving In The French Alps In Winter

As January comes to an end we find ourselves looking towards February with baited breath. This is the start of the silly season and traffic volume into and out of the Tarentaise valley is set to double or even triple as various European countries move into their holiday periods. Starting from the 6th February and for the following month, each week sees at least two major European countries taking holidays including France (4 weeks), the Netherlands (2 weeks), Belgium and the UK.

With 15 years experience we have learnt how to work around the traffic fluctuations and by passing on a little bit of our inside knowledge we hope we can help you do the same but let’s starts with the bare essentials you need to have in your vehicle before you even roll off the ferry/tunnel

 By Law:

  • hi-vis jacket (the law says you should have one for each passenger)
  • spare bulbs
  • warning triangle
  • beam deflectors on your headlights
  • GB sticker
  • breathalyser (still required by law although there is no fine for not having one!)
  • documents – passport, driving licence, MOT certificate, V5 logbook, insurance.

You might also want to consider getting your hands on a French motorway toll badge. This can save you loads of time during busy periods as you don’t have to queue through the toll booths. You do have to pay a yearly charge for the badge but if you drive through France a couple of times a year it could be well worth it. Check the SANEF website for full details - https://www.saneftolling.co.uk

You’ll also need a Swiss motorway vignette if you are travelling through Switzerland but these can be bought at the border for 40CHF

For winter driving in the Alps it is also essential to have the following:

  • snowchains – in fact the police may only allow you to continue driving on the higher altitude roads if you fit snow chains. In other words, without them you could end up stuck down in the valley for the night!
  • head torch and gloves so you can fit the above!
  • shovel (for digging out your car to get home if it snows)

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It is possible to buy ‘snow socks’ to fit over your car tyres. Whilst these undoubtedly help with grip on snow, they are in no way a suitable substitute for snow chains. They might be easier to fit but when the going gets tough they are not going to get you out of trouble.

If you find yourself at an altitude where the snow is settling on the road and covering it, pull over at the first available lay-by and fit your chains. Please, please don’t just keep going until you can’t get any further and then fit them in the middle of the road. Lots of people do and it is the bane of our life! Once one person has done so the car behind has to stop and wait which means they then get stuck and the same for next car, and the next. Pretty soon you are left with a 10km queue of cars fitting snow chains with a couple of transfer drivers sat somewhere in the middle with steam coming out of their ears!

Another piece of sound advice is to try out fitting your chains beforehand on your driveway at home so that when it comes to the crunch, you already know what you are doing and don’t find yourself trying to read the instructions by torchlight in a blizzard! It’s also a good chance to make sure they are a good fit. Take a minute to think about whether your car is front or rear wheel drive as well so that you don’t end up looking like a complete muppet! We have seen it.

And don’t think that just because you have a 4wd that none of the above applies to you! We have seen plenty of big 4wd’s stuck in the snow with all four wheels spinning. If you’ve only got normal road tyres you may still find yourself stranded so chains are still a good idea.

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A Few Other General Points On Driving In France:

  • drive on the right!
  • the motorway speed limit is 130 kmph but that drops to 110 kmph if its raining (or snowing!)
  • it is against the law to overtake a snowplough!
  • watch out for ‘Priorite A Droite’! This archaic French law states that you should always give way to traffic approaching a junction from your right. This has been the undoing of many an unsuspecting British driver! Thankfully it is steadily being phased out but their are plenty of such junctions in the Tarentaise valley. If you see either of these signs it means you must give way to drivers approaching from the right at the next juntions(s):
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Traffic In The Tarentaise

We are lucky enough to have some of the biggest ski resorts in the world here in the Tarentaise valley, including Tignes, Val d’Isere, Les Arcs, La Plagne, Meribel, Courchevel, Les Menuires and Val Thorens. Due to the geography of the area there is only one way in and out during the winter. On the busiest weekends of the season there can be over 35,000 vehicles a day trying to pass along these roads which for long stretches are only single carriageway. Leaving the valley can be particularly bad as everyone wants to set off at the same time – generally between 9 and 11 in the morning.

These problems are further complicated when it snows, something which happened with disastrous consequences on the Saturday after Christmas 2014!

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If at all possible avoid travelling on the busiest Saturdays of the season. These are generally the same every year and include the following:

  • The Saturday before Christmas, between Christmas and New year and immediately after New Year
  • Any Saturday during the European school holidays. This year these stretch from 6th February until the 6th March. They usually start the weekend before UK half term and go on for four weeks.
  • To a lesser extent the Saturday before and during the Easter holidays.

Travelling on Sundays is vastly preferable and virtually traffic free even around the busy periods mentioned above.

If you are absolutely unable to avoid these Saturdays then you can still time your journeys to miss the bulk of the traffic. On your way home we suggest leaving resort no later than 7am. It might not sound great having to get your car packed up in the dark but it is vastly preferable to spending 4 hours queuing though the first 50 miles of your journey home!

Alternatively, ski all day and set off in the late afternoon/evening. If you’re travelling all the way to the UK it might mean you need to have an overnight stop en-route but you can sleep in your hotel bed feeling pretty smug that you just squeezed an extra days skiing out of your holiday and cut our journey time in half!

Timing your arrival in the Tarentaise to avoid traffic is much trickier as it tends to be spread over a longer period. Generally if you can get into the valley before midday that can help matters a lot. If you’re driving out from the UK this might mean setting off on Friday evening and stopping en-route but on the plus-side you will arrive in resort early with loads of time to pick up hire skis, do some shopping and have a good nights sleep before your first days skiing!

 

And if all this sounds like a bit too much just book a flight and leave the rest to the professionals at Cool Bus!

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