If you are not familiar with hiring a car, or hiring one abroad, don't fret about it, it is entirely straightforward. All modern basic cars are similar to drive, and, for obvious reasons, car hire companies usually go for standard and unquirky models. Adjusting to driving on the right (and the driver sitting on the left) takes a matter of a few moments, and of course as a driver you are better placed than if driving a UK car in France.
You need to be 21 to rent a car in France, and have a credit card in your name. Many companies have additional fees for drivers aged under 25 and over 70. You usually also need to have held a licence for more than one year. Note that with the current UK driving licence companies need to see both parts, ie the paper part as well as the photocard, so that they can check for any endorsements.
It is easy and usually cheapest to book online. When collecting a car, nearly all agents in France speak English.
It is possible to hire a car at all airports and at most stations. Essentially anywhere you might travel to from the UK (except the smallest local railway stations) will have car-hire. Most will also have a range of companies though some only a few.
Not all places are open every day or even for many hours in the day, so do check. This is not generally a problem for drop-off but may be for pick-up; there may be arrangements for collection, but with additional charges. Of course, at small airports the opening times are often geared to incoming flights (and my experience is that if a low cost carrier's flight to a small airport is delayed, the car hire offices will stay open to await the influx.) That doesn't seem to be the case at railway stations, though trains in France are not usually late.
There is much guidance on car hire on the internet, for example on sites such as MoneySavingExpert and a very good recent article in The Guardian. My own guidance is below.
For the Cévennes, with its sometimes narrow and winding roads, a smaller car is preferable to a larger one. Obviously it depends on the size of your family or group, but remember you only have to get about the local area, you're not doing long-haul down the autoroute, so you an hour of luggage on knees may be better overall. For a saloon car "compact" is best, and "economy" fine. For larger groups, you may want to consider two small cars, for which the cost may not be higher. That said, seven-seaters are generally OK to drive on the narrow roads because the higher driving position gives more confidence about position on the road. (For work on the house I have regularly hired vehicles like Transit vans, and it's fine.)
Who to hire from, and cost
Quality, reliability, service, etc are as important with car hire as anything else but in my experience there is not really much to separate the companies on these grounds. Which is not to say that everything is perfect, just that I have found no stand-out best company. So then it is down to price, and how much or how little time you want to spend exploring the options.
There are several ways to hire a car; directly from a major, through a broker or comparison site, via a flight or train booking, etc. It is simply impossible to predict which of these will be cheapest on any given day. Computers seem to rule, leading sometimes to absurdly high (less often to absurdly low) prices. Booking car hire with your airline or train service can work out best, but may not. Likewise, booking via a broker can get the best deal but may not. An assumption that one of the majors will be more expensive can be wrong. The rule is that there are no rules.
For my part, in France I have generally hired from the major firms, and mainly from Hertz, though the balance is possibly moving in favour of hiring from brokers. Previously I found them to be more expensive but that may be changing as the majors try to hold high prices for longer. The search sites can be useful for showing the range of offers (including from brokers) but seem not always to catch the lowest prices. There are local firms, but they are not usually to be found at stations and airports as they might be in other countries. I don't really use big sites such as Expedia, and whilst I have booked through airlines I have not always found that cheapest (in part because other discounts to which you may be entitled are generally not available.)
When making cost comparisons, make sure you take the whole cost into account, as there may be significant differences between companies. Pay particular attention to insurance cover and what extra cover costs. But also, for example if you intend to have two drivers this may be free with one but at a costly daily rate with another. There is more on managing extras below.
When booking, remember that almost anything can qualify you for a discount. If you are a member of the AA, a frequent flyer club, or even just have a credit card, entry of the relevant discount code should get a discount of up to 15% - though sometimes it has no effect at all. Equally if you use an online discount site such as Quidco, going through that will often get you an additional useful discount.
A guideline for cost in France is that less than £150 or €180 per week for a small/medium car and you are beginning to do well, more than &epound;200 or €240 and you should be able to do better. There is less variation than you might think between summer and out of season. In fact summer is often cheaper, so there must be many more cars made available.
The main companies which own and rent cars. With no "middle-man", they can be cheapest but often allow brokers to offer their cars for less. It can be easier to see exactly what you are getting and they can be more flexible in terms of cancellation and amendment. All have a range of discounts for members of clubs, points schemes etc.
Alamo Avis Budget Europcar Hertz National Sixt Thrifty
Your contract is usually with the broker, not the principal, though most brokers also act as agents in some cases. The best offer a level of accountability and transparency comparable with or better than the principals but as usual, make sure you find out what you are paying for, who the contract is with, and what the scope for change is. Often there may be inducements such as a second driver at no extra cost. Brokers can be cheaper than principals, especially some way ahead of the pick-up date. The best - auto europe - allows you to see who you would be hiring from before booking and thus avoid "full to empty" fuel scams and the like.
auto europe Carhire3000 easyCar Holiday Autos
Search and Comparison
There are very many of these sites - they are easy to set up, buying access to existing search engines and simply customising the front end. They don't offer extras, and so compete on speed and range of search etc. Some of them cast their net quite wide, including brokers as well as principles. With these sites, your contract is always with the principal, and there you should make sure you know what you are buying since the site may not readily make this clear.
Car Hire Search carrentals.co.uk France Car Hire
Nearly all the big travel sites have a car hire section, so there are very many of these too, with just a selection below. They act as agents not brokers but because they are large may have their own special offers.
Expedia Travelocity lastminute.com Opodo TravelSupermarket.com
It can be useful to see what car hire firms are at your destination, and so of course there are companies that do that too. These act as agent not broker, but usually have more information about the airport etc.
Avignon Nîmes Marseilles Montpellier Rodez
All car hire contracts in Europe include insurance against theft and collision damage but the insurance excess is always high - usually in the range £500 - £800. All companies therefore offer "Collision Damage Waiver" (CDW) as an additional option which you purchase when picking up the car. Unfortunately it is something of a rip-off and often quite aggressively sold (see more on this lower down). Much better, you can now by insurance which covers the excess as well as some extras such as damage to tyres and windscreens (not covered by the car-hire companies). Here are a few insurers offering that service:
insurance4carhire.com insuremycarhire.com questor-insurance.co.uk worldwideinsure.com
Some notes on managing extras
Car hire companies have a poor reputation for actual costs being higher than the headline - and for unexpected additional costs. This is deserved, but problems can generally be avoided by being very clear about what you are paying for and what not. Here are a few tips:
fuel If you can, take the car with a full tank and agree to return it full. "Full to empty" is never better, though companies try to argue it is. When taking the car, do check the gauge, to make sure it is showing full. If it isn't, make sure you stop and get it properly recorded (not just a casual "bring it back at the same level") - it's not much good turning up at the end of a hire and arguing that the tank was not full at the start if you have no evidence of that.
Some companies now offer only "full-to-empty" which, for me, is a strong reason for avoiding them, as it can add back all that you might think you are saving by going for a cheaper hire (because they usually charge above the odds for the full tank, and you can never return with a completely empty tank). But it's a bit tricky as you don't always know who you are hiring from if you go through a broker, and the fuel policy may be hidden in the small print even after you've booked. In France, the main company with a mandatory fuel charge is Advantage (the Hertz "low cost" brand). Avoid it - and to avoid it if renting through a broker, use auto europe.
When returning, make sure you leave yourself time to fill the tank, as in general you will be charged a premium price and an administration fee if the tank has to be filled after drop-off. On the plus side, all you have to do is make sure the indicator needle is at full when you drop the car off, which usually means that if you fill the tank up to 50km before the drop off, you won't have to fill it again.
mileage Unlimited is almost always best for a rural property such as ours, and anyway on holiday it is very easy to clock up more miles than you thought. Occasionally, though there may be offers with a generous mileage allowance, designed only to discourage people from going beyond "reasonable use".
Collision Damage Waiver and Theft Protection Many people probably purchase this additional cover almost automatically, and car hire firms certainly press the case for it when you pick the car up. But remember such additional payments are optional, because there is always basic insurance. That typically covers you barring an excess in the region of £500- £800 for a small or medium car - and that is the limit of your liability if the car is in a collision or stolen. If you buy CDW and TP, you are paying to reduce that liability (usually to zero).
It is worth considering whether you really want to pay - I have never done so and, because we hire cars regularly, the cumulative saving is many times the excess we would have lost if a car had been damaged or stolen (which has never happened). If you rent less often, and don't want even a slight risk of a bill for £500 then you may want to pay the extra, but do recognise that it is a charged on a daily basis and will put up the cost of the rental by €10 per day or more. Make sure you do the sums before you sign up.
If you definitely want the extra cover, much the better choice is to buy your own in advance from a specialist provider (or a car hire broker), rather than the car hire company. These policies also usually also cover otherwise uninsured risks such as punctures, key loss and so on. If you hire cars frequently, you can buy annual policies of this type. For some links, see under "Insurance" above.
child seats Make sure you know what the cost is at the time of booking, as it can get expensive. Some firms charge by the day others per hire, so what works best may depend on how long you hire the car for. You might want to consider taking your own with you; the cost, even when flying, may be reasonable, and your child seat will probably also be much better than one you hire.
sat nav Take your own if it's detachable, or use your smartphone.
additional driver Consider whether you really need it as, again, it can be expensive: though sometimes it is offered free as an incentive.
fines Don't risk speeding etc fines: they will cost you more in a hire car because there will be an administration charge on top. If you get a parking ticket or something else you can pay yourself, do pay it yourself to avoid such charges.
damage There is probably less to worry about here than you might fear. In general car hire companies don't want to alienate their customers by charging extra for the slightest scratch. Though they don't generally say so, most have a more-or-less objective threshold below which marks don't count. So you don't really have to worry about that little mark you got from an inconsiderate neighbour in the supermarket car park. However do check the car when you pick it up and, even though you'll be keen to get on your way, take the trouble to report unrecorded dents and scratches and get then recorded.
return Make sure, if you can, that the car is checked when you return it and seek an invoice/receipt at that point.
challenge extras added to your bill after returning the car. Check your credit card statement to make sure they don't creep in surreptitiously, and complain if additions are unjustified. The companies may be quick to add them on but they can also give way pretty readily if you complain - though the process may be clunky and slow.