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French poet and dramatist Henri de Bornier once wrote, “Every man has two countries—his own, and France.” (Actually, what he really wrote was, “Tout homme a deux pays, le sien et puis la France,” but I don’t speak French so whatever.) The world has apparently taken that literally, too, since France gets more visitors than any other country on the planet. I don’t know what it is about France, but it truly does get into your heart unlike any other place.
If you are planning a trip to France, here are some tips to help make the most of your time in this beautiful country.
There’s more to France than just Paris
Paris is an absolutely gorgeous city, and I wish we had been able to spend more than just 24 hours there. From the moment we disembarked from our train from Pontorson, I was enchanted. I definitely want to go back.
But at the same time, I find it a little sad that Paris gets all the attention when the rest of France is just as deserving. I loved getting to see a bit of the Brittany and Normandy regions as we explored Mont Saint-Michel, and after visiting Carcassonne and Avignon, it was easy to see why people are always dreaming of houses in the south of France. I would love to go back and see Bordeaux or Alsace or Strasbourg, and I am desperate to visit Sète and see the water jousting. France is also home to some pretty spectacular chateaus, castles, and cathedrals, so there is no shortage of things to see and do outside Paris’ city limits.
Paris is overpriced, but the rest of France is less so
The dirty and uncomfortable hostel we stayed at in Paris was the cheapest in the city, but still one of the most expensive nights of our entire trip. Everything in Paris is pretty pricey—hence the reason we only stayed for 24 hours—but things were far more reasonable in the smaller towns we visited (yet another reason to include more of France in your itinerary).
But don’t fret! There are some incredible free activities in Paris perfect for travelers on a budget. Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur, and the Arc de Triomphe are all free to visit (although you can pay to visit the dome at Sacre Couer or climb to the top of the Arc), and it doesn’t cost a thing to enjoy the architecture and street performers along the Seine. The Champ de Mars also provides a perfect view of the Eiffel Tower, and it’s a great spot for a picnic dinner while you wait for the light show every night at 9pm.
Baguettes and Cheese
Food in France can be expensive and take a long time (several hours). And while I’m 100% in favor of taking time to savor life while you travel, sometimes you just need a quick, affordable meal. Thankfully, it is perfectly normal to buy a baguette and some cheese from a market or even a grocery store and enjoy them as you people watch by the Seine or admire the Eiffel Tower from Champ de Mars. Just remember to greet your cashier with a “Bonjour!”—it’s considered impolite if you don’t.
While France wasn’t the only place that we encountered scam artists, it was definitely the place we encountered the most. (And actually, it was just Paris. I don’t recall encountering any scammers in the other French cities we visited…)
I strongly believe the best defense against con artists and would-be pickpockets is to be aware of the risk and keep your wits about you. Read up on popular scams before you travel so that you can recognize the signs. Rick Steves has a very useful list of things to watch out for.
And while they aren’t scammers per se, be prepared to meet a lot of people trying to sell you stuff. There were hoards of cheap souvenir merchants around the Eiffel Tower and all up and down the Seine. When it started to rain as we climbed up to Sacre Coeur, suddenly everyone wanted to sell us umbrellas. They can get a little pushy, but a firm “No, thank you/non merci,” is usually pretty successful at getting them to leave you alone. And be aware—sometimes these merchants are just trying to distract you while their partner goes through your pockets.
Get Lost! (Or… Don’t…)
One thing you won’t need to worry about much is getting lost. We got a great map from the front desk clerk at our hostel in Paris, and it was perfect for navigating the city by foot and metro. The metro has excellent signage for orientating yourself after disembarking from your train, including information about nearby streets and points of interest. The small towns we visited were also very easy to navigate, even without maps.
Trains Trains Trains
Speaking of getting around, France has an excellent network of trains—one of the most extensive networks in Europe. There are the High Speed TGV trains, which connect the major cities and can travel at speeds of up to 320mph! That extra speed does mean pricier tickets, so a cheaper alternative is the Intercités lines, which also serve outlying cities and towns.
You will definitely want to make sure you give yourself plenty of time to buy your tickets and board. Unlike trains in many other countries, trains in France tend to be very punctual. If you miss your train, there may not be another one for a few hours, especially if you are traveling to or from a smaller city.
And remember: if you’re traveling with a rail pass, you usually still need to purchase a seat reservation, so make sure to check that very carefully.
If you are flying out of Charles de Gaulle Airport, get there suuuuuuuper early. We arrived at check-in earlier than the 2 hours they usually recommend and found ourselves standing in the longest line I have ever waited in. Every single flight in our terminal was channeled through a single line, and the desk agents were terribly inefficient at keeping the line moving. We stood in line for two hours and watched as people on flights leaving after ours were called out of line to check in for their flights. It was an absolute nightmare, and I’m not sure whether the airline (everyone was flying EasyJet) or the airport is to blame. We arrived at our gate to discover that they were already boarding and we immediately got in line—just to have to wait another 45 minutes on the gangway before actually reaching the plane.
Yep. Give yourself 3-4 hours, just to be safe.
The advice that the French won’t speak English with you proved to be pretty accurate for us, for the most part. I’m of the belief that one should speak the local language as much as possible when traveling, so it didn’t bother me. The only time it really caused me any frustration was when we visited museums and such. Most places we visited on our trip had exhibit signage translated into several different languages for foreign visitors, but not so in France. Some signs would be translated, and others wouldn’t—and sometimes, you’d find a mix of both options in the same room of the same museum. If you have room in your budget and you want to be sure to get the most out of your visits to historical places, it might be worth investing in a translating headset, which were available at every place we visited. They can cost upwards of €15, but at least you’ll know what’s going on.
Younger people are more willing to speak English
We did also find that younger people were more willing—eager, even—to speak English. Our hosts at the hostel in Paris and the apartment we rented in Avignon were the kindest people we met in France, and they seemed quite happy to communicate in English. However, it’s still best to lead off with a polite, “Bonjour Madame/Monsieur. Parlez-vouz anglais?” instead of just launching into English and expecting them to talk to you. As a writer over at French Truly said, “Come on, can you imagine me going into a shop in Seattle, speaking to people in French, and then wondering why they are looking at me funny?”
And if someone won’t speak English with you, don’t just assume they’re being rude. It might be that they legitimately don’t speak English, or don’t speak it well enough to be confident conversing in the language.
Remember, they don’t hate you
My sister has studied French and French culture for several years, and she offered this bit of reassuring advice: If no one smiles at you, it isn’t because they are being rude. The French reserve smiles for people they know, and smiling at a stranger is just not part of their culture. It can seem off-putting when you’re paying for a trinket at a souvenir shop and the cashier remains expressionless, but that’s only because we Americans are used to everyone smiling all the dang time. Don’t take it personally, be polite and gracious, and you will most likely find that the French are hospitable and welcoming—even if they aren’t smiling.
Accommodations – We booked all of our lodging through Booking.com[A] and Hostelworld[A]
Train Travel – SNCF.com is the site we used to book all of our train travel in France. It’s available in English, French, and German.
Flights – We booked our flight from Paris to Lisbon through EasyJet. Despite the unfortunate experience at Charles de Gaulle, I have flown with EasyJet many times and have always had a good experience. (And once we were on the plane, it was smooth sailing to Portugal.) They always have great options for cheap air travel around Europe.
Planning Your Itinerary – TripAdvisor and Rick Steves were both very useful when planning our trip to France