France is one of the most appealing, and thus the most visited countries on earth, with over 80 million visitors a year. It’s more than big enough to accommodate all of us that long to go there, but it helps to have a plan. And nothing helps the planning process more than insider tips, like these:
Tip 1: Decide what aspects of France you find most appealing, and pick a theme for your trip. This can be something like I love Paris, Castles of the Kings, Bastide Villages, Regional Cuisine, Footsteps of the Impressionists, Best Red Wine, or Geologic Wonders. Giving your trip a theme has several benefits: First, it helps you to narrow the focus of your itinerary, making planning easier. Second, it will make your trip more meaningful, because you will gain first hand knowledge about important aspects of this great country in the context of how it fits in to history, or viticulture, or culinary mastery, or geography, or some other larger concept. And, most importantly, it will give you the incentive to learn more about French culture, art, language, history, religion, and geography than the average hit and run tourist with nothing to show for their trip than a few dozen selfies in front of monuments they can’t even name.
If themes for your trip aren’t jumping out at you just yet, you need to do some homework. France Magazine online will inspire you, as will any video or guidebook by Rick Steves.
Don’t neglect this part of your planning. Anyone can enjoy a trip to France even if they know nothing about the country, but you’ll have a much more meaningful and memorable trip if you have a basic understanding of this phenomenal country.
It’s important to note here that while Paris and the rest of France are inseparable, they are distinctly different. Paris is an incredible city, and if that’s your top theme, don’t be afraid to stay there for a week, or two, or even a month because you’ll never see and experience it all. But there is so much more to France that if you’re favorite themes involve other provinces, keep reading.
Tip 2: For travel outside of Paris, rent a car. Biking, tour buses or trains are other options, but they will place tight limits on how much you can see. Because France is so big, and for many of us so far away, once you get there, you’ll want to give your self every advantage to see as much of it as possible. And since some of the most enticing sights are only accessible by car, this is a critical component of your French adventure.
If you have misgivings about driving in France, but you’re generally comfortable behind the wheel of a car, I can assure you that you’ll quickly adjust. The French autoroutes, highways, and roadways are well maintained, roadsigns are pretty universal, and with GPS for navigation, you’ll be right at home on any French roadway (unless it’s in Paris).
Two planning points to consider if you do rent a car: 1) Fuel prices are high, over $8 per gallon as of June 2014. I recommend that you rent a vehicle with a TDI diesel engine. Renault, Citroen, and Volkswagen make some incredibly efficient models that will easily get over 40 miles per gallon. 2) The freeways (autoroutes) are toll roads, and they’ve become very expensive. I recently paid over 40 euros to drive from Paris to the Loire Valley on the A10. You can avoid the autoroutes by taking secondary roads, but plan on spending nearly twice as long in your car. The good news is that you’ll see way more than twice as much of the delightful French countryside. The autoroute’s speed limits are mostly 130 kmh, while the secondary roads are posted at 90 kmh or less, and are often much slower due to the many villages, curves, farm equipment, Belgians, and bicycles.
Important caveat: Don’t pick up your car until you leave Paris. Traffic in Paris is brutal, parking is difficult and enormously expensive, and you can take the Metro or RER anywhere you want to go for next to nothing.
Tip 3: Plan to stay in B & Bs if you’re traveling alone or as a couple, and gites (privately owned holiday homes) like du Chesny or Les Hirondelles if you’re traveling with family. You can find many more through sites like Air B&B, TripAdvisor, and HomeAway.
There are several benefits to this that you shouldn’t underestimate. First, you’ll have many more opportunities to interact with with people, including fellow travelers and the facility owners. Many “holiday rentals” in France are owned by English expats which is great because most of them are bilingual, and every one that I’ve talked are passionate francophiles and extraordinarily knowledgeable about their surroundings. You can find lots of them in rural areas, which can be a great way to spend quality time in the French countryside.
A word of caution: When selecting a rural location, remember that many French country roads are narrow, winding, and slow so that maps and relative distances can be deceiving. Unless you want to spend a lot of time driving, choose locations that are central, and close (within 3 km) to stores and restaurants.
Tip 4: Travel light, by which I mean take reasonably sized luggage, but leave it at least half empty. One famous world traveler once offered this advice for packing: “First, lay out all of the clothes you’re planning to take, and all of the money you think you’ll need. Then take half of the clothes, and twice as much money.” This is practical advice for three reasons: One, you’re traveling to FRANCE, where you’ll be able to buy clothing in styles, colors, and patterns that you won’t find at home. (Most people make the mistake of buying a new wardrobe BEFORE they go to France. Don’t.) Two, instead of buying cheap, Chinese-made souvenirs like plastic Eiffel Towers and other garish baubles, your souvenirs will be clothing items that will remind you of your trip every time you wear them. And, three, if you buy your new French clothes early in your trip, you’re less likely to stand out as a tourist.
My wardrobe is more or less a product of 15 years in Hawaii, and a rural upbringing. I’ve prided myself on being underdressed for just about every occasion, but this is not a good strategy in France. The French take pride in their appearance, even in rural areas. They tend to be fit, and to dress well. And although I’m not qualified to offer this opinion, French fashion is very appealing in that it is not typically tawdry or vulgar, but well-cut and elegant. I highly recommend that you avail yourself of their fashion sense while you’re there.
Tip 5: Learn at least basic French phrases and cultural courtesies. The French people are rightfully proud of their language and culture(s), and the more you get to know them, the more sense this makes. You may want to try Rosetta Stone, which uses images rather than direct word translations. At the very least, a phrasebook is indispensable. I’ve added a link, below, to an excellent example by Rick Steves.
Here are some tips-within-a-tip: Plan on interacting as much as you can with the French people, even if your French is bad. Discard any stereotypical notions you have about them. Many French people speak excellent English, but they are often self-conscious about speaking it, just like you will likely be self-conscious about speaking French if you’re not already fluent. Always greet the counter staff in shops, and the wait staff in restaurants with “bon jour”, use “s’il vous plaît” and “merci” liberally. If you start every conversation with “bon jour”, and either continue by asking, “Parlez-vous l’anglais?” or by using your best French, however bad it may be, you’ll likely be well received and you’ll undoubtedly have many memorable conversations.
Contrary to popular belief, many French people have either traveled in America, or they’d like to, and they are generally well disposed toward Americans.
You’ve got lots of planning ahead, and you’ll have to make some hard choices because you can’t see it all. But in my experience, if you’re going to France, you can’t go wrong. Enjoy your travels, and please stop in to share your tips and French experiences!
While you’re planning, be sure to check out Frenchseams.com. Excellent articles with gorgeous photos that will have you packing your bags and heading for the airport…
Before you head for the airport, check out techtipsfortravelers.com. This is a great site that will give you some great tips and ideas for traveling in the tech age. Bon voyage.