There are a multitude of travel tips so I have tried to be broad and general. If you have tips you would like to add to the list, I would love to hear from you! Just remember as you travel, a smile and the use of please and thank you will go a long way. Always say Bonjour when you enter a shop and Au revoir when you leave.
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From day-packs to converter plugs, this list needs a page all of its own! Click here for Tips for Packing a Suitcase.
Restaurants & Tipping
English Menus: If the restaurant menu is in English or if you can get an English menu you are likely to pay more because they cater to tourists
To avoid pricey bottled water with your meal, request une carafe d’eau, s’il vous plaît (a carafe of water, please). If you want bottled water be sure to specify ‘san gaz’ if you want still water.
If ordering a steak, you will be asked how you would like it cooked: saignant (just sealed on each side and thus very rare), à point (pink inside) or bien cuit (well cooked, no pink). Of course, I would love to see your vocabulary increase but my best travel tip is to remember the specific word for the way YOU like your steak to be cooked!
It is so nice to sit on the squares and have a drink or a meal as part of your France travels. Be aware, though, that it may be a bit pricier than at an establishment on a side street away from the square.
The experience is part of the trip! Build your budget to accommodate a bit extra for meals as you will want to sit and enjoy the two hour lunches like the French do!! With all the little details you still want your best travel advice to be “enjoy the ride”.
Tipping etiquette – to tip or not to tip. In France, the tip is built in to the price of your meal. However, if the server has been particularly helpful (maybe he gave you directions to that museum you have been trying to locate) then you might want to leave a bit of your extra change on the table for him.
Cell Phones and Phone Cards
Do you plan to use your cell phone in France? Ask your carrier if your cell phone is
a. quad band
b. and if it will accept and send calls/texts internationally.
It is cheaper to text with your cell phone (‘le mobile’) than it will be to call. We save the phone calls for emergency situations. This goes for calling back home also! Even though you are on a family plan with your cell phone company in the US and can talk and text for free, there will most likely be international roaming charges if one or more of your phones is out of the country.
Some museums/chateaux are now using Iphone technology as part of the tour. You can either download the app to your own phone, rent their ipod, or download the tour to your ipod.
Phone Cards can be purchased at the post office, Bars-Tabac and news-agents.
Credit Cards and Travelers Cheques
French credit cards operate on a chip and pin. Although some American credit cards now come with a chip, they will not work in France at automatic machines because they do not require a pin. Use of American credit cards in shops and restaurants is usually not a problem but you should be prepared to have cash in hand when using the ticket machines in train/metro stations and at gas stations. Some smaller shops that rarely see an American credit card may need to be asked to passez à la machine, s’il vous plaît because they may be unfamiliar with swiping a card.
VISA is the most widely accepted credit card.
If you bring traveler’s cheques you will most likely get a better exchange rate at a local bank instead of the airport or train station. My personal preference is to stick strictly to credit card transactions and use our bank debit card for withdrawing cash at ATM machines.
Travel tip for small businesses – Plan to use cash or a credit card in small establishments instead of traveler’s checks.
Business Hours and Banks
Most banks are open between 9am and noon and 2pm (1400h) to 4pm (1600h) and occasionally on Saturday (samedi) mornings. In some areas banks are closed on Saturday and/or Monday.
Shops generally close between noon and 2pm (1400h) for lunch. In small villages that may even extend to 3pm (1500h). (Don’t forget to subtract 12 to see that 15hrs becomes 3pm.)
Shops open between 9 and 10 and close for the day between 4:30 and 5:30. Rarely will you find a shop open on Sunday. In Paris, stores in the Marais are open on Sunday because the Marais is a traditionally Jewish neighborhood. However, the big department stores such as Printemps and Galeries Lafayette will not be open.
Because the shops are open on Saturdays, you may find some stores (particularly in the smaller towns) to be closed on Monday. This is particularly true if Monday is a public holiday.
Post Office, Markets, Supermarkets and Gasoline/Petrol
Postage stamps can be obtained at Bars-Tabac as well as the post office. Mail boxes are yellow. You will want everyone at home to know about your France travels! Travel tip – at the post office check to see if you should “take a number” before standing in line!
Gas/petrol is measured in liters (1 gallon = about 3.7 liters). Gas, as in the US, is generally cheaper at the large food chains.
Large food chains: Carrefour, Géant, Monoprix, Auchan, Cora, Lidl, Metro, Tesco, Intermarché. Our favorite is definitely Carrefour. They have everything you can think of and some of the things you did not think of! The largest of these stores will be located on the edges of towns. However, you will also find smaller versions such as Carrefour Market that are located with-in town. You on Google maps you can easily locate multiple Monoprix stores in Paris. These stores are a god-send when you have forgotten to pack anything from toothpaste to pajamas!
If a supermarket is going to be open on Sunday then it usually will close by noon.
Don’t hesitate to ask for the location of the weekly outdoor market. These marchés en plein air are a wonderful way to sample local life, goods and produce.
Cars, Trains and Metro
Travel tips for driving – Remember the following speed limits in France:
80 mph =130 kph on motorways (autoroutes à péage are tollways)
55 mph = 90 kph on other roads
30 mph = 50 kph in built up areas
D roads are departmental roads and tend to be narrower than N roads which are main roads (routes nationale)
If taking your own GPS, don’t forget to download the gps European maps . A GPS is great even if you are only walking or cycling!
If renting a car, take the option for their insurance even if your home insurance would cover you. If something happens, you do not want to interrupt your travel plans while waiting for the car to be repaired because the repairs are being paid for by your home insurance carrier!
Not planning on renting a car? Travel tip- Take your driver’s license anyway. The delay in our returning flight resulted in a missed connection. The next flight was not until the next morning. Had at least one of us had our driver’s license we could have rented a car and driven the last leg instead of sitting up in the airport all night!
SNCF (Societé Nationale des Chemins de Fer) is the name of France’s train system. Before boarding, you must validate your ticket. The composteur is usually located before the platform – push in your ticket for a date and time punch. If you are firm on your travel dates, buy your ticket beforehand at the Rail Europe or trainline.eu sites and print it at home. You will not have to validate the ticket; you won’t have to wait in line to buy it and you will pay less because you purchased the ticket in advance.
When buying your ticket don’t forget to ask for student (under 26yrs) or senior discount and if there is a group of you be sure to let them know. Sometimes even a group as small as three can garner a discount.
UPDATE May 2019: The end of an era is upon us!! Paper metro tickets will become a thing of the past beginning June 2019 but if you still have paper tickets they will be valid through 2020.
How will this work? Purchase a plastic rechargeable Navigo Easy card for 2 euros. This will like the London Oyster car. Load it with a single ticket (no price increase) or a carnet of 10 tickets (again, no price increase) as many times as you like. The card can be shared so buying the carnet saves money! Metro tickets are also valid for riding the bus.
There is also a bit of buzz about this service coming to compatible smartphones by the end of September!
More information about weekly and monthly passes can be found at the RATP site.
Although I have tried to organize these travel tips and advice in relevant groups there is no hierarchy of importance in the realm of France travel. For me, politeness ranks at the top of everything I do from my family to my job to my travels. A smile and the use of please and thank you go a long way. Always say Bonjour when you enter a shop and Au revoir when you leave. (hmmmm…. I said that already didn’t I! That’s how important it is!)