A Subjective Travel Guide for France

Tony Humphreys and others have asked various questions and suggested that it might be a good idea to put together a write up which provides some useful information for those who haven’t recently travelled to France. So here goes.

Please use comments to add information or ask additional questions.

France is not the Country it was in the 50s and 60s

Back then, many aspects of life in France seemed a little behind the times or quaint — not so any more. It’s a modern country with great infrastructure (with the odd idiosyncracy like stand up toilets in some places). In many ways they are ahead of us in North America.

Getting to Paris and to Metz

See my previous post on this.

Getting Around France

Unless you intend to explore the countryside, take the train (A previous post contains some general information on buying train tickets in France.). They are fast and not expensive. A car can be nice in the country but in cities parking and traffic is such a nuisance that you might wish you didn’t have it. I haven’t rented a car in years but, if you do,you should probably book it in advance.My understanding is that your Canadian driver’s license is fine (i.e.International License not needed). If you want to explore just one region, you might find it easier to take the train there and rent a car for a few days. This can be done at the same website you buy train tickets (www.voyages-sncf.com).

If you do drive, you will find The Michelin Travel Site very useful for directions, hotels and restaurants. For those of you interested, it is also useful fro planning bike and walking routes. In fact, I used it to plan the trip Marilyn and I will take by bike from Paris  to Metz for the Reunion.

Packing and Dress

>Pack light as it’s a lot easier to get around. Unless you go to very high class places you’ll never feel you need a jacket or dress — and maybe not even then. I just don’ go to these places and don’t know

Money

I’m sure most of you know that France, like virtually all of Europe, uses the Euro (current worth just under $1.55 Canadian). In general I would take little or no cash as I find you lose a lot by converting your dollars into Euros as a cash exchange. In my view, you get a much better rate if you take cash from ATMs as needed while in France and use credit cards for some larger expenses. I have gone with as little as no cash as there are ATMs right in the aeroport; but, if it makes you feel more comfortable, take 50 to 100 Euros. If you have a credit card with Chip and PIN capability  you can use it to buy your train ticket to Paris (or wherever) at a machine so you won’t need cash till you get there.

With respect to ATMs note the following:

  • They are much more plentiful than in Canada
  • It is simple to select English instructions if you have trouble with French
  • If your PIN is not four digits long, change it before you go as they only accept four digit PINS
  • Cash withdrawals always come from your chequing account (i.e. you are not asked for the account); so make sure you have enough money for your trip in your chequing account. A friend of mine learned this the hard way as she couldn’t get a penny until she transferred money to her chequing account.

 

Electricity

France like the rest oplug-adapterf Europe operates on 220 Volts. While it is possible to take transformers to convert 220 Volts to the 110 we use, I suggest that you only take stuff that works on 220 (virtually all camera, MP3, computer battery chargers and the like, many electric razors and hair dryers do). Assuming your stuff works on 220 volts, you need a plug adaptor that looks like the one in the photo

You should be able to find these easily in a store that sells travel stuff. If, by any chance you are going to the UK, you need a different kind of adaptor or there are universal ones you can buy.

Restaurants

Menus

If you are planning more than one course, you are just about always better off ordering from a fixed price menu consisting usually of a choice of Appetizers, Main Courses and Dessert. See Menus for Reunion as typical examples. Often in Brasseries and Cafes you will see the day’s special (Plat du Jour) displayed on a chalkboard and menus (Formules) of Plat du Jour plus entree or dessert. The Plat du Jour is also available alone.

If you just want something light like a sandwich, look for cafes that serve them. This will be difficult for the evening meal as many of the cafes don’t serve food then.

Tipping

In France, tips in restaurants and bars are almost always  included in the bill. There is no need to add anything but it is normal to leave something if you are happy with the service. Avoid the temptation to leave 15% or whatever. Here’s some good guidance from David Lebovitz, an American pastry Chef in Paris

“Tips are always included in the amount shown on the check. In Paris, it’s fine to round-up in smaller restaurants, such as if the check is 19€, it’s okay to leave 1€ extra if you get very good service, but never required. In general, it’s acceptable to leave up to 5% extra for very attentive service. But some Parisians get upset that Americans leave generous tips, rightfully fearing it will lead to future earnings expectations.”

You might enjoy his blog at www.davidlebovitz.com/.

I even did some personal research. At great personal sacrifce, I sat at the bar of a Paris cafe one night and watched people pay and I can assure you that there were no big tips — and, in most cases, none.

L’addition!

If you ever read about a North American dying of starvation in a French restaurant, it will have nothing to do with the food. He just never asked for the bill. It is considered bad form to bring the bill (l’addition) until the customer asks. Just saying you’re finished isn’t enough; you have to ask specifically for the bill.

The good news about the bill is that nothing is added on. If you ordered two menus at 15 Euros and a half litre of wine at 8 Euros, your bill will be 38 Euros. The tax and service were included in the price on the menu. This is unlike most of Canada where ther will be 15% or so tax and whatever tip you leave on top of the posted price. Keep that in mind when comparing prices.

Hotels

The Star System

France has an official star system going from one to four stars. They have more to do wih amenities (number of rooms with bath, TV channels and so on). Two star hotels are very adequate and usually reasonably priced. three star hotels are often reasonably priced — especially away from Paris.

Booking Hotels

Nowadays it’s pretty easy to book hotels on line although I tend to stay away from the commercial hotel booking sites. I am also somewhat skeptical of most North American guidebooks as they tend to pick particular hotels for no apparent reason. The result is that, if you go to one of the recommended hotels, the only things that seems to differentiate it is the high concentration of North Americans staying there.

Two websites I recommend are:

  1. The Michelin Travel Site. This is a very good site and also provides restaurant information, driving directions and so on. Note that hotels and restaurants have to meet a certain standard to be included. The driving directions are particularly useful as you can select the fastest route, scenic routes and even bicycle and walking routes. I actually find this site more useful for planning bike rides than Map My Ride.
  2. The Logis de France Website. This is a loosely coupled  hotel chain with coverage everywhere in France. Hotels are in general moderately priced and good quality.

You can book rooms on both these sites although there may be a delay of a day or so to get a confirming email.

Unlike some other sites, it appears that the French and English versions are identical so use whichever language you are comfortable in..

The other way to go at it is through the Official Tourist site of the town, department or region you will be visiting. For example a search on “Champagne” and “Tourisme” will find the official Tourist Office for the region. These sites, they may offer you the ability to book directly or provide contact information for the hotels.

Breakfast

Breakfast is very variable these days. Some offer just the traditional bread, croissants (which is infinitely better than what we in North America call a croissant) and coffee while others have a fairly extensive buffet. Sometimes these are reasonably priced and sometimes not. If possible, I usually book without breakfast and then make up my mind when I get to the hotel.

Amenities

Most rooms in two star hotels have private bathroom facilities but a few may not. Make sure you’re getting what you expect when booking (It should be clearly stated). Note that many rooms have just a shower rather than a bath; so, if a bath is important to you, make sure you choose a room with one.

Not all hotels have elevators; so, if you have a probelm with a few flights of stairs, make sure there is an elevator.It will be indicated on the hotel description.

Hotels in Paris

I am often asked for recommendations on hotels in Paris. As we now rent an apartment when we go, I have seldom stayed in a Paris hotel in the last few years. However, I will make a few suggestions. By the way, the apartment option can be viable for stays as short as three days, although I would suggest that you try to stay a week if you go this way.

Paris hotels can be very expensive, especially in areas like near the Champs Elysees. However,other areas can be quite reasonable. Areas that I have stayed in and would recommend are near the Bastille, near Place de la Republique and Montparnasse. Some areas of the left bank can have reasonable prices.

To find a hotel, I would recommend the websites mentioned above. To this I would add one other  chain. Ibis Hotels are very standard with fairly small but functional and clean rooms and they are typically 70 to 90 Euros in central Paris. (I do note that they are higher than this in early October).

The Paris Tourist Bureau site is also very good and you can book rooms right on this site. They also rate the hotels inn terms of reviews received. I wouldn’t worry about a hotel that has two stars or more and a reasonable approval rate.

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