40 Things to know before travelling to France

Travelling to France is a dream come true, not so much during a worldwide plague but nevertheless, we had to go as we had committed to a housesit in a little village called Pouance in Ombrée d’Anjou. Not to mention we have always dreamed about spring in Paris and of course the south of France along with a chateau road trip.

We travelled from Donegal to Dublin to catch the ferry to Cherbourg where we disembarked and drove to Pouance which was around 3 hours south of Caen.

The ferry was pretty easy going, lots of precautions and we had a cabin as the journey was overnight. Word of warning don’t eat the food on a ferry it is diabolically bad and expensive.

Travelling to France the ferry from Dublin to Cherbourg, cars getting off the ferry once in port.

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We did stock up on plug adaptors on the ferry and that would be my first tip when travelling to France. My other tip is that Paris is not France and Parisians are not your typical French citizen – just like New Yorkers are not a typical American. Some of these tips will simply not apply to Paris and since at the time of writing this I have yet to get to Paris I will not be able to include any Parisian tips. If luck holds this spring or summer I will finally get to see Paris.

Table Of Contents

Tips for travelling to France

Paris is not France

Paris is not France but it is one of the most cosmopolitan and cultural cities in the world. If you are an Emily in Paris fan (and I am) you should be somewhat aware of the fact that Paris operates in a whole different universe than the rest of the world let alone France.

Travelling to France, blue sky with the Eiffel tower set against the backdrop of the sky.

Much of the series is built upon cliches about Paris and the French but a cliche comes from somewhere no? In 2013 the Tourist Office in Paris had to publish a brochure telling Parisians how to be nicer to tourists, and it is still in existence today. Parisians have to work harder and longer and follow more (shall we say) Americanized working habits than the rest of France.

Outside of Paris, people are exceptionally friendly; we were surprised by the friendliness of the villagers in the smaller towns and villages as we expected the Parisian disdain. Everyone for the most part says bonjour as they walk past or they acknowledge you with a gallic nod.

Travelling to France

What makes the French – French?

Well, to be honest, this one could take an entire book, however, there are a few indisputable facts about the French that should be understood.

  1. The French like to complicate things. They are a society of complications take for instance the tax system with its over 40 deductions or attempting to do anything that deals with the government and bureaucrats you will tear your hair out supplying copy after copy of documents that get lost or are not in French, repeating the same information over and over again and still getting nowhere.
  2. The French love the abstract and theoretical which is why many philosophers are French and have influenced Western thinking for centuries.
  3. The French claim of liberty, equality and fraternity doesn’t really hold true as they are the most gender divided and hierarchical of all European societies.
  4. Richard Hill an architect and teacher says that “Disregard for the customer is a way of life in the French business world. […] Indeed, in French eyes, putting oneself readily at the disposal of a total stranger is an affront to one’s self-esteem: like the Spanish, the French have difficulty in recognising the difference between service and servility.
  5. A Swedish journalist said that one of the first things he had to learn when he arrived in France was râler, a difficult term to translate as it is so typically French but essentially means to bitch about everything even if it is not justified.
  6. The French do not in any way shape or form live to work which means that keeping up with the Jones or working 24-7 does not exist in France. The French are all about enjoying life.

Currency used in France

Bring your bank card (preferably two) and credit cards and let your bank know where you are headed. France is also a country that still used cheques and cash. Many stores, restaurants and shops won’t take credit/debit cards only cash so be prepared.

The currency in France is the Euro which usually hovers around 1.21 USD or 1.54 CDN.

travelling to France? You need to obtain Euros which is the currency used here.

What is the size of France?

France is the second-largest country in Western Europe, with an area of 547,030 sq km (211,209 sq mi). Comparatively, the area occupied by France is slightly less than twice the size of the state of Colorado. If you took the ferry from Cherbourg to Marseille it would be an 18-hour drive to cross the country.

Carry your Identification

Always carry your identification with you as it is the law in France. Your passport is acceptable ID but your driver’s license is not. If you plan to carry your ID with you make sure it can’t be reached by a pickpocket and make photocopies of any ID you carry with you (along with credit cards) in case of loss or theft.

Best time to travel to France? 

In Europe, most holidays are taken in July and August just like in N.A. This means of course that this is the most expensive time to travel to and within France. The entire country and most of Europe is on vacation at the same time so if you hate crowds arrange your holiday before June or after September.

These days we are not entirely sure of who and citizens from what countries will be allowed to visit France. We are hanging on to the hope that tourism will begin to re-open in the Spring of 2021 so fingers crossed.

Travelling to France

Chateaux in France

Outside of Paris, there are around 1000 chateaux in France so take the chance to visit some of the more off the beaten path according to Tourism France. Just driving around the small villages and towns outside Paris you will stumble across dozens of Chateaux and fine mansion houses that will stir your imagination. 17

17 Chateaux to visit outside Paris

Chateaux in central France – from the Loire valley to Burgundy

  • Among the Loire valley châteaux, Cheverny, southwest of Orleans, is the greatest classic château dating essentially from the seventeenth century.
  • The 16th-century castle of Azay-le-Rideau, between Tours and Saumur,  is one of the best and most stunning Renaissance castles in Europe
  • The Renaissance château de Montgeoffroy stands to the east of Angers in the Pays de la Loire region. It is open every day in July and August.
  • The Château d’Ainay le Vieil – Slap in the middle of France, south of Saint Amand Montrond, region Centre -Val de Loire. A delightful small Renaissance chateau built within the fortifications of a medieval fortress, surrounded by a moat. Privately owned – in the same family for over 5 centuries. Open March to mid-November.
  • The Château de Meillant, also in the far south of the Centre -Val de Loire. A decidedly beautiful late gothic /early Renaissance castle, with ornate tapestries and painted ceilings, open daily from March to 16th November
  • The Chateau de Bussy-Rabutin.  A beautiful 14th – 16th-century moated château in the hills to the west of Dijon in Burgundy.  Open all year except 1st January
  • The Château d’Ancy le Franc. East of Auxerre, in Burgundy, is a fine Italianate Renaissance chateau. Privately owned. The interior contains the largest collection of Renaissance murals and ceiling decorations in France. Open late March to mid-November.
  • The Château de St Fargeau. in the north of Burgundy, is a large 15th – 17th-century château. Privately owned. From mid-July to mid-August, this château provides evening visits with historic reenactments; Fridays and Saturdays there is a large historic son et lumère event. 
  • The Château de Cormatin, in Burgundy. A fine neoclassical château standing in beautiful grounds and surrounded by a moat.  Richly decorated interiors, including the “golden rooms”.  Open daily April to mid-November.
Travelling to France

Châteaux in Southern France

  • The château de Lapalisse, or La Palice. East of Vichy, in Auvergne, this is an imposing 16th – 16th-century château standing on a bluff above the river Besbre and the village of Lapalisse. The interior has historic tapestries and a unique 16th-century “salon doré” with a gilded ceiling.
  • The Château de Panloy, near Saintes in the Charentes, was built in 1760 and has belonged to the same family ever since.. coming unscathed through the French Revolution. Its interior furnishings are completely authentic. Open April to 1st November.
  • The Château de Milandes is one of a number of attractive small châteaux in the Dordogne. Privately owned. Open daily end March to mid-November and during winter holidays.
  • The Château de Montbazillac, southern Dordogne. Built in the middle of the 16th century, this is one of the finest French wine estate châteaux. The interior does not have a lot of historic interest, but the location is superb. Owned by the local wine-growers cooperative.  Free wine tasting included.
  • The Chateau de Lareole – 40 km northwest of Toulouse, in the Midi-Pyrenees area of Occitanie. A striking late Renaissance chateau began in 1589.
  • The Chateau de Merville – 25 km northwest of Toulouse, in the Midi-Pyrenees area of Occitanie. A classic French château built in the style of the southwest. Visits of the château daily in the afternoon of July and August.. At other times, check it out. 
  • The Château de Lourmarin, north of Aix en Provence. the oldest Renaissance chateau in Provence. Belongs to the Louis Vuibert foundation. Open all year
  • The Château de la Verdière, in inland Provence, is an impressive 18th-century French château built in the Provençal style. A private château open to the public afternoons in July and August, except Mondays
Travelling to France

Transportation in France

You more than likely are travelling to France (if you have never been before) to visit Paris but keep in mind France is the size of Texas and there is a whole lot more to see than Paris. We are planning to head to Paris hopefully in the spring or early summer if all goes well.

Within France, you will find several modes of transportation. You can easily and relatively cheaply fly between cities but trains and buses are the most common way to travel through France.

There are two types of trains here the TGV which is high-speed rail and TER a regional service that is slower.  You can book your trains via the oui.sncf platform. Bus services are diverse, and you can book them through the same platform. Both buses and trains are available to travel to various regions across Europe.  

Travelling to France

Driving in France

You can drive on your license within France and rent a car from many rental services. You could also sign up for Bla Bla Bla Car which is an intercity ridesharing option. 

Travelling to France

Renting a car in France

To rent a car in France you must be at least 21 years old or 25 years old (minimum age varies by rental agency) and have a credit card in your name. Some agencies may require you to have had your driver’s license for at least one year. Check specific rules with the company before booking.

You may want to take a look at a consolidator site to check rates. You pay the consolidator and they issue a voucher to pick up the car at your chosen European location. Auto Europe is a good choice for checking prices. Don’t forget to ask about add on fees as the price you see probably doesn’t include things like taxes, what type of transmission (automatic is always more expensive).

Gas stations in France

Gas stations in France are often unstaffed so they take credit/debit cards but they do put a hold on your card of up to €100 Euro and then credit back the difference. So if your bank statement shows these weird amounts taken out and then reversed this is why. If the station is staffed it may well close for lunch.

There are 24-hour stations on the highways and we have occasionally found ourselves discombobulated by the instructions so here’s how you use a gas pump in France with a debit/credit card. Insert your card (you may need to lift a flap – Soulevez le volet) and you will receive the following instructions, sometimes on an LCD display, sometimes by a recorded message. (Some automatic pumps have instructions in English as well as French.) Some pumps require you to remove your card before fuelling the car.

  • Sélectionnez Votre carburant: ‘Choose your fuel.’ Press the button corresponding to the type of fuel you require.
  • Validez ou choix autre carburant: ‘Confirm or choose other fuel.’ Press the button marked ‘ Val’ or change your choice of fuel.
  • Composez votre code confidentiel et validez: ‘Enter your PIN and confirm.’ Enter the four-digit PIN for your card and press ‘ Val’.
  • Impression ticket?: ‘Do you want a receipt?’ Press ‘ Oui’ or ‘Non’.
  • Servez-vous jusqu’à € : ‘Serve yourself to a maximum value of €…’ Remove the nozzle and fill up without exceeding the value indicated. Replace the nozzle and your card will be returned to you.

You may see Veuillez patienter between instructions, which means ‘Please wait’. You may also be asked Avez-vous une carte client?, which means ‘Do you have a customer loyalty card?’.

Travelling to France

Terms for fuel in France

Gazole – Diesel – black-handled pump

Sans plomb 95 – Petrol  (higher octane)– Green handled pump

Sans plomb 98 -Petrol (standard octane)

Pedestrians in France

Pedestrians in France have the right of way at crosswalks for the most part but we have found than many French drivers don’t care and many French pedestrians will just walk out when they feel like it – so take care and keep your eyes open when driving. Get used to using roundabouts as well and don’t drive in Paris.

Driving fines in France

Eating and drinking at the wheel technically carry an on-the-spot fine of 75€. Holding or using a mobile phone at the roadside, even if your car is stationary, can cost you 135€ and three points off your license.

Sitting in traffic? Don’t be tempted to adjust your make-up – that’s a 75€ on-the-spot fine, too.

Yellow Jackets – strikes in France

Striking in France may seem to be the national pastime there’s even a website dedicated to strikes around the country C’est la grève that you can keep an eye on to see if it might interrupt your journey.

Manifestation du mouvement des gilets jaunes,

Toll Charges

The Motorways in France do have toll charges, and if you want to avoid them set your Google maps to avoid toll roads. This means that you will be taking National Roads which can be slower but are a much more interesting way to see the country instead of zipping down the motorways.

French Culture

Simple manners

Anytime you go into a shop or access service of any kind I cannot stress enough to say Bonjour before looking or doing anything. It is considered extremely rude in France to not say it and if you don’t you will be subjected to the famous French customer service which means none. Truth be told the French are not known for customer service which can be a bit discombobulating for those who believe the customer is always right.

This doesn’t mean that the French are rude but there are certain “rules” that need to be followed. The French are relatively quiet and may appear indifferent but they just don’t do happy, happy joy joy like we are accustomed to in North America. Oh, that reminds me the French do not speak loudly or over others so modulate your tone if you have a loud voice as the French find it rather rude.

French vocabulary to know

 There are a few basic words or phrases you should learn before you travel to France. Here’s a shortlist:

Bonjour – essentially hello and can be used any time of day

Bonsoir – Good evening – speaks for itself

S’il vous plait – please

Pardon – sorry or excuse me

Au revoir – goodbye

bonne journée – have a nice day

Merci – thank you

J’ai ne parle pas francais – I don’t speak French

parlez-vous anglais? – do you speak English?

You may have Google translate or some such option on your phone and try to speak as much French as you can or attempt a translation. The French are usually pleased as in any culture when you try to speak their language and if they have a bit of a laugh at your bad French laugh with them.

Smoking and Tabacs

Yes, the French do smoke a lot but these days only outdoors. Cigarettes can only be purchased in France at a Tabac which is a cross between a shop and a bar.

A Tabac in France sign the only place you can buy cigarettes in France
©Daniel Clauzier

French Style

Not all the French are chic and well dressed but there are just some things that are not done here. Flip flops and thongs are only for the beach, not a city sidewalk. Activewear as in jogging pants and hoodies are to be saved for the gym unless it’s a cold day and you need your hoodie to keep warm. The French consider it extremely rude to wear a hat at the table so leave the baseball hats at home. They also mark you out as an “American” and while the French do love Americans this they don’t like.

Stock up on plug adaptors

While France is in the EU their electrical sockets are a 2 pin plug unlike Ireland or the UK which use a 3 pin plug. You don’t need a transformer unless coming from the US or Canada but some things have a built in transformer like a laptop computer.

Travelling to France

Get a local SIM card

If you are coming from North America or any other location in the world make sure your cell phone is unlocked and pick up a SIM card that you can use for calls and texts in your phone. Otherwise, you may be in for huge fees for using data for things like Google Maps.

The What’s App app

Put What’s App on your phone so you can text or call via VOIP at no charge. Most Europeans use What’s App but it isn’t used as much in North America and it is a great service for free texting and calling. Of course, all this presumes you have access to wifi and in some places in France wifi is kind of spotty.

You could also travel with a mifi which is a sort of pay as you go personal wifi system that connects to local wifi and comes with a certain amount of data or data packages you can buy.

Hair Dryers & Straightners

If you are staying in an Air BnB and not in a hotel be aware that bathrooms in France do not have light switches or plug sockets within the bathroom. These are considered dangerous so keep this in mind when bringing these kinds of appliances with you.

Food & Drink

Here is France there are set meal times and they are important. For example, Breakfast is kept simple, usually coffee and pastries as in the all-important and mightily addictive croissant or pain au chocolat. The coffee will be espresso, strong and in a tiny cup.

Travelling to France

Lunchtime in France

Lunchtime is from 12-2 pm and you take your time and enjoy it the wait staff won’t’ bring you a bill until you request it. There is no rush eating here.

What is Apero?

Apero is short for an aperitif and it is taken very seriously here in France. It can be taken at midday just before lunch but more usually at the end of the afternoon before dinner. Apero usually begins with what we could call “cocktails” in France that means an aniseed Pastis or a Kir drink.

The snacks are usually light and can include chips, pretzels, or beautiful verrines which are essentially easy but fancy looking starters served in a glass with spoon. There can also be a simply charcuterie tray with crackers or the ubiquitous French baguette.

At lunch or dinner, you will find many French restaurants have a set menu with just a few choices or even just one choice of the plat du jour. This will often include 3 courses and wine, cider or coffee for around €12 euros which is a great deal.

Travelling to France

French Bread

The French eat 6 billion baguettes a year and bread must be available to the French public all day every day and this is the law. So you may spot baguette vending machines in smaller villages and hamlets which allow access to bread.

Travelling to France

The baguette is so important in France that it’s considered a national heritage. A 1993 decree laid out the compulsory standards for the manufacture of the ‘baguette of French tradition’, consisting solely of wheat flour, water, yeast or starter, and salt.

Travelling to France

Be aware that the French do not put bread on a plate at dinner but it is set next to it on the table. It is considered rude to put a baguette on your plate. Unless of course, you are using said baguette to clean your plate.  

 Bread and chocolate from the gorgeous Pain au Chocolat to baguettes or Viennoise with chocolate chips the French love a bit of dark chocolate in their bread – so do I as it happens.

French Cheese

The average French person eats around 57lbs of cheese a year compared to a worldwide average of 47. An unassailable truth is that the French love their cheese it’s a part of their cultural DNA. Here is France cheese is eaten after the main course but before the dessert.

In France, there are close to 1,000 varieties of cheese made from cows, sheep, goats or even buffalo milk. Some types of French cheese have been aged in the same caves that have been used for hundreds of years.

Random types of yellow french cheese at Provence market

French cheese etiquette demands that at least 3 cheeses are served on a platter and they are usually each from a different type of milk. The platter of cheese is passed to each diner who helps themselves to a slice or piece and places it on their own plate. The bread which should sit on the table (not on a plate) is broken into bite-sized pieces and you then spread the cheese on your piece of bread.

Travelling to France

Foraging in France

The French love to grow their own fruit and vegetables and they forage for things like mushrooms, greens, fruit, berries, truffles and nuts. The space in rural areas and lack of pollution means that wild foods in France are hugely popular. The French love to gather wild mushrooms and it is a pastime that has now extended to other wild foods. Here in France you can take the mushrooms you found to a pharmacist and they can tell you if they are edible or not.  

Travelling to France

French Wine

The French don’t drink wine like us Westerners they tend to pour much smaller measures to savour the wine – it’s not about drinking heavily it’s about enjoying the flavour of wine paired with food. Wine is rarely drunk as an apéritif (see Apero), white wine goes with fish, seafood and dessert, red wine with red meat and tomato-based dishes. There are also specific dessert wines for dessert. Oh and the French rarely drink wine that is not made in France, although they are becoming more adventurous. Remember once the meal is over you stop drinking wine and switch to a digestif like a cognac.

Travelling to France

French Coffee

The French live for coffee but it’s not the coffee itself that counts it is the ritual around having coffee. As a café society having a coffee is about relaxing, people watching and just seeing the world go by. The coffee itself is incidental and a lot of the time just really bad coffee.

Most French coffee is espresso with varying amounts of sugar and milk or the most preferred simply black. You would order a Café.

an Italian coffee machine pouring an expresso what to eat in Rome and when to drink coffee

A Café Americain can be found in larger cities and of course Paris but it is a watered-down espresso with no milk or sugar.  A Café Noisette is like an Italian macchiato but there is no hazelnut in it as you would expect. If you want a decaf order a Un Deca and if you want a cappuccino order a Café Crème or Café Latte. A Café au Lait is only drunk at breakfast and it is a giant bowl of drip coffee with loads of milk.

Reservations and tipping

In France, some say tipping is required and others say no as the wait staff are well paid. I think that everyone should tip at least 5-10% of the bill. Oh and always make a reservation if you can at a restaurant otherwise they may not have room for you.

Visit the markets

If you are a foodie like me you will have to hit up some of those fabulous French farmer’s markets. Serving up the finest and freshest seasonal produce, local cheeses and meats they are a fantastic place to pick up some goodies to enjoy in your self-catering home away from home.

Travelling to France

If you book your stay at an AirBnB don’t forget they also now include experiences which will give you ideas for events, tours, festivals and much more.

Store hours

We had to pick up some groceries the other day and decide to head out to the local Super Marche a large grocery store on the end of town. Wandering around the aisles we were confronted by a staff member telling us that the store was closing – it was only 11:45 and the entire store closed for lunch. This is extremely commonplace in France and most stores and shops will close for lunch unless they are large chains and in major cities.  

Sundays in France

Sundays everything is closed but you will still be able to find a baguette even if it is in a vending machine outside the church. Nothing else will be open although some of the more major grocery chains might open for a few minutes in the mornings

Which reminds me many shops are also closed on Mondays so that the French only work 5 days a week and it is the law here that they only work 35 hours a week.

Travelling to France

Emergencies in France

In France and other European countries, the emergency number is 112. You should call straight away if you are in a dangerous situation. Remember this number works on landlines as well as payphones. You can also dial 15 if you are having a medical emergency, 17 in case you need the police and 18 if a fire brigade is needed. It is also important to mention your emergency contacts in your phone or travel diary if you are travelling solo. In any case, always keep emergency numbers on your phone while travelling to foreign and strange lands.

I hope you find some of these tips helpful when travelling to France. I would love it if you could add to these tips, feel free to add them in the comments.

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