Know Before You Go - France
France has something for everyone. Ski in the Alps, relax on the Mediterranean, hike the Pyrenees, indulge in world-class food and wine, and of course, there’s Paris. Deciding where to go is the fun part, so we’ll cover the essentials so you can travel like a pro, and relax while you do!
PASSPORT & VISA
United States citizens do not need a tourist visa prior to visiting France. Ensure your passport is valid up to 3 months after your return home.
HEALTH & SAFETY
France is generally very safe. That said, always be aware of general crime targeted towards unassuming tourists. Additionally, be diligent and aware when in crowded tourist areas due to the heightened risk of crime, as well as the risk of terrorism in recent years in these areas. In the crowds of Paris in particular, such as near the Eiffel Tower, Louvre, and other popular areas, keep your belongings secure in devices such as money belts or bag locks.
METHODS OF PAYMENT
In France, euros are used everywhere. Credit cards will often work at most established vendors, though cash is often preferable, particularly at locally owned shops.
Typically, haggling is not accepted in the established shops in France. However, you will undoubtedly encounter street vendors selling counterfeit goods in tourist areas. Though you can haggle with these vendors to your heart’s content, we don’t recommend it. Even if these items look enticing, though we can’t imagine why they would, you not only risk being ripped off but also a heavy fine and even being detained by police if you purchase any of these counterfeit items.
Tipping is generally expected and recommended in all of the typical circumstances, but may not be as high as is customary in the United States. For example, a tip of 10% is generally acceptable at a restaurant, and more may be appropriate if the service was superb.
Public transportation is everywhere in France. Whether by train, bus, or metro, you can often get where you need to go quickly and easily. It is important to remember that tickets for public transportation must be validated by punching them in validation machines prior to boarding. Do remember to keep your validated tickets for the duration of your ride, even after you’ve gone through the turnstiles, as you may be asked to produce proof of your ticket. Failure to do this can result in steep fines.
In Paris specifically, the metro is easy and efficient. Tickets can be purchased individually, but for more value consider purchasing a pack, or carnet, of 10 tickets. Either option is available from vending machines in metro stations. Metro T+ tickets can be used to transfer amongst metro lines across the entire city for up to 90 minutes after being validated, and can also be used to ride the bus, though transfers between the bus and metro require separate tickets. An important distinction to note is that while metro T+ tickets can be used for the bus, bus-specific tickets cannot be used for the metro. Single-trip tickets purchased from the bus driver are good only for one trip, not including bus transfers. So plan ahead and purchase a carnet if you plan to explore the city for more than 1 day.
To explore the countryside at your own pace, driving in France can be a delight. Cruising down narrow country roads through vineyards or over hills of lavender is a wonderful way to experience the French countryside, and the only real way to see this part of France. Driving through the center of ancient cities, narrow hill towns, or busy Paris, however, is not an enjoyable, or advisable, experience. If your itinerary calls for reaching some out of the way places, go ahead and rent a car, but do your homework before you go. There are some important differences that you should prepare for when driving in France. Read our Tips for Driving in France for more information.
WHEN TO GO
June through September give you the best chance of good weather, but the crowds will be unbearable. In August especially, you’ll have to deal with potentially extreme heat. For our money, traveling in April, May, or October will offer less crowds and a more enjoyable experience, at the acceptable risk of some rain and colder weather.
WHERE TO GO
There’s so much to see and do in this beautiful country, deciding on where to spend your time can be nearly impossible. Do your best to understand the type of traveler you are, and use this information as your guide. Whether you want to relax in a serene field of lavender, visit historic sights in Normandy, or tour the top tourist destinations in Paris, France has something for you. Here are our recommendations depending on how much time you have.
4-5 days: Paris & Versailles
6-10 days: Add Normandy
11+ (or if relaxing is a higher priority): Provence and the French Riviera
WHERE TO STAY
In Normandy or Provence, find a Bed & Breakfast to enjoy the quaint comforts of each region. These welcoming homes add to your overall travel experience, and help you get in touch with the culture in a way a hotel simply cannot. Read our guides on Normandy and Provence for more information.
When in Paris, all lodging options are on the table. The Seine River splits Paris in half, with the right bank being the larger half. From there, Paris is further broken up into 20 arrondissements (think of them as neighborhoods, though technically there’s more to it than that). When trying to figure out where to stay, it can be helpful to understand a little of this geography, the unique style of each arrondissement, as well as the key tourist sights held within. Additionally, keep an eye out for metro stops in close proximity.
For more information on each neighborhood in Paris, as well as a helpful map of their locations and the top sights within each, read our Guide to Paris.
Dress in France is casual, though to enter some cathedrals you need to cover your knees and shoulders. It is also advisable to pack a light jacket for cooler evenings along the water. Many tourists feel the need to dress more formal, or even fancy, while in France, and particularly in Paris. Though Parisians do have a high sense of style, that doesn’t mean suits and cocktail dresses all day, every day. Be reasonable, pick classy, timeless, flexible pieces, and you won’t stick out like the other trying-to-hard tourists. Stay away from shorts, sports shoes, and anything with a logo, and you’ll be a step ahead of the game, but the biggest regret you’ll have is packing those heels. Cobblestone streets and heels don’t mix. Not only will your constant tripping negate your goal of looking great, but your sprained ankle won’t help you get around for the rest of your trip.
Communication in France can be slightly trickier than other Western European countries. Though most people speak quite good English, they will be initially resistant to use it, so you need to acquire some skills to soften-up your target. Parisians have become calloused to the hordes of tourists brushing past them every day. It isn’t easy to be one of the few to ease that friction, let alone find the soft spots to engage. One of the best ways to do this is to make an effort to communicate in their language, on their terms. That means learning a little French before you leave home. We’ve found the Michel Thomas method of learning a language to be an easy way to learn the building blocks of another language easily, without memorization or homework, and something you can do on your daily commute. Even if you only use the first couple introductory courses, you will have enough skills in a couple weeks to begin and hold a simple conversation about life’s basics. At this point, don’t be afraid about stumbling over a word, as your host will likely be more willing to fill in the blank now that they’re engaged. While this method is one we recommend when traveling to any country, it is particularly useful in France.