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As seen in the Transitions Abroad Webzine June 2008 Issue
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France on a Budget

Travel on the Cheap in France is Still Possible

Budget Apartment in Provence, France
Creating a home base in an apartment on the grounds of a castle winery in Provence, during the off-season, is easy on the budget and offers great pleasure and freedom. Photo by ©Gregory Hubbs.

People tend to assume a vacation in France must be expensive, but that is far from the truth with so many ways to plan a cheap, budget vacation to France. There are quality lodging options that are dramatically cheaper than you might expect. You can find excellent food for pocket change. You can get around sometimes on a few euros.

Not only can you see France on a budget, but you will probably leave this country with a more authentic and unique experience than people who stay at four-star chain hotels in Paris.

Tips for a Cheap Vacation in France

There are a few costly mistakes many people make when planning a French vacation, and this has led to the myth that France must be expensive. Where you go is probably the biggest factor. If you go to Paris, expect Paris prices. It’s just the same as anywhere else. A vacation in New York City will cost dramatically more than one in Charlotte or Indianapolis.

Even if you want the true urban experience, there are ways to save. Stay in Paris, but in a less tourist-ridden neighborhood. Stay in an apartment in Paris by the week or month rather than in a hotel. Stay in Paris for a couple days before moving on to a cheaper destination. You can visit one of numerous other fascinating and bustling cities in France that save you money without sacrificing a memorable vacation.

When you go is another primary factor that affects numerous costs ranging from airfare (which can cost five times as much in summer as it does even in late fall or early spring) and lodging rates (which drop significantly in the off-season).

The main credo is to go against the tourist grain. Go to different cities, or different places in cities, and go at different times. Not only will you save money, but you will also be more immersed in the life of the locals. In fact, you will get much better treatment from locals who aren’t experiencing an onslaught of gawking tourists.

Cheap Accommodations in France

There is no need to stay at a pricey hotel when visiting France. One of the greatest qualities of a French vacation is the wildly diverse range of low-cost lodging options, including:

  • Camping in France, which can be much more upscale than many people unexposed to French camping might expect. The French government regulates star ratings for campgrounds, just like it does for hotels. Four-star campgrounds often offer far more amenities than their more-expensive three-star hotel counterparts do. Camping is also quite commonplace in France, and it’s a much more social form of accommodation than a hotel.
  • Gîtes de France, an organization which features listings of several types of low-cost accommodations in France. Chambres d’hotes are the French version of the bed and breakfast. Self-catering gîtes allow visitors to rent an apartment, villa or house (which includes bonus savings as you can cook for yourself).
  • Logis represents over 2,300 hotel-restaurants in France. Logis stays are typically at smaller inns and they are inexpensive. They are often found in smaller cities and villages. This is the ideal stay for food-lovers, as Logis accommodations are well known for their delectable cuisine. In fact, you could pay almost as much for food as the stay itself (although it’s probably worth it), so check first on their prices for half-board rates that include breakfast, lunch or dinner, and the stay.
  • Bienvenue a la Ferme, a French government-sanctioned program in which participating farms provide various accommodations ranging from no-electricity camping to stays at a farmhouse bed and breakfast. This is another great choice for foodies, as some of the members provide incredible meals of cuisine cooked fresh from their own farms.

Cheap Dining in France

France remains the ultimate destination for lovers of fine cuisine, in my view. Some of the world’s finest chefs serve up fare at Michelin-starred restaurants throughout the country. Those fine dishes come with the expected exorbitant check in most cases, but that doesn’t mean you can’t indulge in fabulous French cuisine on a budget.

A key way to save is simply to say no to included breakfasts at your accommodation. Many automatically include this in the price, so mention it when you book. These breakfasts, which are usually simply coffee, breads and pastries, can cost upwards of 20 euros per person.

You could have a breakfast that is just as good, if not better, by visiting the local boulangerie (bakery) or patisserie (pastry shop) for the same or better food at a fraction of the cost. Actually, your hotel likely got their breakfast from the same neighborhood spot, but venturing off-the-beaten-path may lead your nose to even better bakeries and to displays which are a feast for the eyes. Afterwards, visit a local café for a cafe-au-lait that will cost maybe 3-4 euros. All told, you will have better selection, and your breakfast of croissant and coffee will run maybe 5 euros. Another great option for inexpensive meals is a visit to the local produce market, which usually features a wide variety of great locally-grown finds full of taste. Wild strawberries, and just-picked berries, or other fruits are often found and need no preparation for great enjoyment.

Since the French turn simple meals into extensive feasts, you can have a large lunch or dinner and simply snack for the other meal without feeling deprived in the least. Although a late lunch can be difficult, as most French restaurants close between lunch and dinner, just plan accordingly. If you want to eat at an upscale restaurant, do it at lunch instead of dinner to fight the crowds and save on similar (or the same) dishes that are served in the evening hours.

Also look for a prix fixe menu, which typically provides a small selection of starters, main dishes and desserts for a fixed price. This can provide tremendous savings over ordering a la carte, or off the menu. Order a carafe of house wine, which is cheap and sometimes better quality than bottled wines found in other countries. A glass of house wine will probably cost you less than a Coca Cola in France.

Cheap Transportation in France

There are three transportation methods in France that are expensive: a traditional rental car, taxi rides, and long-distance point-to-point tickets. Fortunately there are many wonderful alternatives that are relatively cheap and convenient.

Rail passes are a great deal if you will cross great distances. Instead of paying, say, 250 euros to get from Paris to Nice, you could get a rail pass for a similar price and have a couple more days of rail travel that can be used for other long-distance jaunts. Rail passes are not a good deal if you will travel short distances or take daytrips from a major city. The train will also not get you to some of France ’s smaller villages.

Buses are a convenient and inexpensive alternative. France’s bus transportation system is extensive. It’s the rare place you can’t reach by a local or regional bus, usually for just a few euros. The bus systems can be confusing, however, and each region and town has its own network. The best way to handle this is to contact the tourism office for the region or town you plan to visit ahead of time and ask for details, a map and a schedule for the local bus system.

If you will stay in France for 21 days or more and have a busy itinerary, your best bet could be a lease buyback program. Autoeurope, in a partnership with Peugeot, provides long-term car rentals that are inexpensive per day, include comprehensive insurance in numerous countries, and are provided brand new. (Editor's note: One of the main advantages of driving in France is discovering villages where tourists do not venture and visiting destinations at your own leisurely pace, making for a far more adventurous experience in what is an extraordinarily varied country in so many ways. We cannot count the times we have been told that we are the only Americans to have visited a fine, cheap family-run restaurant in a tiny medieval village, and the hospitality and curiosity of the locals is often endless. In addition, cheap lodgings or home base vacation rentals are far more accessible with a car in most cases. For those who are not comfortable with using maps or being overly spontaneous, English-speaking GPS devices are generally available for car rentals or leases. This is by far our preferred way of experiencing France when not traveling alone, and is a great way to travel as a family or as a couple.)

If you plan to visit another city in France, a large added expense will be getting to those other cities. That cost alone could counteract any savings in other areas. To save cash getting around France, consider using one of the discount airlines serving France, like Ryanair and easyJet. Many times, a discount roundtrip airfare to a southern France city from Paris is cheaper than a rail pass or train ticket.

Cheap Cities in France

Where you go is so crucial in determining how much you will spend when you visit France. You don’t have to stick to quaint Alpine villages to save a few euros, and Paris isn’t the only option for city slickers. Here are some urban alternatives to save you money, while still providing a splendid vacation in France:

Nice: A great place to enter France via airplane, especially during the off-season. Not the cheapest city in France, but if you have a desire to visit the fabled French Riviera it is much cheaper than neighboring cities like Monte Carlo, Cannes, and Saint Tropez (all reachable for daytrips by rail). Nice has plenty to offer, primarily with its attractions like the great produce available at the Cours Selaya market, the Matisse Museum, and its inviting pedestrian zones along rue de France and in other parts of an incredible old city which mixes Italian and French charm.

(Editor's note: If you have time, we suggest leasing a car through the Autoeurope/Peugeot plan from the Nice airport and driving along the Côte d'Azur, then through the backroads of Provence to experience the incredible light which drew and inspired so many great artists. There you can enjoy some of the finest cheap country food to be found in France, seasoned with the famous herbes de Provence, and stay in a country B&B to stay on budget. Then there are such diverse and charming cities as Avignon, Aix-en-Provence, Arles, and many more towns worthy of a visit.)

Chartres: This is a smaller city, but it provides much to do. The city’s centerpiece, which can be seen from miles away, is its cathedral. Chartres Cathedral is arguably one of the most stunning cathedrals in all of Europe. It is also a convenient and short train ride from Paris, saving on the price of transportation if you are flying into Paris. Also, it’s a great base if you still want to see Paris.

Bordeaux: If you like fine food and even finer wine, this is an ideal destination. Bordeaux is a bustling city packed with shopping choices ranging from designer boutiques to locally-run shops. There are also numerous historic and architectural attractions here.

Montpellier: This southern lady of a city is alluring and inexpensive. The bustling Place de la Comédie is the hub of activity, home to markets, cafés, and a breathtaking opera house. This is a vibrant college town, and is a wonderful choice for those who love to shop—whether on a budget or not.

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