Budget Travel in France
Practical Tips From an Insider
By Finn Skovgaard
Budget travel does not necessarily mean going to all the cheapest places and accepting the lowest quality. Such a mode of travel is as much about finding where you can get a decent quality for a reasonable price, bearing in mind that paying twice as much is no guarantee for twice the quality.
Food and Wine in France
Steer clear of the tourist trap areas and shops, many of which are typically along such places as the Champs Elysees in Paris. Often, the food is no better—if not worse—than far less expensive areas. In Paris, there are many restaurants offering modest prices and decent quality in the Quartier Latin as well as other places where ordinary Frenchmen work or study. Unfortunately, there are also many modestly priced restaurants that use pre-cooked meals, and others whose "cuisine" makes you wish you’d gone to England instead. There are a few unscrupulous restaurants that serve food past its use-by-date to tourists, since tourists are not likely to come back anyway. There is no easy way to identify the black sheep. Locals might be able to help you if you ask. It’s a thing of the past that you eat well everywhere in France. Today, you can eat well if you know where to go.
You can get standard fare throughout France at chain restaurants and steak houses such as Hippopotamus, Courtepaille, Buffalo Grill, and Côte à Côte. While they are affordable, they don’t have much in common with traditional French cuisine.
Arrêté nº 25-268 of June 8, 1967 obliges a restaurant to serve free tap water with a meal–"un carafe d’eau s’il vous plait!"–if you’d rather not pay for bottled water set near the the price of gold. Tap water is commonly served at ordinary restaurants, but if you do order tap water at a fancy restaurant, you may well be regarded as a cheapskate and treated accordingly by the waiters. A café can charge for a glass of water if they display the price, and so can a restaurant if you’re not eating there.
In bars and cafés, servings are cheaper if consumed at the counter rather than at a table, which is served by a waiter. Don’t make the faux pas of ordering at the counter and then sitting down at a table. You’ll be charged extra the moment you touch the chair. If you want to consume at the table, then order at the table.
Gas stations on freeways, some of them open 24 hours a day, are convenient and have a standardized choice of food and drink, but they are expensive. So are many little food stores in cities known as alimentations.
Certain restaurants are closed over winter in typical summer tourist regions like Provence. You may have planned for a cozy little restaurant recommended online—only to find that it is closed—and end up at an expensive place or fast-food joint instead because no other place is open.
Order wine from the region. Most hosts like to present their local produce, so they will often select the best choice for you. Prices tend to be most reasonable, even in restaurants. Describe the type of taste you prefer in wine and don’t pretend to be a wine expert if you aren’t. They’ll find out very quickly anyway. Try not to stick to known big names such as the Côtes du Rhône. Use the opportunity to discover little-known winemakers who produce some very good and different wines.
If you are self-catering, check out the discount supermarkets such as Aldi, Ed, Leader Price, Lidl, Netto and Penny Market. The large supermarket chain Auchan offers the “orange discount” in their stores to compete with the discount supermarkets. Large supermarkets often indicate the cheapest products by placing them near the floor: Premier prix or marque de repère. Packaging of these products is often made to look cheap and unattractive. Shop at markets for fresh produce, although they are not necessarily cheaper. Select seasonal fruit and vegetables if you can. If you don’t know what is in season, it’s likely what you see in the largest quantities. In the countryside, you may find producers selling directly to consumers. Street vendors of fruit and vegetables in Paris can be cheap, although not necessarily legal, but that’s their problem, not yours. Other streets vendors may be expensive. There are no rules without exceptions in France.
Money in France
Avoid exchanging cash if you can. You lose about 8%. Use your credit card for purchases, but check your bank’s commission since that could add up to 3%. Mastercard and Visa are accepted almost everywhere. Diners Club and American Express much less so. Using ATMs is usually cheaper than exchanging cash, although you’d be advised to check your bank’s fees and commissions first. They often charge twice for cash withdrawals: First a currency commission and then a cash withdrawal commission. Both could have a flat minimum amount.
Certain shops don’t accept credit cards for amounts smaller than 15 euros, so never run out of cash.
Negotiate prices. It rarely harms, and the worst that can happen is that they refuse.
Tips are never a moral obligation as in the U.S. A service fee of 15% is by law included in restaurant prices as shown on the menu.
Count your change. A surprising number of traders forget how to count in the presence of foreigners, and the mistake is always in the trader’s advantage.
Don’t waste your money by violating customs regulations by ignorance, neither when going to France nor when returning to your own country. Certain food products may not be allowed through customs.
Accommodations in France
There are many charming B&B's with friendly owners. However, such warm hospitality often comes at a cost. Since you likely will spend much of the time at a hotel sleeping, you might want to go for standard fare if your budget is limited. Chain hotels offer a clean standard product that is similar throughout the country. However, the cheaper ones are often found near out-of-town shopping malls or industrial zones and can be difficult to access without a car. In all hotels, breakfast is charged in addition to the room and is optional. Not all budget hotels have bathrooms in the hotel rooms. The British English term “en suite” means “attached to the bedroom.” In Europe, “bathroom” is generally not used in the sense of “toilet," but in the sense of where you wash, and your room may not even have a toilet at all.
Recreational Activities in France
Because museums are cultural, the French love to offer free entry in a variety of ways. There are days with free entry, and many types of visitors can get in for free or at a discount—students, young people, seniors, the unemployed, pregnant women, handicapped, families with many children, etc. Bring any official cards you may have that document your particular situation and study the official websites to figure out when you can get in cheapest at each place, as there is no standardization regarding free entry. Also beware that museums are closed one day a week.
Some sights are not available during summer because of fire risk, typically in forest areas of Provence. Other sights may be more attractive outside the vacation season. For example, the Fontaine de Vaucluse, a spring coming out of a mountain in Provence, is dry during summer. Only when the snow is melting in the mountains in early spring is it worth visiting.
Finally, if you see sans interruption written somewhere, it means that they don’t close for lunch.
General Advice on Budget Travel in France
Avoid the high season from mid-July to end August, except perhaps for Paris. It is crowded all over southern France; along the coast it is one long traffic jam, and prices are over-the-top. The weather is pleasant and warm in June and September too in southern France. March is the earliest I would recommend for out-of-season travel to the south, and October the latest. Paris, however, is nearly empty in August because all the Parisians are in southern France. For that reason, street parking is free many places in Paris in August, and it is very easy to get around in Paris by car.
I hope that you use this article for inspiration to find the best deals and read other articles on the subject. Keeping your ears and eyes open when seeking budget deals in France is the best single advice I can offer.
For More Information
Food and Wine
Luberon Truffle and Wine House, Menerbes, Provence. They have a nearly complete selection of the regional wines for sale at very reasonable prices, and if you’re lucky, you can see and smell a real truffle.
www.minefi.gouv.fr: Advice about free tap water in restaurants from the French consumer authority.
www.accorhotels.com: Accor Group is a countrywide hotel chains that provide a consistent quality in comfort levels ranging from discount to luxury. You can expect them all to be clean and decent. Louvre’s hotel Première Classe is plastic with toilet and shower in each room, a basic breakfast buffet and rooms with enough beds for a family. This is where I stay myself when traveling in France. Note that Accor’s Formule 1 may not have bathroom in the rooms.
www.balladins.com: Medium-priced hotel chain.
www.hotwire.com: Cheap travel and hotel deals.
See my article on Budget Transportation in France on this site.
www.streetwise-france.com: Finn Skovgaard’s hints and tips for streetwise travel in France. Many links.
www.franceguide.com: Maison de la France. The official site of the French Government Tourist Office.