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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 © Transitions Abroad.

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 budget trip 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 for a few euros. With the dollar almost reaching par with the euro, many more affordable options exist than in recent years.

We are not here to provide you with exact suggested itineraries, "must-sees," or costs, as those are covered in many guidebooks, articles, "Top 10" listicles, and posts elsewhere. Check if you seek approximate costs. We wish to highlight the many great options often overlooked when traveling slowly on a reasonable budget to immerse yourself in a country rich in beautiful landscapes, frequently off-the-beaten-path, an inspiring and evocative culture, layers of history, and pleasures for all the senses. Not only can you see France on a budget, but you will most likely leave the country with a more authentic and unique experience than people who stay at four-star chain hotels in Paris.

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

Tips for a Cheaper Trip in France

Many people make a few costly mistakes when planning their travel to France, leading to the myth that the country must be expensive. Where you go is the most significant factor. If you go to Paris, expect Paris prices. It's just the same as anywhere else. A vacation in New York City or San Francisco will cost more than one in Charlotte or Indianapolis.

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

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).

How you travel is vital. The main idea is to go against the tourist grain. Go to different cities, or different places in cities, and go at other times. Not only will you save money, but you will also experience greater immersion in the daily life of the locals. You will receive far 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 most remarkable qualities of traveling in France is the wildly diverse range of low-cost lodging options, including:

  • Gîtes de France is an organization that 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. Most are located in smaller cities and villages, an ideal stay for food lovers, as Logis accommodations are well known for their delectable cuisine. You could pay almost as much for food as the stay itself (although it's worth it), so check first on their prices for half-board rates that include breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and the stay.

  • Vacation Home and Apartment Rentals in France are like Gîtes de France, but now available through many worldwide and countrywide websites such as the ubiquitous Airbnb, Homeaway, and other such agencies. Rentals are a great way to see one region of the country or experience the daily life of a city. Rent a place for one week or more, often with an equipped kitchen, and this will allow you to use it as a base for explorations, a place to relax, and an alternative to going out to eat every meal. With all the great markets in cities and towns throughout France, buying a fresh baguette, cheeses, wine, fresh produce, pastries, or cooking your meal can be a joy and relaxing, if not romantic. And if you are bringing along kids by renting a house in the country, they can run around to their heart's content, see castles read about only in fairy tales, and bring back lifelong memories. And you can do all this within a reasonable budget, especially off-season. It is possible to rent whole houses for $500-600 a week in some of the most beautiful regions of France in late September/October, after peak season and while the weather is still pleasant.

  • Camping in France, which has an English language option on its site, 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.

  • Bienvenue à la Ferme is a French government-sanctioned program in which participating farms provide various accommodations ranging from no-electricity camping to a farmhouse bed and breakfast. The program is another excellent choice for foodies, as some members provide incredible cuisine meals cooked fresh from their own farms.

  • Hostelling International (France). You can book inexpensive hostels online for those traveling alone and using rail passes, buses, or the relatively cheap flights available to get around the country or Europe.

Cheap Dining in France

Decide what type of food you wish to eat.

France remains the ultimate destination for lovers of fine cuisine. Some of the world's finest chefs serve up fare at Michelin-starred restaurants nationwide. The refined meals come with the expected exorbitant check in most cases. However, you can occasionally indulge in fabulous French cuisine on a budget as you do at home on special occasions.

A key way to save is to say no to included breakfasts at your accommodation. Many automatically include this in the price, so mention it when you book. These breakfasts, usually simply coffee, bread, 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. Your hotel likely got their breakfast from the same neighborhood spot. Still, venturing off-the-beaten path may lead your nose to even better bakeries and displays that are a feast for the eyes and often even better in actual taste. Afterward, visit a local café for a cafe-au-lait that will cost maybe 3-4 euros. You will have a better selection, and your breakfast of croissants and coffee will run for maybe 5 euros. In Nice, the coffee is often as good as the best Italian. Another excellent option for inexpensive morning meals is visiting the local produce market, which usually features many great locally-grown finds. Wild strawberries full of taste and other just-picked berries and other fruits are often found and need little to no preparation to take you to places your taste buds have never been.

Since the French often turn simple meals into extensive feasts, you can have a large lunch or dinner and snack for the other meal without feeling deprived. However, a late lunch can be difficult, as most French restaurants close between lunch and dinner, plan accordingly. If you want to eat at an upscale restaurant, do so at lunch instead of dinner to avoid any potential tourist crowds and enjoy the atmosphere with locals while saving on similar (or the same) dishes served in the evening hours.

Also, always look for a prix fixe menu, which typically provides a small selection of starters, main dishes, and desserts for a fixed price. The menu 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 than bottled wines in other countries. A glass of house wine will cost you less than a Coca-Cola in France, tastes better with a meal composed of dishes often cooked or served with a wine sauce, and is far better for your health.

Cheap Transportation in France

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

Rail passes of all kinds are still a great deal if you will cross great distances. Instead of paying 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 available for other long-distance jaunts. Rail passes are not a good deal if you travel short distances or take day trips from a major city. The train will also not get you to some of the smaller villages in France.

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. However, the bus systems can be confusing, 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 a month or more and have a busy itinerary, your best bet could be a lease buyback program. Autoeurope, in a partnership with Peugeot, provides short-term car leases and their long-term, relatively inexpensive car rentals, which are supplied 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 an extraordinarily varied country in many ways. We cannot count the times locals tell us 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 are often endless. In addition, cheap lodgings or home base vacation rentals are far more accessible with a car in most cases. For those uncomfortable with using maps or being overly spontaneous, English-speaking GPS devices are generally available for car rentals or leases or you can use a map app on your smartphone.)

If you plan to visit another city in France, a significant 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 many discount airlines that also serve France, such as Ryanair and easyJet. A discount round-trip airfare from Paris to a southern France city is often cheaper than a rail pass or train ticket.

Obviously, France is not nearly as cheap as Guatemala, Ecuador, Cambodia, Slovakia, etc. But France is generally no more expensive than Italy, England, Switzerland, Scandinavia, Australia, Sweden, Singapore, or Japan. Why you go to visit a country is highly personal. Suppose you must travel with very tight budget considerations. In that case, there are many other incredible places in the world you can explore having a far lower cost of living, and we cover these destinations in the budget travel section of our site.

Cheap Cities in France

Where you go is crucial in determining how much you will spend visiting 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: During the off-season, this is a great place to enter France via airplane. Not the cheapest city in France, but if you want to visit the fabled French Riviera, it is much more affordable than neighboring cities and resort towns such as Monte Carlo, Cannes, and Saint Tropez (all reachable for day trips by rail). Nice has plenty to offer, primarily with its attractions like the fantastic produce at the Cours Selaya market, the Matisse Museum, and its inviting pedestrian zones along rue de France and other parts of an ancient city that mixes Italian and French charm.

Alternatively, you can stay in the villages in the spectacular hills above and behind Nice for a fraction of the price, with even towns full of celebrities like Vence offering deals in certain areas. The editor stayed for a bit in Vence, by chance near the homes of several huge rock, movie, and literary stars in a more modest abode with a great view of their seldom-used sprawling estates.

Editor's note: If you have time, we suggest leasing a car through the Autoeurope plan from the Nice airport and driving along the Côte d'Azur and then through the back roads of Provence to experience the incredible light that seduced and inspired so many great artists, including Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Signac, Derain, Dufy, and many more. You can enjoy some of the finest cheap country food in France, seasoned with the famous herbes de Provence, and stay in a country B&B or long-term vacation rental 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.

The Castles of the Loire and the Chartres Cathedral: Chartres is a smaller city, but it offers much to do. The city's centerpiece, seen from miles away, is its cathedral. Chartres Cathedral is 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 or visit the many astonishing castles of the Loire.

Bordeaux: This is an ideal destination if you like fine food and even finer wine. Bordeaux is a bustling city with shopping choices ranging from designer boutiques to locally run shops. There are also numerous historical 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 vibrant college town is a wonderful choice for those who love to shop — whether on a budget or not.

Editor's note: Large cities from now-chic Marseille to Lyon, the gourmet capital of France, are just some of the many other options if you wish to stay in the city. We prefer the countryside near these cities using a leased car to experience the best possible worlds while staying closer to our budget.

More by Kelby Hartson Carr
Slow Food Regions of France
The French Riviera on a Budget
Apartment Rentals in Nice, France
Cooking School Vacations in France
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Budget Travel
Vacation Rentals in France
Living in France
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