Things to know before Traveling to France

France especially Paris is the dream destination for many people, me included! It has history and culture, famous landmarks (Eiffel Tower is one of them) and other monuments, famous Museum (Louvre) and not so well-known, it has macaroons and croissant… If you go venture outside Paris you can go to Mediterranean beaches and high mountains with snow … France offers various destination for a fabulous trip.

Just like when you travel to other countries you need to do some research and learn a bit about how things are in your destined country. The same goes especially with France. If you go outside Paris, many things are in French and not English. France is close to my heart because my darling sister has made a home here so I’ve been here a few times and would like to share some tips.

Always greet with Bonjour or Bonsoir

This is possibly the most important word in the French vocabulary and it goes a long way. Not doing so is considered very rude, and you can expect to be met with gruffness if you start into a conversation or request without this greetings.

The French aren’t rude, they are formal

Most ‘rudeness’ stems from cultural misunderstandings. From foreigners not taking the time to understand the French etiquette and then getting bristly when the service they receive is less than stellar. If you’re met with indifference, don’t take it personally. The French just don’t do enthusiasm well!

Learn a few basic words or phrases before you go

In Paris, you can get around just fine without knowing any French at all. But when you travel outside Paris, not many people can speak English. Learn basic French and be prepared to use google translate many times.

Get a France SIM card when you land in France

You can buy France SIM card at the Money Exchange Counter or at Relais shop at the airport. The following mobile operators have SIM cards targetting tourists:
– Orange France: 14.99 EUR (Mobicarte Vacances), 29.99 EUR (Mobicarte Vacances Monde) & 39.90 EUR (Orange Holiday)
– SFR France: around 40 EUR (at airports)
– Bouygues Telecom: 39.90 EUR (Bouygues Telecom My European SIM) for 20GB. I’m using this on my second visit. Check here.

Know your meal times and get introduced with Apéro

French had their lunch a little late, usually starts at 12.30 and dinner even much later. Dinner usually start after 8pm. This means if you find yourself peckish between meals, you might come up short when looking for somewhere to eat. This can be tricky when travelling with kids. Fast food joints such as McDonald usually come at the rescue. If you are invited to French style dinner, it will start with Apéro before the main course and the whole affair usually finish at 11pm. Apéro, short for apéritif, is sacred in France: an hour or so before dinner where you can unwind over a cocktail (or two) and a few snacks. It’s not about getting drunk: it’s about spending time together and preparing your palate for the meal to follow.

Family dinner in summer, always start with Apéro as we wait for the BBQ to cook

Cheese is not an entree

Traditionally during a French dinner, cheese is served after the main course and before the dessert. You may notice that restaurants will often offer on the menu a plate of cheese in or just before the dessert section.

Ask for the bill – or it won’t come

It’s not uncommon for locals to sit at a cafe table for hours after they’ve finished their meal. Unless you ask, the waiter won’t bring you the bill either. Practise saying “L’addition s’il vous plait“.

Kids menus aren’t a given

Children’s menus aren’t commonplace in France, although they do exist – especially in more touristy areas where businesses have adapted to foreign ways. You can ask the waiter for a smaller portion from the menu for your children

You can get water for free at mealtimes

Tap water is safe to drink and completely free. Save money (and the use of a plastic or glass bottle) by simply ask for tap water when eating out at a restaurant.

Service might be slower than you’re used to

Don’t expect service to be incredibly fast. This is simply not the case in Europe, where people are used to taking their time to enjoy a meal and waiting between dishes and even for the bill (l’addition in French) is taken at a more leisurely pace.

Make reservations at Restaurant

If you really want to try out a restaurant, make sure to call ahead for a reservation. Most French people wouldn’t think of just turning up somewhere for dinner, which means that many restaurants simply won’t have room for you if you turn up expecting a table.

Trains are convenient – at a cost

France’s train network is widespread and runs frequently (strikes aside). Book TGV train tickets ahead to get the cheapest price at SNCF Connect. They also have an app so you can buy train tickets from mobile phone. No need to queue at the ticket machine or counter.

Make use of the public transport

In larger cities, you’ll soon discover that you certainly don’t need to rent a car to get around. This is particularly true of larger settlements like Paris, Nice, Montpellier, or Lyon, where the public transportation is fantastic and navigating the narrow streets (let alone finding ample parking space) can be much more trouble than it’s worth! Similarly, in the larger cities there’s no need to hail a taxi (or cab) since you can save much more money by opting for the local bus, train, or tram. It’s also worth noting that ride sharing/ booking apps like Uber and Blablacar are becoming increasingly popular in the larger cities.

Strike Culture

The French love to strike, so much so, they’ve got a dedicated website to keep track of the strike action around the country! If you’ve got travel plans within the country be sure to check out C’est la grève website (literally, “it’s the strikes”) for info that may affect your journey. It’s in French but if you open in chrome you can have google translate it to English. Many of France website, especially the official one outside Paris city doesn’t have translation in English so you have to make do with google translate. I remember during our few days in Paris there were 2 strikes which affected the metro and bus schedule.

Toll Charges

Motorways in France have toll charges, so its best to work out how much you’re going to have to cough up at the toll gates before you start your journey. You can pay the toll charges using credit card. In an occasion the machine not working, push the button for assistance. Someone over the phone will help.

Don’t expect to get anything done between 12-2

This may not be the case in Paris. But outside Paris, this is usually the norms. Many shops close their doors between 12-2 while the staff go to lunch. This goes for banks, post offices and some supermarkets too. But remember, you’re best to go with the flow and eat at this time too, otherwise you’ll be left without food until dinner. It is not uncommon for restaurants to close from 3pm and only open again for dinner.

Pharmacies can be found everywhere (and are easy to spot)

There’s a specific French law which requires pharmacies to be located fairly frequently throughout most towns and cities. As such, finding a pharmacy is never too difficult, with some even open on bank holidays and Sundays. If you have a minor ailment, then pharmacists are often pretty helpful. French Pharmacies also stock a wide array of luxury beauty and healthcare products. You can get your covid test (rapid antigen test) at pharmacies. Cost is from € 20-28.

Sundays are for family

The country (especially outside Paris) basically comes to a standstill on a Sunday. It’s still very much a family day – where everyone gets together over a long lingering lunch. But times are slowly changing. In some parts of the country, you’ll find supermarkets open for a few hours in the morning. And in touristic spots, shopkeepers do have the option to open on a Sunday during the holiday season.

Always book ahead for major attractions

Many major indoor attractions in France now require visitors to not just book tickets online but also pick an exact timeslot. Gone are the days of arriving at the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower and wandering inside after buying a ticket. Eiffel Tower, the most popular attractions, the ticket need to be booked at least 2 weeks in advance.

Avoiding such inconvenience requires preparation. In the days before you arrive in France, decide which attractions you want to visit, on which days, and at what exact times. Then go online and pre-book these time-specific tickets.

Free bathrooms are rare in France

More often than not, public bathroom facilities are to be paid for and so you should always keep some change on you in the eventuality you’ll need to use the WC! While I personally recommend heading to a café and getting an espresso as this will work out at around the same price, public bathrooms in Paris can range from anything to 30 cents and up to €1,50 (such as those in the Eiffel Tower). Always use the toilet when you go to restaurant or museums.

Pack comfortable (and easy to walk in) shoes

Many of the largest cities in France (Paris, Bordeaux, Marseille, Nice, etc) are all best explored on foot and so comfortable shoes that you can easily walk in are an absolute must. I love wearing keds in the Summer months as they pair easily with dresses and then transition to boots in the fall when the temperature drops and it’s time to wrap up warm.

Keep an eye on your belongings (at all times!)

Like every other capital city in Europe (and the rest of the world), Paris and many other large cities in France have no shortage of opportunist pickpocketers who won’t hesitate to pluck that phone or wallet out of your open handbag or from the back pocket of your jeans.

Keep an eye on your stuff, use a crossbody bag rather than a backpack and make sure everything zips up properly! Put your wallet deep inside your bag and don’t carry your passport everywhere unless you plan to shop expensive stuff and get a tax refund. If you need your phone every-time to take pictures or navigation, use a cover that comes with a chain so you can wear is as a cross body bag.

Be extra careful when you are in a busy metro and suddenly it gets packed with people pushing. Travellers with young children are easy target because they often distracted when their children get pushed (I’ve been there!)

In Europe, the first floor is the ground floor (ground level)

If you’re coming from North America, it may well surprise you that the first floor is actually known as the ground floor.

France has some of the best Christmas markets in Europe

After Germany, there’s no denying that some of the best Christmas markets in Europe, and indeed in the world, are to be found in France. For those who are looking for the very best festive, be sure to head to the Alsace region.

After all, while Colmar is decked out in decorations for the season, Strasbourg (the largest city in the Eastern French region) is self-proclaimed to be the ‘capital of Christmas’. Meanwhile, there are a couple of dozen smaller Christmas markets in Eastern France which are also well worth exploring.

There’s more to France outside of Paris

Many visitors to Europe make the travel mistake of visiting simply Paris and declaring that they’ve ‘seen France’. Make sure that you leave the city at least once, if only to take a quick side excursion to a nearby town or into the countryside.

Useful Apps to have in your mobile phone

  • SNCF Connect to book Trains from TGV to TER. I find it easier to buy ticket for TER trains from the app Vs the ticket machine
  • Bonjour RATP – the app version is not as good as their website. You can map your journey in their website and it will tell you how to get from one point to another. The apps can tell you the schedule for each of the transport means (Metro, train, bus and tram) and you can buy use the app to fill in your Navigo card with the pass.
  • Paris Metro – it can tell you how to get from one place to another. Same function as the RATP website.
  • Mobilite apps – Public Transport in Marseille and Aix en Provence. Some of the buses aren’t covered by google map. Their website is more comprehensive than the apps.
  • Ligne d’azur app – Public Transport in Cote d’Azur or French Riviera. Like in Provence, some of the buses aren’t covered by google map. Check their website for more comprehensive information.
  • Free Now and Uber apps – for ride hailing service
  • XE – not specific to Norway but it helps me to convert Euro to my home currency
  • Google Map – Most people already have it and it is the only navigation app you need especially when you are driving
  • Splitwise – if you are travelling with friends, splitwise is a good apps to split your expenses.
  • Tripit – It organizes your travel plans no matter where you book. Simply forward your confirmation emails to plans@tripit.com and in a matter of seconds, TripIt will create a comprehensive itinerary for every trip. You can also share the itinerary with your travel partner.

I hope these tips help. Enjoy your holiday in France!

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