Famed artists, writers, gourmands, and bon vivants have all been put under France’s intoxicating spell. And travelers can still relish the same enchanting attractions, from Matisse’s coastal villages to Hemingway’s Parisian cafés to Marie-Antoinette’s pastoral escape inside Versailles. France is a gastronomic wonderland, an artistic mecca, and a historical pop-up book. Vineyards blanket the wine regions, cathedrals crown the cities, and sandy beaches drape the coastline. With all these riches, you may start plotting your return visit before you even return home.
Direct flying time to Paris is 7½ hours from New York, 9 hours from Chicago, 11 hours from Los Angeles, and 1½ hours from London. Flying time between Paris and Nice is also about 1½ hours.
As one of the world’s most popular destinations, Paris is served by many international carriers. Air France, the French flag carrier, offers many direct flights to Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG, also known as Roissy) from New York City’s JFK Airport, as well as ones from Chicago, Cincinnati, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Montréal, San Francisco, Toronto, and Washington, D.C. Most other North American cities are served through Air France partnerships with Delta, either directly or via connecting flights. Another popular carrier is United, with nonstop flights to Paris from Chicago, Newark, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. American Airlines operates daily nonstop flights (some seasonally) to Charles de Gaulle from numerous cities, including Boston, Chicago, Miami, and New York City’s JFK Airport.
There are two major gateway airports to France, both just outside the capital: Orly, 16 km (10 miles) south of Paris, and Charles de Gaulle, 26 km (16 miles) northeast of the city. Orly mostly handles flights to and from destinations within France and the rest of Europe, while Charles de Gaulle is France’s leading international gateway. The smaller Beauvais Airport, 88 km (55 miles) north of Paris, is used by European budget airlines, most notably Ryanair. Many carriers have flights to Biarritz, Bordeaux, Lourdes, Lyon, Marseille, Nantes, Nice, Perpignan, and Toulouse. If you’re going onward by rail, there is a TGV station at Charles de Gaulle’s Terminal 2, where you can connect to trains heading all over the country.
From Charles de Gaulle (CDG), the fastest and least expensive way to get into Paris is on the RER-B line, the suburban express train, which runs daily from 5 am to 11 pm. The free CDGVal light-rail connects each terminal (except 2G) to the Roissypôle RER station in less than 8 minutes; for Terminal 2G, take the free N2 “navette” shuttle bus outside Terminal 2F. Trains to central Paris (Gare du Nord, Les Halles, St-Michel, Luxembourg) depart every 10–15 minutes. The fare (including métro connection) is €9.75, and the journey time is 30–35 minutes.
The Air France shuttle service is a comfortable alternative, and you don’t need to have flown the carrier to use it. The buses cost €17 if you pay on board or €15.50 if you buy your ticket online; the approximate travel time is 75 minutes. Line 2 goes from CDG to Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Étoile and Porte Maillot from 5:45 am to 11 pm daily. Buses leave every 30 minutes until 9:45 pm, with two further services at 10:20 pm and 11 pm. Line 4 goes to Montparnasse and the Gare de Lyon from 6 am to 10 pm. Buses run every 30 minutes. Passengers arriving in Terminal 1 should use Exit 32 on the Arrivals level; Terminals 2A and 2C, Exit C2; 2B and 2D, Exit B1; Terminals 2E and 2F, Exit E8; Terminal 2G, take the N2 shuttle to Terminal 2F, and then use Exit 3.
Another option is to take Roissybus, operated by the Paris Transit Authority (RATP), which runs between CDG and the Opéra every 15–20 minutes from 6 am to 12:30 am; the cost is €11, and you can pay onboard. The trip takes about 45 minutes in regular traffic, about 90 minutes in rush-hour traffic.
Taxis are your least desirable mode of transportation into the city. If you’re traveling at peak times, you may have to stand in a long line with many other disgruntled travelers. Journey times, and, as a consequence, prices, are unpredictable. At best, the trip takes 30 minutes, but it can take as long as 90 minutes during rush hour. Count on a €50–€70 fare (add 15% between 7 pm and 7 am), plus €1 for a second bag in the trunk. Beware of unauthorized taxi drivers who solicit customers near baggage carousels and airport exits; only choose a cab from the designated areas outside the terminal, where official taxis have both an illuminated roof sign and a meter.
SuperShuttle Paris and Parishuttle are two van companies that serve both Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports. Prices are set, so it costs the same no matter how long the journey takes. To make a reservation, call or email your flight details several days in advance to the shuttle company and an air-conditioned van with a bilingual chauffeur will be waiting for you on arrival. Note that these shuttle vans pick up and drop off other passengers, which can add significant time to the journey.
From Orly, the most economical way to get into Paris is to take the RER-C or Orlyrail line. Catch the shuttle bus from the terminal to the Pont de Rungis train station. Trains to Paris leave every 15 minutes. Passengers arriving in South Terminal use Exit F; for West Terminal use Exit G on the Arrivals level. The total fare is €6.70, and the travel time is about 35 minutes. Another slightly faster option is to take the 8-minute monorail service, Orlyval, which runs between the Antony RER-B station and Orly Airport every 8–15 minutes from 6 am to 11 pm. Passengers arriving in the South Terminal should look for Exit K; those arriving in the West Terminal, Exit A on the Departures level. The fare to central Paris is €12.05, including the RER transfer.
You can also take the Air France bus service from Orly to Les Invalides, Montparnasse, and Etoile; it runs every 20 minutes from 6 am to 11:40 pm. (You need not have flown on Air France to use this service.) The fare is €12.50 if you pay onboard, €11 if you buy your ticket online, and the trip takes 45–60 minutes, depending on traffic. Passengers arriving in Orly South need to look for Exit K; those arriving in Orly West, Exit D. The Paris Transit Authority’s Orlybus is yet another option; buses leave every 8–15 minutes for the Denfert-Rochereau métro station in Montparnasse, and tickets cost €7.50. You can economize further by using RATP Bus 183, which shuttles you from the South Terminal to the Porte de Choisy métro station (Line 7). It runs every 30–40 minutes from 6 am to 12:20 am (frequency may be reduced on Sundays and holidays); tickets cost €2, and the travel time is about 40 minutes.
There are several options for traveling between Paris’s airports. The RER-B travels from CDG to Orly with Paris in the middle, so to transfer, just stay on. Travel time is 50–70 minutes, and tickets cost €20.90. The Air France Bus Line 3 also runs between the airports every 30 minutes for €21 one-way; the trip takes 50–75 minutes. Taxis are available but expensive (€60–€80, depending on traffic).
A number of ferry routes link the United Kingdom and France, with fares depending on the length of the crossing and the number of passengers in your party. Ferries on the most popular route—Dover/Calais—cross the Channel in about 90 minutes. Driving distances from the French ports to Paris are as follows: from Calais, 180 miles; from Cherbourg, 222 miles; from Caen, 145 miles; from St-Malo, 250 miles. Trains also connect these ports with the capital. It’s best to book directly through the ferry providers rather than from third-party websites offering cheap rates.
If you’re traveling to or from another country, train service can be just as economical as bus travel, if not more so. The largest international bus operator is Eurolines France, whose main terminal is in the Parisian suburb of Bagnolet (a ½-hour métro ride from central Paris, at the end of métro Line 3). Terminals are also located at Charles de Gaulle Airport, Porte de Clichy, and Porte de Charenton. Eurolines links scores of European destinations, with fares that vary greatly depending on where and when you travel. It will take you about 8½ hours to get from London to Paris, and a round-trip ticket will cost €34 to €49. Other Eurolines routes to or from Paris include: Amsterdam (7½ hrs, €76); Barcelona (15 hrs, €117); and Berlin (14 hrs, €91). Economical passes are available—a 15-day version costs €215–€355, and a 30-day one costs €320–€465. These offer unlimited coach travel to all of Eurolines’s European destinations.
France’s excellent train service means that long-distance bus routes within France are rare; regional buses are found mainly where train service is spotty. The service can be unreliable in rural areas, and schedules can be incomprehensible for those who don’t speak French. Your best bet is to contact local tourism offices.
Driving in France can be a leisurely experience. Autoroutes are well maintained, and there are ample service-oriented rest areas along major highways; smaller roads wind through scenic landscapes and quaint villages. An International Driver’s Permit isn’t required, but it can prove useful in emergencies—particularly when a foreign language is involved (check with your local Department of Motor Vehicles to obtain one at nominal cost). Drivers in France must be over 18 years old; however, there is no top age limit, provided your faculties are intact. If you’re driving from the United Kingdom to the Continent, you have a choice of ferry services or the Channel Tunnel (aka the Chunnel) via the Eurotunnel Shuttle. Reservations are essential at peak times.
Gas is expensive, especially on expressways and in rural areas. The main types of gas available are essence super (leaded), sans plomb (unleaded), and gazole (diesel), so make sure you know what type your car takes. When possible, buy gas before you get on the expressway and keep an eye on pump prices as you go. These vary—anywhere from €1.10 to €2 per liter. The cheapest gas can be found at hypermarchés (large supermarkets). In rural areas it’s possible to drive for miles without passing a gas station, so don’t let your tank get too low.
Parking is a nightmare in Paris and many other metropolitan areas. “Pay and display” metered parking is usually limited to two hours in city centers. Parking is free on Sunday, national holidays, and after 7 pm. In residential areas, parking meters showing a dense yellow circle indicate a free parking zone during the month of August. In smaller towns, parking may be permitted on one side of the street only—alternating every two weeks—so pay attention to signs. In France, illegally parked cars are likely to be impounded, especially those blocking entrances or fire exits. Parking tickets start at €17, topping out at €175 in a handicapped zone for a first offense, and there’s no shortage of blue-uniformed parking police. Parking lots, indicated by a blue sign with a white “P,” are usually underground and generally expensive.
Metropolitan France has 11,465 km (7,124 miles) of expressways and 1,054,092 km (654,982 miles) of main roads. For the fastest route between two points, look for roads marked autoroute. A péage (toll) must be paid on most expressways: the rate varies but can be steep. The N (route nationale) roads—which are sometimes divided highways—and D (route départementale) roads are usually also wide and fast.
There are excellent links between Paris and most French cities, but poor ones between the provinces (the principal exceptions are A26 from Calais to Reims, A62 between Bordeaux and Toulouse, and A9/A8 the length of the Mediterranean coast).
Though routes are numbered, the French generally guide themselves from city to city and town to town by destination name. When reading a map, keep one eye on the next big city toward your destination as well as the next small town; most snap decisions will have to be based on town names, not road numbers. Look for signage pointing you in the right direction; this is especially useful in roundabouts, which can be rather confusing.
All highways also have special phones you can use in the event of a roadside emergency; you’ll see them every few kilometers—just pick up the bright orange phone and dial the free number (112). If you have car trouble anywhere else, find the nearest garage or contact the police. No matter where you are, make sure to turn on your hazard lights. Note that each rental car should also be equipped with a mandatory high-visibility vest and a warning triangle.
Rules of the Road
The general rule is to drive on the right and yield to drivers coming from streets to the right; however, this does not necessarily apply at traffic circles, where you should watch out for just about everyone. Do not expect to find traffic lights in the center of the road, as French lights are usually on the right- and left-hand sides; and do not make right turns at red lights unless you have a blinking arrow. Do not use a cell phone—or even a hands-free headset—while driving; it’s illegal and could incur a €135 fine. But do make sure to buckle up; seat belts are mandatory for all passengers, and those under age 12 must be in the backseat.
Speed limits are designated by the type of road you’re driving on: 130 kph (80 mph) or 110 kph (70 mph) on expressways (autoroutes); 90 kph (55 mph) on divided roads (routes nationales), which could soon be reduced to 80 kph (50 mph); 50 kph (30 mph) on departmental roads (routes); and 35 kph (22 mph) in some cities and towns (villes et villages). Drivers are expected to know these limits, so signs are usually posted only when there are exceptions to these rules. French drivers break speed limits all the time, and police dish out on-the-spot fines with equal abandon. So don’t feel pressure from Jean-Pierre honking behind you to speed up: in addition to the 2,173 fixed speed cameras across the country, there are now 150 unmarked police vehicles that can flash a car in either direction. Within the first 15 months of operation, some 270,000 speeding tickets were issued.
You might be asked by the Police National to pull over at busy intersections. You will have to show your papers (papiers)—including car insurance—and may be submitted to a l’éthylotest (Breathalyzer test). The rules in France have become stringent because of the high incidence of accidents on the roads; anything above a 0.05% blood alcohol level—which, according to your size, could simply mean two or three glasses of wine—and you are over the limit. For new drivers, having passed their test within three years, the limit is only 0.02%.
Some important traffic terms and signs to note: sortie (exit); sens unique (one-way); stationnement interdite (no parking); and impasse (dead end). Blue rectangular signs indicate a highway; green rectangular signs indicate a major direction; triangles carry illustrations of a particular traffic hazard; speed limits are indicated in a circle with the maximum limit circled in red. If you see a red triangle with an “X” or with a line through a straight arrow, be careful to give priority to the next right, even if it doesn’t seem like a main road: in these cases, you do not have the right of way.
The French national train agency, the Sociète Nationale de Chemins de Fer, or SNCF, is fast, punctual, comfortable, and comprehensive . . . when it’s not on strike. Traveling across France, you have various options: local trains, overnight trains with sleeping accommodations, and the high-speed Trains à Grande Vitesse, known as the TGV.
TGVs are the best and the fastest domestic trains, averaging 255 kph (160 mph) on the Lyon–southeast line and 320 kph (200 mph) on the Lille and Bordeaux–southwest lines. They operate between Paris and Lille/Calais, Paris and Brussels, Paris and Amsterdam, Paris and Lyon–Switzerland–Provence, Paris and Angers–Nantes, Paris–Avignon and Tours–Poitiers–Bordeaux. As with other main-line trains, a small supplement may be assessed at peak hours.
It’s usually fast and easy to cross France without traveling overnight, especially on TGVs, which are generally affordable, efficient, and equipped with creature comforts, such as Wi-Fi. Be aware that trains fill up quickly on weekends and holidays, so purchase tickets well in advance for these times. Otherwise, you can take a slow overnight train, which often costs more than a TGV, with the option of reclining in your assigned seat or bedding down in a couchette (bunk, six to a compartment in second class, four to a compartment in first, or private cabins).
In Paris there are six international rail stations: Gare du Nord (northern France, northern Europe, and England via Calais or Boulogne); Gare St-Lazare (Normandy and England via Dieppe); Gare de l’Est (Strasbourg, Luxembourg, Basel, and central Europe); Gare de Lyon (Lyon, Marseille, Provence, Côte d’Azur, Switzerland, and Italy); Gare d’Austerlitz (Loire Valley and central France, overnight to Nice and Spain); and Gare Montparnasse (southwest France and Spain).
Booking and Buying Tickets
There are two classes of train service in France; first (première) or second (deuxième). First-class seats offer more legroom, plusher upholstery, private reading lamps, computer plugs on the TGV, and wireless connectivity, not to mention a hushed, no-cell-phone environment for those who want to sleep. The price can be nearly double, though there are often deals online.
It is best—and in many cases, essential—to prebook your train tickets. This requires making a reservation online, by phone, or in person at the train station. Rail Europe does an excellent job providing train tickets to those in the United States. It offers a service, and the higher prices reflect that. If you want to save money, however, book directly with the SNCF.
There are two kinds of rail passes: those you must purchase at home (including the France Rail Pass and Eurail Pass) and those available in France from SNCF.
If you plan to travel outside Paris by train, consider purchasing a France Rail Pass through Rail Europe; it allows for 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9 days of unlimited train travel in a one-month period. If you travel solo for three days, first class will run you $283 and second class $230; you can add up to six days on this pass for $40 a day in first class, $31 a day in second class. For two people traveling together on a Saver Pass, the first-class cost is $248 per person, and in second class it’s $201.
France is one of 28 countries in which you can use Eurail passes, which provide unlimited rail travel for a set amount of time. If you plan to rack up the miles, get a Global Pass; it’s valid for first-class rail trail in all member nations for periods ranging from five days ($581) to three months ($2,037). The Regional Pass, which covers rail travel in and between pairs of bordering countries over a two-month period, is an alternative. Unlike most Eurail passes, Regional passes are available for first- or second-class travel; prices begin at $395 (first class) and $317 (second class) for four days of travel. Whichever pass you choose, remember that you must buy it before leaving for France.
Reduced fares are available for seniors (over 60), children (under 12), and passengers under 26. The Senior+ railcard costs €60, is valid for one year, and entitles you to up to a 50% reduction on full-fare TGV and intercité trains, with a guaranteed minimum reduction of 25% on all other train fares (including last-minute ones). With the Carte Enfant Plus (€60), children 4 to 11 years old accompanying adults can get up to 50% off most trains for an unlimited number of trips; valid for a year, this card is perfect if you’re planning to spend a lot of time traveling en famille. You can also opt for the Enfant+: when you buy your ticket, simply show a valid ID with your child’s age and you can get a significant discount for your child and a 25% reduction for up to four accompanying adults.
If you purchase an individual ticket from SNCF in France and you’re under 26, you automatically get a 25% reduction when you flash a valid ID. If you’re under 26 and plan to ride the train quite a bit, consider buying the Carte 12–27 (€50), which offers unlimited 50% reductions for one year. If you don’t benefit from any of these reductions but plan on traveling at least 200 km (132 miles) round-trip and don’t mind staying over a Saturday night, look into the CarteWeek-end (€75); it gives you and your traveling companion a 25% reduction.
Boarding the Train
Get to the station at least an hour before departure to ensure you’ll have time for ticketing and, in some cases, seat selection. If you’re taking a TGV, your seat is reserved by car and seat number. Before boarding, you must punch your ticket (composter le billet) in one of the yellow machines at the entrance to the platforms (quais) or else risk a €10–€25 fine (amende) plus a processing fee of €30–€38. Tickets printed by the SNCF must be validated; Eurail passes and tickets printed at home don’t need validation. If you board your train on the run and don’t have time to punch it, look for a conductor (contrôleur) as soon as possible and get him to sign it. Once you’re aboard, note that smoking is forbidden on all public transportation in France. Even lighting up in the bathrooms or connecting compartments will land you an on-the-spot fine of €68.
With an advance arrangement, SNCF will pick up and deliver your bags at a given time. For instance, if you’re planning on spending a weekend in Nice, SNCF will collect your luggage at your hotel in Paris in the morning before checkout and deliver it to your hotel in Nice, where it will be awaiting your arrival. The cost within France is €38 for the first bag (up to 30 kg), and €20 per additional bag. Be advised that luggage service is only available Monday to Saturday mornings in mainland France, Germany, Luxembourg, and Switzerland.
You can also book a driver to take you to or pick you up from the station. Rates are fixed, and pickup is guaranteed; even if your train is late, your driver (who carries a sign with your name) will wait for you at no extra cost. With prices starting at €9.90, it’s much more economical than a taxi, and the same rate applies for up to four people per car (maximum four pieces of luggage). See www.idcab.sncf.com for details.
To and from the United Kingdom
When you factor in travel time to and from the airport, not to mention flight delays, taking the Channel Tunnel is the fastest and easiest way to travel between France and the United Kingdom. The high-speed Eurostar train from Paris’s Gare du Nord to London’s St. Pancras Station takes 2 hours, 15 minutes. Eurostar prices vary widely—round-trip tickets range from €620 for first-class to €175 for second class—but depending on when and where you travel and how far in advance you book, you should be able to find discounted rates; there are special ones available for early-bird purchasers, children, seniors, and multiple-fare buyers. If you wish to drive most of the route, you can put your car on the train (either through Eurotunnel or Eurostar) for the 35-minute Chunnel crossing between Calais and Folkestone. Britain’s National Rail also has daily departures from London that link up with the Dover–Calais–Boulogne ferry services through to Paris, and there’s an overnight service on the Newhaven–Dieppe ferry.
Most hotels have in-room haut-débit wireless access, although some only offer Wi-Fi in the lobby or ground-floor rooms; if being connected from your room is important, be sure to confirm in advance. Also, if you need to spend a lot of time online, make sure to ask when you book if there’s a charge for the service. These days it’s usually included in the room rate except at some high-end hotels; but, if not, hourly rates can add up quickly. Remember to bring an adapter for European-style plugs, too.
Wi-Fi hot spots can be found at many cafés, and the civic government offers no-cost access at hundreds of public places in Paris; check www.paris.fr for “How to access the Wi-Fi free of charge.” In other major cities, like Bordeaux, you’ll find free access but will need to sign up online. Major airports also offer complimentary Wi-Fi, though sessions may be limited to 30 minutes. In smaller towns, ask at the local tourism office where you can get connected. Note: if you capture a wireless network called “Free,” don’t be misled—it’s the name of the carrier used in France and is not free of charge.
The country code for France is 33. The first two digits of French numbers are a prefix determined by zone: Paris and Ile-de-France, 01; the northwest, 02; the northeast, 03; the southeast, 04; and the southwest, 05. Pay close attention to numbers beginning with 08; some—but not all—are toll-free (when you dial one with a fee attached, a recorded message will tell you how much it will cost to proceed with the call, usually €0.15 or €0.34 per minute). Numbers beginning with 09, connected to DSL and Internet lines, are generally free when calling in France. Numbers that begin with 06 and 07 are reserved for cell phones.
Note that when dialing France from abroad, you drop the initial 0 from the number. For instance, to call a telephone number in Paris from the United States, dial 011–33 plus the phone number minus the initial 0 (phone numbers are listed with the full 10 digits, which you use to make local calls).
Calling Within France
The French are very fond of their mobile phones (portables), meaning that telephone booths are on their way to becoming obsolete. But French telecom giant Orange does maintain some 40,000 nationwide, and the majority will accept a ticket téléphone, a prepaid calling card, which can be purchased through Orange boutiques (www.orange.fr). The cards work on any phone (including your hotel phone). To use one, you dial a free number, and then punch in a code indicated on the back of the card. For telephone information in France, you need to call one of the dozen or so six-digit renseignement numbers that begin with 118. (For Les Pages Jaunes—the French Yellow Pages—you dial 118–008.) The average price for one of these calls is €0.34 per minute.
Calling Outside France
Telephoning from a hotel is almost always the priciest option because hotels usually add huge surcharges to all calls, particularly international ones. Calling cards can help lower costs. Then there are mobile phones, which are sometimes more prevalent than landlines. To make a direct international call out of France, dial 00 and wait for the tone; then dial the country code (1 for the United States and Canada), the area code (minus any initial 0), and the number.
If you have a multiband phone (some countries use different frequencies from what’s used in the United States) and your service provider uses the world-standard GSM network (as do T-Mobile and AT&T), you can probably use your phone abroad. But be warned: this can be expensive, with toll charges on incoming and outgoing calls sometimes as high as $4 per minute. Roaming fees can be steep, too: 99¢ a minute is considered reasonable. Sending an international text message is usually a cheaper option, but be aware that fees abroad vary greatly (from 15¢ to 50¢ and up), and there’s usually a charge for incoming messages. When using a cell phone abroad, it’s advisable to turn off your data services function to avoid exorbitant, unexpected fees.
If you just want to make local calls, consider buying a prepaid SIM card (your provider may have to unlock your phone for you to use it); you can purchase one through Le French Mobile (www.lefrenchmobile.com), a service catering to English-speaking visitors. An alternative is to buy a cheap, disposable “BIC” prepaid phone; they’re available from Orange outlets, tabacs, magazine kiosks, and some supermarkets. You can then have a local number and make local calls at local rates.
All establishments must post their menus outside, so take a look before you enter. Most restaurants have two basic types of menu: à la carte and fixed-price (un menu or prix-fixe). The prix-fixe menu is usually the best value, though choices are more limited. Many of these include three courses; however, it’s increasingly common to see set menus with two—either a starter and main course (entrée et plat) or a main course and dessert (plat et dessert).
Fast Food, French Style
Many say that bistros served the world’s first fast food. After the fall of Napoléon, the Russian soldiers who occupied Paris were known to bang on zinc-top café bars, crying “bistro”—”quickly”—in Russian. In the past, bistros were simple places with minimal decor and service. Nowadays many are upscale and trendy, but you can still find cozy, low-key establishments serving straightforward, frequently gutsy cooking.
Brasseries—ideal places for quick, one-dish meals—originated when Alsatians, fleeing German occupiers after the Franco-Prussian War, came to Paris and opened restaurants serving specialties from home. Pork-based dishes, choucroute (sauerkraut), and beer (brasserie also means brewery) remain the mainstays here. The typical brasserie is convivial and keeps late hours. Some are open 24 hours a day, a good thing to know since many restaurants stop serving at 10 or 10:30 pm.
Like bistros and brasseries, cafés come in a variety of styles and sizes. Often informal neighborhood hangouts, cafés may also be veritable showplaces attracting chic, well-heeled crowds. At most cafés the regulars congregate at the bar, where coffee and drinks are cheaper than at tables. At noon tables are set, and a limited lunch menu is served. Sandwiches, usually with jambon (ham), fromage (cheese), or mixte (ham and cheese), are served throughout the day. Sometimes snacks are also for sale. Cafés are for lingering, for people-watching, and for daydreaming. If none of these options fit the bill, head to the nearest traiteur (deli) for picnic fixings.
Breakfast is usually served from 7:30 am to 10 am, lunch from noon to 2 pm, and dinner from 7:30 or 8 pm to 10 pm. Restaurants in Paris usually serve dinner until 10:30 pm. Many restaurants close on Sunday—head to the Latin Quarter, the Champs Élysées, or Montmartre for the greatest choice of eateries open then.
By French law, prices must include tax and tip (service compris or prix nets), but pocket change left on the table to round up the bill in basic places, or an additional 5% in better restaurants, is always appreciated. (Don’t expect the dangling generous tip to guarantee friendly service, though: customer service is practically nonexistent in France.) Beware of bills stamped service not included in English. The prices given in this book are per person for a main course at dinner, including tax (10%) and service; note that if a restaurant offers only prix-fixe (set-price) meals, it is given a price category that reflects the full prix-fixe price.
The electrical current in France is 220 volts, 50 cycles alternating current (AC); electrical outlets take Continental-type plugs, with two round prongs. So you may need to use both an adapter (which enables you to plug your appliance into the different style of socket) and a converter (which allows it to run on the different voltage). Most laptops and mobile phone chargers are dual voltage (i.e., they operate equally well on 110 and 220 volts); hence they require only an adapter. These days the same is true of many small appliances, but you should always check labels and manufacturer instructions to be sure. Don’t use 110-volt outlets marked “for shavers only” for high-wattage appliances such as hair dryers.
France’s emergency services are conveniently streamlined. Every town and village has a médecin de garde (on-duty doctor) for flus, sprains, tetanus shots, and similar problems. Larger cities also have a remarkable house-call service called SOS Médecins (01–47–07–77–77); for dental emergencies, contact SOS Dentistes (01–43–37–51–00). The cost is minimal, compared to the United States—about €65 for a house call. If you need an X-ray or emergency treatment, call an ambulance (15). The easiest number to remember in case of emergency is 112, the European equivalent of 911; the call is free from any landline or cell phone.
Most hotels will be able to help you find assistance in the event of a health crisis. Note that outside Paris it may be difficult to locate English-speaking doctors.
You may be able to get a list of ones—along with info on nearby hospitals, private clinics, and medical centers—from a pharmacy. Bear in mind that pharmacists themselves are authorized to administer first aid and recommend over-the-counter drugs, and hence can be very helpful when health problems are minor. Pharmacies de garde are designated dispensaries that remain open overnight, on Sunday and holidays, or 24/7. These rotate, but a list of locations is posted at the entrance of every pharmacy; you can also find one by calling 3915 (€0.34/min), though the operator may not speak English.
On the street the French phrases that may be needed in an emergency are: Au secours! (Help!), urgence (emergency), samu (ambulance), pompiers (firefighters), préfecture de police (police station), médecin (doctor), and hôpital (hospital).
With 11 national jours feriés (holidays) and at least five weeks of paid vacation, the French have their share of repose. In May there’s a holiday nearly every week, so be prepared for stores, banks, and museums to shut their doors for days at a time. Be sure to call museums, restaurants, and hotels in advance to make sure they’ll be open.
Note that these dates are for the calendar year 2016: January 1 (New Year’s Day); March 27 and 28 (Easter Sunday and Monday); May 1 (Labor Day); May 5 (Ascension Day); May 8 (V.E. Day); May 16 (Pentecost Monday); July 14 (Bastille Day); August 15 (Assumption); November 1 (All Saints Day); November 11 (Armistice Day); December 25 (Christmas Day).
The following prices are for Paris; other areas are often cheaper (with the notable exception of the Côte d’Azur). Keep in mind that it’s less expensive to eat or drink standing at a café or bar counter than sitting at a table. Two prices are listed, au comptoir (at the counter) and à salle (at a table). Sometimes orders cost even more if you’re seated at a terrace table. Coffee in a bar: €1.50–€2.50 (standing), €2–€7 (seated); beer in a bar: €3 (standing), €3.50–€7 (seated); Coca-Cola: €3–€5 a bottle; ham sandwich: €3–€6; 2-km (1-mile) taxi ride: €7–€10; movie-theater seat: €11.40 (morning shows are always cheaper); foreign newspaper: €3–€6.
Prices throughout this guide are given for adults. Substantially reduced fees are almost always available for children, students, and senior citizens.
ATMs and Banks
Readily found throughout France, ATMs (guichets) are the easiest ways to get euros. Your own bank will probably charge a fee for using one abroad; the foreign bank you choose may also charge a fee. Nevertheless, you can usually get a better rate of exchange at an ATM than you will at a currency-exchange office or even when changing money in a bank. Extracting funds as you need them is also a safer option than carrying around a large amount of cash. Just be sure to know your withdrawal limit before taking money out, and be advised that French ATMs sometimes restrict how much you can get, regardless of your bank balance.
PINs with more than four digits are not recognized at ATMs in many countries. If yours has five or more, remember to change it before you leave.
You’ll find lots of ATMs on the street, but it’s best to use ones inside the bank’s doors. Even then, cover the keypad with one hand while you type your PIN in with the other. If anyone tries to speak to you during your transaction, ignore them. Note that the ATM will give you two chances to enter the correct PIN; if you make a mistake on the third try, your card will be held, and you’ll have to go into the bank to retrieve it (this may mean returning during open hours).
Credit cards—MasterCard and Visa in particular—are widely accepted here, so a business would have to be extremely small or very remote not to have some credit-card capability. Some smaller restaurants and stores, however, do have a credit-card minimum (usually around €15); this should be clearly indicated, but ask if you’re in doubt. After using your card, remember to take your receipt, as fraudulent use of credit-card numbers gleaned from receipts is on the rise.
It’s a good idea to inform your credit-card company before you leave home, especially if you don’t travel internationally very often. Otherwise, they might put a hold on your card due to unusual activity—not a good thing halfway through your trip. Record all your credit-card numbers—as well as the phone numbers to call if your cards are lost or stolen—in a safe place, like a USB stick, so you’re prepared should something go wrong. MasterCard and Visa have general numbers you can call (collect if you’re abroad) if your card is lost, but you’re better off calling the number of your issuing bank, since MasterCard and Visa typically just transfer you to your bank anyway; your bank’s number is usually printed on your card.
If you plan to use your credit card for cash advances, you’ll need to apply for a PIN at least two weeks before your trip. Although it’s generally cheaper (and safer) to use a credit card abroad for large purchases (so you can cancel payments or be reimbursed if there’s a problem), note that some credit card companies and the banks that issue them add substantial percentages to all foreign transactions, whether they’re in a foreign currency or not. Check on these fees before leaving home, so there won’t be any surprises when you get the bill.
Also, be warned that many non-European cards lack the puce microchip typically found in French credit cards. While waiters and store vendors will have no problem swiping your card, buying métro passes from a machine is impossible without a chip-enhanced card.
Currency and Exchange
The advent of the euro makes any whirlwind European tour all the easier. From France, you can glide across the borders of Austria, Germany, Italy, Spain, Holland, Ireland, Greece, Belgium, Finland, Luxembourg, and Portugal with no pressing need to run to the local exchange booth to change to yet another currency before you even had the time to become familiar with the last. You’ll be able to do what drives many tourists crazy—to assess the value of a purchase (for example, to realize that eating a three-course meal in a small restaurant in Lisbon is cheaper than that ham sandwich you bought on the Champs Élysées).
At this writing, one euro equals U.S. $1.14 and $1.42 Canadian. These days, the easiest way to get euros is through ATMs; you can find them in airports, train stations, and throughout cities and towns. ATM rates are excellent because they’re based on wholesale rates offered only by major banks. Remember, though, that you may be charged an added exchange fee when withdrawing euros from your account. It’s a good idea to bring some euros with you from home and always to have some cash on hand as backup.
All Canadian, U.K., and U.S. citizens, even infants, need only a valid passport to enter France for stays of up to 90 days.
You must apply in person if you’re getting a passport for the first time; if your previous passport was lost, stolen, or damaged; or if your previous passport has expired and was issued more than 15 years ago or when you were under 16. All children under 18 must appear in person to apply for or renew a passport. Both parents must accompany any child under 14 (or send a notarized statement with their permission) and provide proof of their relationship to the child.
Beware of petty theft—purse snatching, cell phone grabbing, pickpocketing, and the like—throughout France, particularly in Paris and along the Côte d’Azur. Use common sense: keep your expensive jewelry at home, avoid pulling out a lot of money in public, and avoid darkly lit areas in the evening. Women should carry a handbag with zippered compartments for money and passports, plus long straps that can be slung across the body, bandolier style. Men should keep their wallets in front pockets. When withdrawing money from cash machines, be especially aware of your surroundings and anyone standing too close. If you feel uneasy, press the cancel button (annuler) and walk to an area where you feel more comfortable. Credit card fraud is increasing in France, especially in urban areas; be sure to collect your receipts, as these have recently been used by thieves to make online purchases. Car break-ins, especially in central Paris, inner suburbs, and isolated parking lots, are definitely on the rise. Don’t leave valuables, luggage, phones, computers, or other electronics in your car; if you must, make sure they are out of view in the glove compartment or trunk.
Distribute your cash, credit cards, IDs, and other valuables between a deep front pocket, an inside jacket or vest pocket, and a hidden money pouch. Don’t reach for the money pouch once you’re in public. Be especially vigilant on public transportation and in crowded areas.
Taxes must be included in affixed prices in France. Prices in restaurants and hotels must by law include taxes and service charges. If these appear as additional items on your bill, you should complain. There is, however, one exception: don’t be shocked to find the taxe de séjour (tourist tax) on your hotel tab when you check out. Ranging from €0.20 to €4 per person per day, it is applied to all types of lodging. Even if you prepaid your accommodation online through a third-party travel website, you’ll still have to cough up the coins.
The standard rate of the V.A.T. (Value-Added Tax, known in France as T.V.A.) is now 20%, with luxury goods taxed at a higher rate (up to 33%) and restaurant food taxed at a lower one (10%). The V.A.T. for services (restaurants, theaters, etc.) is not refundable, but foreigners are often entitled to a V.A.T. refund on goods they buy. To be eligible for one, the item (or items) that you purchased must have been bought in a single day in a participating store (look for the “Tax-Free” sticker on the door) and must equal or exceed €175.01.
A new procedure for obtaining this refund—the PABLO system—was launched in 2014. Participating retailers will provide you with a computer-generated PABLO Value-Added Tax (V.A.T.) refund form containing a bar code and the PABLO logo. You then scan the code before checking in at the airport for your outbound flight. PABLO machines at CDG and Orly provide service in English and can credit the refunded amount directly to your bank account.
At the airport, be sure to have your passport, your ticket, and your PABLO form for items purchased. Go to the La Détaxe/tax refund machine, scan the form’s bar code and you’ll receive a message “OK bordereau confirmé” (“OK, form approved”). An electronic confirmation will be sent directly to the retailer for your reimbursement to be processed. Remember, this must be done before checking-in your luggage.
The French have a clear idea of when they should be tipped. Bills in bars and restaurants include a service charge incorporated into the price, but it’s customary to round out your bill with some small change unless you’re dissatisfied. The amount varies: anywhere from €0.20, if you’ve merely bought a beer or coffee, to €1–€3 (or more) after a meal. Tip taxi drivers and hair stylists 5–10%. In some theaters and hotels, coat-check attendants may expect nothing (if there’s a sign saying “pourboire interdit”—tips forbidden); otherwise give them €1. Washroom attendants usually get €0.50, though the sum is often posted.
If you stay in a hotel for more than two or three days, it’s customary to leave something for the chambermaid—€1–€2 per day. In expensive hotels you may well use the services of a parking valet, doorman, bellhop, and concierge. All expect a tip. Expect to pay €2 (€1 in a moderately priced hotel) to the person who carries your bags or hails a taxi for you; if the concierge has been helpful, leave a tip of €5–€20 depending on the service; in hotels that provide room service, give €1–€2 to the waiter (this does not apply to breakfast served in your room).
Museum guides should get €1–€1.50 after a tour. For other kinds of tours, tip the guide or excursion leader 10% of the tour cost; it’s standard practice to tip long-distance bus drivers about €2 after an excursion, too. Other tips will depend on how much you’ve used a person’s services—common sense must guide you here.
Comprehensive trip insurance is recommended for all vacations purchased through Vacays4U. Comprehensive policies typically cover trip cancellation and interruption, letting you cancel or cut your trip short because of illness, or, in some cases, acts of terrorism. Ask about insurance policies that cover evacuation and medical care. Some also cover you for trip delays because of bad weather or mechanical problems as well as for lost or delayed luggage.
Always read the fine print of your policy to make sure you’re covered for the risks that most concern you. Compare several policies to be sure you’re getting the best price and range of coverage available.