Visiting France – tips for travellers
Edwina Ogilvie – November 2011
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© Edwina Ogilvie November 2011 3
This guide has been written following on from my trip to France in September 2011.
Planning the trip took me a long time and I learnt so much along the way. If I’d had some of
this information at hand when planning it would have saved me a lot of time. I also learnt a
lot along the way which I trust will be useful to fellow travellers. If you are going to plan your
trip from beginning to end, allow plenty of time because researching all of the various
options available and deciding on what to include, where to stay etc is very time consuming
but definitely worth it! You can do a tour or you can use a travel agent as options of
course. Tours are great if you haven’t got the time or the inclination to do it yourself but
you don’t have the option to include additional places you’d like to see. Travel agents have
their place but from my experience if they haven’t been to the place themselves then I don’t
know that the judgements/recommendations that they can make will be better than what
you can figure out yourself. In terms of accommodation, you will be limited by the products
that their wholesalers have on offer.
This guide is written in good faith and all correct (from my perspective!) given that much of
the content is my personal experiences and opinions. There are some references in this
document that are very specific to Melbourne (e-Tags, Myki and the like) and of course to
Australia which may not make sense to anyone outside of Australia.
There are lots of great websites out there that can help but it can become a bit
overwhelming. My favourite is Trip Adviser – I used it extensively particularly in choosing
accommodation and found it very helpful. One of the best things about travel websites like
Trip Advisor is that there are forums/discussion groups on so many different destinations
and people are always generous in sharing their experiences and providing advice to help
you make choices. As well as helping to plan the trip, I used Trip Advisor extensively on
my trip to get recommendations on things to do, restaurants and the like and it was great. I
loved it that I could look up restaurants in the area when we reached our destination, make
a choice, book it and then get the walking directions to the restaurant all from Trip Advisor.
Others definitely worth looking at:
http://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/index.jspa - this is the Lonely Planet site
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2. Planning your trip
France is a much larger place than some realise and planning your itinerary will take some
time figuring what to include and what to leave for next time. Regardless of whether you
use trains or hire a car, carefully look into the distances between each destination so that
the itinerary you are setting is not only practical in following some sort of geographic logic
but is also viable in the time you have.
You might be able to cover huge distances and visit a large number of places in the time
you have but I always want to enjoy each destination and would rather go to fewer places
and get a feel for them rather than doing a whistlestop tour of a large number of places, for
me its about quality not quantity. If you are driving you can calculate the distances using
the Michelin website www.viamichelin.com, remember that in Europe distances are
measured in miles not kilometres.
Our itinerary was as follows:
• Paris – 5 days – longer would have been better but 5 days was good having
been there before
• The Dordgone – we got the train from Paris to Brive and picked up our hire
car from the railway station. Then drove to Sarlat (around 60 kms) where we
stayed for 5 days in the medieval town of Sarlat which was beautiful. We
booked our accommodation through a booking agency www.insarlat.fr
• Provence – from Sarlat we went on to Provence (a long drive – 6 hours)
where we stayed for 6 days – we rented a house in the village of Eyragues
(which we loved and was a great base to explore Provence) which we found
on www.holidaylettings.co.uk, it was privately owned
• From Eyragues we went on to Nice for 6 days as well, stopped briefly in
Marseille for lunch which was well worth it and would have liked to have
spent a full day. We booked our accommodation through
• From Nice we went back to Paris by train – around a 6 hour train trip, quite
lovely scenery and well worth doing
• One last night in Paris and then Eurostar to London the next morning (2
hours – definitely the most efficient way to get there)
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2.1 Flights to Europe
Getting there is half the fun but that fun can be diminished significantly by being crammed
in on a 24 hour flight with 400 other travellers. If you can afford it, fly Premium Economy or
Business Class. If you can’t, look into upgrading your ticket to Business Class with points if
possible. Check out the website www.seatguru.com which will tell you exactly what
different seats are like on different airlines – those few extra inches in the size of your seat
can make a big difference – who says size doesn’t count?
2.2 Travel insurance
Of course you need to take out travel insurance if travelling internationally – you would be
crazy not to. Its wise to take out insurance as soon as you start paying deposits etc but
before you pay for anything check with your credit card provider to see whether they offer
any deals or complementary insurance as a benefit of having your card. Certain credit
cards offer complementary insurance if you pay for the trip with your credit card.
My choice in Paris is to stay on the Left Bank in the Latin Quarter – fantastic location which
is close to everything and lovely neighbourhoods. Paris is divided up into districts –
Arrondisements and each has something different to offer.
For a handy guide to Paris visit the website ‘The Traveling Professor’ and you can
download his free guide which will provide a wealth of information about things to do in
Paris and also a guide to the different districts and what their attractions are as well as
hotel and restaurant recommendations. For the uninitiated, hotel rooms in Europe are
typically the size of your average phone booth in Australia and things that you may take for
granted here (like tea and coffee making facilities) may not be provided. Depending on
how much you use technology and want to access internet/mails/Skype etc it’s a good idea
to go for a hotel with free Wi-Fi and many of them have this, it’s a lot easier than having to
go to McDonalds to read your email. With changes in technology, internet cafes are scarce
if not non-existent.
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3.2 Public transport
Getting around Paris is cheap and very efficient and in the same way as the London Tube
runs like clockwork so does the Metro. Depending on how long you are in Paris, a Paris
Visite may metro ticket may be the way to go, it you unlimited travel for a specified time.
It’s around 30 Euros for 5 days and that gives you unlimited travel in zones 1-3 which will
get you to most attractions. With this pass you also get discounted entry to various
attractions and a map that gives quite good detail on what to see.
4.1 France generally
In Paris, from my perspective, hotels are the only way to go unless you were staying for
more than a week in which case an apartment would be an option. If you are staying in
places one or two nights then (unless you are ones of those crazy people who wants to
camp!) hotels are the only option.
However if your stay is more 4 days plus in any particular destination then the options are
far greater i.e. apartments and some houses, apartments will usually be a minimum 3 night
rental and often 4. Depending on budget and the number of people travelling you can stay
in anything from a simple one bedroom gite (this is the generic term for a holiday home in
the French countryside which was originally used to describe simple accommodation where
a barn or such building had been turned into a lodging) to a house/farmhouse or a villa that
sleeps 10. Many dream of renting a villa in a beautiful location and this is easily achievable
at a reasonable price but of course this will only be for large groups.
When looking for accommodation for 2, I found that many places (particularly in Nice)
would be shown as accommodating 4 but were actually one bedroom with a fold out couch
or some such thing rather than being 2 bedrooms.
Many of the places for rent are privately owned and some will be administered through an
agency. In many cases the owner themselves handles the rentals (many of whom are
located in the UK) and some French owned homes use a local person with good English
skills to handle the rental on their behalf.
I used a UK site to book a couple of different accommodations for us
www.holidaylettings.co.uk and I thought it was excellent.
When I was looking to rent houses in the Dordogne and Provence and I’m sure this applies
to other areas, the general rule was that rentals were for one week periods beginning and
ending on a Saturday. In peak season, this is very much the case and owners don’t need
to rent for shorter periods because the demand is so high.
Having said that there are many many places to choose from but start looking early so that
you have a greater choice.
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It seems standard that for each rental you will get charged a standard fee for cleaning at
the end of your stay, around 40 -50 Euros, it isn’t always obvious whether this has been
included in the overall cost and whether it is in addition to the rental fee.
Some other websites to look at:
www.cottagesandcastles.com.au - this is a Melbourne company and they are in Glen Iris
4.2 Accommodation - Nice
If you are staying in Nice, the best website to use is www.nicepebbles.com. This is a
company run by a British couple and they have many apartments available of a very high
standard. All of them are fully furnished of course and in my experience, beautifully
decorated and furnished as well as being very well equipped and comfortable. Most of their
staff are British expats so language isn’t an issue should you need to call them and ask
them specific questions about an apartment you are considering renting.
Once you have selected your accommodation you’ll need to pay a deposit which may be
asked for in either British pounds or Euros mainly based on where the owner lives. As
many of these are privately owned, paying a deposit by credit card is not an option and you
will need to pay via International Bank Transfer. The person you are renting from will
provide you with their International Bank Account Number (IBAN) and you can transfer the
money through internet banking, at a fee of course.
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5. Getting around – planes, trains and automobiles.
In Europe, I’ve figured that as a general rule using trains to get from one city to another is
generally more efficient and a lot less trouble than flights for the following reasons:
• Train stations are located in the centre of most cities so getting to them is generally
inexpensive and doesn’t take up too much of your precious holiday time.
• While many airports in Europe are easily accessible by public transport, it will usually
take longer to get there and be more expensive than getting to railway stations. Of
course, with all of the security procedures, you need to be at the airport long in advance
so a lot of time is wasted.
• In terms of cost of both modes of transport, you can often find better deals with flights
however from my perspective, I’d rather pay a little extra and not have to endure the
whole airport experience.
If you do choose air travel, there are lots of websites for booking flights and the prices vary
enormously by airline, day and time you choose to travel so it does pay (literally) to do your
homework and check on different days for the flights you want. For example, I booked a
British Airways flight from London to Paris, the first time I looked at the flights the cost was
around $120 per person one way, a couple of days later I checked again and got exactly
the same flight on the same day for $85 each. All of them will have the facility to convert to
Australian dollars so you know exactly how much it’s costing you bearing in mind hopefully
slight currency fluctuations which will affect the final cost.
Some useful websites:
www.skyscanner.net – I like this site particularly, easy to use with lots of options
5.2 Flying with cut price airlines
There are lots of cheap flights to be had with varying degrees of quality of the experience –
generally as with most things you get what you pay for. Most Australians are used to the
cut price airline experience with the advent of Virgin, Jetstar and Tiger. If you haven’t
travelled with a cut price airline before be aware that Ryanair and all of the cutprice
operators have cheap fares for a reason – all you get is your flight, you do have to pay for
everything else from refreshments to headphones and everything in between.
Also be aware that they strictly enforce baggage limits and the time you have to check in
by. So if you don’t follow the rules you will very likely have to pay for baggage in excess of
the limit and also pay for another flight if you miss your flight because you didn’t check in
within the appointed time.
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Booking rail tickets in Europe in advance of your trip isn’t difficult but the method that you
use can make a big difference to the price you pay. When you start your search online, you
will no doubt come across the site www.raileurope.com.au – booking your tickets through
this website will almost guarantee you pay the maximum price. Rail Europe is a site that
allows you to buy tickets for train journeys all over Europe so it’s a one stop shop however
the way that it works is that the Australian (and all of the other country sites) are agents for
Rail Europe and those agents all need to take their cut. As such, the prices are high and in
some cases you might pay double the price you’d pay if you’d bought from the actual Rail
Europe site or from the rail operator themselves. If you go onto the Rail Europe site it will
detect the country that you are in and continue to direct you back to raileurope.com.au so
you can’t avoid paying their higher prices.
The best way to buy your tickets is to the website www.tgveurope.com. When you go onto
this site it will ask you to enter your ticket collection country. In most cases, you won’t be
getting your tickets delivered, you will either be printing them yourself before you leave
home, retrieving them from a machine or collecting from a station. So what you want to
enter here is an English speaking country so that the site will be in English - Norway is my
country of choice.
A site that is dedicated just to giving travellers information about all aspects of train travel in
Europe is www.seat61.com. This contains a wealth of information and is certainly worth a
visit before you start.
How long before your train is scheduled to leave should you arrive? I think rule of thumb is
around 30 minutes with the exception of Eurostar - see next section. If you already have
your ticket then 30 minutes will be more than adequate. When you arrive at the station,
you’ll see on the board the list of all of the destinations and the time that they are departing.
What you won’t see however is the platform they are departing from. In my experience, the
platform number is usually only displayed about 10 -15 minutes (if that) before the train
departs which can be a little nerve racking particularly when the announcements the local
Buy your food before you get on the train because the food is expensive, limited in choice,
not nutritious and the coffee is barely drinkable.
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5.4 Travelling on Eurostar between Paris and London
Travelling between London and Paris on Eurostar is definitely the most efficient way to do
this journey; it’s 2 hours and 15 minutes. You can book your Eurostar tickets direct with
them www.eurostar.com and retrieve your tickets from the self serve machine prior to
departure. From Paris, Eurostar goes from Gare du Nord, easily accessible on the Metro.
Generally, the further in advance you book the better the deal but that isn’t always the
case. It pays to spend some time looking at the different types of tickets and they do offer
deals of upgrades at discounted rates from 2nd class to 1st class sometimes. Second class
was absolutely fine but I’d consider getting a first class ticket next time just so that you
have a little more space.
When you book on Eurostar the information provided says that you must be there 30
minutes prior to departure and you really do need be at the departure gate 30 minutes
beforehand rather than arrived at the station.
It will take you time to retrieve your tickets, then find the gate and then you will have to go
through Immigration formalities because you are going from one country to another. If you
have a European Union passport this will be quicker, if you don’t (like most Australians)
then the process is slower and you will have to fill out an arrival card for the country you are
going to. My experience of UK Immigration officials is that they don’t rush anyone through
and that they question every person on exactly the purpose of their trip, duration etc so be
diligent in filling out your card and be prepared to answer all sorts of questions.
Eurostar arrives/departs from London St Pancras station which is directly across the road
from London Kings Cross. King’s Cross is a tube station and from there you’ll be able to get
to anywhere in London and in the UK generally through connecting to other stations.
5.5 Train travel in the UK
If you are travelling in the UK, a great website is www.thetrainline.com. It is really easy to
book online and you collect your tickets from a self serve kiosk using the credit card that
you purchased the tickets with. If you do this, make sure that you have noted the booking
or reference number because you will usually have to enter that reference number to
retrieve your tickets. Generally, the further in advance you purchase the cheaper the ticket
you will get.
5.6 Train travel in London
The Underground in London is efficient and can get you right around London at a very
reasonable price. If you are there for more than a few days it’s probably worth getting an
Oyster card – it’s like the Myki system in Melbourne - except that it works! You buy the
Oyster card and put some credit on it and you do the touch on and touch off thing like with
Myki and it means that you don’t have to keep buying tickets and the cost is quite
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If at the end of your time in London you still have credit on your Oyster card, you can get it
refunded – both the deposit you paid and whatever credit is left.
If you are travelling around France (outside of Paris that is) having a car is essential. If you
don’t have one then you find that you are quite isolated and not really able to experience
the French countryside to its full extent, the car gives much more freedom and choice. I
wouldn’t drive in Paris mainly because it’s far too scary, easy to get lost but most of all
completely unnecessary as the public transport is fantastic – efficient, cheap and easy to
6.1 Driving in France
Be aware of course that you’ll be driving on the opposite side of the road which takes a bit
of getting used to but its fine. In Europe, most people drive manual cars (as opposed to the
US where the default is automatic and most people don’t know how to drive a manual car.
Although my preference is manual, if I were doing it again I would choose to have an
automatic – just one less thing to think about while you’re driving on the opposite side of
the road, looking at the GPS to find your way and generally getting used to a different
environment. The speed limit in metropolitan areas is 50kmh and 90 kmh outside of towns
– apparently – although you’d never know it. Despite the incredibly narrow roads in many
places the French tend to drive very fast and speed limits are purely a guide. On freeways
the speed limit is 130kmh but most drive at more like 150kmh.
Generally, French drivers aren’t aggressive but they are impatient so get out of their way!
Be aware that the slow lane is the right line rather than the left lane as we are accustomed
6.2 Hiring a car
You can hire a car from Australia and it’s easy. I booked through www.autoeurope.com.au.
In most locations of any size you can pick up your car from either the airport or the railway
station. The fact that you can pick up from stations makes the whole train travel option
even more attractive. In many cases you will want to pick up from one location and drop off
somewhere else, this is easily catered for and in our case surprisingly we didn’t get
charged a one way fee even the locations were hundreds of kilometres apart.
6.3 International driver’s license
In France at least you don’t need to have an international driver’s license to hire a car, not
sure about other countries. As long as you have a valid driver’s license you will be fine.
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6.4 GPS – a MUST have
Unless you are some sort of freak and have no difficulty navigating in a completely foreign
place or alternatively like to have regular screaming matches with your travelling partner,
then a GPS is essential. Having one will make your life a lot easier and you won’t have to
spend time figuring out the best route to take. Taking your own GPS (which are already
familiar with) is the best and cheapest option. If you have to download maps for where you
are going to, do this in plenty of time before your departure as it can take quite some time.
We downloaded the French maps on the day we were leaving and it took almost 3 hours.
You can easily hire a GPS from the car hire company but not all locations will have that
facility available, if you want to hire from them, confirm with them before you go that it’s
Unlike in Melbourne where you need an e-Tag to get around, in France there are huge toll
gates. When you first see them you will probably wonder whether you should have had an
e-tag or equivalent but you don’t. When you get to the toll gates you push a button and
you’ll be provided with a ticket. Sometime further on your journey you’ll get to another toll
gate where you’ll put your ticket in and then your credit card – very easy. We only came
across one place where cash was needed. The tolls are expensive (cost us about 25
Euros from Sarlat to St Remy in Provence) but the freeways are great and given that you
can travel at a good speed it is much quicker.
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7. Money matters
7.1 Getting cash before you go
Of course it makes sense to have some local currency before you leave. Changing money
and trying to figure exchange rates and what the best deal is after a long flight isn’t much
fun, it’s much easier to take some cash with you. It used to be that to get foreign currency
from your local bank, you’d have to queue up and sign all sorts of forms after already
ensuring in advance that the bank had some of the currency you were after. Now, some
banks (probably all) have ATMs (presumably at major CBD branches) that dispense just
foreign currency. CBA in the Melbourne CBD have such machines which dispense UK
pounds, US dollars, NZ dollars and Euros and you just use your normal ATM card to
withdraw the money. The fee (as at September 2011) was a flat rate of $8 and there is a
limit of $1000 AUD per transaction. Very easy and convenient.
7.2 Paying for it all – credit cards and cash
Travelling internationally can become very expensive when it comes to using credit cards
and withdrawing cash. NAB and CBA and most likely ANZ have a particular product which
is designed specifically for international travel. You open the account and deposit into that
account and withdraw while you are away in that currency e.g. Euros, UK pounds etc. I
think this is a cost effective way of accessing your money but there is a better and cheaper
way that I found worked very well.
You can get a 28 Degrees Mastercard which will you can use anywhere internationally and
not incur ANY fees at all (with most if not all others you will pay currency conversion fees
and other charges which can really add up). This card really does deliver on its promise,
there are absolutely no fees on this card either to establish it or make transactions. With
this card you apply online and will receive your card in the mail pretty quickly. When you
nominate your credit limit think long and hard because if you decide you want to up the limit
soon after getting it, the answer I was given was that they wouldn’t review it until you’d had
the card awhile and established a pattern.
7.3 Getting cash
Withdrawing money out of your own Australian bank account can get pretty expensive
when you are using the ATMs of many different banks around the world. However you can
use the 28 Degrees Mastercard to withdraw money at no cost. If you are withdrawing cash
from an ATM it will be a cash advance which attracts hefty interest rates from the moment
you withdraw the cash.
However with the 28 Degrees Mastercard, if your account is in credit then although it is a
cash advance you are in effect withdrawing your own money and therefore won’t get
charged any interest. In Australia, you can use Westpac ATMs and you won’t get charged
any fees or interest. In the UK, you can use Barclays Bank and in France – BNP Paribus.
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This is a great card as long as you pay your bill by the due date and if you are going to do
cash withdrawals making sure your account is in credit otherwise you will pay dearly.
8. Keeping in touch with home
8.1 International phone card
Before you leave home, buy an International phone card. Regardless of whether you are
going to use your own mobile or not (not advised due to horrendous costs), having a phone
card is essential. Get it before you leave home so you get one that is in English and has
the instructions in English when you use it.
8.2 Using your own phone
Using your own phone is great and convenient but very expensive. If you have a
Smartphone and therefore use your phone for browsing the internet, email etc unless you
want to come home to a bill that will mean you’ll have to take out another mortgage you
MUST turn data roaming off. You can still use these functions on your phone but to do it in
a cost effective manner you need to do this by accessing someone else’s WiFi. Having
WiFi at your hotel/accommodation is the easiest option. If your hotel has free WiFi but you
find that the connection is really slow, visit the Reception area, usually the modem will be
there and you are much more likely to get a stronger signal. The best option for making
calls while you are away is Skype, it’s that simple.
8.3 Sending text messages
From France and the UK in September 2011, text messages cost 55 cents each which
doesn’t sound like much but they can soon add up. A way of sending free text messages is
by using the free iPhone app (no doubt available for all smart phones) WhatsApp.
WhatsApp allows you to send completely free texts to others who have WhatsApp, a great
way to stay in touch. It does however rely on you being connected using WiFi. If you send
messages using WhatsApp either when you aren’t connected or to someone who doesn’t
have WhatsApp then you will charged a normal text message fee.
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