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France: Know before you g​o

By Anna Sarjeant ​- House of Travel

The lowdown on all things France. This is your definitive guide to holidaying in France.  

An illustrious nation by any standards, France fosters a prestigious name and the charisma to match. A patchwork of vineyards, villages, slick cities and a rich rural tapestry, days can be as diverse as laid-back beach visits, followed by upmarket Michelin meals. There’s really no right or wrong way to see France, just as long as you take regular stops for French bread, pate and a crisp glass of white (in other words do as the French do). Bon voyage, you lucky little so-and-so, you.  

Colmar France


​1. How long can I stay without a visa?
New Zealand citizen holders with a valid New Zealand passport are not required to obtain a visa to enter France, as long as you stay no more than 90 days.


2. What’s the local currency?


3. Do I need to tip?
By law, French restaurants are required to include a 15 percent service charge in the bill. This can be clearly seen as “service compris” (tip included) on your receipt. However, the price shown on the menu, in general, also includes the 15%, so there shouldn’t be any hidden extras when you come to pay. If you’ve been particularly happy with the service, round the bill up to the nearest Euro.

For hotel porters, two to three euros is ample, and in taxis, drivers will expect a 10-15% gratuity on top of your fare.

Lyon France


4. Trans​fers to and from the airport

Tranfers between Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport and Paris city centre:
Unless you are in a rush or arrive in the early hours, avoid expensive taxis and jump on the RER B: The suburban train line which runs straight out of Charles de Gaulle International Airport and into the very heart of Paris.

Quick facts:

  • First train CDG to Paris:  04:56am
  • Last train CDG to Paris: 23:50pm
  • Trains run every 6 to 15 minutes.
  • Average journey time between Paris-Châtelet and CDG airport is 35-40 minutes.
  • Arrival Stations: Gare du Nord, Châtelet les Halles, St Michel/Nôtre Dame, Luxembourg, Port Royal, Denfert-Rochereau and Cité Universitaire.

​Click here for more RER transport information. 

Say no to public transport. We guarantee after a 24+ hour flight from NZ, you won't want to deal with a transfer via ​trains and buses. Ask your HoT consultant about booking a transfer before you even leave NZ.

5. Getting around

As of August 2017, Ubers are available in nine French cities: Paris, Nice, Lille, Lyon, Marseille, Nantes, Bordeaux, Strasbourg and Toulouse.

The SNCF train system: Is globally regarded as providing a world-class service. If you’re looking for a fast, efficient, regular and extremely reliable means to get around France, you can’t go wrong with the train. Albeit not cheap, book in advance for the best deals. In the height of summer, you’re unlikely to be able to purchase tickets on the day you want to travel, especially on popular inter-city routes, as they will probably be fully booked. Always pre-purchase tickets at least three days in advance.

A sign of the times: There is now strict security at all major French train stations. Much like an airport, allow an extended amount of time to get through. Gone are the days you can turn up five minutes prior - allow at least 30 minutes to clear security. 

Self-drive: Lost? When in larger cities, follow the sign for 'Toutes Directions" which literally means all directions. Follow these and you'll be led to a major roundabout or intersection - with more signposts and the (greater) possibility ​of finding your bearings. 

France paris

​5. Weather: When is the best time to go?
Weather wise, there is so much variety in France. Mild winters and warm summers are common across the country but the northern regions can also get bitterly cold in the middle of winter. The Mediterranean coast enjoys cool (but not cold) winters and hot summers whereas the southwest gets plenty of rain after the summer. Cool to cold winters and hot summers are common along the German border (Alsace), and if your tickle the Rhône Valley, there is an occasional strong, cold, dry wind. Of course, winters in the Alps, Pyrenees and Auvergne are served with a flurry (make that a few metres) of snow. Whenever you visit - as a general rule - travel south for increased sunshine and higher temperatures.


6.​ Top 10 phrases

  • Oui – Yes
  • Non – No
  • S'il vous plaît – Please
  • Merci – Thank you
  • Je ne parle pas français – I don't speak French
  • Parlez-vous anglais? – Do you speak English?
  • Bonjour – Hello
  • Au revoir – Goodbye
  • Excusez-moi – Excuse me
  • Combien ça coûte? - How much does it cost? 

France Summer Sunflowers

​7. Rules and customs

Learn French:
Having a little bit of French in your arsenal will do you wonders in France. Locals always respond positively to foreigners who speak their language – even if you’re just seen as trying to make an effort.

Say bonjour: When entering almost anywhere (shops, restaurants, the patisserie, bars etc). In the evening it's "bonsoir" and "bonne soiree" when you leave.

Bonsoir = Good evening.
Bonne soiree = Have a good evening.

Metro etiquette: If you’re in Paris and using the Metro, or you’re walking through any other area with busy pathways and escalators, walk on the left and stand on the right. Optional? Yes. But get in a Parisian's way at your own risk!

If you’re embarking on a self-drive:
 Failing to offer assistance to 'a person in danger' is illegal. Therefore, if you come across a car accident and don’t stop, fail to report it to the emergency services, or ignore appeals for help, you could be charged. Penalties include suspended prison sentences and fines. 

Hearing sirens around midday? Don't panic, although they can sound like an air raid alarm, in larger cities they are often heard to signal the start of lunch for the city workers. 

The grand vacations: Unlike NZ, where most people enjoy a holiday anytime of the year, the French mostly holiday in July and August. As a result business really slows down. Almost 40% close for the month of August, so if you don't find many places open, this is why. 

High visibility jackets: By law, all drivers must have a High Visibilty Jacket, and ideally, all occupants too. The jackets have to be within reach and inside the car - not in the boot. A warning triangle is also obligatory if you break down. If you're hiring a car, don't drive off the forecourt without checking that a triangle and sufficient jackets are provided - it's your responsibility.

Monday closures: If you're venturing out of the main cities, be mindful that a lot of small businesses, especially rural stores, close both Sunday and Monday. That means if you want a boulangerie baguette after ​Saturday, you better stock up beforehand - or wait until Tuesday.

France Village Brittany

8. Where to have fun
Champagne anyone? In Epernay the Avenue de Champagne is bursting with wine tours and tasting, while Hautvillers, 5km north, presents the hometown and resting place of a 17th century monk - by the name of Dom Pérignon. Discover the ever-popular Route de Vins in Alsace, a 170km stretch weaving through the Vosges foothills; passing 100 sleepy villages and if you’re in luck, a local wine festival too. Burgundy is the region of cheese and Chablis, Dijon mustard and boeuf bourguignon. Take a canal boat along the Yonne’s waterways or cycle the Côte d'Or vineyards. See and be seen at the beach – Nice, St Tropez or Cannes - the seduction of the Mediterranean is rife. Lunch in a country auberge or shop the biggest names in France, from Chanel to YSL. Gabarres (little barges that once carried wine barrels) are perfect for cruising up-stream in the Dordogne, while Bordeaux, the capital of unashamed over-indulgence, is a must-do for its 57 wine labels, UNESCO heritage and world-class artwork. In Toulouse, descend on the main square, Place du Capitole, just before sunset and watch the fiery red colours sink into the city. By day visit the 11th Century Basilica St-Sernin, arguably France’s grandest Romanesque church and the lavish mansions that flank the wide boulevards of the Old Quarter.

France Market Paris

​9. What to do in an emergency​
France is a low-crime country, but there is pickpocketing and purse-snatching. Call 112 to reach emergency services - medical, fire and police. There are two law enforcement forces in France, the National Police (Police Nationale) and the Gendarmerie which has a military component. Don’t be surprised to see both forces heavily armed, often with semi-machine guns. 

House of Travel recommends anyone travelling to the UK and Europe ​registers with Safe Travel. As well as offering invaluable travel advice, should an emergency arise, they can find you, check your well-being and send important travel information.

We also recommend safely and securely storing three important travel documents (your passport, credit card and driver's license) on your phone. Use an app such as Traveler ID which will store a series of documents in one place. Of course, you might lose your phone, so also store them in the Cloud, or your saved emails.


10. Mobile usage – to roam or not to roam?
If your phone is unlocked you’ll be able to purchase a French SIM card. Orange is one of the biggest providers of SIM cards. No-contract plans start from approximately €39 ($60) and will include local calls, texts and CAPPED data.

France Paris Dawn


11. HOT’s top 5 French eats 

1. Moules and frites. Or any variant of the south west’s seafood and shellfish. Delivered by the crashing Atlantic waves.

Try it: Le Poisson Rouge in Les Sables-d'Olonne. A seaside town on the western coast of France, this one's pelted by the Atlantic Ocean and the seafood here is fresh and fabulous. 
Address: 20 Quai René Guiné, 85100 Les Sables-d'Olonne.

2. A liquid lunch. Champagne in Champagne; Cognac in Cognac; one of 57 brands of wine in Bordeaux. Add some crackers, pate and a fresh French baguette and voila, enjoy a slice of the good life.

Try it
: Visit a Cognac distillery in charming Cognac itself. Book with Hennessy and the tour includes an idyllic boat ride across the river. Open April 15 - October 15 every day (except May 1st). From 10am to 5pm. 
Address: Rue de la Richonne – BP20, 16101 Cognac cedex

3. Cassoulet. It might not look pretty, but never judge a book by its cover and never judge food by its state on the plate. Originating in the south of France and comprising meat, pork skin and white beans, it’s definitely ugly but it’s always delicious.

Try itLocated within the city walls of Carcassonne and just 50 metres from the chateau, Brasserie le Donjon dishes up a very delicious Cassoulet from Languedoc. After dinner, pop into the Hotel de la Cité for a cocktail - just a short stroll away.  
Address: 4 Rue de la Porte d'Aude, 11000 Carcassonne. 

4. Croissants.
But of course! Days start with café au lait in street-lined cafés; people watching and picking away at a warm croissant. A huge bowl of hot chocolate is not uncommon for breakfast either, the children especially like it. And no, we don't know how the French aren't obese either.

Try it
With a super swish black interior and food cabinets that look like something out of a polished Scandinavian show home, the desserts here almost look too pretty to eat. Almost. The croissants are large, fluffy and perfectly flaky. And they won't set you back more than €1.50. 
Address: 63 Boulevard Pasteur, 75015 Paris​.

5. Bouillabaisse: A traditional fish stew from Marseille. Bouillabaisse originates from olden times, when fishermen made a hearty meal from the bony rockfish they were unable to sell. For this reason, eat with care; an authentic Bouillabaisse will still be saturated with bones.

Try it: Chez Madie les Galinettes. This small restaurant on the north side of Marseille’s Vieux Port, is a f​avourite amongst locals and enjoys a distinct coastal vibe. Located bang on the port, sit on the terrace and devour Marseille's best Bouillabaisse. Book in advance, this place fills up fast. 
Address: 138 Quai du Port, 13002 Marseille. 

France Croissants Boulangerie

12. Is the water safe to drink?
Unless you see "Eau non potable", tap water is safe to drink.


13. HOT’s top insider tips

Michelin cuisine without the price tag

Oh yes, there are plenty of Michelin starred restaurants in Paris and while dinner can set you back a pretty penny, lunch won’t run your savings dry. With one-star establishments such as L'Agapé (17th arrondissement) serving a set four course lunch for €35pp, and even the three-star l'Astrance (16th arrondissement) dishing out a three course lunch for €70 per head, you can afford to go ostentatious. At lunchtime at least.

Eat on the cheap
For more lunches and dinners that won't stretch your purse strings, but WILL feed your belly with traditional French recipes, keep an eye out for an 'auberge'. Better described as an inn, these no frill eateries are less upmarket than a restaurant but are usually attached to a rural bed-and-breakfast or hotel. The menus are simple but the ​flavours are centuries old, and usually reasonable too. 

Look out for the 'plat du jour'
Literally the 'dish of the day' and usually very good value for money. All French restaurants list their menu outside their front door - so you can Google translate before entering! 

Ensure your food is home-made: 
Unfortunately (sorry ​if this bursts your French bubble) but ​some restaurants just reheat their food. Not something the government are overly happy about. So in 2014 they created a new sign - designed to indicate when food has definitely been homemade. Any restaurant that serves a homemade dish is legally required to indicate so on the menu (with a logo - in the shape of a saucepan with a roof-like lid). If you don't see the logo, the food is NOT homem​ade. 

Black Saturday: 
Because the French tend to take their annual holiday at the same time, millions of drivers choose to travel on the same day of the year. Black Saturday refers to the one day of the year when millions of French holiday makers move across the country over the same weekend - either starting their holiday or returning home. Resulting in delays, traffic jams and unfortunately, accidents. Aim to travel on the Friday or Sunday instead.  
To Noz, or not to Noz?
The end of line shop, Noz, is remarkably popular in France. A little bit like frequenting a Church hall jumble sale - in a scruffy warehouse, you might find a 500 Euro designer dress, you might find a pack of stale Pringles. Quite the experience. If not for just the people watching!

Where's the dairy?
Looking for your one-stop shop for a few quick essentials? You're looking for a 'tabac'. 

In Paris, the Eiffel Tower's has more floors than you think
There's an apartment on the third and final floor which Gustave Eiffel built for himself ​but neglected to tell the press. It remained ​a secret for decades, but is now open to the public. To this day, much of the furnishings remain exactly the same, and the views are always breath-taking. Find out more here. 

Hotel de Ville
Nope, you're not getting a night's sleep here. The Hotel de Ville is the town hall. Don't worry, this one fools every first-time visitor to France. 

Tour Paris in a vintage Citröen ​2CV
Get picked up from your accommodation by a Frenchman and his vintage convertible Citröen 2CV, then embark on a 90 minute zip around the city​. Your driver will tailor your itinerary to suit exactly what you want to see in the City of Lights, and with his encyclopaedia-like knowledge, you’ll learn all about Paris from a local. The company is called 4 Rues sous 1 Parapluie, with rates starting at approximately 120 Euros for an hour.

All aboard France's 45-ton mechanical elephant
The 'Mechanical Elephant', based in Nantes ​in north-west France​, is a 12 metre, 45 ton steel elephant that can carry up to 49 people on a 45 minute walk through the ​city. A ride of sorts, it's part of the Machines of the Isle of Nantes (Les Machines de l'île) project, which brings together art, tourism and culture. Not to be missed if you're visiting ​the country, Nantes is only a one hour flight from Paris, and the 6th biggest city in the country.  


14. France for kids
You can make almost any French activity as fun for children as it is for the adults. Take a ghost tour/walk in Paris or navigate the rural vineyards with a bike ride. If you’re critters are brave critters, cycle on a country road and wait for the trucks carrying hay bales to pass – nothing more fun than a hay storm! In summer, many of the French farmers craft their fields into crazy mazes. A maize maze if you will. The French are also particularly good at designing a really great park, with all sorts of swings, slides and monkey bars. If you’re not close to the coast, many municipals have manmade lakes with small slivers of sand and swimming pontoons. And you might not get the kids eating duck liver pate by lunchtime, but we bet they won’t mind a picnic with a pastry from the patisserie. Look out for the savoury options covered in shredded emmental cheese – the cheese makes the slice look excessively hairy and kids love it.

European Heritage Days
These are annual national events, currently set up by more than fifty countries whereby the public are permitted to visit buildings and other historical places of interest which are not usually open to the public, or museums whose access then becomes free, or reduced in price.  

These heritage days are launched every year on the third weekend of September. Also known as Doors Open Days and Open Doors Days. For more information click here.

15.  What adapter do I need?
The mains voltage is 220 volts AC (50 cycles). Sockets take small round two-pin plugs. 

France Countryside

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