“A fantastic combination of quality, style and friendliness in one place”
Tony & Nicola, Wellingborough
We have put this little overview together for international guests, be this your first time to France or a return visit.
It is not meant as a replacement to excellent information found on the internet and in guide books, but just some practical information based on our own experience of living in France and some of the questions and queries asked of us by our guests.
With a population of around 67 million, France is the largest country in Western Europe and the third largest country in the whole of Europe. it is one of only three countries (Spain & Morocco being the other two) that have both Atlantic & Mediterranean coastlines.
France is the most visited country in the world with over 80 million visitors each year. Income derived from tourism equates to almost 10% of the country's GDP and employs nearly 3 million people.
Mainland France is divided into 22 regions and then sub-divided into 96 Departments (for example, Mazamet is located in the department of the Tarn which is located in the region of the Midi-Pyreenés).
Time Zone - France sits within the CET (Central European Time) which is GMT + 1. The whole of France sits within one time-zone. On the last Sunday of March the clocks move forward by one hour and on the last Sunday in October going back by one hour.
France, along with 18 other members of the European Union and 5 other European Countries, uses the Euro (€). As of 2013, the Euro is used daily by some 334 million people and is the second most traded currency in the world.
1 Euro is made up of 100 Euro Cents and the currency is available in 1,2, 5, 10, 20, 50 Euro cent coins; a 1 € and 2 € coin and 5 €, 10 €, 20 €, 50 €, 100 €, 200 € and 500 € notes (it is not uncommon for some businesses to refuse 100/100/500 € notes).
Changing Money - unlike many other countries, banks (unless you have a bank account with that specific bank) will not change foreign currency into Euros. Traveller's Cheques are not common place nor easily cashed. Larger cities will have "Bureau de Change" and many guests use either their credit card, a pre-loaded currency card or use cash-machines.
It is worth checking with your own bank or credit card issuers what their charges are for overseas transactions and cash withdrawals before you travel. We often find that guests prefer to pre-pay for their stay by bank transfer which can be a more cost effective option.
Credit Cards - MasterCard, Visa and debit cards from most countries are widely accepted throughout France. Some locations have a minimum 10/15 € per transaction when using a credit card. American Express & Diners cards are often not accepted by smaller establishments.
Please Note - many overseas credit cards will not work at the automated toll booth on the toll roads (Péage) nor at petrol pumps (please see note below on fuel). If your card will not work at the toll you are best advised to ensure you carry some cash with you or drive into the lane where there is an attended booth.
Try and learn a few words of French before you travel, especially simple directions, knowing your way around items on a menu and some basic greetings like "bonjour" or "bonsoir"! Such words can make a lot of difference and, even if you struggle beyond the initial pleasantries, French people will appreciate that you have made the effort and between your pigeon French and their pigeon English, you will be surprised how far a conversation can progress!
The weather you are likely to experience in France will be determined by both the month in which you travel and where in the country you are visiting.
Winter lasts from late November through to the end of March when, even in the far south, you can expect cool weather with temperatures around 12-14 degrees; in the north (and at high elevations) expect some very cold weather with snow & frosts. Much of France's weather is determined by the Atlantic weather systems so the winters in the west and the north can also be very windy & wet.
Summer temperatures vary considerably between the north and the south between May & October - the south will be warmer and then hotter earlier and later in the year, whereas the north will have cooler weather in early May and from mid-September onwards. Typically the weather in the north, including Paris and the Loire Valley, will be around 25 degrees in June, July & August, whereas the south, particularly Provence and along the Mediterranean coast, will be 10 degrees hotter.
Tipping is not expected in most parts of France (Paris is perhaps the exception) and it is not uncommon for your bill in a restaurant/café to have a service charge already included. If you feel you have received good service, adding 10/15% to the final bill by way of a tip (in cash) would be appreciated. For taxi's a 10% of the fare as a tip is common, but again not expected.
Unless you are going to a fine dining restaurant, the French dress very casually for most occasions. If you are visiting a place of worship dress modestly. If you are travelling from June-September there is likely to be little need for warm clothing but at other times, the evening temperatures may drop, so a sweater or light jacket would be advisable. At other times of the year you may need to travel with a lot more clothes with less predictable weather (we have experienced both -15 and + 21 degrees centigrade in February in Mazamet for example!)
Most shops, banks and other businesses (apart from in major cities) open from around 9am – until Noon and then again from 2/2.30pm to 6/7pm. Most close on a Sunday & Monday (some banks open Saturday mornings)
Lunch time is commonly Noon until 2pm. Whilst some busier tourist spots operate an all-day service, this is rare and it is often difficult to find anywhere serving lunch after 2pm, and prior to dinner at 7pm. The French don’t tend to eat late in the evening, it is not common to find a restaurant (other than fast food outlets) that will offer food past 9.30pm.
The same can often apply to cathedrals, museums & historic buildings (particularly from September-May) where they open in the morning and close for two hours over lunch before reopening for the afternoon/early evening.
If you are driving in France and using your own car from another country, you need to ensure that you have in your vehicle:
(all of these items are provided in rental cars).
Furthermore, if your car is right hand drive, it is a legal requirement to fit the stickers onto your headlights that prevent the high-beam crossing onto the opposite carriageway.
Renting a car in France is very simple but ensure that you bring (if issued by your respective country) all parts of your driving licence and not just the plastic licence itself. It is not necessary to have an International Driving Permit but you will need to be over the age of 18 and have had a licence for at least 12 months. If more than one person will be a driver, ensure you tell your car rental company in advance (some car rental companies may have other restrictions so best to check with whomever you decide to rent from). Based on our own, and guests, experiences we recommend Rentalcars.com
Car rental locations are situated at most airports, major railways stations and some in down-town locations too.
For non-EU residents there is a scheme where you can "lease" a car which avoids the VAT costs. This scheme applies if you require a car for more than two weeks - you can find out more here.
It is possible (thought at a premium) to rent a car "one way" meaning you will drop it off at a different point (even a different country) from which you rented it, including those on the leasing scheme.
PLEASE NOTE - it is very important that you tell your car rental provider if you plan to drive your car into another country, if you do not make them aware at the time of renting, it could invalidate your insurance and breakdown cover if an incident occurred.
Like most of Europe, the French drive on the right and speed/distance are calculated in Kilometres (KM).
The road network in France, even minor roads, are usually very well maintained and signage is very clear. Most visitors comment on the road quality and, with the exception of major cities, the lack of traffic too.
Unless otherwise indicated, the national speed limit is 90 KPH; the dual carriageways have a maximum speed limit of 110 kph, and autoroutes 130 kph (both of which are reduced in poor weather conditions).
PLEASE NOTE - when you pass the sign with a town's name of it, the speed limit automatically drops to 50 KPH unless otherwise stated (sometimes it can be 20 or 30 KPH if near a school, shops or hospital). Fixed speed cameras and Police with mobile radar guns are widely used in France and a ticket is automatically issued (if you are driving a hire car, they can charge you a 25 € admin fee on top of the fine to forward the letter to your home address).
Something that also catches international visitors out is "Prioritie a Droit" (priority from the right ) - this means that traffic joining the main road from a smaller side road on the right has the priority. These are common in towns & villages and also on small country roads.
Bizarre, yes (we still do not understand the logic behind them) but you need to be aware if you see either this sign OR a sign that reads either "Prioritie a Droit" or "Vous n'avez pas prioritie"
Once you pass a sign with a yellow diamond, it means that you are back to having priority again and if you see a similar sign but with a black line through the yellow diamond, it means you will soon be entering a priority a droit zone again.
Our best advice is that in all smaller towns and villages, be vigilant to access roads and drive cautiously, just in case. If in doubt, give way.
There is an excellent motorway/freeway network that links nearly all cities across the country. Large sections of the Autoroute are a "Péage" which are chargable. When you enter a section of péage you will come to what looks like a toll booth but it will be an barrier which automatically issues a ticket.
The ticket is then used when you come to a toll booth or when exiting the section of péage for a smaller road. As noted above, the tolls can be paid in cash or by credit card and it's always advisable to ensure you have cash with you in case your card does not work. (you will need to ensure that you get into the correct lane as you approach the toll booths, which are indicated by illuminated signs with either a "coin" or "card" or a pictogram of a man with a peaked cap, which indicated a manned booth with an attendant. (sometimes "CB" which is carte bancaire (credit card). DO NOT enter the lane with a "T" as this is for drivers that have an electronic tag. If in doubt, head for the pictogram manned booth as they will accept most forms of payment.
If you do not wish to use the Autoroutes, you will often find a parallel road (N roads) which will add to your journey time but you will pass through towns & villages. We would always advise purchasing a road map of France (or a specific department map if you are only going to be driving in one area) and not over-rely on sat navs and Google Maps!
Fuel stations are frequent on major roads but not on minor roads, they are also found at all major supermarkets where the fuel is often cheaper. Like in most countries, you will pay substantially more on Autoroutes so best to ensure you fill up before heading on these major roads.
It is also important to note that many fuel stations are unmanned out of normal business hours and operate on a “pay at pump” basis. Unfortunately, these often do not accept foreign credit cards.
Most rental cars use diesel and not petrol (gas). At the forecourt the nozzle of the pump for diesel normally has a yellow or black plastic disk on it and diesel is called “Gasoil”.
Most car rental companies also have a policy of "full to full" meaning you return your car fully refuelled although some companies have their cars with small amount of fuel and you return it likewise. It is always best to ask before you leave the rental point where the nearest fuel station is so you can re-fuel close to dropping off the car.
If you have any tips or advice from your own travels in France that you feel we have missed or should be included, please let us know and we will add them in when we refresh this document.