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If you’re visiting France, you might be wondering how you can afford your trip between the food, the hotels, and the attractions. However, it’s definitely possible to visit France on a budget.
These are tips that I’ve perfected via my time living in Paris, traveling in France, and my dad’s recent trip around France. Traveling on a budget isn’t always about surviving on a shoestring, but cutting back on unnecessary expenses to splurge on the experiences that matter to you. I wrote this blog post together with my dad based on his recent trip to Provence and my travel around France. This post has been updated based on a recent trip to Southern France (April 2019).
Travel in offseason
Spring and summer are the most popular times to visit France, especially Paris and the South of France. By traveling to France in the offseason, you’ll find unspoiled landscapes, fewer tourists, pristine beaches, and cheap accommodation.
Be warned that many tourist areas may have less infrastructure in the offseason and some bed-and-breakfasts shut down for the winter, however you can expect to pay a fraction of what you’d pay normally. In October, we paid 70 euros to stay at a French chateau, including breakfast with the owner, where we were the only guests.
The South of France tends to be warmer year-round, so if you’re fine with not being able to swim, you might be surprised by how pleasant the weather is for sightseeing in the South of France. Either way, bring a jacket (just in case).
Eat local and eat the local specialties
Although it’s cool to select new dishes, it’s often cheapest to order the house specialty, so always ask what the plat du jour (plate of the day) is. While traveling in Normandy, we ate a lot of mussels as they’re affordable and typical of the region. (I tried three different variations on them!) My parents enjoyed a phenomenal lamb while traveling in Dijon.
Unlike what you might expect from a traditional French restaurant in a big French city, you might be able to get a multi-course meal for as low as ten euros for lunch. Dinner prices might be a bit higher,
Part of travel in France is the food and it’s a shame to miss out on the food in France if you’re traveling on a budget. The food and wine vary so wildly between regions, so you might be surprised by what you can find by going even twenty miles east. In Normandy, I was very impressed with the cider as well as the calvados. In the South of France, many plat du jour include seafood and vegetables that are locally sourced! A plat du jour dinner often starts at 11 euros.
It’s even possible to have an incredible meal in Paris on a budget. You just need to do your research into local specialties. A good guidebook for France should cover typical regional cuisine. Although I tend to prefer Lonely Planet for logistics, I feel that Rick Steves does a better job of covering food/culture in France.
If taking a road trip, avoid toll roads in France
If you’ll considering taking a road trip, know that the toll roads in France can be very pricey. Although your GPS might rebel against you, I recommend buying a good road map of France with Google Maps downloaded as a backup.
Driving to the north of France from Paris can cost twenty euros one way, however you can save money and drive a much more scenic route through the French countryside. We ended up driving past gorgeous chateaux, rolling hills, cider makers…
If you had taken the highway, it wouldn’t have been so scenic. You might wonder if you’re on track as you drive down one-lane roads through fields, but it’s part of the ride. Sometimes travel is about the journey, not the destination.
You don’t need a car to travel in France
You don’t need a car to see some parts of France. In many cases, the SNCF, as well as the regional train systems, allow you to explore outside of the cities without ever needing to rent a car.
Most people, myself included, will say that the French train system isn’t necessarily budget (unless you have a Eurail pass). However, if you might find a good deal if you check Oui, SNCF’s English-friendly SNCF promotions website. If you book non-refundable journeys over 30 days in advance (the further the better), you’ll also likely to find a cheap SNCF ticket. There are differently priced tickets for the same destination depending on which train you book. Don’t be afraid to take the earlier train!
For those on a tighter budget willing to take a long bus journey, France has a strong network of intercity buses. Check Ouibus as well as Flixbus for good deals on the French buses.
The RER is Paris’ regional line that connects Paris with the rest of Île–de–France. The RER outside of Paris will take you up to one and a half hours away from Paris, enabling you to visit beautiful medieval towns (Provins shown above). Although many people think that you need a car to reach these places, it’s often easier not needing to worry about parking in historical villages.
Don’t be afraid of public transportation
The local transportation in France varies a lot depending on the region, but within most major cities, it’s decent. Don’t be afraid to organize your itinerary using trains and buses. My parents saved a lot of money by walking around the city center and taking public transportation around. I often use Google Maps and France is good about having wifi in public spaces.
For Paris, public transportation is your friend although you can often walk in between places. I know a lot of people who don’t take public transit at home, however the metro in Paris is super affordable and fast.
I personally recommend buying the individual tickets if you’re visiting Paris for a short time, however a Navigo card is a good investment if you’re in Paris for a longer period. The Navigo card is a reloadable card that allows you to pay per week rather than by ride. It’s cheapest to buy a package of ten tickets rather than buying individual metro tickets.
You don’t need a tour necessarily; Talk to the helpful folks at the tourist information first
Locals always know best. I often try to ask the owners of bed and breakfasts that I stay at about transportation in the region as soon as I book a room. However, the tourist information desks are there specifically to help you for free.
Often, tourist information desks can be found at the train stations as well as in the city centers. Most tourist information desks offer discount cards to museums/attractions and often can recommend food/sightseeing suggestions based on your interests/amount of time in the region.
Similarly, tourist information can answer any questions that you have and if you’re wondering how to get from A to B, they might have a recommendation. My dad was interested in visiting a nearby winery region near Provence that is typically only done by tour (over 70 euros per person). As soon as he went to tourist information, they were able to recommend a direct train that would bring him to the same destination without a car or tour. You can also call or email the tourist information in advance if you’re figuring out your trip.
While in Provence, my parents were able to easily visit two cities in one day during regional transportation. Be sure to get the train or bus schedules in advance to maximize your time there.
My dad was able to buy two train tickets for visiting two cities in one day by buying one-way train tickets to each city. It was still cheaper to visit with a lunch than take a one day tour. In its place, he found a book of self-guided walking tours for the region, which covered the history and sights!
If you’re firm about visiting attractions, buying tickets ahead often means you’re paying more…
Time can be money, but if you’re traveling in France on a budget with a list of must-see attractions, you can often get discounts for major attractions at the tourist office if you ask politely. When booking your tickets, make sure that you’re buying it directly from the source as many external websites will markup the price to help you “skip the line”.
You don’t always need to pay admission to enjoy a city
Half the joy of visiting France is exploring the cities on foot. Typically, churches are free to enter (including Notre Dame), and you can always admire the exteriors without paying for entry. I find that self-guided walking tours are a great way to entertain yourself with stopping at cafes at needed.
Also, if you look online, you’ll find vast resources in terms of free activities that can be done in any city. For instance, you can take in an epic view of Paris from the rooftop of the Printemps building for free!
Prior to choosing a restaurant, try to avoid places that cater only to foreign tourists
This is especially true for Paris, but there’s a lot of restaurants that cater mostly to foreigners in other cities. (As a rule, I don’t recommend going into a restaurant where they ask you on the street to come inside.) Locals don’t eat there and prices are elevated.
It’s convenient, however English is more widely spoken in France than many English-speaking tourists realize. Especially for Paris, do your research into where to eat like a local as prices will be better, the food will be better, and you might even come away from the trip learning a bit of French. 😉
Don’t be deterred by menus only in French. I personally love when a restaurant has a paper menu OR a handwritten blackboard as that’s a sign that they’re getting their ingredients fresh and the menu is changing daily. If you’re not a French speaker, be sure to download French on Google Translate offline on your phone. You’ll be able to instantly translate your menus using your phone camera. (It’s magic.)
I find that crêperies tend to be very cheap food option found easily all over France. For as low as three euros (it depends on the places), you can have a sweet or savory crepe with a filling of your choice. Personally, I love Nutella crêpes and there’s something deeply satisfying about a warm crêpe on a cold day.
Be aware of the distance to/from the airport
You might think that you’re saving money by flying in/out of Beauvais airport, but the airports, including Charles de Gaulle, aren’t necessarily so convenient. For instance, you’ll need to pay over 15 euros per way for the Beauvais to Paris bus. (The distance is 75 kilometers.) That certainly adds up although a taxi might be even more money.
The closest airport to Paris is ORY, which is only 20-30 minutes outside of Paris. Be sure to give yourself enough time to deal with security, which can be tight. Take into account the costs of getting to/from the airport as it shocked me the first time that I traveled from Beauvais.
Stop off at the supermarket for lunch supplies and snacks
I certainly will not claim that Monoprix, Carrefour, M&S, and Franprix are your cheapest options for buying food in France, but it will be cheaper than going out to eat. Most will have some healthy to-go options, including sandwiches. If you don’t have time to gather supplies for a picnic, you’ll save a lot of money bringing your own sandwich and drink (like I did for Versailles).
You can’t really go wrong with French food. My go-to budget food option in France? A baguette, a bit of brie, and some apples. This should last at least two meals. All you’ll need is a knife to cut the apples and spread the brie with.
Get breakfast/lunch at a cafe/bakery/food hall or shop for a picnic
If you choose a hotel without breakfast (which often is cheaper), you have a reason to spend your morning sitting at a lovely little French cafe or walking down to the neighborhood pâtisserie (bakery) for a pastry. One of my favorite parts of France is sitting out at cafes enjoying a coffee soaking in the atmosphere (and occasionally the cigarette smoke if you’re outside). It doesn’t hurt to have an epic view.
If your hotel provides a standard breakfast, you’ll lose out on the fact that you can pay as low as one euro for an incredible French pastry. What a way to start a morning! (For the record, to-go coffee is not a thing in France, so if you want coffee at a cafe, you’ll need to sit down to enjoy it.)
Similarly, visit the local food halls (Les Halles). The local food halls are a great opportunity to gather picnic supplies on a budget as well as purchase fresh food in a scenic setting that counts as sightseeing.
While in Dijon, my parents went regularly to the market to buy anchovies, sardines, and bread from local fishmongers and bakers. If you’re into French cheese, you can sample them easily at the food hall. Most places are happy to give you a sample. There are chairs or tables at most food halls where you can sit and have your meal.
Consider non-hotel accommodations and stay outside of the city center
Be open to accommodations that aren’t necessarily traditional hotels if you’re visiting France on a budget. France is full of charming bed and breakfast hotels as well as vacation apartments that may end up being cheaper than getting a traditional hotel room if you’re traveling with others. Similarly, the experience might be much more memorable.
After comparing hotel prices in Rouen and Honfleur, I ended up staying in a French chateau. There are many novelty accommodations in France and often if you’re traveling with more than one person, it’s cheaper to get a room at a bed and breakfast than have each person pay for a hostel bed.
I often recommend staying outside of the city center in a residential neighborhood as accommodation prices are lower and you get better access to local restaurants. Compared to the city center where most tourists eat, you’ll have access to more restaurants. I also like being close to laundromats and supermarkets, which make it easy to feel like a local, especially if I can cook for myself in my rented apartment.
In the South of France, many hotels are housed in older buildings. One hotel of ours in Arles appeared average from the exterior, but the interior had a private garden and great amenities.
Buy your wine at the supermarket or a wine store.
Although I enjoy having a glass of wine with dinner, I find that buying a bottle of wine with lunch or dinner can be pricey at a restaurant. The most affordable option is to buy a quality bottle of wine at Monoprix (or any store that carries wine) and enjoy it at your hotel or outside.
In Paris and other parts of France, it’s common to sit outside in a park or along the Seine sharing a glass of wine with friends/a significant other. You can get a bottle of quality French wine for as low as five to ten euros. Ask your accommodation if they have a corkscrew or glasses that you can borrow or even buy your own at the store. Cheers to saving money while traveling in France!