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Considering visiting the South of France on a budget? Experienced French traveler Steve has some helpful tips for visiting Provence on a budget for first-time visitors. We include tips on how to find cheap accommodations in the South of France, budget eating tips, and how to avoid the crowds in the South of France.
Speaking French is handy, but not necessary for navigating the South of France on your own
Regretfully, I do not speak French. One myth is English travelers must speak French because the French resent speaking any other language. I can definitely dismiss this myth. Today, many regular French citizens and individuals employed in tourism-related fields speak excellent English.
You can easily book most of your trip online at this point and there should be no price difference whether you book your trains, hotels, or tours in French or English online. The real price difference is waiting too long to book!
Although I learned a few words and phrases, not speaking fluent French is not a concern. Over 14 days, not one person refused to answer in English. It is still useful to pick up enough French (using a guidebook or a French language guide) to order, but your lack of French should not impede your trip!
Embrace Train Travel and Book the TGV early for the best price
Transportation (Getting to the South of France)
There are several ways of reaching the SoF by airplane and train. The TGV is the pride of the French railway system. The trains are very well run with fresh food and travel upwards of 200+ mph. The trip from Paris to Avignon is 2 1/2 hours while the trip to Nice is 5 ½ hours. It is pleasant looking at the countryside. Since the trains are very popular, make your reservations early. The OUI provides English translations for booking reservations for the French railway system.
Choose your seat while booking the train or you may be separated from fellow travelers. If you choose to buy food on the train, order early or the wait may be long or they may sell out, I now bring my own food aboard (as do many locals).
For an even cheaper option on how to get to the South of France, I recommend looking up OuiBus, Eurolines, and Flixbus. These European bus companies have regular buses with minimal stops between France and other nearby countries. It should be very inexpensive to take a bus from Paris to Nice or Marseilles. It’s not as glamorous as train travel, but great for anyone dreaming of visiting the South of France on a budget!
For international flights, the two main airports are in Marseilles and Nice. I found an inexpensive flight to Nice but be aware that during peak season, it can be expensive. Nice airport is a fifteen-minute bus ride from downtown Nice with frequent bus service. You’ll find numerous budget flights into Nice and Marseilles from all over Europe with airlines like EasyJet, RyanAir, and Transavia (owned by KLM). It’s best to book your tickets far in advance or during sales.
Transportation around Provence has many options.
Personally, I prefer local trains or buses since they offer the opportunity to meet locals and they’re less expensive. The trains within Provence are frequent and priced differently depending upon the date and time that you book and the actual travel date. A train ticket can be double from the lowest priced depending upon the time of travel and whether it is direct.
Rent a car for maximal flexibility and staying at less expensive accommodations
Renting a car is an option that allows you the flexibility of stopping wherever and whenever you want. The petrol price is high and parking in certain large cities can be a challenge. Still, you can save big in terms of hassle, accommodation by staying outside of major cities, and skipping day tours if you have your own car. (It’s best to rent from Nice to avoid any tolls driving from Paris.)
If you are unable to drive, day tours can be a good way to visit more remote parts of Provence where you cannot easily visit without a car. You can also take ferries between certain French cities and Monaco.
Eating and drinking well is still in your budget
Food is one of the great bargains and pleasures of the SoF. On my first trip, I discovered the many Halles ( town markets) in many towns and Cities where fresh foods, cheeses, olives, and other locally grown produce are sold. Many of the Halles open as early as 7 am, so pass on paying for hotel breakfast and eat locally. All Halles have tables where you can sit and enjoy local food with local residents. Otherwise, sit outside and find a nice viewpoint!
Dessert in many French restaurants involves a cheese cart, so if you’re looking for something sweeter, head out early to stop by the patisserie or a cafe with sweets for macarons bought by the piece that you can enjoy with a view. It will be just as delicious!
Ask for the local wine or just order the house wine. (It’s sometimes cheaper than water!)
Wine is grown locally in Provence. Many restaurants, bistros have local wine for as low as 3 euro per glass. (Organic wine can cost more.) I always ask the server what is local and have never been disappointed. (The house wine is always typically decent.)
I encourage travelers to always try the Plat du Jour (daily special) in bistros, restaurants, and other eating establishments. I see no reason to even ask for the menu if I see a plat du jour that I’m interested as displayed as it is always well-priced. I usually walk around numerous places until I find the right Plat du Jour with items which I would order for the price that I want to pay.
French supermarket and budget food options for low-budget eating
To cut costs, I recommend stopping off at my favorite French supermarket Monoprix. This French supermarket and store is a great (and affordable) place to pick up cheap bottles of wine, bottle openers, sunscreen, snacks, drinks, and meals to-go. Their salads are quite affordable and usually quite tasty. It’s also possible to buy French bread and various cheeses here.
Although Monoprix is slightly more expensive than Carrefour and other French supermarkets, I find the quality worth the cost. Carrefour Express is also a good place to stop by for a quick shopping for the basics and a cold drink! A great budget tip is to buy your own bottle of wine to enjoy as part of a picnic or at your accommodations.
Lunch-time is a great time to find good deals at French shops. Typically, you can always stop by the local butcher and bakery for your picnic essentials. I highly recommend picking up a baguette at the bakery prior to stopping by the butcher for charcuterie (cooked or cured sausage/ham). You can always pick up crepes for a good price if you’re craving something sweeter. For a quicker and cheap meal, you can find falafel and other Middle Eastern and North African food favorites.
If you are a student or traveling with kids, bring ID!
If you’re under 26 and a student, I highly recommend bringing your student identification as you will get into many French museums for free or a reduced rate. Similarly, those under 18 typically get into museums for free. Seniors (65+) often get a discount on tickets to attractions. Be sure to bring identification with you as it might help.
Travel in the off-season
Pick the right month to travel in and book your hotels ahead!
Hotels can be expensive everywhere especially in the SoF. Having traveled in Provence offseason and in peak season, there are numerous strategies to save money. There are many bargains offseason. For example, I stayed in a Novotel (4 stars) for 90 Euros per night in March. It will cost much more to stay at the same hotel during the peak season.
Many nice hotel exteriors do not reveal the beauty waiting inside, so check the photos before booking! A nice courtyard is often hidden behind large doors. A room that comes with a nice balcony with a view with seats can save you money if you prefer not to go out and enjoy a glass of wine at your accommodations! (Your accommodations should be good about finding you a wine glass and a bottle opener, but you can always pick this up at Monoprix.)
For those on a lower budget, we recommend looking for cozy guesthouses (sometimes called B&Bs) as well as hostels. The great thing about staying at a guest house is that you’ll get to regularly interact with a friendly host who is typically happy to give recommendations. Rooms within guest houses are typically less expensive than hotels and you’ll typically save by staying in a residential neighborhood with greater access to supermarkets and cafes without paying tourist prices.
Nice has many really nice hostels with a nice atmosphere, including Hôtel Ozz by Happyculture. If you’re on a lower budget or traveling solo, hostels are a great way to cut costs and meet people! Wanderlustingk editor Karen often stays at hostels even when traveling as a couple. She typically books a private room, so she gets a cheap yet clean place to stay and a nice social environment for socializing with other travelers.
If you have a car, you can typically save a lot by staying at least ten kilometers away from large cities in cute little villages. These stays are usually considerably cheaper (even in peak season) and just as charming. For the true French experience, look for stays within the charming history medieval centers of these beautiful French villages! It might be a bit of a drive, but if you’re seeking a bit of R&R, a quick search with zooming out should give you some great budget options. If you’re lucky, you might even find a chateau!
The best time of the year to visit the South of France on a budget
Weather is important for planning your trip. I have traveled in late February and early May. Generally, the region is warmer than most parts of France. Typically the weather in February in Marseilles averages 8 degrees Celsius with a low of 4 degrees. It was pleasant with many bargain hotels and restaurants but it can be chancy.
I was fortunate as the following week, it plunged down to 0 degrees Celsius. In May, the average temperature is 18 degrees Celsius with a typical high of 24 degrees and 12 degrees. On average, January is the rainiest month. July is the least rainy month.
The only issue with going in the off-season is that fewer day tours may be running and some cafes in more touristic cities may be closed, but if you hate the crowds and want to save, you can definitely go in the true off-season (January). The great thing about going in winter is that you may be able to ski nearby (La Belle Etoile) with still enjoying the French Christmas markets (December).
It’s important to note the August is the main French vacation month and it’s best to avoid traveling during this time as many restaurants and shops will be closed. This is also still peak season, so accommodation prices will also be higher!
You don’t need a tour to take in history!
The history of Provence is long and dates back to the ancient Greeks in the 5th century B.C. The area around Marseilles became a large agricultural center and yielded grapes and olives. In the 2nd century, the Roman arrived and named Provence since it was a province of Rome.
Many of the structures have been restored, but walking on the ground where Roman gladiators fought is magical! I also really liked walking across the largest Roman aqueduct in the world. After the Romans left, Provence was occupied by European tribes, Moors, Spanish, and finally the current French government.
I am a history buff so seeing large numbers of aqueducts, stadia, baths, and theaters is an incredible experience. Some are free to visit while others, I passed on paying the entrance fee as just seeing the ruins was enough for me.
If you’re very keen on taking a tour, you can typically find “Free Walking Tours” in most major French cities where all you pay is the tip. For a budget option to learn about history without paying hundreds, you can book a short two-hour walking tour of a city for a good price. Better yet, invest in a good guidebook.
For more tips for navigating the South of France, please check out our complete one week (or two weeks) itinerary for the South of France with more great budget tips and why you should visit Arles!