Before leaving on a trip to France, many of us do extensive research on where to stay, what things to see and do, where to eat, and that sort of thing. No matter how much a tourist prepares, though, it’s impossible to know everything you need to know for your vacation. There are only so many hours in a day! But I’m here to help with some France travel tips. You probably have all the basics covered, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Here are six important but often overlooked tips for visiting France. I made all of these mistakes back in the day.
1. Always say bonjour
I mention this one often because it’s THAT important. In France, when you approach anyone for anything no matter how small, always say bonjour before saying anything else. This applies to when you’re asking someone for directions, approaching a restaurant host or hostess for a table, ordering a croissant at a bakery, buying a train ticket, etc.
Saying bonjour in France is a cultural must, and while it literally means hello (good day), it’s also a way the French say, “I’m acknowledging your presence as a fellow human being first and foremost.”
In the U.S., it would be perfectly fine to approach a store employee and say, “Where is the restroom please?” It’s not the most polite way to phrase it but no one would bat an eye. In France, that wouldn’t fly. You’d need to say, “Bonjour, où sont les toilettes s’il vous plaît ?” (Hello, where’s the restroom please?)
There are lots of reasons why tourists do not say bonjour. They either don’t realize they need to — but that’s no longer an excuse for you since you’re reading this 🙂 — or they’re already thinking about the next part of what they need to say and forget the most important word because they’re stressed about speaking French. For more, read this post all about the importance of saying bonjour in France.
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2. Protect your hair from hard water
Most visitors don’t realize that Paris (and many areas of France, including mine) has extremely hard water that will do a number on your hair. Say bonjour to dull, frizzy, flat hair if you plan on washing it on your trip.
If you’re not familiar with the term hard water, it’s water that contains a high concentration of minerals, namely calcium and magnesium. In nature, groundwater often pushes through limestone where it comes into contact with calcium and magnesium deposits and that is passed onto us as we use that water in our homes. It’s generally safe to drink but can cause some issues for your hair. This goes double if you color your hair, especially for those of us with blonde hair or highlights.
On even a short vacation to France, hard water can turn your expensive highlights brassy and brittle seemingly overnight. So many visitors don’t know about this and are confused about why their hair looks terrible.
If you have color-treated/bleached hair and want to keep it healthy and moisturized (even if you don’t have hard water), I can’t recommend these two products enough: Christophe Robin color shield mask and John Masters Organics dry nourishment oil. I leave the mask on for longer than the recommended five minutes. It’s super rich and nourishing. The oil is fab as well and is quickly absorbed, not greasy.
Then, even if you don’t have colored hair, before leaving on your trip to France, buy yourself this hard water detox from Malibu that comes in a single-use packet. It’s a powder that you lather up with water. It works wonders.
3. Don’t let French ATMs convert your euro transaction to dollars
This mistake is so easy to make, especially when we’re distracted and not familiar with French ATMs. We might even think the ATM is doing us a favor by charging us in our home currency. But it’s not! Don’t make this mistake. Let me explain.
You’re in need of cash so you pop your U.S. debit card into an ATM. The machine recognizes that it’s a foreign card and asks you if you’d like to process the transaction for euros in USD or EUR. You assume that selecting USD is the better option because you have an American card, but wait, this is NOT the better option.
Always, ALWAYS select EUR as the currency. Regardless of what you pick, the machine will dispense euros to you but what you’re actually charged on your statement will be vastly different. This is even more painful when the euro is strong and the exchange rate is not in Americans’ favor.
Basically, if you select dollars, the ATM will use a majorly inflated exchange rate instead of the actual one and you’ll end up paying more than you have to. This adds up.
If you’re using a non-French debit card to withdraw cash (or pay for anything anywhere), if presented with the option to complete the transaction in the local euro currency or in US dollars, always choose the local euro currency. Let your home bank do the conversion.
10 First-time France travel tips to know before you go >>
4. Check to see if you need to weigh produce at the grocery store yourself
When you’re grocery shopping, either the cashier weighs the produce at the register when you pay or you do it ahead of time yourself in the produce section before you head to the checkout line. You just put your fruits or veggies in a bag, place it on a scale, select the item from the touchscreen, and it spits out a price sticker that you stick on the bag so it can be easily scanned at checkout.
But if you didn’t realize you needed to weigh your produce, it can be a bit embarrassing if you head to pay without a price sticker. That’s because the cashier can’t do it for you last minute. It can be a bit awkward when you either don’t understand that the cashier is telling you to go weigh your bananas or if there’s a huge line of people behind you that have to wait while you run back to the weigh your items. I’m speaking from experience, and even now a decade later, it can still happen if I’m not paying attention to what store I’m in.
It can be confusing because some French grocery stores require the customer to weigh produce and others have cashiers at checkout do it for you. The Intermarché by me weighs everything at checkout but my Super U is the exact opposite. If you forget to get the price sticker from the scale in the produce section, you’ll have to make a mad dash because cashiers don’t have scales. This is particularly fun when you have about five different items to weigh, kids in a stroller, are on crutches, and it’s a crowded store with a huge line staring at you.
To know whether or not you need to weigh your produce, look for scales with a touchscreen in the produce section and see if other customers appear to be using them. If you see a scale with the touchscreen, always weigh your fruits and veggies before you head to the checkout line because if you forget, it’s a pain to have to run back and hold up the line.
Also, I know that when we’re on vacation, people like to eat out often, but there are a lot of great products in French supermarkets worth a look. Definitely check out some of my YouTube videos for souvenirs at the French grocery store. You won’t be disappointed!
11 Surprising differences between French and American grocery stores >>
5. Choose your shoes wisely
For most of us, a vacation to France involves a lot of walking, so make sure you bring a pair of shoes that you can actually walk in for miles and miles, er, kilometers and kilometers. This is not the time to bring a brand new pair of sneakers you’ve never worn. I learned this on my first trip to France, so break them in ahead of time.
Also, you might think that any flat shoe is fine and that the chic ballerina flats you wear all day at the office are fine for an afternoon out sightseeing, but they often don’t provide enough support or cushioning. Learned that one the hard way too!
If you’re concerned about fitting in with the French, yes, both French tourists and French people out and about at home wear sneakers, so you don’t have to worry about standing out. That said, they’re usually not wearing their worn out athletic shoes that double as gym shoes. It’s definitely possible to look fashionable while also being comfortable, so here are my sneaker picks that make great walking shoes:
For my style tips and a whole lot more on this topic, check out my no-BS guide on what to wear in France.
6. Be ready for all types of weather
Along with my previous tip about shoes, it’s so important to be prepared for all kinds of weather. Bring layers, a quality scarf, and an umbrella for pretty much all seasons. I’ve visited the Mont Saint Michel in June when it’s been in the 40s F with a piercing wind. I’ve also been to Paris in the spring expecting warmer temps and wished I’d brought more pants and long-sleeve tops. My trench coat came in handy.
A versatile jacket and scarf are really important to pack, especially in the spring. Also, winters in Paris might not be as cold as you’re used to in the U.S. depending on where you’re from, so a big goose down jacket might have you sweating after walking around a bit. My winter jacket in the Loire Valley is a very light one and I’ve never needed something heavier because it’s rarely below freezing for any length of time.
Hope you enjoyed these often overlooked French travel tips!