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The ultimate guide to Planning a Trip to France

Updated 8 March 2024 by Leyla Alyanak — Parisian by birth, Lyonnaise by adoption, historian by passion

If you're planning a trip to France, especially for the first time, there are useful things to know – like packing, transportation, safety and the like. You'll find that information right here!

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Be honest: half the fun of a trip is in the planning, isn't it?

And if not, well, it's still got to be done.

This section is all about the nitty-gritty, the practical information you'll need to plan your trip to France. While this is a site about France's offbeat destinations, you still have to get here, find your way around once you are here, and do the things one must – sleep, eat, sightsee, shop, meet, explore, understand, connect.

Planning the perfect trip to France

France is a country best discovered a bite at a time, its veils lifted slowly, unexpectedly.

There are few greater pleasures than wandering around a city or driving around the countryside, getting lost, and then getting found again.

So planning is good – just don't plan too much.

How to decide where to go in France

This may be the hardest part because you want to see it ALL, right? But there are some logical places to start...

Visit France's major tourist attractions, by all means, but try to veer off the tourist path and explore some of the lesser-known corners of France.

France is not just Paris

Yes, planning a trip to Paris is a glorious idea, from the famed Eiffel Tower and Louvre Museum to more offbeat sights and non-touristy things to do.

But beyond Paris, France is a diverse and rich country, with tremendous regional varieties you'll love to explore. 

You can plan a trip to France in a number of ways:

Take day trips from a specific city

An ideal way to plan your France trip is by using a single city as a base and radiating outward for a day trip to the Loire Valley or the Mont Saint-Michel.

Here are some of the best day trips from Paris by train, and below are some examples of day trips you can take from other cities:

Follow an itinerary

This is one of my favorite ways to travel: start in one place, and follow a circular route to end up in the same place a certain number of days later (useful if you're flying in and out of the same city). Or, you can start and end in different cities, depending on your ongoing travel plans.

For example, you could:

Alternatively, here are some travel tips on how to build your own France itinerary.

Explore at random

You can do this by car or by public transportation.

These driving tips should help you decide whether driving in France is for you. Should you decide this is the best way to enjoy your trip to France, here is everything you need to know about renting a car in France.

France has an excellent rail transportation system 90% of the time. The 10% applies to those days of the year when it goes on strike (usually during or near holiday seasons) or if you're traveling to a rural area where transport is scarce.

Take a guided tour in France

If your time is limited, taking a guided tour in France might be the best way to see the country. Have a look at these to get an idea of the kinds of multi-day tours available:

Practical matters for your France vacation

Papers needed for your vacation in France

Depending on where you're from, you may not need a visa. This applies to citizens of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK and US, for example. If you're from any of these countries, you can stay in France for up to 90 days in any period of 180 days.

Most other countries will require a visa, however. You can check on this website if you're not sure.

If you DO need a visa, here's the official French government website to apply.

There will be changes, however, with the arrival of the new ETIAS system (which keeps getting postponed). Those of you who can now travel visa-free will need to register with ETIAS, an electronic system a bit like the ESTA system in the US. You apply online, and the ETIAS is granted for 3 years. Here's the official EU website for ETIAS.

Health and travel insurance for France

Unless you're a citizen or resident of the EU (in which case your medical insurance is valid across borders), consider getting some travel insurance. Hospital costs are lower than in the US or Canada but an accident can easily add up to thousands of dollars.

Best time of year to visit France

There are as many opinions as there are months in the year!

I have several favorites, but even they change depending on the year.

The one season I prefer to stay home is the height of summer:

  • summer is when everyone else visits: hotels are full and expensive, roads are crowded
  • summer is when French cities empty out and beaches fill up
  • summer can be HOT HOT HOT

My preferences are March, April, May, June, September, October, November and December. In summary, these are the best times to visit France:

  • March may still be cold, but the sun of spring begins to shine through and you can have wonderful March days
  • April and May can start getting crowded, but nothing like summer, so you get great weather, without the hordes
  • France in June is lovely, inching towards summer temperatures but without summer's oppressive heat.
  • September and parts of October can still be crowded, but less than summer, and Paris in the fall is a lovely time to go
  • November can be rainy but it's the height of the cultural season
  • December can be brutally cold, depending where you go, but France does a wonderful Christmas, its streets garlanded with light and Christmas markets in many towns. Paris in winter, for example, is a very different experience.

For a deep dive into when to plan your French trip, here's a detailed look at the best and different times of year for any trips to France.

What to pack for France

You've heard about the vaunted 'French style and elegance' and you're wondering whether you'll look like the odd person out... No, you won't.

While we do like to dress well, the days of looking like a diva just to go to the corner boulangerie for a baguette are long gone. We too have fallen prey to yoga pants and Nikes. But — few of us would dare wear them to a proper restaurant.

I'm working on a packing list for you but meantime, let me suggest two essential items: good walking shoes, and an anti-theft purse (here's the one I use).

And while this isn't a fashion accessory, there's every chance you will need a plug adapter. Here's why, and what to do about it.

How to get to France

Depending on where you're coming from, you'll fly in, arrive by train if you're coming from elsewhere in Europe, or drive to France. If you're coming from the UK or Ireland, you might take a ferry – which means you'll either have a car or take the train once you arrive.

If you fly, you'll probably land in Paris – but not necessarily. There are international flights to Lyon and Nice and several other cities, depending on the season. You'll find plenty of transport options from any French airport into town. Just check the airport's website – here's a list.

Arriving by train is usually simple in France, as most train stations are in the center of town. There is one major exception, however: those stations with the letters TGV in their name. Not all TGV stations are out of town, but many are, so check on a map to make sure.

Arriving by car will usually require crossing a border, although many of these are now unmanned within the Schengen area, unless there are terrorist alerts, in which case you may be asked to show your papers. Make sure you have proper insurance as you cross.

How to travel around France

Once you're here, you'll want to see the country (please tell me you're not going to plop yourself in Paris for two weeks and ignore the rest?)

Think about this:

Preparing for your France tour

You don't HAVE to do research – you can simply jump on a plane and go – but many visitors feel more comfortable if they know a little about the country they're about to visit, while those who are already francophiles may want to deepen their knowledge of the country.

Among the things to take into account is the cost of a trip to France: use this site to cost out your France travel budget.

You might want to read a bit more about the French, especially since we have "a reputation" (good and bad). Here are some French stereotypes... just how true are they? And here are some interesting facts about the French.

If you enjoy reading, I have a book page with classics about France, by French authors and books about France by foreigners. Here are all my books about France!

You might also want to know more about...

How to eat in France

Yes, of course you know HOW to eat but this is about how WE eat. You can start with our culinary history and what we eat (along with what you might consider a few of our less appetizing specialties).

At some point I'll teach you about our strange table manners, about how to decipher a French menu, how to reserve and, very important, how to tip (not too much, just round it up). But give me a bit of time...

How to communicate with the French

You DO want to talk to us? Yes, I know we are particular about how we communicate. You may have even heard some of us don't treat you as we should, especially in stores. (Here's how to go shopping in France like a local and avoid all those cultural pitfalls.) 

First, do not even think of starting a conversation without saying Bonjour to me. I'll just stand there and wonder which planet you're from.

Once past that, I'll try to haul out my very rusty English (not mine, I'm pretending here), poorly taught to me for a few years in a school I barely remember — IF I'm sure I won't make any mistakes because in school, we are not allowed to make mistakes.

That said, I will roll over with gratitude if you've made the effort to learn a few words of French. Of course I'll make sure to correct you if you mispronounce them, and I'll answer in rapid-fire French you won't be able to understand, not because I want to confuse you, but because I'm so excited at your word or two!

 BONJOUR! How would you like a list of common French expressions?
You may not sound like a local, but you WILL sound like you're making an effort!


Bottom line, the French will make extraordinary efforts to communicate with you if you speak any French at all, either in French or in English.

There's also a difference depending on age groups and location. Older people will speak English less easily than the younger generation, and people in cities may have more English knowledge than their rural counterparts.

So learn a few words, and then relax and let go.

Or use an app... or carry a phrasebook.

Some practical travel tips

You probably won't be surprised to hear that... France is not perfect. You've probably suspected this, but it is worth repeating.

Petty crime, pickpockets, and poverty

France is a sophisticated Western country, with large cities, plenty of poverty, and its share of crime. The good news is that crime is relatively rare, at least violent crime. France ranks 44 out of 136 in terms of crimes per capita, but bear in mind that most violent crime is gang- or drug-related, and takes place in parts of town you'll probably never visit.

What you WILL find is active pickpocketing, especially where tourists congregate.

I'll give you some powerful safety tips for avoiding this kind of unpleasantness − especially avoiding pickpockets in Paris – these tips are valid for any city.

On strike, did you say?

Sadly, this is just one of those things.

We French are rarely satisfied, and you could give us the moon but we would want two. So whatever happens, at some point, we will probably go on strike.

Mind you, some strikes ARE justified, where work hours are long and salaries incredibly low. But even if your working conditions are passable, there's nothing a French person likes more than marching down the street, often with family in tow, holding up a large hand-painted banner of rebellion. We seem to have revolution in our blood.

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