As someone who’s written about France and its capital for a good part of their career, my inbox often fills with emails from readers about their forthcoming travels.
Sometimes, it’s as simple as asking about hotels I recommend in a particular Parisian neighborhood, or whether it’s really a bad idea to visit in November. At other times, though, readers in the anxious throes of planning a trip to France await my advice on the “best” way to see and “do” the country- as if there were cookie-cutter responses to the question.
When responding to the second, more anxious type of query, I often gently point out how much individual tastes, interests, budgets, and available time are crucial factors in creating the “ideal” trip. Then I advise the person to dig more deeply– and above all, let go of the idea that there’s any one “right” way to plan a trip to France.
….That Said, These Mistakes Are Incredibly Common
Nevertheless, I’ve spotted a few major patterns over the year that are worth sharing. These are common mistakes and blunders made by first-time visitors in particular, but even seasoned travelers occasionally get into a “funk” and could (arguably) use a bit of a shake-up.
A small word of warning: My advice below will be less helpful to you if you don’t, at heart, see travel as something that’s as much about curiosity, exploration, and cultural exchange as it is about relaxation and “bucket lists”.
If you prefer pre-packaged vacations dominated by guided tours and “best- of” itineraries, my suggestions below may not be for you.
Don’t get me wrong– I certainly recommend including high-quality tours in any trip. And when you’re visiting for the first time, it’s only natural to want to focus at least part of your time on “big-ticket” monuments or attractions.
But our approach at Paris Unlocked is to nudge visitors toward genuine cultural discoveries, dialogue, and beauty drawn out of the unexpected– or even random.
Our suggested “pathways” are more akin to jazz riffs than tidy classical compositions. They’re meant to be played with a heavy dose of improvisation.
Now that I’ve gotten the preambles out of the way, here are some of the major mistakes I strongly suggest you steer away from when planning your next trip to France.
1. Trying to Get Last-Minute Deals During High Season
When booking a trip abroad, including to France, it can be risky to wait too long to book flights and hotels. While many argue in favor of scanning fares and waiting for them to drop– generally quite close to a desired travel date– this won’t generally work well for destinations in Europe, unless you’re booking low-cost flights from one European city to another.
According to air travel specialist Benet Wilson, you should theoretically be able to lock in some of the best deals around 120 days before a flight to Europe (from North America). This is especially true for high season in France (late spring to early fall).
One exception to this rule? Sometimes it’s possible to find excellent deals for last-minute flights, trains and hotel bookings in the winter, when operators are more likely to be angling to fill seats and rooms.
And when it comes to booking hotels in Paris, you can hold out a bit later than for flights and still potentially lock in some excellent rates.
According to TripAdvisor, hotel room rates in the capital tend to fall around 60 days before a desired travel date, especially for summer stays.
For France as a whole and the rest of Europe, however, the same survey suggests it’s best to book hotels five to nine months in advance to get the best rates.
The takeaway? During high season in particular, avoid the risky game of waiting until the last minute. Otherwise, you may end up paying more than expected– not to mention risk losing seats or hotel rooms you had your eye on for months.
2. Spending Your Entire Trip in Paris
Unless you have only two or three days to spend in France, you should probably branch out beyond Paris. I say that as someone who’s unshakeably devoted to the capital, and encourages you to explore it fully.
Even assuming you only have, say, 72 hours at your disposal, a quick day trip from Paris is easy to accomplish by train. Go on a half-day whirl to Monet’s gardens at Giverny, or to a chateau that’s perhaps even more impressive than Versailles but is far less well-known.
Even a day in the cellars of Champagne or visiting the magnificent Cathedral at Chartres is possible, although you should probably only choose such trips further afield if you have more than two or three days in Paris. Find a full list of suggestions for day trips at the link above.
Have more than a few days ahead of you? France is nothing if not diverse. Each of its regions offers a wealth of local cultural traditions, cuisine, architecture, and natural resources.
There’s Bordeaux and its superb wines— but let’s not forget the region and city’s rich history and architecture. The French Pays Basque is both culturally fascinating and full of natural beauty.
Normandy and Brittany often get confused for each other, but their cultural traditions and outstanding features are in fact quite distinctive.
Meanwhile, the northern Pas de Calais region doesn’t get a lot of press or coverage in tour books, but offers everything from sandy beaches to cool forests, colorful markets, and ornate Flemish-style architecture.
My suggestion? While you plan your trip, spend a few hours getting acquainted with France’s main regions and gain a decent overview of what they have to offer. Then drill down and build an itinerary, whether it’s for a week or for three. I’m happy to offer my assistance in the form of custom itineraries.
A Note on Budgeting Multi-Region Trips
Many travelers, especially those coming from overseas, assume that their budgets won’t be able to accommodate visiting more than one region of France.
It’s worth pointing out that low-cost European flights and discount train passes- for seniors, students, couples and families travelling together and more– can really help to make it more feasible.
You can book tickets and discount rail passes here (via Rail Europe) and search for discounts on flights to and around France here (via Skyscanner).
3. Spending Too Much Time in Touristy Areas & Places
I’ll assume something a bit cheeky: if you’re reading this article, you’re probably not interested in only visiting “big-ticket” sights and wildly popular tourist attractions on your trip. After all, this site is primarily designed for curious travelers seeking cultural exchange and intellectual expansion.
My apologies, then, if this seems too obvious a point. But I’ll have to say it anyway.
I don’t condone snobbery, nor a knee-jerk rejection of things-well-known. I fully recommend you spend some of your time exploring popular sites, then dig a bit deeper to make them your own.
But I do lament the advent of an overly “efficient” approach to travel that sees every moment in a trip as an opportunity to pose for a selfie, post on Instagram, and check off a box on a “bucketlist”.
As I argue my last point on this list, travel should involve the unexpected, the fortuitous, and even the messy. Don’t put up a constant screen between you and the places you visit.
How can you possible expect to come away feeling enriched, stretched, and challenged if you chain yourself on what I’ll call the “best-of leash”?
Some travelers stay in a hotel close to “all the sights”, but that are also in areas that lack vibrant local life. They take a few commented and guided tours, tick off items on the bucketlist, and never peer beyond that secure, sterile bubble.
It’s a shame (at least in my book). Whether you’re visiting Paris, Nice, Bordeaux or St Malo, reserve some time to explore less touristy areas and perhaps engage in activities that feel a bit more local.
To get some concrete input, I recommend asking residents– whether at the hotel desk or in shops– where they like to eat, walk, listen to music, shop for fresh produce, see a movie, etc.
Try not to be shy. Many people are happy to help. Even confiding in a staff member at the local tourist office that you’re looking for truly local recommendations can yield some excellent suggestions.
Beyond visiting attractions such as small museums and galleries, try venturing into restaurants or bars that aren’t reputed as catering to tourists, or are located a bit far afield of the usual visitor’s route.
Or attending a musical performance in a small theatre or venue, acquainting yourself with the local talent and soaking up a bit of local nightlife.
You can also consider renting catered accommodations with access to a kitchen. Instead of eating out for every meal, buy groceries and supplies at local markets, bakeries, cheese shops, etc. You’ll learn a ton about the local culture (and regional specialties) this way– not to mention save money.
Finally, try inquiring about simple tours and visits with local artisans or winemakers. Sometimes, for example, you can book a short cellar tour with the owners at a winery, rather than attending a crowded guided tour of the premises. Or see whether the cheese shop in the town you’re visiting offers tours of their maturing cellars.
Again, I’m not suggesting there’s no room for quality guided tours, or for spending time enjoying famous monuments, museums and other attractions. Just try to keep it all in balance. And look for ways to enjoy France in a more local manner.
For more concrete ideas on getting off the dusty old tourist route, see this vast guide on 526 unusual things to do in France (from Atlas Obscura)
4. Not Learning a Bit of French — & Being Incurious About the Culture
I’m honestly unsure where all the resistance to learning a few key greetings and phrases in a host language comes from. Some claim shyness they simply can’t overcome. An embarrassing accent, or poor aptitude for languages. And I understand the trepidation. I do.
I myself have blundered my way through too many conversations in French to count. I’ve gone lobster-red with embarrassment at my mistakes, which sometimes turned out to be amusing faux-pas– jokes at my expense. I’ve been corrected a million times.
But it’s precisely through this trying process that I came to understand, and love, the French culture and language. The blunders were, if you will, the irritating grains of sand that eventually produced an (imperfect) pearl.
Knowing a second language is an immeasurable gift. The access to a different culture it’s given me– one I’ve made my own since becoming a double-citizen-– has probably been one of my proudest accomplishments.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that you try to become fluent in French, nor even truly conversational, if that’s not an interest or a possibility. What I am encouraging you to do is learn a few, very basic, words and phrases that will smooth your encounters more than you probably realize.
A simple “Bonjour, Madame” or “Parlez-vous anglais?” before launching into English can dramatically improve the quality of your interactions in France. And of course, never forget to say “Merci beaucoup” when ending any courteous (or even not-so-courteous) exchange.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, French people do speak English– and increasingly, at good to fluent levels. But they also value and appreciate efforts made by visitors to greet and thank them in the Gallic tongue.
Start with this free French travel language e-course, and build your knowledge from there if you feel so inclined. Again, it doesn’t matter an iota whether you’re talented at languages or your “merci” is awkward and ill-pronounced. The effort will often make you feel more connected to people, and to the whole experience of travel.
On a related (and equally important) note, it’s hard to fully appreciate a place if you remain incurious about local culture and history. Of course, learning as you go and while “in situ” is a huge part of the experience.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make some efforts to get acquainted with customs, cultural quirks, and history a bit in advance of your trip.
Tall order, you say? Maybe. But it can be entertaining, too. Watch some classic French films with subtitles, or listen to our specially curated playlist of songs that’ll get you in the mood for Paris.
Learn how to crack one particular, hard-to-understand aspect of French humor. Read up on the medieval history of Paris, and on how champagne got its bubbles.
You can even take a (willfully silly) quiz to find out whether you theoretically belong on the right bank or left bank of Paris. After all, there’s often a grain of truth in these sorts of commonplaces about a city’s neighborhoods and their local reputations.
Meanwhile, this page offers a good overview of French etiquette and other cultural norms, while this piece at Smithsonian Mag explains the complex history of French politics and government in an accessible way.
5. Assuming Spring & Summer Are the Best Times to Go
As I detail in my seasonal guide to Paris, travelers often incorrectly assume that scheduling a trip during high season– typically late spring to late summer in France- is always best.
But for so many reasons, an autumn or winter trip might suit your tastes, budget, tolerance for crowds, and general interests much better.
I personally tend to prefer Paris in the autumn and winter, when a far more local “flavor” emerges and seemingly endless cultural events fill the calendars.
And while summer in Provence or the Cote d’Azur can indeed be thrilling, heading there the early spring or fall will generally leave you a lot more space to yourself, whether in countryside lodges, national parks, in wineries or on the beaches.
If cultural events like exhibits, festivals, wine-tasting, holiday markets and trade shows are of the greatest interest to you, fall and winter might be ideal for a trip to France.
See more on the advantages and disadvantages of visiting at different times of the year by consulting my seasonal guides to Paris, and perusing my straightforward primer on when to book a trip to France (at TripSavvy).
6. Not Reading up on Potential Safety Issues & Warnings
No one likes to worry about things going wrong when traveling, but it’s important to make yourself aware of any safety warnings, travel restrictions, and information on healthcare services before you head out.
France is, over all, a very safe destination (despite recent widespread fears to the contrary). But especially in light of the recent global health emergency that’s rocked the planet, staying abreast of travel warnings, safety guidelines, and details on what to do in case of illness or an accident is crucial.
This in-depth guide, whose advice applies to nearly any destination in France, also includes information on common questions and safety concerns, such as how to avoid becoming a victim of pickpocketing and other minor crimes.
Also read up on why it’s more important than ever to take out a travel insurance policy for France (and no, healthcare and hospital stays aren’t free there).
Finally, as a matter of course, always make sure your travel documents are up to-date/not about to expire, and register with your embassy before leaving.
7. Not Making a Plan For Getting Around Smoothly
As a general rule, getting around in France is relatively easy and painless. Major (and even many mid-range) cities have fast, inexpensive, and reliable public transportation systems.
Trains– many of which are high-speed (TGV) lines– run with remarkable regularity and efficiency, and again tend to be accessible from a budgetary standpoint.
And as noted earlier, low-cost flights from carriers such as Easyjet, Luxair and Flybe make it easy to hop from one major French city or region to the next– although I almost inevitably recommend taking the train instead, unless your time and budget is quite limited.
But it’s still important to do some solid planning around how you’ll get from point A to B, and take into account mobility or accessibility issues for you or anyone in your travel party.
If you’re visiting Paris, learn how and whether to take a taxi from the airport-– and how to avoid getting ripped off. Then get a good sense of how the city’s Metro, bus, and RER (commuter-line train) system works, including familarizing yourself with typical travel passes available to visitors.
Also read up on how to get around the city if you or someone you’re traveling with has a disability. Paris is getting better on its record, but it’s still a long way from being a truly accessible city. Luckily, there are plenty of people working hard to amend that.
If you’re planning a more complex trip that involves transfers between two or more different French cities and/or regions, see point #1 above about allowing plenty of time to book tickets.
Then consider consulting this page at Lonely Planet, offering detailed advice and info on how to get around the country, whether by car, train, bus/coach, air, or water.
8. Over-Planning Every Day of Your Trip
I genuinely “get” the impulse to over-plan. I do it myself, as someone who likes to know what they’re getting into. In day-to-day life, my to-do lists are absurdly detailed– to the point where I’m almost tempted to add “today’s to-do list” to the list. Embarrassing, really. I refrain, of course.
But here’s the thing. When I travel, my personality shifts, maybe even dramatically. I prefer to apply a lighter touch and a “let’s-wait-and-see” approach, much of the time.
I’ll make some rough notes of the places I’d like to explore during a given stretch of time, the exhibits I’d like to see or the restaurants I absolutely want to book for dinner.
But I tend to leave big chunks of the daily schedule open for roaming. Particularly in Paris, where the art of “la flanerie” (somewhat aimless strolling and observation) is a cherished tradition, I simply don’t like to commit ahead of time to too many activities.
Doing so robs me of the ability to make random, peripatetic, delightful discoveries.
Here’s what I suggest: for any given day in your trip, try to schedule no more than two to three set activities that aren’t likely to move. In the surrounding time slots (if you must plan those out), pencil in looser plans, e.g. “explore the old Port and maybe find a place to eat lunch”, or “spend the morning at the flea market and the surrounding area”.
Allow for last-minute changes if something else grabs your attention, and don’t feel bad if you go “off-course”. In my experience, it’s often best to let go of hour-by-hour planning when exploring a new place.
Instead, let it reveal itself to you by simply showing up and moving your feet.
9. Being Afraid of Messiness, “Ugliness”, or a Bit of Discomfort
This last point is a bit general, but it’s one I really feel strongly about. Travel, especially to a country that isn’t your own and/or where a different language is spoken, involves some risk and uncomfortable feelings.
But trying to entirely avoid momentary discomfort, risk, awkwardness, or even a sense of slight helplessness has (I think) one strongly negative effect: it can wring all the adventure and opportunity for mental expansion out of travel.
If you do everything you can to stay only in the “safest”, most well-trodden and mapped places, or avoid having to interact with people who are different from you or don’t know your language, or seek out only places that are “postcard-worthy” and “Instagrammable” (a term I personally loathe), you’re likely to have a pretty certain outcome:
A sterile, predictable, and ultimately boring experience.
In short: Don’t give into the lull of always staying in your comfort zones, unless you want travel to rhyme with predictability.
Of course it’s smart to pay attention to your personal safety (see point #6 above for more on that). Of course you don’t want to navigate through a new place, whether in France or anywhere else, like a naive Pollyanna.
Whether you’re exploring a small, sleepy town in Normandy or the supposedly “grittiest” neighborhoods of Paris or Marseille, it’s always important to keep your wits about you.
But this part is crucial: Don’t confuse diverse populations or a lack of sheen for “danger”. This is often based in unwarranted prejudice, and occasionally even subconscious or conscious racism.
For example, some tourists have a tendency to assume that more ethnically diverse neighborhhoods are necessarily riskier for visitors.
Often, or even most of the time, this is quite untrue, and it’s the “poshest” areas– especially after dark– that can be risky for vulnerable groups such as women traveling solo. Why? Well, the streets tend to be dauntingly empty.
My overall point? Travel should– at least as I see it– be about stretching your mind and heart, with the aim of really “seeing” a place far from home or a culture different from your own.
And focusing exclusively on the postcard-pretty, the “clean”, the familiar and the comforting certainly won’t give you an authentic view of that place or culture.
Dare to find beauty and inspiration in a neighborhood that feels a bit outside of your comfort zone. Or do something that feels a bit scary, whether it’s parasailing over the waves in Brittany or attempting a conversation in French with a shopkeeper in Nice.
I can almost guarantee you won’t regret it, even if it’s momentarily uncomfortable.
Going Further: Travel Guides on France I Recommend
I hope these suggestions have been helpful, and perhaps even set you on your right track. If you’re looking for more concrete advice and ideas to help you plot your next adventure, these pages may be of further assistance:
- More trip-planning features and resources at Paris Unlocked
- My succinct, step-by step trip planner at TripSavvy
- Trip-planning advice and information from the French government