Budget Travel in France

You can see France without spending a fortune.

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Antiques Fair in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. © A. Hocquel, CDT Vaucluse

Many people think France is expensive, but that depends on how you organise your vacation. France has some of the best hotels and restaurants in the world and top luxury shopping. Paris particularly has a reputation for being expensive. But like everywhere in the world, if you know how to plan your vacation, you’ll discover the tricks and tactics to make France travel fit within a budget and make it affordable.

Go When It’s Cheap

The season you choose for your vacation makes a huge difference, so start by factoring this in. Everything, from airfares to hotel rates, fluctuates dramatically depending on the time of year when you travel.

But remember that every season in France has its different pleasures, so you might ignore the summer months in favour of the freshness of spring or the glorious colours of autumn. Also remember that the French still mainly take their holidays from July 14 (Bastille Day) to mid-August, so resorts fill up and prices rise during that time.

So consider going in the off-season or shoulder season and you can save hundreds, if not thousands.

Get Cheap Flights to France

Book several months ahead of your trip and you will get a good fare, particularly if you’re traveling from overseas.

Check out airfare/package deals; sometimes these can really save you a lot of money.

Also consider where you want to go. If you’re only going to the south of France, then it makes sense to book a flight to one of the big French cities with international airports like Nice, Marseille, or Bordeaux.

If you’re going to Paris, then down to the south of France, look at both flights and trains for the onward journey.

Train Travel in France

Again, you’ll find it cheaper to book early to your destination. Check out Rail Europe (USA) and Rail Europe (UK) (now voyages.sncf) deals in advance.

But you may also find it cheaper to book directly when you are in France, though you will have to pick up your tickets at the station.

Paris on a Budget

Paris has the reputation of being expensive; look at the lists of the world’s most expensive cities and it’s sometimes in the top 10. Beware the lists; it depends on what the criteria are and they vary wildly. But if you want an expensive vacation, then Paris can certainly oblige.

However, like every city, there are many ways to keep the budget low. Check out the expert Paris Guide’s Budget Paris for some great tips.

Go Where it’s Cheap

The expensive parts of France are along the Mediterranean, the Loire Valley, and the Dordogne. The most expensive cities are Paris, Nice, Lyon, and Bordeaux. However, Nice comes in 29th on the backpacker index, after mostly eastern European destinations and before other top European cities which are more expensive.

Again, whichever city you choose, you can visit on a budget. Even in the south of France, places like Nice, Antibes/Juan-les-Pins have budget accommodation and restaurants.

Much of the center of France is cheaper, and glorious. The  Auvergne is particularly lovely for its mountainous scenery and huge river valleys, its sense of peace and its slow pace of life. And it is very cheap! 

Eat Well, but Cheaply

If you don’t know where to eat, look at the menus outside (all have current menus and prices), and look inside to see how many locals are eating there; they usually know a bargain! Also remember that many restaurants, even the most expensive, have set menus. So don’t ignore those Michelin-starred places; try the lunch menu and it may be a bit more expensive than the bistro next door, but it also may be the experience of a lifetime. (Just remember that the wine lists will probably be exorbitant!)

Stay on the Cheap

Where you stay can have a huge impact on your wallet. You don't have to go grunge to save a few euros. Camping in France is a cheap alternative that is much nicer than you might think. There are four-star campgrounds that are nicer than many budget two-star hotels.

For a little more cash, stay in a Logis de France inn, which is often cheaper and must more fun than a chain hotel. You can even find some decent cheap hotels in Paris, too.

Finally, look at Bed and Breakfast options. There are a vast number in France and they offer accommodation at every price range. You'll find top value, a friendly welcome and terrific 4-course meals with wine at many of them. 

Find out more: Lodging Options in France

Budget Sightseeing

Start with the great cathedrals of France; most of them are free and they are quite magnificent. 

Watch the free illuminations in many towns and cities in the summer season and at Christmas. Cities like Amiens have spectacular sound and light shows on the cathedral. Chartres illuminates many of the buildings and also cast figures of light, pilgrims, and washerwomen onto the walls of the narrow streets you can stroll along at night.

If you’re in a big city, consider buying a 2, 3, or 4-day City Pass which will give you free transportation, plus entry to the museums and sights. They are available at local tourist offices, attractions, and hotels. 

Budget Shopping

There are many bargains to be had in France. Start with the open-air daily markets that you’ll find in every city and town. If you’re after fresh food for a picnic or are self-catering this is the place for those staples of bread, cheese, fruit, vegetables and salads, and charcuterie.

Many towns have brocantes, or second-hand flea markets. They’re colorful, fun and the place to pick up an unusual gift. Check out the annual fairs at places like Lille, Amiens, and the great antiques town of L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.

And don’t miss the vide greniers, a day when the inhabitants of small towns and villages empty their attics, set up stalls in the street and sell the widest range of items. You can find interesting plates, posters, textiles and odd things like wooden boxes; well worth a rummage.

Seek out the shopping malls for bargains on designer clothes, shoes, and household goods.

And finally, the winter and summer sales are always good value. They are highly organised in France; the goods on sale are controlled, and they are only allowed at set times of the year.