France – the gorgeous land of Art, fashion, wine and cheese, chateaux, insanely narrow crooked lanes and stylish ladies walking down the streets in a beret with a baguette. (a pun I just couldn't resist).
At least once in your life you thought about visiting Paris, the Loire Valley and maybe even make it to Côte d'Azur.
Quoting endlessly chic Audrey Hepburn "Paris is always a good idea". Well, at least till you have seen the average hotel price tag and the cost of getting up the Eiffel tower.
I may not be Audrey, but I do a few good ideas for you too. Here's how you can have a grand voyage around France without braking the banks.
Hacking Transportation Costs
Roaming around France is easy and fast. You can cross the country from North to South and East to West in just 8 hours on a high-speed TGV trains. However, time is a pricey items these days and the efficiency of fast train service costs a pretty penny. Say, a one-way ticket from Paris to Nice can cost up to €150 one way. But it shouldn't. For you.
Buy Train Tickets Advance
Just like with the regular airfare - the earlier you buy, the cheaper your TGV ticket will cost. From my experience, 2-3 month advance is when you can score the best deals. Think at least 50% cheaper tickets.
Purchase tickets at the French website
Voyages-SNCF - the official online ticket distributor offers better rates on the French version of the website, compared to prices quoted in USD or GBP or respective localized versions. The site's pretty simple to use and does not need profound French knowledge. Just remember that "nom" stands for your surname, not name.
Under 27 - get get Carte Jeune
A youth reduction card that costs €50 per first year and €45 onward. Carte Jeune is a wise investment if you plan to take the train at least once when in France. It will save you hundreds.
Quick example: one-way ticket from Paris to Nice in April costs €97 without card and just €45 with. You can recapture the cost within just one trip.
Discounts also apply to foreign destinations operated by SNCF - Belgium, The Netherlands, Switzerland, the UK, Spain and Luxembourg.
Opt for low cost train service
Ouigo - SNCF low-cost branch operating to a limited amount of destinations for highly-discount rates. Paris to Marseilles for €10, anyone?
What's the catch? Lower speed, extra baggage fees, less legroom and some other paid add-ons like a seating next to the socket.
Share Car Rides
The French introduced the concept of "covoiturage" to the majority with launching BlaBlaCar - now international car sharing service. Register an account, find a driver going from your place to city X, contact, pay to the system, enjoy a free fast ride and some chatting. Average price - about 4-8 cents per kilometer.
France is a safe destination where hitch hiking is pretty popular. Make sure you add SVP (S'il vous plaît) to your destination card and have a basic grasp of French as locals don't speak much English outside Paris.
Hacking Accommodation Costs
The bad news is - hotels and hostels are really expensive, even compared to neighboring Spain, France and Germany. The good news is - cheap accommodation does exist.
Stay in Youth Hostels
France has a a well-developed chain of youth hostels in most major cities, where you can get a bunk for as low as 6€ outside Paris and €20 per night in the City of Lights.
All you need is to be under 26 and get a membership at Youth Hostel Federation (€10.70 per year) or opt for one night membership (€2.90) that becomes annual after you collect 6 nights.
Choose Short Term Rentals
Renting a room or even a tiny studio is at least 30% cheaper compared to a hotel room. Bonus: you have kitchen to cook your own food and cut down the costs even more. Check Gites de France and Airbnb for some frugal deals. The slower you travel - the cheaper your accommodation will cost you per night. You can find studios for €150-200 per week in the regions.
Stands for free accommodation, however you'll have to spend a lot of time sending out messages, speaking to different hosts and adjusting your route accordingly.
Take overnight trains
Not all trains in France are high-speed. Some can slowly crawl overnight as the rail stations do not work after 12.00-01.00 am. Compartments are mildly comfortable with 3 bunks at each side and small overhead lights. Clean sheets and a blanket included. Who said you can't combine sleeping and traveling?
Hacking Food Costs
Leaving France without thoroughly enjoying its exquisite cuisine is a crime. Fancy eating not always comes for a fancy price. You can grasp the true taste of France without spending hundreds at Michele stared restaurants.
Always ask for plate du jour
A fixed price meal offer typically served during the day and in the evenings for a discounted flat rate. Also, look for prix fixe menus that incorporate a few dishes (often including desert and coffee) for lower rates. Instead of paying €35-40 for two seperate dishes, you can get both for €20 or less. Also, do not forget to ask for Carafe d'eau - a jar of water is served for free in France.
Eat at boulangeries
French bakeries not only sell amazing bread and pastry, but delicious sandwiches, quiches and other lunch snacks for affordable prices. Most of them have a couple of small tables to sit down and will serve coffee.
Dine at the local campus
If you look youngish enough and happen to be in a university town, head straight to the Campus. For €3.20 you will get a delicious three-course meal of small entree, main dish and desert. The food is mighty fine indeed. Lunch is typically served from 11.30 till 13.00 and dinner from 18.30 till 20.00.
No one usually asks for your student id of you look hipsterish enough. In case they do you can pretend you don't speak French or pretend to be a visiting scholar and pay full price of €5.60.
I often think that's what the whole nation does on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Parks and all other green spaces get seriously crowded. Go find a supermarket and grab the next things:
- a bottle of fine wine (€3-4)
- a baguette (€0.40)
- a bunch of Saucisson (€1.2)
- cheese. I'd recommend trying Morbier, Camembert de Normandie or Mont d'or. (~€2-3)
- ripe avocado, a bundle of salad (€1).
Enjoy a great French meal under €10.
A few more words of wisdom
It's amazing to be young in France. When you are under 25 you get insane amount of discounts for everything - from museums and main attractions to movies, transportation and shopping.
Getting Free Entrance To French Museums
All EU nationals under 25 can visit the Louvre, d'Orsay and most art museums around France for free. So does all students in France despite their age or nationality. All you need is something resembling a student ID. I've got my international student card for €7 on a party organized by Erasmus Mundus community in the French town where I live. I'm not a student.
Always ask if there's "réduction pour les étudiants" or "réduction pour les jeunes". You'd be amazed by the amount of times you hear yes.
France is not only Paris
A no-brainier quite a lot of people tend to forger. While being magical and astonishing, Paris is also one of the most visited cities in the world which means inflated prices, crowds and all sort of touts and scams hanging around in touristy areas. Parisians are less friendly and were called rude just too many times by the media (which isn't true most of the times).
France has way more unique destinations to visit and smaller towns to explore. Usually they carry their unique charm and that laid back vibe you came to discover in France.