I’ve been France for 3 weeks now and I’ve had some experience with finding places to stay, with getting around, and with eating meals in France. Here’s the gist.
Staying in people’s homes is better than hotels as there is an organic experience that happens between me and the local. I prefer meeting and spending time with real French people over the stale experience of booking a hotel room. There are several websites and phone apps that I use in tandem so that I’m never without a place to stay. Here are some of them:
Workaway – This is my go-to. I’ve streamlined my entire life around this service that connects hosts with workers. The concept is simple: you work for free in return for free accommodation and food. If you enjoy carpentry, handiwork, lawn care, cooking, cleaning, or building then you are very marketable and you can save a lot of money traveling to other countries through this. The organization that runs the website is generously trying to build a community of people that are interested in genuine cultural exchange and the development of relationships. However, the website is unable to protect its own community from members who would abuse it. There are bullies and freeloaders out there, so if you want to make the most of an experience using this service you’ll need to communicate well and respectfully ask the right questions to your host to make sure your workaway is going to meet your expectations. I’ve taken a break from Workaway for the rest of November so that I could write and learn a little more before returning.
Worldpackers – This is my alternative to Workaway that I’ve recently started trying. Workaway can not protect its community for as long as it does not allow users with negative reviews to remain on the site. Worldpackers, by virtue of its own design, is a more transparent and diverse service because the negative reviews are public and permanent and anyone can read them to rule out unfit hosts for themselves. The types of jobs Worldpackers connects travelers for are not always focused on hard, physical work. There are jobs for booking guests, social media management, photography, and teaching languages. For both Workaway and Worldpackers, you can customize your profile so that hosts will know you are only interested in the kind of work you’ve specified. This is a great option for travelling on a budget as a lot of hosts provide free 3 meals a day with free accommodation. For both Workaway and Worldpackers, typical hours requested are 5 hours a day for 5 days a week, with weekends off. Both of these services provide a beginning framework to an interesting work experience while traveling, but you get more bang for your buck if you communicate with your host and ask about specific details so that you’re not bargaining away your travel freedom unintentionally. You’d be using these services to travel more and it’s important that you genuinely enjoy it, so talk to them and make sure your situation is going to be what you intend.
Airbnb – A more traditional method of finding accommodation is paying for it. You can find great places to stay that are better and cheaper than a hotel room with Airbnb. I like to use Airbnb instead of hotels for a few reasons. Hotels are a package deal and you get the full range of amenities plus some unneeded or unwanted ones that you won’t even use at a flat price. This is fine when you’re in a pinch or if it’s within your budget. I’m trying to save money over a long period of time, so I can’t always stay in hotels. Airbnbs can be as little as 15€ a night. So far I’ve been staying in private rooms with private bath and have paid 25€ a night. The hotel I stayed in Mortagne-au-Perche, while comfortable, was 66€ a night. For me, that’s too much to pay for a long time. A tip I’ve learned recently for saving money with Airbnb is to avoid bookings that include breakfast as part of the total cost, especially if you’re staying for a week. If you stay for a week you can usually get an 8% discount on the cost of your stay and if you don’t get breakfast included you can buy your breakfast for cheaper at a bakery, a sandwich shop, or a grocery store. Also, an Airbnb that makes its kitchen available to you is a great way to save money as you can keep from dining out. My number to beat right now is 2,95€ that I paid for lunch, dinner, and then my lunch the next day. Another reason to use Airbnb is that it’s a great way to meet new people and locals.
Couchsurfing – This is an application that I’ve downloaded but have only used to meet people so far. One girl I met through app offered for me to stay with her father for a week and since then I’ve met a couple of other hosts. When scrambling for a place to stay in Avranches, a host kindly responded to me within an hour.
Another app that has been suggested to me but that I do not have much experience with yet is Hostelworld. (Thanks, Darcie!) Hostelworld can be as cheap as 15€ or the cost of a hotel. The listings include apartments, hostels, hotels, Bnbs, and properties.
With the exception of Hostelworld, the great thing about these services is that they require membership fees, verified emails, verified telephone numbers, and verified government IDs. It’s not full proof that your host won’t be shady, but it’s a good start to an insurance policy that you can better define by telling someone you trust where you’ll be, who your host is, and for how long you’ll be staying. For smartphone users, when staying with a host, I recommend asking for their number and video chatting them before you go to their home so you can see what your first instinct about them is.
I like the system the Normandy buses have. Once you figure out where and when the buses come, they’re easily accessible and cheap. 2€ for a single ride. 16€ for 10 rides. Unlimited monthly rides if you’re less than 26 at 50€. Unlimited year-long rides if you’re less than 26 at 380€. Routes for specific bus lines can be found on little maps at the Offices de Tourisme if you ask for them. The tourism offices are common in larger cities but not in towns that only have the mairie and bar.
Trains are interesting and are accessible at stations, or gares. (Like car, but gar.) They run through the major cities in France. Getting a ticket is as simple as purchasing it from the electronic booths or the people who work the booths in the gares. You can also purchase it on your phone and you can have a QR code either emailed or texted to you that the controllers will scan. After you have your ticket you should look for the electronic screens that tell whether your train is on time. When it gets close to the time for the train’s arrival, the screen will say the train’s track number, or voie. (Vwah). All you have to do is follow the directional signs to the correct voie and voilà, you stand waiting for your train like everyone else. During my first train ride across France the gentleman from the Polar Express came by to check my ticket, which I expected. I presented my ticket to him and he explained… something… to me, then stamped my ticket and wrote on it. I later divined that he was explaining that if you purchase a train ticket without identifying yourself at the electronic booth with your ID or passport, you need to present yourself 2 minutes before departure to the controllers, which are the stylish fellows who look like they work for Delta Airlines with navy blue clothes and red accents.
During one of my travel days I expected to be on trains all day long. I was hopping from train station to train station and reading my book. I checked to see what the train number was on all of my tickets just in case I would need to identify it by looking at the train itself. Most of the trains throughout the day were TER trains followed by a long number, which are trains that belong to SNCF, the France train service. On my last ticket of the day, I noticed it didn’t say TER. It said “Autocar”, followed by a number.
Just so you’ll know in advance and you’ll be prepared not to miss the last leg of your journey – autocars are buses, not trains or cars. And while I saw an autocar drive by the train station with “AUTOCAR” written on it in big letters, they do not all have that. The bus I rode was just a plain, white bus.
My advice to you is to be early to your autocar’s arrival time. If you don’t know where it parks, look for a map in the station that indicates where it parks or ask the officers. If you see a bus, wait to speak to the driver and ask them specifically if they’re going to the place you’re going to. Remove the guesswork.
Whether you have more cash to spend during your adventures or you want to save money, I recommend following the locals when dining out. Café du Théatre is a popular restaurant name that I’ve seen, at least in the Orne department, and the one in Alençon was packed with locals. I took this is as a good sign. If it’s popular then it likely means the city folk have discovered they can eat their meal and save their money too. When dining abroad, or really when you do anything abroad, you should get used to your new personal bubble. It’s much smaller than the personal bubble you have now.
The first thing you should do when you enter a restaurant as a matter of politeness is greet the waiter, the staff, or the owner when you make eye contact with them. Say “Bonjour” to them. Tell them you would like “Une table pour…” then hold up the number of fingers for your party. On the same note, the last thing you should do after you pay is say goodbye. I’m a fan of wishing them “Bonne journée” and “Au revoir” in sequence, every time.
Ordering the plat du jour, the daily special, is one way to order food from a French restaurant and is usually written on a chalkboard just outside or in a visible spot at the front. The plat du jour can also have a special price that day so that’s cheaper than other options available. If it isn’t written anywhere then it means the waiter is going to tell you what the plat du jour is when you sit down. You’ll have as much fun figuring out what the plat du jour is as I do if that happens. The other day it took me too long to realize the man who brought me my beer was asking me if I wanted a lemon slice for it.
Ohhhh, un citron! Non, merci.
The order of French meals, although you can choose to eat only as much as you want, goes like this:
Apéritif – an alcoholic drink to “stimulate your appetite”. These get their own section of the menu and your waiter may ask if you want to kick off the meal with this. I think it’s just an excuse to get a buzz going.
Entrée – This is not the main part of the meal as it is in America. Entrée literally means entrance, so slow your roll. You’ve only just begun. Entrée is a starter that you can have if you ask for it. These also get their own section of the menu depending on the restaurant. Your meal normally comes with du pain (bread) and a carafe d’eau (jug of water). If you do order an entrée, don’t expect it to be the same portion size as your plat. You’ll want a plat too to get your fill.
Plat – This is the main part of the meal. If you like, you can just order a plat with du pain and your drink of choice and call it a night. I don’t have the cash to get a full spread every meal, so I normally stick to a single course with a nice glass of water. Of course there are lots of great French dishes to try, so if you can afford it, then you should go for it.
Dessert ou fromage – Dessert or cheese after the big meal. It’s like a little snack and a reward for all your hard work. If you’re taking your time and you’ve finished your food, waiters will ask if you’re interested in it. Cheese is always worth trying when you’ve made it to a new region of France. The big names of Normandy cheeses are Camembert, Livarot, Pont-l’évêque and Neufchatel. Ice cream is also delicious and you can get it alcoolisés – perhaps with whiskey? I like savory cheese so Camembert is my current favorite.
Du thé ou du café – The final stage of French dining is a small café or a cup of tea that helps with digestion and to settle your stomach after a rich meal. Be prepared for coffee that tastes significantly stronger than what you’re used to if you’re American. My friend Alice swore against French tea, but as long as you’re not British then the tea should be just fine. I drink tea as a remedy for sore throats so I’m indifferent to its taste.
France is known for its food and it’s a wonderful experience to be able to have access to it. As far as I can tell, Normandy is mostly farmland, and the ingredients in the food are fresh and delicious. There are, however, dishes in France that may get a lot of undeserved hype. I had a plate of andouillette recently.
Andouillette is a plate of cow intestine and if I describe how it smells or how it’s prepared you won’t want to eat it. It tastes fine but I only find it as exciting as the Dijon moutarde and the oignons that join it. I leave it to you decide.
Of course crêpes, galettes, and sandwiches are delicious. A galette complète is a tasty, cheap meal with egg, slices of ham, emmental cheese, butter, and salt for a savory breakfast.
Any other travel blogger who has been to France will warn you that you’ll never get the check in restaurants because the staff don’t want to rush you. I’ve learned to appreciate this especially during this time of year as I often need to kill time and stay warm. I like to carry the first installment of Méto with me and to soak in the time at restaurants reading.
I don’t like to ask for the check only to sit there waiting. I’ve decided that my new way of paying and leaving is better. A good behavioral experiment I’ve been trying in restaurants is to remove all of the guesswork for myself. When you’re finished eating and you’re ready to go, leave the table and stand where your waiter will see you around the cash register somewhere. I do this even in fancy restaurants. When they see that you’re all pulled together and waiting to pay they’ll know you’re ready. Some restaurants put your ticket on the table immediately after you order, so you should pick that up and take it with you when you pay. If you don’t want to do this because you’re having a nice conversation with your party, then you can go find the waiter and ask for the check by asking for l’addition. La-dee-seeawn. You can make the universal writing motion with your hand then rejoin your party. Other travelers will also tell you the tip is always included when you’re dining out, so you needn’t put any extra money on the table.