How to Plan your own Free and Easy Self-Drive Holiday to France
Just Do It
Have you always wanted to visit France, but you've never been there
before? Or you went on one of those tour packages but want to see more?
Hate crowds and touristy places? Driving on your own and exploring
around is the only way to really visit a country and experience
its cultures, people, and food.
But it can be daunting especially for those of us who have never been to
Europe before, let alone France. Or you may have heard unsavoury
comments about France. Put your prejudices aside, learn a little bit of
French, and visit this wonderful country, where food, people, and
cultures combine to give you a most wonderful gastronomical and romantic
About The Writer
The writer is no expert on France. He spent four wonderful years in
the Netherlands (known somewhat erroneously as Holland) from December
1982 to early 1987, and experienced one of the coldest winters in the
20th century in January 1987. During that time, he had the wonderful
opportunity to visit Belgium, West Germany, France, Luxembourg,
Switzerland, Austria, Liechtenstein (passing through), Spain (Tenerife
and the Canary Islands), Italy, UK (London), Denmark, Sweden (passing
through), and Norway. He is a self-confessed Europhile.
He organized a self-drive
19-day holiday to France in May 2005 costing SGD 3000 per person for
four persons, and went on another self-drive 17-day holiday to
Switzerland, Italy, and the French Alps for his honeymoon with his
beautiful wife in June - July 2006. He hates tour packages and wishes Singaporeans
would be more adventurous by planning and travelling around on their
own. That is why he wrote this guide.
Ok, So Where Do I Start?
The first stop would be a trip to the library or a bookstore. Get your
hands on the latest edition of a guidebook to France. I have used the
Lonely Planet guide books as I found them to be mostly reliable and they
give good recommendations, but in general any guide book is fine. Read
it and take note of the places you wish to visit. Besides visiting the
normal touristy spots, consider visiting the less well-known places. You
will find many hidden gems that way.
Next, you want to find out if the places you intend to visit are near to
each other. When considering road distances, remember that as
Singaporeans, we are usually not used to long distance driving, so try
to keep the distances short. Highways / expressways / motorways offer
the fastest way to get from place to place, but most expressways in
France have tolls. Country roads offer slower and more leisurely drives,
and they are always toll-free. Mountain roads are slow with average
speeds of 50 - 60 km/h, so the distances may look small on maps but
do factor in a lot of time.
There are many good online websites to do your research, here are some
Plan your itinerary, giving enough time for each destination. Three days
at each place is a good way to start. For Paris, you need at least five
days. We tried to cover Paris in three days in May 2005, and it was just
too rushed. Don't try to cover too many places in too few days. No one
says we have to cover five countries in 10 days, or eight countries in
18 days (that was from looking at a well-known tour agency's tour
package. They cover Paris in one day; crazy!!!). It's far better to see
less places and spend more time to immerse yourself into their culture
and the sights. Don't be the typical kiasu Singaporean: trying to cover
as many places in as little time as possible. It just does not work
Being from a small country like Singapore, we often do not realize the
magnitude of the country we are visiting. We can cover Singapore easily
in a few days, a week is more than enough. France is so big, it would
take a few months or even more to really visit the country.
Is It Too Cold?
The common question I see is people asking if it is too cold when we go
in Winter. The thing about Winter is that our bodies are too used to the
tropical climate, hence our blood is too thin for cold weather. When we
first step into wintry weather, we feel very cold because our body takes
about two weeks for our blood to thicken so that we can withstand the
cold better. No problem. Just bring warmer clothes. It is not the
thickness that counts. Giordano sells some thick clothing that look
warm, but they actually let the cold air in and traps it there. It is
the material that counts, and you want something that is also wind-proof.
A good wind-breaker and a decent woolen jacket with woolen underwear (if
necessary) will allow you to withstand any cold weather. If it is still
too cold, you simply layer on. This is far better than in Singapore; if
it is too hot, I cannot take off my shirt.
It is generally advisable to buy your winter wear in France. Winter wear
is expensive here and bad value for money.
A good time to go is Spring (late April to May) or Autumn (September to
October). Summer tends to be crowded, and Winter can be cold, dreary,
and windy with short daylight hours. The exception to Winter is if you
are going there for Christmas and/or New Year. There is no more romantic
place to spend Christmas than in France!
What airline should I take? Travellers with a high budget should
probably look no further than Singapore Airlines. They fly
direct to Paris. For the normal people like us, Middle Eastern airlines
like Qatar Airways or Emirates offer good value for money. Take note of
the transit time (two hours is quite ok, four hours is a little long)
and the airport (the airport at Doha, the capital of Qatar, is small,
cramped, and there is nothing worth seeing or buying). A good website to
check out fair prices is Misa Travel. Some have used Zuji. Many airlines
now offer relatively cheaper fares if you purchase directly from their
website, e.g. KLM.
The other advantage of KLM, the Dutch airline, is that their Schipol
Airport is one of the world's best, comparable with Changi Airport.
Finnair offers cheap flights too but note that Helsinki, the transit
stop, is quite a large detour to Europe and will incur a few hours extra
time in the air.
Please book your car rental before going there. The ease of access to
the Internet and the many car rental websites make planning your holiday
very easy. You can easily shop around the common car rental websites to
compare prices. Some examples are:
I have only used Europcar and Hertz before, but prices keep increasing
so please shop around. Do not rent directly from airports; it costs
about SGD 100 more. Rent from another outlet near a train station, then
take a train from the airport to that train station and take a taxi from
that train station to the rental outlet if necessary. Even a taxi from
the airport to the other outlet is unlikely to cost SGD 100. When you
arrive at the rental car company, they will ask you to take up extra car
insurance, so be prepared to pay more than the listed price. Drivers
under 25 years old will have to pay even more insurance.
Another common question I see is: isn't it dangerous to drive there
since we are driving on the right side of the road, instead of the left
side of the road in Singapore? I am a little sad when I see such
questions. I hope Singaporeans aren't wimps; please do not be deterred
by the difference. No one says you must drive like an Formula one racer.
Simply drive slowly and carefully, there is always a first time in
everything. Don't be afraid! I have had no problems whatsoever when
driving in Europe.
If you are driving long distances, consider having two drivers or
breaking down the long drive into two shorter drives with an overnight
Navigation is the biggest problem that I foresee for Singaporeans. Some
just cannot navigate. Some think they can navigate but they can't. Some
think they can navigate in Singapore, so they can navigate in France
(it's not the same). Some can really navigate. Clearly, getting lost in
a foreign country where you don't really speak the language is not a
pleasant experience. So please improve your navigating skills if
I always plan out my itinerary down to the exact place I am going to
stay. I then buy a map
that covers the whole of France; you can get that map from Kinokuniya or
in France itself. Borders does not seem to have many maps of Europe.
The complete map of France gives you a small scaled map. When driving to
your hotel, you need larger scale maps. I simply print out several
different scales of maps from the map websites and use them to find the
hotel. Then I highlight my route and label the maps clearly.
Here is an example. Suppose I am going to stay at this particular hotel
in Besancon. I will print three zoom levels of maps (these maps are from
Paris Metro System
The cheapest and best way to get around in Paris is the Metro system.
With cars, you join the jams and the frustration of delays and possibly
getting lost. The Metro system is a lot more complex than what we have
in Singapore, so it takes a little bit of getting used to. You can find
the Metro map HERE.
You can also look at updated Metro
maps and maps of other public transport.
Suppose you stayed at the ETAP
hotel near Porte de Montreuil on Line 9. You stayed there because
there is a Carrefour in the same building which makes it convenient to
buy your breakfast, and it is just five minutes walk from Porte de
Montreuil. You can find Porte de Montreuil on the right side of the
metro map. You heard that a good place to find good yet cheap authentic
French food is around the St Michel metro where you will avoid the empty
restaurants (lousy food) and go for the crowded ones (good food is worth
waiting for!). St Michel metro is on Line 4, somewhere in the middle of
To know which direction to take the train, take note of the end points
or terminal stations. On Line 9, the direction you want to go is Line 9:
Pont de Sevres, not Line 9: Mairie de Montreuil (you will take that
direction when coming back to the hotel). You will change metro at
Strasbourg Saint-Denis to Line 4, then take Line 4 in the direction of
Line 4: Porte d'Orleans. You will then get off at St Michel and voila,
you are there. Bon Appetit. :)
The website I would recommend for your accommodation is Accor Hotels.
Others have used Venere. Accor hotels provide a whole
range of accommodation, from budget to decadent. Some rankings of the
Accor Hotels are:
Book in your accommodation in advance, but check the website closer to
the date of your hotel stay. They may have last minute deals that are
cheaper than what you booked. Simply re-booked the cheaper deal, then
cancel your old booking. Note that the cheaper deals usually do not
allow any kind of cancellations. The normal deals allow you to cancel
even up to the day of your stay. Please read the terms and conditions
- Formule 1: sleeps up to three in a room, double bed below, single
bunk bed above, shared toilets and bathrooms.
- ETAP: sleeps up to three in a room, double bed below, single
bunk bed above, private toilet and bathroom.
- IBIS: sleeps up to two in a room, queen sized bed, private toilet
and bathroom. This is the minimum standard I recommend for honeymooners.
Another common question is: how much to tip when the restaurant bill
comes? The good news is: none! French law states that all taxes and
service charges must be included in the menu prices. So if the menu says
that the three-course meal costs EUR 10.95, you should pay exactly
EUR 10.95 and not one cent more since the taxes and service charges
have already been included in the price. (Not exactly; if you are paying by
cash, you may round up to EUR 11 if you wish, but if you are paying
by credit card, don't bother to round up.) Don't worry about the waiter
thinking you are stingy; we were told this by a wonderful French waiter
himself while we ate at Le Table in Annecy. He was so patient to explain
everything to us even though he was struggling with his English.
Now if only the same law applied to Singapore restaurants, then you
won't keep seeing prices like SGD 20++ which is actually
Parlez Vous Anglais?
So would language be a problem? Most young French people know at least a
smattering of English that is certainly better than our knowledge of
French. People in Paris are known to be snooty. Anyway it is arrogant on
our part if we walk in to a French shop and start speaking in English. A
few phrases of French does wonders. It can't hurt, and it certainly
helps. People outside of Paris are a lot more friendly, and even if they
cannot speak French, they will try to find someone who can. Again, don't
be afraid. Learn to pronounce the words correctly.
French people do not smile a lot, so the proper way to engage them is
with eye contact, a brief smile, and pronouncing your French words as
clearly and as best as you can. It is proper and expected to greet
service staff when you enter a restaurant or any shop; do not sneak in
to a shop as we normally do in Singapore.
Beware of pick-pockets on trains, train stations, metros, metro stations,
fast food places, and any other crowded areas. Do not put anything
valuable in any of your pockets. The only safe place is a neck pouch
that is tucked inside your shirt. It should be skin colour so that it is
not so easily visible. You may also carry your valuables deep inside a
bag that you hold close to you. Do not be distracted by anything
including but not limited to people smearing ice cream on your pants,
little children asking for money, people who drop money on the road and
point you to it claiming that it is yours, etc. Please do not be too
helpful. I recommend that you ignore people who try to speak to you,
especially Chinese speaking people approaching you in touristy spots.
They usually have some "sob" story about their relative in hospital and
will ask you for money.
Another tactic to look out for is touts, usually big negro men, who try
to sell you colourful friendship bands around or near touristy areas.
They will stop you and greet you, and quickly tie the friendship band
around your wrist. Once they have succeeded in doing so, they will then
gather all around you and demand 100 Euros from you. It can be very
intimidating. The best tactic is to simply avoid them by walking away
and avoid any sort of eye contact. And do not ever let them tie the
friendship band around your wrist.
Try not to look like a tourist and do not stick out of the crowd. A
stupid thing to do is to carry a big map, hold it upside down, and walk
with it. When coming out of a metro station for the first time, don't
stop to look at the signs; that immediately identifies you as a tourist.
Just keep walking one way while looking at the signs, and if you went
the wrong way, just turn back. Avoid pointing.
Simple precautions will ensure that you have an enjoyable and safe trip.
Certainly Singapore is a safe place and we should be thankful for that,
but I have never ever felt unsafe anywhere in Europe. Wisdom says that
one should stay away from dingy areas, even Singapore has its unsafe
places (think some streets of Geylang after midnight).
But It's My First Time
It's a pity that many Singaporeans are just too snug and safe in
Singapore. Where is your sense of adventure? Your desire to explore some
place new? France is no third-world country. It is a modern safe
first-world country with first rate amenities and infrastructure. What
you expect to find in Singapore, you can find in France. There is always
a first time for everyone, and I am convinced that you will not
regret going on your own as long as you have everything is planned out
Planning is part of the fun, isn't it? Reading a guide book and saying
"Hey, I want to see this" gives us full control of what we really want
to see and what really interests us. And there is no better way to
interact with the locals than just driving around in your own rented
car. For any first-world country, independent travel is the only way to
go, even if it is your first time.
I have also written brief guides of France (with nice photos) and Paris, an article on why I do not like Tour Packages, and an
article on buying cheap train tickets in
How to Stay Safe in
Last updated: Thursday 3 April 2008, 11:00:49 hrs