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 experience.

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.

Map It

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 of them:

Timing

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 out.

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!

The Wings

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.

The Wheels

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 stop.

Getting Around

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 necessary.

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 Mapblast):

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 the map.

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 Roof

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 carefully.

Tipping

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 SGD 23.54.

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.

Caveats

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 properly.

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 France.

How to Stay Safe in Paris?

Last updated: Thursday 3 April 2008, 11:00:49 hrs