Are you travelling to France and want to know what to take? Here is a breakdown of everything I found useful on my own trips to France, with advice about what you can leave behind
Eiffel Tower Sunset © Joe DeSousa
Each year, over 80 million people visit France, making it the most popular travel destination in the world. From the rugged pink coast of Brittany, and the elegance of Paris, down through the dazzling Provence of Van Gogh, and the sultry soul of Marseilles, everybody loves a different France. The common attraction is the French way of living. This comprehensive guide will help you pack for a Gallic adventure of your own.
Preparing For Your Trip To France
Some of the key things you need for France won’t be in your suitcase at all. Organise these essentials a few months before you intend to go.
- Flight Ticket – Book any flights well in advance. Prices tend to rise closer to departure date, so it’s best to book roughly three months ahead, using a flight comparison site like Skyscanner. You may be asked to show a return ticket in transit, so have a print out of all tickets to hand.
- Bus and Train Tickets – You can also save money by booking any internal transport in advance, especially if you plan to move around a lot.
- The Trainline should be your first call for both trains and coaches in France. You can do everything via their phone app too.
- Interrail Passes are essential for EU nationals intending to cover a number of different areas. The Eurail France Pass is the equivalent for non-EU visitors.
- French coach travel has seen a major overhaul since 2011, making it a viable alternative to the train system. The Eurolines Pass is the cheapest for long distances, or if you intend to visit other countries. Specific coach routes are available from the German coach operator Flixbus.
- Accommodation – As with flights, the price and availability will be much better if you book in advance. Use Booking.com to help find the best prices.
- Passport – Make sure your passport has plenty of blank pages and at least six months until expiry. A passport cover will protect it from damage, which can cause serious problems for you at the airport. A good cover is also a convenient stash for tickets and other transit documents.
- Do I Need A Visa For France? – France is in the Schengen Area of free movement for EU citizens. Americans, Australians, and Canadians do NOT need a visa for less than 90 days. Go to the Schengen visa information page for full details and other nationalities.
What Do You Need To Pack For France?
The best advice is always to pack less. When in doubt, leave it out. France is a great country for shopping, with prices roughly equivalent to the UK, so you shouldn’t have trouble getting whatever you need. The price displayed is always what you’ll pay, with all taxes included.
Although shopping norms are changing in France, and more places are now open on Sundays, don’t be surprised if shops close at lunchtime, and don’t expect anywhere to stay open 24 hours. The main cities all have famous shopping districts, but you’ll find excellent markets and local stores across the country, and most areas will be served by at least one hypermarché, such as Carrefour.
- You Won’t Need Toiletries – You’ll find an extensive range of reasonable priced toiletries in any of the 300 branches of Monoprix, so there’s no need to bring personal hygiene items like condoms, tampons, deodorant, toothpaste, shampoo and shower gel, razors, or loo roll. This also makes flight restrictions on liquids much easier much easier to navigate.
- You Won’t Need Non-Prescription Medication – Tablets, liquids, and potions for any unexpected illness are all available from a pharmacie. See below for section on health.
What Clothes To Pack For France
As with most European countries, the weather and climate in France will depend on where you are and when you travel. All regions range from hot to stifling in mid-summer. The north will generally be close to freezing in the winter, whilst the south contends with the near-mythical figure of the Mistral wind. Rain can be expected in any region, at any time. Do some homework on your specific destination, pack according to your best guess, but also budget to shop for additional items and be prepared to improvise once you arrive. Clothes are a big part of French shopping, so it’s very easy to replace anything you’ve forgotten.
A common strategy is to pack layers for every eventuality. If you’re travelling for more than a week, bring clothes for at least four days. You can do laundry twice a week and always have a backup outfit.
- Lower Body – Take quality shorts, trousers, or skirts, that can cope with everyday use and frequent washing. Lightweight options should be comfortable anywhere from May to September. Choose warmer materials of varying degrees for the rest of the year.
- Shorts with zipper pockets help protect valuables and help you stay cool at the hottest times of the year.
- Tick-borne Lyme disease is an increasing problem in rural areas. Pack light-weight trousers, if you’re going to be in the countryside during the summer.
- During the coldest months of the year, go for simple, durable and comfortable clothing. A couple of pairs of jeans will be the most versatile solution.
- Upper body – This is where layers are your best friend for tackling different kinds of weather and fluctuating temperatures.
- Pack a few light t-shirts as a base, then add a couple of long-sleeved tops for when things turn chilly. Under Armor t-shirts remain dry and light. Be sure to protect your arms against the sun or if you’re in the country during the summer.
- A waterproof coat or warm jacket is essential from mid-autumn to late spring. Wear it on the plane to cut down on packing. I also carry a ‘cag in a bag’ for sudden showers.
- Base layer tops and thermal tights are a lifesaver during the coldest months. Duofold’s crew neck base layer tops for men orDuofold thermal shirts for women won’t add too much bulk to an outfit.
- Underwear – Under Armor underwear is a great way to keep cool and easily worth the investment, especially if you’re physically very active. Use a lubricant like KY Jelly on tender areas to avoid the chafing brought on by lots of walking.
- Footwear – Blisters and other ailments can ruin a trip, so good footwear is vital. Amazon always has deals on men’s walking shoes and quality hiking footwear for women.
- During summer, consider some Keen CNX hiking shoes. They feel better than sandals and your feet will thank you.
- Avoid blistered feet by making sure trainers or sneakers offer plenty of ventilation. This will also help avoid smelly feet after a long day pounding the pavement.
- Make sure your socks give your toes plenty of protection.
- Summer Accessories – Get some decent shades to screen out harmful rays. Check Amazon for quality sunglasses to avoid paying silly money – you’ll be gutted if you leave your favourite Ray-Bans on the Metro. Some kind of headwear is also useful for keeping the sun off and staying cool.
- Swimwear – France has gorgeous beaches on three sides of the country, so make sure you pack good quality bikinis or trunks if you’re headed to the coast.
- Winter Accessories – Pack a warm scarf for winter months, at least one pair of gloves, and a hat to keep your noggin cosy.
Health And Grooming Items To Pack For France
- Quick Dry Towel – A word of advice: even if towels come with your accommodation, it’s a good idea to bring your own. This can be particularly true in some of France’s cheaper hotels. I recommend Sunland towels – they are very lightweight and non-bulky, to minimise your travel load.
- Refillable Water Bottle – French summers can be brutally hot. As I write, the country is in the grip of a heatwave. It’s vital to stay hydrated when travelling, at any time of year. Fill up a water bottle so you always have refreshment to hand. The Nalgene OTF has a clever lid technology for easy filling and is durable enough for travel.
- Sunscreen and Insect Repellent – Use sunscreen whenever you are out in the sun. Neutrogena SPF 45 Drytouch Sunscreen is water resistant for up to 80 minutes and absorbs into your skin instantly. Stock up on insect repellent if you’re going to be out in the country or on the coast.
- Tissues – It’s useful to carry some tissues for various little emergencies. A small bottle of hand sanitiser is valuable too.
- Moisturiser – As with hand sanitiser, using face moisturiser whilst travelling can do wonders for your spirits at the end of a demanding day. Fancy makes like CeraVe Moisturizing Lotion and Kiehl’s Ultra Facial Cream feel genuinely better to me.
- Antihistamine tablets – I recommend antihistamines for pollen allergies and sensitive noses. I also find that taking an antihistamine before a long flight helps with symptoms brought on by recycled canned air. These are cheap and available without prescription.
- Ear Plugs – Ear plugs are essential for any kind of long journey. They can save your sanity when sharing a dorm with someone who snores. Moldex ear plugs are excellent and very cheap.
Electronic Devices To Pack For France
- Plug Adaptors – Everything I need to power is now at the end of a USB cable, so I’ll usually just use an IKEA Koppla 3-port USB charger.
- France uses the round plug known as ‘Type E’. It has two round pins and a hole for the socket’s earthing pin. It’s worth noting that most neighbouring countries have a different type of socket.
- Type E has the same 230V / 50 Hz power as the UK, so if you’re coming from the US, you might need an adaptor with a build-in voltage converter for things like hairdryers.
- The simplest solution is to get a universal power adaptor. Make sure it has surge protection if you’re powering expensive items like laptops.
- Cellphone – There’s a full section below on buying a SIM card and data in France. A few other things to consider:
- If your current handset is locked to a provider, consider buying a cheap, temporary phone especially for the trip.
- Don’t forget your phone charger! If you do, look for a branch of French institution Fnac – click ‘Magasins’ in the menu and search for the city you’ll be in.
- A strong protective case will save your phone from the inevitable demands of travel. The Otterbox range of Defender cases will withstand most kinds of damage.
- The batteries on your devices are going to drain faster abroad and you can’t predict when you’ll have a power source, so keep a fully-charged power bank with you. My new favourite is RAVPower’s clever FileHub Plus. It’s an external battery, a wifi signal booster, and over-the-air media/file server with plenty of ports.
- Check and triple check that your travel insurance includes comprehensive coverage for smartphones. Travel insurance often only pays a set limit for high-value items, unless you specify otherwise, so don’t assume. World Nomads, for example, will let you insure particular items to their total value.
- Make sure you have cloud backup for your photos and data, and copy valuable material to an SD or similar, then keep it somewhere safe. Also back everything up to a laptop if you have one with you.
- Noise-cancelling headphones – As an alternative to earplugs, get a pair of comfortable noise-cancelling headphones for long flights and bus journeys.
- Camera – A standalone camera still has some advantages over smartphone pictures, particularly concerning battery use. I recommend the Canon Powershot range which are compact, straightforward to use, and well priced.
- Kindle – A Kindle reading device for killing dead time at airports or in transit. They hold thousands of books and add barely any weight to your luggage. Don’t forget your charger!
- France has a history of literature to rival anywhere else, so there’s always something new to stock up on. I’m currently reading Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy of gritty French noir. Izzo conjures a city of tension, heat, music, food and drink so vivid that I feel like I’m right there. For a bit of Parisian romance, I’d also recommend Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast.
Other Things To Pack For France
- French Phrasebook – English is widely spoken in French cities, but in other situations, an excellent phrasebook like the ’Lonely Planet French Phrasebook’ will help you out of a jam. Be sure to get familiar with how to pronounce the language before you go and learn at least the basic greetings and other useful phrases.
- Journal – I have a detailed journal from travels across France in 1993, stuffed with photos and details of places of a country that has changed in many ways. Any notebook will do – Rhodia and Clairefontaine are both French classics – but I love using Leuchtturm1917. They’re pricey but worth the investment.
Other Documents To Prepare For A Visit To France
- Student Card – If you’re a student, under 30, or a teacher make sure you have an International Student Identity Card. This gives discounts in many galleries and museums, as well as other travel savings.
- Driving Licence – You can use a foreign driving licence in France, as long as you are over 18 with insurance, registration, and passport. However, it is easy to fall foul of certain rules and regulations, particularly when bringing a vehicle into the country. Be sure to study the RAC website for full details.
- Document Scans – Take photos of your passport, credit and debit cards, insurance, and any other important documents, then save them as JPEGs to an online account like Gmail, iCloud, or Dropbox, as well as a list of any emergency contacts, such as banks and medical numbers. If you lose anything, you’ll always have a backup on your phone and via an internet connection.
Luggage For A Visit To France
- Backpack or Suitcase – A solid brand such as Osprey will hold all your possessions while remaining comfortable. Check Amazon for bargain backpacks. Make sure the harness fully supports what you’re carrying on your hips rather than your shoulders. It’s a good idea to try one out in a shop before you buy.
- If you’d prefer to take a suitcase, go for high-quality luggage that’s large enough for all your gear with some extra space for anything you buy while abroad.
- You’ll need a daypack for everyday items such as a water bottle and battery pack.
- Travel Wallet – A sturdy travel wallet will keep your cash, cards, and valuable documents tucked away. The Lewis N. Clark RFID Security Wallet is a good size for your passport and other essentials, but will still fit comfortably under your clothing.
- Travel Cubes – By grouping your luggage into three or four different coloured travel cubes, you can easily find what you’re looking for, rather than having to empty everything onto the bed. You can do the same with Ziploc bags or even carriers, but nice, sturdy cubes will help keep your luggage tidy and save lots of time.
- Wash Bag – A waterproof pack for toiletries is a wise investment. As with travel cubes, a well-designed bag will give you access to exactly what you need. Check it’s durable enough to protect the rest of your luggage from any messy leaks. The Magictodoor travel kit is a great example of a thoughtfully designed and reasonably priced wash bag.
- Since airports have a 100 mL limit on carry-on liquids, transfer them into smaller containers and a transparent bag, or pack larger bottles in with your hold luggage.
- Luggage Locks – This inexpensive purchase will keep your bags protected from opportunistic meddling. Make sure any locks are TSA-approved when travelling from the USA.
Preparing Your Cellphone For France
Since 2017, EU citizens can, by law, use their existing phone and data plan in France at no extra cost. Call your provider to verify that your handset is ready to roam and to find out if your contract has any limitations.
For non-EU travellers, the SIM card landscape is relatively straightforward. There are four major phone carriers in France: Orange, SFR, Bouygues, and Free Mobile, as well as an online only vendor LeFrenchMobile.
At first glance, Free Mobile is the most attractive, offering unlimited calls and data for just under €20 per month (plus a €5 set-up fee). The downside is that SIMs are only available at Free’s only Paris store. Also, this is a monthly subscription, so you’ll need to cancel the contract when you leave.
At the other end of the spectrum, France’s biggest and oldest provider Orange offers the €40 prepaid Holiday SIM with 120 minutes of calls, 1000 international texts and 10GB of EU-wide data. The website is clear and in English and top-ups are super easy. The downside is that this SIM is aimed at tourists, so the credit only lasts for 14 days.
The convenience of LeFrenchMobile is that they’ll ship the SIM to you and get you set up online before you depart. But, at roughly €20 for 10 minutes of calls and 2GB of data, it’s not great value for money. Similarly, neither SFR and Bouygues are cheap enough to be compelling when compared to Free or Orange.
You’ll need an unlocked handset in order to use the new SIM, so will have to buy a cheap device if your phone is still in contract.
In addition to hotels and cafés, France has a good network of free public wifi, particularly in Paris. Another fallback is to take advantage of the free wifi at Apple stores or branches of Starbucks in the cities and larger towns.
Travel Insurance For France
It’s vital that you have travel insurance with complete health coverage. Also double check you are covered for any activities you intend to take part in, such as skiing, and all expensive items like phones and tablets. World Nomads travel insurance comes recommended by the likes of Lonely Planet and can be bought online instantly.
Health Considerations For A Visit To France
- Medical Insurance – It’s important that your travel insurance includes comprehensive medical cover. EU citizens should also apply for a free European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), which gives holders the same reduced or free state-provided healthcare as any French citizen. And download the EHIC smartphone app, which will guide you through the whole process and help take care of any bureaucracy.
- Non-EU travellers should check with their insurance provider (such as World Nomads) to understand what they require of you before leaving for France. Keep their number within easy access, contact them as soon as possible for advice, and keep any receipts to claim against.
- Dial 112 for the English-speaking emergency service.
- Vaccinations – France is a safe country and it is generally enough to be up to date with routine vaccinations. Get advice from a doctor or nurse about 6 weeks before you leave.
- There has been a rise in measles across Europe since May 2018, so make sure you were inoculated as part of your routine vaccinations.
- If you are planning to hike or camp in the forest, you should consider protection against tick-borne diseases, which carry a higher risk during the summer in rural areas. Cover exposed skin and use insect repellent.
- Check the FitForTravel website for the latest travel advice.
- Prescription Medicines – Bring a full supply of any prescription medicines, sealed, if possible, in the original packaging with the prescription label attached. Otherwise, carry written documentation to present at customs.
- Non-Prescription Medicines – France has one of the best healthcare industries in the world. The trusty French pharmacie is excellent for a range of services, including non-prescription drugs, and is easily identified by the green neon cross hanging outside. The pharmacists are highly trained and often speak English, so should be your first port of call if you’re feeling unwell. Pharmacies generally keep regular shop hours but you should be able to find a ‘service de garde’ for out-of-hours crises.
- Allergy Card – If you have allergies or certain food preferences, carry a statement in French to show to food vendors and restaurants. Select Wisely sells cards for most major food and drug allergies in a huge variety of languages.
Money For Visiting France
France is a member of the European Union and, if you’ve spent time in any other EU country, you’ll encounter few financial surprises here. Where some European cities are moving to contactless payment, however, France is still relatively cash-based. The best strategy is to use a mix of debit and credit cards, and hard currency.
Ideally you will bring both a debit and credit card from the Visa or MasterCard family, as other cards are less common in France. A debit card will be cheaper to use at an ATM, especially if you’re able to acquire a no-fee card. Similarly, France uses the chip-and-PIN system, so your trip will go smoother if you have cards to match, rather than a signature or magnetic strip card. You will need a 4-digit PIN. Talk to your bank and see what they can do. Also, just because your plastic worked overseas in the past, don’t assume it will for this trip. I was caught out when my bank changed the rules for travel for my type of account. Finally, ask if your bank is partnered with a French equivalent. Barclays and Bank of America have an agreement with BNP Paribas, for example, for cheaper withdrawals.
If your bank can’t help, a crop of new services and top-up cards are aimed at dissolving financial borders for travellers. Starling and Revolut, in the UK, for example, offer zero fees for travel use and Western Union’s TravelWise card is worth keeping an eye on.
As one of the world’s major currencies, you should be able to get a good rate of exchange on the Euro before you leave home. Buy about €100 in advance and keep it on you. Avoid changing money once you’ve arrived, especially at airports and other tourist areas. Travellers cheques are also best avoided. Instead, make use of ATMs, which offer an exchange at the market rate. These are easily found in banks and post offices, but less common outside of towns and cities. They are easy to use and will usually give you the option to change the operating language to English. Always choose the EUR rate, if offered, rather than to withdraw in your own currency.
Pickpockets are common in France, so strike the balance between withdrawing lump sums for emergencies or places that will only accept cash but not carrying too much at any one time. And securely stash what you have in a money belt or hidden wallet.
If you have problems with a card, try a few different banks, then call the number on the back of the card to get it unfrozen. It’s a good idea to keep a separate record of this and other card details, in case it gets lost or stolen. It’s also wise to carry a back-up card from a different account and make sure you have access to online banking.
Most shops, restaurants, and bars clearly advertise their prices, and you should expect to pay what you see, including any taxes and service charges. However, the price in bars and cafés will vary depending on where you sit. It’s more expensive to sit down than drink at the bar. Although included in the price, it’s customary to tip 5-10% if you’ve had good service.
It is normal to be charged a small ‘tourist tax’ on your accommodation. This is often bundled into the initial cost, although you may be asked to settle as you check out. Either way, look out for what is required when you make your booking.
If you’re travelling from outside the EU and are making big purchases, you may be eligible for a tax refund. Ask about duty free at the point of purchase.
The Best Time To Visit France
Common wisdom says that France is at its best during the spring or autumn: from April to June and September to November. The snag is that this is also the costliest and most popular time to visit.
Outside of the capital, it probably is best to stick to the milder seasons. The winters are either cold and grey or wet and windy, mid-summer stifling and overcrowded. But Paris has plenty to offer at any time of year and some fantastic bargains can be found off season. Temperatures range from a low of 3ºC in December and January to a high of 25ºC in July and August. It’s also a wet city, even during the summer.
Planning What To Do And Where To Go In France
- France Guidebook – A good guide remains a trusted way to understand a country before you travel and even before you book. I usually go for ’Lonely Planet France’ or the equivalent for specific cities and regions. By reading through and marking everything that interests you, it can really help you decide where and when to go. I always mark up my guidebook with notes as I travel, too: part journal, part recommendation to friends.
- French Maps – Hotels and tourist information centres will offer free maps. The coverage is always selective, so collect a few and cross reference. You can also use Google Maps for the area you’re in. Download these when you’ve access to free wifi for offline use, so you don’t waste data when you’re out and about.