13 Rookie Mistakes to Avoid on Your Trip to France

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With its rich culture, delicious cuisine, diverse cities, stunning countryside, and stellar shopping, France makes for an amazing vacation destination — provided you can avoid the faux pas that will put you on the wrong side of the locals. One minute you’re enjoying a glass of vino along the Champs-Élysées, the next you’re staring slack-jawed at the check that would cover an entire meal back home – congratulations, you’ve made your first error. Read on for 13 rookie mistakes to avoid on your first (or fifth) trip to France.

With its rich culture, delicious cuisine, diverse cities, stunning countryside, and stellar shopping, France is an amazing vacation destination — provided you can avoid the faux pas that will put you on the wrong side of the locals. One minute, you’re enjoying a glass of vino along the Champs-Élysées; the next, you’re staring slack-jawed at the check that would cover an entire meal back home – congratulations, you’ve made your first error. Read on for 13 rookie mistakes to avoid on your first (or fifth) trip to France.

1. Drinking and Eating in Tourist Traps in France

Young stylish woman in red beret having a french breakfast with coffee and croissant sitting oudoors at the cafe terrace
rh2010 | Adobe Stock

Places like Paris, Bordeaux, and Nice pump up the tourist prices for everything from hotels to food and drink. If you want to burn through your spending money as quickly as possible, a few glasses of wine on a trendy terrace overlooking a busy boulevard should start things off nicely. With that in mind, eat and drink off the typical tourist trails to save on extortionate prices and enjoy places much more representative of the country. Bonus foodie tip: In France, bread is not cut but torn, so do like the locals and put the knife down.

2. Avoiding Public Transport in France

Paris, France - August 08, 2023: Tootbus tour bus OpenTour company in front of the police prefecture building (Caserne de Garde de Paris). Planet Friendly Ratp: environmentally buses electricity
framarzo | Adobe Stock

Public transportation is generally comfortable, convenient, and affordable in France, so use it whenever possible. Metro systems are easy to navigate, and buses are a great way to see the cities without paying high taxi fares.

3. Failing to Learn the French Timetables

closed french text means ferme on door boutique text sign board on windows shop restaurant cafe store signboard
OceanProd | Adobe Stock

The French have a distinctly European timetable that differs from the open-around-the-clock culture of the U.S., so you’ll need to tune in to it. For example, don’t try and get anything done on a Sunday afternoon when everything shuts down, and expect to find most restaurants, grocery stores, bars, and cafes closed in the middle of the afternoon for a couple of hours. The latter can make finding a place to eat lunch between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. particularly difficult in some areas of France. This tip especially applies to regional areas of the country, where not paying attention to the opening hours could make you miss out on the one brasserie or boulangerie in town.

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4. Calling Your French Waiter ‘Garcon’

Man ordering a drink at bar counter
WavebreakMediaMicro | Adobe Stock

Whether in a restaurant or a bar, you’ll likely need to get your server’s attention, but these innocuous interactions can be the most awkward. Never call the waiter ‘garcon’ (the literal translation is ‘boy,’ and it can come across as patronizing and slightly insulting). A polite ‘bonjour’ is the correct way to grab someone’s attention in a restaurant and most other places.

5. Not Greeting Your Shopkeeper With a ‘Bonjour’

Traditional grocery store in Brittany, France
jjfarq | Adobe Stock

If you find yourself in a shop receiving scowls from the shopkeeper, chances are you’re paying for not greeting them with a bonjour on arrival. The French can be fairly formal, and entering a shop without saying hello is considered very rude. So, announce yourself. Oh, and say goodbye, too.

6. Expecting to Find a Fast Pace of Life in France

Wine and cake of French Riviera, glasses of cold rose Cote de Provence wine and Tarte Tropezienne cake in yacht harbour of Port Grimaud, summer vacation in Provence, France.
barmalini | Adobe Stock

If you’re traveling to France from the U.S., then you’re about to experience a culture that runs at a much slower pace. Relax, be patient, and tune in to the Gallic way. The French like to savor the moment and take their time, especially at restaurants and cafés. Waiters typically keep their distance, let you fill your own glasses, and almost always wait for you to ask for the bill. And don’t even try eating on the go in France — it’s uncommon.

7. Tipping in France Everywhere You Go

Asian girl finished Breakfast in a Paris retro cafe and pays for lunch by credit card. Finance retail transaction and small business concept
EdNurg | Adobe Stock

In France, you don’t need to tip because service is already a part of the bill — usually around 15 percent — but no one will be offended if you want to leave a euro or two. Waiters, taxi drivers, and hotel staff don’t necessarily expect a tip, but a small gesture is classy. That being said, anything more than a couple of euros is unnecessary.

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8. Not Stamping Your Train Ticket at the Metro Station in France

Paris; France - november 30 2018 : Paris Saint Lazare station
PackShot | Adobe Stock

Those gates at the metro might be open, relying on your honesty to stamp your ticket, but if you forget (or just sneak through) and you’re caught, expect to pay a hefty fine. Inspectors regularly patrol the exits of metro stations, and forgetfulness will not save you from a 40-euro fine.

9. Only Staying in Paris When Visiting France

Marseilles. Notre Dame de la Garde Cathedral at sunset.
pillerss | Adobe Stock

If you wish to see France in its entirety, don’t spend too much time in Paris. The city is an incredible place to visit, but many other parts of the country will enrich your experience. Other notable cities include Marseille, with its relaxed South of France style and North African influences, and Bordeaux, arguably France’s preeminent foodie city. There are also the beaches of the French Riviera, excellent hiking in the Massif Central region, and canoeing and swimming in the beautiful lakes and canyons of the Verdon Gorge.

10. Assuming Everyone Speaks English in France

Business people talking at ledge overlooking Paris, France
KOTO | Adobe Stock

Many people you encounter in France can speak English, but not everyone will be willing to communicate in a language that’s not their first. Some people may be scared to practice their English, so don’t take it personally if you’re forced into some stunted French conversations. This brings us to our next point.

11. Not Learning Any French Before You Arrive

HAVIROV, CZECH REPUBLIC - APRIL 11, 2016: Man's hand use with his fingers tablet. Duolingo app on the screen. It is popular free language-learning platform.
M-SUR | Adobe Stock

Pack your phrase book, but arrive knowing how to say a few basic words and phrases in French – hello, goodbye, and thank you. There’s a common misconception that the French are rude and aloof. Still, this huge generalization is usually disproved once you try to introduce yourself with a few words of the language. Apps like Duolingo make learning key phrases and expressions easy.  

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12. Arriving Unaware of French Customs

French flag flying in bright blue sky above the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France
lazyllama | Adobe Stock

If you decide to wear flip-flops, shorts, and a T-shirt to the restaurant, know that you might be refused entry. The French can be formal, and dressing for the occasion is expected, especially in the cities. That doesn’t mean dressing up — just not overtly dressing down. Another quirky custom: In France, putting ice in your drink is not customary, so don’t get vexed when your umpteenth Coke arrives without any frosty decoration. If you ask for ice, you might get lucky, but it’s not always an option.

13. Drinking on Terraces If You’re on a Budget in France

beautiful luxury rooftop restaurant in Paris with panoramic view of the city
Song_about_summer | Adobe Stock

If you’re on a tight budget, try not to spend too many days drinking in the views and cocktails on trendy terraces. In many cafes in France, these prime spots come with a premium price. Ordering at the bar and standing or perching on a bar stool can save you as much as a euro on each drink.

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