13 Rookie Mistakes to Avoid on Your Trip to France

See recent posts by Toby Orton

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.

1. Drinking and Eating in Tourist Traps in France

Cafe Along the Champs-Elysees in Paris
Cafe Along the Champs-Élysées in Paris/Oyster

Places like Paris, Bordeaux, and Nice pump up the tourist prices for everything from hotels to food and drink. If you’re looking 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, make sure to eat and drink off the typical tourist trails, not only to save on extortionate prices, but also to  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

People Waiting for the Metro in Paris
Metro in Paris/Oyster

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

3. Failing to the Learn the French Timetables

Clock in Paris
Clock in Paris/Oyster

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.

4. Calling Your French Waiter ‘Garcon’

Cafe in the 6th Arrondissement, Paris
Cafe in the 6th Arrondissement, Paris/Oyster

Whether you’re in a restaurant or a bar, you’ll likely need to get your server’s attention, but it’s these innocuous interactions that can prove to 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’

If you find yourself in a shop receiving scowls from the shopkeeper, chances are you’re paying the price 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

The Tuileries Garden in Paris
Jardin des Tuileries, Paris/Oyster

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 of things. The French like to savor the moment and take their time, and this is especially true 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 not common.

7. Tipping in France Everywhere You Go

In France, you don’t need to tip because service is already a part of the bill — usually around 15 percent — but if you want to leave a euro or two, no one is going to be offended. 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.

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

Metro Sign in Paris
Metro Sign in Paris/Oyster

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

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

10. Assuming Everyone Speaks English in France

Man and Woman Having a Picnic in Paris
Picnic in Place de la Bastille, Paris/Oyster

Many people you encounter in France will be able to 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 bring us to our next point.

11. Not Learning Any French Before You Arrive

Cafe in the Latin Quarter in Paris
Cafe in the 5th Arrondissement, Paris/Oyster

Definitely 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, but this huge generalization is usually disproved once you make the effort to introduce yourself with a few words of the language.

12. Arriving Unaware of French Customs

View of the 8th Arrondissement and Eiffel tower
Eiffel Tower View, Paris/Oyster

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, it’s not customary to put ice in your drink, 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

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 or so on each drink.

Our Pick for a Hotel in Paris: Hôtel Régina Louvre

Street at Hôtel Régina Louvre in Paris
Street at Hôtel Régina Louvre, Paris/Oyster

Anyone visiting France for the first time is likely going to stop in Paris. And if it’s your first time in the City of Lights, we recommend staying close to the action. A historic grande dame of a hotel on the Place des Pyramides, the Regina was renovated in 2014, but it maintains a classic, elegant atmosphere. Facing the Louvre, Tuileries Gardens, and Eiffel Tower on the opposite side of the Seine, the property features 119 rooms and 15 suites that mix period furniture with modern amenities such as flat-screen TVs and free Wi-Fi.

Don’t make the ultimate rookie mistake: forgetting to pack for your trip! Here’s some packing inspiration for your trip to France:

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