Travel Tips and Advice for Savvy French Travelers

Sometimes when traveling we forget that we are the visitors in the foreign country and we are the ones that should adjust to the differences around us. Traveling in a foreign country is a learning experience – that’s why we travel, right?

Remember, being polite in any situation will take you a long way. Not knowing some basic French etiquette means that you might not be perceived as being polite! The following tips will help you avoid the culture shock that can occur when traveling.

The Basics

  • When you greet people say ‘Bonjour, madame/mademoiselle’ or ‘Bonjour monsieur’. This basic premise of French etiquette is drilled into French children from day 1. You should add madame, mademoiselle, or monsieur after all greetings.
  • When entering a shop, be sure to greet the shop keeper! To not do so is considered rude. Do not forget to say ‘au revoir’ when you leave.
  • When paying at a counter there will be a small dish or rubber mat on which to place your money. Do not place your cash in the cashier’s hand. This is to ensure that there is no error in what is being given or received.
  • If asking for travel advice such as directions, etc, it is polite to start your request with ‘pardon’ (excuse me) and end it with ‘s’il vous plat’ (please). When a response is given do not forget to say ‘merci’! (thank you!).
  • Keep your voice low whether in a public area, shop, church or restaurant. Americans are known for being loud!

Meals/Restaurant etiquette also varies in France from the US.

  • If the restaurant menu is in English or if you can get an English menu you are likely to pay more because they cater to tourists.
  • To avoid pricey bottled water with your meal, request ‘une carafe d’eau, s’il vous plat’ (a carafe of water, please). If you want bottled water be sure to specify ‘san gaz’ if you want still water instead of carbonated.
  • If ordering a steak, you will be asked how you would like it cooked: ‘saignant’ (just sealed on each side and thus very rare), ‘ point’ (pink inside) or ‘bien cuit’ (well cooked, no pink). Of course, I would love to see your vocabulary increase but my best travel tip is to remember the specific word for the way YOU like your steak to begin with!
  • Bread is eaten by breaking off small bites with your fingers, not by biting from the whole piece. Refrain from nibbling on the bread before the meal starts.
  • There are no side plates for bread. Do not worry! The server will brush the tablecloth before the next course.
  • Keep your hands visible on the table but do not place your elbows on the table. This piece of French etiquette has its origins in history when people kept both hands visible on the table so that everyone would know what they were up to!
  • If you are a guest at someone’s house it is customary to bring a box of chocolates for the hostess or flowers. Do not bring chrysanthemums as they are associated with funerals! Do not bring a bottle of wine! The implication is that you would not be happy with your host’s choice of wine or that you do not feel they are capable of choosing an appropriate wine for the meal.
  • Tip etiquette requires that you place the tip on the table, if you leave one. Do not hand it to the server. Tipping etiquette – to tip or not to tip. In France, the tip is built in to the price of your meal. However, if the server has been particularly helpful (maybe he gave you directions to that museum you have been trying to locate) then you might want to leave a bit of your extra change on the table for him.
  • It is so nice to sit on the squares and have a drink or a meal as part of your France travels. Be aware, though, that it may be a bit pricier than at an establishment on a side street away from the square.
  • The experience is part of the trip! Build your budget to accommodate a bit extra for meals as you will want to sit and enjoy the two hour lunches like the French do!! With all the little details you still want your best travel advice to be “enjoy the ride”.

I hope this will help prepare you for the differences between your country and France so that your trip to France will be enjoyable and you will want to return time after time. Bonne vacance!