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Spontaneous France itinerary

My family is planning a relatively spontaneous trip to France for 14 days in late November to early December. We are a family of four with two kids under 10. We are used to long drives that we do regularly in the US. This will be our first international trip and want to make sure what we have planned is doable. We will have a rental car for the whole trip. We will be flying into Paris.

  • We will drive immediately to MSM with a stop in Rouen. While based in MSM for 3 days we’ll be going to some WWII sites around Normandy.
  • Then we’ll drive to Amboise to visit the Loire Valley for 2 days.
  • Then we’ll drive to Eguisheim with a stop in Bourges. We’ll be staying in Eguisheim for 4 days. We plan on visiting the Alsace region.
  • Then we plan to drive to Disneyland Paris with a stop at Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte to see their nighttime illuminations. We’ll spend one day at Disneyland.

We then will drive back up to Paris for our last two days with one day being in Versailles.

With this being a spontaneous trip any suggestions on our itinerary would be helpful. Places to stay or things to make sure we see in these areas. Also is it doable to get the health pass in time?

Posted by
19160 posts

Since this is your first international trip, I imagine you don't know how you'll react to an overnight flight. Many of us get essentially no sleep at all, arriving severely sleep-deprived and jetlagged. Under those conditions it is really, really unsafe to rent a car and drive a significant distance. I wouldn't dare to drive around the block, the way I feel upon arrival in Europe.

The drive you are proposing on your arrival day (CDG airport to Rouen to Mont-St-Michel) is estimated by ViaMichelin to take 4 hr. 21 min. with no time allowed for traffic delays, getting lost, looking for parking, stopping in Rouen, etc. This is not a good idea at all.

If I had only two days in Paris, I wouldn't spend one of them at Versailles, but I suppose that is a matter of taste.

I don't know what sort of weather you can expect in northern France in late December; I've only been there in the summer. I suggest checking some actual, historical, day-by-day weather data on timeanddate.com. I like to check at least the most recent three years; five would be better. At the least, this information will help you plan what to pack. Also Keep in mind that days will be getting very short by the time of your trip, which will affect how much you can accomplish each day.

Posted by
63 posts

Is there a reason you've only given yourself two days in Paris (one really, with Versaille)? I would personally advise spending a few more days there and cutting out one of the regions from your bulleted list (the Alsace region is further away from your other locations so that would be my recommended cut). My first trip was nine days, and I did Paris and the Loire Valley. One more region would seemingly be doable with 14 days. You could do Disneyland Paris and Vaux-le-Vicomte as day trips from Paris, unless you were planning on an overnight in Vaux-le-Vicomte to see the illumination.

Also wondering if you factored in drive time between your locations to consider how much time you'll really have in each town? Travel time can easily take half a day or more, cutting down the actual time you have to explore each location.

Posted by
7683 posts

This itinerary needs tweaking. First, you should base in Bayeux and go to Mont Saint Michel for a day trip or an overnight.
From Mont Saint Michel, you could drive to the Loire Valley.
Turn in your car in Tours and take the high-speed train to Alsace, changing stations in Paris. Or flip your trip and go to Alsace first, turn in your car and take the high-speed train that connects Alsace to Rennes. BTW, this train also stops at Disneyland Paris. Rent cars and turn them back in but take the train for distances.
Last, go to Disneyland from Paris. It's on a rail line in the suburb.
You are moving around way too much and doing too much driving.
Plan your trip by counting nights.
Night 1 Rouen
Night 2, 3 Bayeux
Night 4 Mont Saint Michel
Night 5 Amboise
Etc
The two nights in Bayeux give you one day for the extensive WWII sites and a half day for the Tapestry, cathedral, soaking up the atmosphere, WWII museum...
One night on Mont Saint Michel gives you less than 24 hours.

Posted by
4 posts

The reason for the MSM base is because my husband is into photography and wants to be at MSM at different times of day to get pics. The reason for not using trains is because we have a child who needs a car seat and we don't want to worry about lugging it around. We don't want to cut out Alsace region because the Christmas markets there were a big reason for this trip. We do understand it will be cold in late November.

I have heard we could be jet lagged but we have done several cross country trips where we slept in the car for only a couple of hours in a 36 hour period.

Posted by
875 posts

Don't underestimate jet lag and a 6-7 time change. Sleeping in a car isn't the same as high altitude pressure on your system. Enjoy, but re-think your driving the day of arrival.

Posted by
6663 posts

I urge you, please, not to put yourself and fellow motorists at risk by undertaking such a long drive on your arrival day.

What part of the States are you coming from ? In addition to the essentially lost night’s sleep on the plane on your way to France, you will also be dealing with a time difference of somewhere between 6 and 9 hours (more than that, even, if you’re coming from Alaska or Hawaii). You can’t just “wish” jet lag away.

It’s not just that it’s unpleasant to drive that far (after arriving, going through passport control, finding your way to the rental location, and doing all the paperwork); it’s that it is dangerous.

Posted by
4857 posts

If you don’t care about your and your family’s safety, please think of all those poor locals out driving on French roads who you may encounter on arrival. Doing long road trips in your own time zone is nothing like driving whilst jet lagged. It’s not as though you are just planning on picking up the car and staying locally - your planned journey is likely to take the best part of 6 hours.

Numerous Christmas markets across Europe have been cancelled again this year, so check online before planning your visit.

You are spending much of your time in more rural parts - daylight hours will be short and the weather is likely to be cold and wet, so presumably you have a Plan B to keep your children entertained?

I would have thought that Paris would appeal more to children than Versailles.

Posted by
16165 posts

OK, you're car people, but don't drive any further than Rouen your first day. Its about a 2 hour drive. Then the Normandy sites are on the way to MSM and you can spend the day to get there.

If your intention is to hang on to the car and turn it in at CDG on the day of your flight home, just stay in Versailles and visit Paris from there by taking the frequent, fast and cheap train into Paris and back. You really don't want to drive into Paris if you can help it.

Posted by
1237 posts

"You really don't want to drive into Paris if you can help it."
Also, where are you going to park it?? Hotels generally do not have parking garages. The cost for parking, plus the cost of the car rental for those days, could be more than hotel room. Turn your car in just before Paris near or at a train station. As per the above, you do not want to drive in Paris. If you do, you better have 100 % damage insurance.

Another concern, do you drive a manual transmission car? Automatic transmissions are expensive to rent and are sometimes not available (even if you have one reserved).

Contrary to what you may read on this forum, we took our grandkids to Paris Disney and had a great time.

Posted by
4 posts

Thank you all for all the help. I think we will probably stay in Rouen the first night. I like the idea of hitting the Normandy WWII sites on the way to MSM. One of the reasons we were trying to go to MSM was because we didn't want to leave our luggage in the car while sightseeing. Should this be a concern? Do people leave their luggage in their cars while sightseeing? Is it safe?

I also think we will also probably drop the car off before Paris and use the train. With having a car seat is there somewhere we can store it for a couple of days?

I don't drive manual but my husband can. So if there is an issue at the car rental agency we'll be ok.

Posted by
2775 posts

Why don't you rent a car seat from the car rental agency and leave yours at home? That way, you don't have to worry about storage after you turn in the car. Or maybe you plan to use the seat on the flight? In that case, which specific town would you plan on storing the car seat? You may want to consider getting a lightweight car seat such as the Cosco Scenera for the trip so that if you can't find a place to store it, the weight will not be as much.
As to leaving luggage in the car, people do it. It's not ideal but I would not worry too much about it in Normandy as long as you follow the usual common sense rules about leaving a car with luggage in it: nothing should be visible in through the windows of the car so everything should be in the trunk, park the car and walk away from it -- don't mess around with putting stuff in the trunk and taking stuff out when you park, try to back into a spot so your trunk is not easily accessible, do not leave your important documents or anything you cannot live without in the car, etc. Basically, do what you would do if you were parking your car with luggage in it on the street in a big city.

Posted by
12400 posts

Hi,

I would definitely suggest after landing at CDG to take the train instead to Rouen. Drop the driving idea.

I have often been in cars after a non-stop flight of 11 hours from SFO to Paris but only as a passenger when the distance from CDC to our destination was another 2 hours.

Not everyone gets jet lag after a trans-Atlanric flight, Do you?

I don't have jet lag upon arrival since I can count on sleeping 6 hours max , but then I would never drive upon landing in Europe either. No problem sitting on a train after that for another 2 to 6 hours.

The TER train goes direct Paris to Rouen.

Posted by
16165 posts

After the RER B to Gare du Nord, then the RER E to Gare St Lazare, then a train to Rouen. With 2 young kids and luggage, does not sound like a lot of fun.

Posted by
317 posts

I will add my .02 about driving and that is: that it depends on the time of day when you arrive and it what kind of sleeper you are on a plane. I have driven several times after an international flight, but I can usually sleep for a couple of hours on the plane. I also make sure I don’t drive long distances. I drove to Amboise this time and I can tell you that was as far as I would’ve ever wanted to go. It was pouring down rain which was a little extra fatiguing. We made sure to stop and take a break and get some coffee and walk around and eat for me. I think with including that stop, it was about four hours and that was max. (It also depends on age sometimes honestly. Sometimes we don’t like to admit it but as I have gotten older I find I can’t go without the sleep like I used to.). Stopping in Rouen first sounds like a good idea.

Posted by
452 posts

I’ll add my voice to the chorus of experienced jet laggers for your opener. TransAtlantic and TransPacific flying can be way more tiresome than JFK-LAX or a marathon cannonball run kind of drive in the states. (Way too many time zones)

Straight to MSM with a stop in Rouen could be unpleasant and in November or early December you would arrive after at MSM after dark. I don’t think in this planning that you have considered that sunrise won’t be until after 0830 and sunset between 5 and maybe 535pm for the time period. Bayeux shines as a central location to spend a day at MSM and see WW II sites.

Photography of MSM in different lighting involves lots of driving and hiking. (I’ve done it) Having a good time might take much of a day IF the weather cooperates. Looking at Normandie battle sites, cemeteries and such takes a little bit of planning as well as well as some driving on country backroads.

The Loire, Alsace and Paris Disney are all fun but there’s a lot of time driving and a car in Paris if you have a choice is silly. (But not impossible) Lots of the regulars here have chimed in with various ideas and ultimately one of the best ideas is to grab an RS France Travel Guide (or one of your choice) and tune your itinerary…..then come back here for more comments.

Your trip is a nice amalgamation of places but has way too much driving to and fro across the width of France. The uncertainty of the pandemic also indicates perhaps a more conservative approach. (Consider potential market cancellations in Alsace) Driving everywhere to avoid carrying a car seat (often available with a rental) seems to be a bit of a penalty.

On the other hand posters here don’t know your specific circumstances so maybe your plans might work.Good Luck and have fun.

Posted by
26010 posts

Just a couple of points - much of what I would have said has already been said.
ts
Specifically about Alsace - it looks close but its not. Yes, there is an Autoroute combination from Paris to Strasbourg but understand that you will be going at max 130 kph (about 80 mph) and the nonstop train will be going at 320 kph for most of the way. You get there much quicker, and back quicker than you ever could in a car.

Also, with that much driving you really ought to have a second driver. It is different than American freeways. Try to get a car that both drivers can drive. Enjoy the aires (rest areas) with good food and clean toilets (be aware that the seats won't be there). The small aires are more frequent than the big ones and have few or no services but usually have self cleaning toilets.

Lastly - all North American drivers on the contract need IDPs in France (International Driving Permit) in addition to your home driving license. You could provide a certified translation but will cost more and be more hassle than IDPs which can be had at any AAA. Also, study the rules of the road, understand the signage and national defaults (especially speed limits where you see the white circle with diagonal black line, depending on vehicle type and class of road and rural/urban). Understand the meanings of town name signs, crossed town names, yellow diamonds and crossed yellow diamonds. In France more than any other country you must completely understand Priority to the Right (priorité á droite).

Finally finally, your question about the health pass in time - start now. Tomorrow Paris work hours.

Posted by
317 posts

Wait- international driving permit? We didn’t have that, nor did EuropeCar require it. Just our driver’s license.

I should also clarify I meant overnight in Rouen- not just stop. When we landed it was at 7:15 am and we arrived at Amboise at 1:10pm (after a long time at the car rental). I agree that keeping your first day driving very short is the way to go, and also agree it would be difficult driving at night.

Lastly, we drove from Strasbourg to Verdun, and then to Reims then trained to Paris. It was definitely the right choice. It looks like an easy drive, and it is- but not with limited time on your vacation, and sightseeing in general in a foreign country requires more energy than just driving to a vacation destination at home. Does that make sense? I mean you’ll be more tired there than you would here . It’s very tempting to look at estimated driving times and think they sound ok, but you will waste precious time sitting in the car (or even train).

It’s difficult to make choices but ultimately leads to a more enjoyable and memorable experience if you can whittle it down a bit.

Posted by
7683 posts

The International Driving Permit or a translation by a French-government certified translator is required by French law. I have never been asked for my license at a rental agency or even the two times when stopped at a roadblock by gendarmes where everyone had to take a breathalyzer test. But it is the law.

Posted by
3554 posts

We love driving in Europe. My husband and I spent a month in France in 2012. We started with a week in Paris, took the train to Reims, spent a couple of nights, then picked up our car there for the rest of the journey. We dropped it off in Aix-en-Provence and took the fast train back to CDG where we spent the night before flying home.

I can assure you that driving in France is very different from driving in the States. France is bigger and it takes longer to travel by car than you might expect. The signage is different. It makes sense once you educate yourselves about it, but don't assume that it will always be intuitively obvious. The driver will need navigation help from the non-driver. Expect conflict.

And, of course, France, like most European countries, has ways to detect when you make an error in driving judgment without you knowing that you've done that or that they've detected it. We got not 1, but 2 speeding tickets there. 🥴

It may not be this way with all car rental agencies, but we discovered that the primary driver must also be the renter. If that person's credit card was not used to pay for the car, you will automatically be charged for 2 drivers instead of one.

Then there are the car size and transmission issues. It will likely be smaller than you expect. That's not very conducive to bringing lots of luggage to keep out of sight. If you don't know how to drive a standard transmission car and something happens to your husband, what will you do?

Below is a link to Gemut.com's free download on renting a car and driving in Europe. They are actually located in OR and are a great resource for advice on the topic.

What You Need to Know About Renting & Driving a Car in Europe:
https://www.gemut.com/latest-travel-news/what-you-should-know-about-renting-a-car-in-europe

If you don't have an RS France book, here's a link to getting one from the many guidebooks on France from his online shop: https://store.ricksteves.com/shop/guidebooks/france

In the meantime, you can go to the Explore Europe section on France to learn a lot before your guidebook arrives: https://www.ricksteves.com/europe/france

Finally, this being your first trip to Europe, I highly recommend that you devour and take to heart everything you can learn from the Travel Tips section of this RS website: https://www.ricksteves.com/travel-tips

I've been to Europe many times and lived in Germany for 3 years, but I still check there to fill in any knowledge gaps for my trips. Any of us can make mistakes because we don't know what we don't know.

P.S. I hated Versailles. We were there in mid-June. It was rainy and a mud wallow. I wouldn't be surprised if the weather was not outdoors friendly when you plan to go.

The grounds are enormous and could be fun for the kids if the weather is decent.

We didn't even go into the palace. It was too crowded. I can't imagine that little kids would enjoy it even if it wasn't crowded. Depending on how tall they are, their view is not likely to be the one of the lead dog in the pack.

By the way, whether you join the herd in the palace or not, you still have to wait in line to go through security, outside, no matter what Mother Nature is sending your way. And where you wait has large rounded and very slippery cobblestones. That's where I decided never to wear anything but totally flat, lace-up, ankle-supporting boots on my European trips.

Posted by
13 posts

We are doing almost the same thing. Arriving in Paris, driving to Normandy right away (I’m a sleeper on planes!) and spending 3 days in Normandy and then headed down to the Loire Valley for 3 days, then back to Paris for 2 days since we’ve been to Paris multiple times.

Keep me posted on how things go.

Posted by
234 posts

Regarding the IDP which a lot of people seem to obsess about (even though nobody asks for it in France), it could be useful to know that about half of the states in the US have adopted the international licence format which eliminates any need for an IDP or a translation. If your licence has numbered boxes or just numbers for name, DOB, expiration and other such things, that is the correct format. If in doubt, just google the subject and look at the images.

Posted by
980 posts

You'll spend more time driving between MSM and Amboise than you think. You'll spend a day driving between Amboise and Eguisheim and nearly another driving back to Paris. I'd either go in the MSM/Loire direction OR the Alsace direction but not both (I've done both on different trips - drove both times). Then add some interesting places to your itinerary depending on your direction - plenty of options to choose from. Once we drove from Amboise to Chartres to CDG - you could add Versailles to this route and stay the night (just an idea).

In my opinion, your whole trip and itinerary need a rethink. It's December. In Northern France, it gets light late and dark early in the winter months. Snow is a possibility. Far too much driving, especially day one.

Land in Paris and take a train south to Avignon or Nice. Or Montpellier. Rent a car after another day. There is plenty to keep a photographer busy in Provence. Or drive to Carcassonne for a medieval look. Drop the car and train back to Paris for a few days. Drop the Xmas markets... how much can you fit in your luggage anyway? And if you've taken the kids to Disney in the US (or plan to) skip the Disney near Paris.