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A review Rick Steves France - a nickel's worth of advice for first time travelers to France

Hello all-

I recently completed the trip outlined toward the beginning of the Rick Steves France guidebook, listed as the trip with a car. We followed the book fairly closely, with the exception that we added three days-one in Paris, one in Ile de France, and one in Provence.

I have been to Europe before several times, but this was my first trip that focused on France and attempted to see the majority of it. I think this review may be of benefit to those who may be planning a first time trip to France.

My Overall Impression of the Trip - I do not recommend visiting France this way. There is too much driving time and not enough time to relax and see the sights. The trip also leaves very little flexibility for unexpected things like road closures, weather, and personal issues. You might also find yourself wanting to spend more time at a sight than you had expected or perhaps coming across something you had not planned at all. Unscheduled time will come in handy in these situations.

Here is a plan I think most first-time visitors would like:

  1. Paris - 4-6 nights
    This is obvious-most travelers will want to see this fantastic city. Leave plenty of time to go from place to place, as well as time to relax. I am not sure I agree with the Rick Steves suggestion to save Paris for last. You can do Paris first, last, or even split it up to do some nights at the beginning and end. This does require an extra transfer in and out of the city, but might be fun to see how it feels being back after seeing some of the rest of France.

  2. Normandy - 3-4 nights
    Most visitors, especially American and British, should include Normandy in their itinerary. The D-Day beaches are deeply moving as is MSM. A "quick trip" to the beaches is not a realistic idea as sites are not all close together. I would also suggest a visit to Rouen or Honfleur if time permits. You can go by rail or car or both.

  3. French Countryside -
    I would suggest picking 2 or 3 other spots (or more depending on how much time you have) and taking the TGV from Paris to the countryside locations and back (a wheel and spoke type plan). While this does require backtracking a bit, the time on the train provides time to relax or catch up on guidebook reading or whatever else.

I would only consider the plan of driving in a loop around France if you have at least four weeks, and even then would cut out one or two of the stops listed in the Rick Steves list.
If your primary interest is Southern France, consider just going there and saving the North for another time.

Nights needed in each region:
Champagne 1, (Reims can be done as a day trip from Paris)
Alsace 3
Burgundy 1-2
Alps 2 at least
Riviera 2-3
Provence 4-5
Carcassone 1 will do
Dordogne 3
Loire Valley 2

So, for an example, after you finish Paris and Normandy (about eight nights, don't forget the night to fly in most US travelers will need):
1. TGV to Avignon for 4-5 nights in Provence
2. Back to Paris and then TGV to Burgundy for 1-2 nights
This can be done until the length of the vacation is ideal for you. My favorites were Dordogne, Provence, and Alsace.

I strongly recommend including the countryside in your vacation, rather than spending all the time in and around Paris. It will add considerable depth to your experience. Do not try to do too much. You need time to take it all in. Have a day or two with basically no plans.
Have a good trip.

Jeremy

Posted by stan
The Heartland USA
2813 posts

Jeremy, you might consider giving some feedback through the Guidebook Feedback link (on the menu on the far right of the home page). I think different people within the RS company (the guidebook writers) will see it there that might not see it here. You've provided good insight.

Posted by Mark
Highlands Ranch, CO, USA
1645 posts

Well, it is a guide book offering guidance on a visit. Nothing says you must follow it to the letter. Even the actual RS tours break this down into several different and separate tours. :-)

Posted by Bruce
Whitefish, Montana
2298 posts

On our last trip to France, sadly now three years ago, we just used trains and "did" a self-guided bicycle trip. The combination worked well for us in France and in other European countries. Craft your itinerary and determine your mode of transport.

Posted by Bob
Reading, PA, USA
654 posts

My wife and I did this trip (with some modifications for personal interests) quite a few years ago. We flew into Paris and stayed for 4 or 5 days and then picked up our car. It was one of the best trips we have had. Being able to stop in small towns for lunch as we drove, stopping at road side stands and in general when you saw something interesting just stopping to investigate. Yes, we took 3 or 4 weeks and had no reservations other than for Paris and the restraint on the trip was our flight home. Oh, this was before the internet and you could get away with no reservations. Not sure it could be done as easily today.

Posted by John
Van Nuys, CA, USA
463 posts

when people ask about following a RS itinerary and I chime in, I always say the schedule is too fast. I like the RS books and use them to find out what to see, where to stay, etc. But RS has what is termed in psychology "the curse of knowledge"; he knows his way around the places he discusses having been there many times. In fact I think he could comfortably follow his tour schedule. But he isn't able to put himself in the shoes of the new traveler who can't find their way around with the same ease.

Posted by K
Bourgogne
223 posts

It's an interesting comment, but it assumes interests and priorities that tell us more about the author than anything else.
"Nights needed?"
Seriously?
Not recommended.
Not suggested.
But "needed."
Period.
For whom, other than the author, I wonder?

Posted by Chris
San Diego
171 posts

I just returned from 16 nights in France last month (I posted a trip report) and I tend to agree with you. I think American travelers tend to "blitz" a country when they travel perhaps more than other travelers and I have to seriously rein in my desire to do too much...it's still a work in progress.

We spent 1 night in Chartres (drove directly there from CDG which worked well), 2 nights in Normandy (would've liked one more day, but wouldn't trade it for other days on this trip), 5 days in Paris (perfect), 3 days Provence (perfect) and 4 days in Dordogne (perfect). Final night in Paris. I don't think I'd change anything.

PS Totally agree w/Bob on the value of renting a car and being off the tourist grid in small villages. Most of the magic on this trip was due to that decision.

Posted by Judy B
Atlanta
715 posts

He outlines a 2 week driving itinerary for Provence in his guidebook: Provence and South of France, that I would love to do sometime. This seems slower paced to me and because I'm interested in the artists that lived and stayed in this part of France, it would give me the opportunity to visit many of these places.