Making the Most of Your France Experience

If you’ve never traveled outside of the U.S., a trip to France can produce a bit of culture shock. But the more you know about your destination, including its language and culture, the more likely you will have a very positive experience.

Travel Gem: You’ve undoubtedly heard of someone who had a bad experience traveling to France – likely involving rude Parisians. In my many trips to France I have never had a single bad experience by adhering to these three simple principles:
  1. Be respectful. When in a different country respect that country’s culture, language, etc. The biggest complaint I’ve heard from French citizens is that Americans expect them to speak English. If you learn only one French phrase learn, “Pardon, parlez-vous Anglais?”, or Excuse me, do you speak English? Always start with this one phrase.
  2. Be open minded. Consider trying new foods, wines, etc., particularly those that are local to the area. If you’re looking for a “U.S. experience in France” you’ll likely be disappointed.
  3. Be smart. Plan as if you are traveling to a new destination in the U.S. If you’re traveling to a big city you’ll want to know what areas to visit – and perhaps more importantly those to avoid. Don’t assume anything – ask politely (see 1 above).
Learn at least Basic French
One of the best ways to ensure a positive experience is to learn to speak and understand at least some of the local language, French. My experience is that if you attempt to speak their language the French people will go out of their way to help. In fact, contrary to what you may have heard, outside of Paris the French people are incredibly hospitable – as much so as anywhere in the world, in my vast travel experience.

How can you learn French? Since you’re considering a self-guided tour you may be a do-it-yourself kind of person, in which case an app for your phone may do the trick. Try "Tres bien" or "MindSnacks French". Alternatively, Forbes magazine recommends the Pimsleur Approach (, a relatively inexpensive (at least as compared to Rosetta Stone) CD-Rom series that teaches the building blocks of the language and guarantees conversational skills in only 10 days.

Lastly, consider taking a conversational French class at the local community college or hiring a high school or college student to teach you basic French. And to help with your pronunciation, use the Google Translate program on the web to pronounce French words and phrases for you (discussed in greater detail below).

Travel Gem: Be sure to download the Google Translate app for Android or iPhone to practice your French pronunciations and, if you’re in a pinch, to translate from English to French in writing or orally.

Travel Gem: Use the free Google Translate ( to help you learn French, including pronunciations.

For example, suppose you want to travel from Paris to Grenoble (near Alpe d’Huez) and are looking for a direct train. Type “Is there a direct train from Paris to Grenoble” and you will get the following:

"To hear the pronunciation, click on the audio icon in the bottom right box of the translation, and you can hear what it sounds like in French:"

Learn About the Culture
Yes, we’re talking about cycling trips, but take some time to read up on the area you will be visiting (or buy my guides for specific areas). For example, consider searching where you will be visiting online, for example in the Michelin Travel Guide at Another good online resource is the Lonely Planet guide to France at Determine several sights that you want to see in advance, but remain flexible as numerous others will present themselves on the trip.

Visit Outdoor Markets
One of the best ways to experience France is to visit the local outdoor markets, which often include fresh fruits, vegetables, cheeses, meats, breads, baked goods, clothing, and misc. knick knacks, often specific to the region. These markets are critical to locals because, particularly outside of large cities like Paris, the French typically only buy a couple days’ worth of fresh foods – enough to hold them over until the next market. This is why a traditional French home has a very small refrigerator – it isn’t necessary!

Note that the local markets have a fixed schedule but move from town to town, so if you plan accordingly you can visit the local market nearly every day of the week. Also, the markets usually close relatively early, often by noon. Again, plan accordingly.

Travel Gem: A quick Google search will tell you when you can find the markets of your destination region. For example, searching “local markets in Provence” produced several informative sites including, which lists every market day by town in Provence (and there are hundreds). This site also includes an option to search by day, for example, if you want to find local markets each day of your visit.

Similarly, a search of “local markets French Alps” produced a similar site for outdoor markets in the Alps,

Alternatively, as discussed in more detail in the Travel to/Within France free guide, online at, visit the Official Tourism Office website for information on the market(s) in the town or region you are visiting. These sites often highlight information on the local market(s).