At most times of the year, you can turn up in any French town and find a room or a place in a campsite. Booking a couple of nights in advance can be reassuring, however, as it saves you the effort of trudging round and ensures that you know what you’ll be paying; many hoteliers, campsite managers and hostel managers speak at least a little English. In most places, you’ll be able to get a simple double for €35–40, though expect to pay at least €50 for a reasonable level of comfort. Paris and the Côte d’Azur are more expensive, however, with equivalent rates of roughly €60 and €100. As a general rule the areas around train stations have the highest density of cheap hotels.
Problems may arise between mid-July and the end of August, when the French take their own vacations en masse. During this period, hotel and hostel accommodation can be hard to come by, particularly in the coastal resorts, and you may find yourself falling back on local tourist offices for help.
All tourist offices can provide lists of hotels, hostels, campsites and bed-and-breakfast possibilities, and some offer a booking service, though they can’t guarantee rooms at a particular price. With campsites, you can be more relaxed about finding an empty pitch, though it may be more difficult with a caravan or camper van or if you’re looking for a place on the Côte d’Azur.
French hotels are graded in six bands, from zero for the simplest through one, two, three and four to five for the most exclusive. The price more or less corresponds to the number of stars, though the system is a little haphazard, having more to do with ratios of bathrooms per guest and so forth than genuine quality; some unclassified and single-star hotels can be very good. Single rooms – if the hotel has any – are only marginally cheaper than doubles, so sharing slashes costs, especially since many hotels willingly provide rooms with extra beds for three or more people.
Big cities tend to have a good variety of cheap establishments; in small towns and rural areas, you may not be so lucky, particularly as the cheaper, family-run hotels find it increasingly hard to survive. Swanky resorts, particularly those on the Côte d’Azur, have very high prices in July and August, but even these are still cheaper than Paris, which is far more expensive than the rest of the country. If you’re staying for more than three nights in a hotel it’s sometimes possible to negotiate a lower price, particularly out of season.
Breakfast will often add anything between €6 and €30 per person to a bill – though there is no obligation to take it.
Note that many family-run hotels close for two or three weeks a year in low season. In smaller towns and villages they may also close for one or two nights a week, usually Sunday or Monday. Details are given where relevant in the text, but dates change from year to year; the best precaution is to phone ahead to be sure.
A very useful option, especially if you’re driving and are looking for somewhere late at night, are the chain hotels located at motorway exits and on the outskirts of major towns. They may be soulless, but you can usually count on a decent and reliable standard. Among the cheapest (from around €24 for a three-person room with communal toilet and shower) is the one-star Formule 1 chain (0969 366 091). Other budget chains include B&B (0298 337 529), the slightly more comfortable Première Classe (0892 234 814) and Ibis Budget (0892 686 686). Slightly more upmarket are Ibis (0892 686 686) and Campanile, where en-suite rooms with satellite TV and often broadband internet access cost from around €60–120.
There are a number of well-respected hotel federations in France. The biggest and most useful of these is Logis de France (01 45 84 70 00), an association of over 2800 hotels nationwide. They produce a free annual guide, available in French tourist offices, from Logis de France itself and from member hotels. Two other, more upmarket federations worth mentioning are Châteaux & Hôtels de France (0892 230 075) and the Relais du Silence (0826 103 909), both of which offer high-class accommodation in beautiful older properties, often in rural locations.
In country areas, in addition to standard hotels, you will come across chambres d’hôtes – bed-and-breakfast accommodation in someone’s house, château or farm. Though the quality varies widely, on the whole standards are pretty high, and the best can offer more character and greater value for money than an equivalently priced hotel. If you’re lucky, the owners may also provide traditional home cooking and a great insight into French life. Prices generally range between €50 and €120 for two people including breakfast; payment is almost always expected in cash. Some offer meals on request (tables d’hôtes), usually evenings only.
If you’re planning to stay a week or more in any one place it’s worth considering renting self-catering accommodation. This will generally consist of self-contained country cottages known as gîtes. Many gîtes are in converted barns or farm outbuildings, though some can be quite grand. “Gîtes Panda” are gîtes located in a national park or other protected area and are run on environmentally friendly lines.
You can get lists of both gîtes and chambres d’hôtes from the government-funded agency Gîtes de France (0871 277 0399), or search on their website for accommodation by location or theme (for example, gîtes near fishing or riding opportunities). In addition, every year the organization publishes a number of national guides, such as Nouveaux Gîtes (listing new addresses); these guides are available to buy online or from departmental offices of Gîtes de France, as well as from bookstores and tourist offices. Tourist offices will also have lists of places in their area which are not affiliated to Gîtes de France.
At around €12–26 per night for a dormitory bed, somemtimes with breakfast thrown in, youth hostels – auberges de jeunesse – are invaluable for single travellers of any age on a budget. Some now offer rooms, occasionally en suite, but they don’t necessarily work out cheaper than hotels – particularly if you’ve had to pay a taxi fare to reach them. However, many allow you to cut costs by eating in the hostels’ cheap canteens, while in a few you can prepare your own meals in the communal kitchens. In the text we give the cost of a dormitory bed.
In addition to those belonging to the two French hostelling associations listed below, there are now also several independent hostels, particularly in Paris (for example MIJE). At these, dorm beds cost €30–40, with breakfast sometimes extra.
Slightly confusingly, there are two rival French hostelling associations – the Fédération Unie des Auberges de Jeunesse (FUAJ: 01 44 89 87 27) and the much smaller Ligue Française (LFAJ: 01 44 16 78 78). In either case, you normally have to show a current Hostelling International (HI) membership card. It’s usually cheaper and easier to join before you leave home, provided your national youth hostel association is a full member of HI. Alternatively, you can purchase an HI card in certain French hostels (€7 HI Welcome tariff for foreign visitors at FUAJ hostels, €11 under 26/€16 over 26 at LFAJ hostels).
In the countryside, another hostel-style option exists in the form of gîtes d’étape. Aimed primarily at hikers and long-distance bikers, gîtes d’étape are often run by the local village or municipality and are less formal than hostels, providing bunk beds and primitive kitchen and washing facilities for around €15–25 per person. They are marked on the large-scale IGN walkers’ maps and listed in the individual Topo guides. In addition, mountain areas are well supplied with refuge huts, mostly run by the Fédération Français des Clubs Alpins et de Montagne (FFCAM; 01 53 72 87 00). These huts, generally staffed only in summer, offer dorm accommodation and meals, and are the only available shelter once you are above the villages. Costs are around €17–26 for the night, or half of this if you’re a member of a climbing organization affiliated to FFCAM, plus around €20–25 for breakfast and dinner, which is good value when you consider that in some cases supplies have to be brought up by mule or helicopter. Outside the summer season, some refuges offer very limited, basic shelter at reduced cost.
More information can be found online at gites-refuges.com, where you can download four printable regional Gîtes d’Étape et Refuges guides for €5 per region.
Practically every village and town in France has at least one campsite to cater for the thousands of people who spend their holiday under canvas. Most sites open from around Easter to September or October. Most are graded – from one to four stars – by the local authority. One-star sites are basic, with toilets and showers (not necessarily with hot water) but little else, and standards of cleanliness are not always brilliant. Facilities improve with more stars: at the top end of the scale, four-star sites are far more spacious, have hot-water showers and electrical hook-ups; most will also have a swimming pool (sometimes heated), washing machines, a shop and sports facilities, and will provide refreshments or meals in high season. A further designation, Camping Qualité, indicates campsites with particularly high standards of hygiene, service and privacy, while the Clef Verte label is awarded to sites (and also hostels and hotels) run along environmentally friendly lines. For those who really like to get away from it all, camping à la ferme – on somebody’s farm – is a good, simple option. Lists of sites are available at local tourist offices or from Gîtes de France.
The Fédération Française de Camping et de Caravaning has some 1200 affliated sites and (01 42 72 84 08) publishes an annual guide (€12.50) details of which can also be found online on the excellent Camping France website, which lists 11,000 sites. If you’d rather have everything organized for you, note that there are a number of companies that specialize in camping holidays.
Most campsites charge per emplacement and per person, usually including a car, with extra charges for electricity. As a rough guide, two people with a tent and car might pay as little as €10 per day at an out-of-the-way rural one-star site, or as much as €45 at a four-star on the Côte d’Azur in July or August. In peak season it’s wise to book ahead, and note that at many of the big sites the emphasis is more on letting caravans or chalet bungalows.
Lastly, a word of caution: always ask permission before camping rough (camping sauvage) on anyone’s land. If the dogs don’t get you, the guns might – farmers have been known to shoot first, and ask later. Camping on public land is not officially permitted and is often strongly discouraged, particularly in the south where in summer the risk of forest fires is high.