In this section I give you tips on traveling, driving, packing, eating, drinking and enjoying your trip to Italy. As many times as I’ve traveled to FRANCE, I learn something new each and every time. Each trip I make gets better and better – I think it’s because I keep jotting down things that make my travel life easier… plus, I’m more relaxed and less intimidated by the differences between our countries the more times I visit FRANCE. I’m happy to pass that information on to you. It’s quite a learning experience. I’ll let you in on the joys, mishaps, challenges, discoveries and funny tales of what can happen on a trip to France.
Here we go with the TIPS...
WHO TO TRAVEL WITH AND HOW: Make sure you travel with people you know and like, family, friends - easygoing, interested, non-complaining, adaptable - good people. Nothing ruins a trip faster than traveling with someone you have little in common with, people who are upset at the least inconvenience, folks who are demanding (inappropriately so) and rude. I have been there and it was upsetting to say the least...how little we know each other until we've shared a room and a few meals (and a few enlightening moments - who knew?)...Just be tolerant, remember you're on vacation - relax.... let some stuff "go" - be true to yourself.
I'm usually the person who plans the travel for me and my friends, if they're disappointed in something, I take it personally - I so want them happy and enjoying themselves (as I am), that I feel I've let them down if something isn't just as we expected. Things do go wrong and they are a disappointment - just move on, get beyond - you're in FRANCE! Also, if you are the travel planner, you're not the tour guide and you don't have all the answers - it's your time to enjoy and relax too. Your friends and family need to know this. Less stress - less pressure - less fallout. Remember: any time you travel with a person or people, you will get tired of them if it's a prolonged trip - take a day or a half day on your own - go in to the trip knowing this and discussing it in advance. You'll be surprised how happy you are to meet your friends and family back at the hotel for a drink and dinner to discuss your solo adventures.
THOSE NASTY RUMORS: I like to get this out of the way and fast.......the French are fabulous! I don't care what your high school French teacher said or your neighbor who just stepped off the closest tour bus or anyone else who is spreading the word that the French are mean to tourists...It is just NOT TRUE! First, you get what you give...if you're nice, if you try to speak the language, if you get over your embarrassment of trying to speak the language - 9 times out of 10 the recipient of your gracious behaviour will (in turn) be nice to you. The French are not American - you cannot expect everyone to be like us - by that I mean - gregarious, smiling, open - you get my point...that's just being an American and that's what makes us so great! But, the French have their culture and norms and they're very proud, passionate, friendly, lovely and warm people (just not the minute you say hello) - it's a cultural difference - that's all it is. As you travel through the country, you'll get used to and surprised by their demeanor - they're very open once they feel comfortable with you - don't look for trouble - it's not there. Enjoy - you do get what you give. Keep your expectations in check and leave the rumors at home...
MANNERS: This is one of the very best tips I can give you - mind your manners. When you enter a hotel or a store, simply say Bonjour Madame or Bonjour Monsieur (not just bonjour - add the Madame and Monsieur). You'll get an immediate (and positive) response from the store/hotel owner or employee. As you leave, always say Au Revoir, Merci or Merci, Au Revoir. When you enter the breakfast room at a hotel in the morning, if there are others in the room, say Bonjour to them. If the staff waiting on you in the breakfast room see you come in, definitely say Bonjour to them. As you leave, simply say Merci, Au Revoir...this sounds so simple, but it's advice that is always correct and proper - it also gets you noticed positively.
WEATHER: Now this is just me, but I like cooler weather - cool and cold (refreshing) is no problem for me. I also love spring-like weather and you can get both when traveling off-peak. The weather in France can vary from region to region, but you'll enjoy whatever you get because the French take in to consideration just everything.... for example, it's November and you've dropped in to Strasbourg for a visit.... it's cold. The French take care of that by placing you in front of a roaring fire with a glass of vin chaud (hot wine) and you're relaxed and ready to face the weather (or not). Or, you're in Roquebrune (south of France) in February.... the sun is shining you've just hiked to the top of the village, explored the castle, surveyed the coastline and are heading back to the center of town just in time for an outdoor lunch of pizza and refreshing wine. I've been to Paris in April when all you needed was a sweater during the day and a light jacket at night.... I've been to the Cote D'Azur in November and sat on a beach (not normal).... I've been to Provence in October and only needed a light jacket. I've been back to Provence the very next month and needed much more because the Mistral had stopped in for a day or two (an unbelievably wild and blowing wind).... and I've been to Paris in January and worn hat, coat and gloves...my point here is you get what you get, you need to layer your clothes and plan in advance. All the charts in the world for "typical" weather can simply be thrown out the window on any given day. My feeling is this: when you're standing in line at a museum, or shopping a market or touring a cathedral - why not do it when you don't have to sweat?!?! The summers are hot - just like in the USA.... Here are a few sites I use for weather: www.rainorshine.com -www.intellicast.com - www.weatherplanner.com - www.accuweather.com - you can also check your local internet site and do a search. Layer your clothes, bring gloves and an umbrella. Here are some general guidelines:
Northern France: January: 30s and 40s (warming up as you get in to March) April: 50s and 60s (warming up as you get in to June) July: 70s and 80s (getting hotter as the summer progresses) October: 50s and 60s (cooling as you get in to November and December). The further north you travel the cooler it becomes.
Central France: January: 30s and 40s (warming up as you get in to March) April: 40s, 50s and 60s (warming up as you get in to June) July: 60s,70s and 80s (getting hotter as the summer progresses) October: 50s and 60s (cooling as you get in to November and December).
Southern France: January: 40s, 50s and 60s (warming up as you get in to March) April: 50s and 60s (warming up as you get in to June) July: 70s and 80s (getting hotter as the summer progresses) October: 50s, 60s and 70s (cooling as you get in to November and December).
PACKING: The word is casual and comfortable. Travel light - within reason. No need to buy new clothes for your trip - take what you love and what's comfortable on you. I'd suggest trying everything on prior to the trip to make sure you like it and are comfortable in it (does it fit and does it go with several items that I'm packing?). It's a casual country - no need for a tie or anything dressy (unless you're going to a fancy restaurant - I've found a black skirt or slacks and sweater usually do the trick in that instance). Take a couple pair of pants (or 3 pair of pants and a skirt) and alternate with your tops/sweaters. One jacket or overcoat - a barn jacket works well depending on the season. Bring gloves, hat and an umbrella (small). I usually take a duffle on wheels. It's a good idea to share toiletries if you're traveling in a group - no need for 2 shampoos, conditioners, toothpaste etc. Tip: you should make a list of needs and divide these items between/among those traveling. You can combine and put in an extra bag for ease of finding these items when needed. Usually 2 pair of shoes/boots works best in fall and winter - no tennis shoes - too American (and I mean that in a positive way - just don't do tennis shoes - you'll see). I've been accused of being a snob about this and maybe so, but France is a country that is more formal about their footwear and fashion and I respect that. If you're planning to hike or bike - proper shoes and sneaks of course. Tip: pack an extra bag that can be made small (rolls up/folds up) to put your purchases in - I suggest this twice because you don't want to have to buy a tote while you're there.... which I have done in the past. My favorite is a very French Longchamp bag that I purchased in Duty Free - it has carried fine china home (among many other things)! Another item you might consider bringing is a tube (about 24 inches long) that you can get at the local art store or packaging store. This tube will protect any art, placemats, menus - anything you're thinking about framing and don't want to ruin with constant packing and unpacking. I use mine over and over - reinforce it with tape as the years go by or just buy a new one for a few dollars.
PRESCRIPTION MEDICATIONS: Carry all of your prescription medications on your person (pockets) or in your carryon bag. I think this is an obvious tip, but I give it special emphasis as you don't want to risk an illness or an exacerbation of a health issue.
MEDICINE/EMERGENCY KIT: I always carry a small emergency medical kit. In the kit I have aspirin/ibuprofen, immodium, pepto bismol, cold/allergy pills, bandaids, some alcohol wipes, bacitracin and flu medicine. I've been fortunate on most of my trips, but friends and family have been very glad that I had the "stuff".......
ASSISTED TRAVEL: Ardith Luke is an RN who has lived abroad and traveled extensively. She assists those who desire to travel, yet don't have the patience to deal with the "rigors" that are often involved. Help with meds, activities, health monitoring and maintenance (while traveling) - it's simple peace of mind for those who continue to travel and explore, yet need a helping hand. Her email address is: email@example.com
BAGGAGE IDENTIFICATION: Interestingly, about 85% of all baggage/luggage is colored black. The possibility to take a bag that looks like your bag, but belongs to another person is there...I have several brightly colored nametags on the outside of my baggage and a nametag on the inside - just in case...I've seen folks with brightly colored straps around their bags, colored ties, unique bag tags - the gamut. Anything that will help you to identify your baggage is key.... don't forget to check the tags....
JUST IN CASE: I always pack a needle and thread (usually black and white colored thread). I've ripped a couple of items and have been able to make repairs on those items by having the needle and thread handy.
PACK-MATES: I ordered these from QVC on a "lark"...they actually work. They're these bags that you put your clothes in, then compress or roll the items, the air release valve opens and all the air goes out making items (especially bulky sweaters) small (they look almost freeze-dried)! They do work, your clothes recover after a few minutes in the air or hanging up, they are reusable and they do add room to your luggage. They are very cool. Web addresses: www.packmate.com or www.iqvc.com
PASSPORTS: Obviously you need a passport to get "in" to FRANCE. Here's a safety measure just in case you lose your passport while traveling. Make a photocopy of your passport and leave it at home or with a friend. Make another photocopy and put it in a safe compartment with your luggage. If you lose the passport, you have a copy of your documents and can expedite the replacement. Keep your real passport in your waist wallet for absolute safety.
AMERICAN EMBASSY LOCATIONS: It's not a bad idea to have a list of the American Embassy locations and phone numbers with you when you travel. If you lose your passport, if you need shelter or assistance in an emergency, you'll have the numbers, addresses and email contacts right at your fingertips. Less hassle, less stress and in a real emergency - you'll be glad you have the information. Be safe out there. The website for this information is: http://usembassy.state.gov/
TRAVEL INSURANCE: I've been asked about travel insurance for tense political times (war, terrorism, fear, etc.). Here's my take: first, trip-cancellation and/or trip-interruption insurance really does not protect you. If you're on a trip and war is declared - there is not a policy that will protect you. If you're looking for guarantees, I'd shop around and understand that the price you pay will be very very high. I also advise you to do some research and read the agreement you're signing (repeat: you are signing and agreeing to their terms and conditions). A website I use that offers the most information and options is: www.mytripinsurance.com
Another thing I recommend if you really want the insurance - buy it at the airport kiosk.
ABOUT THE TRIP ACROSS THE "POND": Sleep. Take 2 or 3 Excedrin PM/Tylenol PM or whatever pill you take to make you sleep. Dress comfortably - you'll be in those clothes the day you leave and the entire first day of your trip. Eat the dinner they offer on the plane (or bring your own sandwiches).... I'm mixed on the wine that you get on planes....International flights give you free alcohol/mixed drinks (or at least they used to - today - some do and some do not). I usually don't drink too much on the plane - one drink is like two and a half drinks on land (altitude and pressure). So, while I enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, I don't recommend it if you're going to take the pills.... and a good night's sleep wins with me...you've got plenty of days to enjoy the wine of FRANCE. I truly suggest you sleep. When you land, if you feel you need a caffeine push - do! Another thing I do is bring an old washcloth in my purse or carryon bag. Once I've made it through customs and am ready to go in to the city or get my rental car, I stop in the bathroom, wash my face and moisturize and put on new/clean makeup. You'll last longer and feel cleaner. You have to fight sleep the first day of your trip - the desire to take a short nap is unbelievable - don't. When you check in to your hotel - put your bags down, get refreshed and go see the sights! The key is to stay up until 11pm (or later) the first day and the jet lag is gone by the following morning. If you take a nap you won't know your name for 3 days!
THE TICKET RULES AND CONDITIONS: There are a lot of rules written on the back of your ticket.... however, with etickets and paperless travel, much is lost in the translation.... not to mention what is printed on the back of your ticket is actually an abridged version.... so, here are some rules and rules of thumb:
Rule: 240 - Delayed Flights: If your flight is delayed, you are to be booked on the next available flight where space is available. If the delay is over 2 hours, the airline is to allow you a free 3-minute phone to alert your friends, family or business associates. If the flight is diverted to another airport and your delay is over 4 hours and it's after 10pm, the airline will give you a hotel voucher and transport to the hotel.
Rule: 190 - Lost Baggage: If an airline loses your baggage, they (the airline) will pay you the amount of the items in your suitcase (you must have proof) up to $2,500.
Rule: 260 - Airline Flight Refunds: If your airline fails to depart, because of mechanical problems/difficulties or because they have overbooked the flight, they must offer you a refund on your ticket. And, on the other hand, if your plans change the airline may charge you fees depending on the type of ticket you purchased.
RENTAL CARS: I usually call AutoEurope for my car rentals...the number is 800-223-5555. They also have a website: www.autoeurope.com. When you rent from them you get all insurances included in the price, unlimited miles - and great deals. You also get a number of rental companies like Avis, Europcar etc. I've never had a problem with them - no hidden charges - nothing. For long term rentals there are deals from Renault Eurodrive - you basically lease a car while there - very good pricing - fine cars (new). The website is www.renaultusa.com and the phone number s 800-221-1052.
DRIVING: I consider the French very good drivers. They stay in the right hand lane unless they are passing. You must do the same. When you're overtaking another vehicle - quickly go out, pass and return to the regular lane. The French drive fast and pass to get around slower vehicles - they'll flash their lights and expect you to move - so move! Stay right and you'll have no problems. As you drive toward your destination, you'll note that sometimes there are no signs indicating the particular city you're headed to - don't worry - head toward the large city that is just beyond your destination and as you get closer you'll see the signs for your town. Exits are marked clearly and when in doubt - head toward autre directions or toutes directions because they'll get you beyond where you are and on your way.
MAPS: I'd suggest purchasing a good French map from a bookstore. Even though your rental agent will supply you with a map - you'll need a second one with more detailed information (again you'll use it trip after trip and so will your friends). Plus, when you're pulled over and trying to read the map - it's best if at least two of you have a map. Mapblast/Mapquest can give you directions from one address to another in France. While the directions from Mapblast work (thank goodness), sometimes there are more direct ways to reach a destination. Have a good map and you can get where you need to go. You may also want to get off the autoroute and drive through the countryside - DO! You can't imagine the places you discover, the auberge you get to dine at and the small villages you get to visit (however briefly). I consider staying in these off the main road towns and villages the next time I plan a trip (take notes). Check out www.bn.com or www.barnesandnoble.com or www.amazon.com for a good selection of maps.
DIRECTIONS: There are a couple of websites that I use just in case I feel the need to have exact directions from one town to another: www.mappy.fr and www.sytadin.tm.fr
You can also use www.mapblast.com and www.mapquest.com. Go to the driving directions section and you can be as specific as you want or just from town to town.
MORE DIRECTIONS: Check out www.autoroutes.fr for connections to each major route in France (at the top of the page). On the specific site you'll find directions, toll info, construction areas info etc.
CITY DRIVING TIP: Okay, you've gotten to a city you wish to visit and you'll see signs for parking.... in your mind you know what you want to do is go further into the city - do! You can always turn around if you have to or need to. The key is not to lose the car by parking so far away. Locals go up and up and park in the best spaces while the tourists park below and walk for eons to get to the sights. Proceed forward and move the car if you have to, otherwise look how smart (and lucky) you are. Keep heading for the Centre (City Center) and you'll get where you need to go.
PARKING: Dotted or Dashed markings indicate a parking space. The other indication will be clearly printed on the ground: PAYANT. This means it is a parking space and you have to pay for parking at this spot. Head to the little machine along the roadside, put in the correct amount of money for the amount of time you'll be parked there (from 15 minutes to 2 hours), then pull out the ticket, go back to the car and display the ticket in the windshield. The ticket will indicate when it was bought and the time it expires. You can park there all day as long as you continue to go back and buy another ticket and place it in the windshield.
GASOLINE: The price of petrol (essence) at present is not inexpensive and they sell it by the liter/litre. Go in knowing you'll pay more for gas and enjoy the pleasures of independent travel. You'll understand why there are so many small cars in France - they're better on gas than those huge cars and SUVs we drive in America. For Unleaded, look for sans plomb - for Diesel, look for gazole.
Here's a good idea and a recommendation: If you're traveling in a group (of 2 or more), each of you should put some euros in a "kitty" (an envelope or zippered pouch) - keep it separate from all other money. This money is to be used for tolls, gas, parking etc. When you run low, you each add a hundred euros (or less depending on how many of you are traveling together). Trade off keeping control of the money. He who drives - drives. He who sits in the passenger seat controls the "kitty". When you come to a toll, read the amount on the toll sign and have it ready for the toll taker. It's a bit daunting at first, but you'll get used to it. Don't worry about taking time at the tollbooths either - take your time and relax.... what do you care? You'll get the hang of it.
Gasoline in Europe is sold by the liter. Most people drive small cars and they're great on fuel. We're a bit spoiled in the states. Even though gas prices are high (to us), the gas prices in Europe are much higher. That's one of the reasons they have such small cars! Unleaded is sans plomb. Diesel is gazole. Super is super. Regular is ordinaire. 30 liters equals 8 gallons. As for mileage, you're dealing with kilometers. 10 kilometers equals 6 miles. TO TELL THE GUY TO FILL IT UP JUST SAY PLEIN.
TRAIN TRAVEL: I've traveled by train on a number of occasions...sometimes I combine it with car rentals...here's what you need to know: the train system in France is very good - timely, efficient - works for me. You can get from point A to point B easily, but sometimes there are stops along the way and you're always dependent/at the mercy of their schedule. Investigate prior to your trip. There are 3 basic ways to get your tickets: The website for the trains in France: www.sncf.com or www.sncf.fr This site gives you times, dates, schedule, type of train, stops (if any) and the ability to buy your ticket online/reserve (in some but not all cases you can purchase the tickets). Or, if you'd rather have the ticket right in your hand call RailEurope: 800-848-7245. Keep in mind there are service charges for doing this (a $27 ticket goes to $40 or so) - but the ticket is sent right to your home or office by courier. The third way to get rail tickets is to do it when in FRANCE. I find this somewhat time-consuming, but it's inexpensive and you just make time for it in your day of touring. In busy times, trains fill up - I had to sit on the floor on a recent trip with my bags (not always an option)... which brings up another thing - travel lightly if traveling by train. It's a great experience and something that makes traveling fun.
And speaking of fun...when you board the train, quite often your bag is too large to fit over your head or right near your seat...so you stow it in the baggage compartment of the car you're seated in..... You can't keep your eyes on it at all times so I find that a lock and cable work wonders for my peace of mind. Magellan's Catalogue (www.magellans.com) has a couple of styles at good prices. The cable is connected to the lock, you connect it to your bag, wrap it around the train rack. Just remember to go to the bag car to unhook the bag prior to arriving at your station - people are anxious to get on and off the train and you don't want to be jostled and made nervous by doing this at the last minute.
Keep in mind, some well-traveled routes offer very regular departures - others offer only one or two - investigate prior to the trip to assure you get your ticket or at least the train times. My suggestion for train travel is to pack lightly if possible (and I know it is not always possible). Allow time for schlepping your bags and getting on and off the trains.
TIP: Whenever you have doubts - go to the Information Office at the train station. Early on in your travels you might be confused about reading the schedules or finding the right track - so, go early, see an agent who speaks English and you'll be assured of boarding the correct train.
TIP: There are some busy stations where folks come up to you and offer assistance - go to the Information office. Unless a person has the official name tag/badge for the station - they are not an official employee and they are either scamming you for a tip or checking to see if they might be able to rip you off (keep your money, passport and everything else in a SAFE PLACE).
IMPORTANT INFO ABOUT YOUR TRAIN TICKET: All tickets must be "punched" for validation prior to boarding the train. The machines that validate are on the platform or right in the ticket office or area. This is important - you can be fined if your ticket is not "punched" or validated. Ask at the information or ticket window if you cannot find the machine...they're pretty obvious.
FRENCH HOTEL RATING SYSTEM: Hotels in FRANCE are given star rankings from the government. A hotel will receive a ranking from 1 to 4L stars (4L being the luxurious best). Every hotel must display their star ranking on the faŹade of the establishment. These star rankings will become very familiar to you as you go through FRANCE. The ranking takes in to account the various levels of service, amenities and comfort. A one star hotel is basic, simple and usually offers a shared bathroom. A two star is a step above. A three star will normally offer simple comfort with a private bath and four and four L star hotels are deluxe accommodations. When you book a room, be specific about your needs and you will not be disappointed. If a private bath is important to you, then state it on your reservation request. I've stayed in 2 star hotels that offered a wonderful level of comfort and a private bath. I've had as many good nights in a 3 star hotel as I have had in 4 and 4L star hotels. Off peak allows you the option to choose or mix it up at better (lower) rates. It's the sublime to the ridiculous for me. Plus, I find the prices on hotels in France to be about the best in Europe. Prices are on site at the entrance/entry area of most hotels and always in the rooms (these prices include tax and service charges).
NOTE: Know this - your hotels in major cities (Paris especially) and resorts will cost more money than in smaller towns and in the countryside. Paris is a must-see city and knowing this in advance will allow you to plan your trip better. Plus, my knowledge of the hotels offering the best value, comfort, style and convenience make it easier to spend your money wisely.
TO THE FIRST HOTEL: If your first city is Paris, Lyon or Nice and you're going to cab (or train or bus) in to the city, have a card printed with the name and address of the hotel to give to the taxi driver - unless you're able to communicate in French - which I'm sure you can - but, just to be sure...use the card. This way you can sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.
MY KIND OF HOTELS: Anyone who has ever traveled with me knows my choices are from the sublime to the ridiculous (I believe I mentioned that earlier)! I've stayed at some of the world's best hotels and some of the most charming hotels and some of the most unique hotels and some places I'd rather not stay again...you live and you learn. The trick is to write down places you wish to stay at (the next time) as you go. Don't be freaky about it; just note the hotel name and address. I like to stay in the medieval center of most cities because then I can walk to everything. If I stay outside a town, I want it to be a special place, a new experience, something I can tell others about. I won't steer you wrong - trust me - all of the places I've chosen here are unique and wonderful places - totally described - with websites so you can get an idea of what's in store for you. It's all about adventure!
To change Kilometers in to Miles you multiply the Kilometers by .621; to change Miles in to Kilometers you multiply by 1.61; 16.1 Kilometers = 10Miles
To change Liters in to Gallons you multiply the liters by .264; to change Gallons to Liters you multiply Gallons by 3.79; 37.9 liters = 10 gallons
To change Centigrade/Celsius in to Fahrenheit you multiply the Centigrade/Celsius by 1.8 and add 32; to change Fahrenheit to Centigrade/Celsius you subtract 32 from the Fahrenheit and multiply by .555; 15.5 Centigrade/Celsius = 60 Fahrenheit
To change Grams in to Ounces you multiply the Grams by the .035; to change Ounces to Grams you multiply the Ounces by 28.4; 227.2 Grams = 8 Ounces
To change Meters in to Feet you multiply the Meters by 3.28; to change Feet in to Meters you multiply the Feet by .305; 100 Meters = 328 Feet
To change Kilograms in to Pounds you multiply the Kilograms by 2.20; to change Pounds in to Kilograms you multiply the Pounds by .455; 2.3 Kilograms = 5 Pounds
Shoes - Women: Size 5 is 36 in Italy; Size 6 is 37 in Italy; Size 7 is 38 in Italy; Size 8 is 39 in Italy; Size 9 is 40 in Italy; Size 10 is 41 in Italy.
Shoes - Men: Size 7 is 39 ½ in Italy; Size 8 is 41 in Italy; Size 9 is 42 in Italy; Size 10 is 43 in Italy; Size 11 is 44 ½ in Italy; Size 12 is 46 in Italy.
Clothing - Women: Size 6 is 38 in Italy; Size 8 is 40 in Italy; Size 10 is 42 in Italy; Size 12 is 44 in Italy; Size 14 is 46 in Italy; Size 16 is 48 in Italy; Size 18 is 50 in Italy.
Clothing - Men (Suits): Size 34 is 44 in Italy; Size 36 is 46 in Italy; Size 38 is 48 in Italy; Size 40 is 50 in Italy: Size 42 is 52 in Italy; Size 44 is 54 in Italy; Size 46 is 56 in Italy; Size 48 is 58 in Italy.
Clothing - Men (Shirts): Size 14 is 36 in Italy; Size 15 is 38 in Italy; Size 15 ½ is 39 in Italy: Size 16 is 41 in Italy; Size 16 ½ is 42 in Italy; Size 17 is 43 in Italy; Size 17 ½ is 44 in Italy; Size 18 is 45 in Italy.
CITY MAPS: in Paris (and most other large cities) make sure you get a city map or plan to make life easier. Your hotel will have these at the front desk for free. This way you can gauge your time and sights and get to those that are most important to you. And you can get home (to your hotel) from wherever you are. The front desk is always helpful at pointing out (on the map) the places you're interested in. Even the smaller towns have maps - get them - use them.
TIME - USA AND FRANCE: France is 6 hours ahead of the eastern United States; 7 hours ahead of the central United States; 9 hours ahead of the western United States. Italy does utilize daylight savings time from the end of March to the end of September. France uses the 24-hour clock - so just after lunch when it's 1pm in the United States - the French continue the count and it's 13:00 (1pm).
LANGUAGE: I'd suggest getting the Pimsleur beginner tapes for a slight introduction to the language. These tapes are great. Pimsleur is the best one I've used - the most effective. I took 5 years of French in school - but, as a girl raised in the south - my French had a southern edge to it! Yes, many people speak English, but it's fun and polite to try to speak their language. I've even taken courses at the local college to improve and to connect with others who love France. You cannot imagine the new tips and ideas you get from other Francophiles. You can find the Pimsleur tapes at www.amazon.com or www.barnesandnoble.com or www.bn.com.
PICNICS: what's more fun than sitting in the crisp, sunshiny air drinking wine, eating fresh bread, cheese, fruit, veggies and sausages - did I mention olives or cornichons? This is a great way to save money and truly experience the countryside. When you pass a store that has fresh items - buy and store in the car. Sausage and cheese will keep (and make the car smell divine) the bread goes stale. What's more French than stopping in your local boulangerie and picking up a fresh (warm) baguette?!? Just keep stuff wrapped up - tip: bring sealable bags. When you run out or tire of your current fare - get new! Tip: the Magellan's catalogue or the Brookstone Store have the following items - get one for each of you: small collapsible cup (for drinking wine or water), a fork, knife, spoon set, a corkscrew with a bottle opener - I have also found them at the local Walmart/KMart/Sears/Target in the camping section. You can cut sausage, cheese, open wine and eat olives for lunch (or in your hotel room in the afternoon)! You can store the utensils in the glove compartment!
CAMERAS: Everyone brings a camera and plenty of film. Everyone takes plenty of pictures of everyone on the trip. Have your camera at the ready so you get good shots. Buy both black and white film (for artsy shots that are suitable for framing/gifts) and color film. Also have an extra battery for the camera - nothing worse than having to buy an expensive lithium battery in Europe - quite a bit more expensive there. Take pictures, don't be afraid to ask someone to get shots of you, the two of you or the group.... offer to do it for others and they'll usually reciprocate. I've met some nice (and grateful) people this way. And don't be embarrassed to take pictures in front of fabulous sites - you're on vacation and it's a must. And while I'm sure you're an excellent photographer - think - try to get you and your traveling friends in photos - there's nothing worse than coming home, getting your film developed and finding you've taken 50 shots of the vineyards and no one - not one PERSON is in a single picture. Sure, you're going to take some shots like that - do - I just suggest that the full feelings of the trip are in the faces of those you travel with. I think you get my drift - take lots of pictures...
ELECTRICITY: 220 volts ac - you'll need a converter kit. Your hairdryer should have a button or switch for both 110 (America) and 220 (Italy) volts - this way you don't have to use the adapter. The adapter is the largest thing in the converter kit. I use the hairdryer with the volt switch and a converter for Europe (they are clearly marked). You simply plug the dryer into the converter and the converter into the outlet. However, do bring the adapter just in case...better safe than sorry. My mother has made a few mistakes with a curling iron in a few European cities - in one, she turned around and the plastic handle of her iron was melting and in another, she blew the fuses in the entire hotel! Fortunately, the hotels are used to this and they just flip a switch and we're back in business. This is why I either buy a dual voltage appliance or I buy a hairdryer over there and use it when I travel (not that expensive).
ALARM CLOCK: Bring a travel alarm clock - sometimes the hotels don't do wakeup calls and sometimes there are no clocks - bring an extra battery for it as well...it's nice to know what time it is!
COUNTRY CODE IN FRANCE (FOR THE TELEPHONE): 33 - to dial from the USA: 01133 and the number. Listen for the funny ring....
TELEPHONE: Leave a copy of your itinerary with your friends and loved ones - you never know when they might need to get in touch with you. I usually prepare one with the hotel name, the dates I'll be at the hotel, the phone and fax numbers and if anyone needs to contact me (sometimes my office does), they can fax a note and the front desk can deliver the fax - that way your family doesn't get the one night clerk who doesn't speak any English.
MONEY: First things first - get a waist wallet. There is a neck version where it hangs about your neck - also good. Everyone on your trip may want one. This way you always know where your ticket, passport and money are. At home (in the US), empty your bag/purse and wallet of anything you don't need - and leave it at home. I don't need all the stuff I carry on a day-to-day basis here at home, so my bag is much lighter and I use the extra space to carry a book or map.... Each day you take out some money and put it in your wallet or bag - the rest stays in your waist wallet. If you need to get out some money - just lift your shirt/sweater and get it out of the waist wallet. You're safer and you worry less about losses...
Some people prefer traveler's checks and others prefer cash (me). Traveler's checks are not always accepted - sometimes the hours to get them cashed are inconvenient - frankly, it's too much trouble for me. The waist wallet makes me feel secure and I've never had a problem. You can also go to the bank and get cash at the ATM (also safe), take credit cards and your bankcard - it can be used in France. If the first ATM machine doesn't work - try the next one. Your secret code/pin number should only be 4 digits - if it's more than 4 - go change it at the bank in the USA prior to your trip- you can even change it at your local ATM - that's what I did when I learned that the secret code could only be 4 digits.
REMEMBER THE EURO: The EURO, the official currency of the European Union was effective in January 2002 (literally effective - it was actually inaugurated in January of 1999). The EURO will make traveling between and among the 15 European Union countries much easier. Only 12 of the EU countries have adopted the EURO (Italy, Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain) and the United Kingdom, Denmark and Sweden have decided to keep their own currencies (for how long - no one knows).
CURRENCY CONVERSIONS: I have an electronic currency converter that I keep in my bag so that I don't get confused when making a buying decision...I bought it from the Magellan's catalogue. You can get them at travel stores and general merchandise stores too (Kmart, Target, Walmart). I have another method that works quite well too: I go online to a currency converter site (for example: www.ljsp.com/currency.htm) and plug in numbers from a low figure like 1 dollar up to $500. I then use excel (the computer program) and create a handy pocket converter. I type in all the conversions, print it out and use clear heavy packing tape on both sides of the printed conversions (makes it easier to find and protects it from tearing etc.). I make a few of these and keep one in my pocket, one in my wallet and give the rest to traveling companions. It's simple and convenient. I feel like Martha Stewart: "it's a good thing"...
SAFETY: France is completely safe. You simply have to be aware, use your common sense and listen to your instincts. If you feel that a place is unsafe - get out. I live in New York, I've traveled - I'm alert. Be aware of your surroundings and look out for each other. I've never felt in danger when in France - even Paris. A lesson or two: Three years ago when I was in Italy my friend Jan stopped to help an American read a map (in broad daylight) - we were in Florence right in front of the beautiful Duomo.... I was looking at the Duomo, Jan was helping the lost man and a pickpocket was trying to open her backpack. I was standing right there and didn't even notice (I was looking at shoes in a store window and my back was to Jan and the man in need). Jan felt something "funny" and turned around and grabbed my arm - we both realized what had been going on.... Jan, being a smart traveler kept her money in a waist wallet and any valuables in a secret inside pocket of her backpack. You better believe I created a stir so that others would know he was a crook! I screamed and cursed at the man letting others know he was a scoundrel. We moved on and were relieved that we were not harmed or robbed. My friend Kia (a European by birth and has lived half her life there and has traveled extensively) was in Amsterdam trying on shoes when a guy nabbed her purse as she pranced about in her new boots. This ruined a day and a half of her short trip to Amsterdam. She had to go get a new passport, a new airline ticket and more money. What a waste of time (and money)! If only she'd had her waist wallet. I've never seen the so-called "gypsy children", but if you get bombarded by them the key is to say no (loudly) and get away quickly - don't be nice to them, don't try to talk to them, they're a gang of thieves not cute little children. Definitely take an aggressive stance and move quickly away - I'm not in to violence, but kick out if you have to - teach them a lesson. Another ploy is the beggar women you'll see on the streets, as they beg from you, they push in on an area of your body to distract you (using cardboard or a newspaper) and they're nabbing your wallet because you're distracted. Just don't talk to these folks. When they come near you, tell them to get away - loudly. Again, I've never run in to them - another plus with off-peak travel...I'm told they are quite prevalent in the summer months. Once again, waist wallets are the answer.
MEMORIES: If you are at a fabulous restaurant and you love the placemat or wish to keep it as a memory - get the waitperson to give you another - when you return home - have it framed. Some of my favorite art are menus (and memories). Also, I made a wonderful tray of memories from one trip - I took a rectangle frame with 4 openings for photos. I used photos from my trip and then I saved receipts, hotel cards, brochures, money and other items to go all around the photos - just glue them down around the photos. I then bought drawer pulls/handles from a hardware store, screwed them in to the frame and the "darn" thing is a serving tray (one of my favorite possessions). Each year I send Christmas cards with photos from my most recent trips. This has become a tradition for me (8 years running). Just a thought...another thing I suggest is getting a picture of each of you in front of all of your hotels. This will be neat for your photo album - I do this religiously - even in the rain! Even in a rush! Don't forget! It sort of sets up my photo/memory album by day...
TOURING THOSE CHURCHES:
I'm spiritual and religious...but as I've researched the many churches in France, I've come across some terms that I needed to look up to make sure I really knew what they were...I hope these definitions will help you to tour the churches with a better knowledge and understanding.
Tympanum: Over the doors of the church you'll often see a decorated half-moon or triangle shaped space - it's a tympanum.
Narthex: The room just after the entrance and just before the main part of the church (nave).
Nave: The main part of the church - the body so to speak.
Transept: The part of the church that juts out from the main body of the church creating a cross pattern/cruciform.
Chancel: The area around the altar that is reserved for clergy only.
Choir: Where the choir/singers sit.
Clerestory: The upper wall area that usually encompasses the windows.
Crypt: Located under the church/nave, this room is often a burial site.
SHOPPING: I live by the Moscow rule of shopping (I learned this from the Born to Shop books) - "buy it when you see it because it won't be there when you go back to get it" and you often don't have the time to go back to get what you should have bought in the first place. Repeated Tip: pack a small bag or tote in with your belongings to carry back what you buy. No need to ship - carry it! It's a few hours of schlepping, but the instant gratification of giving gifts and unpacking your "finds" and memories is worth the schlepping............
CAFâ, CAFâ AU LAIT AND CHOCOLAT: For breakfast, café au lait, café Americain or chocolat are the drinks for breakfast (they will bring tea/the).
FOOD: There's simply no better food on earth! When in France, I'm adventurous - I usually check the menu on the outside of the dining establishment and order what looks good - the French are well-known for their cuisine and love of food and cooking - you just have to indulge, taste, test, try - you'll find some fabulous combinations and experiences.
APERITIF?: My favorite before dinner drink is a Kir Royale - cassis mixed with champagne...or simply a coupe de champagne (glass of champagne). The idea is to get your mouth ready for the dinner you are about to eat! FYI: Kir was invented in France. The story goes that a monk from Dijon mixed his cassis with his white wine (Aligote) and invented the aperitif Kir.
COVER CHARGES AND TIPPING: The words to look for on your dining bill or menu are: SERVIS COMPRIS - that means that your tip is included in the price of the meal. If you feel you've been given good service, leave 3 or 4% in addition if paying by credit card. Small change is left for the waiter (on the table) if you're paying in cash. You'll find waiters and waitresses particularly eager to wait on Americans because we tip as a matter of course and it's polite...If the bill says SERVIS NON COMPRIS - that means the service in NOT included and you DO need to leave a standard tip of 15 - 20 % (again it depends on the service). When you've finished dining in France you say: l'addition s'il vous plait (the addition please) and your bill will appear (in time). If you are in doubt as to whether the tip and service has been included - just ask - servis compris? Taxi drivers are tipped as they would be in the United States - 10 or 15%. There are usually extras added in for bags etc.
BOOKING YOUR HOTELS PRIOR TO THE TRIP:
Here's an easy room request form that you can copy and fax or email to the hotel (you'll be surprised how quickly you get responses) - You can also do this in English if you are more comfortable (someone at the hotel usually speaks English):
#1: To request a price and availability of a room.
TO: Hotel Name
FROM: Mr./Mrs./Miss/Ms. Name
DATE: The Date (spell the month out completely)
Je voudrais une chambre pour un, deux, trois, quattre.
(I'd like a room for 1/2/3/4 adults).
Avec toilette et baignoire ou douche privee.
(With toilet and bathtub or shower).
Avec un lit - deux lits - un grande lit - deux lits simple
(With one bed - two beds - a double bed - twin beds).
Arrive: (Date of Arrival)
Depart: (Date of Departure)
(number of ) Nuits (nights).
Merci de nous confirmer cette prix et information par fax ou email.
(Please confirm your price and information via fax/email).
(Thank you very much).