The Discerning Traveler » Searching for the right place to sleep in France

by Philip Wagenaar, first of four parts

A large gate filled the arch, which gave access to the hotel’s front garden.

“Would they have room for us?,” I mused.

My wife, Flory, and I had been biking from Amsterdam, Holland, to the French Riviera. It was 4 p.m. and we were tired. We had been riding since 6 a.m.

I quickly ran up the steps to the reception desk. We were in luck. They had space available. An inspection found the offered room satisfactory.

However, a look at the dinner menu found the fare not entirely to our liking. We wondered whether we were supposed to have our evening meal in the hotel — a common requirement in many family-operated French accommodations.

Le dîner est obligatoire?” (“Are we required to have dinner in the hotel?”), I asked. I was assured that we could eat wherever we wanted. After doing the daily laundry, we left to dine in one of the nearby town’s restaurants.

The next morning as I went to pay the bill, I found a charge for two evening meals from the night before.

The owner was adamant: “You must have had dinner at our restaurant, as it is compulsory. You have to pay,” she said.

I was equally adamant that we had not dined there the previous night.

She finally decided to check with the waiter who was supposed to have served us, and he concurred that we had not eaten in the dining room. The cost was subtracted from the bill.

Despite this, the propriétaire (owner) would not immediately give us our bikes, which had been placed overnight behind the washer and dryer. We first had to stand facing the wall of the room for 15 minutes before she would relinquish them.

The breadth of choices

As French proprietaires sometimes have their own ideas as to what is proper, you may wonder how you can locate satisfying lodgings in France. To make it easier, I have compiled — from the Internet, guidebooks, the French Government Tourist Office, personal experience, etc. — a list of sources of information on accommodations in France.

In this listing, I have divided the many types of accommodations into categories and will provide tips on each in parts 2, 3 and 4 of this series.

In addition to “Internet search engines,” the categories include hotel chains; Paris rentals & furnished apartments; luxury hotels; châteaux (castles); YMCA hotels/accommodation; homestays; home exchanges; home, villa, condo, cottage and apartment rentals; farmstays; camping; hostels, etc.

Complete information about a specific lodging in any of the categories is available on the Internet, usually with the option to make a booking. Alternatively, you can use a travel agent or contact the local tourist office (look for Syndicat d’Initiative or “office de tourisme”).

To find information about every local tourist bureau, go to www.tourisme.fr. After clicking on “L’annuaire,” on the left side of the webpage, you will find a box with the word ville (town) in front of it on the right side of the webpage. Type in the name of the town and click on “trouver” (find). Pronto, the name of the tourist office(s) will come up.

Alternatively, click on the map underneath the phrase “Ou séléctionnez une zone géographique” (“Or select an area”) and click on the bottom of the page on the word valider. This brings up all the tourist offices in a large geographic area.

You also can contact the Fédération Nationale des Offices de Tourisme et Syndicats d’Initiative, or FNOTSI (National Federation of Tourist Offices) (280, boulevard Saint-Germain, 75007 Paris, France; phone +33 1 44111030 or fax +33 1 45559950).

A number of accommodations also each list their offerings in books and/or brochures and supply phone and/or fax numbers.

While some readers may prefer to peruse the various guidebooks of France for lodging advice, note that only on the Internet will you have, in addition to complete information about each property, the possibility of viewing pictures, both inside and out, of the desired accommodation.

Keep in mind, though, that these photos sometimes are misleading. Being shown a view of the swimming pool but not a picture of the room, in which you will spend more time, should make you think twice about reserving that property.

Of course, you also can find your lodging Shangri-la by getting in touch with an agency at your destination, taking advantage of hotels that can be booked through US representatives, perusing brochures used by tour operators and looking through ITN for readers’ recommendations.

In addition, to read reviews by other guests of the hotels you are considering, you can download the 2008 Travelers’ Choice Award winners list from www.tripadvisor.com/travelerschoice or go to www.tripadvisor.com or visit www.boo.com.hotels, a website that, unlike most such websites, reviews every hotel it lists.

RESERVATIONS

Advance reservations

Once you have picked the place(s) of your choice, you must decide whether to make advance reservations.

Flory and I do this only for the first and last nights of our trip as well as for all nights in high season and during bank-holiday weekends and on school and public holidays (especially for the weekends surrounding Ascension Day and Pentecost, including Pentecost Monday) or during festival time.

We also prebook when renting a home, villa, gîte (vacation home) or resort or at any location where we arrive by plane. In the latter case, if our plane is scheduled to land late in the day, we choose an inn near the airport with easy access by shuttle, taxi or bus. Of course, you always should prebook in Paris.

We never travel in France in July or August, since highways are choked and most accommodations are booked. August is the worst, since that is the month when the French take their annual vacations. At that time, northern cities empty out (and many of their hotels close!) as their inhabitants seek the glorious weather in the south.

Advance-reservation details

When making your own reservation before departure, make sure all details (dates, room rate and, if desired, the room number and receipt of deposit) will be confirmed by letter, fax or e-mail. Of course, you won’t fill in your credit card details on an unsecured website.

(The payment page of a secured website has all the information encrypted and is more difficult for hackers to access than e-mail, which is not secure. On the webpage, encryption is shown in two ways: the URL shows “https” instead of “http,” and at the bottom of your browser there is a closed golden padlock. You should be using the most recent version of your Web browser, by the way. Use caution overseas; if you’re on, for example, an unknown WiFi connection and you’re getting security warnings from your browser, do not complete the transaction but wait until you can switch to a known access provider. And never perform any financial transactions on a public computer.)

Make sure you inquire about the cancellation policy. According to French law, a deposit amounts to a contractual obligation, and if you cancel your stay you may be asked to pay for your entire reservation.

Credit cards often are referred to as carte bancaire, or CB.

Rates in France are always quoted per room, except in the case of demipension, or half board (room + breakfast + one other meal), or pension, full board (room + three meals), in which case they are quoted per person. VAT and service always are included, but local tourist tax is extra and is charged for each person.

To designate that taxes and service (gratuity) are included in the dinner charge, often the acronym TTSC (toutes taxes, service compris, or “all taxes, service included”) will be listed on the menu.

Prix fixe (fixed-price) meals may include wine and/or soda water, which may be included in the price and which would be listed as vin compris (wine included) or boisson compris (beverage included).

You also may find other notations, such as service non compris (SNC) or service en sus, either of which indicates that service is not included.

Guests are expected to arrive at their hotel no later than 10 p.m. and preferably by 7:30 p.m., when dinner usually is served. After 10 p.m. the family might be asleep (always check if a night porter will be on the premises).

To avoid misunderstandings, it is best to let the hotel manager know your approximate arrival time, especially if it might be late. If a telephone reservation has been made without a deposit, the hotelier is not required to hold the room after 7 p.m.

In high season, many resorts insist on half board.

Same-day reservation by phone

During your trip, should you call ahead for a reservation or just take a chance at finding a place to sleep? We never used to reserve a room until we had the following experience.

After having bicycled all day, we arrived at our planned hotel in Belleville, in northern France, on Tuesday, April 14, 1987, at 6 p.m. Surprisingly, the door was locked. Our Michelin guidebook clearly stated that the accommodation was closed only on Thursdays.

After we repeatedly rang the bell, the door opened.

“We are sorry, but you cannot stay here. We have to go to a wedding tonight,” the staff informed us.

Spotting a phone booth, we called the one and only hotel in the next town, 20 miles down the road. The owner promised to save us a room and dinner, provided we got there by 8 p.m. To meet the imposed deadline, we bicycled like greyhounds along busy highways and arrived with only minutes to spare.

Since then, we regularly call ahead for reservations. On weekdays I call by 2 p.m. and on weekends and holidays, the day before.

I have found that when I telephone the hotel on the day of arrival, I only have to indicate at what time I will show up. I usually try to get there by 5 p.m. Only once during the many years we have traveled in France have I been asked to provide my credit card number.

Fortunately, in the past few years, we have found that many French owners will make an effort to accommodate visitors’ pidgin French, but if nobody speaks English, word your questions on the phone so that only a “Yes” or “No” answer is required. (See “To Speak or Not to Speak,” Aug. 1999, pg. 119.)

If you don’t want to call, yourself, the receptionist at the place in which you are staying will make a reservation for the following night if the next hotel belongs to the same chain or association.

When reserving by phone, specify the kind of room you desire and inquire about the cost. To entice you to come, clerks or owners often will quote a cheaper rate when you call than when you show up unexpectedly.

A room with one double bed (grand lit) usually is cheaper and will have the best view.

Rooms with bath (bain or salle de bain) usually are more expensive than those with a shower stall (douche).

Quarters with cabinet de toilette have only a sink and bidet, which means that the shower and toilet will be down the hall (à l’étage).

Also, inquire whether there is a fenced-in area or garage available for parking.

Phoning has another advantage. If the hotel is officially closed, the owner may invite you to stay overnight (ring the bell) even though the establishment does not officially accept guests.

ARRIVAL

Arriving in town

If you reach your destination without an advance booking, look for hotel information booths or boards at bus/train stations and at airports (e.g., in Paris look for the Automatic Central Reservations Board at the Roissy-Charles de Gaulle Airport).

If you arrive early in the day and the town is compact, you might drive around and look for buildings advertising apartments or rooms for rent, sporting signs such as “A louer” (“For rent”) or “Chambre d’hôte” (which is the same as a maison d’hôte, or B&B). Sometimes a real estate agency can help you.

Alternatively, if time permits, visit the tourist office. For its location, inquire at your hotel or ask a policeman or just anybody in the street or in a shop or peruse the Michelin guide. Keep in mind that many tourist offices close at 5 p.m. (and at lunchtime) and are not open on weekends and holidays.

Obviously, if the tourist office makes the reservation, you will be dealing with quarters you have not seen, and you may discover that the place is not to your liking.

Many hotels as well as their restaurants shut their doors one or more days of the week, indicated by the term fermeture hebdomadaire (weekly closure).

Be aware that hotel closing hours often do not correspond to those of the dining room. A hotel can be open and accept guests but on a particular day not serve dinner or serve only lunch. Or the dining room may be open while the hotel does not accept new guests. (Once you are a guest, however, you usually can stay.)

The annual vacation is indicated by the words fermeture annuelle.

Note that most resorts do not conduct business between October and March.

Arrival at the lodging

Well, you finally have arrived at the hotel. However, when you look at the neighborhood and the inn’s crumbling façade, you may have second thoughts: “Is the hotel in a safe location?”

Over the years, I have learned not to be put off by outward appearances, as the inside may look quite different.

Is the room satisfactory?

Upon approaching the reception, I repeat my requirements: une grande chambre avec deux lits (a large room with two beds), une chambre calme (a quiet room), avec douche-WC (with a private toilet and shower [both need to be mentioned]) and pas sur le rez-de-chaussé (not on the ground floor), since we sleep with open windows.

I always ask for accommodation on one of the upper floors, since it makes it more difficult for an intruder to enter our quarters from street level. In addition, since being on an upper floor may require the negotiation of many steps, I make sure there is an elevator (l’ascenseur).

Inspecting the room’s interior

Next, I inspect the room — a common practice in many countries.

Upon request, the clerk will either give me the keys to several rooms or have a coworker accompany me. After entering, I take a quick, one-minute inventory, fine-tuned over the years. It takes much longer to read the following description than to do the inspection.

I ascertain whether there is a seating area — important when I want to spread out the map or write.

After that, I open the windows. Do they open far enough — and toward the outside or inside? Is there a view or do we look out against a wall? Is there cross ventilation? Are there screens on the windows? The latter is important in a mosquito-prone area.

Now it is time to check the beds. Are there two beds? Sometimes this is obvious, but not infrequently two beds are pushed together and covered with one bedspread — a setup referred to as lits jumeaux. Are the sheets clean? Are there extra pillows? Is the floor clean?

A quick once-over of the bathroom is next on the list. Is there a private bath/shower and toilet? Does the shower stall have a threshold or a long-enough curtain so the water will not flood the bathroom or bedroom? (I recall with dismay the times I had to mop up our bedroom floor with the few available towels.)

Is there 24-hour hot water? (You have to ask. Many smaller hotels don’t turn on the hot water until about half an hour before breakfast.) Are there enough towels, toilet paper and soap?

Do the quarters have temperature control? When the weather is hot, I might want air-conditioning or a fan. When it is cold, I make sure the heat is working.

Finally, if I don’t like the room, I ask for a different one.

Security

Is there a phone with direct dial? Will I be able to reach somebody in case of a medical or other type of emergency?

Is there a way to exit at night in case of fire or are all the outside doors locked? (This is a not-uncommon occurrence in France.)

Does the door to our quarters close and lock?

Will the hotel floodlights or the streetlight(s) shine in our eyes at night? This may be difficult to gauge when you arrive before dark, but you always can look at the position of the light pole outside.

Is the room in a quiet location? (I recall our experience in Corfu, Greece, where our beautiful hotel room faced the central plaza, which was completely deserted as it was siesta. In the middle of the night we woke up to bombs and flares going off for some reason in the once-quiet square. Since then, we always request a location in the rear, often to discover that passing trains blow their whistles every hour.)

(In Iran, where there were neither trains nor bombs, it was the muezzin’s chanting with full amplification from the mosque’s minaret that invariably disturbed our sleep at 4 a.m. — but maybe that was the idea.)

ROOM COST

The cost of the room

After inspecting the room and deciding to stay, I am ready to confirm the cost of our abode. I make sure the amount quoted is not greater than the posted charge, which you will find either outside the hotel, at the front desk or on the wall or door of the room. Note that, in France, prices are not regulated by the government.

To prevent misunderstanding, have the clerk write down the charge.

This is a good time to negotiate a discount.

Some owners, especially in smaller hotels, get very irritated when you ask for a discount. They make you feel as if you are making an indecent suggestion and they immediately enumerate all the features of that fabulous room you are about to inhabit.

Other proprietors, however, are very happy to extend a helping hand and reduce the charge.

Ways to make your stay cheaper

1. Ask for a rebate by saying “Vous me faites un prix?” (“Will you give me a good price?”).

When asked for a reason, mention one of the following:

  • Being a senior (troisième age).
  • Being a cyclist, a hiker or, if you’re on business, a business traveler (séjour d’affaires).
  • Taking demipension (half board) or pension (full board). Before you agree, find out what will be included in your dinner and do the math. Many hotels allow you to freely pick from the menu, while others limit your choice to a few dishes or have a special menu for those on demipension. Keep in mind that the demipension price is quoted per person.
  • Staying more than one night or staying over a weekend. At times, you have a better chance of getting a desired room if you book for a longer period of time (for instance, a week rather than a day). You also may find, every so often, that no accommodation is available for one night but that the same quarters become magically accessible if you book for a week.
  • Leaving before breakfast when it is included in the room rate. Since breakfast (typically consisting of baguette, croissant[s], jam, coffee, butter and, at times, sweet rolls) usually costs extra, you may get a better deal at the local café (where you will find many locals lacing their coffee with alcohol before driving away).
  • (Note: if the café does not supply fresh baguettes and/or croissants, the owners will not object if you bring in some that you picked up at the local bakery.)

  • Having a noisy room.

Other ways to make hotel stays cheaper

2. Be alert for special offers marked at the entrance of the hotel.

3. Stay in a room with a grand lit (double bed), which typically is superior to and cheaper than one with twin beds.

4. Do not make phone calls from your room. The exception to that rule is when you make calls via one of the US-based telephone companies, since in that case you frequently will bypass the hotel’s switchboard.

5. Commonly in travel literature about France, one is urged to haggle and ask for discounts. One thing you can do is try to persuade the manager to let you use the garage for free. If unsuccessful, find out if street parking is feasible. If you do park on the street, remove all belongings from your car.

6. Ask for one of the rebates commonly used when booking through the US reservation office of an international chain. These include a preferred or promotional rate, an AARP/senior rate and an AAA discount. Business travelers may get a corporate rate.

If the price does not meet your expectations, ask the agent whether there are any special offers. If you are unsuccessful, consider calling back later and repeating the process.

7. Note that hotels in big cities, especially expensive hotels, often charge considerably less on weekends.

8. Use B&Bs, guest houses and pensions instead of hotels.

9. Negotiate the price of a room you find too expensive, leaving it up to the receptionist to show you lesser quarters at a lower cost. However, you may be surprised to learn that, at times, a hotel will rent rooms of decidedly different quality for the identical amount.

10. When visiting a large city, stay in one of the smaller towns nearby. The lodgings are much cheaper, while train transportation to the city is fast and frequent. And parking a car costs less or is free.

Next month, I will list specific hotel groups and discuss the Michelin guide, Logis de France and more.