By Maggie LaCoste
Sometimes when you are planning a trip, it’s the little things that get overlooked. On my way back home from my recent biking trip to the Loire, I made a list of things that I wished that someone had told me before I took one of my earlier bike trips. I’d like to share this list with you in the hopes that it will help you get the most out of your planned or upcoming bike trip to France!
Tip #1 Pack Less
If you are going to be carrying your own belongings in panniers, taking less is the best gift you can give yourself! I had such a great trip this summer, and one reason for this was because the bicycling felt effortless, mainly because I packed very lightly. Other than bicycling clothes and rain gear, which are essentials, one pair of casual/walking shoes, a light jacket or sweater and two outfits for dinner and that is basically all you need. Personal items and your emergency first aid kit, and a computer if you travel with one will be the heaviest things in your panniers. Keep guidebooks and reading material to a minimum as they really can add weight. I always take two or three bright scarfs to make my basic black dress look different every night.
Tip #2 Take It Easy on Your Arrival Day
If you are new to bicycling overseas, especially if you are doing an independent trip, plan an easier schedule for your first day or two. Spend the money and have your bikes delivered to your hotel, or wait and pick your bikes up the next day. Get a good night’s sleep and plan an easier schedule for your first day of biking. You can save bigger mileage days for later on your trip. The whole point of touring France by bike is for the experience, so start off on the right foot by not over programming.
Tip #3 Exchange Money at the Airport
Unless you are traveling to a very large city, exchange at least enough cash at the airport to last you two or three days or longer. Few banks exchange currency anymore, they just don’t want to bother with the constantly fluctuating money market, and they probably don’t want American dollars. We saw this last summer, and found that it was the norm both in Italy and France this year. Cash machines are always a good backup, but you can’t be sure that the cash machine will work when you need it, or that your credit card will work. There have been times where we have had to use 3-4 credit cards to get one of them to produce money. Most European businesses have a minimum charge they require to accept credit cards, usually 15-20 Euros, so if you are going to want a coffee and pastry for your morning break, you’ll need cash. At the airport, there are both currency exchanges and cash machines where you can get a cash withdrawal on American Express, Visa or Master Card, as long as you have cash withdrawal priveledges.
Tip #4 Plan Ahead
Always have your rain gear handy, and always have snacks and water. You never know what you will encounter on the day’s route, so it’s a great idea to be sure you fill up on supplies before you start out for the day. If we are staying in a town, we always buy snacks and water before we start out. In the summer time, we always have 2 liters of water apiece. I always get really thirsty. This summer, we traveled along the Loire during the first ten days of August and we found many supermarkets, boulangerie and restaurants closed for summer holiday. You never really know what you will encounter on the road, so be prepared!
Tip #5 Indulge
This is your vacation and you are in France. Indulge! You are biking 35-60 km/day, so enjoy that lemon tart, second croissant or coronetto. They will never taste better than in France, so don’t have any regrets about the things that you didn’t eat when you were there.
Tip #6 Take A Compass Along
If you are traveling on a route like the Loire a Velo or the Atlantic Route, the bike paths are very well marked. But even at that, it is very easy to get turned around, so if you don’t have a compass feature on your phone, pick up a small compass to put in your bike bag. You never know when you may need it, like at the end of the day when you are tired, hungry and anxious to get to your hotel for the night.
Tip #7 Embrace Adventure
Biking overseas is all about adventure and an exciting way to experience a different country and culture. Some of your best vacation experiences can come from turning down a wrong road and discovering a Roman aquaduct, or a 12th century chapel, a troglodyte farm or a beautiful bed and breakfast. Don’t get uptight if you get a bit off track, embrace the experience.
Tip # 8 Plan a Picnic Lunch
Nothing is more French than the picnic lunch, something you will quickly see all along bike paths throughout France. I love every part of the picnic lunch: shopping for lunch items, choosing a location for the lunch, setting up the lunch, and of course, eating the lunch. This summer we even brought along our own small tablecloth for our picnics. Along the Loire and throughout France, there are hundreds of picture perfect locations for enjoying a wonderful picnic lunch. I hope that you will make this practice a highlight of your trip to France, and that you have as much fun with it as I do.
Tip #9 Interact
Europeans are intrigued by Americans on bikes and they are eager to engage in conversations. Do yourself a favor, engage. Interact. Your life will be much better for it. This summer my husband and I felt very much like good will ambassadors, as everywhere we went, everywhere we stopped people wanted to talk with us about our bicycling adventures, and of course, we wanted to hear about theirs. We were particularly interested in the large number of families with small children biking for two or three weeks along the Loire, many of them camping. Many of these people really touched our lives, and I know we did theirs. If you are staying at a small hotel, gite or bed and breakfast, take the time to speak with the owner. They are a wealth of information on the history of the area and have much that they will share with you. The opportunity to interact with local residents and other tourists will enrich your travel experience. Take the first step and just say, Bon jour!
Tip # 10 Learn 20 French Phrases/ Words
The French don’t really expect tourists to speak fluent French. You’ll get a lot of credit for just making an effort to try to speak a bit of French. Here are 20 phrases that I have found to be very helpful:
The absolute most important word of all!
Thank you very much
Very Good–particularly a great word to use with chefs or anything food or wine related
• Quel est le prix?
How much does it cost?
• Je m’apelle__________
My name is ______________
• Je ne sais pas
I don’t know
• Je ne parle pas francais
I don’t speak French
• Je ne comprends pas
I don’t understand
• Ou sont les toilettes?
Where are the toilets?
• L’addition, s’il vous plait
The bill, please
• Je voudrais le plat du jour
I would like the plate of the day
• Je voudrais un bouteille de vin rouge/vin blanc
I would like a bottle of red wine/white wine
• Pourriez-vous m’aider?
Can you help me?
• Je suis perdu
I am lost
• Pouvez-vous me montrer sur la carte?
Can you show me on the map?
• Avez-vous une table pour deux?
Do you have a table for two?
• Ou est le supermarche le plus proche?
Is there a supermarket close?
• Je voudreais une chambre pour deux personnes
I would like a room for 2 persons
• Une cafe, s’il vous plait
One expresso please
• Une cafe au lait, s’il vous plait
One expresso with milk please
Please let me know if you have any favorite tips that I can add to my list!