I‘ve learned a lot about packing for French encounters in my travels between France and the US over the last ten years. The most important? Pack light. I don’t mean bring one less pair of shoes. I mean pack everything you have in one small suitcase. To help with pre-tour and post-tour explorations, I’ve put together the following general tips for packing for France. No matter how long you’re staying, whether touring by bike, or coming as a regular tourist, you’ll be happy you paired down.

Here’s why:

  • There’s very, very limited space for bags on trains. And there’s no baggage check, you carry it all on with you. You’ll notice people traveling across the whole of Europe with one small wheeled bag (the size of most American cosmetic travel cases). Anything more and you look like a refugee. Trust me, I’ve done it (when moving here) and it’s a slapstick comedy. Here’s a visual: the overhead space for carry-on luggage in an airplane is bigger than the space for all your luggage on a train.
  • There are not escalators and easily accessible elevators in train stations or metros. To access the platform you sometimes have to go up and down several flights of stairs (with hordes of people breathing down your neck in a hurry). Done that with refugee size bags too. Not pretty.
  • Though taxi’s are available in large cities, getting to and from airports, train stations and bus stations by taxi is expensive. To avoid relying on taxis (like a tourist or superstar), you should be able to walk down crowded city streets carrying your luggage with class—not sweating and stopping often to rearrange falling bags. You should be able to navigate metro stations, flights of stairs, between café tables, through exit turnstiles…with grace. Can’t say I’ve always represented America well on that front.
  • Hotel rooms, apartments and lodging are small. Big pieces of luggage don’t fit. Doormen and bellhops will mock you.
  • Cars are small. Trunks even smaller. Big pieces of luggage don’t fit. Imagine hiring a taxi for you and another one for your luggage. I haven’t done that, but I have traveled far distances by car with my face crushed against the window and my shoulders pinned down by my overflowing luggage. Utterly lacking any grace at all.

 Rule of thumb: You should be able to easily carry on your person, with no help from anyone else, everything you plan to travel with, and you should be able to take it all up and down stairs by yourself. The same for your traveling companions. Partners, parents, kids, etc.  should be able to carry their own stuff, or you should pack it with yours (which means limiting your stuff even more).

Train station stairs

ONE SMALL SUITCASE. Period.

 

I think it’s clear why we need to limit our stuff. But you can tell people all this, and they still arrive with American style luggage stuffed to the brim, bulky and heavy—that extra pair of shoes left behind only because the bag wouldn’t close. I’m wondering if tips on how to pack light might help?

Here’s how:

  • When you feel the urge to add one more pair of pants, one more favorite shirt, one more dress, one more anything, remember you’ll be happier with space for one more French thing on your return. Taking all your American stuff to France is foolish. Think wine, olive oil, French vintage finds, designer French labels—you’ll want space to haul it back with you.
  • Instead of planning a travel wardrobe to be super chic (because deep down we all want to feel chic in fashion conscious France), go for versatile, understated and cool—that’s how the French do it. Unless you’re a designer from NYC, your super chic probably won’t go over well. You don’t need to bring that vacation dress you’ve never had the occasion to wear. Leave the funky tie in the back of your dresser. Pack only what you know looks good on you, what you wear often, and what is generally low maintenance wear. If you don’t wear scarves at home, don’t pack one to wear in France just because it’s “French”. If you really want to feel French, pick one up when you get here.
  • If you have a very cool (understated and cool that is) outfit, don’t be afraid to wear it over and over, day after day. French people also do this. Okay, bring two cool outfits so you’ve got a back up. But don’t bring six outfits because you’ll be here for six days!
  • Better yet, instead of planning for the amount of days you’ll be in France, plan for the amount of activities you’ll be doing in France. Pack one street clothes outfit, one hiking outfit, and one biking get-up (if those are the activities you’ll be doing). Back-ups are okay, but again, don’t pack six different sets of street-wear (even if you’re staying all summer).
  • Try to pack things that can overlap as street clothes and/or biking clothes, dinner wear and/or street wear, etc. However, if you’re trying to blend in you should note: French people don’t generally overlap their footwear like Americans do. Running shoes are for running only, hiking shoes for hiking only. The French definitely rock out casual/sporty shoes on the street, but not technically sporty stuff. Think Converse sneakers, leather strappy sandals or even flip flops. You’ll see all terrain sport sandals and mountain climbing boots on the trail and in the countryside, but not on city streets or in restaurants.
  • On the same note, small towns and coastal villages in France lean toward an urban sense of dress. Meaning, you won’t see French people parading around in cut-off shorts and swimsuits even in small towns. If you see running shoes in town, its either someone running, or a tourist. Real Travel France folks often parade through town in our bike gear…and that’s okay, because we biked there. Well, it would be okay even if we didn’t, it just wouldn’t be French.
  • Shorts are generally reserved for children in France. University students are now wearing trendy short shorts if it’s really hot, but full grown adults usually not. With that said, André wears them all the time. But he’s French and he knows what he’s doing. If you want to blend, better to avoid shorts (unless you’re doing sporty things that call for shorts). Ladies, if you want to show leg, opt for a skirt. You don’t have to “dress up”. It can be a casual skirt worn in the same spirit as shorts. Except it’s not shorts.
  • One thing to keep in mind is Europe is cool, as in chillier than you may expect. Think about warm layers, even in the sunny south of France. If it turns super hot, you can always shed the layers, or buy a linen something at the outdoor market.

 

Here’s a sample of what Avery might pack to wear if traveling through France for a week or a month in spring/summer/fall (excluding bike gear):

  • My favorite pair of jeans
  • A second pair of jeans or a pair of neutral colored pants (my go to pants that look and feel good)
  • My favorite casual skirt (and a pair of tights or leggings)
  • Three of my favorite shirts that go with jeans, pants and skirt
  • One neutral sweater or blazer to go over shirts if cold
  • One neutral scarf (cause I wear scarves)
  • One pair of strappy sandals or espadrilles that work with jeans or skirt
  • One pair of mary janes or close-toed shoes that work with jeans or skirt (espadrilles work if it’s not raining and in spring and fall I travel with comfortable street boots that work with dresses and pants)
  • One neutral colored dress that I could wear day or night, with scarf or blazer
  • Swim suit with a light weight dress I can pull over it if I leave the beach to have a drink at a café. Dress can also work as street wear on warm days.
  • One, two bra’s maximum. Enough underwear to go a few days without washing (always prepared to hand wash)
  • A super small travel-size umbrella
  • Some kind of a warm jacket/wind breaker for cool nights/days—that goes with all of the above.

André’s advice when traveling in France: follow the three plus one rule. He brings three changes of clothes plus one to wear while he’s washing and drying the other three pairs.

  • three plus one underwear
  • three plus one shirt (mostly t-shirts)
  • one light weight button down shirt and/or long sleeve
  • two well-cut jeans that work with t-shirts or a dressier button down
  • a casual, but tailored jacket that works over a button down or with t-shirts
  • a warm jacket/windbreaker
  • street sneakers and maybe a pair of leather shoes if planning on dining out at night in nicer restaurants
  • to note: even when the occasion calls for something dressier, André still wears jeans

 

Some blogs and videos on what to pack:

Tip: Wear all your outfits before packing them. Make sure they feel good and you like how they look. You’ll want to wear what helps you feel most like yourself (while keeping in mind local customs). Bottom line, if you’re an artsy dresser at home, bring your look to France. If you wear mostly jeans at home, pack your jeans. France is a big country, so you’ll notice different trends depending on where you are,  but for the most part, the French are known for their effortless style—understated, but chic. Here’s how the Condé Nast blogger below explains it:

It seems like tourists in Paris can be spotted from miles away. Why? Because they often trot around in their finest high heels and sparkly dresses, or they take the opposite route and wander around in their tracksuits and gym shoes—something a Parisian would never do. Leave that sparkly dress at home (unless you’re planning to visit during New Year’s Eve) and save the tracksuit for the gym or lounging at your hotel. Instead, go with a pair of nicely fitting pants. They are comfortable, stylish, and function very well with all the activities you’ll want to do while out and about.

Some blogs on how French women dress:

Some blogs with pointers for men:

 

Details to Consider

  • You don’t have to dress like the French, and you don’t have to follow anyone’s lead on dress. You can and should dress like yourself. It’s just that, from my experience, most people tend to feel self-conscious in a foreign environment. Having some tips on blending in tends to help with that. For a humorous account of an American feeling awkward in très chic France, read David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day.
  • If you read when you travel, bring only one book. Or bring a kindle. Don’t burden yourself with books (plural). You can always find English language books at book stalls in the markets and at book shops in town.
  • Don’t bring a lap top unless you must work. Limit yourself to a tablet or smart phone. Or, even better, unplug during your trip. Your memories will be more vivid that way.
  • Plan you personal toiletries well. Bring only essentials and things you can’t get in France.
  • Think simple. If you need an adapter for your phone charger, bring only one, the smallest one. You don’t need a choice of adapters, or a back up. You can find them here if something happens.
  • One area where you should think ahead is with over the counter drugs. In France everything comes from the pharmacy. Which means you can’t get aspirin at the grocery store, gas stations, convenient stores, etc. You don’t need a prescription for aspirin, but you have to ask for it from the pharmacist and you have to find a pharmacy—all a pain (literally) when all you want is relief. So bring a small pharmacy of essentials with you: aspirin, ibuprofen, Rolaids, whatever you may need.
  • With that said, be sure you have any prescription drugs you take, along with the prescription
  • If you wear glasses, consider bringing a second pair should something happen to them
  • Make sure any electronics you bring (blow dryer, shaver, etc) have dual voltage (able to operate equally on 110 or 220 volts). Or find a way to go without (I air dry my hair).
  • Mobile phones: check with your provider to see what services they offer for foreign travel. Some companies will mail you a special phone to take with you for your trip. If you have an unblocked phone, you can use a pay as you go plan in France. However, if your provider says they will “unblock” your phone for you, be leery. There are often problems getting the phone unblocked, and you won’t know if it worked until you get here…and it didn’t work. Ugh. Best to purchase a separate unblocked phone. Can usually find cheap options on ebay.