12 Tips on How to Spend 6 Months in France without Going Broke
From the start, the math didn't add up.
My wife, Kathy, and I were headed to France for a half year. I'd be on a paid sabbatical, but Kathy was retiring, and we weren't ready to tap her Social Security. Even with our house rented at a discount, complete with our golden retriever, the basic addition looked daunting:
Overall income: Down 40 percent.
Basic expenses: Up at least $1,000 a month.
Outlook: A bit scary.
Still, this would be that "trip of a lifetime," so we didn't want to scrimp either. No hostel hopping. No sleeping in a VW van. No diet of sprouts and beans. (Though we may be in our 60s, The '60s ended long ago.)
Instead, we planned early and budgeted about $2,500 a month from retirement to cover what my income wouldn't. It still meant scaling back some plans. But, so far we're living within our means, and not feeling the least bit deprived.
So if daddy didn't leave you a trust fund, you itch to see the world and you favor long-haul travel with a dash of comfort, here are a dozen ways to make it happen:
Travel costs increase in direct proportion to the speed at which one moves. Gas alone in France, for example, costs nearly $9 a gallon. Trains are pricey, too. We chose to live in one place, Aix-en-Provence, a city of about 140,000 in the South of France, for five of our six months here, settling for occasional day trips out of town.
2. Rent with care:
It's one thing to weather a bad night on the road. It's quite another to hate coming home for months at a time. I began scouring rentals on sites such as homeaway.com, vrbo.com, airbnb and sabbaticalhomes.com a year before we left. We wanted someplace in easy walking distance of the old city, with an extra room for guests and work, and an outdoor patio. After carefully reading renter reviews, we choose a three-bedroom apartment on a quiet street (found on homeway.com, which unlike some services, doesn't charge renters).
The apartment isn't cheap -- about $1,775 a month now with a weak dollar. But it's less than smaller apartments in city center, and it comes with morning serenades by the local birds.
3. Avoid big cities:
Everyone loves Paris. We're no exception. But we chose Aix for its slower pace and more reasonable costs. It's a city with just about everything -- daily markets, movies, outdoor cafes, concerts, bookstores, scenic walks, good restaurants, a smattering of museums and squares that positively ooze ambiance. It also, usually, has plenty of sunshine. And all this at a fraction of what will tumble from your wallet every day in that city on the banks of the Seine. We'll spend a week in Paris and love it. But smaller cities are still plenty of fun.
4. Cancel everything you can before you leave home:
We shut down our phones, parked our cars, cancelled Netflix, a French-language TV station, my school parking space and newspapers. It adds up.
5. Get credit and debit cards that don't charge a fee:
Most cards tack on a three percent overseas transaction fee. Not Capitol One.
6. Keep track of daily expenditures:
This allows us to both check ourselves and reward ourselves. It takes little effort. I keep a running tally in a notebook I keep in my back pocket.
7. Eat out at lunch, not dinner:
One of the pleasures of life in France is the food. So although Kathy cooks most of our meals with the riches of the daily marketplace, we treat ourselves to a couple of meals out each week. On those occasions, we usually eat a big mid-day meal. The formule at many restaurants -- a main course, entrée or dessert, and a glass of wine -- is perhaps 50 or 60 percent the cost of an evening dinner. The portions are as large and the food just as good.
8. Look for little local places, too:
At Le Brun'ch, on Rue Portalis, the food is fresh and the language of choice French. A slice of quiche -- spinach, mushroom or the special of the day -- costs $3.20 and makes a lovely light lunch. Hungry? The plat du jour is $11. And a bottle of water sits on every table (You can always ask for "une carafe d'eau" in France. Don't pay for sparkling water.)
9. Leave the driving to others:
Being car-free makes us carefree. We have no parking costs. Pay no insurance or tolls. Buy no gas. We've already taken bus trips with our language school to Nice and the Luberon mountain towns of Provence. We've visited Marseille on our own and will again this weekend. The full-day bus trips cost us $35 each (gas, tolls, parking and rental would have been more). And the roundtrip fare to Marseille costs about $14.
As spring arrives, we'll need a car to do more research for my blog, slowlanetravel.com. We'll probably rent one for a couple of individual weeks and the month of June. But six weeks costs a lot less than six months. And we do not miss driving at all because we can walk everywhere.
10. Shut down your smart phone:
We call the States by Facetime or Skype. Email to email calls are free. For a pittance, you can buy a Skype "phone number" that allows friends and family at home to dial a local number to call overseas. For local calls, we've bought cheap phones for less than $40 each, and monthly phone cards that cost $28 each. The overall cost of calling anywhere in France is half of our monthly Verizon Wireless bill at home.
11. Trade off with friends who visit:
We have a simple rule for visitors. We'll house you and feed you if you rent a car. This gives us the chance to see more places off the beaten track when friends come to town.
12. Don't fritter; do reward yourself:
It's the little things that burn a hole in your wallet: The $5 you drop on coffee because you get it with cream, the $3.50 cokes you don't need if you carry a water bottle, the overpriced vendors in the market because you haven't comparison-shopped. Drink wine; it costs so much less. And be selective. For example, we went to a lovely free concert of Bach cantatas, but passed on $55 seats to the Mozart Requiem. I pay $10 for a weekly four-hour bridge game. We walked to the park where Paul Cezanne painted "Mont St. Victoire" for nothing.
But do reward yourself. Every so often, Kathy and I simply have to stop by Bechard for a pastry filled with whipped cream and fresh fruit. Yup. Each one costs $4.50. But you can't buy these in Boston. Anywhere. And without food, without wine, you might as well not be in France.