NORMANDY, FRANCE TRIP
My advice on taking a trip to France on a budget.
Omaha Beach, Normandy, France
Before planning any trip out of the US, make sure that you have given yourself no less than thirty (30) days to get a Passport purchased and delivered in time for your trip.
Have you ever suffered so bad from cabin fever that you actually felt like you were going to go mad? Well, that was me, but I wasn’t feeling claustrophobic from being in my home, I was feeling claustrophobic from being in my home—and town/state/country!
It had been so many years since I had gone on a real vacation. And, I hadn’t been overseas since I was fifteen years old. Something inside of me was absolutely stir-crazy; angry, almost, that everyone else seemed to be “living” while I was trapped in a life playing the same day over and over on repeat.
I had lamented to my MIL about how my husband and I had not taken a honeymoon and had been married for seven years and still never taken a vacation—at all—together. We are both self-employed in the construction and arts industry, which has taken a pretty big hit over the last ten years. So, we have just not had any extra funds to take vacations together.
And, I was feeling it!
So, my MIL presented us with a timeshare “coupon” that she had received after being talk into listening to a timeshare seminar. Now, granted, the timeshare “coupon” had been sold to my MIL as “free” accommodations to any of the company’s timeshare locations, which ended up not being true; but, we were grateful, none the less.
When we went online to find a place to visit, we looked for a tropical place, but every warm location had a $2,000+ up charge to book there. I was rather irritated about that. And, at first impression, I didn’t think that we could afford to pay for a hotel up charge, airline and food. So, we skipped all of those. At the end of our France trip, I decided that we may have spent the same amount had we done the tropical vacation because we would have spent the entire week sitting on a beach versus playing tourist, but I am happy that we made the choice that we made.
I finally applied a filter to the search so that I could only see the accommodations that were “free”. Out of over 500 choices, only three came back under that filter. All cold locations. Figured.
One of those was a small village in Normandy, France named Connelles, France. Since I took four years of French in high school and two years of French in college, I told my husband that I wanted to choose the France trip. After some shock and fear (he had never been to Europe), he conceded and we booked the hotel and flights. At the point of reservation, I did end up paying a little over 300 US dollars for the hotel, but I later checked to see what it would have been without our coupon and it would have been around $1,200 for the week. So, we did save money.
Map of Normandy, France. Connelles, France area circled in red.
WE SHOULD HAVE TAKEN A CHEAPER FLIGHT INTO ANOTHER AIRPORT AND THEN TAKEN THE TRAIN INTO PARIS OR TO CONNELLES.
My brother in law travels overseas a lot for work. His company is a French company. So, he is familiar with having to get in and out of France inexpensively. We should have talked to him before buying our plane tickets because he said that it is very expensive to fly into Paris, like we did. We were told that we should have flown into a different airport and taken a train to our final destination. Lesson learned, I guess. We will know better for our next trip (fingers crossed that I will get another trip!) We spent about $1800.00 per ticket round trip—and we went in January. I thought we could have found much cheaper tickets since we bought them in October, but we were so green. I will be much wiser the second time around.
My tips for flying to Europe would be:
Do not over pack your carry-on luggage. The people I spoke to on our flight who traveled regularly had one major thing in common: no “stuff”. I packed so much stuff into my carry-on thinking that I was going to get a ton of work done on the airplane, but I only used my ipad for a little while—and nothing else. I watched movies the majority of the flight. You are, seriously, packed in like sardines. Once my bag was under my seat, it was darn near impossible to pull it back out to get stuff in and out of it.
Wear comfortable clothing that does not constrict your bladder. I have poor circulation and prone to bladder infections when I wear constricting clothing while traveling. I wore yoga pants, of course, and that was nice. My husband wanted to wear jeans and I just did not think that he would be happy crammed in a tight seat with jeans on. It depends on your style, I guess.
Buy compression socks! If you swell when traveling, you will be so grateful to have these. My compression socks are one of my very best purchases.
Check for flights in neighboring cities or countries to find cheaper flights. This really might be well worth your time investigating. I am told that you can save hundreds of dollars flying into Germany and taking a train into France. You will have to let me know if this works out for you.
Arrive three hours before your flights departures. This might be a given to anyone who has traveled before, but if you are new to travel, like me, you need to know this. When we were flying home from Paris, we arrived 1 hour and 51 minutes before our flight was to depart and they said that we were 9 minutes late and had missed our flight. We begged and pleaded and was able to get on our plane, but it took all 111 minutes plus some to get checked in and go through security because the lines were soooo long; the plane, literally, had to be held for us. So, there is a REAL reason that they say that. Be early. Give yourself three hours!
Go to your airlines website and review all of the allowed and not-allowed items on your flight. I did great on the trip from the US to France, but I did everything wrong going from France back to the US. They wanted me to remove ALL liquids and put them in a bin and I didn’t; they wanted all of my camera equipment taken out and put in a bin and I didn’t; I brought sand from the beaches and packed it in the bottom of my suitcase, which had to be emptied and inspected…it was an absolute mess. Don’t be me.
I have a dear friend who lives in Belgium and is quite the world traveler. And, she is a professional packer. It probably helps that she is a size 00. So, her clothes are so much tinier than mine, but that girl can pack so much stuff into such a small suitcase! Me? I do not do so well. I tried to use her as an example and did pack far less than I would have had I not been very mindful of everything I packed. Actually, I folded and stacked my clothes in my room by the day of the week…and, I did all of this about one month before I left. This helped me because it eliminated emotional packing. I am the person who packs tons of stuff last minute because I start to fear that I will get to my location and not have what I needed.
Also, with thyroid disease (Hypothyroidism), I can get very, very cold. So, I was watching the weather in France, and if we had a day of similar temps in my home state, I would wear the clothes that I planned for France to make sure that I had enough layers and that clothes would be comfortable and warm enough to walk outdoors in under cold and wet weather conditions.
I am kind of anal about things. Can you tell?
Where this system came in super handy is that there were soooo many things that I would take out of my stacks and put back. Even with what I chose to keep, I over packed, a little. So, it was a good system for me.
Of course, when the weather is warmer, your clothes get smaller and thinner and your shoes get smaller and lighter, as well. So, packing gets overall easier and lighter.
But, the popular months to travel are during the warmer months and as a consequence, all expenses go up, as well—and its much more crowded! So, it is a trade off.
My tips for packing for a trip like ours would be:
Check the weather for your destination and imagine how you dress at home when it is the same temperature/weather. We have very similar weather at home as they do in Normandy. So, I was able to plan for being outside for hours in the same cold, wet weather as we were about to experience overseas.
If you are going somewhere cold, invest in “thermal” undergarments (silver on the inside). I went to Columbia Clothing and bought their thermal undergarments and wore the shirt everyday and the legging pants when I was going to be outside in the wind, such as when we were at the beach. Then, I just layered over those for great comfort.
Pack lightweight, workhorse shoes. I bought some Chaco ® boots that were AMAZING. They were so comfortable and extremely lightweight. I bought wool hiking socks to wear with them. My feet were so happy with me. I packed another pair of boots, as well, from another well known company. They are heavy leather with buckles and big zippers. They weighed my suitcase down and weighed my feet down when I was out trying to walk for hours on end. They are gorgeous boots that I paid nearly $300 for, but I regretted packing them and had considered leaving them in Europe a time or two. Haha.
Leave plenty of room for bringing souvenirs home. I thought that I had left room to bring things home for everyone, but I ended up finding a pretty amazing winter coat while in Rouen for myself. That is a pretty bulky purchase. Plus, we bought clothes, bottles of wine, Calvados and more. Our suitcases were busting at the seams on our way home.
Use and take a suitcase scale with you. Suitcase scales are easy and inexpensive to buy online. Buy one and check the weight of your suitcases before arriving to the airport. You do not want to wait until you arrive to the airport to find out if your suitcase is over the limit or not. My big mistake was to think that keeping my suitcase 20 pounds under the limit was sufficient to allow for our souvenirs. So, I left my scale sitting on the dresser at home and my suitcase was over the limit when I checked in in Paris for home. That was a mistake that cost me $100. I will never do that again—ever!! What was even worse was that we packed all of the heavy bottles in my suitcase. If I had known that my suitcase was over the limit back at the hotel, I could have transferred some of the weight over to my husbands suitcase and we would have been fine.
Print off all your reservation confirmations, as well as, taking screenshots of everything. Unless you pay extra with your phone carrier, you will not have internet access until you are in a location with WiFi; And, you will not always be able to count on every location having WiFi. It is just smart travel to have back up’s to everything, anyway. I would even say that it would be wise for every traveler in your group to have copies of reservation confirmations in case you lose yours or you get separated.
Buy an RFDI wallet to protect yourself. I bought a large one that was more like a clutch for myself and my husband. I liked it because it could fit my passport and credit cards and cash in it. My husband didn’t like having something that large. So, it usually ended up in my backpack, but I loved mine and still use it now. You can buy smaller ones for picky fellas. My Belgian friend had her credit card information stolen when she was traveling to the US. Someone had charged over $1500 on her credit card before she even realized it had been stolen. So, it is a serious thing to consider!
I packed a handful of extra Ziplock ® bags of various sizes. I wasn’t sure why I was packing them. All of my liquids were already double bagged. But, I swear that I used them all for our trip home. I was so proud of myself for grabbing those.
Pack clothes that you can wear over and over or combine a few items for multiple outfits. This has been the advice of world travelers since I can remember, but it takes me a long time to “get it”. I tried to pack a different outfit for each day, but I found myself wearing only a handful of the most comfortable clothes that I packed. I would even hand wash my yoga pants and bralettes, give them a day to dry and wear them again. So, I could have really packed a lot fewer clothes. When you are all bundled up in winter coats and buried in scarves and hats and gloves, who cares what you are wearing underneath, really.
Pack a back up backpack. I was at the checkout at the Columbia store and this was in a bin near the register. So, it was one of those impulsive buys that turned out to be a really great investment. This thing is super lightweight and folds up to be super small; I, literally, used it every single day at one point or another. It saved me so many times! Even my very manly husband wore my polka dot bag! Haha.
IT IS EASIER TO PACK FOR WARM WEATHER MONTHS, BUT THE TRIP GETS MORE EXPENSIVE DURING THE SUMMER.
TRAVELING THROUGH NORMANDY
Traveling through Normandy was interesting, to say the least. Boy, was I naive about what we were capable of—and I am glad that I was. I gave my French way too much credit, as well. It is one thing to know French while living safely in the US where your own language is spoken than to go to France where everything is in French.
I decided that we would just rent a car and drive all over France. What was I thinking? Haha.
We picked up our car from the airport, which was my first real French speaking experience outside of the states. I was quickly learning that I was not as conversational as I thought that I was (I mean, it has been ten years since I was in college). We rented our car—which we ended up going with an automatic, thank God. My husband and I both know how to drive manual transmission cars, but that would have been quite a handful on top of trying to figure out a completely different country’s roadways and signs and language. Whoa.
Luckily, and something that completely saved our lives, is that the rental car fella programmed our cars GPS in English and taught us how to put in addresses (our cars are old and do not have the GPS screens. So, we have only ever used our phones for directions, but without internet, we couldn’t do that). I had planned on using the old school map method to criss-cross all of Normandy; I would not have survived. I have no idea what I was thinking, at all. There are so many one-ways everywhere!!!
But, at the end of the trip, I am so grateful for that car. It offered us so much freedom. Even the receptionist at our hotel commended us for being so adventurous. He said that a lot of people insist on being picked up from the airport and then just stay at the hotel and miss out on seeing the beautiful country. There was no way that I was going to do that, at all. I had one week and I wanted to see as much as I possibly could.
If you considered renting a car in France, here are my first impressions and things that I would suggest:
The structure of the roadways are different than the US. At first, this scared me. I got out onto the autoroute (interstate) and the signs were all so different and there were no sides to the road to pull off and people drove sooooo fast. But, if you just take a moment to think intuitively, you can quickly figure out their system and how they have the roads and turn offs structured.
The speeds are not in miles per hour. This was odd to me at first. Obviously, they are in kilometers per hour. So, we could drive from 90-130 kilometers per hour. It just felt weird getting the car up to 130 kph even though that is only 80 mph.
There are very, very few gas stations. The area that we were in (and maybe it is all of Europe) was not commercialized with fast food restaurants and gas stations. Luckily, their vehicles get amazing gas mileage. My advice is just to keep an eye on your tank and fill up when you see a gas station!
There were a ton of toll roads. Thankfully, my mom gave me a bunch of left-over change in Euros before we left. So, as soon as we drove off from the airport we hit an unexpected toll booth. The toll booth caused us a lot of anxiety because we went into the wrong lane to begin with. Their toll booths are like ours and they have lanes for credit cards, cash and passes. I hadn’t learned the French for those terms. So, I was totally lost and confused and scared. Luckily, we got stuck in a lane that had no cars behind us and we clicked on the help button for assistance. The assistant didn’t speak English, but they were able to decipher what I was trying to say enough to get us backed up and into the correct lane. That was a high stress moment. I would look up foreign toll booths online to see what they look like, if I was doing it over—but how would I have known?
Know your street signs. Again, my French was not as good as I thought that it was. I was out of practice and very rusty. I could not identify any of the street signs except ‘Stop’. If I could do that over again, I would have looked up French street signs, printed them off, laminated them, and taped them to the dashboard of the car. That would have saved me tons of anxiety, for sure.
Do not get pulled over. I don’t know what would happen, but that is just it; what happens if you get a speeding ticket in a foreign country?
Know how to drive through a multi-laned roundabout. I live in a small town that got a one lane roundabout about a year ago and the entire town was up in arms over it. No one knew how to properly use it. Change doesn’t go over very well here, to begin with. So, I get to France and there are roundabouts, literally, everywhere! And with three or more lanes! There is definitely a right and a wrong way to use a roundabout. There are several videos to show you how to use one properly. I have included two that you can view. I hope that this helps!
We were smart and chose not to drive into Paris with our car. I drove in Rouen more than once, which our hotel receptionist said was more brave than trying to drive through Paris, but I didn’t feel like I wanted to tackle Paris, too. I am so glad that we didn’t. Instead, we drove to a local train station, bought tickets and rode an hour into Paris. It relieved so much stress. After a long day of running around Paris, I was able to board the train and sleep for the hour trip back to our car—which was a lifesaver!
Traveling by train was so easy. There is an app that you can download on your phone named OMIO. You can find your departure station and destination station and purchase tickets right from your phone. It was so convenient. You can, also, go to their website to buy tickets at OMIO.com
FOOD IN NORMANDY, FRANCE
This was not as easy or as glamorous as one might expect when traveling to France—at least for us. My husband is a very picky eater and had decided that even though he was in Europe, he was going to only eat American food. I was trying to maintain my keto lifestyle. So, I was doing all that I could to resist the breads and sweets while also being determined to savor the culture.
My husband won out until our very last day in Europe (which was not well appreciated by me), but I could not resist the fresh pasteries that we had delivered to us each morning. After two days, I thought “why I am doing this to myself? I can do this at home. Live. Enjoy life!”
Here, you will see me with my first french baguette of the trip. My eyes are still bloodshot from the jet lag—which is real, folks.
We took an interesting trip to the grocery store in our area to find some items to take with us in the car so that my husband didn’t struggle so much (he wouldn’t eat anywhere. He wasn’t much fun in this area). The grocery stores are so different from ours. There are few, if any, chips or soda or sweets (which my husband lives on). And, I never did see any microwave meals. There were aisles and aisles of cheeses and butchered meats. To eat here, you need a full kitchen. Nothing quick in these parts! The above items are all that we left the store having bought.
This was the breakfast that I tried to maintain while in Europe…for, like, two days. I would eat eggs or cheese and meats while my husband stuffed himself on the most amazingly soft and fresh pasteries, literally, baked that morning. I finally gave in and savored the bread life for the remainder of the week that we were there!
One of the many lessons that we learned on this trip was that you are not to wait for your check, or it will never come. You have to specifically ask for your check: “L’addition, s’il vous plait”
Servers make a very good income, unlike in the United States. You either do not tip at all or You tip a small amount ONLY if you were especially happy with your meal and service.
Day 1/ Jan. 5: Flew into Paris. Rented car. Drove to hotel. Slept.
Day 2/ Jan. 6: Visited Omaha Beach and Utah Beach
Day 3/ Jan. 7: Spent the day in Rouen and visited the Normandy American Cemetery.
Day 4/ Jan. 8: Drove to Mont Saint Michel
Day 5/ Jan. 9: Took the train to Paris. Visited the Louvre.
Day 6/ Jan. 10: Took the train to Paris. Visited Les Invalides, The Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur in the Montmatre area of Paris.
Day 7/ Jan. 11: Went shopping in Rouen.
Day 8/ Jan 12: Woke up and drove to Paris airport. Returned rental car. Flew home.
U.S. HISTORY LESSON WHILE IN FRANCE
I cannot even imagine what WWII must have been like for anyone involved: soldiers, parents or spouses of soldiers. Our history books would be so very different if we were not the benevolent country that we are and chose to be allies with Europe in the fight against Hitler. There are Normand homes, near the coast, that still fly French and American flags on the outside of their homes in gratitude for the victory won so many years ago.
The stereotype is that of Frenchmen being very rude and arrogant, and that just is not the case. Even as our news stations are feeding us with news that President Trump is hated around the world, we did not experience that either—quite the opposite, actually.
Traveling outside of the United States as an adult has given me great pride and appreciation of my own country and for the men whose lives have been sacrificed for the riches that I get to enjoy, today.
Words have no place here. You can only feel. The sober reality of the gruesome battle fought along these waters is overwhelming.
NORMANDY AMERICAN CEMETERY
This is an absolute must see. So many high schools around the United States plan trips for the students to Paris for French class or others. Why the D-Day beaches and these American cemeteries are not at the top of field trip itineraries, I will never know! I want all of the men in my family to see this place. If I had the money, I would see to it that my entire family had the opportunity to walk through this part of Normandy. If you are a homeschool family with money to travel—go here with your children!
I have so much pride for our country after walking among these thousands and thousands of gravestones; so many mothers who lost their sons.
As a mom of five boys, I cannot even imagine the cost of such a sacrifice.
ROUEN, NORMANDY, FRANCE
This is the site where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. It was a bit surreal.
Rouens Astronomical clock, which sits above the Rue du Gros-Horloge, is a significant tourist attraction. It is listed as a historic monument.
Unfortunately, I had not read anything about it and only took an image of it because I, personally, thought that it was beautiful.
I wish that I had read some history on it prior to our visit so that I could have taken in its beauty a little more versus just passing underneath.
I didn’t get a lot of images with my actual camera on this day, and I am not sure why, but I did get some. I know that after walking the beaches with all of my camera gear, I started to really suffer from back pain that just wouldn’t go away. So, maybe I was a little sore—I cannot remember.
Visiting Rouen was my husbands first time seeing a Gothic cathedral. And, boy, The one in Rouen is the one to see first; however, all cathedrals pale in comparison to this one, after.
That is one thing that we left Europe thinking: there are cathedrals on every corner here! Then, you have to think about the economics of that time period and the effects that such architecture would have on the “commoners”. It isn’t so beautiful to think of that.
MONT SAINT MICHEL
It was such a drizzly, foggy, gray day when we visited Mont St. Michel. I was so sad because I intended to take some amazing images and everything ended up so flat. Even with the poor weather, you can see why this is such a breathtaking architectural marvel! With my interior design degree, I just walked around in shock at what could be created so very long ago and still exist today. And, the engineering! I had a builder once tell me that I could not lay stone from Jerusalem on a suspended floor (a second level floor) because of the weight, yet, this structure has, in some areas, three levels of stone flooring—without any sagging or cracking! Old world architecture just makes my heart so happy.
Mont Saint Michel was about a two and a half hour drive from our hotel/village. It was days like this that I was so very grateful that we had rented a car. There was so much flexibility and freedom in having our own vehicle.
PARIS DAY ONE: LE LOUVRE
These were my first views of the Eiffel Tower! You aren’t really in Paris until you see her reaching into the sky! Luckily, we had a little bit of a blue sky on this day; but, it didn’t last for long.
Above is the pyramid designed by the famous architect I.M. Pei, who just recently passed away.
On this day, my back was hurting me so bad. I cannot even tell you…I was miserable. I don’t even know how I made it through the day. I am just so grateful that there weren’t more people to crowd through the museum with.
TIPS FOR VISITING THE LOUVRE
Plan several days for just the museum, if you intend to see it all. We, literally, stayed at the Louvre all day and didn’t even see half of it. If you only have one day, go online and look up a map before visiting and decide what you want to see. Then, just go to the pieces that you absolutely must see, first.
Wear very comfortable shoes. You will be doing a lot of walking.
If you are there into the evening, find an upstairs window and view the Eiffel Tower! It is so gorgeous!!
PARIS DAY TWO: LES INVALIDES, LA TOUR EIFFEL, NOTRE DAME, SACRE-COEUR, AND MONTMATRE
Les Invalides, The military museum which houses the tomb of Napolean and several other siginificant military greats.
The views of Paris from The Eiffel Tower
The gold dome of Les Invalides and Sacre-Coeur sitting atop Montmatre.
We are so lucky that we were even able to make it to the observation deck of the Eiffel Tower. My son visited during the summer and the line was so long that going up was not even a consideration.
We had about a 45 minute wait to go up, but we can now say that we were in the Eiffel Tower together and were able to see the views of Paris!
Most of Normandy was closed down for the winter; all of the tourist sites were closed until the spring, which was very unfortunate, but it was things like this that made being in France in the winter alright!
Below are images of Notre Dame. We were there the second week of January 2019 and then it caught fire just last month, in May 2019. My husband started texting me throughout the day showing me images of it in full flames. This was my second time to see Notre Dame and my husbands first time. So, I am glad that we were able to see it in its original glory before it experienced this devastating fire!
Next, we climbed Montmartre to see Sacre-Coeur. This is one place that I had never been in the Paris area. So, this was a first for both my husband and myself. The view from Montmartre is amazing. It is a must see!!
Below is an image of the Eiffel Tower from atop Montmartre in front of Sacre-Coeur. Isn’t it gorgeous? Even with the gray skies it is quite a great site!
If traveling through Paris using the metro system, I highly recommend downloading a copy of the metro map and practicing your routes. Here is a link to a map that can be downloaded: Paris Metro Map
This is my best way of explaining how the metro works. I am from the country and do not live near any cities that have subways. So, this is not second nature to me. The first few times looking at the map scared me and had me completely confused. But, after studying it for a little bit, I was able to to see the system and see how it worked. This is how it worked, for me. I have only illustrated two crossing lines, but there are so many lines that the map looks like a bowl of spaghetti. Just take this explanation and try to interpolate it to the busy, messy map in the link above.
Okay, so after all of that, here is the financial bottom line:
AIRLINES: Two roundtrip tickets……………………………………………………..……………..………@$2,800.00
CASH: We ordered $600 US dollars of Euros that were securely mailed to our home…………………………………………………………….$600.00
CREDIT CARD CHARGES: All other expenses…………………………………………….…………………………....$2,800.00
I used my Mastercard credit card that could be used internationally while in Europe. I was not able to use any of my bank cards there or, even, my Discover card. So, I used my Mastercard everywhere possible and saved our cash for emergencies. We did use the cash from time to time. So, we didn’t have all of it on the last day, but on the last day in Normandy, we used the last of our cash to use it up.
We shopped in Rouen for ourselves and the kids and spent about $500 on my credit card. But, other than that splurge, we only used our cash and credit for entry fees to tourist attractions, food, gasoline, train fees, hotel charges, and rental car. We didn’t spend money on anything that we absolutely didn’t have to purchase or pay for.
The car rental, $500 splurge purchases, and hotel came to about $1,500 of the credit card expenses. So, the remainder $1,300 was all of the other expenses, including seven lunches and dinners for the week.
It adds up so fast!
I hope that all of this information was interesting and helpful. If yu have any questions, add them in the comment section and I will try to answer quickly! I hope that you get to experience France soon. If so, let me know what you thought of it.
All photographs on this blog are the property
of the author, J.B. Tols
©J.B. Tols 2019