The basics

Money

A member of the European Union, France uses the Euro, divided into 100 cents.

Credit and debit cards are widely accepted although smaller merchants may deal only in cash. France uses EMV or smart-chip cards, which cut down on fraud. Many other countries have already adopted the system. U.S. credit card companies are expected to have replaced 70% of their magnetic strip cards by the end of 2015. Check your card's status and see if you can be issued a smart-chip card before you travel. The magnetic cards are accepted in France - generally - but transactions are smoother with smart cards. At train stations, credit transactions may have to be made at the ticket window as machines accept only French cards.

Transaction fees for credit and debit cards vary. Determine costs before you go. Also alert your company about your travel plans or you might find the card rejected. Play it save and travel with more than one card. Sometimes one works when the other doesn't.

ATMs available almost everywhere and accept most debit cards although American Express holders may have to find an AmEx office to withdraw cash. Some kiosks require a PIN number with the smart-chip card.

Languages

French is the national language and the national pride. You'll get farther if you master even a few phrases like "l'addition si vous plait" (the check, please). Many hotels in tourist areas like Paris, the Riviera and along the Atlantic and Channel coasts have multi-lingual staff, and English is a common language among many tourists. 

Geography & Culture

The Romans, who left behind viaducts, arenas, baths and buildings, knew France as part of "Gaul." Before it was France, it was two distinct regions - one in the south and one in the north - whose differences in language, geography, culture and some would say temperament linger even today.

After Paris, the most popular tourist destinations for both the French and foreigners are the Alps, the French Riviera, the Atlantic beaches near the Spanish border and the English Channel coastline. Some of the most famous destinations outside of Paris are Mont St. Michel, the Loire Valley chateaux, the Bayeux Tapestry, Carcassonne and cathedrals at Amiens, Chartres, Reims and Rouen. Major urban destinations are Toulouse in the southwest, Nice and Marseilles in the south and Lyon in the southeast. The Pyrenees and the Alps lure hikers and skiers, according to season.

Best gay destinations outside Paris are Nice, the gay capital of the Riviera, and Montpellier (where the country's first gay marriage took place), a university town farther west along the Mediterranean coast. In the southwest, visit Toulouse with a well-established LGTBQ community and Biarritz, the elegant seaside resort on the Atlantic with an active gay life.

The gay scene is expanding everywhere. In the countryside you'll find gay clubs in full swing until the wee hours, often miles from the nearest village. The French cruise on gay and nude beaches (St. Tropez being the most famous) and in public forests.

Travel tips

Be A French Flirt

Flirting is a national pastime, or should we say art? But it's seduction through the eyes. Le regard, the French call it, a look with an electric charge. So when you see a stranger across a crowded room or even passing on the street, don't flash a toothy smile to test the waters. Establish discrete eye contact with a touch of mystery and see if it's reciprocated. The French do it all the time, everywhere, just for practice.

Say Cheese!

You have never tastes French cheese until you've eaten it in France - and that include the old favorites brie, camembert, roquefort. Try the real thing in the home country and branch out into regional specialties as you travel. France has nearly 400 cheeses made from the milk of cows, goats and sheep. They are classified as soft, semi-soft, hard and bleu, but taste often varies according to the age of the cheese, going from creamy to pungent as in the little croutons (patties) of chèvre (goat).

Just Add Water

Pastis - not champagne - is France's national drink although it has only been sold commercially since 1932, some years after the heady spirit absinthe was banned. The anise-flavored apéritif is 40-45 percent alcohol and is diluted with water before drinking. The suggested ratio is one part Pastis, five parts water. Yes, it is supposed to turn all milky. Drink anytime except with meals.

Skip The Upgrade

When renting a car, decline an upgrade - even if free. A bigger car is harder to maneuver through narrow streets in medieval cities, harder to squeeze into a parking spot and uses more gas. Also, skip the extras - like an automatic transmission - which can add up to 50% to your rental and limit your choice of model. Most cars in France have manual shifts.

Gay Gallic Carnival

You don't have to go to Rio or Panama to celebrate Carnival in fine style. "Lou Queernaval" - France's first gay carnival - celebrates its second anniversary on 19 February with dancing, live bands, traditional floats and lots of glitter. It's part of the larger Nice Carnival with enough auxiliary LGBTQ activities to keep you busy all week.

Transportation

France has Europe's second largest rail system, operated by SNCF, the national railway company. Buying a ticket used to be straightforward, but shopping options have multiplied, including flexible, semi-flexible, advance/no reservations and last minute. SNCF and Voyages SNCF websites are easily navigated and SNCF apps help plan trips.

The most famous French train is the high-speed TGV with service in France and to London, Switzerland, Germany and Spain, but all tracks radiate out of the Paris hub rather than across the country. French Railways also operates the separate Ouigo, a budget TGV service. Trains leave from the Marne-la-Vallée station inside Disneyland about 19 miles east of the capital. Ouigo serves the southeast with international connections to Brussels and London. Reserve on the Ouigo website.

In addition, the French have high-speed long-distance express trains called Intercités, some requiring reservations and some not. Overnight trains like Le Train Bleu between Paris and Nice have first- and second-class "couchettes," simple padded bunks. Train Expres Regionaux serving smaller communities are less standardized but offer affordable tickets without reservations.

Many routes are also scenic, particularly across the Massif Central range of long-extinct volcanoes in south-central France. Tourist trains and heritage lines and steam lines will also be of interest to rail buffs.

France has an excellent generally hassle-free road system unless you get stuck behind a "caravan" (camper) on a two-lane road or in the traffic snarl around Paris at the beginning or end of holiday periods. Autoroute toll roads are a speedy way to travel distances, mostly in north-south directions. Routes are indicated by "A" for Autoroute, "N" for national road, "D" for local or Departmental roads and "bis" for an alternate route with fewer trucks. Better to follow the signs indicating destination than route numbers. Speed limits are 130 km/hr on the autoroutes, 110 km/hr on divided highways, 90 km/hr on main roads and 50 km/hr otherwise. Mobile radar and unmarked police cars are increasing employed.

Gasoline is sold by the liter (a gallon = 3.79 liters), cheaper at supermarket pumps. If you rent a car, consider diesel for economy. Car rental agencies are at airports, many railroad stations and in city centers. 

Until 2015, few inter-city buses operated in France aside from international routes passing through or some interregional lines, but new services have been developing quickly. Interregional buses around Provence and the Cote d'Azul are a good option. Cities, including Paris, have bus systems and often offer special passes.

Air France, the national airline, flies out of both Paris-Charles de Gaulle and Paris-Orly. Caution: Confirm airport as well as flight. Air France's low-cost regional subsidiary Hop! flies to some 50 destinations in France and Europe from Orly. XL Airways France has flights from Paris (mostly Charles de Gaulle) to the Caribbean, North Africa, North America, Turkey and some European countries. Many other international and regional lines also serve France, over 150 at Charles de Gaulle alone. France has 155 airports in all. Paris-Le Bourget, the city's original airport, is now only for business jets and air shows.