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A French vacation that was easy on the francs

This was the year we had planned to have a French vacation. And this was the year the franc dropped to around four to the dollar, and never rose much above that. Two years ago, when we spent a three-week vacation in France the franc was almost five to the dollar, and there had not been two years of double-digit inflation. Even then it was one of the most expensive countries in Europe.

We have just come back from another three-week stay in France. To our delight, we spent not quite 10 percent more than two years ago, and had at least 10 percent more fun. With some effort and imagination perhaps you will do even better.

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The cardinal rules still apply. Never travel during the season. That means during the summer. Always travel lightly, never more than two bags that can be handled without porters, bellhops, and a need for taxicabs. And to the fullest extent possible use drip and dry clothing.

The air fare has increased, but by checking plans such as Apex or french Vacances considerable savings can be realized.

Forget renting a car. The best bargain in Europe is the railroad. The French National Railway pass, which can be purchased in the US, is $200 for 15 days. It includes round-trip first-class transfer from one of the Paris airports to downtown Paris via either the Roissy- Rail or Orly-Rail -- a saving of $10. Also included are seven free days on the Paris metro and bus systems, a saving of $14, and free admission to the great new Pompidou Museum, a saving of for a couple) for up to about 60 miles of travel each day. But more important, you can travel first class, even on the famous high speed TEE trains, anywhere in France. Another bonus gives you special discounts on bus excursions run by the French railroads.

The railroad pass, alone, we conservatively estimated, saved us more than $ 300. And it made travel simpler and more restful.

Currency exchange can be unnecessarily costly. Buy your francs in France and whenever possible in a large bank. You can lose up to 10 percent if you exchange dollars at your hotel or a restaurant.

Hotel rates have risen considerably. In many cases the continental breakfast is no longer included. But rather than spend the $5 or more for the hotel breakfast, you can always find a nearby cafe where the croissants and beverage are half the price.

One advantage of traveling by railroad, unlike in America, is that you can always find good inexpensive hotels near the stations. For instance, in Paris, Strasbourg, Lyon, Toulouse, and Bordeaux we stayed in hotels either in or adjoining the stations, eliminating expensive taxicabs. At the same time we, were within walking distance of the center of the city or had access to public transportation.

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We always travel with a small transistor radio. It is fun to pick up the European stations and you do not have to worry about a hotel room with a radio or television. In mot cities you can easily pick up the Armed Forces Radio, Voice of America, or BBC.

Restaurants are not inexpensive in France. For lunch we often bought fruit, cheese, cold cuts, bread, and yogurt at a local market. That way we never felt extravagant having a few meals a week at a choice restaurant. Whatever the price, the meals at a Michelin-starred restaurant are always a worthwhile experience. As for tipping, gratuities are included in your bill. Do as most Europeans do, if you like the service, leave token tips, a few francs.

As for shopping, try to refrain. Most products are cheaper in the US. If you must have French perfumes, gloves, and similar luxury items, there are well-known establishments in Paris which give 25 percent discounts, plus forms for you to present at customs when you leave. The stores mail you back 15 percent (the value-added tax.) There is no local sales tax and the savings are in some cases over 50 percent of the local department store prices.

Just one last item. In lieu of postcards, say goodbye to your friends before you leave, and promise to show them your slides when you return. Airmail postal cards will cost you almost 3 francs a card (about 75 cents.) With a large family and many friends that can amount to the price of your first night in Paris. Or a meal at a three-starred restaurant!


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