Handy tips on tipping customs, shopping hours, restaurant etiquette, taxi and transport, and more
One should perhaps not take too seriously rules about how to behave. On the other hand, it can be dangerous to be totally ignorant about local customs and traditions when travelling in a foreign country. So here are a few half serious, half light-hearted tips about how things work in France. What are the French customs for tipping? How do you get a taxi? What should you do and not do in a restaurant or a café to get the best service? Etcetera.
But take it with a pinch of salt.
Tipping in France
Tipping in France is entirely optional, but can be done if service is good.
Tipping in restaurants
You are not obliged to tip in restaurants in France. Tipping is always included in the prices on the menu. Nevertheless, it is not uncommon to tip, especially if service and/or food have been good. But you won’t be frowned upon if you don’t tip.
How much to tip depends of course on the total amount on the bill. You would normally tip well less than 10%. But it would, of course, be nice to avoid ridiculously small tips.
Tipping in cafés and bars
You are not obliged, not even expected, to tip in a café/bar but doing so is of course appreciated. For a coffee at the counter you can tip one or two small copper coins, 5 ct, 10 ct, 20 ct (a coffee standing at the bar costs ~1.30 euro). Or not. For other drinks other sums of course.
Tipping in taxis
You typically don’t tip in a taxi. You can if you want. Rounding up to a “convenient” total can be good, if service is good, of course. (NB: see the taxi advice also.)
Tipping in hotels
Typically, hotels in France don’t have porters. Only very luxurious ones do. You can tip a few euros but are not obliged (as a function of the cost of the room of course).
Almost everyone takes Visa (and MasterCard).
Fewer merchants and restaurants take American Express but it is becoming more and more common, but travelling in France with only AmEx would be difficult.
What they charge to the credit card is always exactly what it says on the bill. You cannot put tips on the card and you cannot ask a shop to charge more to your card than what you bought in order for you to get some cash.
Using credit cards is very safe in France. Today all restaurants have mobile terminals that they bring to your table, except a few where they ask you to come to the counter.
Restaurants and restaurant etiquette
All restaurants have a menu outside so that you can see what they offer. It is either the full menu (often) or a sample. It’s required by law.
Except in the very, very cheapest restaurants, you would always wait to be seated by a waiter. You don’t just walk in and sit down, that’s very rude. (Even for outside seating.) As always, there are exceptions.
Many restaurants have fixed price menus in addition to the “à la carte” menu. It is often very good value. The fixed price menu is called “un menu”, as opposed to à la carte.
A traditional extensive gourmet French meal has four phases: 1) starter, 2) main course, 3) cheese, 4) dessert. You’re of course not expected always to eat all that in a restaurant. You can have just a main. Having only a starter or a cheese or a dessert would be frowned upon unless you’re with some company. (But why deprive yourself?) A starter and desert would be quite OK though.
French people cannot eat without having a bread basket on the table. So there will always be one, from the start until the end of the cheese. It is usually fresh and very good. But you do not put butter on the bread, so there won’t be any on the table. There’s no extra charge for the bread. A Frenchman would not start eating until the bread comes on the table. On the other hand, and in contrast to habits in some countries, bread is not put on the table before your food arrives as something for you to nibble upon while waiting.
You often automatically get a carafe of water on the table (or you can ask for one), un carafe d’eau. This is plain tap water. You can also buy still mineral water (eau plate) or sparkling (eau gazeuse or eau pétillante). Or avec ou sans bulles.
If you want coffee after the meal you get it after the meal. French never, never, never serve coffee with the dessert. Normally you would have a café express (espresso). It is very odd to have a café au lait, or even worse, a cappuccino after a meal. If you order a cappuccino you might get a coffee with whipped cream with cinnamon on top. Or you might get what you expect.
You usually have to ask for the bill (l’addition). Curiously that is often the item that takes the longest time to arrive on the table. It would be very rude of the waiter to bring you the bill without you having asked for it (unless he’s going off shift) so you do have to ask for it. There are exceptions of course.
You cannot add tips on to the credit card charge if you pay with plastic. If you want to tip you have to do it in cash. However, you can without a problem split a bill on several cards. Just tell them how you want it split, e.g. 50/50 or specific amounts on each card.
If you split the bill people usually avoid squabbling about who had what to get the exact sums right and instead take the easier option of just splitting it into even parts or doing some rough sums.
It is good manners to say hello (or bonjour or bonsoir) when you arrive and goodbye (au revoir) when you leave.
It is actually a general rule, if you speak to a stranger, be it in a restaurant or on the street, that you must say bonjour first. Even if you, for example, are just asking a policeman for road directions. Not saying bonjour is very rude.
Restaurant opening hours
Lunch hours are usually between 12.00 and 14.00.
In the evening, restaurants usually open at 20.00 (sometimes 19.30, especially in smaller cities and in the countryside). Time is counted in the 24-hour system in France. But saying “8 o’clock in the evening” instead of à vingt heures works too. If you have an “emergency” you can usually find some (e.g. near a train station or tourist district) that has service all day long.
French food is, of course, the best in the world. Joking aside, food plays a very important role in France. You can still find many open-air markets where people shop for food, but even in supermarkets the food range and quality is often impressive.
In French food, it is the basic ingredients that play the leading role. Compared to some other food cultures (e.g. Scandinavian or American) French put less spices on the food and much less salt. Marinating meat is unusual. This is because the ingredients themselves (for example the meat) are of good quality and it is their own flavours that should be emphasised and not be covered in excessive spicing and salt.
This sometimes leads to that foreigners can think French food lacks in “flavours”. This is a mistake. In fact, the food is cooked to bring out the delicate and delicious flavours of the ingredients. Adding a spicy barbecue sauce or too much spices and salt would be like putting too much makeup on or body-building with steroids. Not good.
The chef has created the food for you, according to how he thinks best. You often have to ask for salt and pepper in more luxurious restaurants.
Tap water is perfectly safe to drink. It never ceases to amaze us how often we get that question. French tap water has been potable for ages.
Coffee in France
There are many different types of coffee in France.
Café au lait, café crème: coffee with hot milk in, served in a big cup. Au lait and crème is usually the same thing. Something you drink in the morning. Made with a café express and steamed milk. If you want to underline that you are an ignorant tourist you can ask for a caffè latte…
Café express or just express: nowadays also often referred to as espresso (these Italians!). A small and strong black coffee.
Café allongé, or sometimes café americain / americano: an express with extra water. An “elongated” coffee.
Café noisette: An express with a little dash of milk in. It has nothing to do with hazelnuts, except for the colour. Similar to café macchiato (Italy) or café cortado (Spain).
Cappuccino: does not exist in France, but being intelligent people the French have accepted that foreigners sometimes ask for it. You might get what you are hoping for but you might also get a coffee topped with whipped cream with cinnamon sprinkled on top (admittedly less common today than what it used to be).
Morning coffee: It is often (at home) served in a bowl, lots of coffee with warm milk in. Or just an express…
After dinner / lunch coffee: in France, you often finish your meal with a coffee but it is a small express. Having a coffee with milk after dinner is odd, although they understand that foreigners sometimes want it.
Déca or café décaféiné: decaffeinated. Quite common.
Etiquette in a café
You don’t have to wait to be seated in a café (except in really posh ones, you’ll know if it is), as opposed to in a restaurant.
There are three distinct “zones” in a café: 1) standing at the counter, 2) seated inside, 3) seated outside. Each zone often has different prices as well as different waiters. Therefore you do not (really not!) buy your coffee or beer at the counter and then go and sit down. You will not make friends with the waiters if you do.
When you have finished your glass or your coffee cup the waiter will not clear it from the table until you leave. It would be considered very rude if he did. It is a kind of marker showing that you have had a drink and you can sit there and enjoy the view and life as long as you like. You are certainly not expected to leave as soon as you have finished your drink.
You usually have to ask for the bill (l’addition) to get it.
Taxi in France
You can hail a taxi on the street or take one at a taxi stand. Or call for one. There may in some cases be a surcharge (compared to the initial fee shown on the meter) for two suitcases or more, or for train stations or airports. (But not always.) This is not a case of the driver trying to rip you off; it is just how the pricing is defined. The rules are usually posted on one of the back-seat car windows. The extra charge is usually added at the very end, on top of the meter charge for the distance and time.
Taxis don’t always take four persons. If they do, there may be a surcharge for the fourth person. Be sure to mention that you are four if you call or pre-order. Passengers normally sit in the rear (up to three). If you want to sit in front, do ask the driver first. It often functions as his/her office.
Important: Most taxis still only take cash, no credit card. If you want to pay with a card, make sure you say so when you call for the taxi or check before you step in.
See also the separate section on tipping.
Alternatives to taxi
There are several taxi alternatives in France and they generally work well.
Uber exists in many cities. There are also some other similar services: LeCab.fr, AlloCab.fr, Kapten.fr and some others. They have the advantage, compared to Uber, that they allow you to book a car in advance (Uber does not). Pricing can be quite different so you might want to check the different services for your specific ride if you are going far. They generally work very well and are reliable.
Shops usually open at 9.30 or 10.00 and close at 19.00 or 19.30. Sometimes there is a lunch break between 13.00 and 14.00 (hours vary). Specialised food shops can have a longer and later lunch break.
Most shops are open six days a week, Monday to Saturday. Saturday has the same hours as weekdays.
Sundays: Most shops are closed. In tourist areas, they may be open and some food and grocery shops are often open on Sunday mornings. Bakeries too. But don’t count on doing any other shopping on Sundays. Unless you go to a Sunday (morning) market. But Sunday shopping is slowly getting more common.
Specialised food shops (butchers, fish etc) are often closed on Mondays. Some other shops close on Mondays too.
It is still common with food markets. Larger cities have several, in smaller ones, there is always at least one. Within easy walking distance. It can be a real experience in food, colours and aromas to visit a food market, well worth an hour or two if you have time. The markets are usually open one or a few days of the week, in the morning. Often the market is open-air, on the town square, but there are also indoor markets. Ask someone about when and where the nearest market is.
So now you know it all. Welcome to France on a wine tour with us at BKWine to enjoy some of the world’s finest wine and food.
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