Things to consider when deciding . . .
This was a reply to a lady who asked about visiting the French countryside. They had gone on tours and cruises but were thinking about renting a car and house on their own to get outside tourist areas and see the "real" France. Here is my answer to her and I am answering her direct questions but if you're thinking about using a tour company or going it on your own, you may find some useful information.
She said she had not traveled on her own, so I suspect she may have gone on organized tours. We've never done that but I think tours are a good way to get your feet wet and see what you want to explore on your own. This is something only you can decide and there is no right or wrong answer. Your budget, time and sense of adventure all factor into your decision.
Our first trip to France was a driving/camping trip because as teachers with 3 kids, that is all we could afford. I spoke a bit of Haitian Creole and my husband had French in high school so language was a problem for us and we were nervous. We quickly discovered it is possible to communicate pretty well because a French national pastime is helping people. You can count on it. If you need help and they don't speak English, they will find someone who does.
Driving is not a problem. It's as easy to drive in France as it is in the US. We have driven on nearly all of our trips. The only time we don't get a car is when we are spending the entire time in a large city like Paris. In a city, a car is a nuisance . . . but in the country, a car is a joy. If you can manage to plan your trip for 21 days or more, you can lease a brand new car with 24-hour road service. We usually get a Peugeot 208 automatic for our trips. [There is now a Citroen available for lease for a 17-day stay. It's available through the same web sites listed blow. We have since used the Renault lease program and it works as well as Peugeot. Shop both programs and see what suits you. We get an automatic transmission and diesel fuel but there are lots of options. I noticed Kemwel is offering a lease for 14 days and that might be good for people with shorter vacations.]
We usually fly into Paris, Nice or Toulouse, visit the city for a few days and then return to the airport to pick up our leased car. We have used AutoFrance, AutoEurope, Kemwel and Sodexa for our leases. Here are three of the web sites so you can check the programs. It is all paid ahead of time so there are no unpleasant surprises when you hand in the car.
Auto France ((800) 572-9655 in the US) Auto France web site
Auto Europe - Auto Europe web site
Kemwel - Kemwel web site
For fewer than 21 days, try Nova Car We haven't used them but friends have and were satisfied. They do rent to folks over the age of 70 and that can be a problem. Nova Car Hire web site
Our 2010 trip was unhinged by the Iceland volcanic ash cloud. We were transferring planes in London when British air space was closed. After 4 unplanned days in London (paid for by British Airways), we managed to get a train to Paris. Our car was in Toulouse so we spent 2 nights in Paris before we got on a train to Toulouse where we finally managed to get our car, so yes, taking a train to another city is a great idea if you want to do that. If your cheapest airline tickets are to Paris, fly into Paris and take the train to the place you want to rent or lease your car. We've done that when it saves money.
You will not escape tourists anyplace. However, most of them will be French tourists visiting other parts of France so it's not like you will be spending your French vacation with other American tourists. If you are near a border, you will see lots of tourists from those countries too, i.e., Italian tourists in southeast France, Spanish tourists in western France, German and Dutch tourists in northeastern France, and French tourists everyplace. We enjoy our interactions with all these nationalities; it's part of the fun of going to Europe.
Where to stay? Well, we stay in hotels in cities and we rent farmhouses when we are visiting the countryside. We once rented an apartment in Paris but that was because it was the cheapest way to spend 9 days with our family along. The hotel staff is usually a great help and you don't have a staff when you rent an apartment. Keep in mind that when you rent, you are pretty much on your own for finding local tourist sights, don't have fresh towels regularly and are expected to either clean before you leave or pay a hefty cleaning fee. That being said, we love renting farmhouses or small houses in tiny villages. There you interact with the owner and several have become fast friends over the years. You visit the local grocery, boulanger, boucherie and interact with the local shopowners and their customers. We've both picked up a lot of French over the years but language has never been a problem. If no one speaks French in the store, often another customer will help or there is the point and mime method of purchase. If you don't know numbers, you can always read the price on the cash register. Easy. Take your own shopping bags; they charge for bags in Europe. When we forget, we buy the first bag and then keep using it.
Yes, they take credit cards at most groceries and even in the occasional street market. Small places and most markets will use cash. Groceries cost the same as or less than they do at home. The trick to saving money on food is purchase local products in season. If you try to find Jiffy Peanut Butter, you will find it but pay too much. Coca Cola costs more than the local excellent wine.
We eat breakfast in our gite (rented house) and then eat lunch at a restaurant where we are sightseeing for the day. Lunch is usually cheaper than dinner so that's a money-saver too. Then in the evening, we stop at a boulanger (baker) and epicerie (grocery) and get bread, cheese, fruit and wine and take it back to our gite and have dinner there as a picnic.
For hotels in the countryside, we use the Logis de France. This is a chain of small family-owned hotels in nearly every town and village in France. They are always clean and friendly and most have an excellent restaurant. When we're out sightseeing and looking for lunch, we try to find a Logis de France because of their good restaurants. Here's the web site. You can see what they offer. Logis de France English-language web site
For rentals we use a couple web sites. Our favorite is Gites de France, an umbrella organization that oversees rural rentals. We have never had a problem with anything we've rented through them so I highly recommend them. We have also used VRBO (Vacation Rental By Owner) twice and had a fabulous experience but we don't have much experience with the company. We have also used Home-Away Holiday Rentals, a British company. We've used them many times and have had good experiences with all but one. We chalked that up to a learning experience; it wasn't a dead loss, just less than we expected. Since we've had so many good experiences with them, I would recommend them and we certainly will continue using them. Here are the 3 web sites.
Gites de France web site
Vacation Rental By Owner (VRBO) web site
Home Away web site
Average cost for eating? That depends on what and how you like to eat. Restaurants range from inexpensive to very expensive. We try to keep it in a range comfortable for us. Obviously you pay more in a city. A small country auberge will be excellent and may cost as little as 9 euros a meal plus wine. If you are in a popular tourist area, plan on 15 to 30 euros for a meal. The French menu (as you probably already know) offers what they call a "Menu" or sometimes it's called a "Formula" or "Special du Jour" in a couple different price ranges. These are usually the best deal and offer several courses for a fixed price. We usually get these although if we decide to splurge, we'll blow 30 euros on a dinner. That doesn't happen often because my ancestry is Scot as well as French. ;^)
You have to buy groceries at home, so buying them in France is not much different. If you want to eat at your rented house, most epiceries and certainly all supermarches have precooked (like deli) meals you can microwave. These are often excellent. We just enjoy the restaurant experience in France and there are plenty of excellent reasonably-priced restaurants in the countryside.
I've babbled on way too long so I'll stop here. If you have any specific questions or want to ask about a specific area, please feel free to e-mail me here on TP.
Have fun planning and don't be afraid to go on your own. It's lots of fun to control your destiny.