France is not one of the cheaper countries to visit in Europe. If you’re on a budget, definitely avoid Paris and aim for one of the other gems. So far, my favorite is Bordeaux. If you end up backpacking in Bordeaux as I did, here are some tips to save you money. As always, the less you spend, the longer you can travel.
Find a Host on Couchsurfing
My favorite accommodations will always be Couchsurfing. There’s no better way to visit a city than staying with a local host who can help you with suggestions. It’s even better when you provide some ingredients so they can show you how to prepare a local dish. I’ve even had several hosts who went out of their way to tour me around their city, show me the landmarks, perhaps take me out to a party and generally integrate me into the culture better than any hotel or hostel could have.
In Bordeaux, I was honored to stay with Bertrand and Stéphanie. They both had very busy schedules, but still made the time to talk with me, watch a French movie, and cook some amazing meals. I arrived late on Sunday night after all the shops and restaurants were closed, and they had a delicious quiche ready for me. For the next night, I brought home the ingredients for fondue, and they provided the proper cooking dishes and utensils. At Lidl, the ingredients were less than $10 for all of us. I might not have made it to any restaurants in Bordeaux for a fancy meal, but I still felt I ate like royalty.
Only Go Window Shopping on Rue Sainte-Catherine
France is one of the best countries in the world when it comes to fashion and shopping. I think the French actually spend more time shopping than any other country in the world. In Bordeaux, the primary walking and shopping street is called Rue Sainte-Catherine. This street follows the original course of the Roman market street and is now one of the longest walking streets in Europe (or maybe the world). It travels north and south over three-quarters of a mile from the Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux to the Gate of Aquitane.
There are hundreds of shops of every type lining the street, and hundreds more down the side streets. A slightly fancier area is the Saint-Catherine Promenade, located on the west side of the street not far from the Grand Theater. If you’re on a budget, this probably isn’t where you’ll end up unless you’re looking for McDonalds or Starbucks, but those are two places you’ll never hear me recommending, as I’ve been boycotting them for years.
One product you absolutely have to try on the street is called canelé. This is a French pastry unique to the Bordeaux region and has its own interesting history. When they make wine in Bordeaux, they use a ton of egg whites by putting it into the top of the vats and letting them settle to the bottom, collecting any bugs along the way. Afterwards, they have all the egg yokes left over. They use the egg yokes to make the canelé, along with flour, butter, salt, sugar, vanilla and a touch of dark Agricole rum. I thought they were delicious.
Purchase the Bordeaux CityPass
If you’re going to be in Bordeaux for a couple days or more and want to see many of the key attractions, or even just want to visit the Cite du Vin Wine Museum, you need to get the Bordeaux CityPass. A 48-hour CityPass is worth well over $100 between all the attractions, a tour of Bordeaux and transportation that it includes. Cite du Vin by itself is $22, and a 24-hour public transportation ticket is $5.50, so $43 for the 48-hour card isn’t bad.
The best value is the 72-hour card, which includes a full-day tour to either Saint-Emilion or the Citadel of Blaye. This card is $47.50. The cost for three days of public transportation and Cite du Vin comes out to $38.50.
If you’re on an extreme budget, the CityPass might still be too much. However, Bordeaux is one of those rare cities with attractions that you just can’t miss. Cite du Vin was voted as one of the best museums in the world by National Geographic. So if you can swing enough money to get this card, I’d highly recommend it.
Eat at a Corner Deli
If you want to eat on a budget in Bordeaux, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any restaurants within your price range. Numbeo.com puts the average meal in an inexpensive restaurant at $13.20! While there are the usual cheap options like fast-food restaurants and kebabs, I’d suggest finding a corner deli to get a meal at, or all your meals for that matter. The one I found was called La Mie Câline. They provided everything from sandwiches and focaccia to several flavors of Croque monsieur.
At lunchtime, I scored a fantastic deal – a mere $5.50 for a sandwich, pastry and drink. The sandwich flavors are all in French, but the staff speak English and are really helpful in getting you the perfect lunch. There are three La Mie Câline locations in the center of Bordeaux, plus plenty of other corner deli options to choose from.
Take the Right Backpack to Bordeaux
If you’re planning to be backpacking in Bordeaux, chances are you’ll be taking one of the budget airlines to get there and will probably find a ridiculously cheap ticket. I found my tickets from Edinburgh last minute for only $13 each way! Unfortunately, the budget airlines make their money from baggage and other fees. I usually travel with my Osprey Farpoint 40 backpack, but that’s no longer free with companies like Wizz and Ryanair. In fact, the fee for the bigger backpack (usual carry-on size) is sometimes more than the ticket itself.
Instead, try to travel with something like the Osprey Daylite Plus 20L backpack. This one will fit under the seat in front of you on the plane, which is what is now considered a free carry-on with many of the budget airlines. It’s big enough for a laptop and several days worth of clothes, if you pack smart and roll everything up.
Traveling with a small backpack has another benefit – it prevents you from loading up on souvenirs and thus saves you more money. Then again, Bordeaux has some really lovely items that you’ll probably want to take back with you. I would have brought back a large pack of canelé, but unfortunately I found the Lindt outlet – Switzerland’s finest chocolatier – with every manufactured flavor available…and a mystery box containing 10 flavors for only $11. I obviously had to get my own, thus using up the tiny bit of extra room I had left in my backpack.
Of course, if you’re arriving by train or bus, such as Flixbus, using the Osprey Farpoint 40 backpack is a great idea. I learned that having a great backpack was of the utmost importance before I even started traveling, and it’s become even more true over the past five years.
How Much Does it Cost to Go Backpacking in Bordeaux
On an extreme budget, you could always get by in Bordeaux on just a couple dollars a day (like I used to do in my early days of travel). It would require Couchsurfing, eating cheap meals at a local supermarket like Carrefour, walking everywhere and not going to any of the paid attractions. Personally, I got tired of that kind of shoestring budget. If you utilize the five tips given above, you could spend three days in Bordeaux for $25-$30 a day. If you only spent one day, it would cost more like $40-$50, since the 24-hour CityPass itself is $32. It really just depends on what and where you eat, and if you want to see any paid attractions not covered with the CityPass (there aren’t many).
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If you have more time in Bordeaux and like wine (or perhaps even if you don’t), you definitely have to take a Bordeaux Wine Workshop!
If you’re going to get one, read my full review of the Bordeaux CityPass.
Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.