Essential French vocabulary for tourists on holiday

Vocabulaire essentiel à connaître pour un touriste en vacances en France

Preparing for holidays in France

When you decide to go on holiday abroad, being able to communicate with the locals in restaurants, hotels, supermarkets, train stations and shops is obviously very important. You will need to know useful phrases for everyday life and understand the words that you might see in leaflets or newspapers, or that you’ll hear people using in the street and on public transport.

Greetings and introducing yourself

Everyone knows that French people say bonjour (‘hello’) several times a day! But what’s the difference between bonjour and bonne journée (literally, ‘good day’)? Well, bonne journée is used at the end of a conversation. If I meet a friend in the street and start chatting to him, I’ll wish him a bonne journée – ‘have a nice day!’ – at the end of our conversation. Bonjour, on the other hand, is what we say when we first meet. Bonsoir (‘good evening’) and bonne soirée (‘have a nice evening’) are used in a similar way. When they first meet someone they don’t know, French people will tend to say: Enchanté (‘Delighted’) or Heureux de faire votre connaissance (‘Pleased to meet you’). When someone in France says merci (‘thanks’) to you, you can reply de rien or, more formally je vous en prie – ‘don’t mention it’.

If you want to learn how to introduce yourself in French, here’s an example for all students just beginning to study the language of Molière: Bonjour, je m’appelle Paul. J’ai 28 ans, je suis français et je suis marié. J’habite à Antibes, je suis ingénieur informaticien et j’adore jouer au basket. (‘Hello, my name’s Paul. I’m 28 years old, French and married. I live in Antibes, I’m an IT engineer and I love to play basketball.’)

Asking for directions

Knowing how to ask for directions is particularly important when you’re travelling, and a good reason to strike up a conversation with some locals.

Excusez-moi, je suis perdu, est-ce que vous pouvez me dire où se trouve la gare ? (‘Excuse me, I’m lost. Could you tell me how to get to the station?’)

Quelle direction dois-je prendre pour aller à l’aéroport, s’il vous plaît ? (‘How do I get to the airport please?’)


Asking the time

There are several ways you can ask the time. Quelle heure est-il, s’il vous plaît ? (‘What time is it, please?’) or, in a more formal context, Vous auriez l’heure s’il vous plaît ? (‘Do you have the time please?’) are both common phrases. In reply, French people might say: Il est onze heures moins le quart or Il est dix heures quarante-cinq – both meaning it’s a quarter to eleven in the morning (10.45 am).

To find out at what time something starts, you can ask: A quelle heure est-ce que tu commences ton travail ? (‘What time do you start work?’) If it’s an approximate time, then it’s best to use the preposition vers: Je viendrai te rendre visite vers neuf heures demain matin (I’ll come and visit you around nine tomorrow morning’). Here, it’s worth noting that night-time hours after midnight are considered to be morning. Je me suis réveillé à une heure du matin (‘I woke up at one in the morning’) is perfectly correct, even though the action clearly took place in the middle of the night!

In a restaurant

If you decide to go to a restaurant, don’t forget to keep some very useful phrases in mind!

Je voudrais réserver une table pour deux personnes (‘I would like to book a table for two’)

Quel est le plat du jour ? (‘What is today’s special?’)

Pouvez-vous m’expliquer ce qu’est ce plat exactement ? (‘Can you explain what exactly this dish is?’)

Quel vin est-ce que vous me conseillez avec ce plat ? (‘Which wine would you recommend with this dish?’)

Customers choose the plat du jour (dish of the day), check the menu (set menu) or cast their eye over the carte (menu). When deciding how you would like your meat to be cooked, remember that it can be bleue (very rare), saignante (rare), à point (medium) or bien cuite (well done)and it’s up to you to mention your preference when ordering: Pour moi, ce sera une entrecôte cuite à point ! (‘I’ll have a medium steak, please!’)

At the end of the meal, when it’s time to régler (settle up) or payer (pay), customers ask Je pourrais avoir l’addition s’il vous plaît ? (‘Can I have the bill please?’) Should you wish to give your waiter or waitress a little extra – a fairly common but not obligatory practice in France – that’s called a pourboire (‘tip’).

In a hotel

In hotels, you can book a chambre simple (‘single room’) or a chambre double (‘double room’) and you can choose pension complète (‘full board’) or demi-pension (‘half board’). To check if you’ve made the right decision, you can ask: Est-ce que le petit-déjeuner est inclus ? (‘Is breakfast included?’) The reception desk is manned by the réceptionniste (‘receptionist’) who will confirm whether the hotel is complet (‘full’). It’s also worth being aware that TTC – or Toutes Taxes Comprises – means that the price includes tax, and that a nuitée refers to the price per room per night.

At the tourist office

If you’re looking for useful information during your trip, consider visiting the tourist office. Here, you can ask for a map of the town or find out more about some of the activities you can enjoy during your stay. Useful phrases you might need include: Auriez-vous un plan de la ville ? (‘Do you have a map of the town?’), Quelles sont les activités culturelles qu’on peut faire ici ? (‘What cultural activities are on offer here?’), and A quelle heure ouvre ce musée ? (‘What time does the museum open?’)

At the supermarket

You can do your courses (‘shopping’) in a big hypermarché (‘hypermarket’) or in a much smaller supérette (‘minimarket’). In supermarchés (‘supermarkets’), you’ll find rayons – these are the different sections reserved for different types of product. Excusez-moi madame, je cherche le rayon bricolage (‘Excuse me, I’m looking for the DIY section’). Customers put their items in a caddie or a chariot (both meaning ‘trolley’). If you prefer not to pay by bank card, you can payer en liquide, en espèces or even, borrowing from English, en cash – all ways of saying that you will pay by cash.

At the station

In France, the word gare by itself refers specifically to a railway station, but a gare routière denotes a bus station for city buses.  When travelling by plane or train, passengers buy a billet (‘ticket’), but for the bus or metro (underground or subway), it’s a ticket. You can opt for an aller simple (‘single’) or an aller-retour (‘return’) – usually the better option – and to make your purchase you can go to a ticket seller at the guichet (‘ticket office’) and say: Bonjour, je voudrais un billet aller-retour en deuxième classe pour Paris (‘Hello, I’d like a second-class return to Paris). Alternatively, you might prefer to use a billetterie automatique (‘automatic ticket machine’), but that’s not really going to help you communicate and improve your French!

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