Eating Through France on $31 a day?

Posted by on December 2, 2011

With an unbelievably beautiful backdrop, Carolyn and I enjoy dinner on the boat.

Looking over the receipts from my trip to France last September I was surprised to find that eating in France wasn’t as expensive as I thought it might be.

Three friends and I spent 10 days in France: 2 days in Paris and 8 days along the Canal du Midi on a rented canal boat. The boat had a refrigerator, cook top, sink, hot and cold water and even a microwave. Essentially it was like a little moveable apartment on a canal in the French countryside. I mention this because this allowed us to buy simple groceries and prepare the majority of our own meals. But we ate at a restaurant at least once a day, usually at lunchtime.

How much should someone budget per day while on holiday in France?

Refrigerator, microwave, hot/cold water, sink, cook top and oven round out a well appointed kitchen (galley) on our boat.

Here’s what happened. (Note, I didn’t have a plan or a budget.) I took cash advances three times for a total of €450. This was my pocket money which ended up being the money I’d spend on food. This amount was for both Sara and me. Our traveling companions, Kris and Carolyn, sometimes used cash but more often they charged their credit card at restaurants and I’d give them cash for our portion of the bill. That €450 for Sara and me came to €22.50 euros per day. This converts to roughly $31per day each. Does that seem extraordinary? It does to me when I think about some of our restaurant bills in Paris! Heck, eating out in Minnesota costs that much without wine. We weren’t even holding back. As my friend Carolyn said before we left, “I’m not going to show any restraint.”

Sara and I discuss the menu prices in Paris.


Look at all that chocolate!

How did we do it? Easy. We shopped at the local market, the local bakery and the local winery. But the real magic here is that we weren’t trying to be cheap, or to save money. If we saw something we liked we’d buy it. French food is, by and large, inexpensive and of very high quality. Most of the items – cheeses, olives, breads and cured meats – would be considered gourmet by American standards. Wine was incredibly inexpensive; €5 bought a decent bottle from a merchant or you could buy wine directly from the wine cooperative or vineyard for €1 to €3 per bottle. We ate lunches out, not because they were a cheaper dining option, but because we’d find ourselves in a town around lunch. I would order the plat du jour not because it was the best deal but because I believe that the daily special is what the chef wants to cook and if they want to cook it they usually put a greater effort into their labors and consequently you get a better dish. Plus if you can’t read the menu (I can’t read or speak French) then pointing to the chalkboard and saying “We” to the waitress is the simplest way to order. Dinners were eaten on the boat because by late afternoon we were hungry and we wanted to eat now, not walk into town and find a restaurant – so we ate. It was a really easy schedule: get up, eat, boat around, eat, stop, eat, sleep and repeat.

Kris and I enjoy a beer on a warm afternoon in Beziers.

Having our own kitchen was an immeasurable cost savings. Or was it? Without it we would have eaten at a restaurant or cafe for every meal and this could have been much more expensive. If we ate out every meal here’s a conservative estimation of what it would have cost:

  1. Petite-dejeuner (breakfast, which is coffee, croissant, and juice) €6.50
  2. Lunch (one course, something like fish, or steak, or lamb – this isn’t a simple sandwich with chips) €11.00, add 500ml of table wine to lunch for €5.00
  3. Dinner (this is where the money goes – you can do a set menu of three courses which include Entree, which in France is the starter not the main, Main and Dessert.) €18.00 at least, add an inexpensive bottle of wine to the meal for €25.00.

Daily costs: €65.50! That’s $90.39 per day per person! I spent $31.00. Using some table napkin math, the kitchen on the boat saved me $59.93 per day or $415.73 for the week per person. I’m pleased as punch with figuring this out. However I also figured out the foreign transaction fees charged to my credit card and I’m not as pleased with this.

ATM’s are everywhere in Europe. Getting money is easy. Put in your card, enter a pin and out comes colorful Euros. But the credit card statement shows the true cost of this convenience. The bank charges you a exchange rate – usually a few cents over market rate. (In the past, with money exchangers all over Europe, these few cents were all you paid.) Then they charge you a “Foreign Transaction Fee” then a “Transaction Fee” and then interest compounded daily on the cash advance. If you missed all that this is: Exchange, Fee, Fee, Interest. Criminals, all of them!

My €450 ($621) cost me $48.57 in fees and interest. That’s almost 8%. Plus they made money on the exchange of the currency. The bank charged me more than what I spent on food for one day. This didn’t make me feel very money savvy.

Renting the boat, spending a week on the Canal du Midi, eating and drinking whatever I wanted and having it cost less than I thought it would – was all very pleasurable. Paying the credit card transaction fees – not so much.

I loved the Canal du Midi!

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