Should You Stay Or Should You Go….To France In The Off-Season?

The rock band, The Clash, have a popular song called, “Should I Stay Or Should I Go”. This is always a question many ask when considering a trip to France in the off-season.  Although I have written about some of the highlights of travelling to Paris in December or January in this post I’ll share more of my thoughts about travelling in the off-season.  You just might be surprised.

Three Seasons

Off-season: Fontainebleau, France in March
Fontainebleau, France in March

Let me start by explaining that there are basically three seasons for travel to France:

High (peak) Seasonthe summer (July and August) Note: in July and August in Paris, a number of restaurants will be closed. This is when many French go on vacation.

Off-Season: November to March

Shoulder Season: April to mid-June and September/October

The Pros Of Travelling In Off-Season

  • Fewer crowds. As you can see from this picture above of the Place des Vosges in the Marais, Paris, there were very few people in my picture in March compared to August.
  • Far fewer line ups.
  • Lower Airfare:  You can get some incredibly cheap airfares to France in the off-season. It was unfortunate that my latest trip was booked so late as the airfare went up considerably as I got closer to December.  For my upcoming trip to Paris during the shoulder season (late May), the airfare is an astonishing $643! This is the lowest I have ever paid for a direct return flight to Paris.
  • Lower Hotel Prices: prices will be less and hotel rooms will be more readily available. During my trip to the south of France, one night was not planned in advance. We decided the day before to stop in Marseillan and found a fabulous, boutique hotel in a perfect location and the price included breakfast. Our cost in January was 33 Euros (about $47) cheaper than the price in high season.

In January, no leaves on the trees, but what a sight driving in the south of France:

Driving on a road in southern France

  • (Much) Better Weather. July and August can be incredibly hot, particularly in the south of France. I have been there during those months and many hotels did not have air conditioning which made sleeping unbearable.
    • One time in Burgundy, it was so bad, my friend and I decided to sleep by the pool. At least there was fresh air circulating around us.
    • When I have visited Paris in March the weather was spectacular. I recall my first trip during March the temperature reached 20 degrees and it was sunny. Everyone was out like it was summer. The weather can be very comfortable (not too hot, not too cold) in off season.
    • Granted, after I left France in early January, the country had large cold front sweep across the country. Guess I’ve been fortunate to encounter perfect site seeing weather.

      Off-Season: The Seine River in Paris in December.
      The Seine River in Paris in December.
  • Blue Sky: I often find that in the summer, the sky is hazy or overcast, but in the winter, the sky is often a crisp blue with a few white clouds providing the perfect picture. When I look back at my pictures, the better ones were often taken in the shoulder or off season

    Off-season: mulled wine
    Jan with some vin chaud (mulled wine)
  • Winter in France: want something to warm you up? Try vin chaud (mulled wine) available at so many cafes and Christmas markets or hot chocolate at Angelina’s in Paris. You just can’t beat either in the off-season. And throughout France there are always folks sitting at outdoor cafes. How do they do it? Heated terraces!
  • Shops are less crowded
  • Sales: As I mentioned in a previous post, in January the “Soldes” (sales) period takes place. There is one in late June/early July, but who wants to be indoors shopping when it’s summer?

The Cons Of Traveling In Off-Season

  • Unpredictable weather. Snow I can take, but I hate rain. It rained on New Year’s Eve in Paris and while we found shelter under the Pont Bir Hakeim (great place to see the Eiffel Tower), we certainly needed our umbrellas. So during the off-season, bringing an umbrella is a wise idea as is a hat and gloves in the winter…just in case.
  • Short Daylight: In late December, we only had about 8 hours of daylight in Paris, whereas in mid-July the length would be about 16 hours.
  • Shorter Operating Hours: museums and even stores could quite often have shorter opening hours.
  • Closed: Some restaurants, museums, historical sites, and stores are shut down. This is particularly true in January and August.
    Off-season Cordes sur Ciel in January
    Cordes sur Ciel in January
    • When I recently visited Cordes-sur-Ciel (above), which is located just north of Toulouse in the south of France, there was only ONE restaurant open for lunch and it was full. So, on we went in search of another town and another restaurant. Sure there weren’t any crowds, but then again, there were barely any stores open (on January 3rd).

      Off-season: Chateau d'if, France
      Chateau d’if, France
    • Sites may decide to use the down time to do renovations and therefore close the popular site. One of my biggest disappointments was trying to go to Chateau d’If in Marseille. Although I had visited the fortress twenty-five years earlier, this past January, the boats were not heading there due to the rough waters. Chateau d’If was made famous in the book, The Count Of Monte Cristo and is a very popular site to visit.

      Off-season (March) in Fontainebleau, France
      Fontainebleau in March
  • Not Fully Bloomed: the trees and flowers may not be in full bloom. This might seem odd, but when I visited Chateau Fontainebleau (above), the grounds looked a little bleak. While there wasn’t any snow on the ground, the trees were bare. As it wasn’t my first time in Fontainebleau, I didn’t feel I had missed the gorgeous gardens (like Versailles, but smaller). If it’s your first time, you might want to go when more is in bloom.

I have been in France almost every month in the year and I have to admit, April/May is probably my favourite time of year. It’s warmer, winter is over, and the flowers are blooming. Think of  the famous song, “April in Paris” !

So what would you do? Would you or would you go…to France in the off-season?

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16 Comments

  1. You make some terrific points for traveling off-season to France. We’ve done both and like you mentioned you do need to be mindful of what’s open and all those pesky details. I’d add to also be sure to ask if the hotel you’re booking is doing any construction. They often fail to mention that and depending on what kind of person you are if you want to sleep in that may be a problem.

    1. Oh yes, construction! They tend to do renovations (or construction outside) during the slow travel periods, so traveller beware!

  2. We greatly prefer traveling during the off-and shoulder seasons for many of the reasons you discuss and wearing a coat or carrying an umbrella versus standing in long lines or battling selfie-stick wielding crowds. We may miss seeing gardens at the peak of their season but it’s not a bad trade-off to be able to explore a place without feeling rushed or paying lower prices for popular destinations. Sometimes our timing may be off but, then again, many times we end up finding an off-the-beaten path place that makes traveling even more fun.

  3. Paris- and France- always a good idea! I am a summer girl for the gardens but I would go in off- season, too, as I did a couple of years ago. You had me at one of my favorite song titles and the video but great info, as always, for a well-informed decision.

    1. Thank you.The gardens in France are perfect in April/May especially. I loved visiting Villandry in April a few years ago. It was LIKE summer….but less crowded!

  4. I am beginning to think that the only time to visit Europe IS in off-season, since there are just so many tourists in the warmer months that it makes visiting sites almost unpleasant. Good tips from your first-hand experiences!

  5. I far prefer to travel off-season, though not in the middle of winter because I don’t like the cold. Spring is definitely best in most places, though I’d suggest fall in places like the New England because of the gorgeous autumn foliage.

    1. I would agree that New England in the Fall is gorgeous. I hear you about the cold and guess I’ve been lucky enough not to have encountered severe cold. The blue skies made up for the lower temperatures.

  6. We spent 3 weeks in Paris during the month of January 2013 and it was an incredible time to be there. Yes, it was cold, but most days the sun shone brightly. We never waited in line to get into any of the museums, and we practically had the Palace of Versailles to ourselves on a beautiful clear day. That alone was wroth being there in January. We were also fortunate in that it snowed for us, about 4 inches and Paris under a blanket of snow is stunning; magical. No, we didn’t see any gardens in bloom, but it was well-worth the trade off.

    1. I’m sure Paris looked fabulous with all the snow. I actually have never been in Paris when there has been snow on the ground. Guess that’s going to have to be on my list!

  7. We love traveling in the winter months, even though there are cons, the pros outweigh them. Just the fact that it’s not 40C and packed with people is good enough for us, we make do with the closures and weather.

    1. Yes, I just had to resolve to myself that I wouldn’t be able to see everything I wanted to see. And forcing me to go back another time is a good excuse!

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