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Language classes, motorway tolls: Tips for saving money in France

Five ways to save money in France, from paying less at swimming pools to improving your language skills for free...

Our five money saving tips for this week include how to drive on French motorways for less and making the most of leisure centre deals...

1. Free way to improve your French

Joining a library can be a great way to improve your French for free.

Online services are gradually extending the scope of public libraries from simply lending books, with some now providing language and hobby courses to members.

Access to these e-learning tools is often free (or otherwise very cheap) and subjects include French as a foreign language and hobbies such as photography.

Online services vary across the country, and some libraries still only offer the basics.

Anyone enrolled in a Dordogne library, however, has access to more than 111,000 digital books, including novels, comics and non-fiction; 13,000 films, some with English sub-titles or in English with French subtitles; thousands of CDs, from classical through to pop and jazz; magazines and newspapers; and training courses, including school back-up lessons for children aged three to 19, and French as a foreign language in digital form with interactive exercises.

Read more: ‘D’arrache-pied’: Our French expression of the week

Members can watch four films, and read 15 magazines and 31 daily newspapers a month, with unlimited access to all other media.

The department’s network of libraries is free to join, including online services.

Library membership in Charente-Maritime, meanwhile, includes a wide range of courses covering hobbies such as photography, audio books and music, games, books, creative activities and animated films for children.

In Calvados, courses available include French as a foreign language, plus music, books and video games.

There are more than 16,000 public libraries in France, found in some of the smallest rural villages as well as in towns and big cities. They are run by local authorities, either at commune, municipal, departmental and occasionally regional level.

Usually you have to show an identity card and fill in a form to join. There may be a small annual sign-up fee, or it might be free, depending on the area.

In Toulouse, adults pay €17 to join, but it is free for children, over-65s and those on a low income. In Lyon, it is free to borrow books, but adults pay €18 a year to use the full content of online service.
Ministry of Culture figures show the number of library card-holders is going up. There were six million in 2019 and 6.2 million in 2020.

Read more: ‘Prendre ses jambes à son cou’: run away if you hear this French term

It is thought more people joined during the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent confinements, attracted largely by the increase of online services on offer.

2. How to save money on French motorways 

It is possible to save money on motorway tolls, even though these costs rose across France by around 2% on average in February of this year.

The precise increase depends on the motorway company and the section you drive on. Short journeys are usually cheaper, and it is perfectly legal to leave the motorway, double back at the nearest opportunity and enter again at the same junction, which can reduce the amount you pay overall. This can add just a few minutes to a trip.

Comparison website autoroute-eco.fr has done the sums, and you can see savings and options by entering your journey details.

Read more: Explainer: 11 questions about private speed camera cars in France

It estimates you can save €6, for example, on the popular Paris to Bordeaux A10 route by leaving the motorway seven times, with roundabouts nearby to ensure detours are quick. If you do the 590km journey without leaving the motorway, it costs €57 in tolls.

There are five categories of payment, based on height and weight. Class 1 is for vehicles under 2m and 3.5 tonnes. You can work out the cost yourself by looking up detailed prices for each motorway section on the autoroutes.fr interactive map.

Online route planners such as viamichelin.com can show if it would be cheaper to bypass toll roads, taking into account petrol consumption.

Read more: Semi-autonomous cars now permitted on some French roads

You could save €17 by avoiding tolls on a 725km journey from Souillac in Lot to Brest in Brittany, although it takes 20 minutes longer.

Reductions also exist with some of the motorway toll badges, which get you through booths quicker with an automatic payment system.

The Ulys 30 card, for example, gives 30% off for the same journey driven 20 times (10 times for a return journey) in a month.

3. Buy season tickets to swimming pools 

Council pools and ice rinks offer significant discounts for people buying season tickets.

Each council sets its own tariffs and conditions. In Bordeaux, for example, pool entrance is €3.50, but if you buy a book of 10 tickets for €23.75, you will be paying over €1 less per swim.

Even without a season ticket, if there are two family members, entry is reduced to €3 each, and €1 for every additional child.

For under-25s, over-60s, students, disabled people and jobseekers, it costs €2.15.

Read more: Can I add a swimming pool to French home without paying more in tax?

In Brest, Finistère, the basic rate is €4.20, but if you buy a book of 10 tickets, the cost is reduced to €2.70 a swim. Ice rinks have similar offers.

In Marseille, the standard price for one person is €5.30, but families of three pay €5.60 in total. A book of 12 tickets costs €52.70, almost €1 cheaper per entry.

Meanwhile, the government has extended its Pass’Sport to the end of 2022. This gives six to 18-year-olds a €50 reduction towards signing up to a sports club. It is available for children who receive the allocation de rentrée scolaire (ARS), the means-tested benefit to help families cover the costs of a new school year. Some local authorities will top up the amount. See here.

The government has also extended its Culture Pass, giving 18-year-olds money to spend on art, music, theatre and more. It now covers teenagers from 15 years of age, although the amount received will be less.

4. Finding free water drinking spots

There are several ways to locate free public drinking fountains for a cheaper – and greener – way to stay hydrated when out and about.

Some cities have a list on their websites. For example, you can find Lyon’s here.

Read more: Michelin star chef makes Loire France’s sustainable eating capital

Apps such as FreeTaps show public drinking fountains and restaurants where owners will give a free glass of water.

Water-Map, created by the charity Europe Water Project to promote tap water over bottled, has more than 280,000 water points listed on its app, mostly in Europe.

Both are collaborative apps, depending on input from the public to update information.

Website eau.cyclisme.com shows cyclists where they can fill up their water bottles during a ride but can be used by anyone for the same purpose.

It has 4,300 places listed in France and says most towns have public toilets near their marketplace, mairie or tourist office with drinking water.

More points should be available in the future as a section of the climate change law which came into force on January 1 says establishments open to more than 300 members of the public and already linked to a water supply must provide at least one drinking water fountain per 300 people and make clear where they are.

This should include shopping centres, big supermarkets, museums, airports and railway stations.

Read more: Why can I no longer find Campari in French supermarkets?

In restaurants, tap water is included in the price of a meal so you can ask for this instead of paying for a bottle of mineral water. This has been law since 1967.

Bistros and cafes must clearly indicate on the menu or a noticeboard that customers can ask for free water.

Meanwhile, in Paris, the water board Eau de Paris has launched an initiative to encourage shops, businesses and restaurants to let people fill up water bottles for free.

Participating venues will have a sticker in the window: Ici je choisis l’eau de Paris. Je remplis ma gourde (Here I choose Paris waster. I am filling up my water bottle).

The aim is to have 500 participating businesses by this month. With its 1,200 drinking points, Paris hopes to be the first city where people can drink water without the need for single-use plastic bottles.

5. Cashback

Cashback through your bank card is widely used in the UK but is only just starting to catch on here in France.

The idea is that using a card online or in store at partner brands will earn customers a percentage of the price they paid for goods, which is transferred to their account.

It is a way for brands and banks to attract new customers, although the cards can come with fees.

Read more: 11 tips to save money on your food shopping in France

Cashback amounts vary, as does the way each bank sets up its service. After asking if it is available, be sure to read the small print carefully.

Société Générale advertises money back on all of its cards. Clients sign up for cashback via the bank’s website and can use the service at more than 800 partner stores. Any sum ‘earned’ is transferred to their bank account once it has reached €20.

On its website, the bank gives cashback examples ranging from 5% to 15% of the purchase price.

Online bank Monabanq says new customers can claim up to €80 in the first year through its cashback scheme. It is available across its four cards, with 0.5% cashback on all purchases on the two cheaper cards (costing €2 and €3 a month), and 1% back on its cards costing €6 and €9 a month.

Crédit Mutuel also offers cashback with some of its cards, while American Express rewards clients with its Carte Blue points for purchases. These can be accumulated to pay in part or in whole for products at partner sites.

In Aquitaine and Nord de France, Crédit Agricole has a scheme with malicea.com to give money back on purchases at 636 partners. Malicéa promises reimbursement within 70 days of the purchase.

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