France is a fantastic place, the most visited country in the world. I am an American but have been living in France and working for a large French company for the last 12 years so I have some experience on this topic. There are a few aspects of French vacation planning that should be understood to make a holiday more enjoyable.
Whether you’re French, an expat, or foreigner– if you have children or not– you should consider the effects of the school holiday dates that are dependent on three zones as indicated in the map below. Zone A is in orange, B in blue, and C, including Paris, is in green and the schedule for the upcoming school year (2018/2019).
In professional life in France the school holidays set the rhythm. Following the New Year’s holiday, serious work is difficult to accomplish in January; February is the ski vacation; March can work for a holiday, but April is the spring school vacation; May has nice weather, but is filled with many holidays (Labour Day, Victory in WWII, Ascension Day, Whit Monday), which means the roads can be clogged during the multiple long weekends. There is no major vacation in June but it is the beginning of summer. July and August are the grandes vacances when work life comes to a crawl, September is la rentrée, or “the return,” which coincides with a burst of activity after the summer. The end of October into November is the vacation of Toussaint, and finally December and the Christmas holiday season.
One aspect of French life that is envied the world over is the work vacation policy. I can attest that it is a wonderful thing, but it results in a profound impact on personal and professional life. I know this is hard to believe, but there is even a level of stress that is caused by all of this relaxation. I will explain.
Here’s a snapshot from my employee vacation planner. CPA are extra days based on my age and/or length of service in the company. Like many bureaucratic aspects of working life in France, these things are never explained. CPL are the standard vacation days for everyone. CPF, I have no idea why it is there.
R35 are the days added for the cadre, basically white collar workers not on a time clock, to make up for working more than the standard 35 hours per week. PON are for pont, bridge days assigned next to holidays during the year. In 2018 we have 9 national holidays that fall on weekdays. Finally, I have saved days to be used just before retirement in the CEG category. So this year I have 49 vacation days to go with the 9 national holidays. My employer’s vacation policy is not unusual.
The practical aspect of the school holidays and the professional vacation time is that no sane person with a choice should come near parts of France during certain periods. For example, during the ski vacations the vast majority of the lodgings are on week-long contracts that run from Saturday to Saturday. Travelling to or from the mountains on the Saturdays during the school holidays is a nightmare.
What’s more, if you happen to be returning to Paris  by car, the autoroute (the A6 from the Alps) will be jammed all along the route and especially entering Paris. Actually, on virtually any Sunday evening the A6 should be avoided. Also, prices for hotels, chambre d’hotes and gîtes are higher during these vacation periods. Train and plane fares go up and are more difficult to obtain. The stations and airports are extremely crowded. The news reports often give a warning calling for Black Fridays or Saturdays when the travelling will be extreme.
Thus, my message is certainly come to France, it is a fantastic place; but avoid, if you can, when the French themselves are out enjoying their country.