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The French government rates hotels on a one- to four-star system. One-star hotels are budget accommodations; two-star lodgings are quality tourist hotels; three stars go to first-class hotels; and four stars are reserved for deluxe accommodations. In some of the lower categories, the rooms may not have private bathrooms; instead, many have what the French call a cabinet de toilette (hot and cold running water and maybe a bidet). In such hotels, bathrooms are down the hall. Nearly all hotels in France have central heating, but in some cases, you might wish the owners would turn it up a little on a cold night.

For apartment, farmhouse, or cottage stays of 2 weeks or more, Idyll Untours (tel. 888/868-6871; www.untours.com) provides exceptional vacation rentals for a reasonable price -- which includes air/ground transportation, cooking facilities, and on-call support from a local resident. Best of all: Untours -- named the "Most Generous Company in America" by Newman's Own -- donates most profits to provide low-interest loans to underprivileged entrepreneurs around the world. At press time, Untour's French offerings included lodging in Alsace, Provence, and Paris. Also check out www.venere.com for more information on accommodations.

Relais & Châteaux

Now known worldwide, this organization of deluxe and first-class hostelries began in France for visitors seeking the ultimate in hotel living and dining in a traditional atmosphere. Relais & Châteaux establishments (there are about 150 in France) are former castles, abbeys, manor houses, and town houses converted into hostelries or inns and elegant hotels. All have a limited number of rooms, so reservations are imperative. Sometimes these owner-run establishments have pools and tennis courts. The Relais part of the organization refers to inns called relais, meaning "post house." These tend to be less luxurious than the châteaux, but are often charming. Top-quality restaurants are relais gourmands. Throughout this guide, we list our favorite Relais & Châteaux members, but there are many more.

For a catalog of member establishments, contact Relais & Châteaux at tel. 800/735-2478 or www.relaischateaux.com.

There is also another possibility for châteaux living. For the ultimate in luxury, Grand Etapes Françaises, 21 Square St. Charles in Paris (tel. 01-40-02-99-99; www.grandesetapes.fr), can book you into 10 châteaux or luxury hotels throughout the country. Each hotel or château is unique, and most of them lie only a 1-hour drive from Paris. For example, Le Château d'Esclimont in the Ile de France, outside the village of St-Symphorien le Château, is like a fairy-tale castle, lying between Versailles and Chartres.

Bed & Breakfasts

Called gîtes-chambres d'hôte in France, these may be one or several bedrooms on a farm or in a village home. Many offer one main meal a day (lunch or dinner).

La Maison des Gîtes de France et du Tourisme Vert, 59 rue St-Lazare, Paris 75439 (tel. 01-49-70-75-75; www.gites-de-france.fr), lists at least 6,000 gîtes-chambres d'hôte. Sometimes these B&Bs aren't as simple as you may think: Instead of a bare-bones farm, you may be in a mansion in the countryside.

Condos, Villas, Houses & Apartments

If you can stay for at least a week and don't mind doing your own cooking and cleaning, you may want to rent long-term accommodations. The local French Tourist Board might help you obtain a list of agencies that offer this type of rental (which is popular at ski resorts). In France, one of the best groups of agents is the Fédération Nationale des Agents Immobiliers, 106 rue de l'Université, Paris 75007 (tel. 01-47-05-44-36; www.fnpc.fr).

In the United States, At Home Abroad, Inc., 163 Third Ave., Box 319, New York, NY 10003 (tel. 212/421-9165; fax 212/228-4860; www.athomeabroadinc.com), specializes in villas on the French Riviera and in the Dordogne as well as places in the Provençal hill towns. Rentals are usually for 2 weeks. You'll receive photographs of the properties and a newsletter.

New York Habitat (tel. 212/255-8018; fax 212/627-1416; www.nyhabitat.com) rents furnished apartments and vacation accommodations in Paris and the south of France. Bookings should be done at least 3 months in advance (even farther out for the south of France) and can be arranged online or over the phone. Prices in Paris range from 450€ to 8,000€, in the south of France 55€ to 1,350€.

CyberRentals is a worldwide vacation rental website (tel. 512/684-1098; www.cyberrentals.com) that lists vacation homes, condos, luxury villas, cabins, chalets, and other real estate available for rent by owner. For example, you can find properties such as one typical -- and lovely -- villa in Gordes in the Provence region that sleeps six and rents for between $2,000 and $4,000 per week, depending on season.

If you want to rent an apartment in Paris, the Barclay International Group, 6800 Jericho Turnpike, Syosset, NY 11791 (tel. 800/845-6636 or 516/364-0064; fax 516/364-4468; www.barclayweb.com), can give you access to about 3,000 apartments and villas throughout Paris (and 39 other cities in France), ranging from modest modern units to the most stylish lodgings. Units rent for 1 night to 6 months; all have TVs and kitchenettes, and many have concierge staffs and lobby-level security. The least expensive cost around $170 per night, double occupancy. Discounts are given for a stay of 1 week or longer. Rentals must be prepaid in U.S. dollars or with a U.S. credit or charge card.

Hometours International, Inc., 1108 Scottie Lane, Knoxville, TN 37919 (tel. 865/690-8484; hometours@aol.com), offers more than 400 moderately priced apartments, apartment hotels, and villas in Paris. On the Riviera, you can rent villas, with pools, at reasonable rates.

Drawbridge to Europe, Inc., 98 Granite St., Ashland, OR 97520 (tel. 888/268-1148; www.drawbridgetoeurope.com), offers everything from Paris apartments to villas scattered throughout France, including Provence. Rentals are selected for their location, interiors, and possibly historical character.

The aptly named Homes Away, 45 St. Clair Ave. W., Ste. 1100, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4V 1K9 (tel. 800/374-6637; http://homesaway.com), provides private vacation villas throughout France, including apartments in Paris. Rentals lie in the most tourist-rich provinces of France, including Burgundy, the French Riviera, Provence, and the Dordogne.

Interhome, Inc., 2860 State Rd. 84, Ste. 116 PMB 241, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33312 (tel. 800/882-6864; www.interhomeusa.com), offers some 30,000 rental properties in 21 countries, including France. Take your choice, apartment or villa. The agency is especially noted for its villas in Provence and on the Riviera.

Other agencies include Villanet (tel. 800/964-1891 or 206/417-3444; www.rentavilla.com), which in France specializes in rentals in Provence and the Riviera. Villas & Apartments Abroad operates out of 183 Madison Ave., Ste. 201, New York, NY 10016 (tel. 800/433-3020 or 212/213-6436; www.vaanyc.com), and has been satisfying villa seekers for more than 30 years. It seems to have a very personalized service to hook customers up with the right rental.

Worldwide Vacation Rentals, 17 Fox Lane, San Anselmo, CA 94960 (tel. 800/221-2260; www.villasintl.com), seems to be doing something right, as it supposedly attracts more repeat customers among villa rentals.

Absolu Living, 236 rue Saint Martin, 75003 Paris (tel. 01-44-54-97-17; www.absoluliving.com), is the leader in furnished apartment rentals serving the gay community. Long- or short-term apartment rentals are arranged throughout France. By renting an apartment instead of a hotel, costing from 72€ per night for two persons, you gain more space and freedom -- and at a lower price.

Hotel Chains

One good moderately priced choice is the Mercure chain, an organization of simple, modern hotels throughout France. Even at the peak of the tourist season, a room at a Mercure in Paris rents for as little as 99€ per night (admittedly, a rarity). For more information on Mercure hotels and its 100-page directory, call tel. 800/221-4542 in the U.S.; www.mercure.com.

Formule 1 (www.hotelformule1.com) hotels are basic but safe, offering rooms for up to three people for around 40€ per night. Built from prefabricated units, these air-conditioned, soundproof hotels are shipped to a site and assembled, often on the outskirts of cities such as Paris (27 in the suburbs). There are 150 of these throughout the rest of France.

Mercure and Formule 1 are both owned by the French hotel giant Accor, parent of Motel 6, which Formule 1 resembles. Formule 1's low cost makes it unprofitable for the chain to allow customers to reserve rooms from the United States, so you'll have to reserve upon arrival. For a directory, write to Formule 1/ETAP Hotels, c/o Sishe Hotel, 6-8 rue du Bois-Briard, Evry Cedex 91021 (tel. 08-92-68-56-85; www.hotelformule1.com).

Other worthwhile economy bets, sometimes with a bit more charm, are the hotels and restaurants of the Fédération Nationale des Logis de France, 83 av. d'Italie, Paris 75013 (tel. 01-45-84-83-84; www.logis-de-france.fr). This is an association of 3,000 hotels, usually country inns convenient for motorists, most rated one or two stars. The association publishes an annual directory.

Surfing for Hotels

In addition to the online travel booking sites Travelocity, Expedia, Orbitz, Priceline, and Hotwire, you can book hotels through Hotels.com; Quikbook (tel. 800/789-9887; www.quikbook.com); and Travelaxe (www.travelaxe.net).

HotelChatter.com is a daily webzine offering smart coverage and critiques of hotels worldwide. Go to TripAdvisor.com or HotelShark.com for helpful independent consumer reviews of hotels and resort properties.

It's a good idea to get a confirmation number and make a printout of any online booking transaction.

Throughout France, as in many tourist centers worldwide, hotels routinely overbook, so booking by credit card doesn't automatically hold your room if you arrive later than expected or after 6pm. The hotel clerk always asks when you expect to arrive, and the hotel usually holds the room until that time. Always pad your expected arrival by a few hours to be safe. However, all bets are off after 7pm, and the hotel is likely to give your room away unless you call and specifically ask them to hold it. If you've made a reservation very far in advance, confirm within 24 hours of your expected arrival. If you're experiencing a major delay, alert the hotel as soon as you can.

Beware of billing. Readers report that sometimes in France they booked a room online (say, $100 a night), but were charged $125 when they checked out. Keep your online confirmation in case of a dispute.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.