Wondering Where to Sleep?
Look at the calendar first! ... then the map. Here are some rules:
Summer - Everywhere in France is crowded ... except Paris, maybe. If you try to leave Paris about the first of August, you'll think you were in rush hour around Boston ... or San Jose. Most of Paris evacuates - leaves for vacation ... something the French have plenty of. Most head for Provence ... or Bordeaux ... or just about anywhere you might have thought would be nice. It is ... but in August it's going to be crowded. Plan ahead. Very ahead. Cote d'Azur becomes a parking lot from Monaco to Marseille. Well, not exactly but you get the idea. Dont 'drive up at 6PM and start to look for a room. For peak vacation season, you need to plan months ... even a year ahead.
Spring and Fall - Away from vacation peaks and Paris, it's usually easy to drive and pick where you would like to stop. At both ends of tourist season, it's possible to travel easily with no advanced reservations, but try to start your room search shortly after noon up to maybe 6PM. Carol and I have drifted into places as late as 9PM and found a place, but not without a bit of work, a few "complets", and just a tad of anxiety.
Winter - a lot of places close - not enough business, particularly in the less traveled areas of Provence. The trick is to find who's open - they are likely to have space ... if they haven't already gone to bed. It gets dark early.
So the guidelines for limited hassle travel are:
Always book in advance for Paris, unless you are a.)off season, b). packed lightly and are mobile - forget using a car to find a room, and c.) you are a seasoned traveller, know Paris, and handle stress well.
Outside of Paris and not during summer vacation, you should still reserve in advance for prolonged periods - most rentals have a one week minimum. Less than that, try a Hotel.
If you would like to meandering and don't want to be tied to a schedule - if you've never done that, I highly recommend it - you should be fine, but don't wait too late to find a place to stay.
Where to Look -
Here are a few suggestions:
Guidebook places are usually full - well, what can I say? People read the guides and call ahead. Fortunately, the guides will also tell you where many of the Hotels can be found.
The train station in larger towns will have a booking desk. Ditto for the Office of Tourism, even in smaller towns. They are efficient, usually multi-lingual, and charge very little as a booking fee.
Watch for signs - particularly along the way. Carol and I stumbled onto a very quaint place in a town in Burgandy that looked strangely familair. We discovered later that Semur-en-Auxois (and nearby Flavigny sur Ozerain) were the filming sites for the movie Chocolat. ... and we never would have thought to plan that.
Ask your Innkeeper about the towns you will visit next - they often know of the more cozy spots that don't have a big Internet campaign going.
Check the Right Column of this page - Carol and I have stayed at most of these places or we know the propriaters. If you are interested, email Carol. She'd be happy to help you find just the right spot.
And yes, we have slept in the car, but that was because we were trying to make up some lost time and just couldn't drive anymore. Evenso, developing this list of rules didn't happen over a café noir. Experience doesn't always come easy. Fortunartely, Carol travels well.
Those are the basics. The key ... plan ahead if you're heading toward a crowd ... or better, visit when it's less crowded and get off the main roads. You'll do just fine.