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Today’s guest post comes from my friend, author (“What Would Buffy Do?”) and fellow blogger Jana Riess, who doubles as the most famous person that I actually know 😀 She is currently traveling with her family in Europe, and took time from her vacation to give us 7 Paris travel tips.
Rent an apartment
This may seem obvious, but one of the best Paris travel tips is to rent an apartment. It’s startling to me how many visitors are afraid to venture out of the expensive traps that are tourist hotels. There are plenty of rental agencies in Paris that specialize in English-speaking travelers. We found ours through TripAdvisor and had no problems with it at all (PWaC: Airbnb would be another option). The place was exactly as advertised and the price even included an airport pickup when we arrived. We had a fantastic apartment in the Montparnasse neighborhood right by the Gaite Metro stop and Montparnasse train station. We were conveniently located, got the experience of living more like locals than if we had stayed in a hotel, had much more room and a kitchen to prepare meals in, and saved a lot of money in the process. If you’re in Paris for more than just a couple of days, it really pays to rent an apartment.
Save money with the Navigo or the carnet pass
Our week-long trip started on a Monday, which was perfect for the Navigo pass, an unlimited Metro pass that is primarily aimed at Parisian commuters. To save the €5 passport fee for each of the four passes we needed, we printed our passport photos before we arrived (Walgreens, 17 U.S. cents apiece) and brought them with us.
At our neighborhood Metro station, a very patient Parisian cut out the photos and attached them to our passes, which start at €21.35 for a week. We chose to pay €33.35 each so that we could add Zones 3 and 4 to our passes, considering that we were going to Versailles, to a suburban water park (we received free passes from a friend), and to that friend’s house in the suburbs. We also had to pay €5 each to buy the pass in the first place, and that fee could not be waived, so the total fee was €38.35 each. We loved the convenience and considerable savings of the Navigo, and used it multiple times a day most days. But if our travel dates hadn’t been Monday to Monday, the Navigo wouldn’t have been worth it; in that case it’s better to buy the sharable ten-pack called a carnet pass, which doesn’t require a passport photo and can be used anytime.
If you like museums, a museum pass is a must
The Paris Museum Pass is terrific. It doesn’t include the Eiffel Tower, but it does grant you access to most of the other most popular museums (Louvre, Versailles, the Musee d’Orsay, the Cluny, the Arc d’Triomphe . . . see here for a complete list). I ordered our passes (€69 each for six days) online a few weeks before the trip. The pass price was more than worth it for us because we are museum people, and going to just a handful of the 60 museums on the list meant we saved money and we avoided the 2+-hour line at the most popular places like the Louvre and Versailles. With the Museum Pass you can just waltz right in and look with pity on all the other tourists sweating it out in line.
Ours was for six days, but you can also get passes for two (€42) or four days (€56) if your visit will be shorter. However, I was not at all interested in paying an additional €24 – each! – to have the passes delivered to our U.S. home before the trip, so I chose the option of just picking them up in person at the Tourist Office on our first day. This was easy to do since the office is only about a block from the Pyramides Metro stop, and there was no extra charge whatsoever. One thing I would consider doing differently in hindsight was that we bought a Museum Pass for our teenager, only to discover that she often qualified for free student admission; we had been told that this discount only applied to EU students, not Americans, but that turned out to be incorrect. Still, while some of the sites let teens without a museum pass enter without waiting in line, just like their parents holding passes, we heard that some others take a dim view of this practice, so we were glad not to have to test it.
Bring a picnic lunch
Paris is filled with inexpensive, high-quality grocery stores—many local mom-and-pop places, and also some grocery chains like Monoprix, Franprix, and Simply Market. These are marvelous and in our experience the breads, baked fresh daily, were almost as good as what we had from the dedicated neighborhood boulangeries. So make a picnic! Buy some fresh bread, cheese jambon (ham), fruit, and chocolate and just eat it in one of Paris’s magnificent (and free) public parks. Because the Euro is down right now against the dollar, grocery prices were on par with what we would pay in the U.S., and in some cases actually lower, especially for fruits, vegetables, and non-imported foods. To save even more money, bring your own bags to the store so that you don’t have to pay anything to buy bags (they are often not provided).
Have gourmet dinners at home—with no work
OK, I hear your plaintive cri de’ceour: “We’re in Paris, lady! We didn’t come all this way just to eat Ramen noodles!” And you’re right, of course. But with restaurant prices so much higher than the cost of groceries, it’s good to eat at home whenever you can and save the restaurant meals for the times you are far from home base or want to splurge on something special. Here’s a middle ground to avoid the depressing specter of the Ramen Noodle Dinner: Find a Picard, which is a chain of Parisian frozen food stores. I admit I was skeptical about these, since frozen food in America is so very awful, but in France the phrase “gourmet frozen food” is not an oxymoron.
Our first time trying this, I spent €18.79 on an appetizer, two entrees, two side dishes, and a dessert for our group of four. The food was without exception delicious, and we got the experience of eating things we can’t get at home. We fell in love with a puff pastry stuffed with ham and melted cheese, which was the most expensive thing we bought at €5.95. It was worth it! Plus we enjoyed the leftovers for other meals, making this option even more economical than constant restaurant visits, since restaurant portions are much smaller in France than in America and the concept of the “doggie bag” is a bit gauche.
Paris Travel Tips – Get religion
Some churches in Paris charge admission, at least for the historical tours, but one of the best Paris travel tips is there is never a fee to attend Mass. We went to Mass on Sunday morning at Notre Dame, which was a lovely experience (for adults, at least; our teenager was extremely bored). After the service we walked all around the church to learn about its history. There was no admission fee for this, though we did make a donation. Other churches in Paris work much the same way: the church itself is free, but extras (like seeing the tombs of the kings and queens of France at the Cathedral of Saint Denis, or climbing to the bell towers of Notre Dame or the dome of Sacre Coeur) cost a fee. Sometimes this is covered by your Museum Pass (Saint Denis) and sometimes not (Sacre Coeur), but in any case, exploring the sanctuaries of these great historic churches is a free gift to the world.
Take a free walking tour
One of the best Paris travel tips and one of our best experiences was doing a Rick Steves walking tour of the Montmartre neighborhood. We left the most touristy areas behind as we wandered the narrow cobblestone side streets, where we found wonderful French macaron cookies and learned about the city’s history. (Did you know, for example, that “Moulin” means “windmill,” and that there used to be hundreds of them harnessing the wind power of this hilly neighborhood? I didn’t. Thanks, Rick.) During the tour, we got to retrace the steps Toulouse-Lautrec took every night when he left his house to walk to the Moulin Rouge, and go right up to the door where Van Gogh lived. Although there is a small plaque that marks Van Gogh’s house, I know we would have just walked right by it if the walking tour hadn’t told us what to look for. If you don’t want to pay for a Rick Steves guidebook (which in my experience are worth every penny), he has a number of audio tours available for free through his iPhone and Android app (see here).
Enjoy your time in the City of Light!
Guest blogger Jana Riess is an editor and the author of Flunking Sainthood and The Twible: All the Chapters of the Bible in 140 Characters or Less, Now with 68% More Humor! She blogs here for Religion News Service.