You were meant to visit Paris, France. You know it, and I know it – so, what’s stopping you from going? Please don’t tell me that it’s your budget because I know eight simple tips from my own experience that will save you a fortune in this magical city that no one ever forgets. Here’s how you can enjoy the international capital of art, romance, fashion and fine desserts just a little longer on a shoestring budget:
1. Pack light so that you can take the train – everywhere. You’ll thank me for this.
When you’ve just arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport and head out to Paris, nothing is cheaper and faster than the train; plus, you don’t need to know French to understand it either. However, don’t even think about lugging a fat suitcase through the train station unless you don’t mind encountering the turnstiles from Hell. These turnstiles are exceedingly narrow, to begin with, and they give you the distinct impression that they are supposed to keep more people out than invite them in. Even if you manage to squeeze yourself through it with your bags like the last bit of toothpaste in a tube, you’ll lose any shred of esteem that your onlookers may have had when they first saw you. Therefore, a backpack or small carry-on suitcase on wheels, which you can easily lift, is essential here.
2. Once you’re in the city, meet your new best friend: the Paris metro train system.
At any metro station, ask for week-long, discounted passes with unlimited rides all day. Paris has even more metro stops than New York City, making it extremely convenient to get around. The metro is very easy to use, and you’ll need to use it because everyone in the city gives directions according to the metro stops anyway. The unlimited-rides feature of these metro passes will be your saving grace when you will inevitably get lost after discovering that one Parisian intersection can connect up to six streets due to those “magnifique” roundabouts — the American’s Rubik’s Cube of traffic obstacles.
Just be aware that the subways do stop running after 12:40 a.m. on weekdays or 1:40 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays — and by all means, enjoy the ride. Local Parisians on the train are fascinating and unpredictable; they may suddenly start staring at your face and sketching it in a book if you look interesting enough, and they especially love to kiss each other in any public location at any time without embarrassment. If you don’t know any French, all you need to remember is that “sortie” is the exit. Otherwise, you’ll never find your way out of the stations filled with vending machines selling Toblerone bars, wandering musicians with accordions and ladies in stiletto heels and blue jeans madly crossing paths in the colorfully tiled tunnels.
[Editor’s note: Watch your wallet or purse on the subway. On our first trip to Paris a friend was pickpocketed in the first 15 minutes in the city in the subway.]
You might be wondering, “What about the bus system?”
I did, but unless you know French, just don’t bother. You can get around, but it’s a serious test of patience and navigation skills for many non-French speakers. Worsening the situation is the fact that a great majority of Parisians find nothing more annoying than a lost American in Paris who can’t speak French. You’ll want to avoid asking questions until you’re really desperate, and then you should only ask hotel-desk employees for directions if you want a complete answer in English.
A newer option to get around these days is renting a bicycle.
You can subscribe to the local bicycle service, and then you just pick up or drop off your bicycle at more than 1,000 bicycle service stations in and around Paris! However, bicycles aren’t recommended unless you’re staying in the city for more than a week because you’ll find so many enticing little places to stop – everywhere you go — that walking just makes more sense. Besides, the subway gets you across long distances more quickly and efficiently when that’s what you need.
3. Stay at a hostel.
Don’t worry; they’re clean, safe, and affordable. Parisian hotels are pricey because Paris is the ninth-most expensive city in the world, according to The Telegraph in 2015. The other added value of hostels is that they let you meet the most interesting, friendly people who can share their own travel tips with you. Nothing beats a potluck dinner with your hostel mates in the shared kitchen to taste the best of your food findings from around the city.
4. Savor high-class street food.
Eat pizzas and pastries – which are some of the best – from sidewalk delis that are inexpensive and require no spoken French to order from. Just point out what you want; the “point and serve” philosophy never fails. You can’t go wrong anywhere since the French are famous for their high standards when it comes to food. All of their chocolates make American sweets look like lifeless bits of sugar, and you can say the same for all their pastries.
5. Buy boxed wine from the local supermarkets.
Yes, you may feel that no good-tasting wine could possibly come in something that looks like an over-sized juice box container, but it’s the best-tasting wine for your newly exchanged dollars in town. The French would feel too embarrassed to sell anything that tastes cheap – even cheap wine.
6. See the city on foot at night – It’s free and exquisite.
Paris is at her finest after sunset. That’s when even her Eiffel Tower really comes alive with a special glow that takes you back in time to bygone eras of mythical vampires, blood-thirsty revolutionaries, poets, and kings. The distances between main attractions are easy and enjoyable to walk between. In fact, you could easily check out several sights like the Notre Dame cathedral, Arc de Triomphe or Eiffel Tower all in one evening. These attractions are all free — unless you wait in a huge line to buy an elevator ticket to the top of the Eiffel Tower.
7. Don’t change money near the biggest tourist attractions.
Exchange rates are generally terrible in these places. Unless you have a special credit card with travel benefits like no fees for overseas charges, just take out what you need in advance from the ATM to pay for everything in cash. Visa cards and Mastercards are the best – Amex cards aren’t accepted everywhere, so leave those at home.
8. Skip The Louvre to see Chateau de Versailles instead.
The most valuable thing a local Parisian ever told me was that “The Chateau de Versailles is the only thing you really have to see,” and I’m glad I listened. Only art buffs should see The Louvre because entry tickets are expensive, and it would take a good week to really see it all. Plus, the Mona Lisa is actually a small painting that you can’t even get really close to.
However, Chateau de Versailles is a truly awe-inspiring palace that belonged to the most famous French monarchs. You can cover the highlights of it within one day, and it’s not so expensive. Just take a quick train ride out of the city and spend a few hours going back in time as you roam the grand grounds where Napoleon and King Louis lived with their mistresses and admirers from the court. The architecture and gardens with fountains large enough to sail a ship on are something to marvel at. The whole scene is a phantasmic escape into a place set apart from time where men either believed they were gods or servants of gods, and these gods could never get enough of anything – until bloodthirsty revolutionaries stormed the palace and chopped off their heads.
To this day, Paris still feels like a hub of rebellious bohemians who mix passionate decadence with the timeless ideals of a stubborn patriotism, and they’re all dancing around the remains of historical riches that carry the whispers of romance and broken hearts on the chilly night air. Therefore, I urge you to take my advice and soak up this city — which doesn’t have even one dull block in it between the independently owned street cafes, bakeries, artists, wild musicians, and couture shops – because, yes, you can afford it. Plus, your first bite of a French chocolate truffle with a glass of wine will make you glad you came.
9. Walk the St Martin’s Canal
Editor: I love this little corner of Paris that most tourists don’t get to. The St Martin’s Canal is an old barge canal that cuts through Paris to the Seine. I first learned about it in a walking tour in the Eyewitness Travel Guide to France. While walking along the canal I saw this couple sitting by one of the locks. When I am old, if all goes well you will find me sitting here with my wife.