Paris Trip Report, Part 5: Tips for Vacationing in Paris I


I learned a few things about vacationing in Paris while I was there with my family. Some of them were things I could adapt to on the fly, others were things that it would have been much more helpful to know going in. The purpose of this segment is to impart my “lessons learned” in order to help you get the most out of your stay in Paris.

Background

As quick background, I went with my wife, our 2 oldest daughters (ages 13 and 10) and my mother. As such, this was a family vacation. My mother was able to watch the kids for us whenever we asked, so there were opportunities to get out alone for my wife and me as well. But, for the most part, this advice will be geared toward a group of people, likely first-timers to Paris, who are interested in seeing the tourist sites and having a nice vacation.

When to Go

My wife is a teacher and my kids are in year-round school. As such, it’s a little tricky to find times when everyone is free to do something together. To make it even trickier, we needed to go on American Airlines, off-peak. It became so tricky, in fact, that the only times we could find that matched up were in August and over winter break. From what I understand, August in Paris is completely dead. many of the (boutique) shops are closed, hours can be shortened, and the city is notably absent of Parisians. Winter was too far away (we were booking in October/November of 2011 and looking at 2012). As a result, we didn’t really find a time where we were all free. We settled on option 2—find a time when my wife is free and never mind the kids, so the kids had to miss a week of school (I know, they were crushed).

Long story around booking cut short, we found flights and headed to Paris in April over my wife’s spring break. As a quick tip, I’m not sure that April was the best choice. The weather was a little drizzly about half of the days, though that could have been coincidence (it was nice on a few of the days). However, the crowds were overwhelming. Lines were Disney-long everywhere (the Museum Pass doesn’t let you bypass as much as it implies), and honestly, the tour groups were quite rude. Many of them physically pushing their way through shoulder-to-shoulder crowds in some locations. I’m talking about putting hands on you and pushing you out of their way, literally.

In retrospect, maybe the “dead” time of August (which may not be so dead) would have been better. August is pretty much a “head-to-beach” time for much of western Europe, so the crowds would be lessened. Again, though, if you’re after the boutique experience, be careful as many shops will be closed.

Figuring out Where to Stay

I got lots of advice on this topic. Several people recommended renting an apartment near the downtown area in lieu of staying in a hotel. This would have saved on our need for a second room, and for many would have saved some hotel breakfast costs and given a more authentic feel to the vacation. In our situation (staying mostly on points), it was much cheaper to get a hotel than rent the apartment. Apartments of a size we needed were going for about 2 250€, whereas the hotel was around 500€ after points for two rooms/8 nights. So, if I go again, I’ll probably do the hotel thing again. The apartment, though, would work better if points were not involved.

I also got lots of advice on where we should physically stay. Pretty much everyone asked me, “Which arrondissement are you staying in?” I think that this question is a bit of a moot point unless you’re going to spend a lot of time wandering around right where you’re staying. For me, it was more about “how close are you to a train, and how long is the ride to most of the places you want to see?” As such, we chose a hotel that was on the east of the city, but immediately adjacent to (no streets to cross), an RER stop, had a nearby fruit stand, and commercial center (mall) with a grocery store. The RER connects to the Paris Métro using the same tickets, and our hotel was about 15 minutes from the Gare de Châtelet–Les Halles from which you can get just about wherever you want to go in about 10 minutes. As such, we were within about 25 minutes of anywhere we wanted to be (as opposed to within 15 minutes or so if we would’ve stayed downtown).

How to Get Around

This is an easy section. Public Transportation. Renting a car in Paris is a complete waste of time. Very few residents own cars, but the streets are nonetheless crowded and there is almost no parking. You are already going to be spending enough time waiting in lines, don’t add time looking for a parking spot to that! There are three main modes of public transportation (well, really 2), The RER, the Métro, and the RATP Busses. The RER and the Métro are pretty tightly coupled and can get you pretty much everywhere. We only did the bus once, and it was just to ride route 69 for a while (see the next post).

There are a few options when buying tickets:

  1. Single-route tickets
  2. Paris Visite tickets
  3. Mobilis tickets

I’m not really going to discuss single-route tickets, as they’re pretty obvious. And, at least for us, the only real value they brought was getting us to the airport at the end of the vacation for much less than a shuttle would have cost.

There is a lot of advertising and hubbub about the Paris Viste tickets. These tickets are valid for 1, 2, 3 or 5 consecutive days in zones 1-3 or 1-5. They are priced separately for adults and children and, though I saw no evidence of this, advertise discounts at some sites. For some people, this may be the best choice. We actually bought these twice (for 3 days each, all 5 zones) on the belief that it would be best for us.

The Mobilis tickets are valid for a single day of travel within selected zones (1 and 2, 1 to 3, 1 to 4, 1 to 5). We bought these tickets for our last two days after we realized that it was a bit cheaper for our travel patterns. Mobilis tickets price separately for adults, young adults, and children. These tickets don’t claim to offer any discounts, but will get you around on the trains and busses just as well as the Paris Visite.

As a case study, we had 3 adults, 1 13-year-old and 1 10-year-old. The 3-day Paris Visite tickets priced for 43,65€ x 4 + 21,80€ = 152,75€, or 50,92€ per day for our group to travel in all 5 zones. In our case, though, we really only needed travel in zones 1-4 (except for 1 trip to Versailles). The Mobilis tickets for travel in zones 1-4 price as follows: 10,55€ x 3 + <something less for the young adult> + <something even less for the child>. Our total Mobilis ticket purchase price was something that amounted to just under the Paris Viste pricing (I can’t find the ticketing information on the Internet). This was primarily due to the discounts for the kids, so YMMV.

Another option, which you would have to investigate, is picking up Navigo cards valid for the week you’re there (or for the month that you’re there if you’re there for a while). These are RFID-based and can be cheaper since they’re longer-term. Also, they will let you through some of the turnstiles that are restricted to only Navigo users (there are always 1-2 of them).

The last option, and this is very tongue-in-cheek, is to do what everyone else in Paris seems to do, and hop the turnstiles. Angry smile

What to See and How to See It

This report has gotten sufficiently long to warrant being broken into two parts on its own. As such, I will follow-up with the What to See and How to See It section in another post.

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