Ooo La La — Paris in the spring! I have been back a little over a week from my first trip out of the country, other than Canada, which I don’t think really counts. Paris has always been the one place in the world I have wanted to go and my handsome husband did not want to go with me. Apparently I nearly killed him on our trip to Chicago last summer – he calls it the Death March! But he knew it was my dream and worked it out that I could travel with my sister on a girl trip to Paris — he hates it when I call him sweet, but this one put him in the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory category of sweet!
I am feeling kind of random as I write this list, so it’s not going to be all that organized — just a random list of tidbits, tips, tricks and things I learned on my trip and found interesting and helpful. Here is probably a good place to do a shout out our tour guide, Patrick, from Go Ahead Tours. He did an amazing job of teaching us how to explore Paris on our own with his Metro, Taxi, Restaurant, Safety and French lessons. Just so you know — I am not a paid travel blogger — just a farm girl from Iowa sharing some tips she picked up on the trip of her life.
- If this is your first trip abroad consider going with a tour group — choose one that is flexible and allows you to do some exploring on your own. Ok, here is another plug for Go Ahead Tours — and the tour I took with my sister — Paris, The City Experience. We were in Paris for 5 days in one hotel to really get to know the city. I really liked that they didn’t herd us around like cattle, which we saw with some groups — they taught us how to get around, provided ideas for adventures, and let us experience Paris in our own ways. When we needed some hand holding or wanted a more guided experience they were there. I feel like I can go on my own the next time if I want to — and there will be a next time.
- Don’t go to Paris in August — it is hot and there is literally no air conditioning in the city — not in the hotels, restaurants or apartments. May and September are the best times. Not as many tourists and a better chance for cooler days.
- Call your cellphone company before you leave to see what kind of plans they have for a temporary International trip. Verizon offered a $10 per day plan for unlimited texts, data and local calls. The best part is you only pay for days that you actually use your phone.
- Don’t get a lot of Euros in the states — Most of the exchange places at banks and airports will charge you a hefty fee. Patrick, our guide told us that the best place to get Euros was the ATM machine near our hotel. No big fees and I really like that it actually asked what mix of denominations we wanted. Also you should know that the smallest bill is the 5 Euro bill — it is also handy to hang on to the coins you get for change for tipping. They have 1 and 2 Euro coins, as well as, smaller coins. As of May 2017 a Euro was worth $1.09.
- Purchase a theft proof purse or backpack –– they are reasonably priced and I only paid $45 for mine, but you can find some deals on Ebay also. There are pick pockets everywhere in Paris, with the biggest threats in the Metro, the Eiffel Tower, and other highly visited tourist sites. You need to keep your bag close to your body and even think about putting your backpack in the front. It is also wise to put some money and credit cards in several different spots when you are out and about such as using a money belt under your clothes.
- When you’ve finished packing for your trip, take 1/2 of it back out and leave it at home– The French dress up more than we do, but they really aren’t fancy, just well dressed and have great shoes — so please leave your flipflops, yoga and capri pants at home. Two pairs of comfortable, nice looking black slacks, a good pair of dark jeans, several tops that go with everything, a good sweater that can double as a jacket, two or three easy care dresses, and 2 pair of comfortable walking shoes will be more than enough for a week. I got a great pair of walking sandals that looked good with dresses, but a pair of ballet slippers works too. If you start here you can add some accessories, another sweater or two for a cool evening, an umbrella and rain coat. Keep with one or two accent colors so you can mix and match everything. Choose fabrics that are light and easy to layer, which don’t require ironing. And buy a few pretty scarfs in Paris — they are everywhere and not expensive and are great for added color.
- Get a good, easy care haircut before you leave — You are going to be out and about and chances are it will be humid and possibly breezy — so don’t sweat it — put it up or embrace your curls! We called it Paris hair, so unless you are going to a royal ball, you really don’t spend a lot of time on hair, the French women don’t and they look terrific.
- Jet Lag is real. Take an overnight flight if you can on your way to Paris — Depending on where in the country you leave from there is a 6 to 9 hour time difference. I found this the hardest part of the trip — the airline flight, so if you can sleep at all it is very helpful. Wear loose fitting comfortable clothing in layers for the flight, but keep in mind you will be going to your hotel in the the next day so you won’t want to look too sloppy. I wore soft jean leggings that really looked like jeans, a burgundy over-sized long soft sweater with a navy blue long knit jacket. I also suggest you don’t sleep when you get to Paris. It was about noon Paris time when we landed. It is better just to freshen up at your hotel and then go do a little sight-seeing and go to bed at a normal time. I didn’t make it past 8:00 pm the first night and regret not making myself stay up at least until 9:00 pm. I was wide awake at 2:00 AM….
- Use the safe in your room —Put your passport, a credit card or two and some cash (Euros) in it and lock it every day when you are gone. Carry a copy of your passport. Also make sure you open up the safe your last night at the hotel. Often the safes are powered by batteries and they can die leaving you unable to get back into it in the morning you need to leave. It is likely that no one at the hotel can fix the issues and they will need to call a service. Sadly you may not be able to get to your passport and valuables if you have an early morning flight.
- Don’t forget a power converter —Most of our devices work with no issues with a simple converter, however, I guess there may be be issues with hot hair curlers and flatirons going up in flames — so make sure you get a converter that will work with all of your electric items.
- Learn how to use the Metro (subway) — it’s easy, but you do have to manually open the door or you may miss your connection. It is pretty similar to American subways and easy to get around. There are also many Metro stations throughout the city so you should not have to go far to find one. You should always take note of what the far end station is on your route to ensure you are going the correct direction.
- Taxis are not that expensive and a safe way to travel — After a long day of shopping, walking through museums or sight-seeing it is easy and affordable to take a taxi home. The most my sister and I paid to get back to our hotel was $13.00. It is also handy to have something with your hotel’s address information printed on it — this helps the taxi drivers understand where you need to go.
- Make sure you have a map and learn how to use it — Using an old fashioned map in Paris is really handy. The streets are not neatly laid out in straight lines and almost all major intersections are circular and have multiple streets spoking out from them. Because the cross walks are not at a corner your GPS seems a little crazy sending you a few steps down one street to cross then the other direction for a few steps to get back to the street it wants you to take — we found GPS to be more confusing than using a regular map and when necessary find out where the sun is to get your bearings. Also because I’m an idiot — I didn’t think about that just because the arrow on my GPS map was pointing one direction that I was actually going that direction.
- The French are really lovely people, it is a myth that they are all rude — Most of the people that you will encounter have some English skills, however, you should still learn a few basic words in French, it will go a long way. These are the same words your grandmother or parents would expect from you — Please (S’il vous plaît), Thank You (Merci), Pardon (Pardon), Hello (Bonjour), Good Bye (Au Revoir). Being polite is universal in the world — Be Polite! There are lots of apps to help you learn a little French available but I like this free phone app — it very easy to use and helpful. French by Nemo Free Language Learning App for iPhone and iPad. I practiced while mowing the lawn — no one could hear me butcher the accent!
- Most areas in Paris are residential, as well as commercial — I found it fascinating that almost every area we visited in Paris, there were Parisians carrying on with their everyday life. It was fun to see families on bicycles, kids and adults on push scooters, and little parks with playgrounds throughout the city. Often the buildings had stores and restaurants on the street level, store owners living on the second floor, luxury apartments on the 3rd floor and 4th floor are typically tiny apartments that had a past life of maids quarters.
- There are very few public restrooms — You can always go to any cafe to use a restroom. Just make sure you buy something. The easiest thing to do is go to the bar if they have one or a table that is not set and order a coffee, which is basically the cost of using the “toilette”. The reason you want to go to a unset table is that they expect you to order food at a table that is set and will charge you more. The French are also very environmentally aware, every restroom I used was clean and used newer low water technologies — even in the oldest of Bistros. Money Saving Note: You can also save up to 40% on your drink by standing at the bar.
- Do as the Parisians do — slow down — you will not see “anyone” with a coffee in a paper cup to go. The Parisians go to the cafe, sit down to have their coffee and relax for a bit. Notice in the picture that the chairs are facing out to the street so they can people watch! One of the benefits from people not carrying out drinks etc. is that the streets are clean. You don’t see trash cans and the streets are very clean. I also did not smell that “garbage” smell you often smell in cities where they have thrown out a lot of food behind the restaurants.
- When ordering Coffee you will probably get a tiny cup of espresso — If espresso is too strong for you, order a Cafè Americano or Americano, which is a style of coffee prepared by brewing espresso with added hot water, giving it a similar strength to, but different flavor from drip coffee A Café au lait will be espresso with steamed milk and foam. It is unsweetened and you add your own if you prefer it sweet.
- Tipping is different in France — Your meal already has a 15% tip included in your bill. It is OK to leave a small tip of your change of a euro or 2 (5%) if service is good. Remember in France the meal is an experience that people linger over, so service may seem slow to Americans, but it’s not about getting more customers through, it’s about enjoying your meal and conversation of your dinner companions.
- Save money by watching for deals at restaurants — Avoid restaurants with the “We speak English” sign. Some will also have all-in-one deals. The French use different terminology for their courses which is important to note — their deal will say it includes an entree, plate and dessert and sometimes a bottle of wine. An entree in France is not the main dish, but what we think of as the starter or appetizer, the plate is the main dish and dessert is dessert. Also ordering the house wine in France is a money saving option — it is very good and you can get a carafe of it as well for your table. Parisians don’t start going out to dinner until 8:30/9:00 pm so you might consider going out around 7:00 pm when restaurants open for dinner.
- The tap water is safe and very good — Save money by ordering tap water instead of mineral water “carafe d’eau”. If you just ask for water you will get the higher cost option.
- Have picnic of a baguette, cheese and wine at least once on your trip — Enjoy the simple pleasures and save some money by enjoying a simple lunch or dinner in one of the delightful parks all over Paris.
- Paris is not as expensive has you think — My sister and I found lots of very affordable Paris shopping opportunities. I bought a beautiful purse on the Champs-Élysées for no more than I would pay at a good department in the states. Yes, you could spend a lot at some upscale stores if you were so inspired, but we found many stores with fun cute clothes and items for American Mall prices. For those of you who want to bring back souvenirs there are lots of reasonably priced items — my sister and I cleaned up in the Montmartre area which was the least expensive of any of the areas we visited — fun, fun, fun. Lots of restaurants, artists, beautiful, historic churches and a gorgeous view of the city — but more on that in another blog.
- Sales tax is built in to the price — You can get a tax back form if you spend more than 175 Euro in one store on a single day to claim between 12 to 15% tax when you leave the country.
- Get out of the city at least once on your trip — Monet’s Garden in Giverny was one of the highlights for me on our trip. It is only about an hour and 1/2 into Normandy and I loved, loved, loved the gardens. So worth the trip, but go early to beat the crowds.
I guess that is enough for one blog – I’ll be writing a series of blogs on my trip to Paris — too many wonderful things to talk about in one blog. I’ll sprinkle other tips in upcoming blogs also. I am hoping to inspire you to get out there and experience the world!
Ready, Set, Go!