Total Pageviews

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Paris on A Shoe-String

Traveling to Paris on the cheap is not impossible, even though the exchange rate is less than favorable for the dollar these days (one Euro costs around $1.21), but the trade-off is you have to be flexible. If chocolates on your pillow each night is what you desire then this type of vacation probably isn’t for you. But if you are open to adventure and take pleasure in the simpler joys of life then you can visit Paris, have a remarkable time, and not break the bank in the process.

I set my daily budget at 75 Euro (about $100.00) per day, including hotel. Somedays I spent a bit less, somedays more, but at the end of the week I was right on target.

Of course getting there is one of the most expensive aspects of traveling anywhere outside of the U.S. However finding the cheapest airfare is as far away as the Internet. Sites like www.cheapfares.com and www.mylowfare.com for examples allow you to find the best airline prices available. The cheapest I found was about $800.00. I noticed too that airfares change daily, so if they are high one day, keep checking. You can save a few hundred dollars and some fly-time too if you depart from JFK in New York or Logan airport in Boston.

As far as accommodations were concerned, once again it was the Internet to the rescue. I just entered “hostel – Paris” at www.google.com and found a slue of options - www.gomio.com or www.hiphophostels.com for examples. At first I tried to make reservations at one centrally located hostel, but they didn’t take reservations over the Internet, only by fax, which was neither convenient (since I don’t have a fax at home) nor cheap. I called Kinko’s and it would cost about $7.00 to send the fax. Additionally they only had a room for the first two nights, not the whole week. After a little more searching I found a hostel in the Montmarte section of Paris called Le Montclair (www.montclair-hostel.com), at the northern end of the city.

Traveling alone or not, hostels are reasonable and plentiful in Paris, and definitely the best way to economize accommodations. And really, how much time do you plan to spend in your room while on vacation anyway? They used to be called youth hostels, but I noticed at Le Montclair that there were all ages represented – some guests were in their fifties and sixties. The hostel wasn’t just for kids, nor was it all dorm rooms.

If you are considering traveling solo, then the dorm would be the best choice, at 25 Euro per night. However unlike the Marriott or Hilton, there were no elevators at Le Montclair, so with five stories to climb and descend, being “youthful” or at least somewhat in shape is helpful.

I viewed the stairs as a fabulous opportunity to get a daily “stair-master” workout without even trying. I have to admit that my first time up the modified spiral staircase I was a bit winded and slightly dizzy, and I did have to pause on at least one landing. But by the end of the week I was sprinting up and down the stairs like a pro. (However, I won’t kid you – with all the walking we did, not a day went by that I wasn’t popping Advil like breath mints.)

My friend and I shared a room with a shower and sink for 50 Euro a night, including “le petit dejeuner” (breakfast) consisting of coffee, tea or hot chocolate, orange juice and hard rolls.

For 4 additional Euro we could have had a toilet in the room, but instead opted for the shared bathroom in the hall, which worked fine. There were two available on each floor so there was never a wait.

My one complaint was that the mattress was a bit lumpy…it felt like I was lying on a box spring. But honestly I was so exhausted by the end of each day I never had a problem sleeping. We also had a few little sugar ants sharing the room with us, but they didn’t cause any problems.

The great thing about this hotel, as with most hostels, was that it had a kitchen and dining area in the basement with a small refrigerator and stovetop with pots and pans and utensils. You could make your dinner there if you chose, as we did several nights, and save oodles of Euro. A hearty dinner for two, including potato-leek soup, cheese, wine, baguette and fruit cost less than 13 Euro. It was cool to shop at the local markets just like a real Parisian. I also bought a geranium for 2.5 Euro at the beginning of the week and put it on our windowsill for ambience, and at the end of our stay gave it to the staff at the front desk.

The hotel had four computers and had Internet access in the lobby area, which cost 2 Euro for half an hour, so I was able to check my email from time to time.

Since we were only planning on being in Paris for one week we decided to limit our explorations to within the city limits. For transportation we each purchased a Metro Pass called “Carte Orange” which gave us unlimited use of the subway system for the week for 15 Euro (about $20.00). I found the Metro (www.paris.org/Metro/) to be convenient, fast, clean and economical.

We decided to do walking tours of different areas of the city during our stay based on a tour book (hence the need for the Advil). Walking tours are a great way to learn about the City, and of course save money.

One day we walked through an old cemetery chock full of gorgeous markers. It was like a little city. Turned out there was only one entrance and exit. I was beginning to think the only way out was to die there.

Another day we walked a route that led to the Basillica Sacre Coeur (Sacred Heart Church) on the top of a hill within the Montmarte section of Paris, near our hotel. And still another day we walked along the Champs-Elysees, and on the two small islands on the Seine River where the Notre-Dame Cathedral is located and where Paris started in 52 AD - the Ile de la Cite, and Ile Saint-Louis.

Of course we went to see the Eiffel Tower (www.tour-eiffel.fr/teiffel/uk/) and chose to go to the second level for 7 Euro each. The view from this level was excellent. We could have walked to the second floor for 3 Euro, but it was freezing cold and windy the day we were there, so the extra 4 Euro was worth it. We chose not to go to the top which cost 16 Euro because the line was long and it was too chilly. (The locals said it was unseasonably cool for late spring.) Hot chocolate was definitely needed for a couple Euro, but it was essential since my fingers were turning blue.

One lunch we had a picnic of bread, cheese wine and chocolate in the Tuilleries Park on the grounds around the Louvre - cheap but delicious, and what scenery! You can buy wine just about anywhere in Paris for less than 3 Euro (about $5.00) and that was perfectly delightful for us.

We didn’t go inside the Louvre (admission fee 13 Euro) primarily because we were running out of time and the place is just massive. However I did check out another small gem of a museum nearby called Musee de L’Orangerie www.musee-orangerie.fr/documents/anglais.pdf (so named because it used to house orange trees) for 6.50 Euro. It recently reopened after years of renovations. Inside were Picassos, Matisses, and Renoirs, C├ęzannes and other impressionists, as well as two oval-shaped rooms that showcased the Nymphs – Monet’s water lilies. Best of all taking photographs and video in the museum was allowed.

Another day we went to the French Tennis Open at Roland Garros (www.rolandgarros.com) which was on the Metro line. We were there during the early qualifying rounds and so were able to get in for only 16 Euro each…much less than the cost later in the tournament, but still enjoyable to see the grounds and watch the lesser known tennis players up close.

A couple of suggestions before you travel. The electricity in Europe runs at a different frequency than in the states, so if you plan on taking along any appliances make sure to buy an adapter before you leave. It only costs a couple of dollars and any Radio Shack should have one. I bought mine a couple weeks in advance at http://staples.com to use to recharge my digital camera batteries and it worked great.

Of course you will want to make sure you have a current passport, though visas are not required, nor are any vaccinations needed. If you don’t have a passport give yourself a couple of months before you travel to get one, or else you will have to pay extra to have it expedited. I was able to get my passport processed through the local post office. You can heck out www.iafdb.travel.state.gov for the location nearest to you.

The day before my trip I went to AAA ((www.AAA.com) and bought $200 worth of Euro, which was helpful when I arrived to pay for the train from the airport (8 Euro) and the Metro. If you don’t belong to AAA, then any national bank will exchange US currency for the Euro. Once in Paris using my ATM card was convenient and simple, and Master Card and Visa also were accepted at the hotel and at most restaurants. It was my experience that they charge the meal on the card, but expect the tip in Euro. For information on the latest exchange rates, check out www.x-rates.com/d/USD/table.html.

Bistros, pastry shops, cheese shops and little bookstores were ubiquitous in Paris. And much to my satisfaction and relief franchises such as McDonalds and Starbucks were few and far between. I only saw one of each while in France.

The souvenirs at the tourist spots were expensive and chintzy, but if you go to the neighborhood “Euro” store (like our “Dollar” store) you can find some unique, fun and reasonably priced gifts. Post cards averaged about 1.5 Euro each, and postcard stamps cost 0.55 Euro.

I found that the French dressed impeccably, with a grace and style that was distinctive. I was surprised to observe that the dogs in France for the most part walked along side their owners without leashes, something I never see in the states.

The French people were at times kind and helpful and at other times impatient and annoyed with me, but I found it all interesting and amusing. Most people speak varying degrees of English, and many speak it quite well, so if you don’t know French it is not an issue generally in Paris. In fact I wanted to practice my rudimentary French to the consternation of some who just wanted to tell me the answer to my question in English, but I was determined to learn, regardless of how ridiculous I sounded. And sure enough by the end of the week my French had improved.

When I first arrived in the city I had couldn’t find the hotel. I walked for quite a while with a heavy backpack, suitcase and in high heels (what was I thinking?). Finally I asked a taxi driver for directions, assuming that he might speak English and know where my hotel was. After trying for a few frustrating minutes to communicate directions, he smiled and said, “I take you - free,” and did. Now, I ask you, would that ever happen in New York?