Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to let you in on some personal nostalgia. The year is 1999, and I find myself staying at the Brighton hotel, in a room with view to the Tuileries garden. And no, ladies and gentlemen, I did not win the lottery at that year, nor was I sent on an exclusive mission by one of the grand journals, to write an article about Paris.
These were, quite simply, the last days of the French Franc, and the prices were so affordable that a young college student, who worked for a few months and got a little money from his parents, could afford staying in such a hotel, in the middle of September. A few years later, the Euro came into use, the prices increased exponentially, and ever since then vacation in Paris became a synonym for bankruptcy.
A true francophile, of course, does not let even a sharp increase in the prices stop him, and over the years I have developed methods for travelling in Paris on a relatively low budget. However, at the same time it is important to me that this would not at the expense of my enjoyment from the trip. Anyone who knows me a little is well-aware that there is nothing I hate more than cutting costs and expenses, to the point where you live in Paris like a beggar or a dog (and I’m not talking about the little terriers or the French bulldogs that take their owners to walks in the Tuileries or Luxembourg gardens, they have a pretty good life).
So here are a few tips that can help you plan a trip to the city of lights, and still remain with enough money for shopping or a guided tour with the Francophile 🙂
Flights to Paris
The flight to the city of lights is, without a doubt, one of the most significant expenses in the trip. Anyone who flies to Paris (or anywhere else in the world) knows that if you don’t travel business, it almost doesn’t matter which airline you’ll be taking (except, of course, airlines with a problematic safety or service record, which are simply unbearable).
Therefore, the flight is the first place in which you can save a substantial amount of money without harming your actual experience of the trip. Many suggest to try and reserve your plane tickets a long time in advance, but this is not always possible for various reasons. Therefore, we need a tool that tracks all of the existing flights, and helps finding the cheaper flights that suits each and every one of us.
A few years ago I heard of such a tool, and ever since I managed to save hundreds of dollars on flights to Paris. The name of the website is Skyscanner, and it will let you search extremely cheap flights, simply and easily. This website is very user-friendly, and through it I found quite a few bargains on flights to Paris, as well as to other destinations in the world. A little patience is the name of the game, and I assure you it will be worth it, big-time.
Before we continue: A French cabaret - A perfect way to end a perfect day in Paris
Getting to and from the airport in Paris
The cheapest way to get from the airport to the city of lights (and sometimes the fastest way as well, depends on the traffic) is using the suburban trains, the RERs (take RER B from both airports, Charles de Gaulle and Orly).
If you arrive on a Monday and plan to stay for at least 4 days, I highly recommend buying a Navigo card (that can be used as a weekly transportation ticket), which is valid between Monday and Sunday. Starting September 1st, 2015, the Navigo cards went through a “dezonage” reform, meaning that when you buy a Navigo (unlike a single metro ticket), you can travel with it in all five zones, including to the airport and back, as well as to the Château de Versailles.
If you arrive during the weekend, it would be better to simply buy a regular metro ticket. One more thing: if you decide to buy a Navigo, you should bring with you a proper passport photo of yourselves, otherwise you’ll have to take that photo in place, which will make things more expensive.
If you are going to stay in the Opera station area, another good choice is Roissy Bus, a direct bus from Charles de Gaulle airport to the Opera. The cost is 11 Euros per person, but a Navigo card also includes this bus. Before deciding to take the bus, though, it is highly recommended to check the state of traffic on the way to Paris and in the city itself.
If you wish to give yourself a little treat, and pay an additional sum of 5-10 Euros per person, there are many shared shuttles and transport services that offer you a ride all the way to your hotel.
Travelling in Paris
Buying a Carnet
If you decided not to purchase the Navigo card, I highly recommend buying a Carnet. This is actually a pack of 10 individual tickets sold together for a “jumbo price”, which can be used in both the Metro and the bus lines. Since one of the best things to do in Paris (that also doesn’t cost anything) is to simply wander around its streets, these tickets will make is possible for you to do so without collapsing from lack of energy (which is very important, as I had to learn for myself the hard way).
Rent a bicycle
Fellow Francophiles have recommended renting bicycle for 8 Euros a week, and using them to get to every corner of Paris. What you do is not actually to rent a bicycle, but rather to make a weekly subscription for Vélib’, the Parisian public “rent-a-bike”. There are about 1,800 stations with over 20,000 bikes all over the city and in the close suburbs, as well as a phone app which lets you check if there are any available bicycles and/or free places in any certain station, and where is the station closest to your location.
Accommodation in Paris
Short stay rental apartments
Although Parisian apartments are not as cheap as they used to be. However, if you’re more than 2 people then their prices would probably be cheaper than those of an average hotel. On top of this renting an apartment allows you to eat breakfast and perhaps dinner at home, which will not only save you money but will help you to take full advantage of the culinary options found in the Parisian food markets (I recommend eating lunch in a restaurant, in order to maintain the continuity of the day, and also because many restaurants offer special lunch menus, or menu midi, for better prices than the ordinary).
In the past I was using the services of Airbnb but since they have increased their commissions and extra costs, like cleaning, I started looking for other options. A year ago I found out the Booking.com started offering apartments as well and these apartments have no hidden or extra costs! So after a thorough research I have created my rental apartments page, which would allow you to find the best apartments in Paris. Check it out often, as I keep adding new apartments, and there is a very good chance that you’ll find a bargain.
Although I love staying in apartments sometimes they may not be the best solution for everyone. For example: If you arrive at 03:00 in the morning I’m not sure that the owner of the apartment will be happy to wait for you with the keys. I’m also not sure that you would like to take the risk of coming to the apartment at that time and finding out that the owner forgot to leave you the keys (and, believe me, things like this happened more than once).
So in can you’re looking for an hotel I would recommend checking out my Parisian hotels page. In this page you’ll find hotels in which I’ve stayed in the past and liked, or hotels, which were recommended to me by other Francophiles. For each hotel I have added links to Booking.com, Expedia, Hotels.com and Travelor, so once you find an hotel, which you like you can easily compare the prices and get the best available room for the cheapest rate.
International calls from Paris
Long gone are the days when we would fly to Paris and simply disconnect from the world (or, in the worst case, buy a 7 Euro call card from the Tabac shop and call home, mostly to calm down the nervous parental units). Personally, I loved this disconnection from everything and the serenity it bring with it. However, since the creation of the website, and due to my wishes to keep the francophiles updated on my adventures in Paris via Instagram, I had to start searching for communication solutions that would make the website available for update throughout the day. So, how do you do it without having to reach deep into our pockets?
Use the WIFI and the free phone calls at the apartment
Almost in any apartment, and in some of the hotels, there is free WIFI, which can be used for making Skype or Whatsapp calls, uploading photos you took during your trip in Paris, and more. The advantage in apartments is that many of them have a landline, from which you can call many landlines (but not mobile phones) all over the world for free.
Buy a local SIM card or a cellular data package
Since I have to be available all the time, even outside the apartment, and since I can’t trust the free WIFI in Paris (which is mostly in Starbucks, and some other rare stores or coffee shops – and make no mistake, the network “Free” appearing on your phone is not actually free, it’s a name of one of the cellular service providers), I decided to check my options for purchasing a local SIM card. The main providers – Orange, SFR and Bouygues Telecom, sell SIM cards in every selling point, and some pre-paid call/data SIM cards in various supermarkets and stores. You just have to find the type that fits your phone. If you buy a SIM card in a provider’s store, you can ask for a program (forfait, pronounced “forfae”) that gives you certain amount of free minutes/text messages, and/or data volumes.
Another option is to make a bit of research in your own country – the various mobile phone companies and providers sometimes offer good calls and data packages, for reasonable prices, that can be bought before your flight and activated once you arrive in France. The main advantage of this option is that it allows you to keep your regular phone number in case of need, but also, it saves you the time to go looking for a certain type of SIM card – and if you don’t have a SIM card at all, or if your phone is locked, this is definitely the best option for you.
Eat with a budget in Paris, and enjoy the culinary experience
Following the hotel and the flight, the food expenses are usually the highest ones (especially if you travel to Paris with your family). On the other hand, Paris offers the best food in the world, and giving up on all that it can offer and settle for a sandwich, or even (oh, my) a McDonald’s hamburger, is utterly a sin. So, how can you eat for a reasonable budget in Paris without compromising on the culinary experience? Here are a few tips.
Eat breakfast in your apartment
Rent an apartment, and eat your breakfasts and/or dinners there. There is nothing that tastes better than a freshly-baked baguette bought in the neighborhood boulangerie (open until 20:00, btw), along with some butter and/or cheese you bought in a fromagerie or cremerie? To that, add some charcuterie (sausages and cold cuts) and vegetables you bought in the market, wrap up with one of the wonderful patisseries offered in any patisserie store and in most of the boulangeries, which I assure you can be found near your apartment (you can also ask the owners of the apartment where you can buy the best food in the area, I’m sure they will be happy to help).
These will most definitely be some of the best meals you’ll have in the city of lights, and they will certainly cost much less than the “breakfasts” served in cafes or hotels (and usually include a croissant, hot beverage, orange juice and a tartine, which is a piece of baguette with butter and/or jam).
Have lunch in one of the Parisian restaurants recommended in this website
During my 20+ visits in Paris I managed to eat in quite a few restaurants. Unfortunately, most of them were quite mediocre, however I developed, slowly but surely, methods to recognise good and inexpensive restaurants, to which I return every time I visit the city of lights. You can find these restaurants in the restaurant section of this website, which gets updated every time I travel to Paris or get a recommendation from a reliable person. That way you can save yourselves some horrors, and enjoy good meals without tearing a hole in your pockets.
Drink tap water
One thing worth knowing when visiting Paris is that the tap water are very good there. Not only are they drinkable, they also have very reasonable taste. So, when you go to a restaurant, instead of buying mineral water, and if you don’t mind giving up the sodas (which can be bought in the supermarkets for a much cheaper price anyway), ask the waiter to give you a pitcher of water, or carafe d’eau (pronounced Caraf D’o). According to the French law, restaurants have to provide tap water to their customers for free. Also, if the restaurant staff is nice, they will give you some nice, cool water, which is much better than a warm glass of tap water on a hot summer day.
Use the website/app The Fork and get amazing discounts
About a year ago, when I was staying at the apartment in rue de Charenton, the apartment manager told me about the website and/or smartphone app The Fork, which saves money in some restaurants if you reserve your place there through it. The idea is very simple – in order to fill up the restaurant in the busy hours, many restaurants appearing on the website offer special menus or even discounts of up to 50% (!) on all the menu.
All you have to do is reserve your spot via the website/app, and show the reservation to the waiters. When you get the check at the end of your meal, the discount will already be included. I tried it quite a few times, and ladies and gentlemen – it works!
A few words of advice regarding The Fork, though: when you reserve a place in a restaurant that offers discounts, read the fine print – most of the restaurants will only provide the discount if everyone at the table order first+main courses or main course+dessert. Some restaurants include the drinks in the discount, others don’t. This is worth knowing in advance.
Attractions in Paris
Visit free museums
This is not common knowledge among tourists, but some of the best and most beautiful museums in Paris are actually free. The best examples are the Carnavalet museum for the history of Paris, or Victor Hugo’s house, which is located not far from it. The wonderful churches and cathedrals of Paris, such as the Notre Dame de Paris (also known simply as the Notre Dame), Saint Eustache or Notre Dame de Lorette, which are, in many ways, sort-of museums, are also completely free of charge (unless you wish to donate, light a candle, purchase souvenirs, etc.).
Try making it to Paris on the 1st Sunday of the month
One of the secret known mostly to locals is the fact that on the first Sunday of every month, all of the grand museums, such as the Louvre or the Orsay are open to the public, free of charge. If you manage to plan your trip so that you’re in Paris at that time, you win, big-time.
Buy the Paris Museum Pass
It is well-known that there is one single thing that is more precious than money, and that is time. Therefore, if you plan on museum-hopping during your trip in Paris, I highly recommend purchasing the Paris Museum Pass, which lets you enter dozens of the most important museums in Paris for 2, 4 or 6 days. With this ticket you win twice – firstly, you save money (if you go to two of the grand museums every day, plus an attraction or two), and secondly, you save time, since this ticket allows you to skip the queues and enter via a separate entrance, reserved to the Paris Pass owners.
That said, keep in mind that if you only wish to visit a single museum every day, check and see if buying this ticket is really worth it. For the right kind of people, a ticket like this can save a lot of money. But if you arrive to Paris with children, for example, it is highly unlikely that you’ll manage to roam museums all day, every day.
Before we continue: some very interesting exhibitions in Paris
These were my tips regarding how to lower the cost of your next Parisian vacation without ruining it and I hope that you’ll find them useful. If you have more tips about this subject then I would love to hear them. So feel free to contact me or simply leave a comment and I would be more than add your tip to this article (with a full credit of course).