Paris is not for those of meager means.
One round-trip plane ticket from Washington Dulles International Airport – particularly in high season – can fetch $1,500. Halfway decent hotel rooms start at $300 per night – and that’s without WiFi and a morning croissant. A light lunch for four at any cafe on the Champs-Élysées will set you back a Franklin.
So, what’s a frugal family of four to do?
Do what we did. That’s myself; my wife, Evelyne; and our daughters Rachel, 19, and Rebecca, 14. With the will strong, but money thin, we did what any travel-savvy family would do: pinched pennies. Sometimes, we pinched to perfection. Sometimes, we seriously missed the mark. Here are our dos and don’ts for prudent Paris-lovers.
Our goal during five nights and six days in Paris – which we usually met, but not always – was to spend no more than a total $250 per day among the four of us. With our bargain accommodations price fixed at $150 per night, that left $100 per day for everything else. (That’s food, transportation, attractions and trinkets.) Some days, we undershot. But on days that we felt we were depriving ourselves by that limit, we overshot – then tried to make up for it the following day.
Feel free to mimic our dos; at the same time, learn from our don’ts. But keep in mind, we found that Paris truly comes to life for those willing to live a tad on the edge.
DO scan the Web for transportation deals.
For plane tickets, cheapest is not always best. Despite State Department warnings, we came within one whisker of booking on Turkish Airlines – which typically requires a flight into Istanbul. No other airline came close to its door-buster rates, briefly posted on Skyscanner.com at $795 round-trip. Several friends who had traveled on Turkish Airlines told us how great their flights were. But something stopped us. So we kept searching and found an unlikely summer deal on United’s website at just over $1,000 per round-trip ticket. Good thing we passed on the Turkish Airlines deal, by the way. The day before we left for Paris was the day after the failed coup attempt – which closed the airport in Istanbul for days.
DON’T stay at a hotel.
Your best bet in Paris is probably to do what we did: book via Airbnb.com. We knew that the odds of finding a hotel room for four at a budget price were low because, in Paris, it is common to add a charge for each guest after the first two; most hotels limit the number of guests in a room to three. So we set a limit of $150 per night for an apartment, and found one in the lively Montmartre area. The two-room apartment was bright, big and loaded with personality. It had a queen bed in the bedroom plus a pull-out couch and a cot in the living room. We forgave the fact that it was up three flights of narrow stairs and the building had no elevator. That’s Paris.
DO take the Paris Metro.
The Metro is how we got from the airport to our hotel, and it’s how we traversed Paris for six days. But DON’T get duped by the “All Day” pass. It’s expensive. Unless you plan to jump on the Metro at least six times daily, the pass isn’t worth it. The better deal is to purchase books of 10 tickets – which come at a discount and can be used anytime, by anyone.
Another reason to use the Metro: unexpected experiences. On our first day, Rebecca lost her flip-flop, which tumbled down to the electrified track. We jumped off the car and Evelyne pushed an intercom button requesting aid. An attendant instantly showed up carrying along wooden pole with a large plastic hook at the end, then radioed ahead and stopped the trains on one of the world’s busiest metro systems – for a flip-flop. She then used her magical stick to swipe it from the track below and hand it to Rebecca, unscathed.
DON’T pay inflated prices for Paris attractions.
Perhaps the most inflated of all are for the various Paris tourist passes sold online. While promoted as money-saving, time-saving deals, most are anything but.
The key to saving money is to ask questions. At the Eiffel Tower, we discovered that we could pass up the pricey elevator ride to the top, and instead buy far cheaper tickets to walk up the 669 stairs to the second floor. It feels like a special accomplishment when you plod your way up there, and it makes the panoramic view of Paris even more enjoyable.
Similarly, asking money-saving questions helped us out in the Paris museums. Rebecca got into all of them for free because she is under 18.
DO seek out free activities.
Observing from a park bench is a perfectly legitimate way to spend a day in Paris. We spent an afternoon watching Parisians be Parisians in the Tuileries Garden before continuing the walk down the Champs-Élysées.
An afternoon walking around the famous Marais district was no less enthralling . This is my favorite area of Paris – filled with cultural eye candy. Take any street that angles off the Centre Pompidou and keep walking. You can’t go wrong.
Sometimes, free experiences can be the most fun. While watching street artists near the Arc de Triomphe, Rachel was invited to assist one of the performers. Soon, she was a co-star – dancing, singing and hamming it up with the troupe. Some 30 minutes later, we not only had laughed our way through our favorite Paris street performance, we had a video, to boot, starring Rachel.
DON’T spend a lot on food.
We ate dinner in a restaurant nightly. But every morning – and most afternoons – we bought fresh bread from the bakery three blocks from our apartment, as well as fresh fruit and snacks from a street market. Our favorite was the Rue Mouffetard market in the Latin Quarter. We carted our food over to a nearby park, where we shared some of it with the pigeons. We also brought along our own bottled water and always looked for public fountains where we could refill.
For dinner, we found inexpensive places to eat. Our favorite was the dirt-cheap falafel we devoured at Chez H’Anna. This is not the most famous falafel joint in Paris. That would be L’As du Falafel, just down the street in the Marais. But something in our hungry guts told us to go to Chez H’Anna. It did not disappoint. You can get a takeaway falafel special, which includes a beverage, for about $8, but we opted to sit down and eat in the restaurant, where they charged us a tad over $10 each.
We learned from our mistakes, too. Our first night in Paris, we ate dinner at a pricey restaurant in the Place du Tertre, where artists sit painting portraits of well-heeled tourists. After dinner, we spotted Le Tire Bouchon, a cafe where wished we had eaten instead. It’s a darling creperie that encourages guests to leave notes or drawings on the wall. It had several dozen options at about $5 each. Check out the restaurant options before sitting down.
DO ask for WiFi passwords.
Free WiFi is hard to come by in Europe. You never know who offers it – and can only find out by asking restaurants or cafes for their passwords. Because the passwords are often difficult to understand, it’s usually best to ask your waiter to type them directly into your phone.
You’ll discover your own tips as you make your way around the city.
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If you go
Where to eat
54 Rue Des Rosiers
You can get your falafel to go (with beverage) for around $8 or eat it inside the restaurant for around $10.
Le Tire Bouchon
9 Rue Norvins
If authentic Parisian atmosphere and delicious crepes at dirt-cheap prices are what you want, this unpretentious gem, not far from the Sacré-Coeur, is the place for you. The menu offers dozens of crepes starting at around $5.
What to do
Rue Mouffetard market
Closest Metro stop: Censier-Daubenton
A wonderful open market on a fine walking street in the Latin Quarter. Great fruit, local cheeses, fresh baked goods and other yummy eats. Closed Mondays.