Ah, l'amour. Is there any place in the world like Paris? But holy crap can it be expensive. My family and I have traveled there several times. So let me break down my 7 tips to not get ripped off and some sites to see that made the trip a million times better.
Image: My son Matthew needing to touch every lock as we walk on a bridge :D
First things first, the flight. If you haven't read my USA to Germany edition, please go check that out for flight tips and travel locations.
Image: AirFrance jumbo jet. Great on board meals. Highly recommend.
TIP 1: Get a taxi or use the underground metro to get to downtown Paris.
Once you arrive in Paris, you will need transportation to downtown. With a ton of luggage, you may be tempted to rent a car as you might have done in any other metropolitan city. Please DO NOT do that. Just bite the bullet and get a taxi or brave the underground metro to the city center. This is one time you will be grateful that you spent the little extra to not battle traffic. Parisians are abysmal drivers with no sense of patience or understanding of priority. Also, the city mayors for several years have been pushing bike riding and healthy life habits and in doing so have reduced drivable road lanes by creating bike-only lanes. There are other ways to save money in the city, this is not the time for that. Pay for the taxi.
TIP 2: Hotel Accommodation - Romantic trip or frugal family vacation?
So, I have done both and the price difference is staggering. If you are taking a romantic trip with only you and your spouse, I highly recommend Hôtel La Bourdonnais Paris in the center of Paris as you can see from this pin. It is walking distance to the Eiffel Tower and is surrounded by delicious and romantic cafes with sidewalk seating. The gardens of the Eiffel Tower stretch all the way to the hotel. So a short walk out of the hotel will quickly have you at the perfect photo location. The hotel also has balconies where you can see the Eiffel Tower at night all lit up. Make sure you book your reservations more than 3 weeks in advance because it is notorious for getting all booked up. Also, the rooms with an Eiffel Tower view cost a little more and will need to be picked specifically on their website. Do not use Trivago or Booking.com. You will need to go directly through their website. (Link provided above)
Image: Screenshot of the City Center of Paris with a pin in the Hôtel La Bourdonnais
For the frugal family vacation, I highly recommend B&B Hotel or AO Hostel for most European cities. But because this is Paris, of course neither of those are available. After a ton of research on this topic, the absolute best way (meaning cheap but also decent quality) is a rented out apartment. Booking.com, Airbnb and other similar sites have apartment options. As I write this, I have checked Airbnb and Booking and both have 2 bedroom apartments plus a couch which should accommodate a family of 5 for between $250 and $350 per night. Normal hotels however can not handle that many people and will likely charge you for two rooms which could cost between $200 to $400 per room per night. Making the total trip cost over $1000 more overall for the double room. Make sure you have read the reviews of the apartment, checked the location for walking distance sites, and understand all costs involved. Then make sure to have your reservation confirmed well in advance. Finding rooms for a large family is very difficult, especially on a budget. So that reservation becomes gold as the travel date approaches.
TIP 3. Haggle the Tuktuk Dudes!!!!
Listen, I can't explain how excited I am to talk about this. Around the Eiffel Tower especially near the intersections at both ends, are guys sitting in bicycle carts called Tuktuk's. No matter where in the city your hotel is located, your first stop should be the Eiffel Tower. Not only for the beautiful photos and ambiance. But also for the practical reason of transportation. Traveling to all the best sites in the city can get very expensive if you do it by taxi. But one fare with a Tuktuk will carry you slowly around all the sites you want. Also, these bicycle carts are allowed on bicycle lanes and walkways making them perfect for cutting through busy traffic and getting you to the things you want to see. The average price they will quote you is 60 to 100 euros PER PERSON. But in reality, they can be haggled to one low price for the whole cart. They use electric motors to help power the cart so please don't feel bad that they are pedaling a bit. If you can get the price below 100 euros for the whole cart, take it. The more uncomfortable they look with the price, the more you know you're doing it right.
Image: Photo of a Tuktuk and driver taken by yours truly.
Side note: Many of the drivers are from countries where haggling is part of the culture. They never expect to receive the first price and expect you to haggle a bit. Like a pawn shop.
Side note #2: They are paid after the entire trip is over. So asking to stop and take some photos is normal and fine. They won't run off because they are waiting for that payment. Just don't be a jerk about it and ask for a tour somewhere. Stop at the Louvre, stop at Notre Dame, stop at the gardens, stop on the bridges. Stop often and take a ton of photos.
Image: My son Malik and daughter Melina playing in the gardens of the Eiffel Tower (2019).
TIP 4. Reservations for the Louvre Museum and the Mona Lisa
A trip to Paris should definitely include a tour of the Louvre. But one thing I didn't know is that most of the reservations are done online and about 24 hours in advance. Google Louvre tickets and make sure to select the website with the .FR at the end like this www.louvre.fr
Your ticket should confirm with an email. The QR code from that email will be needed when you go to the louvre. Also, try to make sure that the time is earlier in the day so you have plenty of time to visit everything inside. It's the size of a shopping mall down there. Seriously, bring walking shoes. There will be very long lines at the Louvre for folks waiting to get in. Please show up 30 minutes to an hour early for your reservation time. Don't waste the money on a tour guide and definitely don't entertain any scammers that try to engage you while you're in line.
Image: Louvre Museum. This is the view as soon as you enter that glass pyramid.
Once inside, you'll quickly notice this is an all day event. The museum, the art galleries, etc. They have lockers by the bathrooms for you to store any umbrellas or jackets you might be carrying. Go put that stuff away so your hands are free to relax and take photos. My first time going in the Louvre I had only really planned to be there for an hour or so like any normal museum. After several hours, with dusk approaching, we were still wandering through the galleries. Plan ahead for this to be an all day event. If you make it out of there with the sun still up, you can take a walk through the beautiful Louvre gardens nearby and maybe sit on a bench there if the weather is nice.
TIP 5. Monte Marte and the Sacré Cœur Basilica (MUST SEE!)
After seeing all the sites, eating at the cafes and touring the Louvre, a must see last stop is Monte Marte hill with the Sacré Cœur Basilica on top. Why is this a must see? First, it's hilltop views make beautiful panoramic shots of the city of Paris. Next is the historic Basilica and it's amazing relevance to the French Revolution. But I always come back to that place for one reason, the artist colony that surrounds Basilica. It's totally free to walk in and around the Basilica. This makes for a great opportunity for stained glass pictures and images of the outside of the church.
Image: The Basilica of Sacré-Cœur de Montmartre, 35 Rue du Chevalier de la Barre, 75018 Paris, France
But the artist area is equally amazing. Just behind the basilica is a street you have to see. There you will find street artists doing charcoal, pencil and pastel art while you eat at the cafes nearby and watch. Perhaps you will decide to have one make a portrait for you or your family for an amazing souvenir.
Image: Artist area behind the Basilica of Sacré-Cœur
One thing I should mention is that the walk up hill can be difficult if you have trouble with stairs. If you go on a hot summer day, make sure you have water and take breaks. I recommend planning how you will go up the hill. If you notice on the image below, I have set a pin on the Square Louise Michel. It has a winding path and a beautiful carousel as you make your way up to the basilica. If you have a taxi drop you off in this area, make sure to choose any café at the base of that hill near the square. Then start your walk from there up the winding path.
Note: As mentioned before, traffic is always an issue. So, only take the taxi to the top if you absolutely have to for example if you have medical issues that may require it. The taxi fare will ring up very high as you wait in traffic for 30 to 40 minutes to the top.
TIP 6. Disneyland!!! Yayyyy!
If your trip includes a trip to Disney and the associated parks, here are a few tidbits that might help.
Fellow veterans of the Armed Services may get a discount of 50% for tickets into the parks. If you are not active duty in the military, make your reservations online and bring them to the door with your family. If you ARE in the military, come to the park at the earliest time they are open and wait in line at the ticket counter to purchase tickets. With your military id, they will provide the discount ONLY AT THE DOOR, not online.
I opted to go by myself early so the family didn't have to wait for an hour in line just for tickets. They showed up to the park on the shuttle just as I finished buying the tickets and we had a great time.
Transport to the park:
There are free shuttles from nearby hotels to the park. For example the B&B Hôtel Magny-le-Hongre which is in the image above. This is a reasonably affordable hotel with family friendly rooms. If you already have a reservation at a different hotel no problem. You don't have to be a guest at the hotel to use the shuttle! If you find another hotel or Airbnb with better prices, you can just have them drop you off at the B&B for a free shuttle or take a taxi all the way into Disney (whichever is cheaper). The shuttle doesn't ask for any tickets for the park or proof that you're staying at any hotel.
TIP 7. Watch those meal costs!
Aside from airfare, the cost of the hotel is definitely the biggest cost of the trip. The next biggest cost are the meals. All the cafes and diners I mentioned above, like near the Eiffel Tower or Monte Marte area, are delicious but very expensive. An average meal for a family of five could run between 80 and 100 dollars. A hundred bucks a meal adds up quick. So here are my hacks to help widdle down that cost.
Image: Café de Flore, 172 Bd Saint-Germain, 75006 Paris, France
All over the city you will find small local markets with fresh bread, cheese, fruit and drinks. If you have your Dad travel backpack on, make sure to load up on fruit and croissants from a market and not food from street vendors. That plus a few bottles of water and you won't be sucker punched by the hefty prices for food outside. Plus, the kids won't be starving when you sit down for a meal at a restaurant.
The image below is from a chain of stores called Carrefour which is comparable to a better version of Walmart. You will find fair prices and a wide variety of products. This exact Carrefour is very very close to the Hôtel La Bourdonnais Paris that I mentioned at the beginning for a romantic getaway.
Image: Carrefour City, 42 Av. de la Motte-Picquet, 75007 Paris, France
If you stop by a market a couple times a day through your trip, you could also make a lunch picnic plan each day. Grab a sandwich, some fruit and chips and you could bypass the added cost a restaurant gives for their service. Not to mention you could get the same or better views of the most expensive restaurants. They have benches all over the city that make this plan super easy. If you toss out a little blanket on the grass in front of the Eiffel Tower, it could also score you points as being very romantic also. Hint: drinking wine or champagne in public parks is socially acceptable despite technically being illegal.
There's no way around it. There is going to be a bill at every dinner. But here's some ways to not get ripped off. Use Google translate on your phone to translate the menu and know what you're ordering. This will look a bit silly but will prevent you from having to ask 100 questions from the waiter and ensure you are getting exactly what you want. If you have small children, you can order a large pasta dish like fettucine and then ask for an extra dish. You can split the one meal between two small children to save on the cost. Especially if you know they couldn't finish a whole plate by themselves anyway (because they've been snacking and had a good lunch). Only order alcoholic drinks to finish the meal like wine or beer. Save the cocktails for the balcony in the room later.
Ask for the bill and then keep it on the table for a minute before you pay. If the waiter comes to the table with a credit card machine immediately, politely tell him you're not ready yet. It's normal in Europe to hang out a bit at the table after you eat and chit chat, maybe with a post-meal coffee or tea. When he leaves the table, review the bill to make sure there are no meals or drinks on there which weren't ordered. Sometimes they will slip extra bottles of water on the bill despite never ordering or drinking any.