If you would like to see the pictures that I ended up posting of our trip click here.
EDIT: For I went to Paris again after this trip and to read about take 2 and read about additional lessons learned, go here.
Transportation: Things to Consider
When traveling and you are visiting a location that is within driving distance from your home, there is often a debate if whether you should drive your car or if taking the train would be the best option. Since we planned our vacation so last minute, we ended up driving because train tickets usually increase in price the closer it gets to departure, especially the long-distance trips. But driving wasn't all wonderful and we had a few lessons that we learned and so I thought I should pass on my knowledge to you. Here are some items to consider when determining you mode of transportation to and from the big city.
Tolls- Taking the A4 route, we paid a whopping total of 60 Euros of tolls including to and from. Being from the US, the biggest toll that I ever paid was when we were driving through Missouri (I think) and the total toll amount was about $2. In France though, one section of the toll (where you grab your ticket and then enter it when you leave that portion of the road) it was a whopping 21.90 Euros! We completely underestimated the costs of the tolls that we encountered.
Gas prices outside of Germany- Just recently I did a post on gas rations and in it I mentioned that you can not use your Esso ration card outside of Germany. Meaning, you have to pay the full price for gasoline. Now, when you travel to somewhere that is just on the other side of the border, this usually doesn't cause much of a problem. I know people that fill up 5 gallon portable tanks for trips just like that so they don't have to pay the outrageous costs of gasoline. But for a trip like the one we took, our home is just over an hour from the border and then France is 4 hours from there, meaning somewhere along the way we have to gas up. We ended up paying 100 Euros for a full tank of gas when it normally takes just over 50 Dollars. The total cost for gasoline alone was just under $200.
Parking Costs- When taking a car to any big city, one thing people tend to forget is that when you're in the city you still have to find a place to park the beast. In large cities, when you plan to stay for a couple of days, usually on the street isn't the best option. It can take forever to actually find a spot as street parking is limited and if you have a large car it might be impossible to squeeze it in somewhere. Also, if you don't have to pay for parking on the side of the street, you still have to worry about vandalism and such. Many hotels offer private parking for guests but hardly ever is it free. We paid 11 Euros per day to be able to park our car in their basement parking garage.
Driving vs. Relaxing- One of the things that I hate about driving long-distances is just that... For a really long-distance you have to maintain focus and can't do anything else. My husband and I opted for only one of us to get the International Driver's License (more on that in a second) so therefore I had to drive the entire time while in France. If you read the above statement you would know that would equal 4 hours there and 4 hours back. I would have loved to be in the passenger seat instead. Since our return I have pondered if the ability to just kick back and not worry about driving would have been worth the cost alone to get a train ticket.
International Driver's License (IDL)- If you are driving, do not leave the country without this. Your USAREUR license will not cover you if you get pulled over in another country. The IDL is easy to get and only costs 15 Euros but you must make time to go down and get it.
The process of getting it includes going to your local Driver's Testing Station on-post (where you went to get your USAREUR license) and bring your USAREUR license and your ID card. They will then give you a form that you need to take to the German Licensing Office (the form they give you should have directions). With that form you will need both ID's, 15 Euro, and a 1-in photo (if you have an extra passport photo, that will work perfectly). At the licensing office it only took me about 15 minutes to get it all taken care of but considering the last minute planning, it was a pain to get. The good news is that you wont have to get a new one every time you want to drive out of the country. The IDL is good until your DEROS date.
Packing- One of the good things about driving your POV is the ability to pack as much as you want and not have to worry about if your baggage will fit in the overhead compartment or if it will comply to baggage policies. I had the luxury of bringing as much as I wanted without worrying about if I'll be able to carry it all to or from the train station.
All-in-all we spent about $340 on car/transportation related expenses including the cost one IDL and still had to stress about the drive itself, driving directions, and all other matters. Next time we will compare the costs a little more closely.
Metro Rail System- The rail system in Paris is one of the biggest in the World. It has a total of 14 lines and each line travels in two different directions. To top it off they also have RER (faster and for longer distance travel) that intersects with the Metro lines. Just looking at the map for the first time can be a bit daunting. So here is my tip to you, learn the system. You don't have memorize the stops or anything of that nature, but look at the map before you go and figure out how the system works (what solid vs empty circles mean, how to get to/from your hotel, prices, etc.). Here is a link so you can see the map.
Mark stops that are relevant- Having done this before we left, it made inner-city travel SO much easier. I don't have color ink in my printer, I personally think it is a waste of money, so when I printed the above map it did so in black and white. Now with 14 different rails, all in a different color, you would think that it caused a problem. But actually, it worked to my advantage. I looked at all the attractions that we wanted to see and checked the metro stops that we would have to take in order to reach our destination. (Don't forget to mark your hotel!!!) After marking them on my black and white copy, I then looked at the rails that went through those stops. Out of the 14 lines, you will probably only use about 5 or 6 of them during your entire time there. I then outlined the lines in different color markers but left the lines that I wouldn't use in black and white. When looking at a full color map with all 14 lines it's so easy to get confused and be overwhelmed but with your own personal condensed version, you'll be surprised how much easier it is to find your transfers.
|What I did. I numbers listed in red correspond with the attraction number that we were going to see.|
Sightseeing and Places to Go
Have a plan- You don't have to have a full-blown itinerary but it would be smart to have a general idea of at least which sections of Paris you are going to visit during the day. It makes it easier (and cheaper) when you don't have to keep jumping on the metro or bus to get to other parts of the city because you didn't plan out the attractions you were going to see during the day.
The Louvre- Before leaving for Paris we were set for spending the entire day at The Louvre. If you are unaware of what The Louvre is, I will educate. It is one of the world's largest museums. It is also home to not only the Mona Lisa but also the famous Venus sculpture. The reason we planned for an entire day is the sheer amount of things to see. You could spend days in the museum and probably not see everything. BUT, the question is... do you want to spend days shuffling around a museum? My husband is a huge history buff and it was his decision to stay for a day and also his decision to leave earlier than we planned. By about 1 pm, your feet and back start to hurt and it feels like you're just looking at the same thing over and over again. Paintings start to look the same and sculptures start to blend together. I'm not saying that the Louvre has mediocre art or that it isn't worth the trip. I'm saying that unless you have the stamina of a horse, you might want to focus your energy on a couple of sections and call it a day.
Another note about The Louvre, the cafeteria food is suuuuuuper expensive and only mediocre. We paid 5.50 euro for a prepackaged sandwich that was about 4 inches long. Bring snacks and a bottle of water so you don't end up paying a ton. Also, make sure your backpack or bag is not enormous. For some reason, even though your bags go through security and an x-ray machine, if the bag is too large the workers make you check it at a baggage claim place. If you want to make sure all your things are always by your side, bring a smaller bag.
The Eiffel Tower- The Eiffel Tower and The Louvre are essentially the top reasons why people visit Paris. The Eiffel Tower is iconic and everyone wants a picture of themselves standing in front of it. Here are a couple of tips for you if you're traveling to the Eiffel Tower:
*To ride or not to ride: When someone comes to Paris they come with the idea that they will go to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Upon arriving though, you might change your mind once you see the 4-6 hour line you have to stand in. Here's my tip to you: either A) go to the dome portion of the Sacre Coeur to get your city view as it is much less crowded and cheaper (what we did) or B) purchase and print your tickets in advance so you do not have to stand in as long of a line. Buy your tickets here.
EDIT: When I went again with my friend Nicole, we ended up going through the disability line because of her knee problems and it was the same line for reserved tickets. From the point where we purchased our tickets and to where we were at the top of the tower it took approx. 20 minutes. MUCH better than 4 hours. Also, the views ended up being quite extraordinary although we didn't go to the very very top.
Other Stops to Make- For a list of great places to visit while in Paris check out these links: Top Attractions, Places to Visit. Don't rule out Pere Lachaise Cemetary simply because it's a cemetery, I got some awesome photos there including the one you see below. Also, one place we didn't see that I was looking forward to is the famous Moulin Rouge. I wasn't wanting to go in, just at least get a picture of it lit up. Oh well, maybe you can get a picture for me?
Amusement Park Prices- Even if you have never been to a city of the magnitude of Paris, I'm sure you've been to an amusement park. When I was a little girl and my mom would take myself and my brothers to a theme park she would always pack sandwiches for lunch because the food was outrageously expensive. Everything was overpriced and it made paying for a family of 5 to enjoy all the luxuries a little difficult. That being said, either budget for spending more than you think or bring things that will help cut costs. Upon leaving for Paris I filled up 4 large water bottles and brought a bag full of snacks. The water bottles themselves saved us about 20 euros as a bottle of water the same size in Paris costs 4,5 euros.
Admission Prices- Before going look up the attractions that you want to see and see what the costs are of admission. Some places may be free or partially free and others may cost anywhere from 4 euros to 14 euros per person. If you have a large family be sure to set aside enough money to enter all attractions that you want while there. Or purchase the tickets in advance.
Where to buy souvenirs- If you want to buy an Eiffel Tower souvenir, my advice to you is to not go to the Eiffel Tower. As strange as that may seem, it's true. The souvenirs closer to the main attractions are ridiculously overpriced and you'll be better purchasing somewhere else. When we went to see the Sacre Coeur, we walked through the Montmartre district and saw a couple of little souvenir shops. We purchased two postcards for our parents at ,20 euro cents a piece and an additional souvenir for 5,50 euro. Fast forward two days when we go to the Eiffel Tower and similar post cards are priced at 1,50 euro a piece and a souvenir similar to what we bought at about 8-10 euros.
Panhandlers and Souvenir Pushers
Gypsies and Panhandler- They are everywhere you look... everywhere. My husband and I were in Paris for 3 days and in those three days there were two incidents when people (one gypsie) came on the metro and started singing and begging for money. The worst part of this type of begging is that you cannot escape them. Don't give in and waste your precious vacation money on tactless beggers.
A little story... My husband and I were lying on the grass in front of the Eiffel Tower, just minding our own business and enjoying the sunshine. A gypsie comes up and asked if we spoke English. Upon saying "yes" she presented a piece of cardboard with a letter written on it basically begging for money. My husband had pity and gave her a euro. She continued to stand over us and ask for more rather than being grateful. It's things like that that make me not want to contribute to those type of folks.
Don't stop while walking for anyone saying "look at this"- If you look anything like a tourist (carrying a backpack or a camera), then you will most definitely be pegged immediately and be approached by people trying to push souvenirs at you. We tried our best to avoid these people but one group got us.
We were walking to the metro after visiting the Sacre Coeur. There was a man holding a bundle of strings in his hand. As he started to approach us and started to ask us a question we cut him off, politely declined and tried walking away. The man didn't take no as an answer and claimed that he only wanted to show us something.
He asked me to hold out my finger and as I hesitantly did so he placed a loop of the strings around my finger and started weaving a bracelet. Me being naive and optimistic I'm thinking along the lines that this guy is just being nice and is going to give it to me for free or is just using my finger to make a bracelet that he is going to sell to someone else. As he's working on mine, another guy approaches my husband and starts doing the same thing to him. All the while the men are saying some sort of chant that included the words "hakuna matata, no worries".
The men finish their bracelets, fashion them to our wrists and then claim we owe them 10 euros, 5 for each bracelet. Not only is that an absurd cost for something that took 30 seconds to make but we had already said we didn't want to purchase something and he said we didn't have to purchase anything. We told them it was too much money and said we would give them 2 euros because it was all the coin we had on us. We also had a 10 euro bill but in no way was I handing that over. They continued to say that they could give us change if we had bills and kept pushing us for money. We ended up sticking to the 2 euros and parting ways.
Moral of the lesson... Just say no. Even if they claim they aren't going to ask you for money... Just say no.
All-in-all enjoy your trip! Take these tips not as discouragement and excuses to worry about what is to come but rather as insight to enjoy your trip even more. I hope that these life lessons will help you have an even more enjoyable experience. :-)