If there’s one thing my stint as a non-income producing housewife/student in Paris has taught me, it is how to stretch a penny while still enjoying the finer things in life. That was a timely skill to learn, since I was not content to waste my limited hours in Paris shuttling between home, school and Franprix, but at the same time did not wish to bankrupt the husband who was busy toiling away in school.
For our visitors, Paris is associated with high hotel rates, costly museum visits, hefty restaurant bills and dreaded credit card charges that accompany coveted bags. While they (and we) are not bargain bin hunters and love a taste of la belle vie, some cost-cutting measures are always welcome.
Staying in Paris
Chief of all concerns for short-stay tourists is lodging. When you only have 3-4 days (the average length of stay clocked by our visitors) in the city, you’d naturally want to be close to major monuments and shopping sites. With museums, department stores and 2 hour lunches on your schedule, there is no time to waste. Most tourists we know tended to locate themselves in the 7th and 8th arrondissements, their respective cultural markers being the Eiffel Tower and Avenue Champs Elysées. Sure, these areas are safe and convenient, but as all students of economics know, robust demand and limited supply lead to higher prices. Also, these areas are typically very touristy, lacking in cultural and local flavor, not too mention great food.
For better hotel values, we suggest the arrondissements adjacent to the 7th and 8th, namely the 1st, 2nd and certain parts of the 15th. We lived in the 15eme and had lovingly christened it the “Toa Payoh” of Paris, both for its proximity to the centre of town and also the laidback residential feel. The area surrounding metro stations Cambronne, La Motte-Piquet, Dupleix and Bir-Hakeim are particularly convenient for visitors.
For those looking to be literally in the centre of Paris, i.e. on L’ile de la Cité, a friend tipped us to this unconventional hotel: L’Hotel Hospitel Paris. You cannot get closer to the Cathedral Notre Dame and based on tripadvisor reviews, it is low-frills but cozy and cheap. The quirk? The 14 room hotel is located inside the hospital Hotel-Dieu, the oldest city hospital in Paris.
Some people are wedded to the convenience the full-service hotels provide. For those more amenable to alternative lodging arrangements, apartments may be the answer. While not necessarily cheaper, apartments are great for larger parties, especially those with older or younger folks who appreciate the flexibility to stay in for dinner once in a while. My parents still rave about the cute Marais studio where they stayed in 2008, complete with a little courtyard where my dad could practice his Tai Chi in the mornings. Typically, apartment rentals are reserved for those staying a week or longer, but sites like airbnb cater to short-stay visitors. A friend of ours booked a 2 bedroom apartment in Montmartre charmingly decorated by the photographer owner for her family through the website, paying no more than what she might have needed to fork up for 1 room in a 3 star hotel.
Getting around Paris
To me, walking is the best way to get to know Paris. With so many shops and cafes lining Parisian boulevards, walking is not a dull exercise merely to get from point A to B, and the cool dry weather makes promenading an enjoyable task. And since it’s also free, according to the law of compensatory expenses, you can then funnel the transportation savings into a cup of coffee, an eclair, or, if you’ve really walked a ton, a gorgeous scarf Parisians will approve.
Biking is an option in Paris thanks to the Velib system. With 20,000 bikes parked in hundreds of stations dotting the city, the gungho and road confident can traverse Paris for as low as 1.70e a day. Journeys under 30 minutes are free of charge, so the key to minimizing cost is to switch bikes when you approach the 30 minute mark.
Last but not least, the public transport system within metropolitan Paris is convenient and cost-efficient. With 16 lines criss-crossing the city, a metro station is always within walking distance, and some of them ain’t too bad looking too. But I prefer taking the more civilizing ride on a bus or tram particularly when it gets infernally stuffy in the non air-conditioned metro cars. Certain bus routes are especially scenic, such as #80 (Eiffel Tower, Ecole Militaire, Seine river, Avenue Montaigne, Champs Elysées, Montmartre) and #72 (along the Seine’s right bank, from Hotel de Ville to Trocadero). Avoid peak hour bus travel because Parisian traffic can be rather terrible then.
The same type of ticket can be used on metro, buses, trams and RER trains within metropolitan Paris. The Paris Visite (9.75e) and Mobilis (6.40e) day passes are good options for those who’d like to minimize walking. Both types of tickets offer the same range of mobility, though the Paris Visite ticket includes certain discounts. If not, a carnet of normal tickets (12.70e for 10 tickets) is a better deal compared to purchasing single tickets (1.70e). Tip: Ask for a correspondence ticket when you board a bus or tram to get a free bus/tram transfer within 1.5hr of your initial ride.
Seeing the sights
In Paris, the most famous monuments are but of course ticketed, so there really isn’t any way of getting out of the entrance fee to see Mona Lisa at the Louvre or walk through the gardens of Chateau Versailles. Except if you are visiting on the first Sunday of the month, when a large number of museums in the city and within Ile de France are open to public, FOC. The lines can be very daunting at the Louvre and perhaps Musée D’Orsay, but it was a breeze entering all the other museums we’ve visited on those Sundays.
All the Musées de la Ville de Paris also have permanent collections freely open to public all year round, my favorites being Musée Carnavalet, the Paris history museum, as well as Maison Victor Hugo, the author’s former residence preserved in 19th century bourgeois decor.
Most first-time visitors aim to scale the Eiffel Tower for a panoramic view of the city. Me? I’m happier eschewing the monstrous lines, and prefer checking out the art-deco detail from the base, or watching the tower blink on the hour from afar. But if I had to choose my favorite free spots with great views, I’d go for the phenomenal panorama (free and without crowds!) at Parc de Belleville, as well as the intimate perspective of the right bank from the rooftop terrace of Galleries Lafayette department store. But lest one writes me off as a cheapo, I’d gladly pay to be at eye level with Notre Dame’s gargoyles.
Eating in Paris
Loving food, the total restaurant bill for our time in Paris were only second to rent when it came to household expenses. And no we did not dine like kings every single day. In fact, we cooked most days and the husband’s de facto lunch at the canteen was a 1.67e plate of steak haché (aka burger patty) and boiled vegetables. When we did eat out, we looked for restaurants that promised high price-quality ratios, or offered attractive menus (les formules in French). While most were rustic looking bistros situated far outside of the high-rent areas, some even delivered the “chic”.
The best deals are found during lunchtime. Starting at 37e, the pre-fixe lunch formule at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon Etoile is hands-down the most economical Michelin starred lunch in Paris. Twice we’ve eaten there and twice we were treated to creative and delicious modern French cooking realized by Robuchon’s acolytes.
35e seems to be the minimum needed to have dinner at a decent restaurant in Paris, so says the Michelin guide, which designates a Bib Gourmand status to excellent restaurants serving under 35e 3 course meals. Out of 76 restaurants in the class of 2012, we’ve been to around 15, of which L’Affriole stood out for it’s excellent service, top notch cooking and an modern, elegant setting whereby one is not bumping elbows with the folks at the next table. Loved, loved, loved the radish mise-en-bouche, a simple yet vibrant touch both to the decor and to the palate.
Picnicking was one of our favorite ways to spend warm, sunny afternoons with friends or just as couple, and we highly recommend it to visitors to engage in this veritable Parisian pastime. A gourmet spread is easily assembled simply by visiting either 1) an outdoor food market (where the scent of roasted chickens prompts immediate distress signals to one’s stomach), 2) a chi-chi food hall, the likes of Le Bon Marché’s Grand Epicerie or Lenotre, or 3) even a supermarket (I am partial to Monoprix, whose gourmet house-brand products, like their cheeses and charcuteries are very very decent). There’s virtually hundreds of suitable locations to faire le pique nique, be it Marie Antoinette style on the Grand Lawn of Chateau Versailles or a romantic soirée on the kitschiest icon of unbreakable love, the lock-festooned Pont des Arts. As for me, I would spend my next Parisian picnic at dusk on the tip of Ile de la Cité in Square du Vert-Galant, with some sausages and champagne, the Seine and P for company.
Finally, we have to credit the restaurant reservations website La Fourchette (aka The Fork) for helping us save some while still eating out. Many restaurants on the website seek to drum up business by offering discounts and special-priced menus on the website. While the bulk of these restaurants are not of the critically acclaimed and heavily publicized genre, and some may indeed by lemons (we’ve once gone to a Moroccan restaurant, to find out the kitchen stove was out of order and the only things we could order were microwaved couscous. We walked out immediately.), there are gems among the chaff, such as 50% off the ala carte menu at Michelin starred L’Ambassadeur restaurant in the very swish Hotel Crillon. Mind you, it’ll still be very expensive, but hopefully not ruinously so.
Paris in the fall -crisp cool air and clear skies; roads cleared of summer vacationers; new, cool restaurant introductions after la rentrée – is Paris at its best. And with a few tips to save some cash, your dream vacation in Paris may not be just a fantasy anymore.