Paris has its price. The City of Lights is also the city of big-ticket gourmet meals, lavish palace hotels and extravagant haute couture. But you don’t have to live like the Sun King to discover that a trip to the French capital isn’t cheap. Depending on the season, even mid-range Paris hotels can cost upwards of 300 euros per night. Transatlantic flights are expensive. Meals in the most tourist-mobbed parts of the city (and those with the most Michelin stars) come at a premium.
While Paris can be a pricey place to explore, like any large city, it offers a wealth of pocketbook-friendly — and utterly worthwhile — activities for the traveler on a budget. Moreover, you can save on lodging, meals, transportation and other expenses if you plan wisely, while still enjoying a splendid Parisian getaway.
1. Choose your season carefully. While many destinations have obvious high and low tourist seasons, Paris is different. It’s popular throughout the year, and one can expect to see mobs of tourists in balmy summer months as well as during the colder part of the year — although winter crowds will be thinner than those in summer. Overall, airfare and lodging will be least expensive during winter. (See 6 Reasons to Visit Europe in Winter.) If you are seeking warmer temperatures but still want to save, plan a shoulder-season trip during fall or spring.
2. Avoid holidays and festivals. As I previously mentioned, airfares to Paris and hotel rates in the city are at their cheapest during winter. But there’s an exception to this rule. Around Christmas and New Year’s, prices will go up, so it’s best to skirt a holiday trip if you’re sticking to a budget. (Also, keep in mind that many shops and museums close their doors around the holidays.) Hotel rates are also likely to rise when major Parisian events like Fashion Week are taking place.
3. Book a package. Finding a well-priced package that bundles hotel, airfare and sometimes activities or a car rental can be a great way to save money on a Paris trip. You can usually find offers from Expedia, Sceptre Tours and Gate 1 Travel, to name a few.
4. Watch that exchange rate. In recent months the euro/U.S. dollar exchange rate has improved significantly, but there are still ways to stretch your dollar as far as possible. For best results, bypass the exchange counter and use a credit card that doesn’t charge for transactions made in foreign countries (Capital One is a good choice), or opt for an ATM. In most cases, you’ll receive a better exchange rate using an ATM or credit card than you would at the change bureau. For more information, read Get the Best Exchange Rate.
5. Plan a trip that falls over the first Sunday of the month. Why? Freebies — that’s why. A host of Parisian attractions offer free admission on the first Sunday of every month; these include the Louvre (October through March only), the Musee d’Orsay, the Centre Pompidou, the Musee Rodin and the Musee de Cluny, among others. If you’re still sketching out your travel dates, arrange a trip in the beginning of the month and factor a no-cost museum day into your itinerary.
6. Find free museums. Paris is a museum lover’s paradise, but a week’s worth of admission fees to a multitude of museums can really cramp your budget. Don’t overlook the city’s excellent exhibits that offer free entrance, including the Musee Carnavalet (the Paris History Museum), the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, the Musee de la Prefecture de Police (Police Headquarters Museum) and the Fragonard Perfume Museum.
7. Park it. Famous for its parks and gardens, Paris is brimming with dozens of splendid greens and pretty plazas. A leisurely afternoon spent picnicking in the Jardin du Luxembourg or strolling past architectural follies in the Parc de la Villette will be a memorable part of your trip — and it won’t cost a cent.
8. Browse flea markets. Paris is rich with fun and funky flea markets. And while some markets may not always offer the best deals for wares sold to throngs of tourists, the traveler skilled in antiquing or the art of the haggle may find many a steal. Didn’t factor shopping into your tight budget? Lots of flea markets are fabulous places to people watch, browse, or buy an affordable meal from a food cart or street vendor. But watch your wallet — literally. Crowded markets are hot spots for pickpockets and thieves. For more tips, read Money Safety for Travelers.
9. See a cemetery. The idea of touring a cemetery may sound morbid to some. But Parisian graveyards are big hits with history buffs, intellectuals and even rock fans. The grave of Jim Morrison, which lies in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery, is a top Parisian attraction. The Pere Lachaise, the largest and most-visited cemetery in Paris, houses memorials to famous French artists, poets, politicians and philosophers, from Oscar Wilde to Frederic Chopin. Admission is free.
10. Go to church. The Notre Dame Cathedral charges no admission. (There are, however, fees for access to the cathedral’s tower and treasury.) Nor do many other historic and beautiful churches in Paris, including Saint-Germain-des-Pres, the Sacre-Coeur Basilica and Saint-Sulpice.
11. Buy a museum pass. Can’t get enough Impressionist paintings, period rooms and Greek sculptures? If you’re staying in the city for more than a few days and planning on museum-hopping like crazy, consider a Paris Museum Pass. Prices start at 42 euros per person for a two-day pass, which covers admission to dozens of museums and monuments. Passes come in two-, four- and six-day increments. For more information, visit en.ParisMuseumPass.com.
12. Take a class. Join the elite intellectual crowd and stretch your gray matter with free symposiums and lectures from the College de France. The school was established in 1530 by King Francois I. Today, a host of professors present lectures in both French and English on a variety of topics including mathematics, the physical and natural sciences, philosophy, sociology, history and archaeology. See http://www.college-de-france.fr for details and schedules.
13. Use your feet (and your phone). Paris is the perfect place for walking — whether you’re hoofing it from A to B or strolling aimlessly along the Seine. Want to upgrade your walking experience? Take a tour and learn a thing or two about your surroundings. You’ll find detailed walking tours with maps and other information in many a Paris guidebook. Or put your smartphone to good use. Complimentary Paris audio guides and walking tours can be downloaded from travel brands like Rick Steves’ Europe (available on iPhone and Android).
Want a living, breathing guide? Book a walking tour with City Free Tour, which offers free small-group tours in Paris (find them at CityFreeTour.com).
14. Pedal through Paris. Paris has an outstanding bicycle share system called Velib. If you aren’t hesitant to bike through busy Parisian streets, you can save significantly on transportation by joining the program. There are 1,800 Velib stations throughout Paris and in 30 surrounding cities. It’s simple: Just pick up your bike at any station and drop it off at any station for as long as your ticket is valid. A seven-day ticket costs 8 euros (about $9.54 as of this writing). You can pay for your rental with a credit card at any Velib station, but you must have a “chip-and-PIN” card to do so. If you don’t have a credit card with a chip (most American cards aren’t equipped with them), you can purchase a Velib ticket online at en.Velib.Paris.fr.
15. Take the Metro. Paris’ extensive Metro system is an affordable means of transport within the city. It only costs a few euros for a ride, and if you a pass for multiple days of unlimited travel, it can be even cheaper. Pick up a free map at your hotel or a Metro information booth. There is, however, a downside. During the morning and evening rush hours, Metro trains can get uncomfortably crowded. (Think sardines in a can or clothes stuffed in a too-small suitcase.)
16. Find some falafel. Paris is known for its baguettes, cheese and saucy French dishes, but there’s another iconic Parisian food you may not have heard of: falafel. A series of shops on Rue des Rosiers in the Marais district serve pita pockets stuffed with delicious fried chickpea fritters and all the toppings: hummus, cabbage, pickles, spices. And the price? A falafel sandwich costs just a few euros at the acclaimed L’As du Falafel (arguably the best-known of the Marais falafel shops), and neighboring falafel houses serve similar fare for low prices as well.
17. Look for restaurant deals. TheFork.com offers discounts up to 50 percent at more than 1,000 restaurants across Paris. (Note that drinks and set menus may not always be included.) You’ll just need to book your table online via the website to take advantage of the discounts.
18. Eat your most lavish meals at lunch. If you’re planning on visiting a Michelin-starred Parisian hot spot, get ready to pay up. Some of the most luxurious, celebrated restaurants in Paris charge hundreds of euros for a single dinner. Lunch, on the other hand, is almost always more affordable.
19. Buy baguettes. Just-baked baguettes abound in Paris. While you may have to wait in line for one at the better bakeries, you won’t have to bust your budget to munch on crispy, doughy goodness. Most Parisian boulangeries sell baguettes for just a few euros each. Add a hunk of cheese and some fruit, and you’ve got a simple, affordable and delicious meal.
20. Look for lunch specials. During lunchtime hours, from around 11 a.m. to 2 or 3 p.m., many Parisian restaurants offer special set-price lunches; you’ll usually see a “prix fixe” menu advertized on a chalkboard somewhere in the restaurant. The specials often feature a select appetizer, an entree, a glass of wine or coffee and sometimes a dessert for one set price. In many instances, you’ll end up paying 12 or 13 euros for a meal that would have cost upwards of 30 euros if purchased a la carte.
21. Buy wine at the supermarket. Many Parisian supermarkets have well-stocked wine sections, with some bottles selling for just a few euros; don’t sneer at this notion. High-quality wines are available in many French food stores for surprisingly low prices. Jazz up a picnic in the park or an evening meal at your rental apartment with an affordable store-bought bottle.
22. Pick the right neighborhood. Hotels in centrally located neighborhoods or near major attractions like the Eiffel Tower tend to be more expensive than accommodations farther afield. But don’t count out a stay in an outlying community. Transportation from peripheral areas to the center of the city by Metro is a cinch. Additionally, those out-of-the way neighborhoods offer their own unique attractions. Montmarte, for example, an artsy neighborhood north of central Paris, is home to the Sacre-Coeur Basilica, the Dali Museum and some of the best views in the city (thanks to the highest hills in the city).
23. Rent an apartment. What’s the solution to high-priced Paris hotels? Book a vacation rental or an apartment. Sites like Airbnb, FlipKey and HomeAway offer listings of Paris rentals with rates that often fall well below standard hotel prices. If you’re staying in the city for a week or longer, a vacation rental’s a particularly great choice, as many properties have special weekly rates that are more affordable than nightly rates. An added bonus: Book a place with a kitchen and you can cook your own meals.
24. Forgo the view. Contrary to what’s depicted in movies and on television shows, few buildings in Paris offer a view of the Eiffel Tower. Consequently, hotel rooms and apartments featuring a glimpse of the famous monument from a bedroom window will be very expensive. Ditch your dream of a tower view and save.
25. Book in advance. The best way to acquire affordable yet agreeable accommodations is to book well in advance. Paris is an exceptionally popular tourist destination, so highly-rated budget digs — you know, those 100-euro-per-night inns that rise to the top of the list on TripAdvisor — fill up months in advance. The sooner you book your Paris hotel for your upcoming trip, the better bang you’ll get for your euro.
Editor’s Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc., which also owns TheFork.com.
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