Saturday, November 23, 2013

Travel Tips for a non-seasoned traveller: Paris

It's only been my second time to Paris in my whole 20 years of my lifetime (definitely kidding on the number of years). But since I went there last year with my family for a much shorter duration compared to this year's 2-week epic vacation with my lovely girlfriends, I could make a good comparison of what you should expect or what you can include in planning for that vacation in Paris. I've promised my girlfriends that I would do this post because there were things we planned that weren't followed through to a T for the lack of information on the net. And that was my main source of our info - the net.

And this is a long post.

When to go to Paris?
Paris is a lovely city. A city is a city, right? But I love Paris for that "air" of chic-ness. It's probably a hyped-up one, but a well-branded hype.

We were planning on making the trip end of summer but due to our work and personal commitments, we unfortunately had to agree on early winter. Rather than push the plan aside as we did the previous years, this time we decided this is it. Go at all cost even if we didn't have a full group. 

There's the pros and cons - Summer is of course the best time to go but I was told it can get too hot and there'll be tonnes of visitors. Yup, I was there in summer last year and although the only main places I went were the Eiffel Tower, Champs Elysees and Disneyland, everywhere we went there were swarms of people. Despite it being summer, weather was quite lovely and much breezier than here in our tropical country.

I am glad though that this time I experienced the start of winter. 
- It isn't too cold if you wear the right layers of clothing to keep you warm
- It's different than what you would experience here 
- You get to be all fashionable with jackets, sweaters, scarves, headgear and long boots without being seen as weird
- Skin doesn't tend to get oily (for me, that is..)
- Plenty of end-of-season sale from the autumn collection

- My friend who has eczema saw her skin dried up on the second day and itched badly. So if you have sensitive skin, you might want to keep slathering on creams for protection
- Cold breeze can dry up your lips. So be sure to apply lip balm frequently
- It rained every other day in November. The 3 of us brought our umbrellas but 2 of us got our umbrella tops blown upwards because of the hard gush of winds. So you would need a sturdy one and not those cute little foldable ones.
- Because of the rain, the weather might hamper your plans for the day especially if you're travelling with little children. So be sure to have all the right protection - layers of clothing, a hooded water-resistant jacket, etc.
How long should I make the trip?
I always believe that in order for you to experience the way of life of a certain community, you would need to stay at least 2 weeks in that vicinity. But of course, we don't have 2 weeks now, do we? Our work and personal commitments do not allow us to have such a luxurious break. But I'm glad we all managed to plan for at least 6 nights in Paris and that is unbelievably amazing since we went out everyday when the sun was out and only came back well past night time.

It all depends on what you want to do. In a big city like Paris, one week isn't enough for you to see everything but to cut them all short, you could take the hop-on-hop-off bus for a nice 2 days package and you still could experience almost everything on the surface.

We didn't take the hop-on-hop-off bus because the 4 routes that the bus goes through in 2-days, were stretched to 5 days all on our own, with the exception of 2 other routes not covered by the bus - Versailles and La Vallee. If you buy the Paris Pass the hop-on-hop-off fee is included plus most of the entrance fees of main tourists attractions. But although you get a lot of all-paid entrance to museums and whatnot, 2-3 days will not give you a complete experience of the city... and if you do not know it yet, Paris is rich. It is rich in history, culture and art. 

Getting around on our own, the girls and I managed to understand the train and metro network much better. Touted as one of the oldest and most complicated train networks in the world, even the locals sometimes get confused with the routes and transfers. We were lucky that we stayed so near the city center that most of the train connections are available direct to us, without having to transfer that far off. Everything was just perfect.

Where should I stay?
To tell you the truth, I asked my girlfriend, Elaine, in Switzerland and another friend, Jean, who's French, this question. Both told me to check out It is sort of a Bed and Breakfast concept and you can get a whole lotta options - from the cheapest to expensive places to stay, areas so remote to nearest to city center, just rooms or full apartments - choices are aplenty!

So what you need to ask yourself is, what is it that you wish to do in Paris and how much are you willing to spend for a night? How many of you in the trip and what do you want to use the accommodation for - is it just a place to sleep or some cooking involved?

We all are well aware that everything is expensive in Paris. Well, maybe not for the locals though, because they earn in €. But for us, the conversion rate is about RM4.5-4.7 for every Euro. Say your normal McDonald's meal is RM10, expect to spend almost RM50 per meal in McD in Paris. Therefore, preparing our own breakfast everyday and dinner once in awhile is definitely a priority so that we can spend more € on shopping! :)

With this in mind, we would much prefer to have an apartment.

When I searched for the accommodation, I came across 8 of them that I liked. Saw a few in the areas of Gare de Lyon where Elaine told us we should stay. But when I googled up the map and forums on the place, I found that it may not be that suitable for us because:
1. We would be doing a lot of sight-seeing and walking in the city center (the French loves to walk!). Hence, we wouldn't want to waste too much money on taking the public transport or waste time commuting.
2. The rates can be almost as much as staying in the city.
3. It's too much of a tourist-y place as many visitors take the Eurotrain/TGV at this station. Therefore, we foresee a lot of people in this area. 
4. And because of its positioning as a "touristy" area, pickpockets are abundant. Apparently.

I chatted with some of the BNB owners, didn't limit myself to just Gare de Lyon area, and was lucky enough to come across one near my favourite Champs Elysees totally chic street. He already had more than 100 positive reviews and I was sold by his quick and friendly response. It wasn't very cheap but it had what we required and sharing the cost with another girlfriend sounded reasonable.

When we checked-in the place, we were pleased that we got more than what we expected - the place was located in a very secure area (it was near the Malaysian embassy, near a university) with its own concierge and security personnel who were all very helpful and friendly, the place has a lift unlike most old buildings, you need to key in your security code to get into 2 doors and the building is just across the Metro station.

It all depends on what suits your budget best, and what you are willing to sacrifice to ensure a perfect vacation. (photo credit: Airbnb)

What can I do in Paris?
The internet is a mighty tool to get your started on your plans. What I did was just to google up "Itinerary in Paris" and it brought me to this amazing page where it gives you detailed itinerary from 1-6 days with several options of whether it is a relaxing visit, shopping or art and culture, or kids... you have all the options for you to choose. I liked that it also provides an option of cost for entrance fees, etc, it gives you a map overview of where the places are but most importantly, all the places suggested has an indication of the nearest Metro/RER station. 

I didn't take the suggestion word for word and modified according to our preference, location and the activities we wanted to do.

Our main aim was to make this visit a sight-seeing and cultural/art - to experience Paris the most that we can. And I added shopping to that goal simply because I love shopping. What else, right? And since most of the sight-seeing was to be done during the weekdays, I allocated the first 2 days of the weekend when we arrived in Paris, dedicated to shopping - first day in Champs Elysees, Rue St Honore, Rue Cambon and the Galeries LaFayette while the second day in La Vallee, a factory outlet less than 1 hour train ride away from the city. And though I thought I would be the only one enjoying the shopping days, the rest of the girls thoroughly enjoyed the steals of the deals they got with some of the famous French brands.

When I planned the itinerary, I plotted the map as well. As you can see in the guide in the itinerary link suggested, there is also a walking route. But since it rains on many days in November, you can opt to buy a one way ticket at just €1.70 for a single trip, or if you think you'd be alighting from many stations within Zones 1-3, you might as well buy a day ticket for €10.55 (check out the zoning areas here.) When you know where you're heading and understand the zoning (it took me a few weeks of itinerary planning to understand the zones), it would be easier to decide where you want to stay and whether buying a 3-day pass is better than just buying the 1-day pass. A 3-day pass for visit in Zones 1-3 is just €23.40... much cheaper than buying a 1-day pass every day. So plan your visit wisely.

We took a 3-day pass which include La Vallee and Versailles (Zones 1-5) which cost us only €47.25. Unlimited train rides and also includes the Funiculaire in Montmartre. 
To summarise:
Day 1 - City shopping, sight-seeing and a lot of walking
Day 2 - La Vallee
Day 3 - Tuileries Gardens, Louvre Museum, Holy Chapel, Notre Dame, Montmartre (where the famous Sacre Coeur Basilica and Moulin Rouge are located)
Day 4 - Eiffel Tower, Seine River Cruise, Versailles, Galeries Lafayette
Day 5 & 10 - in the city (6-10 in Switzerland)
Day 11 - the girls went to Normandy while I went to Disneyland
Day 13 - arrive back home

Must see places and should not miss

I must say I enjoyed the visit to Palace Versailles the most. As I grew up with stories on Napoleon and Marie-Antoinette, the visit to the Palace, listening to its story, understanding how the construction of the Palace and how the expansion took place, looking at painting of the royal families, the war and all the luxurious rooms in the Palace was probably the highlight of my trip. Every girl dreams of being a princess and being in that grand palace was like walking into a dream palace. Everything was beautiful - the furniture, the sculptures and art. Look up at the ceilings and you'll see amazing works of art, each with a story to tell.

1. The Palace Versailles closes early in winter (by 5.30pm) although the tickets are printed 18:30 closing time. We bought the passport to enter all facilities but only managed to finish up the Grand Palace and its beautiful garden. A few of us visitors missed the Petite Triannon, the Queen's estate and only arrived at closing time. 
2. Buy your tickets early, online to avoid from queueing. Since we arrived around noon, there wasn't a queue though.

Eiffel Tower
Of course, any visit to Paris won't be complete without taking a photo at the Eiffel Tower. Now if you were to ask for directions from locals at the Trocadero Metro station, no one knows Eiffel Tower. You're supposed to purse your lips and pronounce it as "Too Eh-fel". Like ya, it is one of the most monumental towers in the world where everyone knowingly calls it the Eiffel Tower yet none of the locals acknowledge it as that. 

Queues are always long no matter which season it is. We decided to cut the queue and take the stairs instead but it was raining heavily that morning and we didn't get to go up. 2nd time in Paris and yet the limited time we have didn't permit me to go up the tower.

Arc de Triomphe
We were supposed to go up the Arc but we didn't have that much time so we only took photos in front of it. It's a nice monument and a meaningful one in their history, and I was so fortunate to be there at the right time during Armistice Day. My girlfriends were all on their own free & easy and we separated. And so I was the only one who witnessed the solemn and momentous event where the Champs Elysees street was closed for awhile and the people marched with lighted torches towards the Arc in remembrance of those who fought the WWI and others.

Louvre Museum
Why shouldn't you enter Louvre Museum... it is after all, one of the largest and richest art museums in the world! It is so huge that 3 hours just doesn't cut it. Entrance is €17 plus audioguide and although they'd ask you for your passport to secure the audioguide, you could just pass them your driving license or credit card as leverage.

Their audioguide uses Nintendo.

Of course, everyone wants to see the Monalisa. So when people start entering the museum, hoards of people will walk towards that direction. But the journey is lengthy and you will pass by many sculptures and exhibits and of course you'd want to snap some photos while you're there, right? By the time you reached the famous Monalisa, you'd already spent about 2 hours of walking, reading and listening to the rich stories that comes with the audioguide. And that, is only less than 1/5 of the entire museum!

My girlfriend, Nicole, came to Louvre on Sunday while the rest of us went shopping in La Vallee. On Sunday, the entrance is free and the audioguide is just €5. So, she has basically gone through the entire museum and finished her tour that last 3 hours we were there the next day. 

Therefore, if you take the Paris Pass where entrance to all 60 museums are included in the ticket... you might rethink because we only managed to visit this one museum.

Montmartre - Sacre Coeur Basilica & Moulin Rouge
Elaine told me that we should give it more time visiting Montmartre. I agree. The place is beautiful. It is not the safest place in Paris and people did warn us the area where Moulin Rouge is located is sort of a randy district, it didn't feel that bad when I was there. Just go and experience it yourself.

The place is gorgeous in its own serene way especially when you make your way up from the beautiful cobblestoned narrow streets to the grand Sacre Coeur Basilica (alight from Cite metro station). It is on top of a hill and the view from up there was simply breathtaking. Throughout the walk, there are many nice souvenir shops but don't get too excited about the prices... while we Asians always like to bargain and get better deals from sub-urban areas, I found that the prices are all consistent anywhere, some even cheaper in Charles de Gaulle airport. Serious.

We didn't get to take any photos inside it but what I can tell you, is that it was an amazing experience for me. It's way beyond words to describe the beauty of it. Entrance is free and the visit wasn't that long... about 1/2 hour or slightly more.

Caution: for small Asian ladies like me, I would suggest that you take the Funiculaire to the top rather than stroll up because there are just so many African-French guys harassing you to buy funny-looking bracelets. When we didn't want to, one of them grabbed my hand hard and I was gonna scream if he didn't let me go when I asked him to. You are practically forced to stop and buy. It was highly disturbing for me and pretty terrifying too. So, on our way down, we took the tram which is just next to the Basilica.

From here you can either walk or take the Metro to Blanche. Once you alight Blanche, Moulin Rouge is right in front of you.

I wouldn't really recommend ladies to watch this with any expectations that it's like the show with Nicole Kidman in it. It isn't. I went for it because Moulin Rouge is French and what a wholesome experience it was gonna be for the trip, wouldn't it? 

We were not allowed to take photos in it and I only managed to steal some initial shots before the actual show. It is a 2-hour cabaret show filled with slender topless women dancing their hearts out in a very chic oldish cabaret setting. There's a good mix of male Asian tourist and there are also a lot of locals there and the place is packed to the brim. 

Buy tickets early directly from the Moulin Rouge website because only this website offers just tickets without refreshments at €99 and there is a long queue to get in even with tickets. If you go to agents, the cheapest tickets you can get include a half bottle of champagne at €109. We were there early because they didn't email me the tickets but the reception was very helpful and friendly. He printed the tickets for us and made sure we got good seats.

When we arrived for the show, we got a French male waiter to help us to our seat, who could speak Mandarin. He was so happy to meet sweet Mandarin speaking tourists and went yapping away with my girlfriends. So, we got quite a good service that night until some other waiter saw me snapping away with the camera *tsk tsk*

There are only 2 shows available - 9pm and 11pm. Since the last train is around 1am, we went for the 9pm show. And it was perfect that Blanche Metro is on line M2, which goes direct to our apartment. Coming home was a very short journey as we didn't need to transfer.

La Vallee is a factory outlet and an impressive shopping destination if your trip to Europe doesn't include Bicester Village in London. I've been to Bicester Village twice in 5 years and one visit to La Vallee provided me with some good comparisons. Of course, the main reason I wanted to go La Vallee was to check out the deals in Longchamp. I wanted to know how much cheaper can the bags be when we all know that Longchamp is already quite a reduction of the price we get here even if you buy from their Rue St. Honore store.

In any factory outlets, you can never tell for sure what's available because it all depends on the season. What I can tell you, is that the collection in the La Vallee outlet is even better than the main street! The wallet that I was eyeing cost €190 in the main street was only €125 in the outlet. That's like RM300 cheaper. Of course there are hoards of those Le Pliage bags which only comes in certain colours, sizes and short handles. Their limited edition collection, though, are to die for.

I also got good bargains from brands like Ralph Lauren and Guess. And if you really have a lot of Euros to spend, the Ugg boots were too darn cheap to resist (until I told myself I wouldn't wear them again after Switzerland), their Burberry store has better collection than Bicester (although the price won't be that much cheaper), and beautiful stuff from Tod's, DVF, Furla, Kenzo - 120 prestigious brands altogether. But be wary of the prices back home before you start going all crazy there because not everything is cheaper than here although most of them are.

If you go on days other than Sunday, the Val d'Europe Shopping Mall (not a factory outlet, closes on Sunday) which you need to walk through to get to La Vallee from the Val d'Europe station, has tonnes of brands that will make you sweat with tears - there's H&M, L'occitane, Desigual, Accessorize, Agatha - there are 140 shops! I went there again on the last day in Paris in between going to Disneyland and I was going bonkers. One day is not good enough :D

Where else to make you feel all young and happy?

I came across a group of Malaysians taking pictures at the entrance and they asked my why was everyone going in, without any tickets. So, I told them they could still go through the security check point without a ticket if they were to just enter Disney Village.

Disney Village is a huge compound with various boutiques and cafes. Basically, you can shop without a ticket but you don't get to enter Disneyland or Disney Studios.

If you wish to enter Disneyland Paris, check out their website beforehand as they usually have lots of promotions for online tickets. When I went, they still had the 20th anniversary promotion and the 2 Parks tickets online were cheaper than buying just 1 Park at the gate.

The train stops at the last station - Marne La Vallee-Chessy, one stop after Val d'Europe if you intend to go La Vallee factory outlet first.

But if you don't have the 56 minutes travel time to Disneyland from the city center, you could still purchase authentic Disney Store merchandise located on Champs Elysees. I so love this street! You'd get a different mix of merchandise... I found many that I bought in Disney Village not sold in Disney Store and vice versa. If you like what you see and is within your budget, just buy. I regretted not buying some stuff I saw on my first day in Paris thinking that I can get it in Disney Village. On the last day, I went to both stores and the merchandise was sold out already. Even the Doc Mc Stuffins boots didn't have Jada's size anymore and her doctor bag was also out.

Useful tips in Paris:
1. Bring your own bottle of water as you need to rehydrate throughout your journey. You can refill the water in many cafes in Paris as water is free unlike here where they charge RM0.50 at least. The small cafe I went before the Moulin Rouge show served us Evian water and it was FOC. Most cafes everywhere else has a water filling station and those that do not might tell you they only serve hot water. 

2. Food is expensive only because we convert it to our Ringgit Malaysia. If you need to budget for every meal, a good €14-€20 per person per meal is sufficient. On our first day I went to Marks & Spencer and got a tomato-egg sandwich for just €0.85 because it was almost closing time and they wanted to finish off their stocks. My friend, Carmen, got her smoked salmon sandwich for less than €2. That was real luck that we were there at the right time :)

3. Plan your itinerary properly so that you can save on public transport, ie. Metro & RER train rides. When you plan your itinerary well, you are also more confident to move towards where you intend to go.

4. Download the Paris Metro or RATP app on your iPhone or iPad because it gives you an accurate direction on which trains to take, provided that you already know which station you're heading to.

5. Forget the €9 train ride from Charles de Gaulle airport if you are lugging heavy suitcases (because their Metro stations are not handicap friendly and don't have lifts) and if you are not staying in Gare de Lyon. The Air France shuttle that commutes from the airport direct to Arc de Triomphe charges €17 one direction but you must take it at Terminal 2F. CDG airport is huuuuuge and if you are already at Terminal 2, you are still far from 2F.
- So if you are travelling in a group more than 2 people and you're staying near the city centre, taking the cab from the airport is time-saving, cost-saving and energy-saving. The 3 times we took the cab, the fare ranged from €48-€57 depending on traffic... and it takes you from the point where you're staying directly to your Terminal. But as any taxi service in any airports around the world, beware of those 'ulats'... not only Malaysia has ulat taxi... when we thought we were already at the right gate, we realised we were gonna get screwed when the cab driver asked us for €100! No way. Not a chance.

6. Get yourself a good hooded jacket as temperature can get cold all of a sudden and keeping your head warm during winter would keep the rest of your body warm as well. For helpful tips on the type of clothing you should wear, I used this website as my reference point. And it helped me tremendously as I stayed warm and comfy even under 0 degrees in Switzerland!

7. Bring a good umbrella as the strong winds during heavy rain can blow your tiny umbrella away.

8. Always always be wary of pickpockets. Unlike in Malaysia where security is always deemed as a matter of "public perception", in Paris they choose to acknowledge the problem and caution you at every Metro stop. Even the boutique assistants would caution us on how we wear our handbags to prevent from being the target of pickpockets. I was aware of this little problem before coming to Paris but I didn't realise the problem was even bigger than I thought it was. My girlfriend, Carmen, was a target and a very kind gentleman told us sternly (and loudly for all in the carriage to hear) to look out for the 2 girls sitting behind us as they were pickpockets. The crime is so much like a career that the security personnel in the Metro ticketing offices recognise those characters usually lingering near  ticketing machines prying on unsuspecting victims and I didn't know that even commuters themselves recognise the pickpockets. So beware. They aren't dangerous, they may not be as violent as those here, but as a tourist, you wouldn't want to lose your wallet or worse still, your passport.

9. If you don't speak French but you want them to assist you with something, please try make an effort to start the conversation with Bonjour. You'll find that they are really quite friendly people. Download the French+ app on your iPhone if you must. I learnt a lot of phrases from there or your could also download google translate, type what you want to say in English and have it translate for you. Then ask them if you can speak in English. Always finish off with Merci (thank you) or au voir (bye/see you again). 

10. Try to get an accommodation with a concierge service if you can because you never know when you'll need help and you can't speak their language. On our way back to Paris from Zurich, my hand luggage was accidentally left in the cab and the concierge offered to call the taxi from their phone rather than we call using our roaming line. They patiently helped talk to the hotline and I got my bag with all the contents intact.

11. There are wifi connections in most familiar establishments like McD, Starbucks and some cafes. Even the Louis Vuitton store has a wifi connection free for its customers. And if you always complain about our iffy wifi in KLIA, the Charles de Gaulle airport only gives you free 15 minutes wifi connection. After that, you'd need to pay :D

12. If you travel with a small child and would be carrying a stroller, the Metro unfortunately will pose a challenge for you as there are hardly any lift service. Everyone in the city who lugs a trolley or huge bag would be dragging them up or down the long flights of staircase and it is deemed normal. Nobody complains... or even if they did, what else can they do to an old structure, right? No one will give you a hand unless you ask for it, not because they are rude, but because to the Europeans I guess it's none of their business to offer a stranger a hand. So if you have a stroller, be sure you're not alone as you'd need help to lift the stroller. Otherwise, take the bus or the cab.

13. For Muslims, you'll see plenty of food with the name "Jambon" around. Porc, Jambon or Mortadella are all in the same family - pork or parts of pork. You cannot eat their pepperoni, bacon or salami either because they are pork or at least contain some pork. 

I hope this post is useful enough for unseasoned travellers like me :)


Khalid Raffali said...

The thing that caught my eye from this long post was the use of that Nintendo DS for the guide thingy. Hehe.

shu-yin tan said...

may i know which airbnb place u all booked? it looks nice.
my email add is tanshuyin [at] yahoo [dot] com