Friday, October 14, 2011

Paris Part Two: Getting around

[I'm writing this post while we're still making plans for our trip. We will be visiting Paris in December 2011]

Figuring where to stay in Paris can be an exciting (and exhausting!) thing to do. But what next? Paris is a city that offers, as the cliche goes, something for everybody. There's art, music, architecture, food, education, fashion, shopping, people watching...more to do and too little time to do it all. Given that, it's good to get your bearings right before you visit and figure what's a good way to get around. And at the very end, I'll tell you the best way to get around in Paris!

Understanding Paris
There are two simple things to remember about the geography of Paris.

Image source: Wikipedia

The first is that the River Seine divides Paris into two rough halves - the Left Bank (Rive Gauche) and the Right Bank (Rive Droite). Areas north of the the River are the referred to as the Right Bank and those south of the River comprise the Left Bank. The Eiffel Tower, Musee d'Orsay, Luxembourg Gardens, Musee Rodin and the Saint Germain des Pres area are some of the notable Left Bank occupants, as is Paris' famous Sorbonne University. The Right Bank features notables such as Musee du Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, Champs-Elysees, Sacre Coeur, Montmarte, Centre Pompidou and the famous Marais neighborhood.

The second thing to remember is that Paris is divided into Arrondissements numbered 1 to 20. The 1st Arrondissement is located in the historic centre of Paris (on the Right Bank) and the other 19 spiral outwards clockwise on either sides of the River Seine. This division might sound complicated but it actually makes getting around and planning much easier (and you can thank Emperor Napoleon III who did this in 1860). Each Arrondissement has it's own distinct character, sights, history, cafes, restaurants and bistros. The last two digits on the Paris postal code tell you which Arrondissement you are in (75001 to 75020).

Paris offers great options for travellers to get around. There's the network of trains (Metro and RER) and Bus to pick from. While most of the information is available online in detail, including the fantastic RATP site, I'm just going to give you a quick overview of the basics.

The Metro
The Metro, like metros in most other cities, is a quick, efficient way to get around with stops at every station along each line. The Metro has 300 stations and 16 lines, each with a unique colour. The lines are numbered 1 to 14 but there are two secondary lines 3b and 7b. The lines are named according to the name of the terminal station.

The Metro runs from 5:30 am to 12:40 am from Sunday to Thursday and 5:30 am to 1:40 am on Fridays and Saturdays, with trains at an interval of a few minutes. The RATP site has detailed information, including maps, so I won't go into the details here.
It's important to figure tickets before you travel, since public transport in Paris offers a variety of ticketing options - single & multi-day tickets, weekly, monthly & yearly passes and ticket booklets. Tickets are valid for the Zones that you purchase them for and the prices referred to here are largely only for Paris and not specifically for the suburbs or sights out of Paris, like Versailles. For more details on the pricing for different zones, visit the RATP site.

Single ticket: A single ticket (called ticket t+) costs 1.70€ and is valid for one single continuous journey, including change of lines to your destination or on the RER. A better option for travellers is a booklet called the Carnet.
Carnet: A Carnet is basically a booklet of 10 single tickets sold at 12.50€ (at 1.25€ a ticket, it's a better option than buying single tickets). You don't get an actual booklet. What you get is a set of 10 tickets to use whenever you want to. There's also a discount for children from ages 4-9 (under 4 years old ride free).
Day ticket: Called the Ticket Mobilis, it gives you unlimited rides on the Metro during operational hours for 1 day. It costs 6.30€.
Multi-day tickets: Called the Carte Paris Visite, this is a pass that is valid for 1, 2, 3 or 5 days and for different Zones. In addition, the Visite also comes bundled with discounts at certain attractions. From what I've read and researched, it's not a very good option compared to the Carnet or the...
Pass Navigo Decouverte: For people like me who are staying for more than a week, this is a fantastic option. No flimsy tickets to deal with, no fumbling with the ticket slot, no nothing. The catch is it's valid from Monday to Sunday with no continuous 7-day usage period from midweek. The card is activated on the Monday following the day you purchase the card and expires the following Sunday. So if you're arriving mid-week, a Carnet is still a better option. It's priced at a great 18.85€ per week (but remember to add a non-refundable 5€ fee for the first time you buy the card). Remember to carry a 2.5cm x 2cm photograph for the paper nominative card that accompanies the plastic card. Both cards must be carried together for use.

RER (Reseau Express Regionale - Regional Express Network)
The RER is pretty much like the Metro, except these are fast trains with fewer stops. There are 5 lines (A, B, C, D & E). The RATP site has detailed maps of the RER that you can download. If you're arriving at CDG Airport (detailed out below in the section of getting to and from CDG Airport), the RER connects you to the city. It's also a great option if you're visiting Euro Disney. If you're travelling wihin Paris, the Metro ticket (or pass) can be used on the RER as well.
The following passes are valid for travel on the RER: Ticket Mobilis, Carte Paris Visite and Pass Navigo Decouverte. But do remember the fares for the passes and the tickets are determined by the zones you buy them for.
Travelling by bus in Paris is a fantastic option. It's definitely the most scenic way to get around and it also gives you the option to hop off if you've seen some place interesting where you want to make an unscheduled stop.
There are Bus stops every few blocks all over Paris and some of them act as points where different lines intersect. Buses run from 5:30 am to midnight, although it would be wise to check the actual timings since not all of them run until midnight. There's also a night bus network, called the Noctilien, that runs through the night. Buses on this network aren't as frequent as the regular buses and aren't as well-spread either. Arm yourself with a map for the Noctilien to avoided getting stranded late at night. Some buses also run through a lot of scenic routes but I'll list them out in future posts on things to do and see in Paris. [I've just re-written some bits of this section, thanks to helpful advice from djkbooks at I've learnt a lot from him and other experienced travellers on the Paris Forum. Do not skip checking it out!]

By River
Venice has it's Gondolas, Paris has Batobus. Well, they're not as romantic and exclusive as the gondolas but the Batobus River Shuttle is still a great way to explore Paris. The Batobus is basically a hop on-hop off service that has 8 stops along the River Seine - Tour Eiffel, St-Germain-des-Pres, Jardin des Plantes, Louvre, Musee d'Orsay, Notre-Dame, Hotel de Ville and Champs-Elysees. The boats run at different frequencies around the year but on an average, you can find one every 20 minutes or so. Tickets are available in a variety of options. 1 day pass (14€), 2 day pass (18€), 5 day pass (21€) and an annual pass (60€). Remember, on the 2 day and 5 day pass, it's 2 or 5 consecutive days from the first day you use it. The Batobus is definitely a great way to see Paris and I suggest at least a 1 day pass where you can hop on and hop off at every stop and see the bits of the city around these stops. The link to the site has detailed information on the rates, points of sale and timetables around the year.

From Charles de Gaulle Airport
Train: You can get from CDG Airport to Paris in a number of different ways - train, bus or taxi/shuttle.
The RER B line runs from CDG Airport to Paris city with stops at Gare du Nord, Chatelet les Halles, St Michel/Notre Dame, Luxembourg, Port Royal, Denfert Rochereau and Cite Universitaire. The ticket price is 9.10€. If you have heavy luggage, it's not advisable. Escalators aren't available at every station and are known to be shut without prior notice. It's also not the easiest thing in the world to cart large suitcases in and out of packed commuter trains.
Bus: There are quite a few bus options available. Air France operates buses from both Terminal 1 & 2. There's also the RoissyBus & RATP that connects CDG Airport to Paris city.
Taxi: Depending on when you arrive, the number of passengers and the luggage you're carrying, taxis are an option you can also consider. If you're a larger group (or willing to take a shared taxi), a shuttle is also an option.
I'm intentionally not going into the details in this post because there's a lot of information available online, especially here.

Things to remember:
  1. Familiarize yourself with the map of Paris.
  2. Familiarize yourself with the Metro map. It looks complicated but it isn't.
  3. Watch for pickpockets at stations.
  4. Pick the best ticket option on the Metro and RER. This depends on which day of the week you're coming in, how long you're staying and what your schedule is looking like. For all practical purposes, a Carnet is a great idea. For those coming in early during the week or on a weekend, the Pass Navigo Decouverte is excellent.
  5. Tickets and passes are valid for both buses and the Metro.
  6. Tickets to and from certain venues (CDG Airport, Versailles, etc.) may not be covered by what you've purchased previously. So check your zones and buy separate tickets for these journeys.
  7. If you've got a lot of luggage (more than one large item per traveller), spend a few extra Euros and get a taxi or a shuttle.
  8. Download a Metro app on your phone or begin using the RATP site. It's really helpful and user-friendly.
  9. Ben Lam has written what I consider the Bible on travelling in Paris by train. I've found his site invaluable. I'm sure you will too when you check it out. Or you'll kick yourself for not checking it out once you get to Paris.
  10. If you're lost, don't worry. You can walk your way out in Paris.
  11. Finally, here's the best way to actually get around Paris: by foot.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Paris Part One: Stay

[I'm writing this post while we're still making plans for our trip. We will be visiting Paris in December 2011]

A couple of years ago we had this sudden idea to go visit Paris. Rave, I think, was born with this urge. She’s quite a Francophile, ever since she began studying French in school. We didn’t do much about planning out a visit when we first thought of it (with the exception of buying a Lonely Planet guidebook), until recently.

Before we started, we hunted for people who’ve blogged as extensively about the time before their travel as they have about their holiday. It would’ve really helped novices like us get a better understanding of how to go about doing it. But that’s what we hope this series will do – help other travelers with their pre-holiday planning and show people what we’re doing daily during our 14-day Paris holiday. These posts begin now while we’re still planning our trip and booking our stays.
Now, we’ve spent over a month planning this two-week holiday (3rd Dec – 17th Dec 2011) and along the way, picked up two other traveling companions as well. This post is a brief glimpse of how we went about planning the trip the last 4 weeks. Needless to say, there’s still plenty of work to be done.

One of the first things I did was begin reading short (specifically short and not detailed) descriptions of Paris. This gave me a brief picture of what the city is all about and how much time we need to spend there. Well, Paris is everything (definitely more than the Mona Lisa, the Eiffel Tower, cafes, bistros and escargot). And there’s never going to be enough time to experience it completely. But two weeks is what we have and we began working towards that.

Early on, we decided to not stay at a hotel. We weren’t backpacking but we weren’t on a very big budget either. [We’re traveling from India, where the current exchange rate is 1 Euro to 68 Indian Rupees. Trust me, that’s not good at all if you’re Indian!] Another big reason to not stay at a hotel was because we really want to experience Paris the way Parisians do. I will never be able to get the ‘r’ in French right or pronounce ‘Bonjour’ exactly the way it should be, but I can at least try and stay in an apartment with Parisians for neighbours, shop at the grocery store they do and hopefully get on a first name basis with the closest baker and barman!

Here are a few other pros and cons of an apartment as opposed to a hotel or a B&B.

  1. It’s much, much larger than a hotel room. Hotel rooms in Paris are notoriously small from what I’ve seen and read. Some don’t come with wardrobes and the cheaper ones barely have room for two people to move around at the same time.
  2. It’s much, much cheaper than a hotel room. A good hotel room isn’t very cheap (at least not for us traveling from India!). Weekly rates for apartments are also much lesser than daily rates. With a hotel, it’s almost always a fixed price that you multiply by the number of days you stay.
  3. It’s more than just a room. Sure, you can cough up your family’s fortune on a hotel suite but for travelers like us (who don’t have surnames that end with Trump), it’s out of the question. An apartment is a home. Even the tiny ones come with a living room, dining space, an open kitchen, a bedroom and bathroom. Even a studio measures up better than a similarly priced hotel room (if you do actually find one that’s liveable at that rate).
  4. You get a kitchen. For people like us who love cooking (and eating), that’s just perfect. The thought of cooking up our own breakfast or a nice dinner or a midnight snack sounded just too good to exchange for room service.
  5. Everything you need is only a few doors away. There are bakeries, cafes, patisseries, grocery stores, pharmacies, fresh fruit… You could dial room service a easily pay twice as much for a croissant . But think about actually standing at a bakery, picking what you want and waking up in the middle of the night slightly hungry and finding a basket of croissants waiting at the dining table.
  6. Appliances. I’m a big coffee drinker and I like walking up to the kitchen and refilling my cup whenever I want to. If you’re staying longer, nothing beats having your own washing machine and dryer. Or a microwave to warm up a little leftover that’s sitting in your refrigerator.
  1. Cleaning up. You’ve got to do it all yourself, just like you would at home. Some apartments have cleaning up help (which you need to pay for as extra).
  2. Linen. Your linen isn’t changed every day (or alternate day) like it is at a hotel. Want your linen changed? Wash it, press it and change it yourself.
  3. Dishes. Although every apartment I came across had a dishwasher, you need to do the dishes yourself. You’re not eating every meal at home, so it isn’t really a huge chore.
  4. Essentials. Toilet paper, shower gel, shampoo, dishwashing powder, detergent, soap, etc., you have to get yourself. Although many apartments come with a few bare essentials to get you started right away, you need to get the rest yourself during your stay. No elf that replaces used bottles of shower gel or shampoo while you’re away spending the afternoon with a naked Venus at the Louvre!
  5. No room service. 3 am hunger pangs? Sorry but there’s no quick dial on the phone to order a sandwich.
  6. No bellhops. Some apartments have elevators, some don’t. That’s something to think about while packing every item of clothing you own.
If you do decide on an apartment, make sure you check on a few things.
  • Check which floor your apartment is on and if there’s an elevator. Lugging baggage up a very high floor may not be a good idea. Also consider climbing 5 floors after a night of partying.
  • Check on linen. Most apartments come with linen and a set of towels. Don’t expect 5 star quality linen. This is just the kind of stuff you have at home so you should be fine with it actually.
  • Check on the security deposit - how does it get paid and how long before you’re paid back. 
  • Some apartments also offer a cleaning service if you’re staying for long periods. If there isn’t one, check with your owner if one can be arranged. 

In the end, it all comes down to the kind of holiday you want. A hotel works great for some people. For others, an apartment is more originally Parisian. As Rick Steves says, we prefer traveling through the ‘back door’. It keeps you closer to the streets, gets you to mingle with the locals on the streets, puts you in touch with the local bakers…essentially, it’s living local in a foreign land.

Before I began doing any kind of research, I first went through some of these sites. I’m sure there are many like this, but here’s where I got started.

Brief overview of Paris
Visiting Paris on
Paris Escapes
Understand France
David Lebovitz
Paris Notes (a wonderful site that has unfortunately stopped its service but you can still access all its back issues)

There’s lots of other information elsewhere. Notably, Lonely Planet, which gives you great information but I’ve found it more tuned to budget travelers/backpackers. So make sure you go through a few of these for a couple of days and get a fix on which one’s best for your travel.

Apartment Listings

Honestly, there are millions of places that can help you out. So what I’m adding here is only a short list of the ones we went through.

Lodgis: It’s an agency that throws great options and I’ve interacted with them briefly and they seem good. Just remember while dealing with an agency, there’s an agency fee that you need to pay as well.
AirBnB: Great place if you need to get in touch with the owners directly. AirBnB has listings for entire apartments as well as B&Bs or rooms with apartments that you can share with guests. There’s a small fee attached with the service.
All Paris Apartments: Again a great place to find an apartment. From what I’ve seen, a tad less pricey than the others.
Holiday Rentals: Great prices, loads of options. You can contact the owner directly so there isn’t an agency fee attached.
Feel Paris: Nice user-friendly site, average prices and some really good apartments. Again, it’s an agency, so there’s an agency fee to cough up.
Paris Attitude: A fairly good collection, lots of price brackets to swing between.
Vacation in Paris: Lots to pick from, fairly good prices.
Homelidays: Great place, great apartments, lots and lots of options. This is actually a listing where owners list their apartments, so you deal with the owner directly. This was the one we finally settled with! We found a great apartment and a wonderful owner we’re dealing with. But more on that later.

Things to remember:
  1. Do a bit of reading before you go hotel or apartment hunting. It’s going to give you an overview of the different sections of Paris so you can decide which area suits you best.
  2. Really, really do consider an apartment over a hotel.
  3. It’s tasking but go through a million apartments before you decide on the one you want.
  4. Make a shortlist of about 8-10 apartments and then begin contacting the agency or owner to check availability, extra costs, etc.
  5. Once you’ve found one, don’t ever, ever, ever look at another rental site! You will find more interesting ones and it just doesn’t ever stop. Ask us!
  6. Important: Don't judge the quality of an apartment by either the quality of the website that it's listed on or the quality of the photographs.
 Coming up in the next post: We know where we’re living, so now what?