Paris on the Cheap – D. Hamilton

What’s cheap? It’s relative. If you’re living paycheck to paycheck, forget Parisian holidays. Under those circumstances, spending a month on vacation almost anywhere is unlikely and Europe is a bourgeoise indulgence beyond your means. Even on the relative cheap, we expect to spend more than $7,000 for two for a month in Paris, all inclusive. It can be done cheaper, but that is cheap. A young guy with a quality pack and sleeping bag was sacked out in the Place la Republique this morning when we passed by. Back in my army days, I spent a flea-bitten night in the vestibule of the Gare de Austerlitz after having missed the last train back to my base in Orleans. Sleeping in the street is not uncommon and is tolerated, but we are a bit long in the teeth to employ such approaches. If you stayed in the countryside, bike-toured from one campsite to another, bought all your food in grocery stores and cooked over your butane camp stove, that would save a lot. But is that why you came to Europe? Much depends on how hard you want to push the economy plan and whether it’s ultimately worth it in terms of your enjoyment. But the simplest key to budget travel in Europe is to avoid, as much as possible, hotels and restaurants.

A major factor is what time of year to go. We recommend “shoulder season,” either late spring (May 1 through June 15) or early fall (September 1 through October 15). The weather is likely to be good and the dense throngs of tourists either haven’t shown up yet or have already gone back home. The current late spring has been relatively cold in Paris, but I’m enjoying it, knowing the heat that awaits back in Texas. Prices for flights and housing are lower during these periods than in the summer, although not as low as in winter. September is especially nice in the French countryside, with harvesting taking place, particularly of grapes. Provence at this time is the most beautiful harmony of nature with a human contribution I’ve ever seen.

Getting here really cheap requires a little work. I credit Jim Franklin for the following advice, the airline scam, which I have yet to try. Buy a discount ticket from a travel agent as far in advance as possible. These tickets are much cheaper than anything the airlines will offer you, but they can’t be changed without paying a hefty penalty. Book it for a time that will be particularly busy for the airlines, maybe a Friday afternoon departure. You want to be on a flight that will be overbooked. Just before departure, an agent for the airline will announce that they will offer a several hundred dollar incentive for anyone who volunteers to give up their seat until the following day, and they’ll give you hotel and food vouchers to cover the wait. Jump on it. It will cost you an extra day of travel, but you may get a round-trip ticket to Europe for les than $500. Actually, if you do it a few days in a row, you might get here free.

The most significant savings can be achieved by staying long enough in one spot to get an apartment instead of a hotel. Since Paris is the number one tourist destination in the world, there are hundreds of short term rental furnished apartments available here. In fact, they are all over Europe and some accept stays of as little as three days. They are all on the Internet. By far the best site we have found for them is Homelidays.com. Last time I looked, it had 13,000 properties offered just in France and more than 21,000 worldwide. When I refined my search to a Paris apartment between 400 and 600 euros a week, I had 700 options. It is not an agency. You deal directly with the property owners. Each listing has very detailed descriptions of the property and all its amenities, usually including several pictures, even the languages the owner speaks. We are paying 1,800 euros (about $2,300 declining dollars) for a one-bedroom apartment in the very center of Paris for a month. The hotel next door is more than 100 euros ($125-plus) a night for less than half as much space with no fully equipped kitchen, no TV/DVD, no stereo, no free telephone service to any landline in the world, no washing machine and no computer, all of which we have and much more, besides the fact our place is cute as hell.

This savings on housing, however, is small compared to the savings on food that can be achieved with an apartment. When in Paris, one must sample French cuisine, but not every meal or even every day. Besides, there are great ingredients available in the local markets and specialty food stores (boulangerie, fromagerie, etc.) and you can make your own French cuisine – especially if you’re married to Sally Hamilton. With an apartment, you can cut your food budget by at least half. Then when you go out to eat, you can go for some really good stuff without cringing.

When you eat out, French food is not your cheapest option. The best deals are probably at a “traitoir asiatique,” little Asian deli/buffet places – fried rice for one euro per 100 grams, curry chicken for two euro per 100 grams, etc. They’re everywhere, but quality varies greatly. Traitoirs with other types of food are also common.

The book “Cheap Eats in Paris” dropped the cheap from it’s title. There are about 20,000 places to eat in Paris, restaurants; bistros; brasseries, salons de thé, etc. No comprehensive guide to them is possible and those that may try to cover the cheaper places are taking a shot in the dark. It’s best just to go to a neighborhood outside the principal tourist centers and spend 15 minutes walking around making comparisons. All French eating establishments are required by law to display their menu outside. Compare prices, what places are popular and what people are eating. There will almost always be a “menu” or “formule” which offers multiple courses for a price lower than a la carte. Restaurants usually have fixed hours; noon to 2:30 for lunch and 7:00 until 11:00 for dinner. Don’t go to one of these places at 2:15 for lunch and expect their best. A 19.6 percent tax and 15 percent for service are almost invariably included in the stated price on the menu. Tipping beyond that is very minimal and really for something extra. Lunch is always a better deal than dinner. If there are tables outside (au terrasse), things may cost more there, especially if you only want drinks.

Eating French food is an essential part of the France experience. But you better be ready for at least $25 per person without wine for anything memorable. Most restaurants offer “pichet de vins,” half liter pitchers of “vin ordinaire” for much less than the bottle or glass price.

How you access your money is another potential savings. In Guatemala, travelers checks are the best option. The banks there give better rates to change them than to change cash. And that rate is very close to the bank-to-bank currency market exchange rate. But in Guatemala, you never know exactly what currency exchange and transaction fees are going to be added when you use insert your plastic in an ATM machine. Also, some bank accounts in the US offer the benefit of free travelers checks. In Europe, on the other hand, travelers checks are completely passé. The rates to exchange them are a rip-off and many banks here won’t even bother with them, leaving you vulnerable to the not-so-tender mercies of currency exchange storefront operations. The best method here is to get chunks of cash (I get 200 euro at a time) on a debit card at the ATM of a bank that has a corresponding relationship with your US bank. This gives you the best possible exchange rate and the fewest transactions. Then pay your expenses in cash. Using credit cards for each purchase may open you to multiple fees. My experience is that changing currencies anywhere in the US before you leave is done at very poor rates.

Hope this information is helpful and more of you are encouraged to internationalize. A bientot.

David Hamilton

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