An expert’s advice in how to maximize your time (and money) in Paris by avoiding these mistakes
“Paris is always a good idea.” That’s a quote by Audrey Hepburn’s title character in the film Sabrina. Well, I certainly belive that, but I’ll add on a second part: “Paris is always a good idea… but not every idea is a good one in Paris”.
I’ve made tailored Paris vacation itineraries for nearly 100 clients. In all that time, I see the same issues come up time and time again. I give my best advice on those issues every time, because my main goal in planning someone’s vacation is to make sure they have everything they need to have a good time… even warnings!
In the end, everyone chooses for themselves how they want their vacation planned out. And that is how it should be. You’re the master of your own life – obviously including that Paris vacation!
… not every idea is a good one in Paris.
This list is simply a compilation of some of the most common mistakes clients make when thinking about their Paris vacation. It’s a list built on experience. I want to share it with you so you can at least be aware of some of the mistakes others have made, and regretted.
It’s all well and good to learn from your own mistakes, as they say, but I think it’s even better to learn from the mistakes of others so you never have to make them in the first place!
Mistake 1 – don’t pay attention to museum closure dates
Nothing is worse than getting up at the crack of dawn to get to the Louvre when it opens and, oh, it’s a Tuesday.
Yeah, the Louvre is closed on Tuesdays.
Paris museums can get spectacularly busy, so purchasing your ticket in advance is a very strong recommendation I make to all travelers. The hidden bonus of getting your ticket in advance? You’ll never make Mistake #1.
Paris is also a city well-known for taking a long time to do pretty much any kind of restoration. If you think I’m kidding about this, know that the Picasso Museum recently reopened after 5 years of construction. They’d planned on 2 years of construction.
Another example is the lovely Carnavalet Museum, the museum of Parisian history. Carnavalet just closed for 3 years of planned works. Though, who knows, it could be much longer…
To sum up: it’s a good idea to make sure the museum you want to visit isn’t closed!
Mistake 2 – climb the Eiffel tower
Let me clarify: it’s a mistake to climb the Eiffel Tower if you pay more than 17 euros for your ticket. That’s the official Eiffel Tower website price. Buy your tickets through that page if you can.
This takes some advance planning, since tickets through the official site tend to sell out months in advance. But that’s why it’s the first thing I tell travelers to take care of: purchase your tickets, and we’ll work the rest of your activities around that.
Viator (a third party site that hosts tours from many different companies) is full of companies who buy thousands of tickets in bulk under the guise of doing tours, but they then simply sell the tickets at a hugely marked-up price. I’m talking about 60+ euros, more than 3 times the actual price of the ticket.
You have a couple options if official website tickets are sold out.
1. Take the stairs
No one can buy advance tickets to take the stairs. Believe me, most people opt for the elevator. But if you’re physically fit, it’s fair game (and there’s no crazy ticket markup!). The stairs take you to the first and second levels of the tower. In my opinion the view is the best from the second, but should you want to continue up to the third and final level, you can do that! At the second level you can purchase elevator tickets to the summit: there’s a little kiosque you can use to get them.
As a little bonus, there’s no ticket checking on the way down so you can take the elevator back down to ground level if you want.
2. Go at Night
The Eiffel Tower is open later than most Paris attractions. From June-September, the last elevator to the top is 11pm. The rest of the year, it’s 10:30pm. You can definitely avoid the long lines by going as late as possible at night. Families with children, travelers worn out after a too-busy day, and those who imbibed a bit too much delicious French wine at dinner will all skip this activity in the evening. So that’s when I advise going! Stellar post-dinner activity, anyone?
3. See a superb view from a different monument
The plus side here obviously is that your cityscape photo of Paris will actually have the Eiffel Tower IN it! In addition, there are some truly fabulous alternatives that are far less crowded (and less expensive) than climbing the “Iron Lady”. You’ve got Montparnasse, Sacre Coeur, Notre Dame, even hot air balloons! There’s a full guide to Eiffel Tower alternatives on this page, telling you the prices, the pros of each option, and where in the city they are.
Mistake 3 – cram in too many activities
This is undeniably the most common mistake. It’s also the one most likely to make your vacation feel like work. (Bummer.)
Now, everyone’s travel style is different. And that’s okay! Some travelers prefer to have very structured and full early days. Others prefer to explore at a leisurely pace.
But some things are just not possible under the laws of time and physics, people. Yes, I want you to be able to visit the Louvre, Eiffel Tower, wine tasting, eat lunch and dinner, go to the Moulin Rouge show, and do souvenir shopping in the Marais all in one day. But that would either require time travel, or instantaneous cloning. And the science, unfortunately, just isn’t there yet.
What a lot of travelers don’t realize is that some activities in Paris are nearly impossible to do “quickly”. Or, rather: “quickly” simply has a different definition. A “quick” visit to the Louvre is 2 hours – and this is if you’re on a guided tour like this one, which beelines you to all the highlights. Wandering around on your own in that giant museum (the biggest in the world, by the way!), it’s bound to take longer to see everything you want to see.
Another problem with trying to cram in too many activities is not factoring travel time. Though Paris is geographically quite a small city, it can still take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour to get from one activity to another by metro.
Mistake 4 – buy Paris Museum Pass (except if you are only seeing museums)
Many, many travelers ask about the Paris Museum Pass. Almost every single time I’ve priced this out for clients, it hasn’t been worth it.
The Paris Museum Pass can occasionally be a wise purchase, but please: do your research beforehand.
The Pass has a few different prices for consecutive-day use. Unless you are planning on seeing 2-4 of the included activities each of those days, you’ll be losing money.
Even 5 years ago, there was a huge convenience factor to the Paris Museum Pass. Back then you couldn’t pre-purchase tickets online for every museum or monument. Or if you could, sometimes it was a huge pain to go collect your tickets at a French store like Fnac.
Now though, you can buy tickets for just about every museum and monument online, and receive the tickets as an email. You can even buy tickets for the Paris Catacombes online (that’s new as of this year).
Price it out for yourself, but most of the time my advice is to purchase the museum and monument tickets individually.
Mistake 5 – don’t make restaurant reservations
To be honest, part of me is hesitant about including this mistake. I think it’s wonderful to get lost in a city and eat at nice looking places you find along the way. That’s my travel style, at least.
But, boy have I been burned!
I have eaten some truly mediocre (if not terrible) meals while travelling. And I have definitely learned my lesson.
Now, I’m not saying every restaurant has to be planned. But take some time to do a little research. This can help save you (and your wallet) some heartache during your time in Paris.
Some travelers prefer to have every meal planned, and if that’s your style then go for it! Many restaurants’ websites will allow you to reserve online, which makes it much easier for those who don’t speak French.
If you’re not a reserve-in-advance kind of traveler, at the very least read some tips on avoiding tourist trap restaurants. I promise, you’ll thank me.
Mistake 6 – plan a million things your arrival day
This especially applies to those of you who will be flying into Paris. Between jetlag and travel delays, you’ll already have a lot on your plate the day of your arrival.
Experience over the years has shown me that most travelers tremendously undersestimate jet lag’s effects. You are going to be tired and worn-out. It’s best to accept that, and plan your arrival day with some more low-key things that don’t require a tight, stressful schedule. I even advise clients against booking tours on their arrival day, if they can help it.
Another reason to take it easy with your planning on your arrival day? Travel delays. Delayed flights, long airplane taxiing, slow baggage claims, lost luggage, traffic on the way into Paris… any one of a hundred things could cause you to arrive in the city later than expected.
I usually tell clients to plan on arriving to their Paris hotel or apartment about 2 hours after their flight is set to land. That’s a good standard time, but if there are any travel complications those 2 hours can turn into much longer. Most of the time, you’ll be fine, but this ‘just-in-case’ scenario is another reason to keep plans pretty low key and loose on your arrival day.
Mistake 7 – exchange money at a currency exchange
Yikes. Might as well burn those bills!
Most banks will exchange money for you at a very competitive rate. If your bank will do this for you, often they will charge you their exchange rate and nothing more. No fees! Their exchange rate may not coincide directly with the actual exchange rate but you’re not going to get that rate anywhere. You’ll be much better off than if you go to a currency exchange. (TIP: Plan ahead for this, since some banks require a few weeks to get Euros after you’ve requested them.)
Currency exchanges at the airport or in Paris will charge you astronomical fees to exchange your cash into euros. Believe me, you have better things to spend your money on while you’re here!
As a note, it is actually a very good idea to have cash on you when you’re in Paris. Many cafes and shops have a minimum amount you must spend if paying by card. Sometimes it can be as high as 15 euros! That’s about 14 baguettes so… consider yourself warned. Or, get ready to eat a LOT of bread.
Mistake 8 – don’t check on your bank’s fees
Whether you investigate your bank’s international fees online, on the phone, or in person… you should find this information out before you leave home.
Many travelers find that it makes more financial sense to simply use their credit card while abroad. Other times, using their debit card to withdraw cash a few times during their trip is the wisest option. You’ll want to find out what’s best for you, before actually arriving in Paris. Every bank is different so be sure to talk to them about your options.
Keep in mind that there are a handful of banks that won’t charge you any fees if you use their ATM machines! This applies to you if you have an account with Bank of America, Barclays, Scotiabank… Read up on the alliance here, and double check with your bank just to be sure.
Mistake 9 – go to the Louvre without a guide
Image: Angela Noelle Flickr
The Louvre is a main destination for most travelers. Until you’re there, it’s hard to picture the vastness of this museum…
Imagine you are a mouse. Now imagine you are a mouse on a football field. Now imagine that football field is a hedge maze.
That’s basically what the Louvre is like… just with less cheese cravings and more art. I wish I had a better way to describe to you how big this place is. But there you go, you’re a mouse in a football field hedge maze.
The museum’s audioguide will definitely help you out, but if you want the best experience… my recommendation to clients is always a walking tour.
There are many, many walking tours of the Louvre. Some are quite specialized (yes, there ARE “Da Vinci Code” tours!). Unless you’re looking for a very specific experience, an entertaining and memorable introductory tour of the Louvre is definitely the way to go.
Mistake 10 – forget about needing down time
Don’t underestimate the power of cat naps.
This is closely related to an earlier mistake, but it’s important enough to mention again.
There is a lot to see in Paris. Believe me, I know! Many Paris trips are short, and many travelers may only visit once in their lives. I’ve heard the “I’ll sleep when I’m back home” line enough times… and I’ve seen it fail enough times, too.
What do I mean by that? Well, you are only human. You need sleep but between travel and jetlag, things can get exhausting. Many travelers don’t fully realize how tiring sightseeing is… for a lot of you, walking around all day is a far cry from the physicality of your normal day.
My advice to clients is always: plan a bit of down time each day. You might end up resting your feet at a cafe, spending extra time at a museum, or going back to your hotel for a powernap. In the end, it will be your physical needs and your travel style that dictate how you spend that time, so don’t think of it as wasted time… it definitely is not.
Without some planned down time, though, your vacation will feel like work. You’ll need a vacation from your vacation!
Mistake 11 – avoid learning French
Listen, you don’t have to fully master the language. However, it is a common mistake to assume everyone in Paris speaks English so there’s no reason to learn any French phrases.
It’s not a common mistake because it’s incorrect… most Parisians DO speak at least a little English. But my advice is: always approach French people with a smile and a “bonjour”. Travelers who forget this very easy etiquette rule will not start off on the right foot, whether ordering in a restaurant, or asking for directions on the street.
I often have to reassure clients that Parisians are not as rude as their stereotype. When I do this, often I draw the comparison to any large city: If it were you, on your way to work or to a dinner, and someone abruptly and rudely stopped you on the street to ask a question in another language… well, how would you respond?
I’m sure there are some saints out there who would take everything in stride. For most of us though, the feeling would range anywhere from annoyance to infuriation. Think about this, and it will help explain why you heard from a friend of a friend of a friend that Parisians are horribly rude.
Of course, I’m not saying that all Parisians are pleasant as pie. As in any community (and especially a big city like Paris), there are the good ones and there are the bad ones.
Learning a few key French phrases will absolutely help you get started off right, though! The better interactions you have, the better you will feel about your trip and the more fond memories you will make. And it all starts with that smile and “bonjour”…
There are a handful of good programs to learn French – see some resources by scrolling to the end of the article here.
Mistake 12 – plan only 3 hours for Versailles
Oh my gosh. Please don’t do this.
Versailles takes about 1-1.5 hours to get to from Paris, depending on where you’re staying. The Palace is at the very least 1 hour to visit properly – I would plan on closer to 2, especially if you want to see the always-fascinating temporary expositions.
The Versailles grounds and Royal Gardens are enormous, and historically just as significant as the Palace. And I’m not even counting Marie Antoinette’s domaine (charming and beautiful), or the Grand Trianon!
All in all, Versailles is best seen in a minimum of a half-day.
Another tip: if you’re visiting Paris from April – October, visit Versailles on fountain days. It’s a real treat to wander around the garden groves to classical music and functioning fountains. If you’re visiting in off-season (November – March), be aware that the individual garden groves will be closed. You still can (and should) visit the gardens, but you won’t be able to enter the groves.
On the flip side of this mistake: don’t book a tour at 10am, the Royal Serenade show at 6pm, and the fireworks at 11pm. That is, for most people, TOO long at Versailles.
Mistake 13 – believe everything your hotel concierge says
Though hotel concierges can be fantastic resources, they can also lead you astray.
This mistake is hard for me to add to the list because I believe you absolutely should take advantage of a concierge if your hotel has one. The important thing is to take what they say with a grain of salt.
I’ve seen too many clients arrive late to reservations or cut things close at the airport because their concierge told them it would only take X minutes. I’m serious, this is a reoccurring theme, and it’s a huge part of the reason this mistake is on the list.
If your concierge tells you it takes 20 minutes to get to Notre Dame, plan on 30. If they advise calling a cab for 30 minutes before you should be at the airport, call it for 60. Just, please, tack on a little extra time. These time estimates aren’t shortened out of any kind of malice, but probably only because it takes THEM 20 minutes to get to Notre Dame. THEY only need 30 minutes to get to the airport because once there, they know exactly where to go so it takes less time.
Remember that when you’re unfamiliar with a place or transportation system, things simply take longer.
Remember also that the stress of running late, and the unfortunate missed reservations, can really put a damper on your trip.
One last thing: if your concierge says, “go to this restuarnt and don’t forget to mention you came from us!”… take that with a grain of salt, too. Some hotels might receive kick-backs from local restaurants. This prompts them to recommend a spot they normally wouldn’t. You want to do everything you can to avoid a tourist trap restaurant… which includes quickly double checking what your concierge tells you.
Mistake 14 – book everything through Viator
So many clients tell me, “I booked a Viator tour!”. What many of them don’t realize is that Viator does not do any tours of their own.
Viator is a third-party activity hosting site. It’s basically a search engine for tours and activities through various local tour companies. But there’s one important catch: they don’t tell you the company you’re actually booking with, until you’ve already paid your money!
The Viator site does encourage reviews from people who have purchased tours, so that’s a positive thing that can help you choose. However, I for one always like to know what company I will actually be dealing with. How are their reviews on TripAdvisor, Yelp, and Facebook? Is it a small local mom & pop company that gives back to the community? Is it a huge conglomerate well-known for taking advantage of its employees? Whatever the case, I won’t be able to find out until my money is already in Viator’s hands.
I’m not telling you to never use Viator. The site makes it easy search and book a lot of different activities. But be wary of booking every single activity through that website. Be aware that you don’t know exactly what or who you’re going to wind up with!
Does this all seem like too much?
This is a pretty big list, full of things to keep in mind. I know it’s a lot! I also know not everyone is a natural planner. If you’re someone who likes a bit of expert help when traveling, don’t hesitate to look into our Itinerary Planning service, or even our hourly Concierge service.