Thrifty Living: We'll always have Paris – if we can do it on the cheap
Saturday 23 February 2008
Half-term in paris, and even though it would be easy to let the financial reins loose somewhat, the whole point of changing a modus vivendi is that you must keep going, no matter where you are and even if you're using foreign money which, as we know, is like operating in a Monopoly world.
So, how to begin? First, book your tickets well ahead. Spontaneous sallies abroad are only for Elton John, or those able to take the whole family on business expenses. Do your research. Bargain online tickets for the Eurostar are often available in batches as travel companies flog unsold tickets back. It's worth finding out how much your journey might cost, and then holding fire for a week or so and going back online to see if you can get a cheaper deal. I did this once and saved £400. (Obviously, this only works if you can remember what the original deal was, so midnight online research after a few whiskies is inadvisable).
Second, where to stay? Hotel rooms in the City of Light/Lurve/Lautrec (delete according to inclination) cost anything from €100 (£75) up. A night. Which is fine if you are à deux and want a romantic night overlooking the Eiffel Tower, but if you are travelling mob-handed, it makes sense to rent an apartment. A central apartment will cost about €150 a night, but you'll be able to squeeze about four people in. Six, if you bring camp beds. Seven, if you can stuff the toddler in a cot.
So, did I break the bank? I hope not. Here are some key economic tips I discovered en route. They could probably be applied wherever you're off to at Easter, unless of course you are going to the Caribbean (in which case, why are you reading this column?)
Museums. OK, Paris museums don't have the uniform freebie status of our own national collections, (bless 'em), but worshipping at the shrine of the "Mona Lisa" isn't ruinous. Museums in Paris are free on the first Sunday of each month. At other times, anyone under 18 is free and 18- to 25-year-olds usually get a reduced rate. Full admission is only about €8, anyway.
Taxis. Don't bother. Paris has a tiny number of taxis and a brilliant, cheap underground system that runs 24/7, so what's the point fighting over the one car available at the Gare du Nord? Far better to brave the vagaries of public transport. Get a map, buy a carnet of tickets and you'll feel like a real Parisienne as you zoom betwixt Cadet and Gaite (who thought up these station names?).
Food. Avoid those giant cafés in the key sightseeing areas of Montmartre, the Latin Quarter or the Louvre. Here, the prices are racked up in honour of their tourist-friendly location. We hung out at little bistros off the main boulevards, where breakfast – croissant, orange juice and coffee – can be yours for two quid, and formule lunches – a large, hot, properly cooked main course and calorie-packed dessert – cost €13.50. Three courses of spectacular supper fare ranged from €16 to €30 per person. As the children happily munched on rabbit (we told them it was chicken) and heavenly pot au chocolat, I wondered what visitors to Britain must think of our outrageously priced, generally disgusting restaurant fodder, served with disdain. Of course, if you are renting an apartment you can channel Amélie, shop for delicious market fare for the evening meal and knock up something casual and elegant to eat, which you'll serve alongside a slice of lively cheese and a bottle of outrageously cheap wine from Monoprix.
Tourist tat. Go for it. Shopping for anything else is a waste of time. Everything sold in the chains (Zara, H&M, Virgin) is the same sort of price as at home. Designer stuff in the home of couture is obviously a non-starter. However, pens that play "La Marseillaise", lighters with flashing Tours Eiffel, and illuminated Arc de Triomphe key-rings for €4 apiece are brilliant gifts. True Parisian junk is so antithetical to the beauty, history and style of the city that it almost seems perversely clever to invest in it instead of a tarty Louis Vuitton bag.
The only other thing to remember is to buy a French SIM card, or leave your phone at home. A mate of mine went to Australia for three weeks, armed with a new iPhone. He was so excited with his toy that he used it with abandon, only to receive a £2,670 phone bill when he got home. It sort of took the shine off his tan.
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