We booked our flight through Vayama.com and flew Canada Air ($1,154 per person) from San Francisco (SFO) to Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG) and back to SF from Rome's Fiumicino Airport (FCO). Flights are easier and cheaper when you’re in Europe. We looked up flights from EasyJet, Ryanair, and Vueling to find convenient and affordable flights from Paris to Barcelona, Spain and then to Rome. We decided to book with Vueling because they fly to major airports and their requirements and charges for check-in and luggage are more reasonable. Despite of cheap airfares (Ryanair even offers free airfare), you may end up paying more than what you’ve expected if you have luggage(s) to check in (€15 for check-in and €9 per luggage) and also when using your own credit card (versus using credit cards offered by the airline). To prepare for the trip, I checked out guidebooks and language books from the local library. They usually allow you to keep the book for at least a month and you can always renew return dates online. I like Rick Steve's guidebooks over Frodor’s or Lonely Planet because he offers tips and recommendations if you're on a budget. Most of the maps are hand sketches so, it's more updated and have more helpful legends you can follow (such as special entrance for pass holders or bike rental places nearby). One thing that you have to keep in mind though is that sometimes, the cost reflects the quality of your food or place. Don’t expect a really nice, quiet room if it was ranked as the cheapest place to stay in the guidebook. Pay attention to the descriptions and location.
In Paris, we booked a double room at Hotel Royal Phare (€79/night, total of €90 or $120 with the booking fee), next to rue Cler and few blocks from the Eiffel Tower and Champ de Mars. It’s right next to a Metro station, a grocery store, and post office/money exchange place. There’s also a RER station (to Versailles or the airport) nearby. If you don’t want to walk to the RER station, you can take the Metro and transfer. I have to pay extra for a room away from the streets (and facing the courtyard) because I thought that the streets might be too noisy at night (something we learned from our trip in Mexico). However, the streets are pretty nice and quiet at night, even if you're in this central part of Paris. Making a reservation is usually hard to do for some of the budget hotels because most do not offer online booking and if you call them, some of them do not speak or have a hard time speaking in English. Some require calling or faxing them for confirmation. I also checked out several postings for sublets/temps/vacation rentals at Craigslist.com and they’re actually cheap (€30-70 / night) and really nice. They’re privately owned apartments or rooms and some of them are in the outskirts of Paris, which is okay since there are buses and subway Metro that can take you there. The trust issue is the only thing that’s stopped us from trying this type of accommodation.
The transportation system in Paris is pretty cheap, convenient, and can take you anywhere. A carnet or 10 shareable, tickets (€10.90, which is 30% cheaper than buying tickets individually) are good for both street buses and the Metro/subway. You can not use it in RER trains to get to the airport or to Versailles. It’s always good to remember to be polite and greet people with "bonjour" and thank them with "merci beaucoup", and bid them “au revoire (good-bye) whenever you interact with people. We only have a day and a half in Paris and then we’re off to Chantilly to visit Susie in Gouvieux, north of Paris.
Hotel Royal Phare was a great choice because it’s close to transportation, museums, activities, and local scenes, which saved us a lot of our precious time. At the CDG airport, the exchange rate was not that great and they also charge you with €5 commission. I picked up a tourist map and bought a 2-day Paris museum pass (€30) from the tourist information desk at the airport, and a carnet for the Metro (€ 10.90 Euro). It’s good to pick up a Pariscope magazine (€0.40) for museum schedule, shows, events, maps, info.) The RER B train to Paris (€6) has to be validated and it took us about 40 minutes (including transfer to Metro) to get to our hotel. Gare du Nord is the main transfer station, where you can transfer to any Metro subway lines, train lines (e.g TER to Chantilly), and this is also where you can transfer to RER C to Versailles.
After checking the guidebooks, we knew that most museums will be closed on Monday (we arrived on a Sunday). We weren’t able to see Musee d'Orsay (€7.59, free with Museum Pass) because we decided to check-in to our hotel before heading down to see the Chateaux de Versailles (€13.5, free with pass) and the Gardens (€7 for the fountain show). The Chateaux is just couple of blocks away from the RER station and it was a beautiful walk. It gives you a good feel of the local lifestyle with the smell of espressos and pastries in the air. And the sight of McDonalds and Starbucks across the station definitely made me feel like… home! Museum Pass holders have a special line, which bypass long lines and made you feel like a VIP. Audio guides are extra (€3) and they come in different languages. There are museum maps in different languages. The castle has a lot of great collections and the Hall of Mirrors is a definite must see. There is some kind of modern art exhibit that was going on that week that it caught us by surprise to see a white and gold glossy statue of Michael Jackson sitting with a Monkey) in the middle of one of the castle’s rooms. That definitely added more fun and a little twist to the whole experience. I watched the fountain show in the gardens from inside the castle and it was amazing. The music made it even more dramatic. The Gardens are filled with different interesting angles, landscaping, fountains, art pieces, and each corner is very unique with its own character or personality that draws you to a different light. It’s thrilling to know that there’s something amazing waiting to surprise you each time you turn a corner. The Grand Canal is a long man-made lake where people can boat or just enjoy the sunny afternoon laying in the grass area. There are also bicycles that you can rent to see the whole garden and the outskirts. We were not able to see the House of Marie Antoinette but I’m sure that it’s as marvelous as the chateaux. It’s nice to watch the sun go down and watch the Gardens go to sleep as people start to leave. We took another look of the town and passed by this huge, mountain-like pile of empty crates covering the back of a building as if a back wall is missing and crates were used to fix that problem. As it turned out, we were looking at the back of a Modern Art Museum. That was incredible! Oh by the way, running to our friend Steve (who was with his family and a Korean bus tour) inside the chateux is the a big surprise on this trip.
We headed back to Paris via RER C and bought a Siene River boat tour at night (€11 Bateaux Parisiens). There was a cheaper boat tour for €8 but we missed the last tour. The Eiffel Tower has this amazing light show at night. It was wrapped up in blue lights throughout and then every half hour or so, there’s this sparkling lights (like star lights) in the ENTIRE tower! It was a quite a sight at night! The boat tour at night was a great idea because it gives you an overview and an educational tour of the historic side of Paris. It also allows you to see several illuminated sights near the river at night. The night illumination tours, hop-in and out (of boats or buses) tours, and bicycle or Segway tours or rentals are some of your options to experience Paris. A 4-hr by bike night tour / illumination tour usually costs €28 and bike rental is about €2 EUR/hour until 7PM. After the boat tour, we headed back to our hotel after checking out rue Cler and sharing a ham and chese crepe (€3).
The next day, Monday, we tried to beat the long lines of tourists (mostly brought by tourist buses) by heading out early (around 8AM) to the Eiffel Tower. Since most museums are closed on Mondays, the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre were heavily packed. There was a delicious pastry shop couple of blocks east of the Eiffel (next to a flower shop) and that’s where we had breakfast. At the Eiffel Tower, you can climb the stairs to the first floor or take the elevator to the 2nd floor (€4) or get a ticket to get to the top of the tower (€11). We checked out each level after enjoying the view at the top of the tower. The souvenirs at the 2nd floor were pretty expensive. It’s best to buy your souvenirs at this market place-like shop next to McDonalds at the CDG airport (I can’t remember if it was Terminal 1 or 3). They're much cheaper and has more selection. After seeing the Eiffel Tower, we headed back to our hotel to check out. Then, we grabbed some food and water at the market next to it and went to the post office next door to get some Euros. Again, we have to pay €5 commission. It’s probably cheaper to just use your ATM (banks usually charge 3%) instead of carrying your dollars and paying that steep commission (5% out of a €100). We didn’t have time to see Napoleon's Tomb/Army Museum (€8.5, free with pass). Bus 46 from the corner of Champes Elysee gave us a great tour of the city on our way to Gare du Nord, where we rented a mid-size locker (€7, which fits a backpack, a small luggage, and a shopping bag). Then, we took the Metro to the Louvre, which took us right inside Louvre by the inverted, glass pyramid. There’s a free bag check-in at the entrance and with the Museum Pass, a speedy entry! Instead of getting an audio guide, we decided to just follow the museum map and to read the laminated information sheets available in each room exhibits. The Winged Victory greeted us on our way to see Mona Lisa and more of Leonardo da Vinci’s work. A window nearby frames the two pyramids outside the museum beautifully. The Louvre is above extraordinary. Different hallways and huge rooms are filled with Italian paintings, sculptures, and rare collections, gems, and legendary pieces.
Outside of Louvre, you can enjoy the fountains of Jardin des Tuileries and follow it across to the other end to see Musee Orangerie, which houses Monet’s paintings. Here you can really examine the details and intricacy of his work. Next to it is Place de la Concorde, marked by a giant obelisk and a really nice fountain, which are both illuminated and quite a sight at night. You can walk to Arc de Triomphe (€8, free with pass) but it’s easier and faster (except on rush hour) to take Bus 33. Bus schedules and route map are usually posted at the bus stops. Surprisingly, you can never find a copy to take with you from the train stations or tourist booths. From Arc de Triomphe, we took another bus to see Liberty’s replica in a small island in the middle of the Siene River (near Radio France). We were able to see Notre Dame around sun set. We missed their free concert that night. The Latin Quarter was nearby and that area seems to have a great nightlife. Finally, we jumped into the Metro, which took us right next to Moulin Rouge at the Montmartre area. We were able to get a glimpse of Sacre-Coeur on our way back to Gare du Nord. And this is when we run out of luck. We have about 40 minutes before the last train leaves to Chantilly. However, this train station is really huge and you can easily get lost (so you have to keep on checking the map) trying to get to the right place. We split up: one to get the tickets and the other to pick up our luggage from the locker. The line took forever since there are only two windows open and the people behind the ticket windows are limited with their English. We tried the automatic ticket booths but it won’t accept our credit cards. You may actually have to leave your card instead of swiping it (although it looks like a card swipe system) for it to read your card. The tourist information desk closes at 4PM so we run out of resources by that time. We bought a phone card (€7.5 for 1 hour) and called Susie to tell her that we’re not going to make it that night. We slept at the train station until 1AM. By then, the train station was about to close that we ended up staying at a restaurant across the street until 4PM and ordered some bruschetta and beer. The station re-opened at 5PM and we weren’t able to board the train (TER- €7) to Chantilly until 7AM. It was a long and tiring night but somehow it was something nice to remember. The lesson from this story is to always play it safe when it comes to arranging your transportation. If possible, buy tickets ahead of time.
Chantilly is such a lovely town known for its horses. The Chateaux de Chantilly was also covered by the museum pass (normally €15) but our pass expired that day and the castle was close. However, seeing the castle and enjoying a walk with close friends and loved one around that area is something that I’ll always remember. We followed a trail around the horse race area next to the castle. There’s a live horse museum that displays different breeds of horses across the street from the castle and they usually have a show that’s a definite must-see. Susie’s home is really lovely and her family is so adorable! She loves traveling, teaching, meeting people, and supporting charitable causes. Their place is adorned by wood beams, wooden stairs, cute windows with those traditional blinds (and their interesting mechanism) and intimate lay-outs, which are probably signature of a French countryside home. Around the house, you’ll find decors from around the globe, which they probably picked up from their travels. Living in the country side is very refreshing and heart-warming. The people are very friendly and hospitable. We went to see La Cave, which are homes built within massive rocks and boulders. There were these really nice gentlemen who gave us a tour of their humble winery inside La Cave and showed us their vineyard nearby. Amazing! They are local wine producers that supply local households who are willing to support their non-profit wine operation. On the way back, we passed by more beautiful homes and breath-taking views and cute, narrow streets.
We had a feast that night with Susie’s specialty soups, crepes, and delicious gala of cheeses and wine. I wish we could have stayed longer but our flight to Barcelona is waiting and it was real fortunate (and convenient) that her husband, Philip works at the airport. He was able to drop us off on his way to work and we were able to hear more stories about their travel and family on our way to the airport. The weather is one of the things that will always be unpredictable. That Pashmina scarf/shawl that Susie gave me really come in handy against the changing weather.
Our Vueling flight to Barcelona was €100.14 for two or about $70 per person, including one check-in luggage. Our other options, RyanAir (check out their free flights) and EasyJet fly to airports further from the city and the length and cost of commute from and to the airport is something we had to consider. Miscellaneous charges (ex: for having check-in baggage, for using your VISA/MC, etc.) is something we kept an eye on as well. The key to saving money, time, and energy is packing and traveling light and doing your research on services (restaurants, money exchangers, internet, lockers, taxi, metro/bus, tourist discount pass, laundry services, etc).