Does traveling abroad sound intimidating to you? I've traveled my whole life but didn't hit Europe until this year. To be honest, I was nervous! Don't you wish there were things people told you about traveling to Europe the first time you went? Yeah, me too, which is what inspired me to make this post! I will give you the "must knows" that a traveling newbie has to have in their back pocket plus your go-to Paris spots.
How to Speed Through Customs
My first recommendation if you plan on doing a lot of international travel is to get a Global Entry card. It will cost you $100 for 5 years and save you A LOT of time. Not only will that $20/year help you get through customs faster but you will also have TSA pre-check which will speed up travel when you are domestic. You will have to go through an application process and it does take a few weeks so this is something you'll need to plan for if you have a trip in the upcoming six months. Here is the link to apply: Global Entry Application
If your trip is soon and you don't have time to get the Global Entry Card (get it anyway for future travel) you can still speed up the process a little bit; download the app Mobile Passport Control! It is available at 24 different airports in the United States as well as one sea port. See if your airport is on the list! When you're getting back into the country all you want to do is be home to see your pups and sleep in your own bed. Don't waste time in more lines!
Cash & Tipping Customaries
Do not, I repeat, DO NOT use the exchange in the airport. Go to your standard ATM and take your Euros out that way, you will get more for your money. You will not need a lot of cash and will namely be using your credit card. Get a couple hundred Euros for food on the streets, Uber, small trinkets, etc.
Speaking of credit cards, which one do you have? We have American Express (which not every place will take) and a MasterCard Capital One Debit Card. Neither of these charge international fees which is huge because those can rack up fast.
Find yourself a Capital One (MasterCard) or Chase Sapphire Card (Visa). After doing research those were the two we found to be "the best" as far as points, international travel, hotel/airlines, etc.
Now, as an American you're used to tipping. It's going to feel VERY weird to go overseas and not tip. I get it and I struggled with it the entire time. Europeans are not paid the same wages as Americans. Their tips are already built into their salaries which is why you'll see the VAT tax at the bottom of the bill. If you're still feeling super guilty about walking away without leaving anything then leave 10-15%, but no more than that!
Also, if you're using a a credit card machine ALWAYS pay for it in Euros not American dollars!
Saving Money on Accommodations
Look, I know the idea of staying in an AirBnb freaks you out. My husband was not on board at first but when you realized how much money it saves you AND you're getting such a different experience (in a good way) it's worth it. You must do your research though! When you're on any of these sites you want to use a property that has a lot of positive reviews, has been an AirBnB for awhile and is in a good area.
Now, the first two things seem easy because that's exactly what you'd do before trying out a new restaurant, right? You MUST make sure that your AirBnB is in a safe area which might be difficult to figure out if you're going to a foreign country. You'll get a lot of subtle hints from the reviews but I also recommend Googling the particular area too.
When we went to Paris we stayed in the 19th arrondissement which was residential but an easy subway ride from all of the sites. Yes, this was our view from the flat!
Interested in staying in an AirBnB? Use my referral code when you book your trip!
If you're wondering if they have Uber abroad, they do. BUT when in Paris, I recommend using the train/subway. Growing up in New York, I can tell you this is the easiest system I've ever seen. I wish they would adapt it in Manhattan! Do you know your colors? Awesome, then you're fine. In all seriousness, it's that easy. Don't be worried!
Need some extra help? Download the app, SNCF, which is available on all phones and will give you routes/schedule times of all the rails. You don't have to worry about getting lost!
Depending on how long you're staying you will want to look into getting a pass and not doing pay-as-you-go rides. This is a big savings especially if you're taking the train to and from the airport because you will be required to use the RER train. Do NOT lose this ticket, it's super small and won't be replaced. We got the 5-day pass because it made the most sense financially for us and because we were also going out to the countryside to see the Ryder Cup and traveling to/ from the Charles de Gaulle airport.
I know what you're thinking, you've heard the stories and seen the bombings on television. I get it! My mindset when traveling is that you can't live life in fear but that doesn't mean you shouldn't be smart when traveling. Paris, like any other major city in the world, has its issues. Pickpocketing is one of the major ones. Ladies, do yourself a favor and use a purse that you can tuck under your jacket and has a lot of hidden compartments. One of the things I noticed the most in Paris was that announcements about pickpocketing were made everywhere -- on the trains, before you went into a museum, etc. It's a major issue.
Do not carry your passport with you! Leave it where you're staying either in the safe or hidden. Another suggestion for both your passport and your credit cards is to use these protective sleeves. This will help protect you from credit card scanners that are prominent now. You can find them on Amazon here.
Mentioning these protective credit card sleeves me to my next note that most people don't know their first time traveling abroad. You can get money back and don't have to pay EU taxes! YES! Here's the thing though, I just told you to not carry around your passport, right? So, my suggestion would be to take a photo of it (very clear) and email it to yourself then delete the photo from your phone just incase your phone were to ever be stolen. Hey, always err on the side of caution.
When you're in the store, most places, will validate it through a photo. They have a scanner that will need the barcode from your passport. I did find though that certain spots had to have the physical passport though which was frustrating. If you find yourself in this predicament you can always go back to the store later with your passport and they will validate the purchase. It has to be processed at least 24 hours of you going to the airport, I believe, so give them enough time to submit it so you can get your money back.
All of the stores will give you the details on how you claim once you get to the airport. I wouldn't recommend getting the money back on-site at the airport because they will penalize you for it. Instead, wait the 4-6 weeks for it to show back up on your credit card and receive the full amount. SAVE your receipts and be sure to ask the customer service for the paperwork if you're spending that dough!
Also, do yourself a favor and don't roll the dice when you're coming back through customs in the States. If an Officer wants to they will pull you over and grill you. Just claim those big purchases like handbags, watches, etc. You can lose your Global Entry card if they really want to take it from you. Not that I am speaking from personal experience or anything...
I should preface this with that we were on a short time frame so we didn't necessarily spend A LOT of time at each of these places but wanted to see as many as we could. Nick and I aren't the type that have to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower or have dinner there, seeing it is enough. So, take some of this with a grain of salt. We didn't feel like there was anything we "missed" and felt like our money/time was well spent.
These are the places we didn't hit:
Moulin Rouge; I didn't need to see the show or waste my time just taking a photo in front of the sign, just sayin'. Plus, it isn't in the best area of Paris so I preferred to be surrounded by the high-end stores, beautiful architecture, etc. Call me crazy...
Monet's Gardens; There were plenty of gardens in the other places we hit up so it felt redundant.
Disneyland Paris; We live in Florida and even Europeans travel all the way to Orlando to see the real deal. Save your time and money unless you're a Mouseland fanatic. You will need that special train ticket pass because you have to take the RER out to visit.
Montmartre District; This is the only place we didn't go to that I wish we had. I've heard the food and views are amazing. But alas, so many things to do but so little time.
I am going to go in the order that we saw everything to show you how much you could actually squeeze in during a long weekend. We traveled in late September and arrived to Paris early on Thursday mid morning. The weather changed dramatically while we were there so pack accordingly.
Notre-Dame de Paris; Be prepared for a line or do what Nick and I did and go later in the day. We actually were able to catch a 5PM mass which was wonderful. You can pay to go to the top of the bell tower but we didn't feel the need to. From there we took a wonderful walk down the Seine.
Seine River Walk; If the weather is warm and great (like it was when we were there) this is a perfect evening walk. You'll see plenty of locals posted up along the river with a bottle of wine enjoying the view. It's spectacular! We walked all the way from Notre-Dame down to The Louvre. We didn't go inside the Louvre that night but did take those typical touristy photos because the sunlight was just that good. The Louvre requires a lot of time but is open during the evenings certain days so you could squeeze it in if you have a few hours to spare.
Tuileries Garden; After stopping by the outside of The Louvre we walked through here and it's beautiful. The scene reminded me of Central Park on a warm summer day with people all around drinking wine, sitting by the fountains and enjoying life. Like I said, there are plenty of beautiful gardens throughout the city. Unless horticulture is your jam I wouldn't spend money or time going to specific gardens because it's just not necessary.
**Our second day in Paris was dedicated to attending the Ryder Cup at Le Golf National in Guyancourt.**
Palace of Versailles; First off, this is a MUST see but you need to do it right. Spend the extra money and get a private tour. When I tell you the line to get into the palace is insane that would be an understatement. We booked our guided six-hour tour with a hotel pickup (they will pick you up at your AirBnB as well). Here is the link, it's worth the price trust me! We opted not to do the full-day or see Marie Antoinette's quarters. You'll get the idea of the history with this thorough half-day tour and leave yourself enough time to take in other Paris sites. Our driver was willing to drop us off at the Eiffel Tower instead of our flat on the way home which was super convenient.
Arc de Triomphe; Grab a photo as you drive by it. Yes, you can go to the top of it but you'll get the idea from the car.
The Eiffel Tower; Go and take your photo. Everyone needs that photo. Do you need to go up it? Picnic in the park? Sure, you can do those things but if you're short on time I would personally prefer to squeeze in more of the culture rather than have to wait on long lines.
The Avenue des Champs-Élysée; Look, I like high-end shopping and I'm not afraid to say it. Of course you know I had to go shopping at the largest and original Louis Vuitton in the world! With that being said, that's really all the Champs is, shopping.
**Our next/last day was spent with the later half going to a Paris Week Fashion Show of Tom Browne. Wow, was that amazing and a once in a lifetime experience. We even saw Anna Wintour herself in person!**
The Louvre Museum; Another must see museum while you're in Paris. Yes, the line to see the Mona Lisa is long but you have to do it. Do yourself a favor and protect yourself from those pick pocketers! They thrive off those large massive crowds. We went to The Louvre the morning of the fashion show and allowed ourselves about 3.5 hours in the museum. There is A LOT to see!
St. Germain & The Jardin du Luxembourg; These two areas are very close to one another and where we spent our last evening in Paris. Walking and traveling by subway to all of the different arrondissements is so easy that you can hit up several areas in a day. St. Germain is known for is great food and atmosphere. The Gardens of Luxembourg is another beautiful area to people watch. Like I said before, there are so many gardens in Paris you should just take in the free ones, ha!
So can you see how much you can get done in such a short amount of time? We were able to get all of this even with spending a day at the Ryder Cup and half an afternoon at the Paris Fashion Week!
I thought about putting together a list of the restaurants we ate at but that's silly. Here is what you need to know about the food in Paris; you won't have a bad meal. We flew by the seat of our pants for most of our food.
When you're in the stores ask the people who work there where their favorite spots are. You don't want to go where all the tourists go but where the locals eat. An easy way to avoid this is to go 3 blocks or so away from all tourist sites. You'll find amazing cafes and bistros that will give you such an authentic Parisian feel.
Be aware, the menus will most likely be all in French but you'll be okay. Just ask the waiter for help, they get it, you're not the first. You can also use the app TheFork which is the European version of Open Table. We used it frequently to read reviews and make reservations.
Here are must-have foods that you need to try while you're there though: crépes, macaroons, rosé, cheese, baguettes, gelato, basically ANYTHING French because it just tastes better there. You'll see...
Last Minute Tips
Cell Phone Charger
Personally, I don't travel with my iPad, laptop, etc. All you need is a cellphone, WiFi and a dream. Ha! But seriously, you're literally carrying a mini computer when it comes to your iPhone or if you're one of those "Droid" people.. ahem, Nick.
Call your cellphone provider before you go. We have Verizon and it cost us $10/day to have the same plan as you would in the States. You can call, text, have data running (which is important if you're using Google Maps to navigate). If you're traveling with your partner and are always going to be together then you both don't need to have this on. Have someone just stay on Airplane mode and WiFi.
Also, Europe's electrical outlets are NOT like the States. I purchased this universal plug and used it both in Paris and Ireland (which have totally different systems). It felt like it charged faster too than it does in the States but maybe that was my mind playing tricks on me. #jetlag
The WORST thing that could happen to you while traveling abroad, aside from the obvious, is getting your passport stolen. Before you go, make yourself 3 copies. Give one to your family/good friend at home in the States and take the other two with you. You shouldn't be walking around with your passport so take a copy with you and leave one at the hotel in a hidden place from your physical passport. This is your identity and the only way you'll be able to get back into the country. Heaven forbid it's stolen from you, you will have a copy you can bring that to the United States Embassy in the country you're visiting for validation.
Here is my advice -- don't stick out like a tourist otherwise you'll be on every pickpocket's radar. You're probably wondering what I mean by this so let me put it to you this way; think about how your classic American dresses and do the complete opposite.
Guys, don't wear sneakers with jeans or have logos everywhere on your clothes. Most men overseas don't wear baseball caps either. Wear dark fashionable jeans with a nice button down or polo and some loafers or chuggers. Remember, you're going to one of the most fashionable cities in the world. Just think, when in Paris!
Ladies, don't wear heels, you'll regret it. Wear flats and boots to save your feet on those cobblestones. My favorite flats/loafers are Rothy's, they're amazingly fashionable and comfortable. Also, bring your scarves no matter what time of the year it may be. I promise you, everyone will be wearing one.
I hope all of this helps! Please don't hesitate to reach out to me with whatever questions you might have. Happy travels! XO, Maren