A longtime American in Paris lets slip some strategies for keeping your budget sane on the Seine
Almost as famous for outrageous prices as for haunting beauty, superb museums, and sublime food, with a bit of finessing Paris can also be surprisingly wallet-friendly. Mais oui, you can in fact experience La Ville Lumiere without becoming one of les miserables; with charming hotel rooms for $60, meals to die for at $15, good wine for $2 a bottle, and the bonus of a fantastic exchange rate (hovering around 7 1/2 francs to the dollar), prices haven't been so sane on the Seinein many years. An American in Paris of 15 years' standing, I've pulled together a treasure trove of tips that will ensure that the only thing that will leave you breathless here is the Mona Lisa. Le Metro & More
Famous for its art nouveau entrances (survivors include the Place Pigalle and Abbesses stations), the Paris Metro is one of the world's best big-city transit systems. Single tickets are 8F ($1.03), but chop that to 5.5F (71:) by buying a ten-ticket carnet ("kar-nay") for 55F ($7.15). If you're planning some heavy-duty getting-around, consider an unlimited travel pass. On sale at all stations or at the main Paris Tourist Office (see below), "Paris Visite" is good for the Metro, buses, RER regional trains, and local trains for one (55F/$7.15), two (90F/$11.65), three (120F/$15.55), or five (175 F/$22.65) consecutive days; it also carries discounted admission to selected museums. Note: if you're in town for five days and use public transportation four times a day, that adds up to two carnets (110F/$15.80)-cheaper than the five-day pass.
Alighting in the City of Light
Cheapest (49F/$6.30) and fastest (30 minutes) into central Paris from Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle airport is the RER line B3 train. There's direct access from Terminal 2 - just follow the signs - and a free shuttle bus from Terminal 1. Trains run 17 hours a day and stop at the Gare du Nord and Chatelet-Les Halles on the Right Bank and St-Michel and Denfert-Rochereau on the Left Bank, all with direct connections to the subway system. From Orly airport, hop the 35F ($4.55) Orlybus daily from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. to Denfert-Rochereau, where you can connect with the Metro.
Information, s'il vous plait
Open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, (11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays in low season), the Paris Tourist Office at 127 avenue des Champs Elysees (between the George V and Etoile Metro stations) is a fount of free info, including maps, events/exhibition info, and advice from helpful staffers. You can also get in touch by fax at 49-52-53-00 or online at paris-touristoffice.com.
Cherchez le Franc
Your best currency-exchange option is a Cirrus ATM card from home, since you almost always get a commercial rate of exchange and pay no commission. To change traveler's checks or cash, try Comptoir de Change Saint-Germain (30 rue Gregoire de Tours, 6th arr., Metro: Odeon) on the Left Bank near the Odeon; it's open daily and charges no fee. On the Right Bank, the Comptoir de Change Opera (9 rue Scribe, 9th arr., Metro: Opera) is also fee-free, and open Monday through Saturday.
Staying in style
Apart from the clean, modern, standardized Ibis chain (more than 20 hotels in central Paris with rooms costing 460F-585F ($43-$70.50) a night; details at 800/221-4542 or ibishotels.com), Paris is truffled with small two-star charmers. My favorites on the Right Bank (prices are for doubles with private bath): Hotel de Lille (8 rue du Pelican, 1st arr., 42-33-33-42; 290F/$37.50), Hotel Tiquetonne (6 rue Tiquetonne, 2nd arr., 42-36-94-58, fax 42-36-02-94; 240F/$31), Hotel de la Herse d'Or (20 rue Saint-Antoine, 4th arr., 48-87-84-09, fax 48-87-94-01; 300F/$39), Hotel Garden (1 rue du General-Blaise, 11th arr., 47-00-57-93, fax 47-00-45-29; 350F/$45.25). On the Left Bank: Les Argonautes (12 rue de la Huchette, 5th arr., 43-54-09-82, fax 44-07-18-84; 310F-460F/$40-$59.50), Grand Hotel Leveque (29 rue Cler, 7th arr., 47-05-49-15, fax 47-50-49-36; 420F/$54.50), Hotel Pasteur (33 rue du Docteur-Roux, 15th arr., 47-83-53-17, fax 45-66-62-39; 370F/$47.85).
The digs dealmonger
Hotel consolidators are starting to make Euro inroads, too, and while the moniker "Hotel Marketing Services" might not sound particularly French, this seven-year-old service works with 40 small hotels in Paris, booking at a discount of 15 percent off the rack rate (they vary according to the season and hotel, but can run up to 40 percent); you pay HMS, not the hotel. It's best to call at least a week or two in advance, but very good last-minute bargains are also possible. Contact: 42-60-33-73, fax 42-61-49-26, hms-voyages.com.
For the biggest lodgings savings of all, don't forget the pretty decent local "AJ"s (auberges de jeunesse, a.k.a. hostels): AJ Jules-Ferry (8 blvd. Jules-Ferry, 11th arr., 43-57-55-60), AJ Cité-des-Sciences (24 rue des Sept Arpents at rue Jean-Baptiste-Clement, 19th arr., 48-43-24-11) and AJ d'Artagnan (80 rue de Vitruve, 20th arr., 40-32-34-56, fax 40-32-34-55). Beds in dorm-style rooms with shared baths run 115F ($15.50) a night, including breakfast for members of Hostelling International (call 202/783-6161 to join). Nonmember rates are a few dollars more.
Your daily bread
La baguette - that daily-baked Parisian staff of life - rarely costs more than 3F (about 40:, varying very little in price) and makes fabulous eating, as a sandwich or on its own. On the Left Bank, go to Kayser (8 rue Monge, 5th arr., Metro: Maubert-Mutualite), Jean-Luc Poujauran (20 rue Jean Nicot, 7th arr., Metro: La Tour-Maubourg), and Le Moulin de la Vierge (105 rue Vercingetorix, 14th arr., Metro: Pernety or Plaisance). On the Right Bank: Andre Cleret (11 rue Jean Lantier, 1st arr., Metro: Chatelet), Gosselin (125 rue Saint-Honore, 1st arr., Metro: Louvre-Rivoli), Julien (73 ave. Franklin D. Roosevelt, 8th arr., Metro: Saint-Philippe-du-Roule), and Blondeau (24 rue des Abbesses, 18th arr., Metro: Abbesses).
Les cheap picnics
Pick up wine, bread, cheese, and cold cuts in inexpensive markets all over town and recreate Manet's Dejeuner sur l'Herbe (minus the naked lady, perhaps) at spots like the lawn on Esplanade des Invalides (7th arr., Metro: Les Invalides), the western tip of the Quai des Orfevres on the Ile-de-la-Cite (1st arr., Metro: Hotel-de-Ville), and the Jardins du Luxembourg (place Edmond Rostand, 6th arr., Metro: Odeon). Top low-cost open-air markets include Marche Belleville, open Tuesdays and Fridays 7 a.m.-1 p.m. (blvd. de Belleville, 20th arr., Metro: Belleville) and Marche d'Aligre (place d'Aligre, 12th arr., Metro: Ledru Rollin), open Monday through Saturday 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m. and 5:30-8:30 p.m. A tad pricier but more central is Marche Maubert, with a location on place Maubert (5th arr., Metro: Maubert-Mutualite) open Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays 8 a.m.-noon; a second branch is open daily from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. and 4 p.m.-7 p.m. in the Les Halles area at rue Montorgeuil and rue Rambuteau (1st arr., Metro: Les Halles). The best and most central supermarket branches are Franprix (22 ave. Hoche, 8th arr., Metro: Etoile), Ed L'Epicier (142 rue Montmartre, 2nd arr., Metro: Les Halles), and Atac (9 blvd. des Batignolles, 17th arr., Metro: Place de Clichy). Most Prisunic and Monoprix stores also have good-value grocery sections.
The little bus that could
Give those expensive sightseeing buses a miss-dozens of public bus routes run through Paris' most beautiful neighborhoods on their way to its most famous sights and museums. The best is line 24, which does a circuit around central Paris, mostly hugging the Seine, from the Gare St-Lazare to the Âcole Veterinaire de Maisons-Alfort. Along the way, you'll cross the Seine six times and pass by place de la Concorde, the Louvre, Pont-Neuf, Notre-Dame, Ile St-Louis, and place St-Michel. You'll then head down boulevard St-Germain and pass the Arab Institute and the Musee d'Orsay.
A grand view for zero
Forget about the notoriously horrendous lines and prices at the Eiffel Tower; it doesn't cost a centime to head up to the rooftop terrace of La Samaritaine department store (rue de la Monnaie at rue de Rivoli, 1st arr., Metro: Pont-Neuf or Chatelet). Monday through Saturday, you can feast here on one of the prettiest views in town, which takes in the Pont-Neuf, Notre-Dame, the Opera, the Seine, and beaucoup more.
See the Seine sagely
Many top monuments and museums are along the Seine, which makes the "Batobus" - combining basic transportation with a pleasure cruise - a fun, economical way to do the town from mid-April through early November (minus those irritating multilanguage loudspeakers blaring on the Bateaux-Mouches and other sightseeing boats). Running every 25 minutes from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., the Batobus sells day passes for 65F ($8.50); you can stay on for a round-trip circuit or get on and off as often as you like near the Eiffel Tower, Champs-Elysees, Musee d'Orsay, Louvre, Saint-Germain-des-Pres, Notre-Dame, and the Hotel-de-Ville. Get tickets at any of these stops or any Metro station.
Haute cuisine, low Ppices
Bread and cold cuts aside, you shouldn't leave Paris without sampling its temples of gastronomie. Five fine picks where a full meal with wine will run you 100 francs ($13) per person or less: in the Marais, Le P'tit Gavroche (15 rue Sainte-Croix-de-la-Bretonnerie, 4th arr., Metro: Hotel-de-Ville; 49F/$6.40); in the hopping Bastille neighborhood, Le Petit Keller (13 bis, rue Keller, 11th arr., Metro: Bastille; 75F/$9.75); Chez Max in the Chatelet-Les Halles area (47 rue Saint-Honore, 1st arr., Metro: Les Halles; 85F/$11); Chartier in Montmartre (7 rue du Faubourg-Montmartre, 9th arr., Metro: Montmartre; 100F/$13); and Chez Germaine in the Faubourg-Saint-Germain neighborhood (30 rue Pierre Leroux, 7th arr., Metro: La Tour-Maubourg; 65F/$8.50).
If you've always wanted to go to a real live Paris fashion show, both Le Printemps and Galeries Lafayette have free runway shows with live models flaunting the latest from Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, and other rag-trade biggies. In the seventh-floor Salon Opera in Galeries Lafayette (40 blvd. Haussmann, 9th arr., Metro: Chausee d'Antin or Havre-Caumartin), shows are Tuesdays at 11 a.m. year-round and Fridays at 2:30 p.m. March to October; reserve with the English-speaking switchboard operator at 48-74-02-30. The seventh-floor auditorium of the nearby Printemps Mode building (64 blvd. Haussmann, 9th arr., Métro: Havre-Caumartin) also hosts shows Tuesdays year-round and Fridays from March to October, both at 10 a.m. and with no reservation required.
Several Anglophone bookstores host free English-language readings from visiting and local authors: W.H. Smith (248 rue de Rivoli, 1st arr., Metro: Tuileries or Concorde), Brentano's (37 ave. de l'Opera, 2nd arr., Metro: Palais-Royal), Shakespeare & Co. (37 rue de la Bncherie, 5th arr., Metro: St-Michel), and Village Voice (6 rue Princesse, 6th arr., Metro: Mabillon), which also has free concerts and French-English conversation groups. Get schedules from free broadsheets distributed at the bookstores.
Follow them fleas
Skip the famous pricy Puces de Saint Ouen flea market at the Porte de Clignancourt, and follow savvy Parisiens to the Porte de Vanves - which many locals call "the real flea market" - for antique cutlery, dishes, vases, books, jewelry, clothing, and more (how about a four-piece set of art deco kitchen canisters for $20?) that are not only bargains but easy to cart home as carry-ons. It's at avenues Marc Sangnier and Georges-Lafenestre in the 14th arrondissement (Metro: Porte de Vanves), open weekends from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Musique to your Eears
Paris is a music lover's paradise, with regular free concerts, often in some of its most beautiful churches. Examples: religious music Sundays 4:30 p.m. and church-bell concerts Wednesdays 2:30 p.m. at the Eglise Saint-Germain-L'Auxerrois (2 place du Louvre, 1st arr., Métro: Louvre); religious music Tuesdays 12:30 p.m., often with artists from the Music Conservatory of Paris and the Opera, at Eglise Saint-Roch (24 rue Saint Roch, 1st arr., Metro: Pyramides); and classical music Saturdays 9 p.m. and Sundays 4 p.m. at Eglise Saint-Merri (76 rue de la Verrerie, 4th arr., Metro: Hotel-de-Ville).
For phoning home, a prepaid carte telephonique (phone card) for direct dialing to the U.S. from a France Telecom booth is the cheapest option, especially 7 p.m. to 8 a.m. weekdays and all weekend. Sold at tabac (tobacco) shops and post offices, the cards contain 50 units at 49F ($6.40) for about 15 minutes' off-peak talk time or 120 units at 96F ($12.25) for 40 minutes. For a 15 percent discount off these prices, buy before your trip from francetelecom.na.com.
Get on the net
An even cheaper way to stay in touch, of course, is via e-mail. A half-hour online costs 30F ($3.90) at the cafe Orbital Network, in the sixth arrondissement at 12 rue des Medicis (Metro: Odeon). And while here, you can save the cost of an airmail stamp by sending "e-postcards" for free from Web sites like paris-touristoffice.com or paris.org/postcards.
Do-it-yourself day trips
There's no sense in spending $65 or more on a canned bus tour to Versailles or Chartres when you can hop the train yourself. Versailles is an easy 30-minute ride for 30F ($3.90) round-trip on the RER line C5 to Versailles-Rive Gauche station; then take a right and walk ten minutes to the Sun King's famous palace. And because the main pleasure of visiting Versailles is its magnificent (and free) gardens, you could even get away without dropping another 46F to see an interior that's largely empty (though admission's free on the first Sunday of the month November through March). The local tourist office is at 2 bis avenue de Paris (39-24-88-88, fax 39-24-88-89). Chartres, meanwhile, is about an hour from Paris by regular train from the Gare Montparnasse (260F/$34 round-trip); upon arrival, the spectacular cathedral is an easy ten-minute stroll from the station. Admission is free, but the fascinating tour offered by Malcolm Miller is well worth 40F ($5.25). Times: noon and 2:45 p.m. Monday-Saturday, from Easter to mid-November; tel. 37-28-15-58.
Even if the heart is willing but the wallet is weak, a chichi little je ne sais quoi by a couture designer is far from out of the question. Check out the Mouton a Cinq Pattes boutiques on rue Saint Placide (6th arr., Metro: Sevres-Babylone or Saint-Placide), for men (No. 48), women (No. 8), and children (No. 10); they carry a fabulous designer selection at discounts of as much as 30 to 50 percent. The rue Alesia in the 14th arrondissement (Metro: Alesia) is also great for marked-down female fashion; among its many worthwhile boutiques are Fabrice Karel (No. 105), Cacharel Stock (No. 114), Zapa Stock (No. 82), and SR Store (No. 64); this last is the Sonia Rykiel outlet, selling last season's collection at half-off. For excellent buys on brand-name perfume, try Catherine (7 rue de Castiglione, 1st arr., Metro: Pyramides) or Parfumerie Kleber (85 avenue Kleber, 16th arr., Metro: Trocaddro), with discounts of up to 40 percent off France's most renowned odors.
The "Carte Musees et Monuments" is a great buy if you're planning on visiting at least four or five museums or sights - and also lets you bypass long ticket lines. It costs 80F ($10.35) for one day, 160F ($20.75) for three days, and 240F ($31) for five days - and yes, the Louvre, Musee d'Orsay, Musee Picasso, Centre Pompidou, and Arc de Triomphe are all included. Pick it up at any of the above, the tourist office, or any Metro station - or even before you leave, through ticketsto.com. Oh, and don't forget that the Louvre and Orsay are free on the first Sunday of every month.
Department store finds
Monoprix is a clean, well-run chain of discount department stores found all over Paris and a budget traveler's best ami. Shop for a picnic, buy postcards (at 2F/27[cents], cheaper here than elsewhere), pick up the odd sundry you forgot or used up, and hunt for real-life French souvenirs. A bar of scented Mont Saint Michel soap goes for only 8F ($1.10), for example, while high-quality Bourjois makeup - made in the same factory that produces Chanel cosmetics - goes for vastly less than designer counterparts (a lipstick runs 29F/$3.95). Most Monoprixs also stock souvenirs like scarves, Paris-labeled T-shirts (both 39F/$5.30), and tote bags (59F/$8), and for 12F ($1.65) you can pick up "Le Petit Camembert" cheese that will drive gourmet friends back home into ecstasy or a bottle of Corbieres red wine for only 14F ($1.90). Strategically located branches on the Right Bank: 21 avenue de l'Opera (1st arr., Metro: Palais Royal) and 52 rue la Fontaine (9th arr.; Metro: Pigalle); on the Left Bank: 50 rue de Rennes (6th arr., Metro: Saint-Germain-des-Pres) and 15 rue de la Convention (15th arr., Metro: Convention).
You can find fine table wines for $2 a bottle and less all over Paris. The Nicolas chain of wine stores carries a special selection of vins du pays (country wines) under the heading of "Les Petites Recoltes," ranging from a pleasant Syrah from the Ardeche for 14F ($1.80) to easy-drinking whites from Gascony for 12F ($1.55). The most central of Nicolas' 70 stores on the Left Bank: 189 rue Saint-Honore (1st arr.), 35 rue Rambuteau (4th arr.); on the Right Bank, 31 place de la Madeleine (8th arr.), 5 rue Monge (5th arr.), 13 rue de Buci (6th arr.), and 34 avenue Bosquet (7th arr.). Monoprix and Prisunic are also good bets for inexpensive wines, as are the supermarket chains. One caveat: avoid the dirt-cheap "La Petite Villageoise" wines in plastic bottles; it's rough stuff, used by the French solely for cooking.
Deals du cinema
On any given night, some hundred films - often in "V.O." (their original language) - are playing, and many theaters have reduced ticket prices on Mondays and Wednesdays. So not only can you catch a lot of small British, Australian, and subtitled European flicks that never make it to the U.S. (or the latest French-language hit), but even les blockbusters americains for less than you might pay at home. Generally, the cheapest theaters are found in the Latin Quarter (5th and 6th arrondissements), charging around 30F ($3.90); the famous Cinematheque Franaaise (Palais de Chaillot, 7 avenue Albert-de-Mun, 16th arr., Metro: Trocadero) is also worth checking out, with three screens showing classics, rare films, and retrospectives for an average of 29F ($3.75). To find out what's playing everywhere, spend 2F (25[cents]) for the weekly Pariscope (pariscope.fr); it's in French but has an eight-page English-language supplement, "Paris Time Out," which explains how to read the listings.