This post discusses some of the practical aspects of the trip, for those who might be interested in following more or less in my footsteps.

  • Air Travel.  I used kayak.com to get the best fares, applying constraints about time, number of legs, etc.
    • Round trip tickets on British Airways (ugh!), connecting through Heathrow terminal 5 (which is fine), cost me just under $600. Intermittent strikes by BA flight attendants caused anxiety: My flight over just missed the (pre-scheduled) strike; my flight back will be during a strike but BA intends to subcontract so as to run the flight; in both cases hot meals aren’t available on board. The Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull and its siblings are a wild card for European travel, potentially for years. Jason was held up for four days; Jaime took off as scheduled but arrived a few hours late because his flight path was re-routed; we’ll see about my return flight on May 31.
    • I booked my Prague flight on EasyJet for 240 Euros. Although I booked as a round trip the airline treated it as two one-way fares, which proved convenient when I missed the first leg and had to buy a new ticket to Prague, since I was still able to use the return leg from the initial ticket.
    • 2011 update: I booked direct flights on American this year even though they were a couple hundred dollars more.  On the outbound flight I was bumped up to business class, which was delightful!  But on the return flight I sat in the back and it was suitably miserable, but for 7-1/2 hours you can more or less put up with anything.
    • Getting into Paris from the airport can be a bit tricky, so I’ve just added a post on this topic.
  • Apartments.  I got my April 2010 apartment through an online service, PARIStay.com (one of dozens of similar sites, including lodgis.com), and my May apartment through a friend of a friend.   The online service included a non-refundable fee payable to the agency before the papers were signed with the owner, and required the entire rental to be paid in advance. For April, including agency fees, I paid $2,700 (and it would have been a bit more except the landlord waived insurance).  In May, for a much better apartment I paid $1,600 direct to the owner, plus $160 insurance, for a total of $1,760.  There were no problems with either place, except very minor glitches and information gaps that were quickly resolved, although there might have been an advantage to using an agency if there had been a serious problem.  I gather that vrbo.com (Vacation Rental by Owner) is pretty good but I haven’t used it myself.  Both apartments were non-smoking sixth-floor walk-ups; another time I might pay for more convenience but the exercise was good for me and I loved the light and views that go along with being at the top of the building.  I used Google Street View and consultations with friends to get comfortable with the locations, which were both fabulous. One issue that only became clear after I got here is the fact that some Métro lines — 13 in particular — are jammed at rush hour; you wouldn’t want to depend on one of those lines to get around.  Legal Update:  The New York Times just reported that Paris is cracking down on illegal short-term apartment rentals, and that almost all Paris rentals for less than a year are illegal, under a 2005 law intended to make more rentals available to residents!  The problem is mostly a risk for the owners, but it could invalidate a lease and leave the tenant — you or me! — with nowhere to live.  2011 Update: There has been no change I know of in the Parisian law, but nobody seemed troubled about it.  I used Paris Attitude this year, just because they had the apartments I liked.  They performed — expensively — but I was very underwhelmed with the attitude of the agent with whom I corresponded.  I did get a coupon which I can give to a friend for a 10% discount on their fees so let me know if you plan to use them.  The apartment itself more than measured up to the description on the site — there were several pleasant surprises and no significant disappointment.  2012 Update:  I rented the same apartment this year, after some drama.  The owner said they had an exclusive deal with Paris Attitude, so I had to go back through their web site.  Paris Attitude told me, despite apparent availability on their site, that this apartment wasn’t available for September, and then proposed several alternatives.  Only after I contacted the owner — who complained to them — did Paris Attitude allow me to rent the apartment.  The rate had gone up 10% over last year, which more or less corresponded to the fall in the euro relative to the dollar. 2014 Update: Used lodgis.com this year. 2016 Update: Used Paris Attitude in both 2015 and 2016; the apartments were very good but in 2016 the process was extremely frustrating, including the discovery that their email system was unable to accept messages with attachments! 2019 Update: I used Airbnb in 2018 and 2019, with good success, but I noticed a huge drop in options in 2019, due to enforcement (finally!) of the 2005 law. Among the other features of Airbnb is how easy it makes payments.
  • Currency Exchange.  I paid for my April apartment in advance with a wire transfer from Fidelity.  Including their exorbitant fees the rate was more than $1.50 per Euro!  I did a little better with the May apartment deposit by wiring through Bank of America.  Once I got to Paris I could pull out spending money at much better rates, both because exchange rates had improved and because I had an exceptional credit card through my alumni association that charges no foreign transaction fee (usually 3%, except for CapitalOne) and no cash advance fee (usually another 3%).  All I had to do was occasionally transfer money to the card to minimize  interest on the advanced amount.  Getting larger amounts of cash to pay for my May apartment was a project, however.  Most banks won’t advance against a credit card and even BNP Paribas, when I finally got to the exchange desk at their home office, would only advance 1,000 Euros per day.  This could have been a problem if I hadn’t started early or if I weren’t in Paris.  Due to the Greece crisis exchange rates have now plummeted to below $1.25 per Euro but this doesn’t benefit me much since I’ve already paid the rent; in fact it hurts because my May deposit, paid in Euros at a higher rate, will be worth many less dollars when I reconvert it.  2011 update: I learned a useful idea, too late to help me this year, which is that it may be possible to make the deposit in dollars instead of euros, since normally it is returned as submitted.  This would save a bundle on conversion fees.  I recommend not stressing over all these issues, however.  Apart from getting a good credit card, just internalize an approximate currency relationship (e.g. “everything is about 1/4 more than it looks like”), then pay no attention to daily fluctuations. 2012 update: And this year, because the owner and agent already knew me, they accepted a credit card sheet in lieu of any cash deposit.  Live and learn! 2015 update: Credit cards were accepted for everything, which was so easy. 2016 update: This year’s owner required wire transfers for the rent and cash for the deposit, but did allow me to deposit an equivalent amount in dollars to avoid a couple of exchange fees.
  • Cash, Credit Cards, Passport.
    • I always bring three or four credit cards, since I’ve had several experiences where a card was cut off, or eaten by an overseas ATM machine.  Two of my visiting friends had trouble with their sole credit card, in both cases involving considerable hassle.  2012 update:  My Citi debit card was eaten by an ATM machine.  I put in the card but it never acknowledged it.  This was a problem since I was afraid it would return the card to someone else!  I called Citi (expensively) on my U.S. phone to cancel it.  They couriered me a replacement card but I never got it, presumably because someone in my building trashed the envelope.  Fortunately I had an alternate card for low-fee ATM withdrawals, but the whole thing was a bit of a hassle.  Like the Harvard card that had been eaten in New Zealand this was a translucent card; I suspect that overseas ATMs don’t like cards they can see through.
    • French credit cards universally have a “chip” with metal contacts (colloquially puce, which means “flea”), which you can’t get in the U.S. 2011 update:  I gather that Chase and Wells Fargo are finally making chip cards available to U.S. customers.  This happened too late to help with this trip, and I don’t know what they will cost, but I will certainly look into this another year.  Our cards don’t work in many machines — most notably those for trains, the Métro and gas stations — so you have to find a clerk to swipe the card in those cases. Our cards work fine (with no fee) in many ATM machines (I preferred those of BRED because they give out all 20s) but they don’t work when there’s a little symbol that looks like the metal contacts. Our cards are accepted by most — but not all! — restaurants. 2012 update:  By dint of extreme persistence over a six-week period I got a chip-and-pin card from Andrews Federal Credit Union (of all places).  The chip is accepted everywhere, but I was disappointed to find that in most places (including gas stations and the métro) you still have to sign a slip.  Both chip and pin work, however, in the most critical place: for train tickets.  It’s often quicker to use the machine in a big station, and in small rural stations there may be no people, in which case it’s either coins, chip-and-pin, or walking. 2016 update: Barclays also now offers a true chip-and-pin card, which works in train stations, gas stations, etc. All U.S. cards now have the chip, but most are chip-and-signature (even if you also have a pin) so will not work in train and gas stations.
    • When I’m in transit or staying somewhere insecure (e.g. a sketchy hotel) I carry my cash, credit cards and passport in a travel belt around my waist under my shirt.  I’m actually even a bit more cautious than that — I also put an envelope in my luggage with a photocopy of my passport, $100, an extra credit card and cancellation information for the credit cards around my waist, in case of a stickup (that doesn’t also take my luggage).  I usually switch to a wallet in my front pocket once I get settled someplace secure.  This trip, however, I found myself stressing about pickpockets in the sometimes-crowded métro — even though I never worry about this in Boston — so I just went back to the travel belt, plus a 5 or 10 Euro note and some coins loose in a pocket.  There’s some awkwardness when I need to go into the belt, but it was worth it to completely eliminate stress about having my pocket picked (which did happen to me once in Barcelona).  Up to this point I’ve left my passport in the waist belt by habit.  While this was essential to pull money from my credit card at a bank, it’s overkill otherwise so I’m going to leave it at home from now on and just bring my driver’s license for id.  You do need an original id to give people as security, e.g. for taking a museum’s audio guide. (In the last couple of weeks [and in 2011] I eased up and carried a wallet with my driver’s license in a front pocket instead of the waist belt.)  2011 update:  It turns out that French law requires everyone to carry their identity papers on their person. For us that would be our passport. I compromised, however, by carrying an original driver’s license and a photocopy of the main page of my passport. I was never challenged to produce papers but my impression is that this wouldn’t be a problem.
    • And here’s a clever trick:  If you’re like me you will inevitably end up with a huge pile of tiny coins.  I hate carrying around small change.  I discipline myself to put euro and 50 cent coins back in my pocket but I can’t stand the small stuff.  I don’t have the guts to take a pocket-full of change to a clerk but grocery stores have started adding self-checkout machines that accept coins as well as bills.  So long as nobody is breathing down your neck you can get rid of any amount of small change in a single purchase.
  • Telephone. I bought an Orange SIM card for my quad-band GSM Blackberry and that worked perfectly for telephone service. It was fun having and using my own French phone number. The total cost for telephone service, including SMS messages, will be around 100 Euros for the two months, including a few days in Prague. This wouldn’t have worked with a CDMA phone like Verizon. 2011 update: I did the same thing this year and it worked well.  Another year, however, I will look again at the possibility of purchasing data services in France because I found it tedious to be unable to pull up an interactive map or do a web search (or access social networking sites) when I was away from the apartment. 2014 update: T-Mobile has changed everything. Their standard plan includes unlimited texting and 3G data, plus calls at 20 cents per minute, just about anywhere in the world, including France. I’m just using my regular iPhone, with roaming turned on, and all functions work normally. I’m slightly nostalgic about not having a Paris phone number but nobody here seems to care.
  • Internet. I had great broadband access at both apartments, which was really essential to being away for so long. I was able to get copies of my bills and pay them remotely on my laptop with no difficulties. The only hassle was a check someone mailed me that has been languishing at home — not such an issue in these days of zero interest, but it would be annoying in a different interest-rate environment. I also had WiFi at both apartments, which was helpful to guests, and allowed me to set up my Blackberry to jump on the Internet when I was home. Internet access on the Blackberries elsewhere was very expensive, however, so I mostly went without.  2011 update: The proliferation of wifi-enabled gadgets has really made wifi essential.  I had it in the 2011 apartment but it was flaky on the Blackberry, which was a minor annoyance.  There’s free Internet in parks in Paris but I was never able to link my Blackberry to this service. For the most part I used SMS messages, which worked fine.  2012 update:  I now use my iPhone for wifi, which works fine, and the BlackBerry curve as my French cell phone (mainly for texts).  While this works it’s still annoying to carry around two devices.  Happily, the iPhone has no problem with the free wifi in Paris parks; just select Orange and register once.  One thing I learned this year is that if you have a Free modem (which I do in the apartment) you can get a Free username and password that works against an incomplete but pretty good network of wifi hotspots all around Paris. 2014 update: This is all ancient history for me, per the previous post.
  • 2011 Toys.  This year I brought along a Kindle 3 and an iPad 2.  The Kindle was great for reading books, and saved a lot of weight and bulk in packing. I took it to cafés fairly often, or just read in my apartment. Without its case it is a tight fit in a pants pocket, and with or without it easily fits in my new French man-purse (or “murse”).  One great feature of the Kindle was the fact that I could easily download new books, including one in French that Antoine recommended and a selection in English by my Book Club that I didn’t learn about until I was already in Paris. The Kindle also has a rather klunky browser with free more-or-less worldwide Internet access but I didn’t use it.  I used the iPad mostly to read the French and U.S. daily newspapers and magazines like the Economist.  I had such good information access that I didn’t buy paper newspapers at all this trip (except Pariscope).  I rarely took the iPad out of the apartment because it needed wifi, and was just that much heavier and bulkier than the Kindle. I can’t say I needed all my toys, but they all got a good deal of use and I’m not sure which I would dispense with another time.
  • There’s An App For That (2012).  The wonderful and free RATP app finds the fastest route, by métro, bus and/or RER train from your starting address to your destination address, either within Paris or anywhere in the suburban rail network.  The only drawbacks are that it requires data access to work, and it only gives you a single best option. Even if you don’t have data in France you should still download this app for when you are at a WiFi (pronounced “wee-fee”) hotspot.There are also a bunch of very good iPhone apps that do not require data access to work.  You need data to download them of course, but they load everything on your phone (or iPad), and then they use GPS to find and display your location on a map even when data is turned off.  They work only within or very close to Paris, since those are the maps they download, but that’s perfect for me.  My favorites are:
    • Paris Métro (99 cents) – Not as powerful as RATP, since you have to specify your starting métro station, it doesn’t include busses, and it’s limited to Paris and immediate suburbs.  Beginners may, however, prefer its relatively simple map and the fact that the index includes only Paris métro and RER stations.
    • TripAdvisor City Guides – Paris
    • The TimeOut city apps are no longer being maintained, which I found out by going to the first two “Editor’s Choice” galleries, both of which had been closed for years! But you can change the city in the main TimeOut app to Paris and the information is pretty good.
    • Google Maps will navigate you through the métro, but it doesn’t seem to know about busses, which are often the fastest way to get around.
  • Printer. One extravagant purchase I made each of my first two years was buying an inkjet printer on amazon.fr. It came in handy on various occasions, most notably printing maps and boarding passes. I gave them both away when I left; the major cost of printing is ink cartridges and so it was very good that I didn’t have to buy a new one. 2012 update:  Paper is so passé! I can take an iPhone photo of anything I need remotely.  No more printers for me!
  • Métro. I got a monthly passe Navigo découverte when I first arrived, then recharged it for May. I highly recommend this if you are here for one or more calendar months, both because it makes financial sense and because it makes travel quicker and easier. You need a photo but you can get these in photo booths in all the major métro stations. The pass includes busses as well as trains. You will be asked what zones you want; unless you are living out in the suburbs the answer will be “une et deux” (one and two). There are also weekly passes, which might or might not be worth the effort, depending on whether your visit corresponds to calendar weeks and how often you expect to use the Métro2012 update:  This took about two minutes to renew for September (tho my chip-and-pin card didn’t work so I had to talk to an actual person). 2016 update: I’ve just been using tickets this year. While tickets are slightly less cool they’re easy enough and probably cheaper. One benefit you only get with a monthly (or annual) Navigo card, however, is full access to Île-de-France on weekends and holidays, and from July 15 to August 15. 2019 Update: The Navigo now includes permanent full RER access to all of Île-de-France. If you take two métro trips a day within Paris for a full calendar month the cost is about the same as buying carnets, but if you also take one or more trips outside central Paris the Navigo pays for itself (as well as being wicked cool).
  • Peanut Butter. Tiny bottles of Skippy or the like are available in the local grocery stores but are very expensive. Natural peanut butter (and almond butter!) isn’t in the groceries but can be found at fairly reasonable prices in health food stores like Naturalia.
  • Weather. Spring in Paris is a lot like Spring in Boston — mostly chilly, often cloudy or rainy, but also often sunny and with a few truly gorgeous days. Another time I might try May and June instead of April and May. April has tulips and flowering trees, and arguably fewer tourists. June has more tourists but is warmer and gets a lot less rain. Paris on average gets much less rain than Boston — five times less in June! Weather forecasting is just as unreliable here as in Boston; they have a pretty good handle on the temperature, and occasionally there’s a settled weather system that they get right, but more often it’s been some mix of sun, clouds and showers that has no particular correlation to the always-changing forecast.
    • 2011 update: April and May this year were exceptionally fine – the warmest since 1900.  June, however, was exceptionally cloudy and rainy, though it didn’t much crimp my style. My conclusion is that Parisian weather is as unpredictable as Boston weather. The only difference is that weather patterns in Paris seem to set in for several or many weeks while in Boston they rarely last more than a few days.
    • 2012 update:  September in Paris was lovely for the first few weeks, then turned cloudy, cooler and drizzly towards the end of the month; much like the fall in Boston that I missed.
    • 2014 update: I gather that April was warm and lovely here but May was mostly chilly and wet, although with several lovely days.
    • 2015 update: It was cold in May! Reasonable in June. Then really hot in July, just after I left.
    • 2016 update: It has been cold and rainy from mid-May, when I arrived, through the last week of June. Still fun to be here but the weather has been awful.
    • 2019 Update: It was mostly cold and rainy all of May and the first two weeks of June. The third week of June was lovely, then there was a pretty intense heat wave the last week of June. Go figure!
  • Maps and Guides.
    • I used to strongly recommend the Rough Guide map of Paris. It has great detail and is very readable; one side focuses on central Paris and the other opens out to a broader view, although not all the way to the city boundaries; it includes recommended shopping, eating, drinking and venues, with phone and price information; it’s made of durable polyethylene so you don’t have to worry about water or tearing. There was a complaint about the accuracy of this map on Amazon but the only errors I’ve found are on the Père Lachaise inset map (esp. Balzac!); I recommend that you instead print out (or photo) these two versions: Popular Gravesites and Street Map.
    • You may want a Plan de Poche of the métro and bus system, unless you have the same information in another format. This is available free from the clerk at any métro station. (There are other free métro maps that you might also like.) On the other hand, the métro stations are everywhere and they all have wall maps.
    • In the old days I used to carry one of the little books that show all of Paris in a series of smaller maps, available at any news stand. This would be especially relevant for areas that are off the edge of the Rough Guide map: North of Sacré Coeur, Parc de la Villette, east of Père Lachaise, south of Place d’Italie. Because I had a printer in 2010 I instead printed Google maps for those areas, as well as for les Bois2011 update: This year I bought and loved a pocket-sized book of Paris maps, published by Blay-Foldex, which covers the entire city and lists every street. Quite necessary since I spent much of my time this year beyond the pale of the Rough Guide map! For an extra couple of euros I got one in a red cover that didn’t blare “tourist” as loudly as the paperbound version:

      Blay-Foldex Paris

      Blay-Foldex Paris

      Arrondisements

      Arrondissements

      4eme

      4ème

      The only problem I encountered with my little red book is the fact that it is sometimes difficult to match up streets that cross the lines between arrondissements, since the name often isn’t repeated on the second sheet. This is really just a matter of being careful, however. Since this book has a Métro map and all the streets I didn’t use a paper map this year. I would go this route another year, unless it were superseded by getting data on my Blackberry. Update 2016: I haven’t used books or maps for years, and especially not in the last two years when I’ve not only had Google Maps but data to support route finding.

    • As I’ve mentioned several times, I’m a big fan of the CityWalks series, and I strongly recommend the Paris CityWalks deck. Each deck has fifty suggested walks, each on a pocket-sized card. There’s a map on one side and on the other side the walk is described, including suggested places to eat or drink. There are occasional errors on these cards, which sometimes cause a moment of confusion, but their usefulness overshadows this minor issue. Most walks take an hour or so, depending on how fast you go. They got me into many interesting areas that I wouldn’t otherwise have thought to explore.
    • I bought the Rough Guide Paris Guidebook, which was quite good, especially for restaurant recommendations. I consulted it before starting out rather than lugging it around, although on a few occasions I copied a couple of pages. I also bought the Rick Steves Paris guidebook, but in the end I only used the section on trips outside of Paris.  2011 update: I didn’t use either guidebook this year, but I did enjoy a few more obscure guidebooks, such as Paris méconnu : Promenade hors des sentiers battus (“Little Known Paris: Off the beaten track”).
    • 2011 update:  This year I bought a guidebook of full and half-day trips entitled An Hour from Paris.  I took three of the trips and I found them all interesting and non-touristy.  I would plan to go on other trips from this book another year. 2013 update: Still loving this.
    • 2012 update:  I don’t carry maps around any more.  In part this reflects the excellent apps mentioned above, and in part the fact that I have a pretty good mental map of Paris at this point.  In a pinch, there are maps at any métro station.
  • Translation
    • I carried around a pocket French dictionary but I was frustrated with it because it didn’t have good coverage of food terms, and when I had to look up a word it was usually not there. Another time I would bring a travel-oriented phrase book with a good food section, like the Rick Steves French phrasebook.
    • 2011 update: I didn’t carry a dictionary or phrasebook this year and I never missed it, except for some obscure menu terms (like “stomach”!)
    • 2012 update:  I forgot to even bring it this year.  Whenever there’s wifi it’s easier to look stuff up on line, and I’m not anxious about inability to communicate any more.  The fact is that I rarely or never used the dictionary in a crunch situation anyway.
    • 2014 update: Two words: Google Translate. Oh, and one more word: data!
    • 2016 update: I also got the Larousse dictionary app. It only translates words and simple phrases but it’s downloaded to your phone so doesn’t need data to work.
  • Crossing the Street.
      • There will are walk lights at most intersections. Usually you will see a little box like the one below, with a button on the bottom.
        Blind Person's Walk Button.

        Blind Person’s Walk Button.

        This works great — almost immediately! But if you see it you shouldn’t use it, since it’s for blind people! When there’s a box like this one the light will change automatically; you don’t have to push anything.

      • On the other hand, you do need to push the button to change the light if the box looks like this:
        IMG_2334 MedThese are fairly rare, but you would wait indefinitely if you didn’t push the button.

        Regular walk button. Ok to push this!

        Another type of regular walk button. You need to push this!

        • Look out for situations in which two walk signals are visible but the one that controls the immediate lane is red. Also beware of situations in which a wider street is divided into two parts, one with taxis and busses going both ways and the other with ordinary traffic going both ways. Look both ways!
        • Most vehicles stop for a red light, although bicycles and motor bikes are a law unto themselves (including driving on the sidewalk). Watch out for situations where traffic is only given some sort of “pedestrians have right of way” signal instead of a red light. These seem to be less reliably respected.
        • If there’s no walk light be extra careful. Cabs and police cars normally stop at crosswalks, but with other vehicles it’s hit or miss — literally!