18 Mar Preparing for a Budget Trip to France
Welcome to our guide to preparing for a budget trip to France, including our favorite sights in Paris! We recently updated this page and added a few new tips to make it even better. Enjoy!
In this post:
- About Our Trip
- Free Language Resources
- Flight Discounts
- Travel Planning Resources
- Where to Stay in Paris
- A Self-Guided Walking Tour and Map for Paris
- Must-See List for Paris on a Budget
About Our Trip
We put together this guide while in France for three and a half weeks. A majority of that time was spent in the Loire Valley countryside, but we also had about a week in Paris. Although we wanted to see a lot of the sights in Paris, we also needed to keep costs low.
Fortunately, we were able to save big on airfare (this was the first international trip where we only used frequent flyer miles), and we didn’t pay for any accommodations while in France. Instead, we stayed part of the time with my Aunt and Uncle, who live there, and the rest of the time we did a Help Exchange in a chateau. That left the bulk of our expenditures to food as well as a few train rides and metro fares.
#JumpingJedd outside the Louvre, Paris
In the planning and preparation of our trip, I used a number of free resources that I wanted to share here. I think we’ve also put together a great plan for getting the most out of our time in Paris without spending very much at all.
Having studied in Paris for six months as a college student, I have a feel for what is worth doing and what is not- at least for us. I hope our research and plans will be useful to other travelers, especially those on a budget!
Free Language Resources:
I was a French major and I studied abroad in Paris for about six months back in 2003. Since then, I’ve had little opportunity to keep up my French skills, and I’ve also learned Spanish. This is why I always find it important to spend a few months brushing up on whichever language I’m going to be using and retraining my brain to operate in that mode. It’s as if I need to bring the vocab and grammar I once knew back up to the surface of my mind for easier access. Hopefully, it will help keep Spanish words from popping out while I’m trying to communicate in France! Anyway, here are some of the tools I use to do that:
RadioLingua’s Coffeebreak French Podcasts
I started listening to these podcasts several years ago to brush up on my French. I’ve found that they’re a fun and easy way to learn grammar and vocabulary while you’re on a walk or driving in the car. As an added bonus, it’s produced by Scottish people so you hear a fun accent when they’re explaining the concepts in English. This time around, we used the free Beginner’s Episodes (Season 1) since Jedd was still getting acquainted with French, and I replayed some of the free Advanced Episodes (Season 4) for myself.
You can listen to all four seasons of podcasts for free as well as some related webisodes. If you want further resources, like extended podcasts and written transcriptions, then you can pay for the premium version. Radiolingua also does other languages- for example, I found Coffeebreak Spanish to be very good as well.
Duolingo smartphone app
This smartphone app has gained popularity in the language-learning world because it “game-ifies” language learning. Perhaps because I’m not typically motivated by games, “leveling up,” or competing, this method was a little less effective for keeping me coming back. But it was a very convenient way to brush up on grammar and vocabulary when I had a spare moment. And Jedd loves it.
I have only just brushed the surface of what’s available on Youtube for language learning. For me, watching entertaining shows with native French speakers is the perfect challenge to get my mind back in French mode. Finding ones that also have French subtitles was important for me whenever the speakers talk too fast or I want to pause and look up a vocab word.
I found two older series that are both super cheesy- not something I would ever watch in English but perfect for working on French. Extra French with Subtitles is great for middle- to advanced language learners as it was made for educational purposes and the actors speak slowly. For a greater challenge, I found Helene et Les Garcons with Subtitles in which the actors do not slow down their speech at all. (I’m sure there must be other more recent and relevant shows out there, so please let me know if you come across them.)
I recently shared a post about how we used Alaska Airline frequent flyer miles to get our international flights to both France and Jamaica this year- for next to nothing. We used a method called travel hacking that is becoming increasingly popular. Don’t be dissuaded by the term “hacking.” This is a legitimate- albeit unconventional- way of maximizing frequent flyer miles and credit card bonuses. If you know what you’re doing and are responsible with credit, it’s a great way to travel further and more frequently on a budget.
- Guide to “Travel Hacking” with Alaska Air Miles – free bonus when you sign up for our e-newsletter
- Become a Frequent Flyer Master: Unconventional Guides – a more comprehensive resource for travel hacking with any award program, produced over at the Art of Non-Conformity (This is what we used to get started.)
Make Your Dream Trip A Reality – Comprehensive and engaging 30 day travel hacking course on CreativeLive
- The Flight Deal – publishes current, low cost deals on flights
Travel Planning Resources
Being familiar with Paris from past visits and studying abroad, I didn’t really reference travel guides this time around. There were a few blog posts I found that were very helpful in crafting our plans though:
- Paris on a Budget by On The Luce
This post has some great ideas for cheap things to do around the city and when to access free museum days.
- Paris Metro Tickets by Points & Pixie Dust
This is just what I was looking for in regards to recommendations on which metro pass to get with up-to-date fare prices. (We purchased the carnets of 10 tickets.)
- Rail Passes and Train Tips by Rick Steves
It’s hard to find comprehensive train routes and fares online, so I used Rick Steves to purchase tickets for the one train ride we couldn’t miss. The others we bought in-country closer to the date of departure.
- Help Exchange
This is the site I used to search for a place to stay when we weren’t staying with relatives. We ended up being hosted at a 15th Century chateau/Bed & Breakfast. It’s an alternative budget accommodation because the hosts do require you to do some work but, in exchange, you can get free room and board.
Where To Stay in Paris
My personal recommendations for good areas to stay in Paris would be the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, or 8th arrondissements. Landmarks to look for when you’re booking would be St. Germain, the Latin Quarter, Ile St.-Louis, the Marais, Quai d’Orsay, Invalides… I know a lot of budget hostels are up by Montmartre but they’re not in the nice part and I personally wouldn’t want to stay up there. I think the closer you can stay toward the river Seine, the better, although it may be more expensive.
Try searching for a hotel or hostel by clicking on the images above (we will get a commission on your booking, at no additional cost to you). Or find a cool apartment to rent on Airbnb.com (sign up for a new Airbnb account with this link and get up to $40 off your first booking, for a limited time).
Places We Visited in Paris:
To conclude, I wanted to share some of the sights we prioritized for our time in Paris, which are almost all free of charge. For us, it’s not always worth paying a lot of entrance fees when we can walk around in public areas and still get a good feel for a place. Similarly, we don’t really need to see all of the museums in Paris, so instead, we prioritized our time in just one or two.
Self-guided Walking Tour of Major Monuments
We had two days in Paris at the start of this trip, before heading out to the countryside for a couple weeks. So, to give Jedd his first taste of Paris, we did a long walking tour of some of the major monuments. At each venue, we stayed only in the public (i.e. free) areas.
We started by passing the famous Bon Marché department store, strolled through Esplanade des Invalides (home of the military museum), took the requisite pictures at the Eiffel Tower, checked the Trocadero square for break dancers (there weren’t any this time), passed the Grand Palace, rested our feet a bit in Tuileries Gardens, explored the grounds of the Louvre, admired the thousands of locks on the Pont des Arts bridge, passed Sainte Chapelle on our way to Notre Dame (which is free to enter), and finally ended up in the charming Latin Quarter where we bought a crêpe to enjoy on the banks of the Seine.
Michelle’s “Must See” List for Paris on a Budget:
1. Eiffel Tower
The Eiffel Tower is a given when visiting Paris. If you’re dying to go up, by all means do it. When we were there, entrance to the 2nd level was 5 euros by stairs and 9 euros by elevator. Going to the top was 15 euros. We were content to get our requisite Eiffel Tower photos from the park below, free of charge, and take advantage of free city-scape views elsewhere (see: Montmartre and Galeries Lafayette below.)
As with all highly touristed areas in Paris, be alert for pickpockets and scammers, and show up first thing in the morning to avoid large crowds.
2. Notre Dame
The Notre Dame Cathedral is another famous and highly touristed attraction. It is open daily, free of charge, from 8am to 6:45pm. Check the website for a schedule of free tours. Sharing the same little island (Isle de la Cité) as Notre Dame is Sainte Chapelle, which has beautiful stained glass windows, but there is a fee for adults.
3. Louvre and Jardin des Tuileries
The Louvre Museum is on my must-see list, although I am of the opinion that you don’t actually have to go into the museum to appreciate it. If you have the time and the money, by all means go for it. It’s open every day except Tuesday, 9am to 6pm. Perhaps the most famous work of art in the Louvre is the Mona Lisa. Unfortunately, I only recall being underwhelmed by it because you see the painting from behind a glass barrier and through a large crowd of people.
For us personally, we can only do so many hours in museums, so we opted instead to see the Musee d’Orsay and the (free) Carnvalet (see more about both museums below). You can explore the impressive courtyard of the Louvre as well as the nearby Tuileries Gardens which was created to be the palace garden for Queen Catherine de Medicis. The Pont des Arts (see more below) is also adjacent to the Louvre.
4. Arc de Triomphe and Champs Elysées
The impressive monument of the Arc de Triomphe, built to honor the victories of Napoleon, is encircled by one of the craziest round-a-bouts we’ve ever seen. It is also the starting point for the Champs Elysées, a grand boulevard with luxury shopping, restaurants, and theaters. You can approach the Arc de Triomphe via an underground passageway. To enter the monument itself and climb the 40 steps to the top, there is a fee of 8 euros for adults. In my opinion, admiring it from across the street is plenty impressive.
5. Montmartre and Sacre Coeur
Montmartre is a whimsical neighborhood which always reminds me of the movie Amelie. It offers great views of the city from above and a beautiful basilica to explore. We have the opportunity to take a tour there with a native guide from Discover Walks tour company about the impressionist artists who frequented Montmartre.
6. Musée d’Orsay
This is my favorite museum in Paris because it’s not only home to famous works by the likes of Renoir, Monet, Van Gogh, and Degas but it’s also housed in what used to be a train station, along the river Seine. I discovered one of my all-time favorite paintings there. All in all, a very impressive place. I personally prefer this museum to the Louvre, so if there’s not time for anything else, Musée d’Orsay is the first fee-required museum that I’d go to.
When we went, standard entrance was 11 euros, but there’s a discount on Thursday nights and free entrance the first Sunday of the month. The museum is open 9:30am to 6pm every day except Monday. We happened to get our tickets in conjunction with the Impressionist tour of Montmartre through Discover Walks.
7. Quartier Latin
The Latin Quarter of Paris is a really quaint neighborhood, just across the river from Notre Dame, that is perhaps best known for its restaurants. It does seem a bit touristy at times, but it provides plenty of options when it comes to cuisine. When I was a study abroad student, I somehow found and frequented this Greek gyro shop which I was able to find again on this trip. A huge gyro sandwich, which comes stuffed with french fries, is only 5 euros for take out.
We also decided to do one special dinner out and were persuaded by Yelp reviews to try Bistro du Périgord. It was a great value (three courses for either 16.50 or 26 euros) and the food was delicious, especially the sauces on our entrées and the desserts!
10. Les Invalides
I haven’t been inside the War Museum or Napoleon’s Tomb at L’Hotel des Invalides since middle school, but it’s still a cool place to walk around. The site was created to accommodate wounded soldiers and veterans, so it used to be a housing facility and hospital. Museum entrance is 9.50 euros from 10am to 5 or 6pm (depending on the season), but you are free to walk around the grounds from 7:30am to 7pm.
6. Jardin du Luxembourg
One of my all-time favorite city parks, Luxembourg Garden fills over 60 acres with French and English gardens, statues and monuments, outdoor sports facilities, a large pond, foot paths, and plenty of space to relax and enjoy. There are so many different areas in the park to discover. And I love that you can always find elderly Parisians there playing chess and pétanque, not to mention the unusual yet frequent sightings of groups doing tai chi, martial arts, or walking with trekking poles.
We ended up in Luxembourg Garden several times on this trip, both to exercise and for some relaxing reading. A jog around the outskirts of the park is about a mile, and now days, there are plenty of people getting their exercise that way (which was not the case in Paris ten years ago).
More Great Attractions in Paris
Still have time in your itinerary after hitting the major hot spots? There is plenty more to see and do. Here are the other stops we made throughout our week in Paris:
Carnavalet, Paris History Museum
Back when I was a study-abroad student in Paris, my Aunt (who grew up in Paris) recommended this museum to me. Set within two town homes in another charming district, Le Marais, the Carnavalet is both an art gallery and museum, dedicated to the history of Paris.
I recall being fascinated by paintings that depicted some of Paris’s most famous monuments during eras before the city was built up, as we now know it. So it’s fun to see after you’ve seen a good bit of Paris on foot. There is also a focus on interior design schemes from the city, which is sort of unique. And what’s more, the permanent collections boast free admission. It’s truly a hidden gem!
Galeries Lafayette Panorama and l’Opera Garnier
I’m not particularly drawn to shopping malls or department stores, but Galeries Lafayette is a sight in itself. The main building on the corner of Boulevard Haussman and Rue de la Chaussee d’Antin features a stunningly ornate interior that’s worth a look if you have the time.
Additionally, there are two rooftop terraces that I know of where you can get free, panoramic views of the city. In the Galeries Lafayette “Grand Magasin” building, take the elevator or escalator up to the 5th level and then continue up two flights of stairs to the 7th floor. A couple blocks down Haussman, the Printemps Beauté department store also has a rooftop terrace and cafe. There, you’ll take the elevator up to the 8th level, walk across that level to an escalator that goes to the 9th floor.
Nearby, the Opera Garnier (not to be confused with the more modern opera house in Paris) is yet another impressively ornate edifice. Entrance to the public areas is 9 euros, which is typically open from 10am to 5pm.
Marais District: Bastille and Place des Vosges
Place des Vosges in the Marais district, which was once used for artistocratic equestrian exercises is now home to a beautiful park, restaurants, and art galleries. Within short walking distance, you can also observe Place de la Bastille which marks the former site of Bastille prison, a pivotal landmark in the French Revolution. The Bastille Opera house can also be found on the same square.
When you’re in the Marais, you’re also near the Carnavalet museum of Paris history (mentioned above) as well as many great eateries on Rue Saint Antoine.
Banks of the River Seine: Trocadero, Grand Palais, Pont des Arts
There are a number of other great sites along the banks of the River Seine that are easy to catch when you’re seeing other things nearby. The Trocadero is a large square across from the Eiffel Tower which is surrounded by museums (and where groups of break dancers have occasionally been spotted).
The Grand Palais, surrounded by city parks, is another impressive building between the Champs Elysées and Tuileries Gardens that hosts art exhibitions and other big events.
The Pont des Arts is a pedestrian bridge that resembles a city park suspended in air. It is sometimes used for outdoor art exhibitions and often a site for picnics. Recently, there has been a movement for tourists to attach locks to the sides of the bridge and throw the key in the river as a romantic gesture. There are a number of issues with this new tradition, including damage and safety concerns, as the locks now overwhelm the bridge. So while you are not encouraged to add to the locks, it is still an interesting place to see and take pictures.
Centre Pompidou is home to the National Museum of Modern Art. The architectural design of the building itself is fun to see. The surrounding square is also a party for the eyes, as modern fountain sculptures, oversized industrial-looking tubes, and street art contrast with a traditional French church and typically quaint little cafés. The museum opens 11am to 9pm every day except Tuesday. Entrance is 13 euros for adults; free on the first Sunday of the month.
My Relatives’ Home
So this very last item might be harder to replicate, but we always advocate for trying to make personal connections in new places. Whether it be through a friend of a friend, the Couchsurfing network, or an official homestay exchange program, spending time with locals always adds an extra special dimension to travel.
This visit of ours was made possible, thanks to my generous Aunt and Uncle who hosted us in Paris. One of the things we were most excited to do was witness their every-day life in the 6th arrondissement of the city. My Aunt showed us some of her favorite places in the neighborhood, including the best place to get cheese and her favorite bakery. We were thrilled to spend time with them, share some great meals together, and experience Paris from their point of view.
Seeing all of my favorite places in Paris again was truly wonderful, especially being able to share them with Jedd on his first trip to Europe. I am reminded how lucky I was to call this place home during my study abroad. There is character and charm on every corner, getting around on public transit is extremely convenient, and the food is amazing. We are so grateful to my Aunt and Uncle who hosted us and went above and beyond to help make our stay unforgettable.
We’d love to hear from you! What are some of your “must see” sights in Paris on a budget? Please share your thoughts and questions in the comments below.
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