How I Paris-ed on a Teaching Assistant’s Budget

So, it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything. Part of that is because the wifi at my place has been down for the last two weeks. The other part of that is that I have been traveling for the last week. French schools have roughly a two week break for the holiday of Toussaint during the last part of October, so I’ve been taking advantage that.

During the first part of the break I spent a couple of days visiting some fellow assistants in the other major city of Lorraine, Metz. Despite their proximity and shared region, Nancy and Metz are two very different cities. This is most obvious in the strong German influence of the architecture all around Metz. The heavy stone towers, balconies, and brick are a stark contrast to Nancy’s light shuttered buildings and floral art nouveau railings. If anyone is planning a visit to Lorraine, I would recommend hitting up both cities if you can.

After my short stop in Metz, I took a 5-day trip to Paris. Prior to leaving for the trip, there were a couple of things about that were making me antsy.

  1. This was my first ever trip to Paris.
  2. I would be traveling alone.
  3. The constraints of a tight budget. (Even though teaching assistants have our first school break in the middle of October, we don’t get paid until the end of October. As you can imagine, this makes traveling a challenge unless you’ve got some money already saved up.)

But now that the trip is all said and done, I’m glad that I didn’t let these anxieties stop me from experiencing a city that I’ve been wanting to visit since I was 9 years old. Of course, there are million different ways to see Paris (as I quickly learned while trying to organize my trip), but with a can-do-it attitude and a willingness to plan I’m sure anyone can make Paris the destination of their dreams!

Here are some of my tips and tricks.

General Tips Before Departure

Weekday Travel

When starting my research for this trip I noticed that most things were cheaper during the weekdays versus the weekend. Train tickets and hostel costs were the two things that I noticed that had the greatest price differences. I actually planned my trip to span from Sunday afternoon to Thursday afternoon because of this factor.

Meal Planning

I’m the type of person who loves to experience a place through the food. With that being said, I also don’t have an unlimited budget for gourmet meals three times a day. I chose to strike a balance by picking specific meals that I would eat out for and then doing a grocery store sandwich or baguette for the rest of the meals. Setting a food budget also helps.

Luggage

For any backpackers who also love museums and monuments, be aware that since the events of the last year in France almost all museums and monuments do not allow any baggage over the size of an everyday school backpack. There’s also security checks at almost every public building. Travel light and think about where you’re going to store your things during the day. I ended up planning an outdoor day on my final day because I had checked out of my hostel and had a carry-on sized backpack with me.

Prioritizing Destinations

I begrudgingly accepted the fact that I was never going to see all the things that I wanted to see on my Paris list. The cold hard reality is that Paris is an amazing city filled with almost anything you could dream of. You can never finish seeing Paris. Prior to leaving, I whittled down my list to my top choices. My list happened to be heavily music and culture related. In the end, I still ended up missing some of the things on my initial list.

Be A Young Person

Ok, so I know this isn’t really something that you can control. BUT being a young person while traveling has its advantages. From admission prices to metro tickets, there are youth discounts everywhere in Paris. (Be sure to bring an ID!) Most discounts in France end when you’re 26. Yet another reason why people shouldn’t wait until they’re old to travel.

Transportation

Getting to Paris

I have the luxury of already being in France, so my perspective is a bit different from someone who might be traveling to Paris internationally. In terms of getting from Nancy to Paris, there are a couple of different options. I believe the most popular options from most to least expensive are train, bus, and ride sharing (Blablacar). Even with my Carte Jeune (discount card) from the SNCF, trains to and from Nancy to Paris were still a bit pricey (30-50 Euros one-way), especially ones that were at decent departure and arrival times.

I decided to give bus travel a shot. I had had success on my trip to Heidelburg doing a combination of train and Flixbus travel. I had a friend recommend the site Comparabus.com to see what bus companies were offering the cheapest tickets. I ended up going with SNCF’s bus company Ouibus and booked round trip tickets from Nancy to Paris for 34 euros. The arrival and departure times were better than the cheap train tickets, but the biggest downside is that bus travel is slower than train travel. Just something to keep in mind when you’re planning!

Getting Around Paris

I decided I wanted to do Paris by metro this time around because October weather is questionable and I didn’t want to worry about being caught in the rain. Because I was going to be in Paris from Sunday afternoon to Thursday afternoon, I decided to buy the Navigo Semaine Pass, which gave me unlimited travel in all zones (1-5) on all transit options  (metro, bus, RER etc.) from Monday starting at 12:00AM and ending on Friday at 11:59PM. I think this option is more targeted towards commuters, which is why it’s a little cheaper than the 5-day Paris Visite Pass. However if you are in Paris on a weekend and you are under 26 years-old you can go for the Youth Weekend Pass, which also offers unlimited travel around Paris.

The metro is pretty easy to navigate, just pay attention to what kind of ticket you have and which zones and how long it is valid for. If you decide to go for the Navigo, don’t forget to bring an ID photo to sick on the card. I forgot to do this and ended up dodging transit officers at the exit check points. You can get fined 35 euros for not having a photo on your Navigo!

If you’re really worried, there are photo booths in almost every major metro stop and you can get your ID photo taken for 5 euros at any one of them. I was just being stingy because I had literally made dozens of cheap DIY photos prior to coming to France.

Although the metro is super easy and convenient, the biggest downside is that you don’t get to really see the city while commuting. Whenever I go to a new place, I love traveling by foot because it really gives you an idea of the idiosyncracies of the place you are visiting.

Lodging

Of course in the era of AirBnb and Couchsurfing, hostels seem almost a thing of the past. I still decided to go this route because the hostel I was looking at was in a good location for the things that were on my list, close to the metro, and included a simple breakfast. Bastille Hostel has absolutely no frills, but for 18 euros a night it got the job done. Honestly, I was expecting a lot worse based on the reviews I read online. The lobby is shared with its sister hostel Auberge Internationale des Jeunes and from what I could tell from chatting with the people who were staying in that one, Bastille Hostel is just slightly nicer (1 or 2 people rooms with in-room showers). Bastille Hostel did have its quirks, like having to leave your room key at the front desk anytime you left the hostel, but it is affordable and conveniently located in a nice area of Paris.

How I Paris-ed

My biggest and most important piece of advice for saving money if you are a teaching assistant in France is to ask your school secretary for your Pass d’Education. Admission prices to museums and monuments in Paris vary. Some are free to everyone under 26, some are free only to EU citizens under 26, some make you pay either way. The Pass d’Education gets you into all national museums and monuments for free, so you don’t need to worry about it! This pass is especially great of assistants over the age of 26.

OK, and now finally onto what I saw during my trip to Paris!

Louvre – Free with Pass d’Education

I was not mentally or physically prepared for the monolith that is the Louvre. I had been told to prepare a whole day for this museum, but honestly I couldn’t spend more than half the day there without starting to get a bit of agoraphobia. Oddly enough, I kind of liked the people watching just as much as looking at the art.

I got to the Louvre a little after it opened at 9:00AM, which was a good decision. There was already a line to get in, but it wasn’t absurd. I stayed until about 1:30PM before feeling like I was drowning in people and decided to call it quits for the day. My advice, bring snacks, wear good shoes, and mentally prepare for huge crowds.

Pantheon – Free with Pass d’Education

Not sure if this one is on the top of most people’s lists, but I was a mission to see Marie Curie, Victor Hugo, and Voltaire. The building itself is worth seeing, but the crypts in the basement was the highlight for me.

Sharing a space with Marie Curie was one of the most powerful moments for me on my first Paris trip. Marie Curie and Mary Anning were my fourth grade science heroines. I can’t thank them enough for inspiring me then and now to continue to persist in a world run by the patriarchy. I nearly cried on the spot after reading this note that was left at her tomb. Also, I’m pretty sure Marie Curie is the only woman entombed at the Pantheon.

Church at the Invalides – Free

I hadn’t actually planned on visiting the Invalides, but during my travels I joined up with some other assistants who said it was a nice stop on the way to the Eiffel Tower. The Church is lovely, has a beautiful organ, and is also the location of the tomb of Napoleon. The Military Museum is also at the Invalides, but I didn’t make it to the actual museum.

Eiffel Tower – Free

Unless you are planning to go up the Eiffel Tower, seeing the Eiffel Tower itself is free. Just walk right up to it. You can spend a good amount of time walking around the surrounding area, taking pictures, and hanging out in the park. If you would like to go up, then you have to wait in line and buy a ticket. Unfortunately the Pass d’Education does not give you a discount for that. I was planning on trying to find free views of the Paris skyline another day, so I chose not to go up.

Mass at Notre Dame – Free

I stopped into the Notre Dame while walking to the Latin Quarter for dinner with a friend. The two of us joked about our good timing because just as we entered the Notre Dame, weekday mass started so we decided to stick around for a while. Even though I’m not very religious, it was nice to sit in the cathedral, listen to the organ and singer, and smell the incense. I found it very interesting that the cathedral continued to let visitors in and out even as mass was happening.

Shakespeare and Company Bookstore – Free

I know it’s a bit of a cop out to go to an Anglophone bookstore while in France, but I couldn’t help it. This one was recommended by a friend and it was pretty cool. It was bustling and crowded the night that I went because there was a reading taking place on the upstairs floor. The inside of the store is filled with nooks and crannies. There is also a rare books section of the store right next door. The no photo policy makes for a nice ambiance.

If you buy a book at the store, they’ll stamp it with a special Shakespeare and Company stamp. I wasn’t in the market for an English book, but the cashier was nice enough to stamp the interior cover of my travel notebook.

Latin Quarter – For a meal out

Dinner in the Latin Quarter was one of my allotted meals out. My friend and I wandered around the pedestrian streets filled with restaurants just looking for a place. Many of the places are competitively priced with each other offering a full dinner (appetizer, entree, and dessert) starting at 10 euros. At many of the restaurants there are employees that stand outside trying to talk to customers to get them into their restaurant.

We didn’t really have a method of picking. We just walked around, looked at menus, and went with a restaurant where the storefront employee was really nice. He ended up giving us free drinks for going to his restaurant. Where Rue de la Harpe and Rue de la Huchette meet might a good place to start if you’re in the mood for random dining adventures.

Paris National Opera/ Opera Bastille – 5 euro standing room tickets

I am a classical music nerd. Not even going to try to hide the fact that I spent over half of my first trip to Paris going to the opera, stalking dead composers, and visiting the Musée de la Musique. Seeing a live classical music performance was pretty much the top priority for me. Originally I had wanted to see a performance of the Orchestre de Paris in the new Philharmonie de Paris concert hall, but they weren’t playing during my time in Paris.

Fortunately, the Paris National Opera had not one, but two different operas playing at the Opera Bastille during my time there (Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. My flute playing heart could not handle my sheer luck!). And to top it all off, the Opera Bastille has 5 euro standing room tickets for sale an hour and a half before each performance. Yes, in case you were wondering, I did pick my hostel location based on proximity to the opera house!

Prior to going to get my tickets, I read this extremely helpful blog written by The Opera Tattler, which tells you pretty much everything you need to know about getting standing room tickets. 32 tickets are available the night of each performance. Each person can buy up to two tickets. Since that post was written in 2010, I’ll give you my 2016 updates.

  • Standing room is indeed pretty organized. However, after chatting with the Parisians in line, I learned that the whole affair is organized by the people who wait in line themselves (usually Paris National Opera regulars). The first person who gets to the box office writes numbers on little pieces of scrap paper and distributes them to people as they show up. Once you have a number, you are free to wander around the area up until the box office opens an hour and a half before the performance. Be sure to be back a couple minutes before the box office opens otherwise the other people waiting in line might get a bit irritated, especially if they chose to stand in front of the box office for the whole time.
  • The amount of people waiting for tickets depends on the show. For Samson et Dalila on a Monday night, I showed up at 4:30pm for a 7:30pm show and got the number 13. For Lucia di Lammermoor on a Wednesday night, I showed up at 5:30pm for a 7:30pm show and got the number 8. If you think a show might be super popular, go earlier.
  • The tickets are purchased at a ticket machine. Bring both card and cash. The first night I went, the machine accepting cash was broken. The second night, both machines were working.
  • Bring snacks or something to do while you wait. The opera house is very lax about people bringing outside food into the building. If you want to save a few more bucks, bring your dinner. I promise no one is going to look at you funny, other audience members do it too!
  • Doors open about half and hour before the performance, but that doesn’t necessarily guarentee you a spot with a good view. With your standing room ticket, the ushers will tell you to go all the way to the top balcony of the opera house. The ticket is literally for a standing room spot with a partially blocked view of the stage.
  • Pro tip: If you want to take a chance and loiter/scan the house right up until the very last minute before the house lights go down, you can try and snag an unoccupied seat somewhere else. This works with varying levels of success because each time the lights come back up, the ushers will seat late-comers. I saw a group of guys do this and grab some great seats for Act I of Lucia, but then had to be asked to move when the rightful ticket holders came in after intermission.

Philharmonie de Paris/ Musée de la Musique – Free admission to permanent collection with Pass d’Education, 5 euros for under 26 admission to temporary exhibits

So even if I couldn’t make it to a concert at the Philharmonie de Paris, I knew I had to make a trip out to the 19th arrondissement to see the concert hall and the Musée de la Musique. If you get off at the Porte de Patin metro stop you’ll run right into the concert hall, the museum, the Paris Conservatory, a nice park area, and other performance venues.

The temporary exhibit at the Philharmonie was Ludwig Van Le Mythe Beethoven. Because it was a temporary exhibit, I paid for a 5 euro youth ticket. The exhibit was conceptually interesting, but I couldn’t help but feel like it was just a nicely curated collection of Beethoven paraphernalia (works by artists and musicians who were inspired by Beethoven) rather than a true homage to Beethoven. Maybe I was just salty from seeing a facsimile of the Heiligenstadt Testament when I actually just wanted to see the real thing.

The permanent collection at the Musée de la Musique proved to be much more my pace. The permanent collection is literally just a ton of western instruments organized in roughly chronological order. Entry to the museum comes with a free audio guide, so you can hear recordings and explanations of how the various instruments developed and fell in and out of style. There’s a small section on world instruments and the museum is lacking a bit in percussion instruments, but if you want to see some really amazing stringed and keyboard instruments, this is the place! Also, if you’ve ever been dying to try a theremin, you can do that at the museum too.

Also, at the Philharmonie is a listening and music library that’s open to the public. I got the feeling that most of the patrons were probably students who had walked over from the Paris Conservatory, which is located right next door.

La Flute de Pan and Surrounding Stores

If you’re in the mood for a bit of music related shopping while you’re in Paris, La Flute de Pan is a great music store located right next to the Europe metro stop. The selection of music is immense. It was a struggle to walk out of the store empty handed. I would also highly recommend taking some time just to walk up and down the Rue de Rome. The street is literally lined with luthiers, instrument makers, and music shops.

Parc du Belleville – Free

I knew that on my last day in Paris I would have to carry my backpack with me, so I planned an outdoor day. Luckily, it was the one day that it wasn’t raining during my entire time in Paris. Like I mentioned earlier, I was on the hunt for the best free view of the Paris skyline. I had read online that Arc de Triomphe, Montparnasse, Centre Pompidou all have great views of the Eiffel Tower, but I was in the mood for something a bit more off the the beaten path.

I ended up venturing to Parc du Belleville. At the top of the park there is a lookout that would theoretically give you a great view of the Paris skyline. Unfortunately for me it was a bit too foggy to make out much. I could only see the shapes of Montparnasse, Centre Pompidou, and the Eiffel Tower through the fog. I imagine on a clear day, this would be quite the lookout spot though.

Cimetière Père Lachaise – Free

My last and final stop was Père Lachaise Cemetery. Paris is the final resting place for a great many thinkers and celebrated people. I didn’t have time to visit them all (Claude Debussy, I’m coming back for you), so I picked the cemetery that seemed to have a highest concentration of people that I wanted to see. Père Lachaise is the home of Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf, and Marcel Proust. It’s quite large and can be difficult to navigate. I spent my time looking for Frederic Chopin, Vincenzo Bellini, Georges Bizet, and Francis Poulenc. On a beautiful October afternoon, it was a calm place to reflect and catch a tiny glimpse the the Eiffel Tower.

Phew! That was quite a bit of recounting! Anyway, my 5-day trip to Paris might be a case of extreme budgeting for some, but I managed to do the whole thing for approximately 200 euros. Not to shabby for a Paris first-timer.


Final Paris Budget:

  • Round trip bus tickets: 34 euros
  • 4-night hostel stay (breakfast included): 72 euros
  • Metro Pass: 27 euros
  • Entertainment costs (2 operas, 1 exhibit): 15 euros
  • Food budget (3 meals out, grocery store purchases): 50 euros
  • Grand total: 198 euros

I fully embrace that perhaps my itinerary and budget isn’t for the everyone, but it was just want I wanted out of my first trip to Paris. And knowing that I can do it on a budget gives me hope that I will be back for more in the near future. À bientôt Paris!

 

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