Keeping your family budget in check is a challenge when travelling to a pricey city like Paris. It’s not a cheap destination at the best of times, but the current Euro conversion makes for particularly nasty sticker shock.
You know hotels, restaurants, taxis and entrance fees are going to take bite out of your wallet, but it’s the mindless “little extras” that add up when you’re not paying attention. Temptations abound when you stroll around town with kids, and you have to be disciplined not to cave into every request for a crepe, macaron or glow-in-the-dark Eiffel Tower trinket.
You don’t want to be such a tightwad your family misses out on the pleasures of the belle ville, so here are a five frugal tips that can help you afford the occasional splurge.
1. Take the Metro
Your best – and cheapest – bet is to walk this pedestrian-friendly town, but there is a limit to how far little legs will go without whining. Make the metro your friend and you and the kids can buzz to all corners of the city at a fraction of the cost of a rip-off taxi. Riding the big city metro was a fun part of the Paris experience for my girls.
If you’re going to use the system a few times, buy a “carnet” which is a book of 10 tickets at a reduced price – 11,60 euros for adults and 5,80 for children. It will give you the freedom and flexibility to hop on a train whenever you feel the need to. If you plan to use the metro and/or RER train system a lot, look into the Paris Visite Pass. It’s valid for 1, 2, 3 or 5 consecutive days for either zones 1-3 (central Paris where most of the main attractions are located) or zones 1-6 (which can take you as far as Disneyland, Versailles and the airports). You’d have to ride the metro an awful lot to make the zone 1-3 option worthwhile, but if you are going farther afield – or just in from the airport – the zone1-6 option can be a money saver.
2. Let’s do lunch
You can’t come to Paris and not partake of the culinary pleasures of its iconic cafes and bistros, but you can save a bit by going out for lunch instead of dinner. Lunch menus are usually just as elaborate and tasty as dinner menus, but a bit more forgiving on your pocket. Most restaurants have a special “prix fixe” or “formule” offering that includes a starter, main dish and maybe even dessert, which can be a decent value for sampling a range of French cuisine.
While portions aren’t huge compared to North American standards, my husband and I often found we could share our plates with our two kids, supplemented by the ubiquitous bread basket. When sharing wasn’t feasible, there were always a few kid-friendly options on the menu that the girls could split – croque monsieurs, omelets, crepes and steak hache were their relatively affordable restaurant staples in Paris.
3. Drink the water
Beverages are a budget breaker in Parisian restaurants. A thimble-sized, non-refillable glass of juice or soda costs around four to six euros, which can add up considerably when trying to quench a thirsty family. Stick with water and you’ll save a bundle over time. Ask for a “carafe d’eau” to get a free pitcher of good old Paris tap water rather than some pricey bottled H20. Your wallet will thank you – so you can splurge on dessert!
4. To pass or not to pass
Do a little homework before your trip to determine what you and the kids really want to see in Paris, and then figure out if a Paris Museum Pass is right for you. Be realistic about what you can comfortably squeeze into your time frame. These passes only break even if you visit at least two or three venues a day, which might be a bit ambitious for families with younger children. Most of the major attractions around Paris are free for children, so do the math carefully to see what works best for your trip.
For compact visits where you want to sweep through a lot of sites in a short time, this can be a no-brainer, especially considering that pass holders can usually get priority access and avoid line-ups – a huge benefit when travelling with children. But cramming in a full itinerary of back-to-back museums, monuments and churches is a bit overwhelming for children (and adults for that matter). It’s preferable to alternate busy site-seeing days with relaxing down days where you lounge in a park or soak in a neighborhood with no agenda – in which case it’s better to pass on the pass. The strategic fore-planning required to get your money’s worth doesn’t allow for lot of spontaneity and flexibility (which are the cornerstones of family travel).
And if you’re looking to save on accommodation while traveling with the family to Paris, try one of these Paris vacation rentals, which are a great budget alternative to more expensive hotels.
5. Park it
Paris has an abundance of jardins that are perfect places for families to picnic, play and while away the day in the fresh air – and they’re free! You may have to shell out for an ice cream, carousel or puppet show along the way, but you can’t get a cheaper or more kid-friendly outing in the city. The locals love their parks, so spending a lazy afternoon in one of its magical gardens is an authentic Paris experience you have to indulge in.
Most parks have a playground area for kids, which is a bonus. The Jardin des Tuileries, Jardin du Luxembourg, Bois de Boulogne, Parc de la Villette, Place des Vosges and Champs de Mars were some of my girls’ favorite destinations in the city. Watching them make French friends despite the language barrier was one of my fondest memories of the trip.
When traveling with youngsters, you have to balance all that cultural and historical site seeing with lots of fun-filled outdoor recreation. Pepper your Paris tours with plenty of parks and your children – and bank account – will say merci!
These are good tips and I can attest to the validity of all of them, as I spent two weeks in Paris with a 3 and 6 year old in 2008. I also found that renting an apartment and doing some cooking (with food I purchased from the amazing market in the Place Monge) was a great way to save some money. The market was also a great source for picnic lunch food.
Our splurge for the trip was to bring an au pair – paid in experiences – so that my husband and I could enjoy dinners out, complete with some wonderful wine.
We used the Metro (and our feet) exclusively for transport while in Paris, with two train trips out of the city to see Versailles and Giverny. It was easy, fast, and relatively cheap.
We rented a studio that was just up the road from the Moulin Rouge (for ~$ 85/night). It felt more genuine of an experience. We went to the grocery store a little up the road and bought some drinks and snacks. It was a cool neighborhood with all the little stores (bakery, butcher shop, wine shop, Tabac, grocery store ). We mostly ate out, but since I’m a picky eater it was nice to make a couple meals at home and just have cold drinks and snacks when we got home after sightseeing. Other than the typical things: Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Champes Ellysees, Sacre Couer, Musee D’Orsay, Louvre:
- Sainte Chappelle is kind of across the street from Notre Dame and has amazing stained glass window
- We saw a show at the Moulin Rouge for the novelty of it. Not a fantastic show, but it was neat to go there.
- A day trip to Versailles I’d say is a must!! So beautiful and cool to see. One day a week they turn on the fountains in the gardens, very cool!!
- Only if you are a Disney fan but I really enjoyed going to EuroDisneyI
Wished we had planned ahead and gotten tickets to see something at the opera (L’Opera Garnier). I think you can get tickets there to see a same day show like getting tickets at the TKTS booth in NYC. I also wish we had gone to the underground tombs.