Paris Apartment Rental

I’ve already sung the praises of our cozy little apartment we rented in Paris—it was a great value, conveniently located, and had a charming Parisian feel. As much as I do love luxurious hotels, I think staying in an apartment provided an entirely different vacation experience.

Our apartment was in a very quiet residential neighborhood. We were the only vacation renters in our building and at night it was so quiet it was hard to believe we were in the middle of a big city. During the day the main sounds we heard were the bells from the nearby church and children playing in a park behind our building.

Because we cooked a lot of our own meals, every day we would drop by the boulangerie down the block for a fresh baguette. We visited cheese and chocolate shops, and tried to act like we weren’t clueless at the grocery store, reading labels in French.

Having a “home” to come back to also made us feel like it was okay to not spend every minute sight-seeing. We’d usually return to our apartment for a little while each afternoon to escape the cold, make coffee, and rest our feet.

I’m sure there are tons of charming Paris hotels and I’d love to stay at one some time for different Paris experience. But for this trip, I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect place to stay!

I found this apartment by searching through homeaway.com, but the rental company is called Paris Perfect.

IMG_4780

IMG_4784 IMG_4782

IMG_4854

IMG_4863 IMG_5022

IMG_4998 IMG_5041

Parisians

The most common question we’ve received since we returned from Paris was: “How were the people?”

Parisians seem to have a reputation among Americans for, if not rudeness, then maybe being a bit frosty. I listened to podcasts before we left to learn more about the local culture and heard many warnings to not expect the kind of friendliness Americans are accustomed to. So I went to Paris expecting to be charmed by city, but not the people.

But to my surprise, we only encountered one person during our time there with a bit of an attitude—and she was American!

When we first arrived at the Gare Du Nord train station, we waited in a rather long line to buy a metro pass. When I got to the window, I said to the harried looking woman the one phrase I knew in French: Parlez-vous anglais? Do you speak English? And she actually smiled kindly and said, “Yes, a little.” I figured it was a good sign when the public transit worker was pleasant.

A few minutes later we were transferring at a Metro stop and had no idea where we were going. We had stopped in a tunnel with our luggage and were agonizing over a map, looking like the picture of confused tourists, I’m sure. And that was when a nicely dressed man approached us. (Of course, nicely dressed describes most Parisians.) Paranoid of pick pockets, I clutched my purse—but it turned out he was just being helpful. Even though he spoke little English, he was able to point us in the direction of the right train platform.

And that first hour in Paris turned out to be a harbinger of nearly all the locals we met: courteous, patient and kind, in their own unique Parisian way. Maybe we were lucky. But it seemed that just being polite and respectful of the fact that we were visitors went a long way. Scott and I speak about 10 words of French combined, but we did make an effort to exchange pleasantries in French: bonjour or bonsoir and merci. Nearly everyone we met spoke at least some English and was willing to use it.

One afternoon we were in a chocolate shop picking out flavors. I would make an attempt at pronouncing each flavor I chose, and the woman behind the counter would repeat it the correct way. After butchering one flavor particularly badly, I said, “I wasn’t even close!” and Scott joked, “Par-don!” in his best French accent. She got a real laugh out of us poking a little fun at ourselves.

With the terrible news out of Paris yesterday, my thoughts are definitely with the Parisians and their beautiful city.

IMG_2131

IMG_2123

IMG_2166 IMG_4910 IMG_4990

The Louvre

We arrived at the Louvre right after it opened at 9am on a Wednesday morning. There were no lines and the crowds were surprising light. We were even able to get right up front for an unblocked view of the Mona Lisa. We used the Rick Steves audio tour to just hit a few of the museum’s highlights—I’m sure if we’d had the time we could have stayed all day exploring the various wings and exhibits.

When we left the museum a little after 11am it was starting to get really busy. I can’t imagine how the heavy the crowds must be in the summer in the height of tourist season. A cold winter morning seemed like the perfect time to enjoy the Louvre! When you’re done, head over to Angelina for some hot chocolate and croissants.

IMG_4866 IMG_2048

IMG_2049

IMG_2089 IMG_4873

IMG_2065

IMG_2032 IMG_2039 IMG_2045

Angelina Paris

It’s impossible to pick a favorite meal during our trip to Paris. From cheese to chocolate, we didn’t have a bad meal out.

But one meal that stands out is the breakfast we had at Angelina near the Louvre. It was a bit on the pricey side, but so worth it. From the gorgeous dining room to the freshest orange juice I’ve ever tasted, it was such a memorable Paris meal.

Of course the star was the hot chocolate, which has ruined all other hot chocolate for me for life. It’s so thick and decadent, without being too rich. Add in perfectly flaky croissants, sweet pastries, and fruit spreads, and it was the perfect Parisian experience.

IMG_4899 IMG_4900 IMG_4902 IMG_4903 IMG_4905 IMG_4906 IMG_4907

Travel Light: Packing for Europe in winter in a carry-on

IMG_4775

Before we left for our trip to London and Paris, I told Scott I wanted to bring only carry-on bags. He was skeptical we could do it—after all, we were going in winter and pants and sweaters take up way more space than shorts and tanks.

I spent a long time writing out packing lists and whittling it down to necessities. And when the time came to fill the suitcase, everything fit right in.

So why bother packing in a carry-on only, especially when international flights have free checked bags?

One day on the Metro in Paris, we saw a couple with two HUGE suitcases plus carry-on bags. The husband was hauling the two big bags through the crowds down a flight of stairs and the wife was juggling everything else. We took public transportation everywhere around London and Paris, which is convenient and saves a ton of money. But it definitely would have been a hassle with a lot of luggage. So unless you have a personal driver or car service that will be taking you door to door, you will be SO thankful you packed light.

Here’s a summary of what I brought:*

Packing List for Europe in Winter--Carry-on only

*The one notable exception is that I brought a pair of flats instead of walking shoes. I thought my boots would be comfortable enough to walk everywhere in. But after just two days (walking at least 8 miles) my feet were in real pain. My biggest packing mistake was not bringing sneakers. A few other tips:

  • Make a list. Don’t wing it, or you’ll end up with too much or too little of something.
  • Wear black, neutrals and solids that you can mix and match. This will help you blend in in Paris anyway, where you don’t see a lot of loud colors or prints.
  • Make sure your coat is both practical and stylish–it will be in the large majority of photos you take.
  • Since tops will usually be covered by your coat, mix up the look with different scarves.
  • Bring a small crossbody purse with a zipper compartment for your cash and credit cards. Not only will a crossbody be easier to carry around all day, it will protect against pickpockets. Just be sure to your purse is in front of you and don’t put anything valuable (like your phone) in your outer coat pocket.
  • Pack warm but non-bulky fabrics, like merino wool. For extra warmth, pack a couple tanks to layer under your shirts.
  • Instead of packing a thick guidebook, copy or take photos on your phone of the key pages you need.
  • If your trip is longer than a week, bring a bit of detergent and hand wash some items to re-wear. Or better yet, stay in an apartment rental where they have a washer and dryer. (As I recommend in this post about ways to save money on your trip.)
  • Stuff your socks into your shoes before packing them.

So how does all this stuff actually fit in a carry-on? First, wear the bulkiest clothes and shoes on the plane. For everything else, use the rolling technique. It not only makes the most of space but prevents wrinkles. Here’s a photo of how it works (this is from a beach vacation we took last year, but you get the idea). I group items into similar types (shirts in one pile, pants in another) and then tightly roll them up.

IMG_0894

Put the rolls into the suitcase. I use shower caps to cover the yucky bottoms of shoes and then lay the shoes on top. Then fill any empty nooks and crannies with items like scarves and underwear.

IMG_0890

Voila! (As they say in France.) You’ve just packed for Europe in winter in a carry-on bag. Here we are about to leave for the airport with all of our luggage. Notice how good-sized my personal item is—I was able pack my toiletries, ipad, kindle, and a small crossbody into that bag. It has a shoulder strap and can also be hooked to my roller bag.

IMG_4606-2

Along the way, we picked up a few items like jam and mustard which can’t be carried on. This is when it’s helpful to have an extender on your bag. If you need to, unzip the extender, pack in your souvenirs, and then check the bag on the way back.

I received a SwissGear bag seven years ago as a wedding gift. I’ve carried it all over the globe and it has held up so well. SwissGear is sold at Target and really reasonably priced—a great value. Here’s a similar version to my bag.

London in 36 hours

IMG_1318

When we booked our trip to Europe, we knew we’d never be able to see all of London in a day and a half. But we were able to check off a lot of the must-sees and get acquainted with this fun city. Here’s what we did.

Day 1

Our overnight flight arrived to London Heathrow at 9am. By the time we got through customs and took the tube downtown, it was around 11am. We dropped our bags at our hotel and made the short walk to Buckingham Palace for the changing of the guard.

IMG_4637

IMG_4640 IMG_4628  IMG_4634

After that, we strolled down the mall and through St. James’s Park. I was surprised there was still so much fall color in late November. The weather was cool but comfortable—there was sun and not a drop of rain!

IMG_4650   IMG_4657

After our walk, we met up with friends who live in London for lunch. If we hadn’t done that, we probably would have juggled our schedule a bit to go to the Evensong service at Westminster Abbey (http://www.westminster-abbey.org/worship/daily-services).

After lunch we took the Underground over to see the iconic Tower Bridge, and crossed over to the other side of the Thames to check out the Borough Market, an outdoor food market—you can find some fun things to take home like tea and jam.

IMG_4662

IMG_1886

After checking into our hotel—the Grosvenor, conveniently located near Victoria Station—we headed back out for dinner. We wanted a traditional English pub where Scott could get fish and chips. Our local friends had recommended The Albert and it was just what we were looking for.

IMG_4677   IMG_4678

Despite the time change, we had no trouble falling asleep that night after only getting a couple hours sleep on the plane. It made the time adjustment pretty easy!

Day 2

The next morning we woke up early to start our walk down Whitehall, where we saw Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, the London Eye, Cenotaph, and 10 Downing Street.

IMG_1888

IMG_1909 IMG_4691 IMG_4697 IMG_1302

We also totally accidentally stumbled upon the Horse Guards Parade changing of the guard, which turned out to be very neat!

IMG_4707 IMG_4703 IMG_4701

We ended our Whitehall walk at Trafalgar Square. We grabbed coffee and a muffin at Café Nero and then spent a couple hours at the National Gallery. Entry is free and it was one of my favorite museums we visited the entire trip.

IMG_1913 IMG_1941

After the museum we headed to Dishoom for some Indian food, which was one of my must-dos in London!

IMG_4729
Next up was the British Museum, and along the way there we stumbled across Neal’s Yard, a colorful little shopping street.
IMG_4733 IMG_4731

At the British Museum, we hit the highlights in about 90 minutes following the Rick Steves audio tour.

IMG_1950

From there, we headed over to Mayfair for shopping. The shopping crowds were incredible and I was surprised to see a lot of “Black Friday Weekend” sales signs—who knew the Brits also have Black Friday! I have a slight obsession with Burberry, which is odd because I’ve never owned one Burberry item. Their stuff is so classic and gorgeous, but I just can’t bring myself to fork over that kind of cash for a scarf or purse. So I stopped in their flagship store and just looked wistfully at everything.

IMG_4737 IMG_4738

IMG_4735

At this point we were totally exhausted, so the timing was perfect for our scheduled afternoon tea at the Wolseley. Having a traditional English tea was one of the things I was SO excited about, and Scott was a trooper to join along. And I think he enjoyed the yummy food.

IMG_4740 IMG_4743

And that concluded our tour of London. The next morning we got up very early to catch an 8am train to Paris. We snapped a few photos of the pretty hotel lobby before we left.

IMG_4753

IMG_4748 IMG_4771

Next stop: Paris!

IMG_4773

Luxury for Less: 10 ways to save on a trip to London and Paris

IMG_2138-3

I’m sitting here sipping English tea and nibbling on galettes, reminiscing on the incredible vacation we had last week.

Two years ago when we went to Europe, we spent two weeks there and it cost a good deal of money. This time around, we had limited vacation days and also a limited budget. But I REALLY wanted to go to Paris, and a stop in nearby London seemed to make sense—we’d never been to either city.

We were able to make the trip work for less than $1,400 per person (including flights, train tickets, accommodations, meals, and sight-seeing costs)—for what I would say was a pretty luxurious week-long vacation in Europe. Below are a few of the tricks we used to score some great deals!

  1. Go in the off season of winter or early spring. Bonus to going in off season? Way smaller tourist crowds! I dislike cold weather and was worried about being miserable, but I was fine. It was definitely cold (in the upper 30s some days in Paris), but the key is dressing appropriately—layers under a warm coat, gloves, and scarf. Going in December is especially charming with all the Christmas decorations.
  1. Use your airline miles to book flights. Even off-season flights to Europe are running $1,300+ roundtrip, so we used our miles to save a bundle. It only took 20k miles per person, per flight, (so 80k total) to book direct flights to/from London and Paris. These discounted mileage rates are available from November through about mid-May. (Tip: Always avoid British Airways when booking with miles—they charge hundreds of dollars in fees.) Don’t have enough miles? Apply for an airline credit card that will give you bonus miles for signing up—we have one that gave us 50k just for joining, plus we earn miles on purchases.
  1. Use credit card points to help pay for hotels. Lots of cards offer travel rewards, so find one that works for you. (Preferably one without an annual fee.) We used $500 in travel rewards to book our London hotel, which was $515 total—so we only paid $15 out of pocket.
  1. Book an apartment rental instead of a hotel in Paris. This may sound more like a splurge than a save—but surprisingly, beautiful apartments in Paris rent for the same or not much more than nice hotels. Our rental worked out to about $260 night. It had a full kitchen, so we could save money on meals out—which can be very pricey in Paris. We ate at a nice restaurant once a day, and had our other meals at “home.” We found shopping in a Paris grocery store or food market to be fun and a great way to feel immersed in the culture.
IMG_4780

The living room of our apartment in Paris

  1. Book accommodations with free wifi. We didn’t need any pricey international plans for our phones because we always had wifi at our hotel or apartment. We survived just fine without internet access when we were out and about. (Some airports and cafes have free wifi if you’re desperate.)
  1. Use discount passes or go to the free-entry museums and sights. In London, you can spend hundreds of dollars just visiting a few museums and churches. Instead, we went to the free museums like the National Gallery and British Museum. Many of the churches (like Westminster Abbey) charge for tours—but you can attend a service, such as evensong, for free—which can be a more special experience than just a tour, anyway. In Paris, the museum pass (http://en.parismuseumpass.com/) is a great deal and covers nearly all the major sights.
Scott in front of Van Gogh's Sunflowers, on display at the National Gallery in London

Scott in front of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, on display at the National Gallery in London

  1. Take public transportation. Instead of pricey cabs or car services, we used the Underground in London and the Metro in Paris. (The key to comfortably doing this is to pack light, which I plan to talk about in another post.) We even took a public bus to the airport in Paris. I was very skeptical when my husband first suggested the bus—but it turned out to be super easy and uncrowded and probably a third of the cost of a cab.
  1. Use Rick Steves audio tours. No need to pay for guided tours or the audio tours they sell at the museums—Rick Steves audio tours are free when you download his app. These were a huge help at places like the Louvre and British Museum. (You don’t need an internet connection to play the audio once you’ve downloaded it.)
  1. Use a credit card with no international fees and get local currency from an ATM. I recommend Capital One for no foreign transaction fees (and great conversion rates). Before you leave, call your bank to find out which international banks it partners with—you can use your debit card at those ATMs to get local currency without paying an ATM fee.
  1. Research, research, research. Planning the vacation is part of the fun. We looked at dozens of hotels and apartments before booking. Great values are out there, you just have to find them—so try not to get your heart set on a particular place before thoroughly researching all options. Use TripAdvisor and other review sites to make sure what you’re booking isn’t just cheap—it’s a value.

Bonus Tip: Don’t go into debt to pay for a vacation. There’s no point in getting a great deal only to end up paying a ton of credit card interest.

A note on when to splurge
Our general spending philosophy—not just for travel but in life—is save ruthlessly on the things that matter least, and splurge on what you love. Friends and family sometimes will look at us strangely when we talk about our latest luxurious vacation—then see us clipping coupons and unplugging appliances to save on the electric bill. But we’d rather scrimp on things like groceries on utilities and spend the difference on what we love—like traveling. Here are a couple things we splurged on this trip:

Afternoon tea in London. I was so excited to have a traditional English tea. I tried and tried to find an inexpensive place to go, but couldn’t find one that didn’t sacrifice the experience. So we booked an elegant afternoon tea at the Wolseley for about $75.

Apartment with a view of the Eiffel Tower. We could have found a cheaper apartment rental, but to have the Eiffel Tower sparkling out the kitchen window while making dinner? That was priceless.

IMG_4854

Kitchen with a view of the Eiffel Tower

If we’d had the time, we could have easily extended our trip to 10 or 14 days. A week definitely only gives you a taste of these two great cities. (But now we have a reason to go back!)

Traveling is so personal based on your own tastes and preferences, but hopefully a few of these tips help. I know I learned a lot by reading others’ experiences—I’d love to hear what YOU saved/splurged on in Europe!