Thursday, April 25, 2013

Getting around in Paris

I think the thing I was most worried about the very first time I went to a foreign country was transportation. Trying to get around the city without speaking the language or being able to read most street signs is a big deal! Being from a city where there really isn't public transportation, you just get in your own car, drive to where ever you want to go and usually park in a huge, well lit parking lot, didn't give me a lot of experience to go on.  We took the kids to NYC 2 years ago and only used subways and taxis so they had had a brief experience with what we we going to be using.
If this is a fear of yours...fear's pretty easy once you get the hang of it. Do you research before you go to save yourself money.

We decided to pre-purchase our metro passes before we left the country. We had them delivered to our house before we left so we could start using them as soon as we were in Paris. Yes, this was an extra expense for shipping but I didn't want to spend valuable sight-seeing time trying to figure out where to pick up the tickets in Paris. I definitely didn't want to take my chances on buying them in Paris because the only rude person I have ever encountered in Paris was at a ticket kiosk...they literally acted like I was trying to do something no other person on the planet had ever a metro pass. Anyway, this time I bought them on the ParisMetro website. I found quite a few sites that sold them but this place is straight from the gov't so I thought they would be best. We went ahead and bought the 5 day passes, Preston was considered an adult but Bella could get the children's pass (woo-hoo).

The next order of business we needed to take care of before we left was to figure out how we were going to get from the airport to our apartment. From what I've read, there are 3 basic ways to get to the city from the airport. 1) take the RER (the metro) 2) take a public taxi or 3) hire a private driver. I went to trip advisor to do some research. Taking the RER would be the most cost effective...but if your stop wasn't near your apartment, that meant you had to lug all of your luggage down the streets of Paris. Taking a taxi would have been the next most cost efficient but I read online that sometimes trying to get a taxi that fits 4 people plus (a lot) of luggage was more than a hassle. So I did research on which private company we should use to shuttle us from the airport. I went to trip advisor and man, there were a ton of review, mostly negative, about every shuttle service in Paris. But then I came across 2 good reviews for a newer company, called Start Shuttle. I looked them up online and they had a really nice website. Next I saw that they had a FB page. There are 3 main qualifications to get my business...good reviews on trip advisor, a nice clean website and finally a FB page where I could post a public comment if anything went wrong. They met all of them and on top of that, they wrote me back immediately when I contacted them on FB.

I have nothing but wonderful things to say about this company. They were waiting for us at the airport, had a clean van and a really nice driver. Our driver had to navigate through Paris when every exit was shut down due to the protest. I can only imagine how much that would have cost us if we had taken a taxi! On our way back to the airport at the end of our trip they were there at our apartment exactly when they said they would be. I had emailed to confirm pick up the day before and they wrote me back to confirm immediately! After we got back home to the US I even received an email asking me about our trip and making sure they met our transportation that is good customer service!

OK, now that we were settled in Paris we had 3 options to get around town with our metro passes. There is the RER, the metro or the bus. We took each of these while in Paris and had our own opinions about each :)

The one we used the most was the metro. After the first day we become pros at navigating our way around...but we couldn't have done it without an app I downloaded to my phone before the trip. We didn't have phone service so it was important to get an app that didn't require internet service. I used Paris by Metro, it looks like this:

It was incredibly easy to use, you just put your starting metro stop and your ending metro stop and it tells you which lines you need to use to get there. My favorite thing about the Metro was the different entrances and decorations you got to see while waiting for your train. What I didn't care for was that it was always crowded because most of the time we were traveling during rush-hour times (hence not a lot of pictures taken at the metro). But that worked in our favor most of the times because it was all business people or school gave us a sense of security. We never once felt un-safe on the metro and we were even serenaded a few times by very talented musicians. The closest metro stop to our apartment was about 3/4 of a mile away which was a bit of a hassle because of the cold weather but the upside was that it meant we had to walk under the Eiffel Tower every time we needed to use the metro!

The closer option for us to use was the RER. From what I can tell, the RER and the metro are pretty much the same except the RER doesn't have as many stops in the city center, instead it goes to more stops outside of the city for those who commute to work. It does however go to the major stops in the city like the museums along the Seine so we took it quite a few times during our stay. It didn't have fancy entrances or art deco waiting areas but it was the kids favorite because it was a double decker train and was never very crowded.

The last option, the bus, was one I wish we could have taken more of. Carin has told us that this is how she gets around town. It allows you to see the entire city while getting to where you need to be. The only downside to this was that you had to wait for the bus to come...outside. Which means you were freezing for an unknown amount of time. If the weather was better, I would definitely recommend you taking the bus around. It was a little confusing to read the bus maps (I didn't have an app so we had to use the maps posted inside the bus stop) but Carin had shown us which one to take to get back to our apartment so we stuck to that one route.

All of these ways, the metro, RER and bus were covered by our metro passes. It was fun to try all three and was a great way to feel like we were getting the true Parisian experience.  There is one more way to get around that would be the ultimate mode of transportation...but the weather just didn't allow it for us on this trip:

 Paris has a bike system, the Velib, where you can rent bikes and return them different places around town. As you can see in the wasn't just us who thought it was too cold. Hope this has given you a little insight for transportation options when you are with your family in Paris!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Family Pics

For our anniversary Mike bought me a photo session with Localers so our family could have some pictures taken while in Paris. The very talented Carin of Paris in Four Months works for them and I'm such a huge fan of her work so it was the thing I was most excited about in Paris. Unfortunately, the weather was horrible on the day of our session, cold, windy and grey. But Carin was a trooper, she made us as comfortable as possible, even stopping mid-session to take us inside a cafe to warm up with hot chocolate. She took us all around Paris, showing us some of the off-the-beaten path areas. It was so neat to get to talk to someone who lives the Parisian life! She was just fabulous and the kids absolutely loved her! I will cherish the photos forever!

I think that the best souvenir anyone can bring home from a trip is a great why not invest in a local photographer wherever you go on vacation? Definitely keep it in mind for your next big family trip!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Where we stayed in Paris

The biggest challenge we faced when planning our trip to Paris was the decision where to stay. When we have gone before, we stayed in the outer arrondissements. We did this because a) it was the cheapest b) we didn't care about how small the room was and c) it wasn't important to us to be close to everything because we could walk/ride anywhere we needed to go. But this time, with kids, we had a different mind set about where we should stay. We wanted to be in the heart of the city and we wanted some space to move around in. Of course we still needed to stay in a budget but we saved for a long time for this trip so we could get exactly what we wanted! I like the idea of a hotel...breakfast ready for you in the morning, someone that cleans up behind you and of course the concierge that can help with directions and reservations. But when looking for a hotel with space (at least 2 rooms) in the heart of the city that was sort of similar to what we are used to staying in at was way out of our price range.

So we looked into the idea of staying in an apartment. Some things to consider on renting an apartment to stay the reviews! A few we had picked out because of the pictures, after reading the review we realized that the apartment was on top of a nightclub and was loud at all hours of the night. An apartment is going to have thin walls (and floors)...there is no getting around this in Paris, everything is old. If something happens (water is turned off, lock yourself out, etc.) you have to wait for whoever you call to drive to you to help you out. BUT, we thought that the idea of space was a higher priority for us. We went to a couple of different apartment rental agencies (again, read the reviews) and finally settled on Loving Apartments Paris. They seem to have the best communication, answering every question and sending emails promptly. They assigned a greeter whom we called when we landed in Paris so he could be waiting to show us around and give us our key. I was prepared for the apartment to be a lot smaller than the pictures showed because isn't that how it always goes? We were so pleasantly surprised when it was much larger than we thought and that we had a view of the Eiffel Tower that wasn't even shown on the apartment's about a bonus!!!

We were always thinking about security but there were two access doors into the building and each of them required a code or key fob. We were in a very residential neighborhood which made us feel less like tourists. We saw almost all of our neighbors throughout the week, mostly families our age or really old couples. I never once worried about security once we were inside.
There was a courtyard on the inside of the building and a place to store children's scooters and to bring your trash down.

 We were on the 3rd floor of the building. There was a beautiful staircase that I tried to take every time because of all of the sweets I was eating...but the 2 person elevator (see picture below) was how the kids like to go up. And when I say 2 person elevator, I am being very, very generous. It was convenient when we sent our luggage up in the elevator then met it on our floor! It looked like a closet door, the kids thought it was awesome.
Our living room:

Our kitchen:

Our foyer:
Our bathroom (I forgot to take a picture of the shower, but it was a walk-in, big enough for 2):

The Master bedroom (behind the mirrored doors was all closet storage for our clothes):

The kids room:

The best part:

 Our neighborhood was one of our favorite things about our trip:

It just blew my mind that all of these people around me live here...that this is there ordinary everyday life. Can you even imagine????