A 5-Minute Practical Guide for First-time Travelers to Paris, France

TravelWhimsy and I took advantage of the Presidents’ Day long weekend and spent 3 delightful winter days in the City of Light.

Eiffel Tower, Paris, France
Three Winter Days in the City of Light (February 2013)

This post, listing things not present or emphasized in Rick Steves’ Paris Guide, is meant to help those of you planning your first trip to Paris save some time and money (and maybe points). For our readers who are Paris veterans, feel free to add your tips and suggestions in the comment section.

#1 – Buy the Paris Museum Pass

Paris is supposed to be dead in the middle of February, right? So we thought! Almost every sight was packed and lines were long.

You can purchase a 2-, 4-, or 6-day Paris Museum Pass to ethically cut to the front of the lines (except the line to climb up the Notre Dame Bell Tower). Even if you don’t see a special lane designated for pass holders, just show your passes to the guards/ushers.

If you have to buy your passes at one of the participating sights, choose a lesser-known one to avoid a potential long wait at the ticket office.

Musee Guimet, Paris, France
Guimet, the Asian Art Museum in Paris, France

#2 – Buy All Tickets/Passes at the Airport

Tourist Information Desk at Paris Airport
Buy All Your Tickets and Passes at the Airport Tourist Information Desk in Paris, France

Tourist information desks at both Paris airports sell almost all bus, metro, museum tickets and passes at cost. You can use one of your fee-free US credit cards to pay for your

  • Round-trip Roissy bus tickets (10 euros each way);
  • 10-pack metro tickets, known as “carnets” (13.3 euros vs. 17 euros when purchased individually);
  • Paris Museum Pass;
  • Seine River Boat tickets/passes;
  • and many other tickets/passes designed for tourists.

Most flights to Paris from the US use Charles de Gaulle airport’s Terminal One. The tourist information desk is located near Terminal One’s exit door #4. Check this airport official page for locations at the other terminals or Orly airport.

#3 – Taking the Roissy Bus and Paris Metro

Roissy Bus, Paris, France
On Board the Roissy Bus between CDG and Opera Garnier (Paris, France)

Get a free city map from the airport tourist information desk or your hotel. Almost all city maps have the Paris metro map.

The Roissy bus is convenient and perfect for those of you without too much luggage. It drops you off at the back of the Paris Opera house (Opera Garnier). You can walk to many of the centrally located hotels, or walk counterclockwise to the front of the Opera building to enter the Metro station. Our ride took only 30 minutes on a Sunday morning from the airport and about 50 minutes on a Wednesday morning to the airport.

Many of the famous sights are within walking distance of one another, but you can easily navigate the Paris metro system with a map and the museum pass guide (each sight showing the closest metro stops).

#4 – You Don’t Really Need Any Cash

I again used my Charles Schwab ATM Debit Visa card to withdraw 50 euros at an airport HSBC ATM, but it turned out that it was entirely unnecessary for Paris. Credit cards are accepted everywhere.

Credit card machines operated by an attendant have the ability to swipe a US credit card without a chip. Vending machines at metro stations and sights accepted my British Airways Visa card (with a chip) without any issues. Check with your credit card companies to see if a card with a chip can be issued. I used three or four of my US-issued fee-free credit cards and didn’t have any difficulty.

#5 – Climb the Eiffel Tower to the 2nd Level before Taking the Elevator up to the Top

Tickets to ride elevators to the top of the Eiffel tower can be purchased online in advance (14 euros) to help you avoid long lines, but you have to choose and stick to a time slot. If you are not sure of your plans, your best option would be to walk up to the first two levels of the tower. Elevators coming down are always free, so you don’t have to worry about walking down.

Climbing the stairs of Eiffel Tower
Climbing up the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France

The climb can be taken at your own pace, and gives you unique views of the tower and the surrounding areas. You can buy a combo ticket for 10.5 euros (climb + elevator from level 2 to the summit), or just a walk ticket for 5 (pay another 5.5 euros at level 2 if you change your mind about going to the top).

#6 – Buy Your Opera Tickets Online in the US

Instead of paying 9 euros to visit Opera Garnier, check the show schedule to buy tickets to an afternoon or evening performance. We purchased tickets to an opera recital performance (Atelier Lyrique) for only 12 euros each about 3 months in advance (directly online with a US credit card). All you need to do is to create an online account. The website lets you preview what you can see from your selected seats.

Opera Garnier, Paris, France
Attending an Opera Recital Performance at Opera Garnier in Paris, France

#7 – You Don’t Have to Blow All Your Points at the Park Hyatt Paris

We took our own advice (given to TravelByPoints reader RK) and had a wonderful 3-night stay at the Park Hyatt Paris Vendome.

However, if you plan to do lots of sightseeing during your first trip to Paris, you really don’t need to stay at the Park Hyatt because you won’t get to spend much time at the hotel. Instead, save your two free Hyatt nights (Hyatt Visa sign-up bonus), Hyatt points, or Chase Ultimate Rewards points for a resort, where you’d be spending most of your time on site.

If you have the Priority Club Visa card, you can use your annual free night at the Intercontinental Le Grand Hotel (right across from the Opera Garnier/Roissy bus stop). Or, you can use your Club Carlson Premier Visa to book two nights at a time at one of the few Paris Radisson Blus.

Roissy Bus at Opera Garnier, Paris, France
Roissy Bus at Opera Garnier (See the Intercontinental Le Grand Hotel in the Background?)

#8 – Buy the Paris Museum Pass

Have I mentioned that the Paris Museum Pass is a must, even if you don’t plan to go to that many sights? The time you will save more than justifies the cost.

Sainte Chapelle, Paris, France
Sainte Chapelle, Paris, France

Have a wonderful time in Paris!

Don’t want to miss any TravelByPoints blog posts? Get updates via email, RSS feed, Twitter, or Facebook.