First Trip to Europe, Day 1 – Getting to Paris

When we were researching visiting Paris in the winter, I found lots of one line or one paragraph generalizations about how it’s cold and rainy but generally less crowded. I want to go in the opposite direction and saturate you with as much information as I can possibly recall. Everything from planning to packing to the day-to-day adventures. When I finish the posts chronicling our travels, I’ll go back and detail the planning and packing stages. I’ll lay out how we decided on hotels, tours, restaurants, tour guides, and what I packed, how I packed it, what I didn’t use, and what I’d do differently. I’ll touch on these things in the daily posts, but at the end there will be some helpful information for anyone who stumbles upon this blog looking for tips or advice.

I have dreamed of going to France for as long as I can remember. I’m sure my fascination started because my mom was born there, on an Air Force base, in the mid-1960’s before the French kicked the US military out. I took French instead of Spanish as my foreign language in high school. Although a foreign language wasn’t required for my college major, I took a few semesters of French as electives (and made A’s I might add!). France was my favorite “country” to visit at EPCOT, and I always came home with some souvenir like a Paris t-shirt or Eiffel Tower pen. I loved eating at the French restaurant there and listening to the waiters speak French, although I was too shy to practice my own French with them. To say that France was at the top of my bucket list is an understatement; it was on a list all its own. When we decided this summer that it was finally time to visit, words cannot express how excited I was. We decided to plan and book everything ourselves after sitting down with a travel agent and realizing that a cookie-cutter itinerary wasn’t for us. I can honestly say I haven’t so much as thought about what we are doing this weekend (our first weekend post-vacation), because every ounce of planning energy I have went into Paris.

We chose a flight to Paris, via Atlanta, at 6pm on Monday, December 22nd because I had to work part of the day. I skipped out around 1:30pm and headed home to pack those few last minute items, and we got to the airport in plenty of time to check our bags. Some die-hard Europe travelers would *never* check a bag, but as we were traveling in December with bulky sweaters, for nearly 2 weeks at that, we definitely had to check one bag each. This is free on most international flights. We cross-packed a few outfits just in case one bag didn’t make it to Paris until a few days later. I put my Christmas Eve and Christmas Day outfits I had planned, along with a few pairs of underwear and socks, into a packing cube that went into my husband’s suitcase. He did the same for my suitcase. I brought snacks for the plane in my larger carry-on bag, along with other long-flight essentials. Since our flight from Atlanta to Paris was overnight, I had a change of clothes, basic toiletries for use on the plane, and a good inflatable neck pillow.


Waiting for our flight to Paris.

Our flight to Atlanta was uneventful, and we met up with my parents (our travel companions) outside the Sky Club near our gate. We headed to Buffalo Wild Wings for a late dinner while we waited on our 11pm flight. The flight to Paris was long. About 8.5 hours of flying time. We didn’t spend long on the ground after leaving the gate, so we were in the air right on time. Our seats were noisy and poorly located, –a story for another time– so we didn’t get the chance to sleep. We did have the extra legroom of Economy Comfort seats, which we both appreciated. If you’ve never flown a long-haul international flight, you’ll be surprised at how much and how often they feed you. We received dinner, snacks, and breakfast on this flight. They came around with hot towels twice, drinks more times than I can count, and the spirits are free, though the wine is cheap.

Breakfast on the flight

Breakfast on the flight

We had personal in-flight entertainment with new release movies and popular TV shows. I am rather fond of the live satellite TV I have experienced on long flights in the US, but the selection on Delta was a close second. I watched If I Stay, which I had been wanting to see, before I switched over to my iPod and the flight tracker showing our progress on the map. The in-flight internet did not work on this flight, not that I would have paid the exorbitant rate anyway. The screens on this plane had USB ports for charging, and the headphone jack was next to the screen instead of in the arm rest, which allowed us to raise the arm rest between us to get comfortable.

Clouds above Paris just before we landed

Clouds above Paris just before we landed

When we landed in Paris (after months of planning, we’re finally here!!) it was 2pm on December 23rd. We had our passports stamped and picked up our bags. All 4 bags made it to Paris, no worse for the wear. We proceeded through the maze to the metro/trains and found the office to buy our metro passes. The guidebooks told us that the Paris Visite Pass was a waste of money, but we read about a reload-able metro card called the Navigo Decouverte. This is like the passes that locals use, but it’s intended for foreigners. The pass is valid from Monday to Sunday, with one price to reload for the entire week. Since we arrived on Tuesday, it was worth it to go ahead and pay the full week price instead of buying a book of tickets. Most guidebooks will tell you to buy the book of tickets, but I can’t even explain how convenient the Navigo was. You just tap your pass at the turn-style instead of fumbling with tickets and the unlimited use means you never have to ration tickets. We visited in the winter. It was cold and sometimes rainy. In the spring you may want to walk more, but in the winter the metro is the way to go. I’ll pause to say that we never walked less than 5 miles per day, even taking the metro most of the time. We walked as much as 12 miles on our longest days. Many times we took the metro just one or two stops, something I would have hesitated to do without the Navigo. You have to go to a live person at a metro ticket booth to buy a Navigo pass (it’s 5 euros for the card, plus you need to have a 3cm x 2cm picture), but once you have the card you can reload it at the machines inside any metro station. We paid for all 5 zones, which was 34 euros per week. The Paris Visite Pass for 5 days and 5 zones is 67 euros. That’s 2 fewer days and almost double the price of the Navigo Decouverte.

We waited in line for the passes, then made our way to the RER trains. From CDG airport, all the RER trains go to Paris, so it was actually pretty easy. If you are not using the Navigo pass, the RER costs more the farther you take it. If you have the Navigo, you will just scan it to get on and scan it to exit the station at your destination. The RER is the only time you have to scan your Navigo twice for one ride. It’s unlimited for the metro, buses, and RER, so it’s just a matter of having your pass handy when you leave the station. We boarded the B train to Paris with all our luggage, and settled in for the long ride.

Josh with our luggage on the RER train

Josh with our luggage on the RER train

It’s about 40 minutes to central Paris. The train went through some very seedy areas and got more and more crowded as we went. Our first hotel, Henri IV Rive Gauche, was located just next to the Saint-Michel–Notre-Dame stop, which is serviced by the RER-B. This meant we never had to connect with our bags; we just hopped off at Saint-Michel. Luckily there is an escalator for the exit there, and we popped out just a block away from our hotel.

I’ll continue Day 1 in my next post, where I’ll talk about our hotel and our first outing in Paris!

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