Sunday, November 28, 2010

Paris or London? And other logistical considerations

For a short five day trip, is it worth going to Paris, London, or both cities? Although they both have things to offer, I found that Paris easily wins the battle based on its enormous amounts of attractions, cheaper cost of living and admissions fares for said attractions, and overall fast-paced liveliness. I’d imagine in the summer, the lines may change that impression, but at least for the winter Paris seems to be the place to go, or to heavily weight your short trip.

Otherwise, airfare to Europe can be surprisingly cheap during Winter and Spring season (late December non-withstanding), even during Thanksgiving holiday. I ended up using STA Travel/StudentUniverse to buy discount one way tickets to London, at $235 o/w nonstop from Los Angeles on Virgin Atlantic. These are usually mileage accruing. For the return, a non-stop flight using 20,000k American Airlines miles + $80 taxes/fees from Paris on Air Tahiti Nui fit the bill. In general, it seems that one-way tickets to European destinations are particularly cheap on Student discount sites; then, for the return one can match off-season one-way fares back through OneWorld (American), or Star Alliance (United). Be sure to call to obtain best partner availability. Also, look into returning from Spain rather than France or England, as taxes can range from $30 in Spain to $150 from London).

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Paris, France

During the 2010 Thanksgiving holiday, Paris was the second destination, where three days were spent. If one rushes, a lot of Paris can be seen in three days; though in hindsight, it may be worth taking the city in slowly (although this is also a budgetary drain), doing what the guidebooks say - sitting at a café and watching the city go by while sipping espresso (to which Starbucks does not hold a candle).

Despite being a large metropolitan area, Paris proper is a wonderfully manageable and organized city. It is broken up into arrondisements; for general reference, your (tourist-geared) trip will most likely focus on the Northwest, West, Southwest, and South portions of the city. For accommodations, we choose to live at the Best Western Rivy-Gauche (13e, highly recommended). The strategy for finding hotels through Kayak + Tripadvisor still works well; again, like London it may be worthwhile to book outside the city if late-night nightlife isn’t an issue (the Metro closes around midnight) – also, don’t be afraid of using the RER as it is just as convenient and at times faster than the Metro lines!

To use the Metro, one can buy a carnet of 10 tickets for 12, which may be the most economical choice if your travels remain in the City proper (most will). However, if you are in a rush to see the city and it is cold, the all-day pass is a better deal (as with the case with our trip) - despite Paris being highly walk-able, the walks are less than pleasant in winter weather. Metro to metro transfer is not allowed, but Metro to RER to Metro is within 2 hours; so depending on your planning, you can cleverly get by using one carnet for multiple trips as the RER and Metro intermingle throughout the area. At night, jumping the turnstiles (by going in with someone else) seemed extremely common (1 of 2 people at an unmanned station), though a local friend says beware of ticket-checkers.

During my time there, tourist attractions I went to included the Catacombs, Eiffel Tower, Graveyard, Notre Dame, Champs d’Elysses, Arc de Triomphe, Louvre, Musee d’Orsay, Sacre Coeur/Montmatre, and the Sunday Bastille Market. I found the catacombs extremely worthwhile and one of the highlights of the trip, although it is not high on many guide books’ recommendations. The Eiffel Tower is a brisque walk up two observation desks; it is worth seeing at day and at night from afar (Westwards is the best picture opportunity). Although the graveyard is interesting – check out Oscar Wilde’s tomb – it is a bit of a jaunt East. Notre Dame, on the other hand, is on the Ile-de-France and is a must-see (free!) architectural masterpiece. Arc the Triomphe, Champs d’Elysses, and the Louvre can be done conveniently in one stretch. The Louvre has occasional evening hours (till 9pm) where admission is significantly reduced (free for under 26, 6€ otherwise) and is worth going to then; although the collection is vast, other than the Mona Lisa it houses no classical Impressionist work. For Impressionist pieces we went to the Musee d’Orsay, which also has cheaper late afternoon hours, though check their website for details. Finally, I found Sacre Coeur and the Moulin Rouge area including Montmatre fairly unremarkable.

Being Paris, food options are wide and varied, although restaurants within the city proper are tough for backpacking budgets. We dined at restaurants in the 13e Chinatown, which although are relatively cheap for Paris (10€ p/p) are fairly sub-par in quality (compared to Los Angeles). Otherwise, meals were mainly self-catering from Carrefour and local patisseries (especially in the Latin Quarter) – the quality of the cheese makes up for the stingy food options. The Sunday Bastille Market comes highly, highly recommended! The quality of the food present at the market, even in the middle of winter, puts any (even Californian) market to shame. Hard cheeses (if you can’t poke it) are oaky for bringing back to the States; others, including cured meats, are no-go. Also, the nightlife in the Latin Quarter is impressive, but extremely expensive – expect to pay Hollywood prices for drinks, though the novelty factor of post-binding crepes instead of In-and-Out makes it worthwhile.

For departures through Charles de Gaulle Airport, leave ample time to arrive and to catch your flight, as the airport is huge and hectic.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

London, England

London was a starting off point during the 2010 Thanksgiving holiday; although I only spent two days in the city, in reality a good feel of the city can be gotten within that time period (vs. its neighbor to the South).

Flying into Heathrow, one can catch the Underground, which painlessly goes into city center. Be sure to get an Octopus card for this trip; single-way fares are prohibitively expensive (4£ vs. 1.6£), although they may be steeper from Heathrow due to its Zone 7 allocation. Octopus is also convenient for its daily limit on use; once you reach the daily maximum (dependent on peak/non-peak travel), it stops deducting from the card. Octopus makes the world’s most expensive subway system slightly more affordable.

Transport within London was all done by a mix of Underground and buses, which are quite clearly marked (and surprisingly fast on city surface streets). It seems that nothing else is necessary to explore the city! Similarly, although I stayed at Reem Hotel (50£, recommended) in the Bayswater area, places further out of the city may be cheaper and just as convenient given the Underground’s speed. For nicer hotels, Kayak + reviews on Tripadvisor may be the way to go circa 2010.

For a short trip, walking around the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey in the Westminster section is a must- do. In particular, one can watch the House in session for free; if there is no line, it’s a worthwhile activity. Buckingham Palace and St. Paul’s Cathedral are underwhelming from the outside. No visit to London is complete without going to Harrod’s (although purchases may be ill-advised); also, the Tower of London was an interesting 3 hour jaunt, though it is quite expensive (18£ w/ ISIC, can get it cheaper online or using 2 for 1 coupons). On a previous trip a decade prior, I recall Greenwich, the London Aquarium, and Madame Tussauds’ being fairly interesting visits as well.

Easy connections outbound exist between London and Paris using Eurostar, though buy in advance for cheapest tickets (60-80€ o/w, cheaper r/t). Other (cheaper) ways to get there can be through Eurolines, or low-cost airfare, though beware the cost of getting to far out Luton Airport. Passing customs for France in St. Pancreas is a breeze, though don’t cross until you’ve eaten as food options in the departure lounge is limited. Also beware of the difficulty of converting pounds to euros at reasonable rates, and remember to change your quid to notes!