Category Archives: Paris

Paris Movie Walks – Comment to Win Your Free Autographed Copy

Who doesn’t love Paris and movies?  Michael Schurmann has combined the two into a winning guidebook, Paris Movie Walks, ten guided walking tours through the City of Lights, Camera, Action.   And now, you can win your very own copy, signed by the author!

I had the good fortune to meet Michael and his lovely wife Marlys aka @ParisBuff several months ago, and they led us on a walking tour of their Montmartre neighborhood.  They are among the fortunate few who live in the shadows of the beautiful white domed Basilica of Sacre Coeur, crowning the butte of Montmartre.

The cold, gray January day could not dampen our excitement as we strolled up and down the cobblestone hills of Montmartre.  As we rounded each corner, Michael set the scene for us, sharing movie trivia, as well as pointing out sights of historical and architectural importance.

One of my favorite movies is “Amelie” and I was delighted to find so many recognizable street scenes.  Who could forget the produce market with sweet Lucien and the obnoxious, sneering Monsieur Collignon, or the Two Windmills Cafe, where Amelie worked?  And of course the scene where Amelie’s secret crush races up the steps to Sacre Coeur, only to find Amelie is watching him from below.  Or the street she leads the blind man across, describing in rapid fire detail everything the blind man cannot see.

Now you can enjoy this same tour, and nine others covering all the “must-see” areas of Paris, as we are giving away a free copy of Paris Movie Walks, personally signed by the author!!!

Just leave a comment, and tell me what is your favorite movie of all time. One lucky winner will be drawn at random.  Go!

Contest closes May 13, 2010.  Good luck!

Paris Sightseeing – Luxury for Less – Part 4

Paris is a joy for active sightseers, with a magnificent array of museums, monuments, must-see sights.  However, the sheer number of sightseeing opportunities in Paris can be overwhelming.  No matter how many times you visit, you may feel like you’ve barely scratched the surface.

Here’s a short, opinionated list of sightseeing options (with lots of hyperlinks), organized into 6 categories:  Top Tier, Mid-Tier, New & Niche, Quirky/Off-Beat, Kids, & Day Trips. Consider choosing one or two in each category, so you can experience variety in the best Paris has to offer.

When it comes to sightseeing in Paris, time is your currency, and more precious than gold.  I recommend you purchase the Paris Museum Pass, which covers entry to over 60 museums and monuments and is available for 2, 4, or 6 days.  You will save a few Euros over purchasing tickets individually, but most importantly, you will save time….hours and hours of time…..because you don’t have to queue in long lines to purchase tickets at every venue.  Just look for the special door for pass holders at each venue, and sail past the ticket lines.  I’ve waited 60 minutes in line at the Louvre, and 90 minutes each at Musee d’Orsay and St. Chapelle, so learn from my mistakes and get the Pass!  You’ll still need to wait in line for the security screening, but this should be minimal.

If you’ll be in Paris more than a few days, look into the Paris Visite Pass, which covers the Metro, RER suburban trains, and city buses, and offers great reductions on 18 other sites. Save money & time!

Top Tier Sights – many museums are free for children under 18, offer reduced rates for 18-25; museums usually offer one free Sunday per month – avoid these days as they’re usually crowded.

Eiffel Tower – new for 2010! – advance reservations are now available online; save time!  Count on at least an hour in line if you don’t reserve in advance. (Entry NOT covered in Paris Museum Pass)

Louvre Museum – most famous and extensive art museum on the planet

Musee d’Orsay – 19th & 20th century masterpieces, temple of Impressionism, & much more.

Notre Dame Cathedral – free admission to the church; fee applies for self-guided tower

Palace of Versailles – see Day Trips Below

Bateaux Mouches & Bateaux Parisiens – Seine River Cruises – a must to enjoy Paris beautiful bridges and monuments.  Go at sunset to see floodlit monuments; time it to pass Eiffel Tower as it’s sparkling – breathtaking!

Arc de Triomphe – ascend to the top for amazing views (fee); otherwise visit free at street level to admire sculptures, eternal flame and pay respects to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Sacre Coeur Basilica – Montmartre’s stunning white domed Basilica, on the butte of Montmartre

Mid-Tier Sightsfeel free to argue with me as to which should be Top Tier vs. Mid-Tier

Centre Pompidou – modern and contemporary art

Musee Marmottan – world’s largest collection of works by Claude Monet, plus 300 works by other Impressionists & Post-Impressionists

Musee Rodin – master sculptor and gardens

Musee de l’Orangerie – Tuileries garden – Impressionist and post-Impressionist masterpieces.  Interesting story in NYT about Monet’s Water Lily paintings

St. Chapelle – Gothic cathedral with beautiful stained glass; lines can be very long; if you don’t have Paris Museum Pass, and skies are cloudy, skip it and wait for another time

Musee Jacquemarte Andre – private mansion with impressive collection of French, Dutch and Italian masters; lovely cafe

Les Invalides – honors French military heros & houses Napoleon’s tomb

Opera Garnier – gorgeous baroque Paris Opera, of Phantom fame; self or guided tours available – go for the guided tour

Pantheon – originally constructed as a church, and now the tomb for many important French historical figures, including Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, Madame Curie, Braille, Dumas

Cathedral of St. Denis – about ½ hour north of central Paris, burial place of kings of France, with over 70 sculpted tombs, including Francois I, Louis XVI, Dagobert, and Catherine de Medici

Musee National Picasso – closed for renovation until 2012

Musee de Quai Branly – relatively new museum featuring art & artifacts from Africa, Asia, Oceania & the Americas

New and Niche

Paris Movie Walks – author Michael Schurmann leads you on a series of 10 walking tours in the City of Lights, Camera, Action – see the sights where your favorite movies were filmed.  Video of my tour of Montmartre below, where Michael points out one of the last two remaining windmills of Montmartre, the Moulin de la Galette, which was the setting for one of Renoir’s famous paintings you will recognize:

Eye Prefer Paris Tours – Personal walking tours and cooking classes by Richard

La Cuisine Paris cooking lessons – 2 hour, ½ day and longer classes – French desserts, bistro classics, chocolate tours and more!


Rick Steves Paris Illuminations by Taxi Tour – Rick gives you a great, fun option to hire a taxi for a do-it-yourself floodlit Paris tour – with a map and French translation to hand to the driver – a great alternative to overpriced bus tours, with recorded commentary in 7 languages (ugh).

Pere Lachaise Cemetery – most famous & visited cemetery in the world; among the famous buried here are Edith Piaf, Pissarro, Proust, Jim Morrison, Yves Montand, Moliere, Lalique, Haussemann, Heloise, Delacroix, Colette, Frederic Chopin, Sarah Bernhardt, Balzac, Gertrude Stein, Oscar Wilde

Catacombs of Paris – municipal ossuary is the reburial place of approx. 6 million residents of Paris

Paris Sewer Tour – haven’t been, don’t plan to go, unless someone talks me into it

Canal & Seine Barge Cruise – Teena Hughes of A Night in Paris explains it all here, with video

Fat Tire Bike Tours – comes highly recommended, although I haven’t tried yet; Paris city tours, Versailles and Giverny also; if you’ve done this, please leave a comment with reviews

Day Trips

Versailles – magnificent palaces & grounds; former home of French kings

Chartres – extraordinary Gothic cathedral & UNESCO world heritage site

Giverny – Claude Monet’s home and gardens

Reims –Champagne country


Disneyland Resort Paris

Parc Asterix –  large amusement park organized around 5 themed lands, about 20 miles north of Paris

France Miniature – outdoor village with scale models of 160 major French monuments; 45 minutes from Paris

Paris local parks – Luxemburg Garden, Tuilleries, Champ de Mars – lovely, green spaces, kid-friendly activities

Aquaboulevard – indoor/outdoor waterpark and athletic facility; largest indoor waterpark in Europe

Last tip – don’t be pennywise but hour foolish.  If you’re trying to get to a venue in a hurry, like before closing or last admission time, consider jumping in a taxi rather than waiting for a bus, or walking to/from a metro station.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned, traveling across Paris usually takes twice as long as I estimate, so give yourself plenty of time.  Plot your visits on a map, as many can be grouped for walking (Louvre, Notre Dame, St. Chapelle, Deportation Memorial).  Buses are a great way to get around, but to a visitor who is unfamiliar with local routes, the occasional manifestations (strikes) alter bus routes, bypassing certain popular stops, leaving you Lord knows where (another lesson learned the hard way).

Plan ahead, do your research, and don’t get frustrated.  You’ll never see it all, but just assure yourself, you’ll be back and see more on your next trip.  Bon voyage!

All links are working at time of publication, but subject to change by site owners.  If you find a broken link, please send me a comment and let me know. Thanks!

Paris – Luxury for Less – Part 2

This is the second article in a 5 part series showing you how to enjoy a truly unforgettable, Paris experience on a modest budget. Part 1 , discussed how to save money by traveling in low season, and covered tips on earning frequent flier miles, even if you rarely fly.

Accommodations will be a large portion of your vacation expense. For about $80 USD per person per night, you could stay in a very small, double room in a 2 star, bare bones hotel. But, for the same price, you can enjoy an upscale Paris apartment, in a prime location, with full kitchen and Eiffel Tower views. Yes, that’s right!  For the same price!  The trick is to travel with a few friends or family members, and consider low season instead of high.

Why Choose an Apartment over a Hotel?

  • Space – much more room to spread out
  • Huge savings on food by preparing snacks and light meals; dining out in Paris is very expensive, and you’ll save hundreds of Euros per week by having a kitchen (much more on Dining Out in Part 3)
  • Free wi-fi internet access
  • Free phone calls to the US, Canada, Europe. FREE
  • Washer/dryer for laundry – convenience and savings of free laundry, allows you to pack less, and return home with clean clothes!
  • Feel like a local, not a tourist; shop daily as the Parisians do for your warm baguette, fresh produce; you’ll enjoy the vibe of your neighborhood

Follow These Tips When Selecting an Apartment:

  • Search Trip Advisor or similar sites for recent reviews for that specific unit; Trip Advisor is not independently verified, so look for trends rather than relying on one specific review
  • Consult guide books and ask friends for references
  • Ask if they have an onsite management company to address any concerns; are they open 7 days a week?
  • Be sure the website has photos of all the rooms in the apartment
  • Ask owners if the furniture, drapes, linens etc. are exactly as pictured.  I’ve heard horror stories of apartments staged for photographs, but the gorgeous furniture had been replaced by worn out flea market finds
  • Most apartments require full payment in advance; ask what recourse you have if you find the apartment unacceptable.  Will they move you to a different unit, or refund a portion of your stay?
  • If you’re staying in the summer months, ask if the unit is air conditioned
  • Some buildings don’t have elevators, so ask, if this is important to you
  • Carefully consider the location, noise level, and view.  Verify the location through Google Earth.  “Close” or “nearby” may actually be 2 miles away from your desired location.

Why Choose a Paris Perfect Apartment?

There are many apartment rentals in Paris, but for my money, I choose Paris Perfect apartments, a collection of 45 luxury apartments in prime locations in Paris. What sets Paris Perfect apart is that all apartments are professionally managed by Paris Perfect, with the highest attention to detail, and that “wow” factor to make your vacation a once in a lifetime experience. Paris Perfect apartments have been recommended by Rick Steves, Travel & Leisure, Fine Living Channel.

A Paris Perfect apartment is the right choice for so many reasons and occasions…

1) Girlfriends Getaways – Ladies, choosing a luxury apartment from Paris Perfect is an unforgettable experience–one you’ll be talking about for years. Paris Perfect’s fabulous Girls Getaway Package, during low season, includes all this at no extra charge:

  • complimentary hair & color consultation at famous Thierry Elia Salon on the Left Bank,
  • welcome bottle of champagne upon arrival
  • box of gourmet macarons from renowned Chocolatier Gregory Renard
  • free Seine river cruise tickets
  • complimentary consultation with your personal Paris concierge, who can arrange special reservations for Paris fashion shows, cooking lessons, private guides to take you antique shopping, massage appointments, restaurant & shopping recommendations and more!

2) Two Couples – A great way to share expenses while enjoying a luxury apartment in the best locations in Paris.

3) Mother/Daughter Get-Aways – There is no better opportunity to celebrate that special bond between mother and daughter. Every girl should see Paris with her mom, even if the little girl is all grown up. (We had a great experience with my sister-in-law, and our teenage girls several years ago.)

3) Families – perfect when traveling with children. Triple and quad rooms are very hard to find in Paris, and when you do find them, they will be very cramped. For the same price as two drab double rooms, you can have a lovely, private apartment, and save hundreds of Euros by enjoying breakfast and snacks in your kitchen instead of dining out 3 meals a day. The money you’ll save by eating in will more than offset the accommodation price. Paris has an undeniable “cool” factor for tweens and teens.

4) Multi-generational – Great for grandparents to bring along grandchildren-what a grand introduction to the City of Light!

4) Celebrations – honeymoons, engagements, anniversary, birthday, graduation.

5) Any time and every time you come to Paris

Apartment Reviews

I have personally stayed in the St. Julien short term Paris rental, and it is gorgeous, in a prime location in the 7th arrondissement, just a few blocks from the Eiffel Tower, with a partial view through the tree tops.

This is the Rue Cler neighborhood recommended by Rick Steves. The St. Julien sleeps 5 comfortably ($86 per person, per night*), is a little tight for 6 ($71 per person, per night*), and would be very spacious for 4 ($107/pp pn*). It has two full marble bathrooms (important for your “getting ready” space), plus a powder room in the hall.

St. Julien has one bedroom and a  double living room, with sliding doors for privacy, and a special, custom made Italian sofa which makes out into two full sized, extra long comfortable, single beds. I have slept on this sofa bed myself, and I can assure you, this is not your grandma’s fold out sofa bed. There is also a fold out sofa bed in the first living room, recently upgraded, but I haven’t slept on that so I can’t personally comment on it. I’m sure it would be fine for one.

Most recently, we stayed in the Clairette Paris flat in the same building as St. Julien. The Clairette has an incredible view of the Eiffel Tower (2 blocks away) from the two sets of large French double-glazed doors, with step-out balconies.

Every detail is exquisite: beautiful furnishings, gorgeous wood floors, oriental rugs, with decorator touches everywhere.

Lighting – an effective mix of crystal chandeliers, halogen lighting in the kitchen, and many table and floor lamps make the apartment so cheerful.

The dining area is in the double living room in the Clairette, with the same high quality sofa that makes out into two separate comfortable single beds.

Cream travertine in the bathroom with large walk-in shower, modern vessel sink, heated towel racks, hair dryer. Thick, white fluffy towels, and an extraordinary find for Europe = Washcloths!!! Americans will be very happy!

The Clairette is very comfortable for 3 people sharing, and adequate for 4 friendly people. It has just one bathroom, so scheduling becomes important. But Clairette would be ideal for groups of 3 or 4. The price in low season: $123 per person/per night for 3 people and $92 per person/per night for 4 people.*  (Side note: I have begrudgingly paid $300/night for a dumpy hotel in Manhattan, that had not been renovated in 30 years.  Talk about value for money.  Paris Perfect has it all: luxury, location, affordability.)

I’ve not yet stayed at the Bordeaux luxury apartment in Paris, but knowing the neighborhood and quality of furnishings, it looks like a great choice for 6, with 2 bedrooms, double living room, 2 full and 2 half baths, and the same heart-stopping views of the Eiffel Tower that Clairette enjoys.

And at 2065 Euro/week in off-season, that works out to $71 per person/per night, or $142 per couple. An absolute steal!!! If your budget allows, of course, consider prime season as well. Picnicking in the Champ de Mars park right next door, evening strolls along the Seine…an unforgettable experience. Paris Perfect apartments are running a special promotion on high season rates now as well. Check their website for details.

The Left Bank location of these 3 apartments is perfect! Literally 2 blocks from the Eiffel Tower/Champ de Mars, major bus stops across the street, Metro and RER just a few blocks away.

Paris Perfect vacation rentals provides guests with welcome gifts of milk, orange juice, water, and a bottle of wine.
The kitchen is already supplied with basics: regular coffee pot and filters; olive oil and vinegar, salt and pepper; and my favorite – a Nespresso machine with a starter supply of coffee capsules in assorted flavors – another way to easily save $4-5 for each cup of coffee you don’t have to buy at a café.

Kitchens in these 3 apartments are high-end, with granite countertops, dishwasher, microwave, stove, oven. Dishes, glassware, champagne and wine glasses are provided, even colorful plastic dishes, cups and bowls to help the kids feel right at home.

A full set of Henckels knives, serving ware, mixing bowls, cutting board, storage dishes, glass baking dishes, salad spinner, etc. are included.

A washer and dryer are in each apartment, along with laundry soap, allowing you to pack lighter than usual, since you wash your clothing on the go.

I kept thinking I’d find some little detail overlooked, something the staff forgot to stock in the apartment: a pair of scissors to cut the tags off a new outfit? (found 3 pairs actually); Tupperware for leftovers? (yes, in the cabinet over the microwave); electrical outlets in the bathroom? (hidden in the mirrored medicine cabinet). An extra shoelace, when my son’s broke? (okay, sorry, no spare shoelaces provided!)

You will be met personally by a professional, friendly Paris Perfect greeter, who spends nearly an hour with you, showing you all the workings of the apartment, answering any questions.

In addition to your personal greeting, each apartment comes with a complete, thorough, personalized guide book, which explains in great detail the workings of every appliance, system, etc. It also has a wonderful 32 page section on sightseeing. This was my “bible” while in Paris, as it included everything!

Paris Perfect Luxury Apartments include flat screen TVs with cable access, DVD player, and a supply of DVD movies, novels and Paris guidebooks for your enjoyment.  Free wi-fi had great bandwidth too.  We had four devices connected on wi-fi at the same time ( iPhone, 2 iPod Touches, 1 laptop) and no hiccups or slowdowns.  Free phone calls included from your apartment’s phone to all landlines and cells in US/Canada, and to landlines in Europe, Australia, & New Zealand.

The Clairette and St. Julien have entire walls of storage, with many hooks in bathroom and bedroom. Iron and ironing board included, plus converter plug for your appliances

Grocery stores very close by. If you’re staying in either of these 3 apartments near Rapp/Bourdonnais, you have a G20 market just a few doors down, and a larger FranPrix just a 4 minute walk down Bourdonnais. Paris Perfect includes a rolling market basket so you can shop just like a local.

Did I mention the Boulangerie is 3 doors down? Pop down in the morning for your fresh, warm baguette and flaky croissants, to enjoy with your Nespresso.

The prices quoted are fully inclusive, there are no taxes, service charges or occupancy fees.

Potential drawbacks for some could be that there is no daily maid service, towels are not normally replenished (but there are extras provided, and you are free to wash a load of towels in your washer/dryer if you wish). Maid and laundry service can be arranged for an extra fee, as well as a personal chef, if you really want a splurge.

Full prepayment is required in advance (before you ever see the apartment), and cancellation fees apply. This was a concern for me the first time, but now having stayed there, I have no hesitation whatsoever.  I do recommend you take the travel insurance, because you never know when your plans could be disrupted due to illness, job loss, etc. Paris Perfect has links to a travel insurance provider, or search online.

The Paris Perfect management office is just a few blocks away, open 7 days a week, and the staff was pleasant and helpful. We had a tricky latch on the French door leading out to the balcony (did I mention the balcony overlooks the Eiffel Tower?) We called for help, and the latch was fixed before we got back from sightseeing.

All apartments are non-smoking, and no pets allowed.

Rentals are for a one week period, and I do recommend you take the full week. There is so much to see and do in Paris, plus you can take 3 wonderful day trips depending on the season (Versailles, Champagne region, and Monet’s Gardens at Giverny). If you find it impossible to stay a full week, and are booking towards the last minute, Paris Perfect might be able to consider a shorter stay, so call and ask. They may be able to accommodate you.

However, there is one huge drawback to staying in a Paris Perfect apartment which I must warn you about. The apartment is so gorgeous, you may never want to leave! I am not exaggerating. In the evening, gather at the window at the stroke of each hour to watch the Eiffel Tower sparkling light show. We have magical memories of our children watching the clock, counting down the minutes to the top of the hour, and dashing to the window to see the Great Lady sparkling in the night.

On your morning of departure, you will feel a little like Cinderella, when reality hits you that you have to leave – your royal coach about to turn back into a pumpkin, and white horses back into mice. Ahhh, but that’s what vacations are about. Fairy tales can come true. And there will be a happy ending, because you will promise yourself to return to Paris again!

* Prices quoted are for low season. They also have special sale prices available now for a limited time for high season and shoulder season too. Check Paris Perfect website for details. In the interest of full disclosure, as a returning guest of Paris Perfect, I received a promotional discount, however, my review is honest and unbiased, and not influenced by consideration received.

Paris – Luxury for Less – Part 1

Are you looking for a first class getaway to Paris, but can’t even afford coach? Read on!  You’ve come to the right place. 

Paris has a reputation for being an expensive city, and rightly so.  With so many treasures to explore, it’s one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations.  But I’m going to show you how to afford real luxury for less in Paris, for less than what you’d spend on a Holiday Inn at home.  Don’t believe me?  Then stick around! 

Over the next series of articles, I’ll discuss how and when to travel, and I’ll cover the “big 5” categories of airfare, accommodation, shopping, sightseeing and dining, to show you how to get the absolute most for your money, and have one of the best vacations ever!  

This is not an article about staying in cheap hostels or 2 star hotels.  There’s nothing wrong with that, I’ve done that too. But this series will focus on higher end accommodations, and show you how to have that luxury splurge for LESS money, something actually within reach of your meager travel budget.  

When to Travel:  My first tip to immediately save 30-40-50%? Travel in off-season!  Typically, off-season in Paris is winter time, from November through March, with the deepest discounts in Jan. & Feb.  Accommodations and airfare are deeply discounted. Crowds are smaller, nerves are less frazzled, and there’s something about the crisp air that makes the aroma of roasting chestnuts and steaming Nutella crepes even more intoxicating.

Paris has such a huge array of sightseeing options, you will never be at a loss for things to do.  Yes, there are a few sights that may operate reduced hours, but with careful planning, you’ll not be disappointed.

The first two weeks of December are an incredible time to visit Paris as well.  Discounts may not be as steep as Jan/Feb, but the beautiful Christmas decorations, dazzling lights, department store window displays, and holiday fetes can make up for that. 

First things first.  You have to get there.  Airfare to Paris from the U.S. is not cheap….not gonna lie.  Airfare in off-season is lower, but still pricey.  Recent searches on Fare Compare, great low fare search site by my friend Rick Seaney, show low season fares from major US cities to be as much as 50% less in Jan/Feb versus summer.

Recent Airfare Searches to Paris:

From: Feb 2010     July
NYC $552 $959
CHI $772 $1,225
MIA $787 $910
ATL $676 $1,261
MPLS $851 $1,247
LAX $658 $1,367
SEA $873 $1,327

Don’t be scared by these prices. Let me show you how to fly almost free. 

Frequent Flier Programs
If you’re a frequent traveler, you’ve already figured this out & can skip this part (but read the Shopping opportunities below).  If you’re not a frequent traveler with a fat corporate expense account paying your way, you may think you’ll never rack up enough miles to cash in on free tickets.  Not so!  You don’t have to travel frequently to earn miles.  There are many other ways to accumulate miles.

Enroll not only yourself, but your spouse, kids and grandkids in airline frequent flier programs.  Idea is that nobody travels by air these days without earning miles.  Most programs allow you to transfer miles between participants, sometimes even offering bonuses to do so (Delta currently has a 50% bonus on miles transfered through 1/31/10, i.e. transfer 5,000 miles to someone, and they received 7,500).  Best to limit yourself to one or two airlines to maximize point accumulation.

Credit Cards
There are great websites devoted to helping you maximize your “flown” miles (FlyerTalk), but only a few sites focus on earning miles outside of actually flying on a plane.  Opening a credit card (for both personal and business accounts) can earn a handsome bonus of 10K-25K miles.  This site, Mile Cards, has a good discussion and comparison matrix of many mileage cards available.  Keep in mind, most cards have a minimum spend requirement, i.e. must spend $750 within the first 4-6 months, to earn the bonus.  Fees are typically waived the first year, and they carry hefty interest rates, so be a wise consumer and don’t charge more than you can afford to pay off in full every month. Read the fine print on every offer.  Also check your hometown airline’s website to learn what their mileage credit cards have to offer.

Once you’ve chosen a card that’s right for your, set up recurring monthly bills to be paid with this frequent flier credit card, bills you’re going to have to pay anyway, electricity, gas, water, telephone, cell phones, etc.  Again, you must be VERY disciplined to ensure you pay off in full every month. Once you get comfortable with that, decide if you want to take the next step to purchase groceries, gasoline, entertainment etc. with your card.  Many people do this successfully today, but it does require discipline.

Another site I like is Frugal Travel Guy.  He’s made quite a hobby of racking up miles, so check out his tips and ideas.  Keep in mind that with rewards come some risks, so do your homework.

In addition to charging monthly necessities on your preferred card, take advantage of all the mile-earning opportunities from online shopping.  Hundreds of popular retailers have partnered with airlines to award you mileage for things you’re going to buy anyway. 

Let me give you some examples.  For purposes of this article, I’m going to focus on shopping opportunities through American Airline’s AAdvantage program, but every major carrier has a similar program, so if AA does not have service from your area, check into other airlines’ programs. 

American developed the very first frequent flier loyalty program in the industry in 1981, and I should know, because that’s when I was hired on by AA as a college student with the launch of the AAdvantage program, to handle inbound calls and enroll applicants. 

American recently added some new features to their retail shopping site American eShopping Mall, with the registered card program.  This lets you register one card (either credit or debit) on the shopping site, and earn miles for purchases.  The twist here is you can now use a debit card, if you decide you don’t want to buy things on credit.  Four ways to earn miles while shopping:

1. Brick and mortar store fronts – Walk in to buy in person, use your registered card (debit or credit), and earn AAdvantage miles.  Downside – this is a new program, and only 12 retailers/restaurants participating right now.

2. Gift Certificate Program – Great program lets you buy gift certificates from 102 popular retailers, like Barnes & Noble, Bath & Body Works, Gap, Old Navy, etc.  Earn 3 miles for every dollar you spend, plus an extra mile if you charge to your AAdvantage Citi card.  Buy the gift certificates to give as gifts for Christmas, birthday, teacher, anniversary, wedding, graduation, etc. Or buy them for yourself for purchases you know you’re going to make anyway (i.e.  Back to school shopping, Old Navy, Famous Footwear, Foot Locker, etc.).

3. Online Retailers – Literally hundreds of major and specialty retailers participate.  You must first visit the AAdvantage eShopping site and launch into the retailers’ site from the AAdvantage page. Every big retailer is here. 

4. Special partners – short list of a few select “preferred partners” with good earning potential, like Netflix, DirectTV, TomThumb grocery chain (DFW residents), regional electric companies.

Don’t even think of making a big ticket purchase without checking out the online retailers.  Plus, there are frequent promotions like double or triple miles, free shipping, etc.

I particularly like Best Buy, as you can order online (remember to launch from the AAdvantage eShopping site) and then pick up your order at your local Best Buy, usually within an hour if the item is in-stock.  No waiting for shipping, and easy, local returns.  In-store pickup at Sears too.

Here’s an example of purchases I made last year through the Northwest Airlines Worldperks program (sadly defunct now, with the Delta merger…DL has similar online retailer shopping program – Skymiles Shopping).

Back to School Promotion July thru Sept. – gave double miles on all retailers.

Apple Computers regular 2 miles per dollar, now 4 miles per dollar during the promotion, plus extra 1 mile per dollar if charged to NW Worldperks Visa.  That’s 5 miles per dollar spent.  It was time to buy our daughter her long awaited iMac computer, so with software included, it was $2,000 (she earned over half the money herself winning spelling bee competitions).  Ordered online through Apple (but entering their site from the NWA launch page), we earned 10,000 miles for this one purchase alone.  Same double miles on Old Navy, iTunes, Petsmart, Best Buy and hundreds of other retailers. 

Speaking of iTunes, we never download iTunes directly.  We purchase iTunes gift cards through the airline shopping sites, then email the iTunes gift card instantly to ourselves to redeem online. 

You see what I mean, it adds up faster than you think.  Just think smart, plan ahead, and don’t buy anything until you check your airline’s online shopping program.  Combined with the 25,000 miles you receive for opening a credit card, and you’ll be on your way to Paris by the end of the year!

AA’s current redemption level for US to Europe round trip ticket is 40,000 miles for travel in low season, and 60,000 miles for peak season.  See what I mean by savings in the off-season? 

All material is current at time of publication, but subject to change at any time.  Please check directly with sources mentioned to obtain most current information.


TGV – France Train Tips – Riding the Rails in France

tgv[2]France enjoys one of the most modern, extensive, high-speed rail networks in the world.  The renowned Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) network will whisk you across the country in a just a few hours.  And the Eurostar is heaven….central Paris to central London in a mere 2 hours 15 minutes.  Here are some of my top tips for enjoying the trains in France.
1. First things first – If you’re heading out from Paris, know that there are 7 major train stations, plus the Charles de Gaulle airport station, each serving a different region, based on proximity.  Know where you’re headed.

Gare du Nord – Paris’ busiest train station, with Eurostar to London; also Belgium, Netherlands, Northern Germany

Gare de l’Est Eastern France, Austria, Germany, German-speaking part of Switzerland
Gare du Lyon – Central and south-east France, French Riviera, French speaking part of Switzerland, Italy and connecting service into Spain through Montpellier

Gare Montparnasse – Western and south-western France (southern Normandy, Brittany, Pays de la Loire, Tours by TGV, Poitou-Charentes, Aquitaine, Midi-Pyrénées) and north-western Spain.

Gare d’Austerlitz – South Central France, Toulouse and Pyrenees; night trains to south of France and Spain

Gare du Bercy – near Gare du Lyon, provides service for overnight trains to Italy:  Florence, Milan, Rome, Venice

Charles de Gaulle – Gare Aeroport CDG – most convenient if you are flying in and making an immediate connection – you may not have to transfer to central Paris at all.  Travel directly from the airport via high speed TGV to Avignon, Brussels, Lille, Lyon and Nice.

Gare St. Lazare – serves Normandy, including Caen, Vernon, Le Havre, Cherbourg, Deauville, Lisieux

 Detailed practical information on each station can be found here at Rail Europe’s Paris station pages

 2. Travel like a local – Second class travel is just fine, and you’ll meet more Europeans that way.  Who wants to be upfront with the business travelers?

 3. Tickets – Don’t count on purchasing your ticket at the train station kiosks.  Most accept only European credit cards that have a chip which U.S. issued cards don’t have.  Purchase your France rail pass before you leave home, or purchase point to point tickets at the train station office. Check with a travel agent or Rail Europe for details on the many great options. France rail passes are offered for 3-9 days of travel.  If you plan to travel only 1 or 2 days, you’ll want point-to-point tickets.  Also, if you have a short-haul trip in mind, it may be more cost effective to purchase a point-to-point ticket for that leg, and save your Rail Pass day for a longer, more expensive journey.  Click here for the SNCF website in English, which has point to point schedules and prices. 

 4. Reservations – Eurail and France pass travelers, be aware that the high speed TGV trains and night trains ALWAYS require advance reservations, payment of a nominal fee, and space may be capacity controlled.  Reserve your train early to ensure your place, especially at peak travel times.  When I arrive in one station, I usually visit the ticket window before I leave to make reservations for the next leg of the journey.  You can also make reservations in advance from your travel agent from whom you purchased your pass, or directly on Rail Europe’s reservation page.

 5. Dining – Most French trains of any distance have an informal dining car, with drinks and snacks, and some even offer kids meals in a cute plastic zip container.  Convenience can be pricey though.  Take a tip from the locals and pick up a fresh baguette, some local cheeses, fresh fruit and beverage of choice before you head to the station, and enjoy your picnic onboard.  Many train stations also have surprisingly good patisseries – yum! – and sell sandwiches to go (emporter).

6. Travel light – Chances are you’ll be lifting all the bags onto and off of the train by yourself.  Most trains have overhead shelves to store smaller items.  Storage areas for larger bags are at the ends of the cars, where you may not be able to keep an eye on your belongings.  If you’re concerned about theft, bring along a bicycle-type lock to secure bags to the storage shelves.

7. Be alert – Like any major gathering place in the world, train stations have their share of pickpockets.  Carry cash, credit cards and passports in a money belt, and keep a watchful eye on your bags. 

8. Right Place at the Right Time – Note the platform your train will be leaving from and arrive early.  You may need to traverse up and down several flights of stairs to reach your platform, so again, travel light..bring only what you can comfortably carry yourself.  Most platforms have an electronic (or manual) board noting the composition of the trains, i.e. first class and second class cars.  Position yourself accordingly on the platform while you wait for the incoming train.   Each car will be marked with a 1 or a 2, indicating whether it’s first or second class.  Stations stops can be brief, and they don’t wait for you, so be ready to board.  Likewise, be alert as to when it’s time to get off.  Know the names of the stations that are several stops prior to your stop, so you can begin to collect your belongings and position yourself towards the exit doors.

9. Onboard bathrooms – Okay, maybe not the most glamorous, but serviceable.  Most cannot be used while the train is in the station (I won’t go into detail here), and the water is usually non-potable.  Traveling with your own hand sanitizer and small pack of tissues is always a good idea.

10.  Eurostar – I saved the best for last.  You really can’t beat the convenience and modern amenities.  Easy to see why high speed Eurostar service under the Chunnel beats air travel – no checked bag fees, no long security wait lines, no 2 hour advance check in.  It’s a breeze traveling from Paris’ Gare du Nord station to London’s bright new St. Pancras station. St. Pancras is almost a destination within itself with shops, restaurants, bars, and Europe’s longest champagne bar.  For the best insider tips on traveling Eurostar, check out frequent Eurostar traveler’s Paris Perfect blog post for excellent suggestions, including which cars are most convenient.

Mont St. Michel – Returns to the Sea

Mont_Saint_Michel_bordercropped[1]It rises like a mirage on the horizon. Thirteen hundred years of history…..of faith…of contemplation and prayer. An act of faith and obedience.

Mont_St._Michel_Spire[1]Mont St. Michel began as a modest church in the year 708, after St. Michael appeared to the  bishop of Avranches in a dream, and instructed him to build a church on top of the rock.  In 966, the Duke of Normandy gifted the island to the Benedictines, who expanded the Abbey over the centuries .  Today, the entire island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site,  and you’ll see St. Michael in gold, atop the tallest spire, slaying a dragon…to symbolize the constant struggle between good and evil.

Mont St. Michel is the most visited attraction in France outside of Paris, attracting over 3 million visitors per year.  Besucher_in_Mont_St_Michel[1]Most are day trippers who make their way across the causeway, up the narrow steep street, past the gauntlet of tacky souvenir shops and astronomically priced omelets.  We would have loved to stop at Mere Poulards for the incredibly fluffy omelet, but no way we  could justify 100 euros for scrambled eggs. Keep going past, and a thousand steps up…up…further up.

Once inside the Abbey, marvel at the beautiful stonework, the  columns and arches, a mix of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. P1010076


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D-Day, June 6, 1944- France Will Never Forget

2011 marks the 67th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy, which was the major turning point of WWII in Europe.  Early in the morning of June 6, 1944, the largest military operation in history began as 135,000 Allied soldiers landed on the beaches of Normandy, to begin the liberation of Europe, and change the course of history.  The Normandy invasion was a true international alliance, with troops from Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the U.S.

Allied Forces disembark from amphibous Ducks

Allied Forces disembark from amphibious landing craft LCVP. Photo by Robert F. Sargent, US Coast Guard, provided by USCG Collection in US National Archives.

France will never forget the sacrifice of Allied soldiers who came to free them from Nazi occupation on D-Day, and each year, French residents of Normandy host numerous commemorative events to mark this historic date (scroll down for amazing video – I cry everytime I watch it). Normandy pulled out all the stops in 2009 to honor and remember the “Greatest Generation”, as many recognized this could be the last major milestone for veterans to re-visit the site.  However, there are always commemorations every year to remember the extreme sacrifice.

One of the many things I love about the French, they are great “preservers” of history, with such dignity and reverence.  Standing on Omaha Beach, or seeing the German cannons still embedded in Longue-sur-Mer, and the cliffs and bomb craters at Point du Hoc, you feel the years slip away, and imagine what it was like for these brave young boys, so far from home, and so cognizant of the imminent danger all around them.

These are some of my favorite photos of the region:

U.S. troops were met by German cannons embedded in the heavily fortified cement bunkers at Longues-sur-Mer

Allied troops were met by German cannons embedded in the heavily fortified cement bunkers at Longues-sur-Mer

Cliffs at Point du Hoc, where U.S. Army Rangers 2nd Battalion used fireman’s ladders and grappling hooks to invade the German stronghold.  Two-thirds of the Rangers perished in the assault.

Cliffs at Point du Hoc, where U.S. Army Rangers 2nd Battalion used fireman’s ladders and grappling hooks to invade the German stronghold. Two-thirds of the Rangers perished in the assault.

Bomb craters at Pointe du Hoc

Bomb craters at Pointe du Hoc

American cemetery at Colleville sur MerOmaha cemetery 1

American Cemetery at Colleville sur Mer...9,387 simple white marble crosses and Stars of David mark the final resting place of the brave men and women who lost their lives in the conflict.

American Cemetery at Colleville sur Mer...9,387 simple white marble crosses and Stars of David mark the final resting place of the brave men and women who lost their lives in the conflict.

Unfortunately, American troops suffered the largest casualties, because of their landing position on Omaha beach.

Caen Peace Memorial, extremely well done museum documenting conflicts throughout the 20th century.

As a tribute to peace, this sculpture says it all.

As a tribute to peace, this sculpture says it all.

Non-profit group “The French Will Never Forget” organized an extraordinary gathering of 2,500 people on Omaha Beach, July 4, 2007, to commemorate D-Day.  The crowd formed on the sand the letters of the phrase: “FRANCE WILL NEVER FORGET”, aimed at honoring the fallen American heroes who sacrificed their lives to liberate France from Nazi occupation. OMAHA_BEACH_2007_PHOTO

“Our goal is, once again, to demonstrate the deep respect and gratitude of the people of France, for their recovered freedom thanks to America’s extreme sacrifices during the Second World War and which no one can, or will ever forget.” declared the co-founders of the organization. Click here to watch the incredible video of the event.

Here is the link to the Normandy Tourism Office, and where you will find a schedule of events and all the “must see” sights in Normandy.
There are so many sites to tour here in Normandy, I would allow a full day for the D-Day sights, one day for Bayeux, plus a 3rd day to take in the magnificent Mont St. Michel.  You could do the D-Day visit on your own, but I strongly recommend choosing either a full day or half-day guided tour by one of several reputable companies, in order to fully appreciate the history and importance.  Rick Steves site describes the Caen Peace Memorial, and mentions several of the top tour companies (sidebar), so choose your tour, and reserve in advance.
To understand the historical perspective of D-Day, and help set the tone, go rent The Longest Day, and Saving Private Ryan.  Sobering…..sad……but essential to remember the past, and honor those who served.

Great Day Trips From Paris – Versailles

My last of 3 great day trips to recommend is the magnificent Chateau of Versailles
Originally constructed as a modest hunting lodge by Louis XIII in 1624, the Chateau was expanded and transformed over the next 50 years to become what is arguably the most extravagant palace in Europe, if not the world.  The Chateau became the official seat of the French monarchy when Louis the XIV moved the court from Paris to Versailles in 1682, and remained in use until the French Revolution in 1789 when Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were “escorted” back to Paris. 

Set amid 1800 acres of elaborate gardens and parklands, the Chateau has over 700 rooms, 1,250 fireplaces, 67 staircases and 2,000 windows, with the most elaborate furnishings, sculptures, tapestries and artwork of the time.  The renowned Hall or Mirrors, or Galerie des Glaces recently completed an extensive 3 year, 19 million Euro renovation. 
Two-thirds of the 357 mirrors were cleaned and restored, and those that could not be restored were replaced with antique substitutes.   In addition, the incredible ceiling artwork of Charles le Brun has been painstakingly hand-cleaned by forty restorers who worked full time for 18 months to return the canvases to their original state. 

Also on the Domain of Versailles you will find the Grand Trianon, which was used by the king as a retreat when he wanted to get away from the formality and demands of the royal court….sort of a “staycation” you might say.  You can also visit the Petit Trianon, which was originally built by order of Louis XV for his long-time paramour, Madame de Pompadour.  Sadly, she died before its completion, so Madame du Barry, her replacement, set up residence there.  When young Louis XVI ascended to the throne in 1774, he gave the Petit Trianon to his 19 year old Queen Marie Antoinette. 

 There is so much more to see here that I won’t go into every detail, but I’d be remiss if I did not mention the unbelievable, extravagant gardens. 
Marathoniano Fountains
On weekends in summer you can pay an extra fee to attend the Grandes Eaux Musicales, famous fountain show….like Bellagio fountains without the computerization. 

My best advice is to check the official website for opening times and prices, as they vary for each building and by season.  And you can count on temporary closings for some portions due to ongoing renovations.  But you won’t be disappointed….there is more than enough to occupy a full day.  You can purchase tickets online in advance and print them out before you leave home.  Or the general admission is covered in the Paris Museum Pass.  And the facilities for tourists are just as extensive as the grounds themselves.  Audio self-guided tours, guided escorted tours, mini-trains, electric carts, segway tours, bicycle tours, restaurants, snack bars, and the obligatory gift shops….a veritable Disneyland.  Yes, of course it’s crowded, but you can’t leave without seeing it.  So just go!

 While I am not a proponent of capital punishment, after spending time at Versailles, it’s not hard to understand why the French invented the guillotine.

 Getting there:

Versailles is located about 14 miles southwest of Paris.  From central Paris take the RER Line C5 in the direction of Versailles Rive Gauche Chateau (avoid the Versailles-Chantiers station as it’s not as convenient).  Get off the train, walk straight out the station doors.  Cross the street in front of you, turn right and walk about 2 blocks, then turn left and continue straight about 3 more blocks.  You’ll run right into the palace main gates.  You can’t miss it!  Or just follow the crowds.  If you want more detailed instructions on taking the train, I like this blog post   Round trip ticket should be around 6 Euro.


Great Day Trips From Paris – Reims – Champagne

3-glasses-of-champagne-and-me-compressedAnother great day trip, head off to explore the magnificent champagne region of France. With France’s highly efficient TGV fast trains, you can visit Reims (rhymes with sconce) in a comfortable day trip from Paris. With a population of 200,000, Reims is known as the City of Champagne, for the 155 miles of underground chalky caves criss-crossing beneath the city, which provide the perfect temperature and humidity for storage of the golden bubbly. And while most of the world’s leading Champagne houses are based here, there is more to see than just champagne.
From the train station, it’s about a 15 minute walk to the famous Cathedral de Notre Dame, where 26 kings of France were coronated. Admire the amazing Gothic architecture. Built in the 13th century, it was badly damaged in WWI, rebuilt in 1938, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The cathedral also displays amazing stained glass windows by famous Russian post-impressionist Marc Chagall.

is also famous for being the place where WWII officially ended. Musée de la Reddition (Surrender Museum) at
12, rue Franklin Roosevelt 51 100 REIMS, is the site of the former war room of Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower, where Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally on May 7, 1945. The former school building has been declared an historical monument, and you can tour the war room, and view the strategic war maps still on the walls. NOTE: The museum has been closed for renovations, and is scheduled to re-open Spring 2009. Check their website or call for re-opening dates.

piper-heidsieck-train-compressedIf you’re not into history, then just take a taxi from the train station straight over to Piper Heidsieck. (51 Boulevard Henry Vasnier). This is Disneyland for champagne lovers. Board the automated champagne train for a 15 minute tour which explains the whole process of growing, harvesting, blending and aging the fine bubbly. D
isplay near the end of famous movies where champagne featured prominently. (Play it again, Sam….of Casablanca fame).


Be sure to stop in the tasting room at the end. You will taste three varieties of the beautiful bubbly, served with a variety of macarons.
(Update – Sadly, Piper Heidsieck has closed their lovely cave in Reims, and moved farther out into the vinyards, so no more champagne train! Sorry!!)

From Piper Heidsieck it’s a short walk over to Taittinger. (9, Place Saint-Nicaise). They offer 1 hour guided walking tours. A gracious interpreter leads you down into the chalky limestone caves and explains the aging and fermentation process, the riddling rack, etc. The caves are quite impressive. You’ll see a museum-like photo display of famous celebrities, and dignitaries enjoying Taittingier throughout the last century. Once again, at the end, you’ll be escorted into a tasting room to sample several vintages. There is a nominal fee for this tour.

Getting there:
From Gare de L’Est there are several TGV trains in the morning, and several retuning in the early evening. 62 Euros is the current unrestricted 2nd class fare, but you may find cheaper tickets if you book in advance. TGV trains ALWAYS require advance reservations. Click
here for the English website for France SNCF train schedules:

Here’s a map of the route. I would probably walk from the train station (A) to the Cathedral (B), then taxi to Piper Heidsieck(C), walk to Taitinger (D), taxi to Musee de la Reddition (E), and then walk back to the train station (A). It’s a full day, but a great one!

Great Day Trips from Paris-Monet’s Gardens at Giverny

If you’re going to be in Paris more than a few days, take advantage of the great public transportation system and venture out to see some of the glorious sights nearby.  I’ll be highlighting 3 of my favorite day trips from Paris in the next few weeks.   You can do all 3 of these excursions via organized tour companies…..but if you like scheduling your own day, and saving money, don’t be afraid to venture out on your own.  Let’s start with Claude Monet’s glorious home and gardens at Giverny. 
Monet’s gardens are one of the most visited attractions, and no wonder why.  This famous leader of the Impressionist movement retired to Giverny and made his home here from 1883 until the time of his death in 1926.  He spent many years planning and planting his famous gardens.  You have seen pictures of them many times…..even if you have never been there.  Monet created his beloved water lily paintings here….dredging the pond, building the Japanese footbridge, framed by weeping willows and wisteria, and planting a riot of colorful blooms, designed to flower all through the growing season.  Rose arbors, delphiniums, spring bulbs.  But Monet was captivated by the water lilies, capturing them in different lights and changing seasons, from many perspectives….close up to far away.

Entrance fee to Monet’s house and gardens is 6 euros for adults, discounts for children and seniors.  Open April 1 – Oct. 31. 

Flowering calendar explains what’s in bloom every month.



Getting There

Take an early train from Paris Gare St. Lazare to Vernon.  Cost is approx 24 Euro round trip, and direct trains make the trip in about 45 minutes.  Here is the English website for France SNCF train schedules:


Public buses depart Vernon train station about 15 minutes after the train arrives.  The short bus ride from Vernon to Giverny is about 2.5 miles, and costs about 3 Euros round trip.     

Try to arrive early, before the hoards of tour buses disgorge their day-trippers. 


Organized bus or mini-van tours are available from Paris through Paris Visions, ranging from 70-89 Euros.,226-visit-giverny-monet-house-and-gardens.htm


For something delightfully different, try Fat Tire Bike Tours.  For 65 Euros, you receive round trip train transportation Paris to Vernon, a guided bike tour from Vernon to Giverny, picnic lunch along the Seine, entrance to Monet’s house and gardens, and a visit to his gravesite.  It’s an easy 6.5 mile round trip bike ride.

Be sure your camera is fully charged and has plenty of storage memory, as you’ll need the space to capture the beautiful surroundings.