...this was the question posed by one of us (can't remember who) on our 14 hour car trip from Durham, NC to Benton, AR as we trekked home for the holidays. We have a 5 week break from school and we were trying to strategize the best way to use it. Of course we first chose to visit with friends and family and we will be doing some house hunting for our move in May when we return to the states but we wanted to do something fun.
We did some in depth research on our iPhones primarily using Kayak (I highly recommend this website and app) browsing places we could go this time of year that would be fun. The obvious warm-weather choices are quite popular this time of year an VERY expensive and many trips we could've taken state-side had pricy airfare. What began as a total joke quickly became a reality as we found well-priced airfare, an available apartment from a family friend and a little more than a week that was free on our calendar. Paris it would be!
Since we booked our tickets a whole 2 weeks ahead of time we didn't have a ton of time to schedule our days and prepare for the trip as we were also very busy seeing family and taking a little road trip from Benton, AR to Memphis, TN to Birmingham, AL and back again. Packing, scheduling and other preparation all happened in about 48 hours. We had a long chat with Russell's dad. He gave us a quick overview of Paris history, architecture, landmarks, tourist attractions, and the layout of the city. I had a great chat with my cousin Sherri who had tons of recommendations for restaurants, things to see and things to skip and handy travel tips to keep us efficient and safe on our trip.
The Friday before we left on Saturday was spent hurriedly packing and trying to figure out the best way to spend money in France. This was quite the process and has ultimately proved to be the most frustrating aspect of the trip. We have only traveled out of the country together once (to Fiji- you can read those blog posts here) and everything was pretty much paid for in advance so we didn't have to worry about credit card charges. In Paris, we paid for nothing in advance so each time we swipe a card it's a 3% fee- yuck. Our goal was to get away from getting any transaction fees so here's what we found:
Our first thought was to get Travelers Checks. We would just exchange them like cash without a problem or use them in stores that took travelers checks. We thought we'd be able to buy them with our American Express, get credit card points for purchasing them and we'd have no change over fee once we got to Paris. Well, that didn't work because you pay about a 3% purchasing fee when you get travelers checks.
A great suggestion was to get a Visa money card (gift card) which you may be able to get at your bank. You can put money on these cards for no additional fee. The card can be used just like a credit card! Most places in Paris take Visa and Mastercard and NOONE wants your AMEX. Unfortunately, our bank (Bank of America) doesn't have these gift cards so we would have to get them at a different bank that did not have our banking business. Since you have to guarantee the money, we could not purchase them from a credit card without a cash advance (4% fee and very low limit...got to love being students), or a check for the total amount (the way we do bank accounts, we would've had to transfer money over to one account and the money would not have been available in time for our trip).
What we chose to do was to just take a smaller amount of cash out of our account and change it over once we got to Paris because everyone we talked to and everything we read said we'd get a much better exchange rate once we got there. We'd just use our credit card for other purchases since 3% transaction fees seem to be the best option for us. Stay tuned for the rest of this money story...
On to packing...it's hard to pack for a trip when you only have access to what you packed for the original trip. Luckily, I packed our warm coats just in case (like it was going to get cold in AR). I did a great job fitting 8 days worth of cold weather clothes into 2 carry on roller bags and 1 checked suitcase. Packing took about 3 hours and 2 trips to Target. I'd say I could probably be a professional vacation packer so let me know if you are in need of my services.
Finally, we had to plan the trip. We knew that if we made no plans we'd get to Paris and do nothing but wander around and eat a lot so we pulled up a spreadsheet (I believe spreadsheets solve all problems) and got to planning. Our schedule looked a little like this:
9:45am arrive in Paris
12:00pm arrive at apartment, unpack and refresh
1:30pm lunch and exploring in the Marais district
3:00pm Centre Pompidou
10:00pm Eiffel Tower
9:30 Champs-Elysses Christmas Market
9:30 Bon Marche
1:30 St. Chapelle
3:30 Notre Dame
5:00 Saine cruise
all day in Versailles
We decided to plan the rest of the trip after we experienced our first few days...stay tuned to see how our schedule is going.
This is it for an introduction! I hope you enjoy the soon-to-come posts about our actual trip!
...and that's all!