The thing about traveling on a big vacation is to do enough planning ahead so that you’ve got a little structure and don’t miss the Coolest Stuff but leave yourself flexibility and enough playtime so that it doesn’t become a Death March. So I looked for tour places that had excellent reviews and contacted them about doing reviews for KidsOutAndAbout, I tried to figure out what activities required advanced tickets or would have the longest lines, and I pondered what was open when and where. We went to Paris with a tentative plan, which we sometimes followed and sometimes didn’t. That’s why I try to tell you what our original plan was and what we actually did.
I mentioned some of the books that I read to get ready in a previous post, but here are a few other things we did to plan our trip.
I made a personalized Google map.
My KidsOutAndAbout colleague taught me how to do this, and it’s one of my new favorite things to do. This would work for you on a vacation just about anywhere. You could also create a “Family Map” with things like the location of your kids’ activities and doctors and schools and such to make it easier for spouses/relatives/babysitters to navigate. Here’s how to create a customized Google map:
- Go to google.com/mymaps and click “Create a New Map.”
- It will be an untitled map. Click on “Untitled Map” to give it a title.
- In the Search box, type in a location. It’s likely that the destination itself will pop up. Click “Add to Map.”
- You’ll see some options. Choose the spilling-out cup of paint to choose a color and icon. You can also click on the little pencil to change the name of the location if you’d like or add some notes. I added things like links to Yelp or why I thought the spots were worth a visit.
- Once you’re done, you can choose to share the map with specific people if you’d like.
Putting things on the map helped me figure out which restaurants were near our apartment or which monuments were closer to each other. It also helped me feel a little more organized about random notes, like that store I’d read about in an article. The bummer was that my phone basically didn’t function roaming; I would have used it more if I’d had access as we were walking around.
We purchased a Paris Museum Pass once we’d arrived in town.
This is not to be confused with the Paris Pass, another tourist option. The big perk with each of these is that you eliminate the hassle of ticket-buying at a bunch of different locations. It doesn’t work for everything: the Eiffel Tower isn’t included on either. And it doesn’t entirely eliminate lines, because most places have a separate line for security as well as the ticket line. But it reduces the line-waiting and accompanying stress/hassle significantly. You can potentially turn these into money-savers, but that requires some ambition. The Paris Museum Pass is significantly less expensive (per prices May 2017):
That’s because the Paris Pass includes the Paris Museum Pass as well as a day of a hop-on, hop-off bus tour, a boat tour, and a Paris Visite Metro card, which offers unlimited use of the subway in Paris. But we’re not really bus-tour, boat-tour kind of people, and the Paris Visite card totally didn’t feel “worth it” to us, because we figured we’d prefer to walk or bike when possible (more on that later). A Paris Visite pass is 12,85€ for a single day, while a single Metro trip costs 1,90€. At that rate it seems like you’d have to be pretty much be criss-crossing the city underground all day to make the pass worth it, so we bought a couple of carnets (a carnet is a 10-pack of tickets for 14,5€) and used them all over the course of the week.
We bought two 6-day Paris Museum Passes–museums are pretty much all free for the kids–and it ended up being a money-saver and a time-saver for us. The pass gave us entry into:
- L’Orangerie 9€
- Arc de Triomphe 8€
- St. Chapelle 10€
- Versailles 20€
- Louvre 17€
- Musee d’Orsay 12€
- Towers of Notre Dame 10€
Added together, they would have cost 86€, and we’d bought our passes for 74€. But, honestly, even if we’d ended up visiting fewer museums and losing a bit of money, the convenience factor would have been worth it for us.
We employed some Line Management Strategies.
We were definitely aware that there would be lines, and we did our best to employ strategies that would mitigate the long lines. To varying degrees of success.
Reputation: Everyone says the lines are really long.
Actual Experience: Guess what? The lines are long.
What We Did: I was lulled into complacency by this Condé Nast Traveler article suggesting that we beat the system by taking the stairs instead of the elevator up to the second floor. In the article, the author says that it was extra fun on the stairs because you could stop and take in the views any time. Then, weeks later, I was reviewing the Rick Steves book in which I believe the direct quote I read was something like “you’d have to be crazy” not to book tickets ahead of time. So I had a panic attack, I looked online, and it was too late and we were screwed. We did choose the stairs option, and it was shorter, but in this case “shorter” was almost an hour. As for the fun of stopping along the way, you have the option of taking the stairs down, too, and that would have been just as–nay, more–fun, I think.
What I’d Suggest: I’d look online and purchase tickets way in advance. There are also “Skip the Line” tours, but many are expensive and, in my opinion, this is not the best attraction for splurging on getting expert guidance.
Reputation: Not only does everyone say that the lines are long, but one of the most common images you’ll see is the big, long line of tourists outside of the Pyramid entrance of the Louvre.
Actual Experience: We had no line at all. Not at all.
What We Did: In this case, we had a power combination. First, we had the Museum Pass, so we didn’t need to purchase tickets. Second, we arrived at the Louvre fairly late in the afternoon (it’s open until 9:45 pm on Wednesdays and Fridays). Third, we entered via the underground mall entrance called the Carousel entrance. We took the Metro to the Louvre and just followed the signs.
What I’d Suggest: Well, our method totally worked. So, you know: you could use all three tactics or even one or two would probably help.
Reputation: The lines are long.
Actual Experience: We saw some huge lines, but we visited as part of a “Skip the Lines” tour, so we avoided them almost entirely.
What We Did: Our tour guide had an appointment, we showed up on time for the appointment, and in spite of some other very aggressive other tour groups, we got in quickly.
What I’d Suggest: We really enjoyed our tour, and I’d recommend it. Click here for my KidsOutAndAbout review. If you don’t want to do a guided tour, I’d probably try to go line up before it opens. Then, once you’ve visited the main palace, which is the most crowded part, you can relax a little to explore the rest of the gardens and grounds.
Reputation: The lines are really long.
Actual Experience: The lines were super-long and also slow-moving. There are two lines: the people who purchased tickets online ahead of time, and the people who just showed up.
What We Did: We bought our tickets online ahead of time, and these entitled us to enter during a particular time frame (I believe it was 10 am until noon). We showed up a few minutes before the Catacombs opened at 10 am, and there were already a ton of people waiting. We got to go into the shorter line, but because it’s a tight space, they limit the number of people who can enter, and we probably waited for about half an hour.
What I’d Suggest: Definitely purchase your tickets online ahead, and request the first available time slot for the day. Then buy coffee and pain au chocolat on the way and eat your breakfast while you wait.
Reputation: What reputation? I think most people only think of visiting inside the main cathedral.
Actual Experience: You’ll see two lines when you approach Notre Dame. There’s a huge, quickly-moving line in the middle of the square in front of the cathedral that leads to the front door. You’re likely to only wait a few minutes until you can pass through security and get into the sanctuary. Then there’s a shorter line along the side of the cathedral that’s at a virtual standstill, and that’s the line to get into the Towers of Notre Dame.
What We Did: The towers open at 10 am, and we arrived around the time they opened to find a fairly substantial line already. We had the Museum Pass, but that didn’t really help us at all here. You’re waiting to get access to the towers, and that means confined spaces and winding stairs. They let a small group proceed up into the cathedral, you climb a few stairs up to a little gift shop where people who need to purchase tickets do so, and then, after a brief delay, the whole group is allowed to proceed up higher in the towers. This was our single longest wait: about an hour and a half to get in.
What I’d Suggest: Even though this was our longest wait, climbing the Towers of Notre Dame was totally and completely worth it. The space was super-cool and the views were my favorite of our whole trip. If I were to go again, I’d book the Notre Dame and Saint Chapelle tour by Blue Fox Travel. I like the tour guides, it’s a skip-the-line tour, and ecclesiastical buildings are just jam-packed with symbolism that you miss if you don’t know to look for it. If you don’t want to spend the money on a group tour, I’d plan to arrive super-early and have coffee and breakfast right by the cathedral, either bringing a picnic from a bakery or settling in at one of the nearby cafés. Then you can start lining up whenever you see the first people arrive. The good thing about this line is that it’s in the middle of all the tourist stuff, so for the most part, Cute W and I stayed in line while we let the girls look at souvenir shops and walk over to the Seine on their own. So even though we were in line for a long time, the girls were able to have some fun adventure time on their own.