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Paris for Free (or somewhere near there)

Contrary to popular belief, not all Parisians are rich. After all, we have some hefty taxes to pay, which leaves very little for throwing around indiscriminately. And considering the weak dollar and high air-fares (unless you’re flying coach with five stop-overs…ouch) most visitors don’t have money to waste, either. So here’s a bit of advice from a starving writer on how to thoroughly enjoy Paris even if you’re a pauper.

Sleeping is the biggest concern after air-fare. Nothing is worse than coming back to a dingy, charmless hotel with no elevator or air-conditioning after a hard day’s sightseeing…except maybe spending extra for a “nicer” hotel only to find that the elevator is broken, the air-conditioner isn’t in your room, and the staff are downright rude. You’ve got to make a decision to either “go budget” and deal with the minimum facilities (a private room with a bathroom and a door that locks in a decent neighborhood), or do a bit of research to find a nicer place that isn’t a rip-off. I’m always amazed at how many €250/night hotels are actually worse than €100/night ones!

The Low-Budget Option
Youth hostels are your first option, and there are quite a few in Paris. For those who are actually under 30, the nicest are in the Marais, Les Maisons Internationales de la Jeunesse et des Etudiants, MIJE.com. Those over 30 can try others with more relaxed rules, such as the Peace & Love (near Gare du Nord), Paris-hostels.com or the Young & Happy (Latin Quarter), youngandhappy.fr. If you’re really cheap you can camp in the Bois de Boulogne on the western edge of Paris, €18-25 to pitch a tent, or rent a little chalet/mobile home for a group: http://www.mobilhome-paris.com. Super cheap hotels can be found for under €50/night, many don’t have phones or toilets in the rooms (down the hall with the showers). I usually find these by simply walking by and seeing the rates posted in the window of non-descript hotels. The tourism office can help you find these as well, but only on the day of arrival (i.e.: just show up in the tourism office behind the Opera or in the commercial center under the Louvre, and they charge €5 to book you a room in your price range): parisbienvenue.com. Eurocheapo has been my favorite for a long time (eurocheapo.com). They list a lot of classic dives with plenty of personality that they’ve checked out themselves. Which brings me to an aside: soooooo many websites with hotel reviews are all copied from a central database, and offer visitors no real honest info. The only site besides Eurocheapo that reviews hotels is Tripadvisor.com, which I think is a great resource no matter what hotel you’re staying in (and be sure to fill out your own evaluation afterwards).

Some people who want to cook for themselves may prefer to rent an apartment. This can be very good, or just as expensive as a hotel. Try to avoid agencies that charge a membership fee or huge commission. The ones listed on the Paris Tourism Office site are legal (you’d be surprised how many are operated from another country, leaving you helpless if they rip you off). Try Paris Furnished Apartments or check the FUSAC to read through ads by the owners direct. Another option if you live somewhere cool (San Francisco, NY, Miami) is to trade with a Parisian. HomeExchange is one of the larger websites, but there are a lot of them out there if you Google. Finally, if you’re a people person, check out the B&B; option with Alcove & Agapes .

Nicer Hotel Option
If you’ve got €150-250 to blow on a hotel room, why not get the best room in a less expensive hotel, or go for the smallest room in a luxury palace hotel? Just today I found a summer internet rate of €150 for a double at the Hotel Westminster, a posh hotel I adore right off the Place Vendome with rack rates up in the €350-450 range. And that was on their own website! Other sites with great rates include RatestoGo.com (€4 booking fee) and Paris Hotels (guarantees lowest rate and no fee). A word of warning: if you pay the cheap rate, you WILL get the worst room, which is only fair. So plan on spending as much time as possible in the lovely lobby, in the gym, the rooftop pool, nursing a café in the hotel brasserie, or filling up on peanuts at the bar (a Coke at the Hotel Meurice “Bar Fontainebleau” will set you back almost $8, so live it up). Oh, and leave room in your suitcase for the complementary toiletries.

If you’re wondering whether a hotel is really worth the price or not, do check out the TripAdvisor.com site to get some public opinion, and see if the hotel is listed on Paris By, which has good listing info with photos and location details. Guidebooks can be useful if they’re written by locals (Time Out Guide to Paris, Eyewitness Guide, Michelin Guide, Avant Guide, and my own Paris & Ile-de-France Adventure Guide when it comes out next month).

Finally, a word of advice: make friends in Paris. Then the next time you visit you’ll have somewhere to stay for free. 😉

This article is one of the 78 original “Secrets of Paris” articles published between September 1999 and July 2004. After disappearing into the internet graveyard for almost 15 years, I’ve republished them in autumn 2019 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Secrets of Paris: “1999-2019: Twenty Years of the Secrets of Paris” Broken and dead links have been updated or deactivated, but otherwise the article remains unchanged. 

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