We go to Paris for a month every year, but even with that frequency we keep being caught unaware of changes in procedures and travel–beginning with the air travel. A year ago and on previous years, economy class seats were never exactly roomy, but roomier than you would experience on domestic flights. You were at least able to scrunch up with a pillow if you are one of the fortunate people able to sleep on transatlantic flights. It is always an exercise in futility for me, as no matter now much room I’ve had in the past to stretch out, I’ve never been able to sleep on a plane. When we moved to the Denver area, I thought that direct flights to Paris would be abundant and a benefit. That has not been our experience, however, and we have to choose a layover city where we change planes, making the trip from our mountain time zone to Paris a 12+hour flight.
Those seats have hit a record tininess, just this year. The seats are easily as small, if not smaller in some cases, than domestic flights. I am average-sized and feel squeezed in; I can’t imagine how someone larger or taller can possibly manage for all that time. Theoretically, this downsizing in personal space is counter-balanced by upgrading your personal entertainment options. With the seatback screen just inches from your face, you can watch endless movies and television shows—whole series—during your cramped and very long transatlantic flight. I believe I watched no fewer than 6 movies on the way to Europe this time, and probably the same plus several television shows on the way home. To make matters worse, the return flight is always longer by 2-3 hours because of air currents, etc. And gone are the days when an expensive flight to Europe entitled you to good food, even in economy. The major airline on which we traveled served refrigerated and cold breads and tasteless food. There was barely enough room to eat it, anyway.
The last several years have seen a change in the way passengers exit the plane upon their arrival at Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris. Offloading onto a raised bus-like vehicle used to be standard to take you to the immigration area of the airport. For the past several years the plane pulls directly up to a gate at the airport and you offload there. Their customs upon arrival is much the same as it always was. Present your passport and claim your luggage.
Choices for transportation into Paris from the CDG airport have changed to include Metro transit. This is the least expensive way to go, providing you have light enough luggage and good enough stamina after the long flight to cart your luggage up and down the myriad of stairs in virtually every Paris Metro station. And from there, you still must make it to your lodging. Cabs are the easiest, but one of the most expensive, now costing at least $60 plus tip each way. And, unless you are very familiar with the city and the location of your lodging—and have excellent French pronunciation–you should write down the address and even show it on a map. Verbally stressing the wrong letters of an address can change the address to a cabbie’s ear, and land you at the wrong end of town. We always stay in the same apartment, so we are aware when an entrepreneurial cabbie tries to reach it the long way around or circles the area several times.
While I advocate getting money changed prior to your trip, you have to choose where to do this. One year we tried it at our Wells Fargo branch, but found we had to reserve well ahead and go to a somewhat distant branch to accomplish this. You can always do it in the airport when you arrive, but there you will get the worst exchange rates–so it is better to plan ahead. You also have to plan on how to change back any Euros left from your trip when you return. This isn’t always easy, as no bank will take coins, and, again, you get bad exchange rates at the airport.
Last year I got caught with more Euros than I wanted to save for this year’s trip, and found a currency exchange booth in a local mall. Even though it was a rotten exchange rate, I went ahead and changed the currency. They charged a fee on top of the bad exchange rate, but informed me that there is no fee if you change a certain amount with them prior to the trip, then can exchange it with no fee when you return. Being rushed for time before departing this year, I decided to try it at the Park Meadows Mall in Lone Tree, CO. Of course, they hadn’t told the entire story, as their rate of exchange depended on how much currency you changed, and which “package” you selected. Since I was out of time and didn’t want to use the airport, I did it anyway, somewhat satisfied that at least I could exchange back for no fee when I returned. At the end of the transaction, they told me I had to keep track of and present that exact sales slip in order to avoid a fee when I returned. When you go away for a month, keeping track of one small slip is difficult. However, I did, but when I returned to get dollars back for my leftover Euros, the exchange rate was absurd, even though there was no transaction fee. This is NOT the place to change currency!
When in Paris, we prefer to ride the Metro whenever possible, so we used to get their “Carte Orange”, which was a laminated picture ID and special multiple-use Metro ticket designated for use in certain zones within and beyond the city. It was really meant for residents, as it was issued per calendar month. Since it was unlimited, however, it was a good deal for us. This year we were surprised that the Carte Orange no longer existed, and that our picture IDs for that purpose were of no use anymore. Now used exclusively for unlimited travel was the Navigo card. This was also quite expensive, but easily paid for itself in convenience and fares if you traveled by Metro a lot, which we did.
Having to present another photo was supposed to be easy, as their directions were to just go to one of the many quick photo booths in many Metro stations. During the first couple of days, however, we went to several main Metro stations and could not find the quickie photo booths. When we finally did find one, it was broken in some way which required you had to half sit and half stand to try to get it to frame your face correctly—very awkward. We finally presented the photos at a ticket booth and received our Navigo cards, which can be recharged with additional funds when their time period ran out. They were supposed to work by leaving them in your purse or wallet, and just placing that on the Navigo-designated Metro turnstiles, but ours would not work. After waiting in the ticket line a third time, the man came out and used his Navigo to let us through, explaining that sometimes they take “a while” to activate. This happened at a couple more stations before they were working properly, and we found it had to be kept in a very thin coin purse or wallet to have it transmit properly. Definitely go prepared with a passport-sized photo that you have taken at any Walgreen’s before you depart.
One thing we always preferred to do for the safety of our passport was never to carry the original passport on our person for our daily outings. Prior to departing we made good quality color copies, which were accepted at virtually all shops in the city. When asking a shop for a customs “detaxe” form, your passport information is required. When you purchase over about $175 in any given store in one day you are able to request this form to turn in at the airport to receive 12-13% refund on the high VAT taxes paid during the purchase. These passport copies have been acceptable for decades at the shops, from the smallest to the haute couture, with the single exception of Hermes, which always required the actual passport.
This year, however, French law changed to insist that your original passport be presented for detaxe forms in all stores, with the possible exception of larger stores where your passport information is already on record. This made it dicier, having to keep track of your all-important document wherever you went. Losing your passport is definitely a vacation-spoiler.
It took me years to get the detaxe procedure down when departing from France. It was involved, in that you have to have all your purchased goods together and readily accessible and viewable by the customs officials in the detaxe office PRIOR to checking in with your airline and checking your luggage. After they had approved and stamped your 3-part form, you had to separate the sections of each form and mail the correct color-approved copy in the envelope provided by the vendor, while in the Paris airport prior to your flight. This usually meant getting there at least an hour before you would ordinarily arrive for your flight. But considering the money you eventually get back on your credit card IF DONE PROPERLY, it is well worth it. Except, that changed this year. You no longer received a multipart form, and generally didn’t have to even go through the customs officials. All that was required was to scan the bar code on your detaxe form at the airport, then mail their part at the mailbox at that location. This change took a bit of adjusting to, and you have to allow for lines and just finding the detaxe locations, but a few months later you receive large credits back on your credit cards that help balance the financial whallop of your purchases. If you prefer to get cash back at the airport, however, you will get a lower percentage of the tax back.
We did find the security screening to be extra vigilant this year, even for Paris. In past years it is not unusual to see soldiers with machine guns and bullet proof vests patrolling the airport. If you leave a piece of luggage for a minute, you will never see it again, as it will be confiscated and blown up—literally. This year, in addition to those scenarios, there was a very intense security check by the airlines at check-in, then you went to the main security checkpoint where the security was even more thorough, and even another prior to boarding.
In Paris, we found more patrolling at all the expected major landmarks; in fact, it was often difficult to get a good picture without troops patrolling. But, I’d rather feel safe in Paris with such a presence. This was especially true at the Elysees Palace, the president’s dwelling which occupies a large block on rue Faubourg St. Honore. We stay a few blocks from there on St. Honore, and are used to being required to walk on the opposite side of the street from the entrance to the Palais. However, this year, the cordon was extended to the entire very long and large block—all the way around.
One of our favorite ways to get our goodies home if they won’t fit in our luggage is to use the very efficient French La Poste. Their flat rate prepaid boxes are extremely well made, and generally well worth shipping home. It takes usually only about 1-2 weeks to arrive on your doorstep. Getting used to all the US and French customs forms takes a bit of a learning curve, but when you do, and find a convenient La Poste, it is a very easy and efficient way to go. The flat rate Colissimo XL boxes to the US used to be a bargain at about $30. Each year, however, that price has crept up until they are now not so much a bargain, when compared to what your airline charges for extra suitcases or extra weight. This year they cost about $65-$75 for the largest size, making the benefit not so much of a bargain. However, since we go just before the Christmas holidays and buy all our gifts there, shipping them home is a time-saver and saves a lot of lugging and luggage screening for us, so we still do it.
SIM cards for our French cell phones aren’t quite as inexpensive or easy to get as they were in the past. Even though we get international data plans for our iPhones while there, it is far less expensive and more convenient if staying for any length of time to get an inexpensive French cell. They use prepaid SIM cards which used to be available at any tobac store. Now a lot of the cell phone brands are getting proprietary, and you have to get a new SIM each year from their store only. This is not always convenient as it is very time consuming to wait in line. Their Orange stores are busy, and are much like waiting in line at Apple stores here.
That brings up another interesting change—Paris has two new landmarks, giant Apple stores! One is prominently placed in the Carrousel under the Louvre and overlooking the inverted pyramid, and the other is hard to miss near the Opera Garnier. If you purchased your Apple product in the US, you can still make an Apple Genius appointment at one of the Paris Apple stores, but if an equipment replacement is necessary, it can only be accomplished in the country of purchase. We last went to Paris immediately after receiving the iPhone 6 plus, which had several issues at first. I made an Apple Genius appointment in the Carrousel Apple store, and it was, at the very least, an experience. They were of no real help (the standard suggestion to wipe the phone and do a clean install—impossible when out of the country and away from my complete backup tools), but their help is available. It is easier if you speak some French, although you can request someone who speaks some English. But, keep in mind that a lot of the language will be technologically specific, which is a reach for even seasoned French speakers.
One of the biggest and longest lasting structural changes in Paris recently is to the Place Vendome, which, for two years in a row has been a mess of construction. The French are good about erecting nice looking camouflage with information and pictures of the structure, but it looks like it will be a long-term project. The Ritz has been undergoing remodeling for at least two years, and now the obelisk (the Vendome Column) first erected by Napoleon in honor of the battle of Austerlitz, and then torn down by the communes in 1871, is again being reconstructed. Knowing the French penchant for stretching out every form of construction, this is likely to be underway for the foreseeable future.
But probably the best known of the recent changes to Paris landmarks is the so-called Eiffel Tower glass floor. It has been described as “daring” and “dizzying”, but it is really nothing more than small pieces of transparent flooring on the first level. There is nothing daring about it, and if you weren’t looking down, you wouldn’t even realize it was transparent flooring. While it is interesting to see the people standing in line directly below appearing as small dots, there is nothing very remarkable in the pieces of transparent flooring. The areas can be seen from the ground, and look more impressive from that vantage point than they really are. It is nothing like standing on the “glass” precipice overlooking the Grand Canyon, or venturing out on the Plexiglas cubes protruding from Chicago’s former Sears Tower—those are truly daunting! The most interesting view from the Eiffel Tower remains what you see when you ascend on the elevator, and what you see close-up when you descend via the stairs. Try to be there for the sunset over the Seine—lovely.
Love locks have become an unfortunate phenomenon in Paris over the past decade. Where you used to be able to appreciate iconic landmarks used in innumerable films and television shows, such as the lovely Pont des Arts, you now find literally tons of ugly, often oversized and inappropriate locks meant to “assure” that the couple who attaches them will return to Paris if they toss the keys into the Seine. This practice has become quite destructive, and even dangerous. In an effort to preserve the once lovely Pont des Arts, Paris has had to cover the overly heavy lock-laden sections of the pont with large pieces of plywood, which seem to instantly become graffitied, and ultimately ripped off to clamp on even more locks. Some of these locks are more than ugly, bicycle locks and larger are not uncommon. In order to save the bridge from collapse, the city is systematically trying to replace the crippled sections with reinforced Plexiglas, which hopefully will discourage locks. They have initiated a PR campaign aimed at dissuading those who want to reflect their love in Paris to do it in a non-destructive way. Even if you succeed in placing your lock among the thousands there or elsewhere which deface other landmarks, it will be cut off before you return, anyway, so the “legend” won’t be fulfilled. It was shocking to see the how trashed the beautiful Pont des Arts had become in just the one year since we last visited.
Many of the Metro lines have been revamped, but as always, Ligne 1 gets the best treatment. It is comfortable, air-conditioned, has accordion joints between the cars, and perhaps most notable are the new glass structures preventing any access to the tracks. The only doors in the glass walls are those where the Metro doors open. No one accidentally falls on the tracks on ligne 1!
Probably the most surprising thing we found this year was the appearance of goats in the Tuileries Gardens! They are evidently being used as “lawn mowers” for the hard-to-manage trenches lining some of the major walkways near the Louvre and fountains. Since the trenches are deep, the creatures are easy to miss, but a shock to see when you do notice them! They seem to work better than any new-fangled technology solutions.
And finally, our last surprise was re-entering the US through customs. Ever since I can remember, each family is given a re-entry declaration card to be filled out prior to landing and to be handed to the customs official with your passport. On it you itemized the amounts purchased and the things in excess of the allowable limit. This form is no longer used. Upon entry to the US, you simply scan your passport at automated kiosks prior to going through customs, and there declare purchases in total amounts. The customs official then decides if you must pay duty or not. It was actually confusing this first time, having been so accustomed to the age-old declaration US customs forms, but this way really is a lot easier.
And, of course, coming back into the US there is no convenient TSA precheck avoidance of lines. However, leaving the US you can still take advantage of the lack of lines if you have a known traveler number. It is a very worthwhile thing to apply for in the US; it costs $85 and continues for 5 years. The only hitch is if your fingerprints are “difficult” to record, as are mine. While my iPhone opens readily by reading my fingertip ridges, the TSA precheck screening process had a harder time. The initial “appointments” in person are farmed out to third party screeners, and their diligence in getting good digital prints is lacking. Our screener couldn’t stop talking about how he was about to leave for his new exciting job as a telemarketer. While the acceptance process can take as little as 1 week, my poor fingerprints have held mine up for about 4 weeks so far. It has nothing to do with security, as the highest authorities in other states have licensed me. Just the digital fingerprints are hard to read when shriveled by the cold in Colorado!
While the City of Light is eternal, a surprising amount of changes occur every year. Not always for the better, but most are definitely an interesting improvement.