Top 11 Tourist Mistakes in Paris (and how to avoid them)

Paris is always a good option; literally…

Here are listing of 11 of the most common mistakes travelers may fall into while visiting the City of Light

Mistake #1: Here today, gone tomorrow

In 2009, an estimated 14.4 million visitors stayed in Paris hotels, and nearly 8 million of those travelers came from outside France. However, the average hotel stay by a foreigner was only 2.7 nights–which means the typical traveler from abroad had only about two days for sightseeing, dining, shopping, and other activities after subtracting the time needed for arrival and departure.

That’s a shockingly brief amount of time to spend in the world’s most popular tourist city. We recommend staying a minimum of a week, and preferably longer.

By spending a week or more in Paris, you’ll have a chance to become familiar with the city and its neighborhoods. After all, there’s a lot more to Paris than the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

Our advice:

Look for ways to extend your stay in Paris, either by simplifying your travel itinerary (if you’re visiting more than one city) or by postponing your visit until you can devote more than two or three days to the French capital. If you race into town and leave 48 hours later, you’ll almost certainly regret that you didn’t stay longer.

Mistake #2: Arriving in high season

When planning your trip, consider these tourism statistics:

  • The Eiffel Tower attracts some 5.6 million visitors per year.
  • The Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, and Versailles draw another 12 million locals and tourists.
  • Disneyland Paris pulls in another 12 million.

And guess what: A significant percentage of those visitors arrive from June through August. Figures from the Paris Tourism and Convention Office show nearly 2.5 million overnight visits by leisure travelers in July, compared to about 1.75 million per month in shoulder season (April-May, September-October) and barely over a million in January or February.

By arriving out of season and avoiding holiday periods like the week before Easter, you’ll escape long lines at the leading museums and tourist attractions, you’ll find it easier to get tables in restaurants, and you’ll probably pay less for your hotel room or vacation apartment.

Of course, sometimes it’s fun to be in a crowd.

Mistake #3: Staying in the wrong arrondissement

Paris is divided into 20 arrondissements, or districts. From a tourist’s point of view, the most desirable districts are those near the major sights, museums, and attractions. A hotel in the outer reaches of the 12th, 17th, or 20th might offer cheaper rooms than a more centrally-located hostelry, but you’ll pay for your savings by spending more on Métro, RER, or bus tickets.

Even in the central arrondissements (the districts numbered 1 through 9), some locations are less convenient than others. For example:

  • The 7th arrondissementis popular with American tourists, who are drawn by the Eiffel Tower and a clutch of hotels that cater to U.S. travelers and tour groups. However, for overseas visitors arriving from Charles de Gaulle Airport, the 7th is harder to reach by public transportation than the 9th (Roissy bus) or areas of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th that are within walking distance of the RER “B” Line’s Châtelet – Les Halles and St-Michel stations.

Of course, there are times when it makes sense to stay outside the city’s core, if you’re familiar with Paris and have a reason for choosing a less central location. Here’s a case in point:

  • Montmartre(18th arrondissement) and the area of the 10th around the Gare du Nord are a Métro ride or a long walk from the Seine, but they’re extremely convenient for rail travelers who arrive on Eurostar or Thalys. If you’re a British, Belgian, or Dutch tourist who’s coming to Paris for the weekend, you may prefer to book a room within walking distance of the Gare du Nord (read our Montmartre hotels article) and rely on public transportation to reach the sights.

Mistake #4: Commuting from the suburbs

There is always an appeal for consultation from Paris visitors around staying outside the city. Our reply is simple: “Don’t.”

Obviously, there are justifiable exceptions for choosing a hotel in the suburbs:

  • If you plan to spend most of your time at Disneyland Paris, it makes sense to stay in or near the park.
  • If the main reason for your trip is a visit to the Palace of Versailles, it’s reasonable to stay in Versailles.

However, if the primary focus of your trip is Paris, then stay in Paris. You’ll save money on transportation, you’ll avoid unnecessary commuting time, and you’ll still be enjoying the city at night when workers and tourists from the suburbs have gone home.

 Mistake #5: Lugging overloaded bags

“Travel light” is often presented as a moral choice: the traveler’s equivalent of “Don’t smoke” or “Scrape those sausages and eggs off your plate and eat a bowl of Müesli.”

Not being moralists, we prefer to think in terms of convenience. When you’re rolling a lightweight suitcase of carry-on size, you’ll find it much easier to squeeze onto a crowded train or bus from Charles de Gaulle or Orly Airport, and you’ll be grateful for your choice of baggage when you need to climb stairs in the underground station or your hotel.

 Our advice:

  • Travel withone small upright suitcase of carry-on size (even if you check your bag), plus a lightweight tote or backpack. (The bag in the photo is a Size Zero carry-on from Antler, which weighs only 5.3 pounds or 2.4 kg.)
  • To lighten your load, bring clothes that weigh little and are easy to drip-dry. Blue jeans are heavy and bulky, and they can take days to dry in a hotel bathroom. In contrast, lightweight travel trousers, shirts, skirts, and underwear take up little space, are easy to wash, and often will dry overnight.
  • If you insist on hauling a large suitcase, consider one of the new four-wheeled upright bags, which can be turned and rolled sideways for easier maneuvering in train aisles.
  • Contrarians who want big suitcases that perform like SUVs should consider Live Luggage’s over-the-top Hybrid AG bag with powered wheels. (One caveat: The owner may need to call a tow truck if the Hybrid’s battery isn’t fully charged.)

Your bonus for traveling light:

By limiting the number and size of your suitcases, you’ll be less vulnerable to pickpockets, purse-snatchers, and luggage thieves. Here’s why:

  • Less luggage means fewer items to keep track of, and reduced vulnerability to thieves.
  • With a lightweight bag, you’ll be less likely to get distracted in the airport or on public transportation. (When you’re trying to bulldoze a monster three-suiter into a crowded RER train, you probably won’t be thinking about your wallet, purse, or backpack – which means you’ll be the perfect target for a crook who preys on jet-lagged or frazzled tourists.)

 Mistake #6: Sightseeing by the numbers

Most people who come to Paris want to go up the Eiffel Tower, visit Notre Dame Cathedral, walk or take a sightseeing-boat cruise along the Seine, and – if they’re a little more ambitious – head for Montmartre to visit Sacré-Coeur. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, to borrow a phrase from Seinfeld – but don’t let anyone tell you that you’re required to obey the crowd or a canned itinerary.

 Take the Louvre: Many tourists stand in line for tickets, gawk at a few brand-name artworks like the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo, and head for the exit doors in less than an hour.

 If you’re an art aficionado, then the Louvre is definitely worth your time and money – but if you never visit art museums back home in Buffalo or Bristol, why feign an interest in paintings and sculpture just because you’re in Paris? You might be happier exploring the Paris Sewers Museum, getting an aerial view of Paris from at ethered balloon, visiting celebrity graves in Père Lachaise Cemetery, or taking a cruise on the St-Martin Canal.

As for Sacré-Coeur, it’s impressive in a grandiose 19th Century sort of way, but it’s no rival for  Notre Dame Cathedral, and the Métro ride may not be worth your time unless you plan to spend the day (or at least a few hours) enjoying the village atmosphere on the southern slopes of Montmartre.

Practical tip: During high season, waiting lines for the Eiffel Tower’s elevators can be horrendous, but you don’t have to join the clueless mob waiting for the lift: Instead, buy a ticket for the stair entrance and walk up to the first and second levels. The climb isn’t as difficult as you might guess, the price is far cheaper than riding the elevators, and you’ll avoid the endless queue. (Better yet, visit the Eiffel Tower at night, when the crowds are likely to be smaller and you can enjoy the magic of the hourly light show from the viewing platforms.)

 Our advice: In the immortal words of The Mamas & the Papas, “You gotta go where you wanna go, do what you wanna, wanna do.” When sightseeing, follow your own desires and common sense.

 Mistake #7: Booking unnecessary tours

Escorted sightseeing tours have their place. If you’ve got mobility problems or you’re in Paris for only a short time, a guided tour can help you enjoy the city without running short on energy or time.

Tours can also be handy if you want to go outside the city with minimum fuss – to Versailles and Giverny, for example – or if you have a specific interest, such as:

  • Da Vinci Code walking tour,
  • Zipping through Paris by Segway scooter,
  • Riding around the city in vintage Citroën 2CV,
  • Touring by bicycle at night.

However, if all you want to do is see the sights, we recommend buying a good Paris tourist map (we especially like the Blay Foldex Paris par Arrodissement street atlas) and exploring the Paris on foot. You’ll save money, you’ll enjoy your own itinerary at your own pace, and you’ll have more serendipitous encounters than you would in a tour group.

Our tip:

For an occasional break from do-it-yourself sightseeing, try one of the “Meet the Parisians at Work” tours that are co-sponsored by and the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Most of the tours are quite reasonably priced, and they’re a great way to see how Parisian artisans, designers, bakers, chocolatiers, instrument makers, and other craftsmen go about their daily tasks.

Mistake #8: Driving in Paris

If you’re intimidated by the thought of driving in Paris, consider yourself lucky: You’ll save money, time, and stress by taking the Métro or bus and leaving the driving to Gus.

Driving is hard enough if you’re a Parisian who knows the local streets – but if you’re an out-of-towner, having to cope with a road system that incorporates medieval lanes, angled avenues and boulevards, and frequent roundabouts without lane markings will put you, your passengers, your car, and other road occupants at risk.

But avoiding crashes is only half the battle: When you’ve had your fill of Parisian traffic, you’ll need to find a place to park your car. That can be a nuisance, especially if you lose a side mirror or you’re obligated to pay damages to your car-rental firm after you’ve made the mistake of parking on the street. Don’t take our word for it

Mistake #9: Overspending on local transport

Paris is more walkable than many tourists realize: When you stay in Montmartre, it takes only about 40 minutes to reach the Seine on foot, despite having to walk nearly halfway across the city from north to south.

In the heart of Paris, distances are even shorter. For example, the entire length of the Champs-Élysées is only 1.9 km or 1.2 miles, and the distance between two of the city’s top tourist attractions – Notre Dame Cathedral and the Louvre Museum – is considerably less than that. The trek from Notre Dame to the Eiffel Tower is longer (about 2.5 km, or 1.6 miles), but it’s an easy stroll along the Seine unless you have mobility problems or the weather is awful.

The most practical alternatives to walking – the Métro, RER trains, and public buses – aren’t without their disadvantages:

Métro trains run everywhere (no place in Paris is more than 500m from a station), but there’s no logical order to the lines. Getting from Point A to Point B often requires a train change, even if you’re going a relatively short distance. Unless you’re traveling a long way or making a simple journey (along Line 1, for example, which mostly parallels the Seine), it may be faster and easier to walk.

RER trains are quick, and the RER network map is easy to figure out. However, trains run less frequently than Métro trains do, and connections between RER and Métro lines sometimes require long, time-consuming walks underground.

Public buses crisscross the city, but unless you know your landmarks, it can be difficult to know when to get off – especially if the bus is crowded and you have a poor view of your surroundings.

Our advice:

  • If you do plan to use public transportation extensively, theParisVisite travel card may be worth considering. It’s valid for 1, 2, 3, or 5 days, and it covers public transportation in zones 1-3 or zones 1-6, depending on which version you buy. (Zones 1-3 cover the city and its immediate outskirts; zones 1-6 include CDG Airport and suburban destinations such as Disneyland Paris, Versailles, and Fontainebleau.

But do your math first: Unless you travel many times a day by public transportation, it may be cheaper to buy a carnet or stack of 10 single transit tickets at any Métro station.

  • Another transportation option is the “hop-on hop-off” sightseeing bus. Two companies, L’Opentour and Les Cars Rouges, operate these double-deck buses, with slightly different routes. Fares aren’t cheap, but if you’re traveling mostly between popular tourist spots and don’t like walking, a one-day or two-day sightseeing bus pass will be less expensive than hiring taxis.

Mistake #10: Being easy prey for pickpockets and purse-snatchers

Your odds of being robbed or mugged in Paris are fairly low. In the Métro, one estimate puts the assault rate at 1 in 365,000 passengers, or about 6,000 muggings compared to more than two billion underground rides each year. What’s more, violent crime is most likely to occur in places that tourists seldom frequent, such as public housing projects on the outskirts of the city.

Pickpocketing and purse-snatching are a different story. Crooks with sticky fingers do a land-office business in a city that attracts more than 30 million tourists every year, and neither the police nor the judicial system can keep up with the thieves.

There are several people who have been victims of pickpockets, and we can’t resist sharing an anecdote:

  • While catching a train to Versaille with her husband and brother a few years ago, Cheryl’s best friend saw a pickpocket reaching toward her brother’s wallet. The woman swatted the pickpocket with her handbag, and the thief fled. (Fortunately, he didn’t grab the wallet or the purse before making his exit.)

Many tourists invite theft by making their possessions easy to steal. Men carry wallets and passports in their hip pockets, while women often wear bags behind their shoulders and out of sight, where a pickpocket can rummage like a bear with a garbage can.

Other visitors wear expensive camera backpacks that might as well be labeled “Steal me.” Belt packs (“fanny packs” in American vernacular) are popular targets for pickpockets. The most clueless victims of all are tourists who wear neck wallets or pouches outside their clothing, where any snatch-and-grab thief can cut the cord before running off with a stash of money and credit cards.

Our advice:

  • Carry one credit card, one ATM card, and a small amount of cash in your wallet, or – if you’re female – in a small purse that you carry separately from your main shoulder bag or tote. Hide the wallet in a safe place (such as a zippered security pocket), or wear the small purse under a jacket or sweater.
  • Carry a backup credit card, ATM card, cash, and your passport in a neck wallet inside your clothing.
  • Keep photocopies of your credit cards, ATM cards, and passport ID page in another safe location so you’ll be able to cancel your cards and get a new passport if the originals are stolen.

Another important tip:

Be aware of your surroundings, and be especially watchful in areas that are frequented by tourists. A France Crime & Safety Report from the Overseas Security Advisory Council claims that pickpockets are especially active in:

  • The RER railroad line from Charles de Gaulle Airport;
  • The Métro, while tourists are entering trains (it’s reported that Line 1 is especially popular with both tourists and pickpockets);
  • Major department stores where visitors often leave purses, wallets, or credit cards on cashier counters during transactions;
  • Eiffel Tower elevators and museum escalators;
  • The area around Sacré-Coeur (which is also frequented by harmless but annoying “string men” shakedown artists).

The American Embassy’s “Pickpockets in Paris: How to Avoid Becoming a Victim” page has information on techniques used by pickpockets and purse-snatchers (many of whom are adolescents who work in groups).

Bottom line: By using common sense, you’ll encourage pickpockets and purse-snatchers to look for tourists who are more careless than you are.

Mistake #11: Saying “Adieu” instead of “Au revoir”

  • Adieu: Farewell.
  • Au revoir: Good-bye (until we meet again).

To its admirers, Paris is more than a city – it’s also a habit, or even an addiction. You can see this in the Paris guidebook section at your local bookstore:

  • General-interest guidebooks such as Rick Steves’ Paris, Frommer’s Paris from $95 a Day, and Fodor’s Paris target the first-visitor.
  • More experienced visitors can explore areas or topics that whetted their interest on a previous trip with tools like Walking Paris: Thirty Original Walks in and Around Paris, the City Walks: Paris card series, or Born to Shop Paris.
  • By the third or fourth trip, the traveler is likely to be reading esoteric books like Markets of Paris, Café Life Paris, Paris by Bistro, or Métro Insolite (an historical and present-day guide to the Paris Métro, in French).

The point we’re trying to make is that Paris isn’t the kind of place where travelers come only once. Many visitors come again and again, and pretty soon they’re fantasizing about buying an apartment in Montmartre or a pied-à-terre on the Left Bank.

Our advice:

  • Travel to Paris whenever you can, and for as long as you can.
  • If you’re coming for a week or longer, consider renting a holiday apartment in a neighborhood that you know. By staying in a flat or studio, you’ll have a chance to live your fantasy of being a Parisian – at least for a short time – and you may save a few euros in the bargain.


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