Paris Practique :: Frugal Paris

If being a [grad] student in Paris teaches you anything, it’s to be frugal. Even without the exchange rate, Paris can be an expensive city. But I’ve enlisted the help of a few friends to help me come up with a guide to living “cheap” in this city, that hopefully will benefit our fellow Paris-dwellers just as much as visitors. So a special thanks to Laurel, Sarah, Meg and Rob for helping me come up with this list, and adding a bit of humor to it as well.

BEVERAGES
I’m convinced beverages are the way that cafes survive in this city. Tea (yes, mostly water here + a tea bag) easily will run you 4-5Euros. A soda is usually at least 3Euros. I’ve even seen a bottle of water go for 3,50Euro. In fact, often it is the case that wine is the cheapest drink on the menu.
* Order a carafe d’eau when you’re at a restaurant or café – this is water from the tap, but guaranteed to be free. Just be warned that the French don’t drink much water, so the cups are likely small, and if you’re American, you’ll likely be asking for another.
* While sitting on the terrace and people watching is a favorite Parisian past-time, you’re not only paying for your drink, you’re paying for your view. For the cheapest drinks – coffee or beer – go stand at the bar and make conversation with the bartender, and the locals.
* Le Happy Hour has the best prices in town, so plan your night around this. (Rendezvous des Amis in Montmartre is one of my favorites for this with 2Euro glasses of wine and 12 Euro meat and cheese planches).
* Buy a drink with your sandwich at the boulangerie? NEVER! Once again, beverages are marked up. Go to the near by supermarket (Leaderprice and G20 tend to be the cheapest) and buy a single drink. It’s completely ok to open the packaging of bottled water and just buy one. The difference can be 2 Euros vs. 20 centimes! Just time it right, because waiting in line sometimes isn’t worth the good deal. (Similarly vending machines will rip you off).
* It is easy to find wine at the grocery store for as low as 2 Euros for a bottle. However, Sophie recommends a 4 Euro minimum to reduce hangovers. (In the spring, I also carry my own wine bottle opener in my purse – you never know when an impromptu party is going to strike you!). (Laurel also noted that wine bottles make lovely flower vases . . . or even carafes of water at home).
* Use old mustard jars as wine glasses. Not only are you recycling, but if one breaks, it is no loss (this is Laurel’s specialty!).
* Only go to cafés with free Wi-Fi (as Meg says, “sorry, Le Starbucks”).

EATS
Food is plentiful in this city. Parisians tend to shop daily, getting only what they need. With small fridges there is only so much space too. Eating out will cost you more than eating in, but there are a few ways to save here and there to help you treat yourself from time to time.
* Go to your local outdoor market rather than the grocery store for fresh produce. Not only is it better, but it’s also cheaper. There are tons of markets around the city, so go explore (check out them all here).
* Buy la moitié. This tactic works great when buying a roasted chicken or even a baguette (une demi baguette). If you’re not going to eat the whole thing yourself, paying for half saves money and reduces waste.
* If it’s nice outside buy want you want to emporter [take away] (vs. sur place [stay]). Spring is particularly lovely for picnics outside.
* There is never a need to have an excuse for a picnic. Invite all your friends and have everyone bring a contribution. It always works out and is a lovely time by all.
* Any tourist area is going to mean an automatic jump in price, so try the ethnic neighborhoods for a price-friendly meal. (Meg recommends Indian).
* Nab sugar packets and honey you don’t use at a café. (Rob is a proponent of this, and Sarah has quite the collection of sugar for when friends come over for coffee or tea!).

DRESS
Parisians do the minimal wardrobe well. Without closets and no flair for color, their wardrobes stay classic and clean. When I moved to Paris, I made a rule and only packed black, brown, blue and gray clothes (with the accent color of mustard yellow). I am still shocked how much I can do through simple colors and practical pieces.
* Laundry can be quite pricey at the laundromat (and often you need change). Two good alternatives are washing clothes by hand in your sink (this is great too if you want to travel light), or making dinner for friends while you do laundry at their place. Also note, that doing laundry tends to take at least twice as long here as it does in the US.
* Les soldes happen twice yearly – these are the sales every Jan/Feb and July that happen for a few weeks with deeply reduced prices in order to make room for the next season’s inventory.
* There are several “cheapo” stores if you’re looking to pick up a new item for the season but you don’t care about quality. I for one am a fan of the 5-10Euro shoe stores near Chatelet les Halles, if I just need something simple (sorry, students can’t always afford to be as socially conscious as they’d like). H&M is also becoming a good one-stop shop for a bit of budget-friendly retail therapy.
* EMMAÜS is the French equivalent to Goodwill, however you’re more likely to find more interesting homewares than clothes here. (Meg also is a fan of the thrift stores on Rue des Rosiers).

GETTING AROUND
I’ve always loved Paris for the fact that it’s a small big city, and very accessible. I’ve been know to cross the city by foot but there are lots of alternatives.
* Forget the gym – they’re expensive – instead take the stairs and use the city to get some exercise. Whenever given the choice, in the metro I opt for the stairs rather than the escalators. Going up to my apartment, elevator is not even an option.
* The Velib system of bikes takes a few minutes to get down when you first try, but this system of 20,000 bikes around the city makes for a sweet ride. When seats are turned backwards it’s code for “don’t take this bike, it’s crap.” But just be warned as a foreigner, if your credit card does not have a puce [chip] you cannot access the bike share.
* The metro, RER (commuter line) and buses are all connected under the RATP (with schedules conveniently posted online and through a smartphone app, which can also help you find your route). If you’re here for a visit, buy a carnet, or book or 10 tickets, which will work for all 3 (unless you’re going beyond zone 2). Weekly and monthly passes are a good deal too if you plan on riding a lot – it also saves a lot of headache of waiting in line and worrying about how many tickets you have left.
* If you are looking for some exercise (and exercise in sanity), try the 30+ swimming pools in Paris. Their hours are limited (except during vacances scholaire [school holidays] and during the summer) which makes lap swimming a challenge. However, you can’t beat 37Euros for an unlimited 3-month pass.
* When you need to skip towns, trains are the way to go. Typically buying early means you save more, but Zepass.com and Trocdestrains.com are great for last minute deals!

TO DO
There is never a shortage of things to do in Paris, and Paris.fr (part of the mayor’s offices) is a wonderful resource of things happening around the city, most of them free. A few highlights:
- Every first Sunday of the month national museums are free to the public. A great excuse to get your culture on.
- Night at the Museum is a Europe wide event every May, where national museums are not only open late, but the admission is free and often there are concerts taking place in the galleries.
- Look for gallery openings, they often have free wine and cheese!
- People watch – whether at a park, café or music store while listening to a new CD for free, be a flâneur and be Parisian!
- Don’t miss any of the 400+ parks, gardens and squares around the city. Perfect for picnics!
- Parc de la Vilette is known for their jazz series and movie festival, as well as numerous other free events.
- Nuit Blanche: The city doesn’t sleep and there are art installations around the city (first Saturday in October).
- Paris Plage: Sand is brought in along the Seine and in various parts of the city to make an urban “getaway” in late summer.
- Bal des Pompiers: Every 13th & 14th of July firehouses around Paris open their doors for dancing.
- Don’t make calls to/from cell phones. Minutes are costly in France, and add up quickly. Landlines are preferable, or talk via text.
- Guide Paris Gratuit is a site devoted to free events around the city and Paris Pas Cher is a book that comes out every year with the best deals in town (look for their sticker at restaurants and shops).

Ok, what’s missing??? Share below!

22 comments

  • Excellent tips! The only thing I’d add is for beverages. At a cafe, if you want beer, order a demi rather than a pint (pints seem to invariably be at tourist prices), and if you want coffee, go for un cafe (an espresso) or an un allonge (a black coffee) – far cheaper and far more parisian than a white coffee!

  • Anne-

    This is super cute! I love that you linked Indian :-) My FAV! Great tips, this turned out filled with great things for people to know about Paris.

    Oh là là Paris… ! I also still need to go to Parc de la Villette, haven’t been yet. How is that I have been here 3 years and still have so much to do??

    -Meg

  • Labrador Lady – i LOVE Pere Lachaise. There is a certain romance even to Parisian cemeteries. Like a walk in the park ;) – just catch it before close (around 6pm).

    Anne

  • Excellent tips, I’m going to reshare on TheParisDream Facebook Page. The other thing I would suggest is Paris has a number of free museums. Also the Pariscope is a great resource for free church concerts and other free/inexpensive events.

    Here are a couple articles I wrote about Free things to do in Paris:
    http://affordable-travel-pangea.blogspot.com/2009/08/affordable-travel-paris-for-free.html

    http://affordable-travel-pangea.blogspot.com/2009/08/affordable-travel-in-paris-free-museums.html

    Patricia

  • Also, this frugal traveler to Paris makes the best use of the balconies (often not big enough for humans) outside the hotel room windows, since there are no mini-frigs in the little local hotels. I buy big water bottles, wine, cheese, fruit and nuts at the nearby alimentaire or outdoor market, and store it all on that balcony to keep cool. It can be my late afternoon apéritif before dinner or the final bite when too tired to go out again if I still have jet lag.

  • I always tell people to head to the Marais for Falafel – it’s healthy, cheap (the veggie one is only 5€!)and will keep you satiated for hours. In my book, that’s the best kind of deal!

  • Great post. Handy info for so many visitors to Paris. Can’t think of anything to add :)

    P.S. Been missing your blog. Been on the road in Italy. But home again now and getting caught up.

  • Museums run by the city of Paris –including Musee d’Art Moderne, Musee Carnavelet, Maison Victor Hugo, and Petit Palais — are free everyday. Fees only for special expos.

    Many good restaurant bargains in the Chinatown area of the 13th.

    If you must eat out, subscribe to the La Fourchette newsletter which has deep discounts, 2 for 1 specials.

  • If you want to use the Velib and you don’t have a card with the chip, you can buy a subcription online at the velib site and then you just have to go to an office to pick up a card that allows you to take the bikes. A little more complicated, but all the information is on the Velib site and in multiple languages.

    And I’ve already started my collection of mustard jar glass :)

  • Thank you for the generous tips! As a likely future resident of Paris, this is a little reassuring, since I hear so much about how expensive it is. Your tips sounds useful without being painful!

    Merci encore,
    Val

  • Another cheap tip for museums is to wait at the exit and ask people if they will be re-using their ticket. Most tickets are for a full day, so you can reenter the building. When I was a poor student doing a drawing class at the Louvre, I seriously could not afford the weekly entrance fee so I did this. Now I pay it back, and hand off my ticket when I see a backpacker counting their coins in front of the ticket machine.

  • i must have given you this advice a loooong time ago. i generally spend about 6-7€ on a bottle now (not that that’s THAT much) and almost always buy at independent caves.

  • Dear Anne,

    Merci beaucoup for mentioning our guide book Paris Pas Cher and our website in your article.

    Congratulations on your very beautiful and refreshing blog.

    Another possibly useful tip to add to the list : in French “cafés”, an espresso (“un café” or “un déca” – coffee without caffeine) is often the cheapest beverage on the menu. But if you’re thirsty, it’s totally okay to ask for “un café et un verre d’eau”. The extra glass of (tap)water will be free. It’s actually cheaper than asking for a glass of mineral water… without coffee. That’s crazy, mais c’est la vie ! :o)

    Another good version of coffee is “le café noisette”. It’s an espresso with a little bit of milk in it and it’s usually cheaper than a “café au lait” (a latte) or a “café crème” (coffee with cream), as it is served in smaller cups. I think it is named “noisette” because it has the colour of hazelnut…

    Voila ! Bonne journée ! ;o)

    Claire

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