The lines at the Louvre: 3 ways to have a better time in Paris

Sainte-Chappelle

The stained glass of Sainte-Chappelle.

One thing that’s impossible to understand, no matter how many times we visit Paris: the long lines to get into the Louvre.

It’s not that the place isn’t amazing and an absolute must see. It’s that you can skip the lines simply by buying a Paris museum pass.

Even if you’re not big on museums, you’ll want to see the Louvre, the Musee d’Orsay (a grand converted train station with a wonderful collection of Impressionist art) and the lovely Rodin museum and gardens. The admission costs for those three museums equal about 28 euros and the two-day pass costs 42 euros.  You only have to hit a couple more places–such as the jewel-like Sainte-Chappelle, with its breathtaking stained glass; the Conciergerie, with Marie Antoinette’s pre-guillotine cell; the excellent, relatively new Branly, with its collection of African art; the Centre Pompidou modern art museum; the Towers of Notre Dame–to more than offset the cost. Even if you ignore those, you have to ask yourself: what’s your time on vacation worth? So little that you’re willing to spend hours queuing in the hot sun or pouring rain? C’mon, people.

With this in mind, here are three ways to have a better time in Paris without breaking your wallet:

Get the museum pass. It’s 42 euros for two days, 56 for four, 69 for six. Kids under 18 usually get free admission (although we did have to pay a small entrance fee for them at the sewer tour. Yes, there is such a thing, and it’s interesting, although alas you no longer get to ride down the sewers in a boat). Buy your pass at one of the less popular sites to save yourself a long line. The Crypt at Notre Dame is a good place (while you’re there, check out the interactive screens that let you view the cathedral’s construction and the surrounding town from various angles) or the aforementioned Branly, which is between the Eiffel Tower and the Invalides. Stores like FNAC also sell them, and you can check online for other sites.

Use public transport. The downside to Paris’ subway and bus system is that it’s so good, everybody uses it–which means it can be packed. Still, it’s a fast, cheap way to get from site to site. You’ll be using it enough that it makes sense to get a pass if you’re staying more than a couple of days. The tourist pass is easy to get but more expensive; Navigo passes (what locals use) are a little more hassle to get but make riding pretty cheap.

Dine for lunch, picnic for dinner. After several lengthy, heavy French dinners in a row, we decided our stomachs and our wallets would do better dining out at lunch and having lighter meals or picnics with cheese, meat and bread for dinner. Use TripAdvisor to find good places to eat; its reviews are far more robust than Yelp’s (meaning more places reviewed and more reviews per restaurant).

Friday’s need-to-know money news

bank_fee1Today’s top story: How to escape the big banks and their fees. Also in the news: What not to buy at the big warehouse clubs, getting a credit card with poor credit, and why you should pay yourself first before paying any other bills.

Plot Your Escape From the Big Fees of Big Banks
Why give them more of your money?

What not to buy at warehouse clubs
Put back the three gallon drum of mustard.

Can I Get a Credit Card with Poor Credit?
Possibly.

Are You Paying Yourself First? The Money Habit That Can Boost Wealth
Don’t wait until you’ve paid everything else before taking care of you.

Surprising ways to pay for your dream trip abroad
Turning your dream trip into a reality.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailToday’s top story: How to raise kids who are smart about money. Also in the news: How to save on your trip to Disney World, deciding when to hire a financial adviser, and the five things identity thieves are hoping you’ll do.

3 Ways You Can Raise Kids Who Are Smart About Money
Starting them off early.

Twelve Money-Saving Tactics for Disney World
Don’t turn your wallet over to Mickey.

When is the right time to hire a financial adviser?
Knowing when it’s time to get help.

5 Things Identity Thieves Want You to Do
Don’t give the jerks what they want.

Risk and Responsibility: Should You Cosign on a Loan?
Assessing a huge responsibility.

Communicating in Europe: Our cell phone solution

Bayeux

Bayeux, France

If your cell phone works overseas (and not all do), your wireless carrier is happy to sell you an international plan that typically includes a small amount of minutes, texts and data at what feels like a pretty inflated cost. (The cheapest option from AT&T: 120 megabytes of data for $30 a month, $10 for 50 messages, $30 for 80 minutes, for a total of $70 per month per phone for a fraction of what we’re used to at home.)

Apparently, if you don’t use your phone much, you might be fine with that. Given the way I use my phone—to scan email, translate signs and menus, find my way around, coordinate plans with friends and family, book restaurant reservations and check opening hours for museums —I couldn’t imagine paying so much for so little.

The good news is that you can get a lot more for a lot less, as long as you can get your hands on an unlocked phone. Fortunately for us, my iPhone was no longer under contract and we had an old iPhone 3 that my daughter could use, so AT&T sent instructions on how to unlock each one. A friend lent us a Samsung he’d purchased for overseas travel.

I unlocked our phones the day we left for Europe (I was still able to use it in the States that day, as per usual). Once we landed in London, we found our way to a little mobile phone shop just across the street from Harrods and picked up a SIM card for five pounds (about $8.50), which included a five-pound credit for talk time. The gentleman behind the counter inserted the new cards, showed us our new phone numbers and told us where we could buy a package of minutes, texts and data (just around the corner at a news stand, as it tuned out).

Our British numbers worked even after we arrived in France, but I wanted more data than the small plan we bought. Two blocks away from our apartment was an Orange store where another nice gentleman sold us SIM cards (for five euros, including a five-euro credit) plus calling/text/data plans. For 30 euros each, Daughter and I got plenty of minutes, texts and a full gigabyte of data for the month we’re spending in Paris. Hubby, who is not as entranced with the online world, got a less generous plan for 20 euros.

You can, by the way, buy SIM cards at airports, train stations and lots of other locations from kiosks or news stands. I highly recommend finding a mobile phone shop that has someone to help you set up your service, though, especially if you’ve never done it before.

My plan paid for itself just on our recent road trip to the D-Day beaches. I used Google Maps navigation as a GPS to get us from the edge of Paris to every location on our agenda and back again, complete with turn-by-turn voice instructions. That saved us the $12 daily rental fee for our four-day trip.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

currencyToday’s top story: How to avoid currency exchange fees while traveling. Also in the news: How finances can reveal an unfaithful spouse, howto avoid ruining your retirement plan, and why it’s so important to include your digital assets in your estate planning.

5 money saving tips for exchanging currency
How to save on fees during your overseas travel.

11 Financial Signs Your Spouse is Cheating on You
There’s always a paper trail.

4 Ways to Ruin Your Retirement Plan
You’ll want to avoid these.

5 ways to protect your online assets
The importance of including your online accounts in your estate plan.

10 steps to take if you hope to retire soon
The sooner you start, the better off you’ll be.

Notes from London

LondonIn Los Angeles, a 10 percent chance of rain in the forecast means it’s not going to rain. In London, a 10 percent chance of rain means it will rain 10 percent of the day.

At least that’s my conclusion after our recent week tourizing that fine city.

Each morning, we made sure to pack our rain jackets regardless of the forecast, and just about every day we used them. We had one truly rainy day, but were (as the Brits say) spoiled for choice about where to spend it, since London has so many great indoor options to entertain the kiddos: the British Museum, a science museum, a natural history museum and an aquarium, to name just a few.

Most of the major museums are free. Spending time in one of London’s many parks is also free, and renting a bike to tool around will cost you just two pounds for the day (about $3.50). We appreciated these wallet-friendly options, because otherwise London can be an expensive city. (Just one example: two loads of laundry at a laundrette near Marble Arch set me back over $30. The proprietor was lovely, though, and there are worse things than spending a morning chatting with fellow travelers from all over the world.)

Some things are definitely worth the expense. Among them:

The hop-on, hop-off buses. I’ve long been skeptical of the open-top buses that cruise big cities, but the Big Bus tour we took had a witty guide and offered a great overview of the city. Our tickets included a boat ride on the Thames and several free walking tours. You can get your tickets at most of the stops, or get them in advance for a discount online. (We spent about $130 for three people.)

The Harry Potter tour at the Warner Bros. studio. Visit the sets, check out the props, be blown away by the scale models used in making the film. The digital guides, with audio and video commentary, are worth getting. (With the guides, we spent about $200 for admission plus about $50 for rail tickets to get there.)

The Tower of London. A thousand years of history in one place, with lots to interest the kiddos. (Admission for three was about $70.)

Matilda. Yes, we could have seen this terrifically fun musical made from Roald Dahl’s book in New York, but I’m glad we waited to see it in its native habitat. If you book in advance, you can get a better deal than the nearly $300 I shelled out for two tickets…so do that.

 

Two months, ten countries–one carry-on

Small tourist collects things in a suitcase for travelWe’re heading off for a European sabbatical soon, and we know from previous trips that dragging along a lot of luggage is a bad idea. If you’ve ever tried to roll a heavy bag down a cobbled street, or had to haul it up five flights of stairs because your quaint rented flat had no elevator, then you understand.

But we’re going to be gone for nine weeks, exploring cities, beaches, caves and countryside. Packing just shorts and flip flops isn’t an option.

Getting everything I think I need into a carry-on has been an interesting challenge. It’s kind of like writing blog posts and 400-word columns for Bankrate and DailyWorth after having written mountains of 1,800-word pieces for MSN. You lay it all out, and then you edit, edit, and edit again. And then maybe you sit on it and squish.

Here’s some of the best advice I’ve found about packing light:

It’s worth it. No checked-bag fees, no long waits at baggage carousels, no lost luggage. The time, money and back strain saved are all well worth the effort of figuring out what to leave behind.

Everything should go with everything. So far, I’ve got the wardrobe down to one pair each of khakis, capris and shorts, in addition to the jeans I’ll wear on the plane. Five tops, two jackets, one sweater and one lightweight dress, plus a scarf or two, will allow me to create about 25 different outfits.

Think double-duty. My lightweight robe works as a swimsuit cover-up. My sandals work at the beach or a nice restaurant. My running shoes are low-key enough to work as casual dress shoes. Speaking of shoes:

Ease up on the footwear. They take up huge amounts of space. I’m trying to limit mine to the sneakers, a pair of black leather walking shoes and the flat-soled sandals.

Don’t bring what you’ll find there. I’m skipping most toiletries and hair appliances (which need adapters and converters to work over there, anyway). The hotels will have what we need and if they don’t, there will be shops.

Embrace digital. Not too long ago, every trip with the kiddo would mean packing a DVD player and DVDs along with books and games. I’d have a stack of novels and guidebooks. Hubby would bring much of the New York Times bestseller list. Now it’s all in our iPads.

If you’ve traveled long and light, I’d love to hear your trips for what to bring—and what not to bring.

UPDATE: We left for Europe with three carryons–and came back with two of them, plus two larger pieces of luggage. (One of the carryons, stuffed full of purchases, went home early with our niece.) My hubby’s penchant for buying big heavy art books, my daughter’s love of souvenirs and my flea-shopping habit quickly doomed the idea of traveling that light.

We should have consulted Will’s aunt, a retired travel writer, who roams the world with a medium-sized spinner. It’s big enough to bring what she needs but small enough for her to handle it without help.

Q&A: The best form of money to use while traveling through Europe

Dear Liz: My friend and I are widowed and really not money-wise. What is the best form of money to use in Europe, including Budapest, Vienna and various small towns? I’ve heard small-town merchants (and maybe even those in cities) don’t take credit cards, but even if they do, our bank charges substantial fees. I’ve also heard negative things about using ATMs. We’re going to be in most places only for one night, so getting each area’s currency would be cumbersome.

Answer: Americans accustomed to paying with plastic can be surprised to discover that merchants abroad, including some hotel owners, want to be paid in cash. Even businesses that accept credit cards may balk at processing U.S. cards, since our plastic lacks the more secure chip-and-PIN technology now used by most of the rest of the world.
So you’d be smart while traveling abroad to have multiple ways to pay and to choose methods that don’t ding you with excessive fees.

Let’s start with credit cards. Carry at least one with a Visa or MasterCard logo, because those are the most widely accepted brands in Europe. Call your issuers to see whether they charge foreign transaction fees. Many do, and these fees of up to 3% make every purchase more expensive than it needs to be. If all of your cards charge such fees, consider applying for one that doesn’t. Capital One waives foreign transaction fees on all of its cards, according to financial comparison site NerdWallet. Other cards that waive such fees, and which offer rich travel rewards, include Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard, Chase Sapphire Preferred and BankAmericard Travel Rewards Credit Card.

Whichever card you use, call the issuer to let it know the dates you’ll be abroad. Otherwise your issuer may shut down your account for suspicious activity. Carry a backup card (and alert its issuer) in case your primary account is compromised or mistakenly blocked.

When you need local currency, the best way to get it is often from a bank ATM. Travel guru Rick Steves, who spends a few months in Europe each year and primarily uses cash, suggests you avoid “independent” ATMs run by companies such as Travelex, Euronet and Forex because of their often-high fees. Bank ATMs in Europe typically don’t charge usage fees, although your home bank may levy a $2 to $5 flat fee plus a foreign transaction fee of 1% or more for every withdrawal.

You can minimize usage fees by making infrequent but large withdrawals. Or you can use a checking account that doesn’t charge fees. Charles Schwab’s high-yield checking account offers unlimited ATM fee rebates worldwide with no foreign transaction fees, according to Brian Kelly of the travel rewards site ThePointsGuy.com. If you have an account with Capital One 360, the online bank, ATM fees are waived and the bank absorbs MasterCard’s 1% foreign transaction fee. USAA Bank charges a 1% foreign transaction fee but doesn’t charge a fee for the first 10 ATM withdrawals.

If you do find yourself carrying a lot of cash abroad, consider bringing a money belt that tucks under your clothes. That’s generally more secure than carrying money in a wallet or purse. And have a great trip!

Tips for a great (and affordable) road trip

Majestic Vista of the Grand Canyon at DuskMy daughter and I just got back from a 1,300-plus mile road trip so I could attend a business conference in Phoenix. Along the way we checked out Joshua Tree, Prescott, the Grand Canyon, Sedona, Montezuma’s Castle and the Tuzigoot National Monument. The trip back included stops at the Salton Sea and the amazing Living Desert zoo and botanical gardens near Palm Springs.

Her dad and I took several road trips before she was born, exploring the West and Southwest. They were among our most memorable (and cheap) vacations.

I was pleased to find road trips can still be a frugal way to travel. Our motel rooms typically cost less than $100 a night; even at the Grand Canyon’s comfortable Yavapai Lodge, we paid just $140 to sleep in two queen beds not far from the South Rim. Meals were rarely more than $20 for the two of us, and we spent less than $150 on gas thanks to my 36-mpg-plus Chevy Volt.

So here are my best tips for a memorable road trip that won’t cost a fortune:

Bring the right supplies. Snacks, breakfast makings and a cooler can save you a lot of money on the road. I bring oatmeal (which you can make in a mug, adding water heated by the motel coffee maker), peanut butter for the kiddo, fruit, milk and crackers.

Spring beats summer. At least in the West, the crowds tend to be thinner and the weather less scorching. Since schools schedule their spring breaks at different times, you’re not traveling at the same time as every other family in the freakin’ universe.

Use Yelp. Or TripAdvisor. I found good, affordable places to stay and eat thanks to user reviews. The best find was The Views Inn in Sedona, a clean, comfortable spot with a nice breakfast and an eager-to-please manager. Being willing to stay on the outskirts of town rather than in the center can save you $100 or more a night (or $200, when it comes to Palm Springs in high season).

Ask the locals. Yelp is also good for finding great cheap eats, but asking locals for their recommendations is a great way to start a conversation.

Give the kid a camera. We figured out years ago that our daughter stays much more engaged when she can capture what she’s seeing. Yes, she winds up with 16 pictures of lizards scuttling through the desert, but so what? I have many, many more of her grinning in front of various national monuments.

Catch the ranger talks. I didn’t think “Men, Mules & Mining” at the Grand Canyon would be particularly riveting, but I was so wrong. The stories and accompanying slides were fascinating. So was the geology talk the next day at the Yavapai Museum of Geology. Most of the rangers we encountered were good story-tellers and great about keeping kids engaged.

Set limits on your driving time. When our daughter was an infant or a toddler, driving four hours a day was a lot. Now she can tolerate more, but I found myself pretty weary at the end of an 8-hour travel day. Which may explain why I blearily clipped a dead elk some other unfortunate driver had previously killed on the road to the Grand Canyon. No damage to us or the car; wish I could say the same for the poor elk. In any case, next time I’ll probably limit drives to four hours, tops.

Download an audio book. There are only so many rounds of 20 Questions an adult can, or should, play. Fortunately, we had the third book in the Hunger Games trilogy to keep our minds occupied for much of the trip home. Your local library has tons of audio books you can borrow (in CD version or via digital downloads).

Bring emergency supplies and tools. We never needed the water or trail mix I always pack in the trunk, but I always feel better knowing they’re there.

Who offers real chip-and-PIN cards in the U.S.

Chip cardMost of the rest of the world has adopted more secure chip-and-PIN credit cards–which can cause some problems for Americans traveling overseas.

When we were in Italy two years ago, we found our old-school magnetic-stripe cards wouldn’t work in automated kiosks. That included our British Airways card, which had a chip, but no PIN. Without a personal identification number to punch in, it was useless.

Unfortunately, many articles about where to get chip-and-PIN cards in the U.S. make the mistake of thinking chip-and-signature cards are the same thing. They’re so not.

Because we’re going to Europe again soon,  I hit up Bill Hardekopf of LowCards.com for a list of U.S. issuers that offer the real deal. The few organizations on this list have many members that travel overseas. And here they are:

United Nations Federal Credit Union.. If you don’t actually work for the UN, you can become a credit union member by joining United Nations Association ($25 membership fee).

USAA. You must be a member of this financial services organization for active-duty military, veterans and their families.

Andrews Air Force Base Federal Credit Union. “You can  join by becoming a member of the American Consumer Council which is open to all so essentially is open membership,” Hardekopf said. Membership is $5.

State Department Federal Credit Union. Same deal: you can  join by becoming an American Consumer Council member.

Pentagon Federal Credit Union. You can join this credit union is you’re a member of one of a host of associations. If you’re not already a member of one, you can join Voices for America’s Troops for $15.

Or you can just wait, if you don’t have an overseas trip planned. True chip-and-PIN cards should be here by October 2015, when merchants without the terminals to process the cards and banks that have failed to issue them will have to pay for fraud. As Ron Lieber of the New York Times put it, “It’s an elaborate game of chicken, fitting for an industry where the major players spent years embroiled in a lawsuit.” Ultimately, though, more secure cards will benefit banks, merchants and consumers.