I think I was born with some sort of cheap traveler gene. Or more likely, it was something cultivated during my youth as I was raised by an expert traveler mother who know how to stretch a tight budget, and a cheapskate father who really just hates spending money in general.
Being raised in this kind of household taught me a few things about the importance of a dollar, but it also taught me something essential about travelling on the cheap: whether it be out of necessity (a limited budget) or out of a reluctance to spend, the fact remains that the better you budget your money while traveling, the more you get to see, do, eat and experience.
For me, the main motivation in being a tightwad when traveling is that if I budget well, I can afford to do 2-3 great trips per year versus one. The better you budget, the more you get to travel. It’s as simple as that. Traveling to Paris with my family as a kid (with said expert budget traveler mother) and later living in Paris on a very small student budget also taught me the best ways to enjoy the city without spending a whole lot of money.
Paris is an expensive city and is certainly not a budget destination. However, with a little know-how, some planning and a willingness to do things the cheap way, it actually is possible to not only SEE Paris on less than $100, but also enjoy it. Sure, you may not be spending time on the balcony of the Plaza Athenee or other hotel with a few of the Eiffel Tower, or sipping trendy €20 cocktails at night—but you still can take in all the best sights, eat well and experience all the romance of the City of Lights has to offer without emptying your bank account.
>>Get more tips on conquering Paris on a budget in the Cheap Paris Guide
Finding Cheap Accommodations in Paris
Paris is certainly not a city full of cheap hotels. Even “budget hotels” in the city can still cost you as much as €80-€120 per night. This means that, especially if traveling alone, you’ll probably want to look for other accommodation options if you are hoping to keep your budget under $100 per day.
Hostels and Couch Surfing
Luckily, there are a ton of hostels in Paris, some of which are actually very nice and some which also offer private rooms if you aren’t so keen on the idea of dormitory style accommodations. Whether you are looking for a raging party hostel in Paris, or something a little more subdued, there are enough options that you’ll probably be able to find the right fit. You can also often spend about €10-€20 for a private room.
>>Check out the complete Paris Hostel Guide to get an idea of which hostel in which neighborhood fits your needs. You can also compare Paris hostels and get an idea of what to look for to give you a better idea of which one may be the best fit for you.
Another option is to couch surf. If you aren’t one of those lucky people with friends who live in Paris and can beg off their hospitality, going on the site couchsurfing and getting a free place to stay will certainly loosen up your budget and allow you to spend more money on other things, like drinks out or a few souvenirs.
Plus, Couchsurfers tend to be a friendly and hospitaliable bunch of fellow budget travelers and world nomads, so you stand a good chance at even making some new Parisian friends, getting a glimpse into life as a local and may even get to practice your rusty high school French.
If you are you are traveling with at least one other person, you can more easily afford to get a room in a budget hotel—since you’ll be splitting the price of the room. Most of the hotels within a tight price range (under €100 per night) are 2-star hotels. While certainly not luxurious, some of these budget hotels are better than others, so it pays to do a little research before you book your room.
You’ll also find that hotels in certain areas of the city are almost always cheaper, so you may get more room for less money if you opt out of some of the trendier and tourist centers of the city. Hotels in Montparnasse tend to be more affordable in general.
Keep in mind that some budget hotels in France will also not have private bathrooms and several rooms or even an entire floor may have to share a bathroom.
Here are a few lists of budget hotels in various neighborhoods around Paris:
- Budget Hotels in the Latin Quarter
- Budget Hotels in the Marais
- Budget Hotels near the Louvre
- Budget Hotels near the Eiffel Tower
- Hostels and Budget Hotels in Monmartre
Eating Cheap in Paris
Luckily, eating well on a tight budget isn’t too big of a challenge in Paris. While you could certainly spend a small fortune going out to a fancy and very expensive restaurant in Paris, you certainly don’t have to spend a lot to eat great in the City of Lights.
Avoid other tourists
Generally speaking, the more tourists there are milling around an area, the higher the menu prices. Vendors know that most tourists aren’t going to venture too far from the main path, so they can charge what they like. Finding cheap – but good – food in Paris sometimes means ducking down odd streets, taking wrong turns, and more or less following the locals to where they eat.
Paris Street Food
There are a huge range of options for finding filling and delicious meals in Paris, will while sticking to your budget. There are plenty of cheap street food options in Paris—whether you are in the mood to snack on a fresh crepe, a Panini, a kebob or even a gyro—that can make for a cheap snack or meal on the go while you are sightseeing.
As is often the case in big cities with many different ethnic populations, some of the best cheap eats in Paris aren’t French food. Couscous is a popular late-night snack for many Parisians, but it’s a filling meal in the day, too. You’re looking for the word “couscoussieres” on a sign, or an indication that it’s a Lebanese or Moroccan restaurant. You can also find cheaper Asian restaurant and delis, falafel stands and a variety of other cheap foreign eats.
However, you don’t have to eat foreign food in Paris to stick to your budget. For your morning meal, it’s good to know that many hotels charge extra for a continental breakfast. If your hotel does, and it’s more than €6-7, then you’re probably better off buying your own breakfast away from the hotel. You can get a typical French breakfast of a pastry, a coffee, and an orange juice for as little as €5-6. You can also always pick up a croissant from a local patisserie and eat it at a café with your café au lait (usually €1.50-€3).
For lunch, my family would often spend our mornings shopping at the Paris outdoor food markets, picking up a baguette (usually around€1.40), a few slices of ham or salami or pate, a piece of cheese and a €3 bottle of wine and enjoy a very French, and cheap, picnic lunch in the park.
Bakeries also often offer simple sandwiches on baguettes, which not only taste pretty damn good (I’m partial to the classic jambon fromage), but also only cost a few Euros.
Also, while there are plenty of ways to get a meal on the go or pack a picnic for just handful of Euros, as I wrote in 12 Things You should Know Before you Visit Paris, eating a three course meal in France can actually be quite affordable. David Lebovitz, a Paris based pastry chef and author of the book a Sweet Life in Paris writes:
“There’s lot of top-notch restaurants in Paris where you can get a terrific…no, make that superb…three-course meal for 30€ including tax and tip…. I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of any restaurant in San Francisco or New York that offers a three-course meal with wine for less than $50pp, including wine, tax and tip. If you avoid the high-end places, there’s great bargains in Paris.”
Drinking Cheap in Paris
There’s just no way around it. Alcoholic beverages (that includes beer) tend to be really expensive in Paris—meaning those who like to indulge in numerous cocktails on occasion may find getting your buzz on in Paris a costly affair. Drinks can easily cost anywhere from €7-€20 for a single cocktail or mixed drink. However, there are some ways you can drink up without spending all the money you had allocated for food the next day.
Before you stop reading this thinking, “If there is no drinking to be done for cheap in Paris, I’m not going,” there are other options for boozing on a budget.
Wine is free-flowing in France and is almost always an affordable option. You can easily get a €2-€3 bottle of wine in grocery stores and down it before hitting the club. Wine in restaurants also tends to be cheap. You can get carafes (pitchers) of house wines at most restaurants for a very affordable price.
There are plenty of Paris happy hours (restaurants and cafes will usually advertise their happy hours in the windows or on chalk boards outside), where you can find drink specials and half priced beers. Happy hour sin Paris tend to last from about 5 pm til 9 pm (then it’s dinner time).
If you want to experience the Night Life in Paris, but don’t want to spend your weight in drinks out at the nightclubs (where a standard cocktail can easily cost €10 or more), than investing in a bottle or two of wine at dinner or after dinner before you go out is a cheaper way to go.
Cheap Ways to get around Paris
The first rule to sticking to your budget in Paris is to skip out on the rental car (I won’t even begin to delve into the hundreds of reasons why driving—and trying to park—is a nightmare in Paris). With a fast, efficient and affordable metro system, there is also no need to have a car when exploring the city.
You should also avoid taking Taxis in Paris. Taxis in Paris tend to be on the expensive side. A ride that is only a few kilometers long can end up costing you a small fortune. This is especially true late at night, when taxi fares go up even more. This means if you are stuck after the Metro shuts down (at 1 am), you may find yourself having to part with a fat stack of cash just to get home. Stick to the metro or be prepared to pay hefty taxi fees if you decide to travel above ground.
You can also save money on Metro tickets by purchasing them in bundles. A carnet is a packet of 10 metro tickets, and useful for those visiting the city for less than a week. If you plan on being in Paris longer than that, you can also buy week-long and month-long metro passes that’ll save you money if you plan on spending a lot of time going from one place to another.
>>Read more about how use the Paris Metro
Cheap and free things to do in Paris
Enjoying the sights, smells and sounds of Paris doesn’t have to cost one penny, which makes it easy to enjoy this city and stick to a tight a budget. You don’t need to even get out your wallet to stroll through the Jardin de Luxembourg, snap photos of Notre Dame, or soak up the sun on the banks of the Seine.
Get a cheap view of the city
The best way to really soak in the spectacular views of Paris is usually to climb up something that’s tall. While paying to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower doesn’t cost a whole lot and is definitely something everyone should do at some point, it isn’t necessarily the best view of Paris (you don’t get the image of the iconic tower itself in the skyline).
My personal favorite view of the city are on the lawn of Sacre Coeur in the Montmartre neighborhood (which is perched on top of a large hill in the city).
Sit at a cafe
One of the quintessential Parisian things to do is spend an afternoon people watching from a sidewalk cafe in Paris. Luckily, this will never cost you much money. For a few euros, you can take a break from a morning or afternoon spent exploring the streets and checking out Paris attractions, and have a coffee, enjoy watching stylish Parisians stroll by.
Cheap and free museums
While you will usually have to shell out anywhere from €5-€15 to get entrance into many of Paris’ famous museums, there are ways to enjoy these institutions for free with a little planning.
The first Sunday of every month, museums around Paris open for free (including the Louvre). In May, you will also find the Nuit de Musees (Museum Night) opening the doors of the museums in the city for free after sunset.
In September, France celebrates its cultural heritage with Les Journees du Patrimoine, which opens all of the city’s museums, galleries, monuments and other buildings to the public for free. Nuit Blanche in Paris takes place during the first weekend in October and is an all-night FREE celebration that includes free concerts and shows, as well as many huge art installations, free admission into museums, pools, monuments, galleries and other public buildings, along with being one hell of a great party. And none of it will cost you a dime.
Also keep in mind that some of Paris’ unusual museums are also always free–no matter the time of year or day of the week.
If none of the timing for these free nights does not coincide with your trip, you can also save money on your museum entrance by getting a Paris Museum Pass or looking into other Paris discount cards and passes.
Free Walking Tours
You’d think you’d have to spend a bunch of money to get great walking tour routes of the city, but it just isn’t the case. I recently interviewed Paris blogger and resident Adam Roberts about his new series of free-to-download themed walking tours.
These walking tours take you through different areas of the city and can help you discover hidden corners of the city discovered by a local.
If you’d rather not spend a few precious Euros of your budget at an internet café or paying for your hotel, you’ll be happy to know that in 2007, free wi-fi would be available in many public places around the city.
This means, you can check in on those emails from more than 260 free internet zones scattered around the city for FREE. Read more about free wi-fi in Paris and find local hot spots.
photos: View of Paris by Taylor Miles, Cheap eats by Batigolix, formules by Yorch, Paris wine by Ruth L, Paris hostel by RachelHobbs , Metro by pedrosimone7, Montmartre view by ed from Ohio, Paris wi-fi by Fee-ach
About the Author
A budget traveler by heart, Julie Blakley loves the challenge of conquering not-so-cheap cities on a small budget. As the resident francophile at BootsnAll, Julie also spends much of her time writing the Paris Travel Guide with all of her tips for how to best enjoy the beautiful City of Lights.