As a fellow who’s traveled much, but never outside the country, I went into a week in Paris with no expectations. I thought that was smart as a first time traveler abroad. Well, OK, I did once take a brief jaunt into Canada to catch a baseball game, but I’d say that’s more like culture tingle than culture shock.
I’m certainly no expert, and, as a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of guy, I didn’t consult a bunch of guides or travel shows before I left. So I anticipate that a few things I might mention below are well known to many. Certainly, going to a place that speaks its own language and was founded somewhere around the third century BCE was a bit intimidating at first, especially going into it cold.
But, of course, it was an absolute blast. And I’m happy to share a few recommendations as a first time traveler of the world I picked up along the way, in case they’re useful to someone else who is in a similar spot to me.
1. A little bit of the language goes a long way.
I was fortunate in that I picked up a minor in French during my undergraduate career at the University of Kansas. But I was unfortunate in that it had been so long since I’d used it, that most of it had slipped away into the ether. I typically found when engaging with people in the language speaking French first was helpful, even though almost everyone we met spoke English. The effort was appreciated, even if I made a few missteps along the way.
Among the more memorable slip-ups? One where I told someone we had an appointment at 40 o’clock. Whoops…. And, of course, it’s good to remember that there’s only a very slight vowel difference between saying “Merci beaucoup” and “Merci beau cul.” (You can look that one up). On the whole, though, as I said, I found the locals to be very accommodating and understanding, particularly if I tried to speak to them in French first.
2. Take in the tourist sites, but don’t be afraid to find your own way, too.
Some of the greatest amount of fun I had was simply walking around the city, trying to get around on public transportation and trying to blend in as best I could. Popping into a hat store, a bakery, a local bookstore, or a local bar for a quick pint was some of my greatest fun.
As someone who practiced the language a bit (but had lost a good deal of it), trying to fight my way through a conversation with an Uber driver who spoke no English was great fun (if a little anxiety-inducing when I couldn’t quite follow). But, to me, getting a little lost and a little discombobulated was all part of the experience of traveling to a new and foreign land.
But, like I said, don’t skimp on the touristy sites, either (you’ll see a few of them mentioned down below). The Eiffel Tower is a great place, and a destination for all the world and the Arc de Triomphe is a site to not be missed. Read my blog post “A traffic circle at the Arc de Triomphe to end all roundabouts.” And consider visiting some of these at night for a different perspective. Learn more here. But some of my happiest moments came after doing things like ordering a tasty Orangina in a Metro Station and having a small conversation with a vendor in French and appearing (to me, anyway), to have passed as a local.
3. Speaking of the Eiffel Tower, be wary of the many pickpockets and vendors around the area.
I never got a feeling of being unsafe in Paris, but there seemed to be constant reminders to be on your guard for small-time crime, including pickpockets. So it’s probably a good idea to be on your guard a bit. Some in my party were more seasoned travelers than I, and encouraged me to greet the many who came up to us near the Eiffel Tower and asked if we spoke English with a quick and simple, “No, sorry.” Apparently, this is a well-known tactic of scammers, and this approach proved effective.
The Eiffel Tower itself was a real delight, with wonderful views of the city if you go all the way to the top. It’s a structural marvel and one of the most recognizable landmarks in the world. It’s surrounded by parks (don’t miss the koi in the nearby ponds). On the whole, it really is a beautiful sight to see.
4. All the bread I tasted in France was better than all the bread I’ve tasted in the United States.
Another member of my traveling party said this, and it’s absolutely true. The French take their bread pretty seriously, and, man, it really shows. As a recommendation for a first time traveler, the bread is a can’t-miss. I saw many local bakeries where locals would pick up a baguette on their way home for dinner, and I could see why. The bread served with meals in restaurants was fantastic. The pizza crust was all fantastic. The croissants were fantastic. The biscuits, cookies and all the rest were also fantastic.
Really, all the food is fantastic in Paris, and I could go on and on about the many great places we found, but I think it’s important for a traveler to find his or her own way. (Tips aren’t expected when dining out, as a little aside. But they are appreciated when given as a recognition for excellent service.) But, I digress. My oh my, the bread.
The bread is plentiful, available almost everywhere you grab a bite to eat, and in any number of stores, cafés and other shops. Do yourself a favor, and make sure to take in the bread, carbs and all. You won’t regret it.
5. Get a bank account that has no foreign transaction fees.
Foreign transaction fees can really be a drag if you’re running into them time and time again. But fortunately, there are many bank accounts that you can use for traveling abroad that don’t charge for foreign ATM fees or for debit/credit card transactions. I got a recommendation for a good one from Charles Schwab. This was a good thing, because, as a first time traveler abroad, I wasn’t aware that there were banks that would take care of this for you. Charles Schwab’s Investor Checking account made it easy for me to move around and pay for anything I wanted without paying those pesky fees for each transaction.
I transferred some money into them from my normal checking account (make sure you do this a couple week in advance so that you leave enough time for everything to get settled), and was good to go. I had a great experience with the bank I chose, but I know there are several more that work the same way. (I’m not getting paid for this, I swear!). So it’s worth the effort if you do a little research and find an option that works for you.
6. If your luggage gets lost, don’t panic! (And save your receipts)
I packed light for a week in France (or so I thought), and opted for a carry-on bag only. When I drew a short straw for the first leg of my journey, I wound up having to gate check my only bag after it wouldn’t fit in the overhead bins on a relatively tiny plane. The luggage never made it to its intended destination where I needed to grab it in Boston. I had a relatively complicated set up for flights, too, and I think streamlining that would make it easier in the future. But, be that as it may, I wound up talking to the agents at the baggage claim center, who confirmed that my bag was lost.
They offered to send it on to Paris once they found it, but couldn’t guarantee that it would make the overseas trip in time, so we decided to send it back to my home. That meant I would need to scurry around quickly and pick up some replacement items. As a first time traveler, I recommend keeping your receipts if you find yourself in a similar situation to me. Little did I know, but airlines are required by federal law to reimburse you for expenses in these sorts of situations (read more about that here). You should be prepared to know your rights and fight for them, as I was told (by an airline that shall remain nameless) initially that I had no recourse for my predicament other than free shipping home.
But, fortunately, I kept receipts and found an online claim form that I filled out and was then reimbursed for all the items I had to buy in order to complete the trip. It was a bit harrowing to have to scramble around and find luggage quickly, but the airline did me a solid in the end by making me whole again. As a first time traveler overseas, this is a recommendation to remember for sure if this happens to you.
7. Budget enough time to really take in the art.
For my next trip, I’m definitely going to be spending some more time doubling back to take in all the art I missed on my first go-around. The Louvre is not to be missed, and one could easily get lost in there.
My group took an afternoon tour that hit most of the highlights. Given the line to see the Mona Lisa, which is housed in the museum, we opted not to spend the time there, but rather saw many of the other famous works. Because of the time we had, we could either choose to wait in line to see one work, or see a bunch of other stuff… we made a good choice, I believe. We saw the Venus de Milo, and a whole host of other famous painters and works of art.
But the place seemed as if it was nearly packed to the gills with wonderful old paintings and sculptures. I felt a bit rushed due to the museum’s immense size and incredible array of diverse pieces of art. The museum displays more than 35,000 works of art from its collection of nearly a half of a million pieces, and everywhere you look, there was something truly incredible.
We also took a stop at the Musée d’Orsay, which is also worth a visit. Its collections focusing on impressionism and post-impressionism were really a sight to behold as well. I also recommend a stopover at the Rodin Museum, where you can spot The Thinker and his sculpture The Gates of Hell, both worth a stop in their own right. Paris is truly a cultural capital in Europe, and the art alone is worth the trip.
8. Make a day trip out to nearby Versailles.
Any lover of history will appreciate skipping out to the palace and nearby environs at Versailles. The place was the principal residence of French royalty from the 1680s until the French Revolution in 1789. It’s a real testament to opulence, if nothing else. Any guided tour of the place has so many superlatives it’s difficult to keep up – everything there seemed to be the finest, the most expensive, and the best of the best for its time.
To get a chance to see it, and in particular to see its Hall of Mirrors, is an opportunity to place oneself back in a different age. The palace is really something, but the gardens around the palace are almost as spectacular in their own right. We took some time to walk around and shuttle around to some of the surrounding buildings as well, which was worth the extra effort.
It’s a frequent stop of many visitors to Paris, but I think it gets that way for a reason, like many of the other items on this list. The city and the palace was easily accessible via mass transit, and was part of a pretty spiffy travel package called the Paris Pass. In fact…
9. The Paris Pass can really help you get around.
I also highly recommend the Paris Pass, which gives you free access to transit, museums and other attractions. I think the four-day pass for about €205 is a great way to get access to a whole host of attractions at a discounted rate. Many of the top attractions are featured on the pass, which also offers bus tours and tickets that get you onto the Métro and other buses.
As an aside, public transportation in Paris is really great, by the way. Perhaps it’s just a matter of my own living in Kansas City, where public transportation is only really beginning to become a viable option for people. It was really easy to move about the city without access to a car even as a first time traveler. We only took an Uber or taxi once. The rest of the time, we moved around on public transportation, which was reliable (save for the occasional workers’ strike), and very efficient. It got us where we needed to go, which I appreciated a great deal.
As a first time traveler, I recommend the Paris Pass because it made almost everything easier. The Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, the Eiffel Tower, and Versailles attractions were all included, along with a whole host of other attractions we didn’t have time to go see. So do check this out as a good option. I think it’s widely known as a good idea, and we certainly found it to be a nice cost savings and an easy way to streamline a lot of the things we wanted to do.
10. Make the time to make travel a priority, commit to it, and then go do it!
Perhaps the greatest recommendation I can possibly make as a first time traveler is simply to find the time, set aside the money and just get out into the world. I’ve always been one of those who values experiences more than things, and traveling the world is about as great of an experience as I’ve had.
I could talk about any number of other things, large and small, that made my trip better. (Ok, one more quick one – seriously, go download the TSA’s Mobile Pass app… it makes going through customs when you return home so much easier and quicker… it ensured I could make a tight connection after my incoming flight got delayed!).
But the bigger point is this: just get out and see the world. I didn’t cross an ocean until I was 36 years old, and I hadn’t stepped off the plane for five minutes before I was regretting that I hadn’t done so a whole lot earlier. It can be hard to find the time at work, hard to save up enough money, and hard to do a whole host of other things. But if you focus in and are able to do all of those things, the end result is totally worth all of that hassle. (Even if you struggle all the way through it and don’t follow anyone’s recommendations at all!).
I can’t wait to get back out there and do it again.
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Andy is a guest blogger for TravelHive. Andy enjoys writing, reffing, and can now add drinking Orangina and traveling abroad to this list. We asked Andy to share his experiences as a first time traveler in Paris. You can see pictures from his trip on our Instagram account @travel_hive. Thanks, Andy!