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In the summer of July 2013, I travelled to London, United Kingdom and Paris, France, for a week. Like all vacation trips, I tend to prepare itinerary and make bookings beforehand. Coming back from the trip, I’ve learnt a few tips and gained some experience about these two cities that I would like to record here and share with fellow travellers.
Note that this trip was done in July 2013 according to the climate and applicable prices at that time. I use an Android smartphone.
Getting Into UK – Heathrow Airport
To transfer from the Heathrow International Airport to London city, your first thought may be to take the London Underground. I tried this and my opinion is that it is not worth the time, luggage constraints and transfers. Doing a direction route, you’d have to take the Piccadilly Line for 12 stops then change to the District Line for another 4 stops, taking an hour, to reach Paddington Station.
It will cost you only £5.5 for this route but you have to weigh the pros and cons.
If you prefer speed (15 min) and more luggage space, the Heathrow Express train is the recommended choice. You can save some money if you:
- book online (£5 compared to purchasing onboard)
- travel in pairs (£18 for return that has to be performed within a month)
- travel in group size of 3 or more (30% less)
If you prefer not to print the ticket & try to refer to your smartphone, have the tickets delivered by e-mail and save the barcode inside. When the train conductor comes along to check your ticket, show the barcode for him/her to scan and verify. More on smartphone apps below.
The Heathrow Express stops at the Paddington Terminal, from where you can switch to numerous underground lines and modes of transport. Just outside there are many eating spots and rows of hotels.
Other problems with the tube that I experienced are:
- lack of air-conditioning (so get to the front of a car where there is an open window during summer)
- big and uneven gap between the train car and station platform
Getting Around by Metro
Both London and Paris are well covered by the metro or underground system. Most of the common attractions lie in the first to second zones of the cities, so take note of this when purchasing a multiple-journey ticket.
If you were to make more than two underground trips in a day, it will be wise to purchase the London Travelcard. For example, it’s only £8.80 for unlimited zone 1 to 2 trips in a single day. Compare this to a single trip from King’s Cross to Piccadilly Circus will cost £4.50.
In Paris, the same multi-journey ticket is called SNCF Mobilis. The single-day zones 1 to 2 ticket costs €6.60. More details about the Paris metro can be found here. My experience is that it’s easier to deal with the station counter staff to purchase such passes than messing with the machine.
In the case of Paris, I purchased an additional RER train ticket to get to Chateau De Versailles. Get on any metro line to reach the RER C line, then take this line’s train all the way to the end station, Versailles Rive Gauche.
Getting Around By Bicycle
These are publicly-available bicycles that you can rent for short trips around the city for a small fee (£2 for 1 day in London, €1.70 for 1 day in Paris).
The difficulty for foreigners and tourists is the UK address during registration and the Vélib’ credit card pre-authorisation / bank card deposit of €150. The more bicycles or single-days you hire, the more charge or deposits are made against your card.
In both cases, you could save some money travelling around on bicycles compared to other modes of transport. The trick is to cycle from one bicycle station to your destination’s station within 30 minutes. Having the bicycle out beyond the first 30 minutes incurs additional hourly charges. See below for two smartphone apps that will help you plan out where the stations are nearest to your destination.
The clock starts counting the moment you select the bicycle at the station and ends when a green light turns on or you hear a beep when you dock the bicycle.
I managed to try Vélib’ for a day and it was quite fun and safe provided you are confident to ride alongside cars and buses, which are usually patient with cyclists. I found it particularly challenging around the Louvre Museum and Latin Quarter areas of Paris. This is where using Google Maps Navigation or Waze on the smartphone becomes convenient so I didn’t have to stop often to check physical maps.
Enhancing the Experience with Smartphone Apps
The single most useful tool for today’s travellers is a smartphone. These apps mainly are useful in the sense that you can look up info on-the-go and saves the hassle of keeping papers and notes.
- City Guides Catalog - TripAdvisor’s offline maps, reviews and photos that are updated weekly that allows you to find and organize your favourite attractions and accommodation, especially if you have starred those places beforehand.
- Google Maps – At its basic functionality, you can cache desired map areas to be used offline, thus preloading the areas and not needing a live connection there. Second, you can use the Measure feature to measure the distance between points on the map which I used often to decide if the route is too long for walking. Third, Maps show my starred or searched POIs which I use to search for nearby metro stations and then use the next two apps to plan my journey.
- London Tube Map - These tube maps show all the lines of the metro system. In London, the station signs show which side you need to go by indicating the last station of the line in that direction. Look up these stations by referring to the coloured lines of this map. After finding the start and end stations using Google Maps, I can mark them as so in this app and tap on the Route command to show me the metro journey, in numbered steps. This saves me a bit of time standing in front of station maps.
- Paris Tube Map - As above.
- Gmail – Star or label (e.g. “travel”) all your travel related e-mail, such as tickets and bookings. Make sure you set an adequate number of days to sync all e-mail under that label so that you can open them offline.
- Google Drive – I planned my itinerary using a Drive Spreadsheet, which I then marked to be “available offline”. Despite this, I had to tap a few times to open the document when offline. You can also save all your tickets and bookings here instead of carrying the hardcopies or as backups (e.g. passport!).
- Barclays Bikes - London’s system of public bicycles for rent. Every station is marked on the map with two numbers: number of bicycles available and number of empty slots available at that time, provided you have mobile data on.
- Find me a Velib - Paris’ system of public bicycles for rent.
- Stock camera – I got to admit that the best phone for taking panorama photos is the iPhone. No matter how unsteady my hand was or if the shot is taken vertically, the panoramas almost always come out great. In hindsight, those self-portraits could have been even better if I paired the iPhone with this monopod. I saw a couple who was innovative – one held a phone with the camera LED as the flash while the other held the front-facing camera to take the shot. Brilliant!
- Wondershare Panorama – A close second to the Android stock camera, the advantage it has that it processes the output faster.
Getting Mobile Data for Your Smartphone
With the recommended apps above, I was able to navigate around the cities without a mobile data connection. Having mobile data everywhere just gives you:
- instant routing and change in navigation while driving, cycling, walking; if you are the sort who can’t figure out by looking at maps
- routing of your trip with the schedule and any live delays in traffic (works especially well in London Undergound where there were frequent changes, e.g. lines closed or delayed)
- lookup of online info that you did not prepare for, e.g. opening hours of points of interests
- make audio or video calls on-the-go back to family and friends or share your vacation experience at real-time
Compared to microwave-pervasive countries like Singapore and Japan, be aware that mobile data is not consistently available everywhere and definitely not in the metro tunnels. There were a few times I had to re-enable my data connection at the ground level when it got lost somehow.
To get a giffgaff card, I contacted a Londoner at the operator’s online forum who, for a small fee, sent me the SIM card before my trip, otherwise you would have to have a UK-based credit card and postal address to get a free one sent from giffgaff. This works out great as both parties get £5 credit, so I started with £15 and chose one of the goodybags.
In terms of data usage, I found 250MB (£7.50 goodybag) to be just nice for 5 days of use. For £12, you get unlimited data but you can’t share out your connection by turning on tethering. For the rest of the credit balance, I used it to call back home.
Mobile data settings for giffgaff (you don’t need the rest on this page):
- Name: giffgaff
- APN: giffgaff.com
- Proxy: 184.108.40.206
- Port: 8080
- Username: giffgaff
- Password: password
Lebara SIM packs can be found at most convenience and tobacco stores in Paris. I paid €20 for mine at a phone/Internet shop and was able to activate it there online. If you can’t get online to activate, voice call 2333 and get ready your e-mail and residential addresses and valid identification.
Again, I wasn’t able to get mobile data immediately and calling 2333 to ask for the settings to be sent via SMS didn’t work either. I had to create the APN manually (Settings -> More -> Mobile networks -> Access Point Names – New APN). Settings as follow:
- Name: lebara internet
- APN: fr.lebara.mobi
- Username: wap
Try A Different Kind of Accommodation – Direct & Individual Owner
Lately there has been a growing trend among the Internet-savvy folks to choose “bed and breakfast” style of accommodation over your standard hotels and resorts. This is where I tried Airbnb and the other popular one being VRBO.
The prices may not be cheaper, but I like this style where the vacation rental owners put themselves and their rooms out for independent travellers to stay. Trust, communication and insurance are definitely important, but you get a chance to experience a realistic environment overseas and know outgoing locals.
- Don’t assume owners don’t have demand during peak periods – book early!
- If you are getting responses from owners, write again or offer payment already.
- Be specific about your needs, e.g. accessibility, washer/dryer, towels, Internet.
London Best Attractions
These POIs are listed according to my most favourites. In many of them, it is good to get hold of the audioguide machines or at least the information brochure. This greatly improves the experience as you get to understand better the rooms and items, though most of them will cost you €5. Of special note are the content-packed Nintendo ones at the Louvre Museum and room-aware ones at the Versailles.
- Westminster Abbey – Most elaborate church full of famous or important people (mostly dead) and the coronation of the British monarch. I liked it for the Kings’ and Isaac Newton’s burials.
- Tower Bridge – Not to be confused by the Westminster Bridge, this is the one which opens up in the middle for sea vessels to cross. It has an incredible history of technology and has fair views of both sides the river, much better than what can be seen from Westminster or even the EDF London Eye. On the north side of the bridge is the beautiful Tower of London and scenic pier-side area.
- St Paul’s Cathedral – This is London’s Cathedral where the bishops do their thing. More interesting to me was the huge interior and high domes. The top dome, known as the Golden Gallery, takes over 500 steps to climb to.
- British Museum – Well-known for the Rosetta Stone and the Statue of Ramesses II, this museum showcases an iconic main hall, the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court. Allocate at least two hours to enjoy most of this site but it closes relatively early at 5:30PM.
- Elizabeth Tower aka Big Ben – Apart from not being able to visit inside or seeing any laser show at night, you can only enjoy the enormous size of the tower and hear the famous Great Bell. The best location for viewing and taking photos is right along the London Bridge (GPS: 51.50090, -0.12226). Reminds me of those childhood times watching BBC programs on the telly.
Paris Best Attractions
- Tour Eiffel – To me, the most impressive fact is that during the 19th century, it took them just over two years to erect this world-famous iron lattice tower. Only now when I stood in front of its gigantic structure and the surrounding garden beauty and city design did I get smitten by the icon of France. I noticed on the official web site that previously there were no wire cages set around the viewing areas – that would have been even more exhilarating!
- Chateau de Versailles – My favourite place in Paris for its elegant style and mystical history. In the main palace, you should take the audioguide to follow through the royal rooms. The Hall of Mirrors are as beautifully grand as the Grand Foyer at the Palais Garnier. Do not underestimate the size of the royal garden – there are even golf buggies you can rent to get around in there! I was pleasantly surprised that there are two Angelina outlets at this site – the one further out must be even more classic. Check out this classy site after your visit to the palace – I was blown away by the videography.
- Louvre Museum – First thing, give yourself at least 5 hours to do this one! Anything less is injustice to your appreciation of the richness of art and history contained inside the landmark glass pyramids. The long line in front of the main pyramid is for security check, which you can avoid if you have the Museum Pass or follow the directions of this video to enter via the Carrousel du Louvre (GPS: 48.86167, 2.33323). Pieces you should check out are listed here, my favourites being: The Wedding Feast at Cana, The Consecration of Emperor Napoleon, The Meal at the House of Simon and David and Goliath.
- Notre-Dame Cathedral – Largely influenced by famous writer Victor Hugo, this is another key attraction of the City of Lights, which means you should explore around at sunset. Climbing up (which opens till late on weekends) to the two Towers (to see the gothic yet functional statues) and the summit of the South Tower (for panoramic views on this side of the city) will cost you 387 steps! The stained glass walls and paintings inside are worth visiting as well. At sunset, stroll along the right side of the cathedral to enjoy the small park and Pont des Arts or commonly known as Lover’s Bridge. From this bridge, wander to the other side to explore the intimate streets and restaurants of the Latin Quarter.
- L’église de la Madeleine – This Roman Catholic styled church has an imposing front as well as a high and beautiful dome inside, comparable to St Paul’s of London.
For most countries where your native language is not spoken much, learning a few basic words is the minimum a tourist needs to get attention and maybe better service or deals.
Try these phrases and Youtube videos as a start:
- Good morning/day – bonjour
- Good evening – bonsoir
- Thank you (very much) – merci beaucoup
- Please - s’il vous plaît
- Good bye – au revoir
- No – non
- French phrases – Basic French words and phrases
- Learn to Speak French – Basic French Phrases – Paris Travel Guide
- Learn French – Basic Phrases for Tourists
Money Saving Tips
In addition to the metro multiple-journey tickets, I saved a few euros by using what is known as the Paris Museum Pass. You can order it online and have it sent to your home address, but it’s not difficult to get it at the two major airports, the museums themselves and even better the Visitor Centres.
The one along rue des Pyramides was comfortable and friendly. I even bought the entry and train tickets to Chateau de Versailles here.
The idea is that you have to choose between 2, 4 and 6 days pass, in which you have unlimited entry into 60 museums and monuments in Paris. In some of these, you have priority lines but some of them may not be open at certain conditions. Still it would be worth buying this pass if you are able to visit at least 3 POIs per day or there are long ticket queues.
Then again, ticket queues are not as deadly as security check queues.
Another tip is to plan your visits to museums early in the day (i.e. before 10AM) and leave the monuments to mid-day or evening. The reason for this is that the monuments tend to open till much later than museums do. Check this page for such closing times.
Personal Security and Public Annoyances
Souvenir hawkers will be sticking around popular POIs such as the Eiffel Tower, Louvre Museum and Sacré-Cœur Basilica, trying to sell you aluminium keychains, toy birds and cheap lasers. They are very agile and can pack their bags in 2 seconds when the police comes along.
You may be able to snag a good deal from these guys if you really want. They don’t harass tourists too much but it can get annoying after a while.
Another close variant is the guy that sells you roses. The flowers can go for between £5 to £10 per stalk depending on how gullible you are. I was right in the middle :)
The gypsy ladies and kids are the ones that are more dangerous. They would zoom straight up to your face and ask “do you speak English?”. If you give them any attention and fill up their “survey form”, their accomplices would sneak up to you at the side and pick your pockets.
Advice – gather your belongings and ignore them!
Power Sockets For Your Electrical Needs
Coming from a UK-related country, I had no problems with the UK socket. For those who didn’t know (I obviously didn’t), the French socket is usually recessed into a round hole. I made the wrong assumption that having just the twin round pin adapter would work, but my adapter’s body was not round-shaped and couldn’t fit in the French socket. So beware.
Prohibited Use of Tripods
I haven’t figured out why so many POIs frown upon the use of camera tripods. I guess it’s because of the risk of ignorant tourists might trip over tripods while rushing to the vantage points as if they will soon disappear. Trey Ratcliff has a valid point while he was shooting on top of the Arc de Triomphe.