A Passion for Paris

Off-season visitors experience the best of the City of Lights

By: Jim Calio

The first time I saw Paris in the winter was in 2000, right after the big Millennium celebration. The huge Ferris wheel was still up in the Place de la Concorde, the Eiffel Tower was a light show late at night and the city was empty of tourists. Or so it seemed.

I walked from my hotel on the Rue de Rivoli down through the Tuileries and then up along the Right Bank where the sunlight was fading and a cold wind whipped tiny wavelets on the Seine. I ended up in front of Notre Dame.

Normally, I would avoid Notre Dame, especially in the summer because of the hordes of tourists, but this was different. It was winter, it was cold and there was something that drew me to it.

I arrived just as the afternoon Mass was beginning. I took a seat in the back, still bundled in my overcoat and scarf, and sat through the entire service. There was something magical about that day about being inside perhaps the most famous church in the world on a cold night. I felt as if it was all mine the church, the experience and all of Paris.

I’ve been back to Paris several times since then, mostly in the winter, and when I tell friends I’m going, they invariably ask the same question: “Isn’t it horribly expensive?” Even though it’s the off season, and prices for everything hotels, airfare and even some restaurants are lower, it’s still not an inexpensive city. This is especially true for visitors that expect to stay at the most expensive hotels, eat at the most expensive restaurants and be chauffeured around by limo.

I’m willing to bet, however, that most of your clients are not princes or pashas, so there are some things they can do to enjoy a winter’s week in the City of Lights experiencing more without the crowds and without spending every last cent of their budget.

Low Airfares, Great Tours and the GDR

As always, airfares drop a bit in the winter. It’s especially true this year, when summer airfares to Paris often topped $1,000, due in part to a surge in travel to Europe that rivaled pre-Sept. 11 levels.

While fares drop in the off season, quoted prices do not included taxes and fuel costs, which can add as much as $200. One solution: airline packages. Air France Holidays, for example, offers a three-night all-inclusive package from $599-$729, and six-day packages for $699-$799.

British Airways, as part of its Sale of Two Cities, has reduced fares to Paris from the western U.S. gateways to as low as $671 (Dallas/Fort Worth), excluding taxes and fees. (Note: The airline has also revamped part of its compensation structure for travel agents in North America, with a 10 percent commission now paid for booking any of British Air’s holiday packages.)

Deals on packaged tours are also plentiful this time of year. For example, tour operator France Vacations offers a rate of $699 for six nights, including roundtrip airfare, six nights in a hotel, daily breakfast and city tax. Pricing is per person based on double occupancy. Agents earn 8 percent commission on the lead price, 10 percent on all other pricing. Gateways include Denver, San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Portland, Sacramento and San Diego.

“We have some good pricing,” said advertising and sales promotion manager Cheryl Grant. “And all the hotels we use have in-suite bathrooms with a bathtub or shower.”

The dollar has taken a pounding recently from the euro, so to attract American tourists, several hotel groups have come up with “dollar for euro” or “Guaranteed Dollar Rate” (GDR) plans.

“We usually see it happen when the euro goes above $1.25,” said one hotel operator.

Small Luxury Hotels, which has several properties in Paris, was one of the first to come up with the GDR.

“Since 60 percent of our clients are from the United States,” said company spokesman Lanny Grossman, “we didn’t want to keep away our core customer. For example, if you book in advance at the Hotel Vendome, you can get a $950 suite for about $400.”

Bistro Bounty

The best part of Paris is experiencing the pulse of the city alongside those who live there. As Karon Cullen, a good friend of mine and a frequent traveler to Paris, put it: “There’s a way to experience the most beautiful city in the world without mortgaging your house. Live in Paris like a Parisian, not like an American.”

Cullen’s solution, like most people I talked to, is to eat cheap, at least most of the day.

“You eat one fabulous meal a day,” she said. “For example, you splurge at lunch, and then eat dinner at a less expensive bistro. Affordable meals in Paris rival the best restaurants in the U.S. I think you can fine dine in Paris without whining about it when you get home.”

Eating, of course, is the national pastime in France, and visitors really can’t avoid it in Paris, what with all the restaurants, brasseries, bistros, bakeries and sweets shops lining the streets. Hemingway once said that hunger sharpened his senses when he was poor and starting out in Paris, and that he sometimes avoided streets with lots of restaurants because the wonderful aromas made him think of nothing but food.

Clients don’t have to go to that extreme to have a good meal in Paris, according to Beverly Biggerstaff at France Vacations in Chatsworth, Calif.

“There are ‘fixed price’ menus on blackboards in front of every restaurant,” Biggerstaff said. “The food on those menus is fresh and bought that day. Go out around 8 or 9 o’clock at night and look at the restaurants in the neighborhood and see which ones are packed. If they’re packed, go back the next night because you know the food there is good.”

Karen Gaines, an American ex-pat from Boulder, Colo., who has lived in Paris for four years with her husband and three young children, agreed.

“Americans think they are being cheated when they see ‘fixed price,’” she said. “But it’s always very good and about half of what you’d pay otherwise.

“All the big, famous chefs in Paris have their big, grand restaurants where you can easily pay $250 for a meal. But they often have ‘baby bistros’ right next door where you pay less, sometimes half as much,” Gaines said. “It’s not unusual to see some famous chef wandering back and forth between the big restaurant and the little one.”

Her favorite “baby bistro”?

“Try Bistro de Cote, 10 rue Gustave Flaubert in the 17th arrondissement,” she suggested. “It’s right next to Michel Rostang, the name of the bigger restaurant and also the name of the chef.”

Cullen said that if visitors want to experience one of Paris’ many ultra-luxury hotels (Four Seasons, Hotel Meurice, The Ritz, etc.), they should do it in a way that doesn’t bust their budget. The secret? Afternoon tea.

“The Crillon offers wonderful tea,” she said, “and then go somewhere else and have a light lunch.”

Another tip: If clients want to duck into a warm cafe and get a quick cup of coffee, suggest they stand at the bar instead of taking a table it’s a lot cheaper. This makes sense if they are not going to have a 2½-hour lunch or spend the entire afternoon in a cafe. But then, it’s always nice to sit in a Paris cafe for an afternoon and watch the foot traffic go by.

Fashion Finds During ‘The Sales’

Clients that find themselves in Paris from Jan. 12-Feb. 12, will be going at just the right time if they like to shop. The Winter Sales go on for a month (more are held in the summer), and they are a bargain-hunter’s paradise. The dates are fixed legally, and there’s a huge run on the main department stores and luxury boutiques on the first days.

“A lot of Parisians take the day off when the sales start,” said Claudia Schall, public relations director at the Hotel Meurice. “They want to be the first to hit the shops. The prices are supposedly fixed, but I’ve heard of people who go to the stores the day before and try to negotiate a sale price then.”

Even on non-sale days, however, the big department stores in Paris make a special effort to cater to tourists. By presenting a passport at the “hospitality desk,” visitors can get an additional 10 percent off all purchases in addition to the VAT tax rebate.

When all is said and done, my favorite thing to do on a winter day in Paris is settle into a corner table at a neighborhood cafe and drink coffee and read. I like to soak up the atmosphere, the voices, the noises of the kitchen and the constant coming and going of busy waiters with plates of food.

I have always thought of Paris at its most romantic when there is a thin dusting of snow, especially in the Tuileries, where the white contrasts so sharply with the black, leafless trees.

On my way home from a recent trip there, it began snowing hard, and by the time I got to the airport, it had all but shut down. I got the last flight out. It was a perfect ending to yet another perfect trip. The magic of Paris never ceases.

Ask the Experts

We asked Parisian travel insiders for tips for agents and this is what they told us.

What are some benefits to Paris in the off season?
“Paris is an amazing city that transcends season. Just think of cobblestone streets, warm baguettes and romantic walks on the Seine. Those that want to avoid the crowds, pay a bit less and truly feel the magic of Paris should go during the off season. Although in Paris there really never is an off season.”

Lanny Grossman, Director of Communications, Small Luxury Hotels of the World

What types of travelers go to Paris in the off season?
“Paris can be incredibly romantic in winter! It is the time of the St Valentine’s Day holiday. Paris is less full, making it a good time for couples who want a truly intimate and relaxing trip to France. You can spend a day walking all bundled up through streets of Paris, stopping in cafes for a cafe creme to warm up, or make a visit to Angelina for their famous hot chocolate. Paris is stunning at night, with the boats lighting up the Seine and the Eiffel Tower sparkling every hour on the hour. Couples can also enjoy one of the many lovely Parisian restaurants for a warming and filling meal; or take in a performance at one of Paris’ many theaters or a concert at a church or cathedral.”

Katherine Johnstone, Media Relations, Maison de la France

Do you have any selling tips for agents?
“The best way to sell it is to know it. Read, visit, research. Read up on cultural differences Parisians are no more rude than any other harried city dwellers. Polly Platt’s books, “French or Foe?” and “Savoir Flair,” shed light on aspects of the overall culture that shape people’s behavior. A little understanding goes a long way toward smoothing the way for a great trip.”

Karen L. Preston, Public Relations Manager, Leading Hotels of the World

Do you have any tips for finding reasonably priced, reliable hotels?
“Always check with the big hotel groups, like Concorde and Accor, they often have special off-season rates, packages, guaranteed U.S.-dollar rates or other discounted rates. Paris has over 1,400 hotels, many of them two- and three-star, which are always more affordable than the higher priced hotels but still offer expected amenities and frequently can offer a unique charm or intimate location.

For more information, agents can call the France On Call number for travel agents: 514-288-6989.”

Katherine Johnstone, Media Relations, Maison de la France

Tips for Travelers

If they don’t have much luggage, clients should consider taking the RER train from either DeGaulle or Orly airports to downtown Paris. It’s only about $7. They can also take Air France buses from the airports to Paris for about $12 even if they didn’t fly on the airline. Taxis are about $47 to $60 (extra for luggage).

If clients are using the Metro for more than a few days, it is economical to have a Carte Orange (subway pass) with a weekly coupon, or hebdomadaire. You will need a passport-size photo. Otherwise, buy a 10-ticket carnet.

The Paris Visite Pass is a good way to buy entrance to museums and the metro before ever leaving the U.S., which also means travelers can purchase it in U.S. dollars.

Another idea is the Paris City Passport. It has 100 sights selected by the Paris Tourist Office that offer special discounts to tourists.

The majority of national museums and monuments in Paris are free all the time for anyone under 18, and free for everyone on the first Sunday of each month. Also, the Carte Musee pass gives free admission and you can go to the head of the line.

Sold at major metro stations.

The Paris Tourist Office allows you to search for restaurants based on their price, which is very handy when on a budget.


The best single source for information on traveling to Paris or all of France, for that matter is the French Government Tourist Office (FGTO). Their integrated Web site provides up-to-the-minute information on airlines, hotels and special events in Paris and elsewhere in France, with links to a large number of money-saving sites.


Hyatt Regency Paris Madeleine

For travelers who require the comfort of home yet still desire a true Parisian experience, the Hyatt Regency Paris Madeleine offers a reliable American brand with a French twist. Located near its namesake the neoclassical Madeleine Church, this boutique-size hotel of 86 rooms (including seven Executive rooms, three Regency suites and one Presidential suite) has the charm of a small French inn, but is actually part of the Hyatt family. The hotel is also located within walking distance of many tourist sites such as the Champs Elysees, the Arc de Triomphe and the Louvre.

Amenities consist of complimentary parking, 24-hour room service and a multilingual staff. The hotel is also pet friendly. The Hyatt Madeleine has two restaurants, Cafe M and La Chinoiserie, as well as a fitness center that offers massage and beauty treatments.

Specials available online until Dec. 31 include Luxury Weekend Break priced from $345 per night; Leisure and Beauty Break from $444 per night; and Culture and Shopping Break, consisting of VIP treatment at Printemps department store and a museum and monument pass, priced from $468  per night. The Hyatt Madeleine is also a member of Hyatt’s “Gold Passport” program for frequent travelers.

Terra Judge