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Vantage Paris

Another fun thing about organising my archived photos is the realisation that, over the years, I’ve been very lucky to have seen Paris from many vantage viewpoints around the city. Nearly all of these locations are accessible to everyone all year round, free or ticket-requiring. If you are looking for a place to see Paris from higher grounds (without breaking the bank by hiring private flights), up up you go!

Viewpoints of Paris

1. Eiffel Tower: This is an obvious one, and my last visit there was as a family outing. We were very pleased to have a wonderfully sunny weather, despite strong wind earlier that day which caused closure of the top-most level. It had reopened by then, but the crowd trying to access it was too crazy for us to even consider tackling. The mid-level viewing decks worked perfectly fine for us.

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Is it expensive to live in Paris?

This post happens quite by chance. In preparation of some changes to come in my life (and no, we’re not talking about starting a family or buying an apartment – not yet anyway), I started tracking my expenses not so long ago. Normally I have a pretty good idea what I spend my money on, but to actually see the amount I spent on certain things, I scared myself along the way!

Pastry from Pierre Hermé

Then a couple more things came my way: (1) an article that I saw on Twitter last week about budgeting based on the 50/20/30 rule – more on this below – and (2) curious friends who have been asking me about the cost of living in Paris. The former had me pondering if I’ve set my financial priorities right, while the latter had me seriously thinking about feasibility of living in Paris.

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Free visits on Sunday

Museums are teeming with all thing curious, interesting, beautiful, ugly, etc that I could spend an entire day in a large one or hop from a small one to another, and would most likely happily repeat the same the next day. (I even own a couple of museum cards so I have unlimited access all year round to these museums without having to queue for ticket each time). Monuments, on the other hand, showcase history through architecture and events that occur on these sites. No less fascinating on their own.

Interior of Versailles Palace

Cue: free museums and monuments Sunday

In Paris-talk, this Sunday refers to the first Sunday of the month. Free entry to check out something different and informative each month – sweet deal!

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Mobility made easier in Paris

Moving around Paris and in Ile-de-France has just been made easier. Hands up anyone who uses Velib’ and are owners of Android phones. Hands up too anyone who has limited zone Navigo passes. Here’s what happened this week…

Biking in Paris

Finally an official Velib’ app for Android!

Thousands of iPhone users have been enjoying the privilege since May 2010, in tracking where one can find or park Velib’ quickly while being out and about the city. Believe it or not, despite Androids being the second largest market share after iOSs, and in recent months have truly trounced Apple’s iOS’s shipments (68% of Android smartphones vs 17% of iPhones in Q2 of 2012), apps for Nokia OVI and Window Phones were developed ahead of Androids. I’m not sure what’s the logic in that… Surely the aim would be to try to capture the most users possible?

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“Short and easy” day-trip (to Mont St Michel)

I am bemused each time I read an article exclaiming that Mont St Michel is a short day trip away from Paris, and this includes Rick Steves’ claim of it being an easy day trip. Maybe, if you are a staunch believer of around-every-country-in-Europe-in-30-days kind of tourism…?

Mont St Michel

Let’s established a couple of basic things here. Given 24 hours in a day, and assuming one gets a good 8-hours sleep, we’re left with 16 hours for all activities in a day. If you need an hour or so to get ready in the morning – shower, personal grooming, breakfast (and coffee!) – now we’re down to 15 hours available for the day to play tourist etc.

The Mont St Michel is a beautiful site and I highly recommend it to anyone who’s pondering whether to go or not. Situated at the boundary between Normandy and Brittany, it was assigned Unesco World Heritage Site all the way back in 1979 (before I was even born!) and attracts reasonable number of visitors each year. It is also, however, some 360km away from Paris. Not exactly the next town over.

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My typical travel prep

Everyone has different ways of managing their travels, and so do I. I’d imagine a number of things I do are not too different from everyone else but if you are curious anyway, read on.

1. Hand luggage only (if possible): since I usually do short haul trips over a few days, I try not to pack more than what can be fit into hand luggage only. Not only that, if I can’t lift the bag over my head to fit into the overhead bin on the plane, then I’ve carried too much.

2. Electronic documentation: I have been quite good at scanning pages of travel documentations, including passport copy as well as identifications, credit/debit cards etc, and store them somewhere secure where I can retrieve them easily, as long as I have internet connection. I do normally carry my laptop when I travel, but I don’t save the scanned copies on it. The last thing I want is to lose my laptop and with it, various identification items. Think identity theft.

3. One travel drawer: I have that one place and one place only where I keep my passport, foreign currencies, paper or printed e-tickets, various confirmations, frequent flyer cards etc. This way, I never do last minute hunting for all necessary travel documents.

4. Ready-to-go toilettries bag: I am not a big fan of the liquid regulation, but frankly it did not affect the way I travel much. I’ve always have a bag where I store toilettries in miniatures, I just had to swap the bag for a slightly smaller one which is transparent to meet the regulation. I always refill the bag upon my return from a trip, so it’s good to go at any time, even on a very short notice. If I know I am staying in hotels which would provide personal care items, I would sometimes remove shampoo, shower gel etc from the bag so I carry less.

5. Shop around: I’ve been very very lucky that my job, up to now, have granted me a lot of freedom in choosing when I can travel, which allows me to look for best prices for flights and accommodations e.g. mid-week when tickets are at the cheapest, impromptu trip to avail of last-minute promotions. I count my blessings to have amazingly flexible bosses for most part of my working life. One who would even grant holiday time tacked the to end of working trips, so I can travel without feeling the pinch of paying for additional air tickets.

6. Open mind, different ideas: there are many reasons to change one’s mind. For one, at times, other destinations work out better budget-wise than my originally intended getaway. That’s not a problem. I can travel elsewhere first, and come back to the initial choice another time. Or, I could arrive somewhere and decide to expand the trip to include another city. Usually it’s just a matter of buying a train ticket in the morning and returning in the evening. Daytripping can be a nice break within a break. The rule is always the same – keep an open mind to other possibilities, pre-trip or during the trip itself.

7. Be selective: when I was young and new to travel, I read all sorts of must-do lists and then try to achieve the impossible of seeing them all within a very short period of time. I did manage to pull a few of them off (and yes, I was feeling really proud of myself back then) but I’ve come to realise the value of choosing those I am really interested in seeing and include them in my visit list. I also try to group the sights together so I’m not running across town to and fro, and instead need to only walk a short distance to my next point of visit within the area.

8. What’s good to eat: I love food and part of the fun of travelling is to try local cuisines and delicacies. I would always try to research on what would be considered delicious bites and keep an eye out for them. I don’t normally list down addresses though, just have some reasonable idea where the eateries may be. If I see anything else along the way, sure I’ll try them too. Good thing I usually walk a lot when I travel, otherwise I’m sure to be a few sizes bigger than I am right now!

9. Charge that battery (and the spare): camera, mobile phone, ipod. If in doubt, charge them up anyway. Case in point – I have a couple of spare batteries for my camera. I do at times wonder which is out of juice and which will get me a good couple of hundred shots. Often, I know exactly where I am with them, but the odd times that I don’t, they will all be charged up. Some people say this will kill the battery life. I’d rather that than having no juice in the cells and miss out on good photo opportunities.

10. Home-cobbled notes: it comes with the research part, usually containing relevant map(s), information on local transportation, weather condition, any cultural points. If I happen to be very busy prior to departure, then I make do with photocopies of the pages from guide books (I try not to carry guide books to make for a lighter bag) and/or printouts from the internet. Once in the city, the tourist office can usually offer free maps, brochures to attractions etc anyway. Or talk to someone, preferably locals. They usually give good tips.

Travel: what not to do

Between my friends and I, we’ve been through our fair share of travel blunders and on occasion, panics – luckily not too many – and hopefully, we are all wiser now, having learnt from these mistakes of our past.

1. Overpacking: common tale, especially for newbies. I remember the times when I brought things “just in case I need it” and boy did I ever need them? No. Since then, I bring only what I know I will use, and if something really does crop up and I need that something, chances are I could buy it on the road too.

2. Silly savings: I like taking direct flights, or one with as little connections as possible. I have friends who prefer doing connecting flights in order to save some money on the tickets. But in this day and age where often, time is at premium, does a saving of $50 justify spending an additional 5 hours at the airports? Does your time not worth more than $10 per hour?

3. Inconvenient arrival time: airlines are trying to fill flights at unpopular slots by offering them at a cheaper price. However, if you arrive, say, past midnight at a remote airport without option of public transport at that time, you may well end up (1) taking taxi which would often be expensive, or (2) sleep at the airport for the night – if it’s allowed to being with. Neither options appeal to me. And when I travel solo, trying to get to hotel in a city I’m not unfamiliar with late at night doesn’t seem like a smart thing to do either, safety wise.

4. Losing common sense: there’s having fun, and there’s having irresponsible fun. Being away doesn’t mean you stop thinking and applying common sense where warranted. Don’t drink too much, don’t leave drinks unattended, practice safe sex, store your belongings safely, don’t leave bags unattended, avoid dark alleys when alone, and the list goes on.

5. Visa mishap: I don’t take chances with visa requirements and so do my friends. Most embassy/consulate pages have the information you’re looking for. IATA website is also useful for the checks. Don’t just rely on travel agents, as they may be unfamiliar with the area or inexperienced. My friend was once given the wrong advice and she was at transit point when she was told she needed a visa for her destination. To her relief, she could apply for the visa online quickly, so she got it all sorted before boarding her flight. No every traveller got so lucky when visa issues crop up.

6. Weather blunder: particularly important for anyone travelling light, what one packs should be what one would use at destination. Weather forecast is helpful in identifying the clothing items to pack. Sure, they’re not 100% accurate, but it beats being unprepared and greeted by drenching rain at your tropical sun destination because you didn’t realise it’s the monsoon season.

7. Money matters: it is prudent not to arrive anywhere without some local currency (admittedly, some currencies are hard to come by outside the country itself) and without knowing the exchange rate. Knowing the rate is vital to the budgetting process. And oh, do yourself a favour – always store some emergency cash separately from your main purse/wallet/pouch. You’ll never know when it’ll come handy.

8. Total upfront payment: it may feel like a good thing to do, paying for everything upfront before departure. However, this leaves little leeway for changes of plan without losing those money. For example, there’s nothing pleasant about staying in an unhygienic hotel/hostel for a week because you’ve paid for it in full. Try to choose a place where only a small deposit is required, and if deemed unsuitable for longer stay, then there’s possibility of moving elsewhere and lose just that deposit. Another example, if you’ve allocated insufficient/too much time for a particular city. Not having paid in full means the schedule can be adjusted accordingly instead of moving on to the next part of the trip at the wrong time.

9. Low on contact infos: with the advent of international mobile usage and heavy social network presence, this is likely a small issue, plus as adults, we don’t always need to account what we do to everyone. However, I still believe in informing at least someone of the rough travel plan together with details of accommodations booked etc. I don’t wish to disappear without a trace…

10. Lack of research: no, I’m not advocating detailed planning for every waking moment of the trip, but to have basic knowledge of the destination reduces the likelihood of unpleasant surprises while still leaving room for new adventures. For example, knowing when there’s a festive celebration cues you in to an opportunity to participate in the event but also to prepare you for possible associated inflation in costs for transportation, food and accommodation.

11. Ignoring your instinct: if something doesn’t feel right instinctively, play it smart by listening to your inner voice. This is not about matters of confronting your fear which may also feel instinctively alien, but of things that leave you uneasy after your assessment of the situation. The world is dynamic and things change. What may once be a safe quarter could now be at peril from gangland troubles. What may once be a reputable budget hotel may now be a motel of choice for adult trades. And so forth. It’s not an issue of bravado to stay put. It’s about managing risk and safety away from home.

12. Overdoing it: it’s very very tempting to try to do everything and it is not always possible. Don’t rush through one site to another just because you want to use all the vouchers of your museum pass. Don’t pack in a tour of seven countries in ten days just because the tour company says you can. Pace it out and enjoy yourself by appreciation, not by number of things you managed to check list.

What other advice(s) do you have for travellers on what not to do on the road, if they’re not already in the list above?

Don’t you mind the taxi driver…

To get from one place to another in the UAE, unless you drive (or have a host/ friend driving you), you’ll most likely be travelling by taxi. Public transport like buses can be infrequent and irregular, and the last thing you want is to wait out under the hot sun without knowing for certain when the next bus will come along. I have been using taxis to travel within Sharjah and Dubai, and between Sharjah and Dubai.

I am quite a chatty person and I’d quite happily talk to anyone, even random strangers. Taxi drivers? Sure. There’s nothing wrong with making some small talks and discuss the weather. Normally, that’s not a problem, but in the UAE, it can be. It can be misconstrued for something else altogether, e.g. you’re interested in him.

My first couple of taxi rides, the drivers tried to engage me in conversation and I obliged, being friendly like I normally would back in Europe. As a result, I have taxi drivers who were very interested in knowing when I would be free and if I would like to (a) go shopping with him – he promised to buy me a present(!), (b) see him when he’s off work, and (c) tour and sight-see the city with him.

Of them all, the last is quite possibly a genuine and innocent proposal – as I was obviously a visitor, naturally this would be an opportunity for the driver to make a bit more money by offering taxi tour. Fair enough. But the other suggestions, downright dodgy.

I learned quickly that I should be courteous but never friendly with taxi drivers. In a firm and no-nonsense voice, I conveyed my destination and checked that the driver knew where he was going (you’ll be surprised at how some of them can be quite clueless – by chance or by design, I have no idea). Then, it was staring out the window and not engaging in conversations at all. On arrival, I paid, said my thank you and got off. Khalas. No funny propositions, no ambiguity of intention. And also, I was cautioned by a friend to never ride at the front of the taxi when I was on my own.

There is also something called Ladies’ Taxis available in Dubai (I’m not aware of it in Sharjah). The fleet is pink in colour, of course, and should be booked ahead as they don’t normally drive around looking for fares. However, they are present at the airport and some malls where females frequently visit. They do cost a bit more though but if that’s what you’re more comfortable with, go for it.

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