Last week we tackled several basic questions from a first-time overseas traveler planning a tour of England and Holland. We're asked those kinds of queries over and over again, in one form or another.
A new set came in from Eulalie H. of Swanton. She's 70-something with “a few health problems,” but has a once-in-a-lifetime chance to spend Easter break in Paris. Five days, five nights with a family of five. She asks:
Q: What is the safest way to pay? Traveler's checks? Credit cards? And which is most accepted? What's the rate of exchange now that the Euro's in place?
A: We recommend you take a combination of traveler's checks, credit cards, and an ATM card for maximum flexibility. Before you go, alert the bank issuing your credit card and ATM that you will be traveling overseas. Otherwise your card may be “red flagged” the first time you try to use it in a foreign country and rendered inactive for the remainder of the trip. This actually happened to a traveling companion of ours.
Upon arrival at the airport, either change a traveler's check or use your ATM card to get the equivalent of $50 or so to pay for incidentals and transportation to the hotel. Once settled in, you can get all the Euros you need for daily use. Traveler's checks should be changed only at banks - not hotels, shops, or restaurants. ATM machines are now on almost every street corner in big cities like Paris, and finding one won't be a problem.
The most readily accepted credit cards in France are Visa and MasterCard. American Express is not highly favored. A Euro is currently worth about 90 cents.
Q: Should we be alert to theft in Paris? And what about wearing a money belt?
A: Yes and yes. Petty theft is as prevalent in Paris as it is in any large city. Be especially wary in the Metro (subway) and at popular tourist sights like Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, and the Louvre.
A standard money belt is a good idea - much better than a purse or wallet - but keep it hidden, if possible, under your clothing. Protect it even more carefully in high-traffic areas. A zip-up inside jacket pocket is another good alternative.
Be suspicious of begging mothers bearing babies, and bands of roaming youngsters with pieces of cardboard.
Most important, have nothing on your person you can't afford to lose. Leave expensive watches and jewelry at home, and your travel documents in the hotel.
Q: What is the average cost of meals? Where are some of the best places to dine? Will it be warm enough by the end of March to eat at outside cafes?
A: With the dollar still as strong as ever versus the Euro, you should find dining in Paris both pleasurable and inexpensive.
If you're on a tight budget however, and if the cost of breakfast isn't included at your hotel, save by having coffee and croissants at a cafe near your hotel. Put together wonderful and inexpensive picnic lunches of french bread (baguettes), cheese, sausage, and bottled water bought from the local patisserie, food store, or outdoor market.
Check out small, cozy restaurants in the neighborhood - the menus are always posted outside - and make a reservation if the price and atmosphere seem right. In lieu of that, you should be able to get in anywhere around 7 p.m. Parisians don't even think about eating much before 8.
Oh, yes, those outdoor cafes. They're open most of the year, and in cool weather special heaters are cranked up.
Q: I want to pack light. Are slacks worn in churches and museums?
A: Slacks and jeans are fine anywhere these days.
Q: Are most accommodations clean? How about public restrooms?
A: Unless you're going really low budget, your hotel room will be perfectly sanitary. In Paris, anything with a rating of 2 stars or more should be fine.
As far as public restrooms are concerned, the good news is that there are plenty of them. The better news is that in Paris the freestanding, coin-operated ones that look like futuristic phone booths get a thorough automated wash after every single use.
Q: Is food pretty safe? How about fresh fruit and vegetables? Is bottled water available? Are coffee and tea safe with boiling?
A: There's no need at all to worry about the safety of French food and drink. In addition, you'll be totally astonished at the rich and wonderful selection of foods displayed in food stores - both specialty and supermarkets - and on stalls in the outdoor markets.
Bottled water is available literally everywhere, and will be offered to you in restaurants. As far as coffee is concerned, go for the “cafe au lait” - half hot milk, half coffee - and you'll never want anything else again!
Q: Since we're not flying first class, will the flight be hard?
A: The six-to-seven-hour flight is the easy part. It's the three-hour preflight check-in and screening that will test your patience. Pack sandwiches to kill time and avoid excessive airport prices.
Take along plenty to read, and wear loose-fitting, casual clothes. Get out of your seat and walk about the cabin every hour or so. And above all, relax and enjoy yourself.
(Readers may write to travel advisers Roger Holliday and Claudia Fischer at P.O. Box 272, Bowling Green, OH 43402. If a reply is desired, please enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope.)