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Farnoosh Torabi is Editor-at-Large of CNET Money and host of the award-winning podcast So Money.
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Since my study abroad college semester in Paris, I vowed to one day return with my future family to show them the most exciting and beautiful city I’d ever known. That promise finally came to fruition last week.
My husband and I, along with our two children, journeyed to the French capital for a week of museum-hopping and croissant-eating, and I reminisced at each step. I’m happy to report that Pizza Pino, where my classmates and I would gather for cheap and comforting meals after a night on the town, is still going strong.
I’ve been sharing money tips for 20 years, including advice for affordable travel. But this experience was different for a lot of reasons. Not only was this my first time traveling to Europe while the dollar was on par with the euro, but I was also accommodating the attention spans of a 5-year-old and an 8-year-old.
Here’s what I learned about stretching my money overseas without sacrificing quality.
Timing is a biggie if you want to save money and experience more of what the city has to offer. Don’t go in June when school’s out. Avoid Christmas and New Year’s. Visit during a quieter time like we did in early November. Europe’s off-season is between November and March (excluding holiday weeks).
When we arrived at the Louvre — the “world’s most visited museum” — I didn’t think we were at the right entrance because nobody was in line. We experienced the same relaxed entry at the Eiffel Tower and walked through security lines within seconds. Our Airbnb was also less expensive per night than during the busier tourist months. Avoiding crowds at museums and restaurants allowed us to experience more hot spots and hip restaurants during our trip sans reservations.
Planning for this can be tricky, I’ll admit. Going during non-holiday weeks may mean using up more of your paid vacation days and taking your kids out of school. But check your calendars to find opportune times to travel during the fall and winter months when you may have a random school or work closing.
In France and throughout the European Union, countries charge a flat tax on retail goods and services known as VAT, which stands for value added tax. In France, the VAT is a whopping 20%. The better news is that, as a US visitor, you can usually reclaim the tax when you spend more than $100 on a single piece of merchandise.
Getting the refund, however, is not straightforward. There are multiple steps you need to take prior to departing the EU. First, be sure to ask for a tax refund form from the retailer. The store will require your actual passport or a photo (it depends on the retailer) to complete the form for you. In France, you must then present and scan the form at what’s known as the Pablo Kiosk at the airport prior to going through security on the day you return to the US.
I messed this part up, as I didn’t notice the kiosk and assumed I could validate my forms at the VAT information office by my flight gate. But I was sorely mistaken and had to repeat going through security and immigration — another 30 minutes — to use the kiosk.
Hotels come with a level of protection and predictability when you’re traveling abroad, but for our family of four, many of the budget-friendly hotel rooms were far too small and, in some cases, required an extra room to accommodate us. For this reason, we turned to Airbnb, which was more affordable. Plus, we booked a flat with a kitchen so we could cook some meals and reduce the need to eat out all the time. As with any lodging, look out for extra fees or specific requirements before you commit.
And Airbnb offers more than just lodging. Local hosts also provide activities and guided excursions through Airbnb Experiences. We booked some high-value private tours that offered personalized experiences. There’s nothing like getting picked up and driven to Versailles with a fun, knowledgeable tour guide. My kids loved Paolo (book him here)!
Tipping doesn’t save you money, but having read up on the recent wave of protests and strikes over inflation and the rising cost of living, we felt it would be generous and helpful to tip service workers 20%. It is more than they’re accustomed to, as many receive a living wage and benefits in France, but it was a way to practice our gratitude on the trip — and make it more meaningful to us. There is a rumor that some workers will be offended by your generous tip, but we didn’t find that to be the case. If you can afford this, I recommend planning for this in advance and converting your money to euros prior to departure… which brings me to my next point.
It’s a good time to buy euros. The exchange rate is roughly 1 USD for 0.96 euros, almost 1 to 1. But drawing cash at foreign ATMs or converting at airport kiosks can mean paying high fees at poor rates. I researched how to convert cash to euros before my trip and found that local banks and credit unions in the US offer the best exchange rates, giving you a little more buying power
Some banks do charge a small fee, but it’s still generally a better option than an online currency converter or airport kiosk. Pro tip: Visit your bank at home a week before leaving on your trip. I was surprised when they told me it would take two business days to convert to euros.
Prior to leaving, I alerted my credit card company that I’d be traveling so they wouldn’t flag the purchases as fraudulent. In that same conversation, I learned that despite having two different cards from this one issuer, only one offered no foreign transaction fees. (It was the card that has an annual fee.) These fees, which can be as high as 5%, are charged when using certain US credit cards outside of the country. I made sure to consolidate as many of our purchases on this one card to skirt the fees.
I had anticipated some hurdles traveling with small kids like time-zone shifting, boredom from all the “grown-up” stuff and picky eating. So I chatted with a few experts and travelers ahead of time who had experience roaming through Paris with young ones. Instagram was a great resource. I discovered @the.petit.guide, who generously sent me a list of inexpensive, kid-friendly restaurants and activities, like taking the carousel across from the Eiffel Tower and playing with the little sailboats in the Tuileries Gardens. I also began following the account @hellofrenchnyc, a French woman named Cecilia who provides language and culture tips. She often references her dad’s restaurant in Paris, too, called Le Colimacon, where we dined on our first evening — delicious, authentic and affordable fare that accommodates walk-in guests, pas de problème!