My four hour journey from Charles de Gaulle to Paris…

Usually I attribute these blunders to my idiocy. This time around I won’t. I’ll give myself a bit more credit. I’m a busy person, and in this case just got back from my trip around the world on Monday afternoon, and was off to Paris on Thursday morning. That means I had zero time to plan how to get from the airport to the city. Hell, I had to pull an all nighter on Wednesday to even get half of my work done.

I always like to take public transportation from the airport to the city, not just because it’s cheaper, but because it’s usually a nice way to already start sightseeing while on your way. A 30 minute train ride and 20 or so minute walk is usually perfectly pleasant, assuming I pack light and the weather is nice (both of those conditions were the case this weekend).

I landed at Charles de Gaulle at around 1PM. I headed for the train station with frequent nonstop service to the city. The extent of my planning included asking for advice on Twitter and trying to use Google Maps (“trying” being the key word, here). Based on Google Maps it appeared as if I could take the REB train and get off at the Challet Les Halles station, and then walk maybe 1.5 miles to the hotel. While I could have likely taken a subway connection, a 20 minute walk sounded like fun given the beautiful day, so that was the plan. Now, I didn’t know how exactly to get to the hotel from the station, other than having a general knowledge of where it is on a map, and knowing I’d need to follow the Seine for a while.

Anyway, what followed was a journey of over four hours from the airport to my hotel (which shall remain nameless for the time being since my security threat level is currently at level orange). 😉

After landing at Charles de Gaulle I followed the signs to the REB train. If there’s one thing to love about European airports — Paris, London, Frankfurt, etc. — it’s that they’re designed with your health in mind. By that I mean that they’ve done everything possible to maximize the amount of walking you’ll have to do to get anywhere.

After about a 20 minute walk to the airport train station I got to a machine to buy my 8 Euro train ticket. I entered my credit card and it wouldn’t read. Crap. I assumed it was because my card didn’t have some sort of a chip that most cards here have, since that was what the card in the display looked like. I asked someone at information to confirm, and he said I could buy a ticket with that credit card, though I would need to get in the line at the train ticket counter. The line for the train ticket counter was as long as an airline customer service desk during a blizzard, and I knew I wouldn’t have the patience. Sadly I didn’t have any cash on me, so I tried to find a currency conversion place, though there were none in the area.

Fortunately I had a great idea. I had seen a Super Shuttle billboard earlier, advertising transportation to anywhere in the city for 20 Euros. Great, I thought, I’ll do that. I’m sure they take credit cards too. I spent the next 20 minutes trying to find where Super Shuttle leaves from, only to realize they don’t sell tickets at the airport (why the hell are they advertising at the airport then?).

Okay, at that point indecisive Lucky headed back to the train station. I had the option of getting in the (now) even longer line at the ticket counter, or trying a different machine. I tried one more time, and surprisingly it took my credit card this time around. Winning.

My luck was turning around. I managed to hop on a train a minute before it was departing, and figured the worst was behind me. An old guy started playing an instrument and singing, and after one song went around with a cup giving each person an evil glare until they threw some change in there.

The next entertainment was when the conductors came to check tickets. At least four people in my cabin didn’t have tickets, so they each got fined, though each of them played dumb and put up a crazy argument.

Finally I made it to the station I was planning on getting off at and walking to the hotel from.

I looked for the “sortie” (see, my French is muy bien), though couldn’t find one. There were three signs leading in different directions, so I tried them one by one. I proceeded to spend over 30 minutes just trying to get the hell out of the train station, which was more like an underground shopping mall fortress. I saw at least a dozen emergency exits, though not a single “legitimate” exit. I asked several people where the exit was, and while they all pointed me in one direction or another, none lead anywhere. At that point I decided to get creepy and start following people. I figured that everyone was eventually going to leave, so following someone might just be the best way to get out.

Eventually it worked — I broke free and found the exit, which was up about 50 flights of stairs (always fun when carrying bags).

At this point it’s probably worth pointing out that I’m severely directionally challenged. I mean, I really, really suck with directions. Even towards the end of my four years in Gainesville, where I went to school, I still got lost on my way to Starbucks, which was half a mile from where I lived.

With that in mind, my plan was to try and find the Seine River, because then I’d know where I am, can walk along it, and eventually turn in the right direction. That was easy enough. By “easy enough” I mean it should have taken about 10 minutes, though “only” took me 30 minutes. I made it to the Seine and walked along it, bags in tow. After another 20 or so minutes I turned right towards the area I needed to go to. I knew I was maybe within half a kilometer of where I needed to be, though I couldn’t quite figure out the directions for that last half kilometer.

I stopped and looked at a map by the subway, though not before at least a dozen people tried the “ring scam” on me (and I was generous each time, and insisted they keep the ring and all the money, since they all seemed like such nice people). 😉

Unfortunately the map didn’t display the street I needed to be on, or at least I couldn’t find it. I asked a dozen people for directions, and no one had a clue where the street was. Actually, let me rephrase that. Just about everyone thought they knew where it was, but in each instance sent me the wrong way.

Anyway, this is dragging on long enough. I finally made it to the lobby of my hotel at around 5:30PM, well over four hours after landing. As I was asked by the check-in host my ride in was, I simply smiled and said “lovely.” I guess the fact that my 22″ rollaboard had more dirt on it than a Jeep Wrangler that just finished a swamp safari expedition wasn’t revealing enough. 😉

I checked in, went up to my room, and immediately asked where the closest convenience store was. I nearly drowned myself with Evian water (hey, if there’s a water I want to down myself with, it’s gotta be Evian).

So the moral of the story? Don’t show up in a foreign city without cash. Or a map. Or directions. Or a cell phone with GPS. Or without having any clue where the hell you’re going.

Filed Under: Travel
  1. I hate to say it, but less than 30 minutes looking online should’ve given you all the tips you needed to avoid these pitfalls. TripAdvisor must have a zillion threads about how to get from CDG to the city…FT has several as well. Always have some Euros if you plan to take the RER; be prepared for steps; etc. Michelin publishes a nice, cheap, spiral-bound Paris atlas that is perfect for walking around. Or just take a pre-reserved airport shuttle which will take you right to the hotel door.

    Oh well, you’re there now so enjoy the City of Lights!

  2. Ouch!

    I’m much too compulsive. I usually get cash at an airport ATM (check location in advance), bring a google maps printout of how to get from the airport to my hotel and a phone with GPS and a map pre-loaded. For that matter, I also bring a printout of all hotel, transport, etc. confirmations, topped with a summary itinerary.

  3. I always plug my hotel’s GPS coordinates into my phone before I leave home and also download via Wifi the local area map (to save on both roaming data charges as well as speed). It’s rarely difficult to find the general area of the hotel by asking around but its the last few steps that usually cause the biggest problem, especially if the property is new or re-branded. This has saved me more than a few times in various parts of the world.

    Be thankful you were in Paris by day though. A friend of mine once had to figure out the Noctilien system of night buses to get from Notre Dame at 2am to the airport in time for a 630am flight the next morning. Without speaking a word of French. He made it but only just.

  4. I couldn’t find my 20+ story hotel in Tokyo even though the directions from the subway were straight forward. I didn’t realize that there were two subway stations with the same name though different lines. Later I found myself in the other station and like the instructions said — it took 5 minutes to walk to the hotel and not the hour I spent on arrival.

  5. For those of us technically challenged, how do we pre-load a map on a phone, specifically iphone? I already have problems with the regular map of my area and have no clue how to load another.

  6. I was in the same situation recently in Barcelona T1. Aerobus machine wont accept my card. I had 3 one hundred € note on me, but it was apparently too big for them. So i bought a meal at Cafe Florian to get some change. Only to be ripped off by the nice cashier. Guess he could spot a jetlagged tourist. Paid €100 for a €6 meal to receive €44 back. I only realised once i was in my hotel room.. Lesson learned.

  7. You should get out of the airports more often. Any world traveller knows how to get around.

    No need to have money in advance. There are ATMs at airports to get cash.

    Subways, etc. always expect stairs and plenty of them. So, if lots of luggage, etc. take a bus, shuttle, cab, or limo.

    Always go online before hand to figure out how to get where you need to go. Print if necessary. Instead of writing about a woman wearing a robe in a lounge you should have been finding out how to get to your Paris hotel.

    I would expect an older person to have the difficulties you explain, not someone young as yourself and a newly college graduate to boot.

    Paris subways always have a map of the area surrounding each station at each exit so that you can get your bearings and find your way. Geez, many city subway systems have those maps.

  8. Ugh, Chatelet les Halles is the world’s most confusing place. And the shopping center above it… it’s impossible to navigate. If there were a fire in there… just sayin’.

    Lucky- for someone who travels through Europe so much, don’t you keep some Euros around? I go 2-3 times a year and I usually have about 200e in small bills around just for taxis, little things. I guess it’s the typical Flyertalker thing, using plastic for everything, but not having enough cash to buy a pack of gum 😉

  9. Like Jonathan said, just take the Roissy bus. It arrives/leaves right next to the Opera – close to a number of leading Paris hotels.

  10. A quick email to your hotel asking cor directions would have solved everything, but sometimes getting lost in a city can be a route for self-discovery. Matt Gross is making an industry out of it.

    Enjoy crepes on the street, Luxembourg Gardens with great picnic grub from the monoprix and, if you want to go back to the era of Degas and Renoir, head to the horse races at Chantilly

  11. One of the smartest things I ever did was pay for the Europe maps for my GPS. Since you probably don’t have data service on your phone, this is a good replacement when walking around with no clue where you’re going.

  12. Much as much as I love Paris, I’ve had similar experiences of getting lost in the city. I arrived on a train one time (Thaly’s) into Paris Nord and in spite of having a cab to myself took 45 mins to get to my hotel in montparnasse! that was a trip planned in 30 mins so I did not have the time to go over the details except book my hotel and my train ticket tho!

  13. Agree with all of the above: Paris really isn’t that difficult to prepare for, and yes, anyone who knows the city even a bit will go to great lengths to avoid Châtelet-Les Halles simply because it is terribly laid out, more than a little bit dangerous, “mal fréquenté” and just a general pain to get through. (The fluorescent lighting is also aesthetically displeasing, but this is a general problem with the Paris métro.)

    While I always take the métro to central Paris when I’m by myself, and a cab when I’m with someone else, I have to say that Roissybus to Opéra (the best option given where you ended up) or Les cars Air France to Étoile and Gare de Lyon/Gare Montparnasse are probably worth it if you don’t speak any French. Even if you get a cab to your final destination from where they drop you off, you’re probably looking at 25€ at most to get to anywhere within Pari, a fair price between the 55€ for a cab, and the 10€ for a métro ticket alone.

    Also, note that the CDG transfer on the métro via RER B allows you to take a métro journey on the same ticket to anywhere within Paris, provided that you don’t exit the system. I’m guessing that you ended up at the Intercontinental, the Park Hyatt, the Hyatt-Madeleine, or the Westin Paris, and all of these would have been more easily accessed by getting off at Tuileries, Opéra, or Madeleine.

  14. The CDG RER system is not as simple as taking the Heathrow Express or other airport transfers. BTW this is akin to taking the train to downtown Tokyo, so you are better off taking the limousine bus. Chatelet is one of the worst stations to transfer and visit. I would recommend that you take the Air France bus from Opera or Arc de Triomphe to return to the airport. If necessary, take a cab to the bus stop. Ask the hotel concierge for further info.

  15. Lucky, I have to agree that a little more advance planning/research would have been in order.

    That said, all the folks above lecturing you about simply going to an ATM are missing a key point: not only do the RER automated ticket machines not (usually) take credit cards that lack chip-and-PIN (US cards, in short), they also don’t take bills.

    Last summer we arrived at CDG on the tail end of a trip to Vienna & Nicosia, and encountered the same problems (huge line for staffed ticket windows, machines unable to take US credit cards). Fortunately, I’d been saving up Euro coins for precisely this occasion. For four of us, it must have taken around 32 Euros, every bit of it in coins. (If only they took US dollar coins …. 🙂

    In brief, 1) always research in advance the options (and pitfalls) re transit to/from the airport, and 2) the setup for buying RER tickets at CDG totally sucks for US travelers.

  16. One other comment about travel in Paris: the best travel investment I ever made was the IR£4.57 I spent in Dublin in 1987 for a copy of “Paris par Arrondissement,” a pocket-size book with maps & street index for the entire city.

    Yes, this is So Very Last Century as a solution. But when your smartphone battery dies, or your data roaming plan turns out not to work, there is much to be said for the affordances of dead-tree format.

    I’m pretty sure the same book is still available, although it has a different name now, I believe. Just look for a small (3.5″x5.5″) book with tabbed pages; the publisher is Editions l’Indispensable, suitably enough.

  17. Before leaving on an international trip and while in the States, I’ll use Google Maps on my iPhone and take screen captures (press the power + Home buttons simultaneously) of the street maps at several zoom levels around my hotel and any public transit I plan to take. If I’m lost, taking out a phone is less noticeable than taking out a map.

  18. I can relate to this.

    year I arrived in Brussels after a long day. I did easily find the train from the airport to Brussels but then I couldn’t find my hotel (Metropole). The streets didn’t seem to match the map. After lugging around my luggage for a long time I finally saw and different hotel (NH Atlanta?) and asked them where my hotel was located. The lady said go across the street and walk about 100 meters 🙂

    Last December I stayed at the Hilton in Munich where you are suppose to be able go from the station directly to the hotel w/o leaving the station. Well we could never find the entrance and always had to walk outside to get to the hotel. Going from the hotel to the station was never a problem and no matter how much we tried to identify its location we could never find it when we returned in the evening. I think it was some kind of magical entrance 🙂

  19. @Cliff – Less noticeable, but will also cause fewer “lucky days.”

    Hours hours of wandering, looking lost, while toting luggage, on the other hand, appears to promote dozens of such.

  20. You said: At this point it’s probably worth pointing out that I’m severely directionally challenged. Wrong. You Americans are challenged. Period.

  21. Actually I agree with the people that said get cash from the ATM at CDG. I was in CDG a few months ago. There are ATM’s all over that airport. I had arrived with zero euros also. The exchange rate from the ATM was excellent.

    I went and stood in the cab line outside. A private car service driver approached me and said he would take me into Paris for the same price as a cab. (He had just dropped off someone at CDG.) I got a ride into Paris in a Mercedes Sedan. I used this same guy on the return trip to CDG for the same price. Good deal.

  22. Seems like a stark contrast to the ease that is the Heathrow Express. I have to say… a couple rookie mistakes though – thought you’d be a little more prepared. Anyway, glad to hear you made it safely!

  23. Sorry to hear how long it took you! When I want to Paris in March, I took the Roissy Bus from CDG > Opera, and then walked the couple of blocks to the Park Hyatt. Upon my return, I took the RER from Opera to Chatelet, and then transferred to the RER bound for CDG. Signage was easy to spot, and even somebody who can’t speak a word of french would understand how to get around the station.

    For your return, perhaps you should ask/confirm with the hotel concierge, the easiest way to get back to CDG. I checked the night before, and am glad that I did so.

  24. I never will walk around Paris without a Paris by arrondissement book, you need it because it has every street name, which is a must in that city.

  25. So many people commenting you should have prepared better and suggesting ways to do that. I read the post with amusement and thought it was a lighthearted commentary acknowledging you didn’t prepare worth a crap. Obviously you know how to prepare for a trip and can make fun of yourself when you do not.

  26. Wow, “maxe” is a real piss slit who should stay off the internet. What a douche.

  27. Couple of things.

    For general travel info on how to get from the airport to town, I use Some people say it’s a little outdated, but still very useful.

    I also employ one very important skilll. I Ask for help/directions. While not everyone may understand me, with some patience, you’ll find someone that eventually does.

  28. I arrived at CDG earlier last month with a few credit cards and ATM cards. No euro in the pockets at all. I was trying to use my ALLY bank’s card to withdraw cash, but it didn’t recognize my password. Since I’m really cheap, I didn’t pay for the $5 charge plus some other fees to use my Bank of America card. This got me worried. No cash and no way to pay for tickets? Fortunately, I could get the train tickets with credit card. There is a BNP Paribas close to my hotel. BoA’s agreement with BNP allows customers to get fee-free withdraw at BNP’s ATM’s. I got my much needed cash finally.

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