A photograph of the Eiffel Tower and the Left Bank in Paris, France, as seen from the terrace of La Samaritaine.

Lessons from the Past

In 2003, I decided to try a new resolution: I was going to travel somewhere that I’d never been before. That spring, my boyfriend (now husband) and I visited Paris before heading on a train to Toulouse, where we’d stay with our friend who was studying at the Université de Toulouse. As it was the first trip abroad that we’d ever take on our own, there were a few things that we learned along the way.

DO take advantage of traveler discounts for youth, full-time students, etc.

Ah, youth. You can eat whatever you want, sleep as little as you want, and travel nearly wherever you want at discount rates. I’ve used Student Universe and STA Travel back in my college days for discounted airfare.

The trip savings don’t stop at airfare, either – there are youth discounts for European rail travel, too, such as the trip that we took on the TGV from Paris to Toulouse. And don’t forget ticket discounts at museums and other sights! The day that I lost my student ID (admittedly many, many, many days after I had graduated from college) was a sad day, indeed. No more discounts for me…

DON’T head out unless you’re 100% sure that you know how to get from the airport to your accommodation

I had booked a room at the Hotel Brittany, located at 3 et 5 rue Saint-Lazare. Funny thing about old European cities, though – sometimes streets cross squares… and continue on the other side.

Nowadays, it’s much easier to get around, thanks to GPS, mobile map apps, and door-to-door directions. I might have looked up the hotel on MapQuest and scribbled its location onto a crappy paper map that came with my guidebook (no names printed for smaller streets). I forgot about that map when I shoved the book into the bottom of my luggage. Instead, my boyfriend and I walked down Rue Saint-Lazare… which became Rue de Châteaudun.

Confused, we walked back and forth on the same two streets, dragging our large rolling suitcases, which brings me to my next point:

DON’T overpack

If there’s ever been one universal rule of travel, it’s to pack light. I won’t get into the details of how to pack, but I’ve long since ditched the large rolling suitcase for a duffel-slash-backpack and have found getting around a lot easier.

After walking the same patch of Rue Saint-Lazare and Rue de Châteaudun for ten minutes with luggage in tow, I finally gathered up the courage to ask a person on the street for directions.

DO study up on the language, but…

I saw a crinkly-faced old man standing on the corner, mustered up my best high school French and asked: “Pardon, sorry to bother you, but where is 3 et 5 rue Saint-Lazare?

DON’T ask a question in a foreign language unless you’re willing to hear the answer in that language

Monsieur stared up and down the street and started gesturing towards the church in the middle of the square while talking… in French. Yeah, should have seen that coming.

Most importantly, BE prepared for surprises and DON’T sweat the small stuff

We thanked him and wheeled ourselves towards the  church square, not sure where to go from there. We wandered due east along the square and stopped when we saw a street sign on a building across the street: “Rue Saint-Lazare”! Finally!

Was this 30-minute detour avoidable? Totally. An insignificant amount of planning would have taken care of that. However, setbacks can and will eventually crop up during one’s travels. I’ve experienced bad weather, disappointing sights, missing hotel reservations, transit strikes, busted cameras, to name a few – and it’s best to keep calm and roll with the punches.


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