“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are made for.” J.A. Shedd
When I first started planning this trip the original idea was to remain in France, starting in Paris and working our way South towards Cannes, but as I researched further I concluded that finishing our trip in Italy would be better if we wanted to expose the kids to two individual cultures. Teaching them to say 'S'il vous plaît' or 'arrivederci' was a fun challenge and every time I saw them attempt to speak with a local in their native tongue I felt vindicated.The first step was to book places to sleep, but next I had to figure out the best way for us to get to them. Our first flight was one-way from Dulles Airport in Washington D.C. to Charles De Gaulle in Paris, France, it cost $28.00 and 150k United Mileageplus points for five tickets.
Upon landing in Paris we searched for a cab to our apartment and were almost tricked into using an unofficial driver that pulled us out of the line and told us to follow him. Luckily, since there were five of us we didn’t fit in his car and decided against driving without seatbelts, despite the con-mans efforts to convince us it’d be fine.
We got back into the line to wait for a city-mandated cab to pull up and since there were five of us, we needed to wait longer for a van to arrive. However, I’m glad we used the municipal cab because the unsanctioned driver would have probably tried to rip us off.Make sure to always look for the city flag outside the airport, this designates an official pickup/drop-off location. Don't trust anyone who tells you they know a quicker way into the city, they’re preying on the stereotype that you’re uninformed and impatient. We hopped in our designated cab and made our way to the first AirBnB, along the way our kids counted each McDonalds in a desperate attempt to find some familiarity in their newly foreign surroundings.
Throughout our week in Paris, I was very impressed by their intuitive public transportation and regularly rode the Metro. After purchasing tickets at the entrance we simply fed them through the turnstile to gain access and then again when we left. There is also a discount for purchasing in bulk or when buying a group (carnet) of tickets for children under 10.
We noticed Metro Police randomly checking stubs and since I made the mistake of keeping all the tickets in the same pocket, it was more difficult for them to verify their legitimacy. Keeping the voided tickets separate from the new tickets was challenging with five people, but the Metro Police were always willing to take a moment to help tourists figure out their system with a smile. As with any new place, it took some getting used to as there are different tickets for travel within the city versus outside the city (which caused an issue when we went to Disneyland), but since they could tell we were tourists they waived the normal €35.00 fine and the helpful officer allowed us to just pay the cost of the ticket which was €1,90 per person.
When navigating the metro system I used a fantastic app called Paris Metro which detailed every stop and laid out my entire trip. Having precise directions at each stop was a lifesaver on several occasions and I can’t recommend this app highly enough. It also helped that each station had a unique style and the announcer spoke clearly on the platform, helping us to not miss any of our stops.
I recommend avoiding the train going to La Defense during morning rush hour, it squished us like sardines and made me very paranoid of pick-pockets. Other than that, we always had seats and the trains themselves were much cleaner than I’m used to. I would gladly trade the headaches of my personal vehicle to solely use the metro if I lived in Paris, it was a joy to ride.
Our only other method of transportation while in Paris was our feet, but if we stayed a few more days I could see my sons getting used to hover-boards, the preferred method of transportation among the locals. Roads were regularly closed to pedestrian traffic and bicycle repair pop-ups were everywhere for little to no cost. I even stumbled upon people building bikes from a giant pile of communal parts in the city center. The crosswalks in Paris were well maintained and rotated quicker than in the states as well.
While walking around Paris, I regularly struggled with remaining on schedule rather than exploring new corridors, but the Google Maps “add stop” feature definitely helped to pre-map out our days. This way if we got sidetracked, we were still going in the general direction of our final destination and multiple stops along the way broke up the complaining from the children.
I’m a big fan of the French street artist 'Invader', and even though his work is mimicked on every street, it was fun to try and determine if any were actually authentic. This clever combination of historical architecture with pop culture artwork is just another reason I fell in love with Paris.
Upon leaving Paris I knew driving would be a challenge, but during the week I observed the street signs and general traffic patterns in an attempt not to be completely unprepared when I picked up the rental car.
Booking a rental car was something that nearly everyone tried to talk me out of, and I considered flying from France to Italy, taking an overnight train, and I even looked into booking a bus, but ultimately, I knew that the freedom of having a vehicle would allow us to discover areas away from typical tourist destinations. I researched a lot of different international rental car companies and settled on using Sixt because of their reputation and easy to navigate website, plus they explicitly allowed travel between countries which many other rental companies prohibited.I paid a hefty price to ensure there wouldn’t be any issues with our vehicle as I considered it the equivalent of our ship while out at sea and I wanted as few unexpected headaches as possible. I paid an additional €47.50 to guarantee us a diesel engine because we’d be driving through some very remote countryside and diesel was more abundant in Europe. I also paid extra for an additional driver and the ability to drop the car off in a separate country than where I picked it up from. The €916.66 charge was expensive, but if we didn't pay the required import fees in both countries then we would have been risking getting a fine or having our car towed. Since I didn’t feel like haggling with a police officer to keep our car, I decided to use a more expensive international company, rather than a cheaper proprietary rental agency.
I also chose to purchase an International Drivers Permit for my wife and I from AAA prior to leaving. This book translated my domestic drivers license into several languages and was listed as a requirement for travel in Italy. While I never ended up using it, and a passport would have probably been sufficient, it helped my peace of mind to have it just in case.
By booking the car using our Chase Sapphire Preferred card (the Chase Sapphire Reserve would have worked too) I was able to waive all insurance through the rental company which saved me a substantial amount upon booking. When you pick up the car make sure to decline the CDW (collision damage waiver) or else you will not be covered by Chase for international incidents. When traveling domestically, the CDW supplements your existing coverage, but when traveling abroad it replaces it altogether.
I ended up needing to use the insurance after scraping a bollard in Paris, and by purchasing the rental with my Chase Sapphire card I saved $1,480.96. When you submit the claim make sure to select the option to have the bank pay you back rather than them dealing directly with the rental car company. I ran into an issue with processing when Card Benefit Services mailed the check to the incorrect address because they weren't familiar with French street name syntax. If I would have elected to pay with a credit card, and then let Chase reimburse me, I would have avoided some headaches in tracking down the check and getting it reissued.
While walking in Paris is a euphoric experience, driving in the city will give you nightmares. If I could do it again, I’d elect to pick the vehicle up from Sixt at a location outside the city to avoid navigating its narrow alleys and abundant crosswalks. However, I chose to pick the vehicle up within walking distance and then drove back to retrieve our luggage.My daughter came along and watched me find my manual-transmission sea legs as the vehicle rocked back and forth in the roundabout, people flying past me on all sides because no one uses blinkers in France. After I left the city it was smooth sailing along the highway to the mountains, but driving around the Arche De Triomphe in Paris was definitely not the whimsical experience I had imagined.
We didn't run into any traffic in France or Italy, and coming from the Washington D.C. area, this was quite the welcome change. The construction zones appeared without much warning, redirecting your vehicle with little warning to the other side of the highway, but even during rush hour the traffic flowed freely.While driving through the French countryside there were very few police officers. I saw the French Legion holding automatic weapons outside of monuments, and Metro Police checking transit tickets, but I barely saw any highway patrol looking for speeders on the highway. However, this doesn’t give you free reign to speed because there are cameras everywhere monitoring your license plate and shipping off tickets to your rental agency to track you down, after charging you a hefty administrative fee for the effort.
I’m sure a few of these tickets will end up forwarded to my rental company after getting caught off guard on back roads, but the futurist in me still loved them. Coming around a curve and seeing “Speeding -1 point” wasn’t welcoming, but it at least felt fair and unbiased.Automated traffic infractions are logical when the main concern is safety, it removes the potential for cops to profile people and makes drivers more cautious on the mountain roads. It also frees up manpower to go after violent crimes rather than focusing solely on generating revenue with ticket quotas.
Google Maps was our go-to GPS provider for the trip, but since cell service was spotty, having offline maps downloaded to my phone using Sygic came in handy. I made the mistake of using the “find gas” button inside our rental car and it ended up taking us a half hour out of the way to a closed down station. After finding our way back to the highway on fumes there was a service station a kilometer passed where the car GPS instructed us to exit. We should have ignored our outdated car-GPS and took the chance to stop and explore the small town a little more, but for the rest of the trip we stuck to Google Maps. This was one of the few cons to staying in AirBnBs, since we had to keep the previously discussed appointment with our host to retrieve the key, it reduced our ability to stop for very long during the journey and hindered our ability to explore newly discovered locations.
We left Paris at 10:30 A.M. and arrived in Notre-Dame-de-Bellecombe at 9:00 P.M., after a stop in Versailles for lunch. The total drive took eight hours, including a few detours after getting lost a couple times.
While visiting Mont Blanc in Chamonix, I purchased a Mont-blanc Multipass for each of us. This pass allowed us to ride all the ski lifts to the peaks of Mont Blanc in addition to giving us unlimited access to the train running between Chamonix and Mer De Glace. The total cost for all five of us was €179.50, but since the passes weren’t mailed to us in time, we had to present the receipt and got turned away from the lift when we arrived.
We spent an additional hour looking for the administration office so they could issue our passes, thankfully we had a vehicle to avoid the extremely steep hills through the town. My advice here is to not request international home delivery when you purchase your passes since they took over a month to ship, instead elect to pick them up at will call.
The multi pass allowed us access to the top of the mountain, and walk through the glacier, at a cheaper price than purchasing separate passes. By buying the passes online we were also able to use a discount code for family packs and free rides on the Alpine Coaster. However, during the off season you can show up and buy single rider tickets for the lifts without waiting in line.
Lift closures are frequent due to the strict safety regulations, so check the website prior to your visit and be flexible. The original plan was to take Aiguille du Midi to the highest point of Mont Blanc and then experience the Step into the Void skywalk, but that lift was closed for repairs and we elected to take the lift to the Brévent peak instead.
After brushing off the snow from the mountain, we put on our bathing suits and started our descent through the winding tunnels. Reminiscent of Rivendell, each tunnel transported us into a world of natural beauty surrounded by waterfalls and castles, making it difficult to focus on the narrow cliffside highway.Throughout France and Italy there were frequent toll booths, but all took credit cards and most didn’t cost more than a couple Euros. The most expensive toll booth was at the border of France, but due to the Schengen Treaty, there were no passport checks like at other border crossings. We entered Italy following a payment of €45.20 to pass through the Mont Blanc Tunnel and the radio suddenly changed languages when we emerged on the other side.
Driving in Italy was a more fast-paced experience than in France and people would regularly straddle the dotted line on the highway. No one drives in the left lane unless they’re passing, and coasting there for more than a few minutes will lead to you being honked at, flashed, or even pulled over by police. This took some getting used to, but I generally preferred it to the narcissistic control drivers in the states impose on others who don’t conform to their idea of a safe speed. However, Italy takes it to the next level and while leisurely playing “who can spot the most castles” with my kids, I found myself in the middle of a professionally sanctioned super-car race shortly after crossing the border.While driving in the right lane I noticed a small car in my rearview mirror with signage on the windows and roof warning of something in Italian. I ignored it and assumed it was a pace car like we see occasionally for trucks carrying wide loads in the states. The car slowly passed me on the left and entered the right lane again, our car started to shake and I looked in my rearview mirror.In the distance I could see a blur of color coming towards us, quickly growing in size. I gripped the steering wheel tighter, thinking maybe it was an Italian police officer. To my surprise, several Lamborghinis and Ferraris then flew past me going over 160 mph. It was over in seconds, and I couldn’t help but think about the enormous trust those drivers place in the hands of jittery rental car tourists during their races.
That wasn’t the only danger inherent to Italy because after we returned, a bridge we crossed in the town of Genoa collapsed following a storm, killing dozens of people. Aging infrastructure and climate change are two issues which all nations struggle with, but I’m sure organized criminal enterprises running privately-owned bridge corporations doesn’t help either.
While in Italy the majority of our driving would be with our rental car, and we learned the hard way to search out parking meters and input our license plate number. When there were no meters in sight, we had to walk around and locate one somewhere further down the street. Driving through Siena and Florence was challenging due to the abundance of restricted roads and one way streets, but I just kept a calm head and followed the flow of traffic. If there were a lot of red signs and X’s on a particular side street then I would avoid it regardless of what Google Maps recommended.
Scooters are constantly in your blind spot, so sudden lane changes were a risky maneuver, and streets were regularly swarmed with jaywalkers as well. If you were an unlucky tourist caught up in the sudden flag twirling parade in Siena, your car was going to be kicked and pelted with watermelons as the locals forced you to sheepishly back down the narrow cobblestone alleyways.
I found that driving between wineries was also a challenge, as they are generally located far away from populated areas, off a dirt road, winding through a thick forest.
We stayed in Tuscany, so I expected to spend a lot of our time in Florence, but after our host recommended the bullet train we ended up spending half our trip in Rome instead. A car ride to Rome would have taken at least three hours, but using the Frecciargente (“Silver Arrow”) bullet train the trip was only an hour and fifteen minutes. I booked it through Loco2 and the total cost for a round trip from Florence to Rome for all five of us was $245.50.
We took advantage of the bar car and played games with each other, all while hurtling towards Rome at 200 mph, it was a really fun experience. When we arrived at the Rome Termini station our AirBnB was a 30 minute walk away, so we were thankful to have double booked our overnight lodging. This allowed us to leave most of our possessions in Tuscany, rather than having to carry them with us through the cobblestone streets of Rome.We were tired and stranded after our Colosseum tour, since no taxi would stop for us when they saw five people waiting. Uber was available, but the XL service required a long wait and we ended up having to walk the hour back to our apartment at Midnight. It would have been easier to just start walking right away rather than looking for a cab stand, but an easily accessible metro system (like in Paris) would have been even more useful.
Rome was very humid so the gypsy’s peddling water got a lot of my tourist-inflated business, but I wish I would have known about the Roman fountains prior to walking everywhere. Our host recommended we avoid the bike taxis as they tend to overcharge tourists as well.
Our final flight home wasn't the most comfortable, but we made the best of our long layovers in Zurich and London with meals and activities. We didn’t want to waste any time so we enjoyed Swiss chocolate, Bavarian pretzels, and took a quick tour through the city of London with our Uber driver.
The flight home would take 11 hours with an additional 10 hours in layovers, and the total cost for all five one way tickets from Florence, Italy to Washington D.C. was $105.51 (due to the additional U.K. Passenger Service Charge) and 150k Mileageplus points.
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