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By special guest writer Philippa Campsie, Toronto, Canada

Hotel Costes Paris France Barbara Redmond fine art paintings of Paris

Hôtel Costes, Paris by Barbara Redmond

A friend recently asked one of us how to pick a hotel in Paris. Good question. How long have you got? The true way to achieve the state of bliss that the French call un bon rapport qualité-prix (good value for money) would probably require hours of patient labour and a few Excel spreadsheets.

Not for us. The time spent on an Excel spreadsheet is planning time not spent doing something more enjoyable – like reading about the latest gallery exhibits, or checking on what’s new and branché (trendy) on a site like MyLittleParis.

Paris hotels: The French star system

We’ll keep this short. First, understand that the French star system was designed by bean-counters. These are not Michelin restaurant stars, awarded by anonymous reviewers based on subjective impressions of the exquisiteness of meals. They are government ratings based on a checklist system. Does the place have telephones in the rooms? Check. Does it have an elevator? Check. Do rooms have individual bathrooms? Check. Add up the checkmarks, award a total of stars. Next!

As you can imagine, the bureaucrats who administer the system aren’t really interested in many of the things that make a hotel really pleasant. Does it have pretty curtains and a concierge who can recommend a place where my ten-year-old can go skateboarding? Sorry, does not compute.

So you may find a 1-star that is adorable and quirky, with no telephones and no elevator, or a 3-star that meets all the requirements and yet fills your soul with nameless dread. No matter. The government is always right.

Paris hotels: recommendations from friends

Second, ask for recommendations from your friends. Sure, you can go to Travelocity and wade through the impressions of a bunch of strangers, but some of them may have been over-elated by having falling in love with the cute night clerk and others have eaten something that disagreed with them and remember only the inadequate toilet facilities. Nothing really substitutes for asking people you know and trust.

Alternatively, if you insist on finding le dernier cri (the latest thing), check out the hippest boutique hotels at a site like this one.

(And if all else fails, send us a message, and we will give you a couple of suggestions.)

Finally, when you have identified a few possibilities, check out the ’hood. This is easier than it used to be, thanks to Google Maps and Google Street View. Get an address, and Google it. Scrutinize the satellite view. Does the hotel have a courtyard? Rooms “donnant sur la cour” (with windows facing the courtyard) are usually quiet. Where is the nearest Metro station? Now click on “Street View.” Position yourself in front of the hotel, and do a 360-degree scan of the street.

Paris streets are narrow, and the houses are close together. Consider your immediate neighbours. Small offices and boutiques mean quiet nights. Wide boulevards full of traffic and nightclubs mean you will need earplugs. (Mind you, for every French problem, there is a French solution, such as effective earplugs called Quies in French pharmacies.)

Be alert to nuances. Once, Philippa and her husband were looking for a place to stay on the apartment rental site www.lodgis.com. One apartment in the second arrondissement looked too good to be true – spacious, well-furnished, with a huge terrace, yet modestly priced. It was only after some checking (and this was in the days before Google Streeet View) that they figured out it was in a red light district. (The street had been pedestrianized to get rid of curb-crawlers.)

Paris hotels: Neighbourhoods

Lodgis.com, by the way, rates the neighbourhood as well as the individual unit. There are four main categories:
• working class (mostly 10th, 11th, 18th, 19th and 20th arrondissments),
• animated (mostly 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 9th, 11th and 12th arrondissements),
• residential (mostly 13th, 14th, 15th, and 17th),
• prestigious (mostly 1st, 4th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 16th).

Some arrondissements straddle two or more categories, but these are the general outlines. Working class means inexpensive lodgings, possibly a bit rough-edged. Animated means an area in the process of gentrifying with potential bargains, some desperately fashionable bits, and some iffy spots. Residential means quiet and probably off the beaten tourist track (and that may mean a hike to the nearest Metro). Prestigious means the most popular areas for both Parisian residents and for tourists. Just add money and stir.

Eventually, you will have to choose, based on your budget and what is available. And you know, the truly awful choices are rare. Sure, we’ve stayed in places with regrettable wallpaper and faded chenille bedspreads and bathrooms smaller than those on airplanes. But hey, most of our time in the hotel room was spent fast asleep, and with all of Paris out there, it didn’t seem like the worst of trade-offs.

Un bon rapport qualité-prix means good value for money, in all kinds of purchases. Une chambre donnant sur la cour is a room facing into the courtyard, which is usually quieter than une chambre donnant sur la rue (one facing the street). Le dernier cri means so hip it hurts and branché is trendy.

Vocabulary: French to English translations

Branché: Trendy.
Concierge:  French caretaker of apartments or a hotel.
Le Dernier cri: Hip. The latest thing.
Michelin: Definition of Michelin stars as used in the travel industry.
Michelin Guide: Classic guide to exceptional restaurants.
Quies: Earplugs.
Un bon rapport qualité-prix: Good value for the money.
Un chambre donnant sur la cour: Room facing into the courtyard.
Un chambre donnant sur la rue: Room facing the street.

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Text copyright ©2010 Philippa Campsie
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond
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