At the beginning of 2017, I declared that I was going to travel to Europe at least once that year, and I somehow ended up receiving two separate invitations to do just that! My first invitation was from my friend, Katie, who had a friend staying in Normandy, France – more on that in this post. We would start our journey here and then head to Paris, France and on to Ireland.
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How to Get to Paris (Sort of)
A Budget Airline Booking Horror Story
I had originally booked round-trip flights through Spirit Airlines from Houston, Texas to Newark, New Jersey, where I would be meeting Katie before heading to New York to catch our flight to Paris. I was nervous, but their prices were so much cheaper than any of the alternatives. And, for cheaper prices, you get cheaper service. Mark my words; I will not make this mistake again!
I received the standard “it’s time to check-in” email around 24 hours before my scheduled flight time and paid the steep $100 fee for my carry-on luggage. But, what happened next was shocking…
Coincidentally, I checked my email again later that night, and to my horror, Spirit Airlines had sent an email at 11:21 p.m. stating that my 6:30 a.m. – as in seven hours from then – flight was CANCELED. And what Spirit Airlines thought would be useful was to instead book me on a flight to Ft. Lauderdale; you know, practically as far away on the East Coast as they could get me from my original destination. Like, c’mon, guys. I need to get to New York and am en route to France; I really don’t have time for all of this nonsense!
Needless to say, I started freaking out. I called them right away, and their customer service was basically the worst. They told me that I couldn’t change my flight more than once, which was funny considering that they were the ones who had changed my flight – not me. What was even worse was they couldn’t get me to New Jersey or New York at all the following day.
So, at this point, I tried to cancel my flight, which took me through about seven tiers of call operators who all refused to refund me until I finally reached a manager who was apologetic, refunded my entire trip, and sent me a $50 voucher (which I definitely never used).
Note: Spirit Airlines won’t refund baggage fees if you only cancel one leg of your itinerary. Naturally, I cancelled my entire itinerary to accommodate this rule and went with another airline for both legs of my trip.
Finding an Alternative Flight
By now, it was 2 a.m., and I was in quite the bind. I called Katie (like three times) and to my surprise, she actually answered. Thank goodness! We decided that I should take the earliest flight into Baltimore, since her parents were planning to drive her to New York, and I could catch a ride with them. So, I went ahead and booked a last minute Southwest flight (my personal favorite airline).
Sheesh! What a stressful way to kick off our international trip.
Taking the Megabus from Baltimore to New York
I arrived at the Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport around 10 a.m., which is when I learned that Katie’s parents were no longer able to make the trip to New York and back. This was totally understandable, but now I was in Baltimore with no way of getting to New York.
A Broad Recommendation: there will always be hiccups while traveling. Instead of getting upset, joke about it, and laugh it off! There’s nothing you can do about circumstances outside of your control. All you can do is stay calm, come up with a new plan, execute and move on. Having flexible travel buddies who remain calm in a pinch makes all the difference too! Sometimes, you’ll have to make decisions on the fly, and staying level-headed makes all the difference.
Okay, so this might sound crazy, but everything actually worked out totally fine! My parents picked me up from the airport (luckily they lived in the area); we went to visit my grandma for a bit; and Katie and I went on a four-and-a-half-hour Megabus adventure after exhausting all of our other (much more expensive) options.
A Night at the Renaissance New York Midtown Hotel
When we arrived at our beautiful, free hotel in Manhattan (thanks, Marriott Rewards!), we treated ourselves to some ciders and a nice rooftop dinner overlooking the city. It doesn’t get much better than that!
A Broad Recommendation: I gave myself a full day to get to New York, and this truly paid off. Always give yourself a buffer if you have connecting flights. Airlines sometimes delay or completely cancel flights, and this could ruin a trip of a lifetime if you aren’t prepared!
Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to do any sightseeing in New York on this trip, but we’d love to go back and try this four days in New York itinerary.
Finally Getting to Paris
The next morning, we headed to John F. Kennedy International Airport and checked in with Air France. To our surprise, we got upgraded to our own row with extra legroom! Perhaps this was because we had several issues while booking our trip, which required us to call the airline multiple times to get things worked out (we were really on a roll with this trip, haha).
We enjoyed our dinner and all the free wine before catching some sleep on our overnight flight.
A Broad Recommendation: to offset jetlag, set your phone or watch forward (or backward) to the time zone you’re traveling to right when you get on the plane and start acting as if you’re in that time zone. If it’s late at night in the time zone you’re traveling to, try to get some sleep. You’ll [hopefully] wake up feeling refreshed when you arrive!
The next morning, we arrived in Paris, France and were excited to start exploring; we just had to get to Normandy first!
How to Get to Normandy from Paris
Normandy is located in Northern France just west of Paris and is known for its charming coastal towns, lovely countryside, and yummy cheeses and ciders.
We traveled to Normandy from Paris by train. First, we took the metro from the Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport to the Paris Saint-Lazare railway station. Then, we took the train to Caen, where Katie’s friend picked us up shortly after lunchtime.
A Broad Recommendation: it takes about an hour and forty-five minutes to reach Normandy from Paris by train. Although we stayed for two days, it’s possible to squeeze in a day trip here if you’re limited on time.
We booked our train tickets ahead of time through Rail Europe and paid ~$54 total for two economy seats. The train was comfortable and had outlets to charge our devices and places to put our luggage. Just a heads up: we had to print our tickets ahead of time.
Things to Do in Normandy, France
There are plenty of things to do in Normandy and more than enough activities to fill two days here. This is what we did during our trip, but this list is in no way comprehensive.
Visit the Beaches of Normandy, France
A visit to the beaches in Normandy, France is a must for U.S. history aficionados and a profoundly emotional experience. Staring over the dramatic coastline, you can’t help but to reflect on the immense challenge the Allied soldiers must have faced here.
First, we headed to Utah Beach, the westernmost of the landing areas during the Normandy Invasion of World War II. Quick history recap: the Battle of Normandy lasted from June to August 1944, beginning on June 6th, aka D-Day.
On D-Day, more than 150,000 American, British and Canadian forces landed on five beaches in Normandy, along the heavily fortified coast of France. It was one of the largest amphibious military assaults in history, and it began the liberation of Western Europe from Nazi Germany’s control and laid the foundation for the Allied victory.
Utah Beach, specifically, was assaulted by the U.S. 4th Infantry Division and was achieved with relatively few casualties. Sadly, some did drown in the flooded marshlands while weighed down by heavy equipment, and others were shot out of the sky by enemy fire.
Pointe du Hoc
Next we stopped at Pointe du Hoc, a cliff overlooking the English Channel on the northwestern coast of Normandy. On D-Day, the United States Army Ranger Assault Group attacked and captured Pointe du Hoc after scaling the cliffs.
The last of the beaches we stopped at was Omaha Beach.
Surrounded by steep cliffs and heavily defended, Omaha was the bloodiest of the Normandy beach landings. This was due to an underestimation of the number of German soldiers and the rough surf, which allowed only two of twenty-nine amphibious tanks to reach the shore.
As you could probably tell from our photos, the rain was looming all day and had finally caught up with us at this point. We only stayed at this spot for a couple of minutes before having to move on.
Pay Your Respects at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial
The final stop on our tour was the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. The cemetery sits on a cliff and was established by the U.S. First Army on June 8, 1944; it was the first American cemetery created on European soil. Buried here are the remains of nearly 9,400 servicemen and women who lost their lives during the D-Day landings and the operations that followed.
The memorial includes maps and details of the Normandy landings, and both the cemetery and memorial get around one million visitors a year.
A Broad Recommendation: We just scratched the surface on all of the history held within these spots. For more information about the Normandy Landings and D-Day, check the Official Normandy Tourist Board website.
Try Authentic French Cuisine
After an interesting and informative day, we freshened up before heading to a French restaurant called Chez Le Bougnat. Here, I hesitantly tried pig ears for the first time – gross! I also had the cod and some to-die-for mashed potatoes. Overall, we enjoyed this place and can recommend it.
Note: Dinners run quite late in France and the staff moves at a slower, more relaxed pace. Americans tend to eat much more quickly, while Europeans take the time to enjoy their dinner experience. If you’re in a hurry or really hungry, don’t expect the waiter or waitress to rush their service.
A Broad Recommendation: Katie likes to ask for recommendations when she’s unfamiliar with the menu or feeling somewhat adventurous. Sometimes, what you think of as an American “pizza”, for example, is not necessarily the same thing in France, and you may be better off trying some of the local cuisine. Brushing up on your French food verbiage before your trip also helps with this.
Visit Mont Saint-Michel
We spent our second and final day of our short trip to Normandy from Paris at Mont Saint-Michel, a rocky, tidal island and UNESCO World Heritage Site. A visit to Mont Saint-Michel is one of the best things to do in France, and it’s the most visited historic site in France outside of Paris. Be sure to add Mont Saint-Michel to your itinerary when planning a trip to Normandy.
Since you’re not allowed to drive yourself to the island, a complimentary shuttle is available. Or, if you’re feeling super fancy, you can pay to take a horse-drawn carriage instead.
We opted to walk and recommend wearing comfy shoes if you choose to do the same. It’s about a mile and a half trek.
Once we made it, we walked around the town and started exploring. The houses, which have since been mostly transformed into hotels and shops, line the narrow street leading up to the abbey of Mont Saint-Michel and date as far back as the 15th century – wow!
In our opinion, the restaurants and shops here are quite expensive. Luckily, I was able to snag a cute “Le Mont Saint Michele” souvenir mug at a reasonable price.
The abbey church that towers over the island was built over three crypts. It boasts both Romanesque and Gothic styles from the different periods of construction. We were able to take a tour through the church for around 10 Euros each.
Behind the medieval walls on the southern and eastern sides of the mount, you can see a panoramic view of the bay. Mont Saint-Michel is usually surrounded by vast sandbanks and becomes an island only when the tides are very high. As you can see from our pictures, the tide started coming in a bit just as we were leaving.
A Broad Recommendation: the weather here may be different from other places you visit in Normandy, France. The island has its own micro-climate and tends to be on the chillier side. It also rained while we were here, so don’t forget to pack your rain jacket!
After two fun and history-filled days in Normandy, we headed back to Paris for the rest of our adventure in France.
Check back in to hear more about our Paris visit, and don’t forget to pin this post for future reference!
XOXO Sara at Travel A-Broads