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First time traveling overseas

My husband and I, our 24-year-old son, and my 80-year-old mother are going to Paris, then Chamonix, and would also like to take a scenic train ride into Switzerland. Late September for two weeks. Five days in Paris, then go to Chamonix, into Switzerland for a day trip, then to Beaune for a few days, and back to Paris to fly home. We all especially want to experience the Alps. We picked Chamonix based on Rick Steves's videos and books. Our son is the only one of us who has traveled internationally and he will be meeting us in Paris from his Peace Corps assignment in West Africa. He is fluent in French, which should help us. I've read many posts on the forum about traveling with an elderly person, and I've learned a lot. I'm still not sure about renting a car vs train travel. Money will be tight but we want to make my Mom as comfortable as possible. My thinking is trains would be better since we can all take it easy, not have to navigate, and there is a restroom always available. (Right? There's ALWAYS a restroom on the trains?) So, rent a car, or train travel? Or a combination of both? We want to go into Switzerland for a scenic train ride from Chamonix. Not sure if this could be done as a day trip or if we'd need to pack up and stay somewhere in Switzerland. Any suggestions on the best Swiss scenic train ride from Chamonix? Should we stay somewhere in Switzerland for one or two nights to make it worthwhile, or will the Alps in the Chamonix area be a sufficient Alps experience? Any other advice on traveling with an elderly person who can't walk vast distances would be appreciated. Other basic stuff about us: we don't like touristy places and pretense, but desire authentic cultural experiences, although we are new to overseas travel. Sorry for the rambling questions, but my head is literally spinning with all the possibilities.

Posted by
32266 posts

Rachel,

To begin with, as this is your first time travelling abroad I'd recommend reading Europe Through The Back Door prior to your trip.

There are a lot of things you'll need to get up-to-speed with, including money issues, travelling with technology, Plug Adapters, avoiding pickpockets, etc. After that use the country specific guidebooks to plan touring in Paris and other places.

Your profile doesn't indicate your home location, but it's likely that you'll be arriving in Europe the day after you depart from your home airport. The last day will be spent on the flight home so a 14 day trip is only 12 days of touring (and you'll likely be dealing with some degree of jet lag for a day or two after you arrive so won't be up to full touring speed).

Travel by high speed train will be faster and more comfortable, and a better use of your limited holiday time. Restrooms (WC's) on high speed trains are usually very modern, while on Regional trains are more basic.

The easiest way to get from Paris to Chamonix (IMHO) is to travel via high speed TGV train from Paris to Geneva, and then use a pre-booked Shuttle to Chamonix. Note that there are about six rail stations in Paris, and you'll probably be departing from Gare de Lyon. Travel time using a direct train is about 3H:20M. You can check all the train solutions using the Bahn.de website. The fast trains have compulsory seat reservations which will be provided with your tickets. You can purchase advance tickets if you wish, but be sure not to miss the train you've booked or the tickets will be worthless.

As you'll be travelling to Chamonix with an 80 year old, there's one important caveat to mention. If you're planning to visit the Aguille du Midi, be aware that it's at about 12,500 feet. If your mother has any altitude-related issues you'll need to consider that. Problems may not be apparent at first, but can come on very quickly (trust me on that).

Chamonix is probably not the best for day trips into Switzerland (although getting to some nearby towns in Switzerland by train is possible). In the same situation, I'd probably do a loop from Paris > Chamonix > Berner Oberland > Beaune > Paris. A short stay in the Berner Oberland would provide some stunning alpine views! You may have seen this - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eJsl0GvLJEk .

A train trip from Chamonix to Interlaken Ost is as short as ~3.5 hours but that involves four changes with some fairly short transfer times that might be difficult for an 80-year-old. However the specifics will depend on which train you choose. The number of days in each location and the transportation details would have to be worked out.

I'd suggest minimizing your time in Switzerland if you're on a budget, as it tends to be one of the more expensive places to travel in Europe.

Posted by
15678 posts

To add to Ken's good advice and great info. . . . I would not spend the time going to Switzerland. You will see beautiful Alps in Chamonix. For a stunning day trip (so they say), take the gondola across the Alps to Italy and back. I wrote "so they say" because the one day I could do it when I was there was the one day it was down for maintenance. While the top of Aiguille du Midi is 12,500', Chamonix is only around 3,000' so if anyone feels uneasy going to the top, they can just take the next gondola down and spend the day in pretty Chamonix with a few minor sights and lots of shops, cafes and restaurants . . . and views of the Alps.

You'll have a lot more ability to explore Burgundy with a car. Pick it up when you leave Chamonix, even stop for a few hours in Annecy on the way. Instead of staying in Beaune, stay in a small town nearby for a few nights. It will be cheaper and likely save you driving time since you won't have to deal with the big city traffic of Beaune. Then drop the car in Dijon and take the TGV back to Paris. I don't think there are direct trains from Beaune, you'll end up changing trains in Dijon anyway.

Every driver will need an international driving permit. You can get them for about $20 at AAA offices and they are good for one year. So if your son is going to be a driver, you may have to get an IDP for him at home. But since he's under 25, it may be too expensive to include him on the rental - there is often a substantial surcharge for young drivers. If you do plan to rent a car, come back to us on a new thread and we'll give you all the info you need.

Posted by
3 posts

Many thanks to Ken and Chani for the thoughtful responses to my questions. We are traveling from Atlanta and will indeed arrive in Paris the next morning after an overnight flight. We have seen the Rick Steves videos about the scenic train rides through the Alps and hope to do at least one of those. If not, the gondola and cable car rides from Chamonix sound great. I do have serious altitude concerns. Does the Helbronner gondola also go as high as the Aguile du Midi? Since we've never been nearly that high we have no idea how we will respond physically. Mom has no heart or lung issues but I understand the concern about the altitude. Can you immediately head back down if you become ill from the altitude? It sounds like staying in the Chamonix area is cheaper than anywhere in Switzerland. Maybe we could use that as our base and find things to do from there. I like the idea of a smaller village near Beaune.

I've read the forums on pickpockets so I hope we will be prepared for preventing that. I didn't realize we will need the international drivers license if we rent a car.

One other side trip I didn't mention earlier is that we need to make it to Verdun and the Muse Argonne cemetery where my husband's great uncle is buried. Maybe we should do that from our base in Paris or on the way from Paris to Chamonix, or on the way back to Paris after Chamonix.

Again, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions!

Posted by
3 posts

Ken, I have the latest editions of the Rick Steves guides for Paris, France, and Switzerland. So that has helped a lot. I'll read Europe Through the Back Door next.

Posted by
27419 posts

I think altitude will be a big problem for someone who cannot walk far at sea level, so proceed cautiously.

Posted by
15678 posts

I think altitude problems don't have much to do with endurance or overall health. It's an individual thing. It affects some people and not others, some are slightly inconvenienced, some suffer severely. When I was there a couple years ago, I saw student groups that had a couple of kids (late teens) badly affected. Sometimes just drinking a lot of water helps - and avoiding diuretics, coffee, tea, coke, alcohol. Take a couple large bottles with you. There's no tap water available once you get up. There's a cafeteria where you can buy it at exorbitant prices. If someone doesn't feel well after 15-30 minutes, they can take the next car down to Chamonix. They run back and forth all day.

There are a couple flights of stairs once you're at the top. The thinner air makes it more difficult to climb . . . just take it slowly. No one's rushing to catch a bus there. And the views are stunning when it's clear. Yes, the Helbronner gondola is at that high altitude.