Free Trip to Paris + 3 Weeks = Winter Tour of Europe

Cold and happy by the River Seine

Cold and happy by the River Seine, 1/04

In 15 years together and eleventy-hundred journeys, our biggest travel coup (so far) has been:

Winning a trip to Paris.

A few years back, I signed up for a worthy local charity‘s $100 travel raffle. Hoping to boost my luck with the volunteer staff, I doodled cartoons of Parisian monuments all over my fax entry form; after all, who likes to look at stacks of boring white paper all day?

My doodle gamble paid off, and we won:

Free direct-to-Paris airfare on Air France and a stay at the ultra-swank Four Seasons George V…for two nights.

Exciting? Well, sure. Practical to travel 12 hours from Southern California for two nights?  Not so much.

So, we expanded our trip to a winter tour of Europe:


For three weeks between mid-December 2003-early January 2004, we turned a free trip into the longest, coldest, most educational and expensive vacation we’ve ever taken. By the time it was over, we were mildly in debt and convinced that two weeks is actually plenty of time for a city-based trip in the winter…but nonetheless thrilled with our adventure.

It was Adam’s idea to extend our trip to three weeks, and I almost fell out of a chair when I heard him suggest it. He was then a movie poster designer employed by an established company; negotiations were just starting for him and his partner to head an entertainment print marketing department at another company, and he felt he wouldn’t be able to take such a long break at one time for, quite possibly, years. (He was right.)

I got to planning as fast as humanly possible: I grabbed a few Frommer’s and Eyewitness Guides from the library, hit the web, and booked everything via email in five days.

In an age before the iPhone, I made copies of anything that interested me, cut them into purse-sized packets, clipped them together by location, and headed each packet with a page or two detailing loose daily itineraries. This meant that wherever we were, I had lists and descriptions of all the things I wanted to do. If we stumbled across something unexpected, I’d make a note of it.  If we didn’t get to something, no big deal.  I just liked feeling we had the bones of a plan each day.

Here’s how it all went down:

View from the Ferris wheel at Brussels' Christmas market



Flew (for free) into Paris just after nightfall.

Took an RER train from Charles de Gaulle Airport to the Gare du Nord.

Took a train directly from Paris to Brussels (about 1 1/2 hours).

Cabbed it from the train station.

Stayed at the Hotel Welcome, where each room has a different loopy/fantastic theme.

The hotel is conveniently located next to the city’s spectacular Christmas market.

We ate Belgian chocolate as though it might vanish…and drew a tie between Leonidas and Neuhaus.

Other Brussels highlights over the next two days included:

Ah, Bruges...


On our third day, we got up at about 9am and took a train to Bruges.

For more on our (mis)adventures that day, please see Missing Bruges.

We then took another train to seaside Ostend for lunch along the Albert I Promenade, and another back to Brussels for the night.

Sadly, we somehow managed to not consume:

  • Belgian fries
  • Mayonnaise
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Belgian waffles
  • Beer

Yes, I agree. We should go back.

Amsterdam's Prinsengracht Canal



Cabbed it to the Brussels train station.

Took a morning train directly from Brussels to Amsterdam (about 2 1/2/ hours).

We fell in love with:

For our complete adventures here, please see Christmas in Amsterdam


Big Ben


Cabbed it to the Schipol Airport.

We took a 20-minute, roughly $60US flight from Amsterdam to London.

Took the Piccadilly Line of the Tube directly from Heathrow to South Kensington.

Since 2005, many lovely and (relatively) affordable hotels have gone up in London.
Sadly, we were there in 2003-4, the coldest winter Europe had seen since 1903.

The heat in our since-closed lodgings?  Broken.
Every other non-exorbitant hotel room in town?  Booked for the holidays.

So, we went and saw almost everything London has to offer.

Some of our London highlights were:

For our complete adventures, see my article for Galavanting: Freezing Your New Year’s Off, London Style


Notre Dame Cathedral


Trust me on this…it’s better if I do this in its own post.  It’ll be a doozy.

Continued in
Paris in 8 Days: The Ultimate Itinerary

See also
The Best Little Hoax in Brussels
Missing Bruges
Christmas in Amsterdam
Freezing Your New Year’s Off, London Style
All Creeped Out in the Catacombs of Paris


  1. You are looking so young! Me with my father are working as a private guides in Vienna and now are thinking about moving to Amsterdam, so your article is quite informative!


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