Oft voted among the worst airports in the world, Charles De Gaulle outside of Paris doesn’t have a great reputation among travelers. The terminals are disjointed, sprawling and confusing, public transportation is mind boggling and security is amazingly frustrating.
With enough practice and preparation, however, the beast can be tamed. Connected to the heart of Paris by regional RER trains, it takes about one hour to get from terminal to city center, so it’s very possible to get in some quick sightseeing during a long layover.
With CDG, the keys are in managing security and the train station to minimize time wasted in transit. Stick around for a few tips from the experts and to learn how to take advantage of your next layover in Paris.
Shorter Layovers (2 hours)
CDG is so expansive and confusing that it’s usually not worth the effort of leaving your terminal if you’ve got a shorter layover. If you’re in the right terminal, however, you can still take advantage. International passengers in terminal 2E will meet the fortune of wide open spaces, duty free shopping, a few couches and even video game consoles to pass the time.
Other terminals, such as 2A are a little thriftier. But at least each terminal has a cafe where you can enjoy lovely French espresso, sit back, and try to adjust to the time zone of your destination.
Longer Layovers (4+ hours)
If you’ve got enough time to sneak out of the airport, it’s actually fairly easy to get into the city from Paris. If you’re flying international, the RER train station is between terminals 2E and 2ABCD at CDG, and these frequent trains run straight into the heart of the city.
You’ll need either cash (just over 8€) or a credit card with a smart chip to get tickets, the latter of which few American’s have. So as you’re passing down to the train station, stop by the HSBC on the right at the top level, withdraw some cash and head downstairs. Since the ticket machines don’t take bills and the line for RER tickets is always crazy long, head into the (RER, not SNCF) ticket office and look right immediately. There will be a change machine two meters away from you where you can get coins. Take these to the ticket machines outside and get billets into Paris, dodging around the dozens of confused travelers trying to use regular credit cards in the machines.
Downstairs, all trains lead into Paris, but some are express and can save you 15 minutes inbound. If there are two trains waiting, take a look at the scheduled stops and jump on the train will take you faster to Gare du Nord. That’s the beginning of Parisian stops.
Be prepared for the quaintest and Frenchest performers playing the accordion on the train. It happens every time.
Once inside the city you can connect to almost anywhere from Gare du Nord (North train station) by hopping off of the RER and transferring to the Metro. The Eifel Tower is either off of Trocadero on the 9 or Ecole Militaire on 8.
If you’re short on time, consider taking the RER one stop further to St. Michel – Notre Dame, where you can surface from the trains and see the magnificent church with a very short walk. You can also walk south from this stop into St. Michel and grab a crepe and beer in St. Michel, which despite being touristy and pricy, is still a lovely experience.
Finally, the Louve can be reached from either the 1 or 7 at Louvre Rivoli or Palais Royal. Be forewarned, however, that lines at the famous museum can be very long, and on a short layover you may not be able to justify seeing a fraction of the museum for the entry fee.
While the RER trains are frequent and fast, make sure you leave plenty of time to connect back into CDG from the city. Northbound trains don’t all run to the airport, either, so make sure you get on the right train when you board at Gare du Nord or St. Michel.
Though you’ll already have your boarding pass, also remember that you probably need to go through immigration when you return, so plan on spending a little extra time waiting in line at the kioks.
Also remember that you can’t bring any of that wonderful French wine with you on your trip, but vacuum packed cheese is totally allowed!