Tips for Train Travel in France

Traveling by train is one of the many delights of living in Europe.  You go from city center to city center, no long lines for security and boarding,  seating is roomy, and with the TGV (train de grand vitesse), you cover large distances in no time flat.

Buying tickets is another story.  You can go directly to an SNCF Boutique or train station and deal with an agent, or you can buy them on-line.  And no, it’s not just you.  The SNCF Web site has got to be one of the least user friendly Web sites on the planet.  But if you are patient and flexible, there are some really good deals out there.    Here are just a few things to keep in mind.

Discount Cards

The SNCF offers four different discount cards

Carte 12-25:  As you might gather from the name, this card offers reductions to persons between the ages of 12 and 25.
Carte Senior:  For persons over the age of 60.
Carte Escapades :  For adults between 26 and 59 years.
Carte Enfant + :  For families with a child under 12 years.

Although the details vary, you buy one of these cards, good for one year, at a fee somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 to 70 euros, and you get significant reductions on train travel.  With the Carte Enfant +, for example,  the whole family (up to 4 accompanying travelers, whether kids or adults), benefits from at least a 20 percent reduction on all train travel and up to 50 percent for travel at nonpeak hours.   If you take one long trip on the TGV, you will recoup the cost of the card in one trip.   It’s worth noting that the reductions are for travel within France only so if you take a train trip beyond French borders, the reduction only applies to the French portion of the trip.  You may purchase the cards on-line; no supporting documentation is needed.  Pick up the card from the ticket window at any train station or from an SNCF boutique.

Discounts are also available for families with three or more children who have applied for the carte familles nombreuses.  You must apply for this card and send supporting documentation.  Thus if you want to take advantage of the discount, apply well in advance of your travel.

Tickets are also cheaper at certain times of the year or days of the week.  For example, there aren’t too many deals if you’re leaving town the day that schools get out for the Christmas holidays.   But like all things SNCF, there’s no easy answer about when it’s most economical to travel.    Check here for a calendar (by route) showing the période normale (times when travel is expected to be light and thus priced cheaper) and the période pointe  (typically the holiday rush period) when your trip will cost more. 

The SNCF is experimenting with e-tickets.  At the moment, you can pick up tickets you order on-line at either an SNCF Boutique, in any station, or from an automated kiosk in every station.

Book Early

Like hotel and plane fares, the cost of train travel tends to go up as the travel date approaches.    Fares on the Eurostar (the train that takes the Chunnel between Paris and London) are at their rock bottom (about 80 euros round trip) if you reserve three months in advance.  Reserve at the last minute and you will pay four to five times that much.

For domestic travel, the SNCF releases a limited quantity of tickets designated as tarif prem’s 90 days in advance and that’s when you will get the best prices.   The prem’s tickets cannot be exchanged, however.  If you think your plans might change, look for the tarif loisirs.  It pays to pay attention; sometimes you can travel in first class for the same price as second class.  That being said, second class is generally quite comfortable and clean.

There is also a fare called iDTGV which is sold exclusively on-line and only to a limited number of destinations.  But they can be reserved as early as 6 months or as late as 5 days in advance of your travel.   iDGTV tickets are exchangeable but not reimbursable if you don’t use them.   These can have some very attractive prices, particularly if you don’t mind travelling at odd hours.

Types of Trains

Get ready for lots of different types of names and initials when it comes to train service:

The TGV is the high speed train that runs at top speed at 300 km/hour to a growing network of destinations.   That means you can get from Paris to Avignon in 2 hours and 38 minutes, easily an 8 hour trip by car.

Corail designates the non-TGV lines.   They are comfortable, just not as fast.

The Eurostar is the high speed train that travels between Paris and London.

The Thalys train is also high speed and goes to Brussels, Amsterdam, and Cologne.

Lunea designates overnight service with either couchettes (simple berths) or a 4 couchette sleeping compartment.

iDTGV is a marketing gimmick by the SNCF to make train travel more appealing to young people.  You can choose iDzen (the quiet car), iDzap (portable electronics friendly), or iDNIGHT.

Before You Leave

Before you hop on the metro or in a cab on the way to the train station, make sure you know from which station you will be departing.  There is no central train station in Paris (good news because that means no railroads crossing through the center of the city).  Instead each of the train stations handles departures for certain destinations.  These are as follows:

Gare du Nord:  Destinations in the north of France; Eurostar to London;  Thalys to Brussels, Amsterdam and Cologne; Berlin and Moscow

Gare de l’Est: Eastern France (Reims, Strasbourg), Zurich, Basel, Frankfurt, and Munich

Gare d’Austerlitz:  Limoges, Toulouse, Cannes, Nice, Monte Carlo, Lourdes, Biarritz, Madrid, and Barcelona

Gare de Lyon: Lyon (of course!) plus Avignon, Marseille, Cannes, Nice, Monte Carlo, Nîmes, Montpellier, Narbonne, Perpignan

Gare Montparnasse:  Brittany, Bordeaux and other destinations in the southwest of France

Gare St. Lazare: Dieppe, Normandy and other northern destinations

And finally, before you board the train, don’t forget to “compost” your ticket.  There are  yellow machines at the end of each platform.  Simply insert your ticket in the slot and it will be mechanically time and date-stamped. 

Resources

Train Travel in France:  A Beginner’s Guide

TGV routes in France  (note all trains do not stop at all stations)

SNCF Guide du Voyageur (in French)

Eurostar bookings

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6 responses to “Tips for Train Travel in France

  1. Here’s an important technicality to keep in mind: Don’t use an international credit card to purchase tickets online with the hopes of printing those tickets at the kiosk at the station. The machine will not read your card (only Carte Bleue) and you will need to stand in the incredibly long line to get your tickets from a live person. I learned this the hard way!

  2. And beware of strikes and other delays. 2 years ago we could not get back from Venice as SNCF had an 11 day strike. As we do not fly we were stranded in Italy. There was no-one to give any information at the station. In the end we spent over £750 on additional hotel accommodation and food, and had to come back via Lucerne where we picked up a German train to Brussels and then home. This cost another £500 or so. We got nothing back from SNCF except vouchers to the value of the original tickets. Last year we were stranded in Spain because of bad weather on the Spanish/French border. These things happen – but it would have been helpful if there had been a notice to that effect at Malaga station – before we found out in Madrid at 7pm in the freezing cold and when everything was closed. My insurance didn’t pay out – the strike was force majeure – the bad weather delay wasn’t covered as I found out to my cost they only covered the ‘first intercontinental journey’ which was the Eurostar from London! As there are frequent strikes in France this is always something to consider.

  3. I loved traveling by train in Europe. We took the train from Lyon to Venice. There were several train changes, but it was a fantastic journey. We’ve also taken the train from Paris to Toulouse. The trip to Toulouse was not as nice as the trip back, when we went by way of Bordeaux.

  4. Glad to know that I’m not the only one beating my head up against the wall every time I’m on the SNCF site. Even if I wave the white flag and switch over to English, the site is still impossible. That said, we have succeeded in booking some great trips so worth the patience, as you’ve said. But the RATP site is fabulous!

  5. You can also use http://www.raileurope.co.uk/ to buy train tickets in France

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