Tag Archives: SNCF

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

The More the Merrier?

Good news if you have three kids or more under the age of 18. The French state is there to support you, even if you are but a resident foreigner. The carte familles nombreuses entitles you to discounts from some 90 commercial partners, the most significant being the SNCF, the French railroad. Families with three kids are entitled to a discount of 30 percent on train travel with the card, with progressively larger discounts for bigger families. There is a 19 euro fee for processing the dossier; once received the card is good for three years.

You may request the card on-line and enrollment materials will be sent to you by mail, including all the details about the supporting documentation you must supply and a postage-paid return envelope.  Why waste time?  You can get started right now.

Resources

FAQ from the Ministère du Travail, de la Solidarité et de la Fonction Publique (in French)

Details on train travel discounts from the SNCF (in French)

Public Transportation in Paris: Getting Started

Updated September 2013

If you’re not used to taking public transportation, it may all seem a little confusing at first:  so many lines, so many acronyms, so many tickets!  But if you start small and then branch out, you’ll gain confidence and in no time, you’ll be switching lines and modes of transport with ease.  Here are a few basics to get you started.

Public transport in Paris consists of four coordinated systems with integrated ticketing. 

Métro:  The  Métro (short for Métropolitain) is the subway system.  It is extensive with 16 lines on traditional underground/above ground trains plus 5 newer tram lines that run exclusively above ground.  Once you are in the Métro system, you can change lines as many times as you need (as long as you don’t exit the system) using only one ticket.  It runs from 5.20 a.m. to 1.20 a.m. daily plus one additional hour on Friday and Saturday nights as well as the eve of certain holidays.

Bus:  Paris also has an extensive bus system that links well with the subway.   Regular bus service is from 7:00 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.  Over night, a less extensive set of bus lines called the Noctilien is in service.

RER:  The RER was built to help suburban commuters get quickly from home to work and back again.  There are 5 lines, two of these connect to Paris’s airports.  RER tickets are priced according to distance (longer rides being more extensive) but you can use the RER within zones 1 and 2 just as if it were another line of the Métro.  That is, if you get on the RER A at Charles de Gaulle-Etoile and ride to Chatelet, you can then switch to Métro line 1 without using a new ticket.   If you have to go through a second turnstile to switch to line 1, just use the same ticket you used to get on the RER A.

SNCF/Transilien:  The SNCF is the state railway company.  Its Transilien trains serve commuters in areas where there is no RER.  For example to reach the western suburbs of St. Cloud, Garches, Vaucresson, and Bougival, you take a SNCF train from either La Defense or Gare St. Lazare.

Tickets

A single Métro ticket costs 1.70 euros.  A packet of ten tickets called a carnet costs 13.30 euros.  A ticket is good for one ride on the bus, one ride on the Métro with an unlimited number of transfers from line to line, and one ride on the RER within zone 1.

Children under the age of 10 may travel on a half price ticket which can be bought individually or by the carnet. Children under the age of 4 do not need a ticket.

RER and Transilien tickets are priced depending upon the distance.  You can also buy these tickets in packets of 10.

Always keep your ticket with you!  Do not throw it out until you completely exit the system.  Although you will see people jumping over and crawling under turnstiles,  don’t try to cheat the system.   Ticket control teams monitor passengers randomly; there are stringent fines if you do not have a ticket and generally you are required to pay on the spot.

Special passes are also available that may be of interest to teens and to visitors.    The Paris Visite Pass can be purchased for a 1, 2, 3, or 5 day period with separate prices based on whether it is for zone 1-3 or zone 1-5 (which includes airports).   It is good for unlimited travel during the time period and so can be quite handy for tourists, especially in inclement weather.

Students under the age of 26 can benefit from buying a Ticket Jeunes Weekend, good for unlimited travel on one day (Saturday, Sunday or a holiday) for just 3.65 euros for zones 1-3.  (Higher tarifs apply to zones 1-5 or 3-5.)  If your teen will be using public transportation frequently, you may want to purchase an Imagine R card good for unlimited travel throughout the school year.   Imagine R cards vary in price by the zones you select but are good for free travel throughout the system on weekends and holidays.

Tickets can be purchased from a booth in subway and RER stations, from station kiosks, and tabacs.  You can also buy single use tickets from bus drivers for 1.90 euros; you may not transfer to another bus with one of these tickets.

If you use public transportation frequently, you may want to consider the convenience of a Navigo pass.  To learn more, see To Navigo or Not.

Transfers

One ticket can be used for unlimited transfers within the Métro system, Métro-RER within zones 1 and 2, and bus to bus within zones 1 and 2.  You can not use the same ticket to transfer from Métro or RER to bus or bus to Métro or RER.

Zones

For fare purposes, the Paris region is divided into five zones.  Virtually every Métro station lies within zones 1 and 2 so you should never have to purchase a special ticket if you are just using the subway.   But if you take the Métro from Paris to a suburban community in zone 3 and then want to take a bus, you would then need to use a separate ticket for the bus.   For more information, consult the zone map.  One odd little quirk to keep in mind:  the Métro station at La Defense is in zone 2; the adjacent RER A station (also La Defense!) is in zone 3.  (Don’t ask why.  It just is.)

Vocabulary

Carnet:  packet of ten tickets

Correspondance:  transfer

Sortie: exit

More information, go to the RATP Web site.  Many portions are in English.