Riding French Trains
The French rail network is one of the most reliable, extensive, and comfortable in the world. In France, traveling by train is easy, affordable, and comfortable. And for many trips, it takes less time than flying, if you factor in the time to get to the airport and pass through security.
French trains are almost always on time and on most routes, the scenery is beautiful — although if you travel by Train a Grande Vitesse or TGV, it may be a bit blurry. The expanded TGV network lets you reach many places in just a couple of hours. We recently went from Paris to Avignon in less than three hours.
Reserving French trains in advance.
The French national rail service, known as SNCF, is well organized and if you like to do trip planning before your trip, you can make all your reservations in advance.
Reservations usually aren’t necessary for short trip, but they’re a good idea for cross country trains. You can make your reservations online or by telephone, and the convenience is usually worth the small fee.
The Rail Europe site is easier to use for English speakers than the SNCF site. If you can figure out the French site and you are willing to pick your tickets up at the train station in France, you’ll likely find cheaper fares.
It helps if you learn a little French and look online so you’ll know what common signs at the station mean. But the reader boards are pretty self explanatory, so you shouldn’t have much trouble figuring out where you need to be, and when.
American-issued credit cards don’t always work at the kiosks in the train stations – they lack the smart chip most European cards have. Plan to arrive at the station early enough to get your ticket from the counter.
Generally speaking, the more in advance buy your ticket, the less it will be. You can usually purchase tickets up to 90 days before your trip. Reserve your seat in advance, if you can. You’ll need to validate your ticket before you board the train. Look for the yellow machines near the platform. Otherwise, you may have to pay a fine. You don’t need to validate tickets that are for specific trains on specific dates.
A French Rail Pass can be a money saver, even if you’re only taking a few trains. There are several kinds available, depending on how long you’ll be traveling, your age, and whether you’re traveling with someone else.
With a rail pass, you’ll need to make reservations for TGV and certain other trains, and there’s a charge to do so. So figure that charge into your equation when you compare costs.
Most French trains offer two classes of service: first or second, known in France as premiere or deuxieme. Both classes offer seating similar to what you’ll find on an airplane. In first class on the TGV, there’s a large desk that folds down. It’s handy if you brought a laptop because there’s a power outlet, although you’ll need a French-style two-prong plug or adaptor.
On long distance trains, there’s usually a caf?Ã¯Â¿Â½ that sells light meals and beverages, and bigger train stations have several places where you can pick up food for your journey.