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France's public transport system will get you to most places in the country, from major cities to small towns, usually through fabulous scenery and often skirting exquisite villages and the odd UNESCO World Heritage site.
There are other ways to visit France, of course, and sometimes, these have advantages over the train, but that's rare.
Let's have a look at train travel in France, and examine why it is the best way to see the country, at least in my personal opinion. I'm French and live in France, and have all the different modes of transport at my fingertips, including a car.
But still, when I travel (as I often do, to collect stories for this website), four times out of five, it is by train.
Train travel with your pet in France
How to use French trains
How to book train tickets in France
The France railpass
Train rides from Paris
The Best Train Trips In France
What to do if there's a train strike
Book your railway tickets and passes
Perhaps we hanker back to those grand old days of the Orient Express, of wood-paneled coaches and crystal dining ware...
Train travel is no longer so but it remains one of the best ways to travel in France, a country on most people's bucket list, no question.
Trains go almost everywhere, are frequent, comfortable, cost effective and environmentally sound. You usually arrive as rested as when you left.
What's not to love?
When you travel France by train, you get to relax and enjoy the glorious French countryside: think soaring Alps, lush lavender fields, dramatic lakeshores and turquoise beaches...
This French railway travel guide will show you the ins and outs of train travel in France and warn you of its pitfalls because no, nothing is perfect, although rail travel does come close.
Traveling by train in France has many advantages over other forms of transportation. Here are the top reasons:
✓ Lower carbon emissions
✓ Comfort and relaxation, great scenery
✓ No limits on luggage weight or size
✓ You can get work done if there's wifi
✓ If you book ahead trains can be highly cost effective
✓ Train stations tend to be in the center of town
As with everything, there are also disadvantages to rail travel in France:
✗ Not every town and village can be reached by train
✗ Trains can be full around major holidays
✗ You may have one or more connections
✗ Some areas around stations can be a bit rough, especially at night
✗ You can be subjected to train strikes (I deal with that below)
✗ You can't really choose your seat mates
If I love train travel so much, it's because I've done it hundreds of times. I've also traveled dozens of times in other ways and I can compare from my own first-hand experience. (In other words, yes, I'm biased!)
Although direct trains and main lines help you travel quickly and easily, they are not always available, and sometimes, you simply have to find an alternative to the train.
Here are a few:
✓ No place is out of reach, even the most remote
✓ Freedom – you don't have to stick to a timetable and can come and go
✓ You can go straight to your destination without having to change trains
✗ Driving in France can be... interesting
✗ You'll have to contend with parking, which is often difficult in popular places
✗ Many cities have low emission zones that restrict driving downtown
✗ Cost can be high: gasoline, motorway tolls, parking
✗ When traffic is heavy, safety can be a concern
✗ Less relaxing than the train for the driver
✗ You could get lost and waste precious time
✗ You'll have to stay sober, even if you're visiting a renowned wine château
✓ Like trains, bus stations are usually in the center of town
✓ Buses often go where trains do not
✓ This is often the cheapest way to travel in France
✗ Buses are far less frequent than trains
✗ You'll drive along soul-less autoroutes, usually France's least lovely sceneries
✗ Not as comfortable as the train
✗ Bus stations can be in even rougher neighbourhoods than train stations
✗ Buses can be a bit worrisome if you dislike the combination of high speed and narrow roads (they aren't all like this but all it takes is one)
✓ Low-cost airlines can cost less than the train if you book ahead
✓ East-West transport in France is poorly served and flying may be the only way to avoid doubling your distance and traveling through central Paris
✗ Your carbon footprint may be significant
✗ Airports are often far from town, a waste of time and money in extra transport
✗ Flights to your destination may be infrequent (unless you're headed to Paris)
✗ With all the extra security, a flight can take far longer than a train ride
✗ All that waiting can also be a source of frustration
✗ You're a bit of a hostage to weather and strikes
✓ The cheapest way to travel
✓ Allows you to meet people and socialize during your journey
✗ You have to trust someone you don't know
✗ You have no idea of whether the driver is qualified, good or sober
✗ You have no way of knowing if the vehicle is safe or has been properly revised
Until recently, most French trains were managed by the SNCF, the national railway company, with very few exceptions for some private trains.
France is privatizing its railways so foreign trains are beginning to appear on the tracks. Most recently, the Spanish high-speed AVE train has been connecting Madrid and Barcelona with cities in France, including Paris, Marseille, Perpignan, Lyon, Toulouse and others.
The Italian Trenitalia has also started rail service between Paris, Lyon and Milan, and we can expect the number of foreign trains to increase.
The TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse, or High-Speed Trains) are long-distance trains that travel between main destinations in France at an average speed of 320kph (nearly 200mph) along specially built high-speed lines.
If you've never taken this train, it might take you a few minutes to acclimatize. The TGV whips across the French countryside passing everything in a blur of green pastures dotted with cows.
This is the queen of French trains and you should make it a point to take it at least once.
You do need to reserve your seat and buy your TGV ticket ahead of time – the earlier you buy, the cheaper the ticket. You can buy a ticket in either first or second class and if you book early and online, the price difference between the two classes might be negligible on some trips, so treat yourself...
The TGV comes in several flavors: there is a low-cost version – Ouigo, which you can book online only, and Inoui, which is a TGV brand for newer or refurbished older trains (soon, all normal TGV trains will become Inoui).
The major failing of this rail network – and of much French transportation – is that most roads lead to or through Paris. So if you want to travel from, say, Lyon in the southeast to Bordeaux in the southwest, you cannot do it directly and will usually have to go north to Paris and back down again.
While the TGV train has a cafeteria car, I prefer to buy my lunch in town or at the station before boarding – the food is better and usually cheaper.
Perhaps the one thing I dislike about TGV trains is that seats can face either forward or backward. Sometimes you can choose, but often you cannot. So if you suffer from motion sickness (as I do) and happen to be assigned a back-facing seat, you might end up spending your entire trip standing up in the restaurant car... Trains that are double-deckers make this even worse if you're upstairs, because of the ultra-bouncy suspension.
However, it's a price I'm willing to pay to get from Lyon to Paris in under two hours and from Paris to Bordeaux in just over two. And free wifi.
The Eurostar is a direct train from Paris Gare du Nord to London St. Pancras. At just over 2h15, this is perfect for going downtown to downtown and avoiding all those pesky ferries and airport delays. Still, the cost is high and this isn't considered a bargain at all. Just a convenience.
Thalys is the train that connects you to Europe north of Paris – you can take it from Paris to Brussels, Amsterdam, Cologne, Dusseldorf, and places in-between.
The Intercités are slower than the TGVs and link many of France's medium-sized routes, although some of these routes may also be covered by TGVs. You can decide which to take, a decision that will depend on schedules and prices.
Unlike the TGV, these trains do not require reservations. You can buy your ticket ahead of time if you don't want to bother with ticket machines or queues at the train station, but you don't have to.
(I recommend that you do, because the machine might be broken or confusing – an online ticket bought ahead of time provides me with greater peace of mind.)
The TER trains are regional express trains, and act as local trains if you're going to smaller towns.
For example, my town, Seyssel, doesn't have any high-speed trains but I can take a TGV from Paris to Valserhône and change to a TER for a 10-minute ride.
Most often, the regional trains will wait for the TGV and Intercity if these are late. However, if your TER is late, your TGV will not wait. So if you're starting a journey on a TER and then connecting to a TGV, please give yourself ample time.
Contrary to France's faster trains, your TER ticket may be good for up to a week and you may not necessarily have to use it on the day you paid for it. Check when you're buying it.
Also, there is no seat reservation on the TER.
Several international trains will either get you to France or take you away from the country:
You can no longer do this. There used to be a car train from Paris to the south of France but that has been discontinued. Most people heading to the Côte d'Azur (the French Riviera) will choose to drive, or will take the train and rent a car at their destination.
In my youth, before the advent of fast trains, we used to have sleeper cars and a trip was as much an adventure as a distant voyage. I remember taking the night train from Paris to Geneva, where I was attending university, and have fond memories of the experiences.
With the advent of high-speed trains and low-cost airlines, night trains began to disappear in France, until perhaps one or two were left just a few years ago.
But the overnight may have been saved by President François Macron, who has committed to returning these night trains to service.
From Paris, you can now catch an overnight train to Albi, Argelès-sur-Mer, Ax-les-Thermes, Briançon, Cannes, Lourdes, Nice and Toulouse.
People are increasingly appreciating the value of slow travel, and sometimes the journey is as much fun as the destination.
Don't expect the magnificent sleeper cars of yesteryear but you can at least lie on a bunk for the duration of the trip. Not quite the romantic night trains of our imagination... but let's call it a work in progress.
You can absolutely travel with your pet on the France train system and it's quite straightforward.
If you're having a hard time deciding which train to take, this may help:
The French train system isn't overly different from other European train systems and getting around France by train is relatively simple.
But, France being France, we do have a few idiosyncrasies...
There are several ways to buy your France train tickets.
If you're planning on doing a lot of train travel in France, then a pass of some sort may well be cost effective. If, on the other hand, your journeys will be occasional and not necessarily predictable, a pass will probably cost you more than buying your tickets individually.
Here's what you should know about French rail passes.
To recap, a rail pass is a good idea:
Individual train tickets are better:
As you can see, taking the train in France is pretty straightforward. And since there's a good chance you'll be coming across Paris at some point, here are a few extra points to know.
The one most confusing element when taking the train to or from Paris is the multitude of train stations. Here's a quick breakdown of the main ones:
Bear in mind that these rules are more general than exact, so do check carefully to make sure you head for the correct station. Getting to them isn't complicated because they're all on either commuter lines or rapid subway lines.
Also bear in mind that if you're changing trains in Paris, you may have to cross town to do so. Sometimes not, but it pays to check.
And finally, if you have a paper ticket, make sure you validate it in the bright yellow machine.
Organizing a France by train itinerary can be a fun experience. We have a very dense railway network combined with a huge variety of landscapes, so getting on the train will usually yield something stupendous.
For example, taking the train from Marseille to Nice is a delight. Not only do you avoid the dense road traffic (especially in summer), but you'll be treated to a delightful sequence of cliffs, beaches, turquoise seas, marinas, yachts, glorious flowered gardens... the journey is a vacation in itself.
Sometimes, a banal everyday journey can be stunning. If you're traveling from Geneva, Switzerland towards Aix-les-Bains, as I have often done, you'll discover two distinct visual gems: the gorges and aqueduct over the Rhône as you speed across the Swiss-French border, and the beautiful shore of the Lac du Bourget, where the train line was built hugging the water.
Here's a wonderful list of some of the most beautiful French train journeys.
Ah yes, the dreaded train strikes.
They're a fact of life but they don't have to be as problematic as they are made out to be. You are not powerless in the face of striking trains: there is plenty you can do to minimize your headaches if you travel by train in France, even if workers do decide to walk off the job during your holidays.
France does not usually have "wildcat strikes", or strikes without warning. They are planned, announced, and efforts are made to minimize disruption.
If your train is on strike, go directly to the station, at least if it is a large one. Unfortunately, small stations will often not have information counters. The information counter should be able to direct you to an alternate train or point you towards a bus.
In France, when rail services are on strike, buses are sometimes put into service on certain routes.
Most tickets are refundable, unless you've bought the absolute cheapest. Even then, you might be able to get something if you show up at the train station before your train is supposed to leave.
If you cannot get a refund, you might be able to rebook to a later train, because even during a strike, there is some train service, although it is often minimal.
The most important thing you can do is be flexible, whether to catch another train or to find an alternative.
Train services go almost everywhere in the country, to most major cities, so yes, train travel in France is simple.
There are so many beautiful spots along the French rail network! You can ride the Mont Blanc Express between France and Switzerland, or the Train Jaune in Occitania, or why not the InterLoire between Orleans and Saumur in the Loire Valley, to name just a few.
Yes, but only by taking the Eurostar through the Channel tunnel.
There are two main entry points across the Spanish border, one in the west, in the Basque country, and the other in the east, from Barcelona.