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Getting Around France: How to Travel France by Train

Perhaps we hanker back to those grand old days of the Orient Express, of wood-paneled coaches and crystal dining...

It may no longer be so but one of the best ways to travel in France, which is on most people's bucket list, is still the train, 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, lavender fields, dramatic lakeshores and turquoise beaches...

This railway travel guide will show you the ins and outs and warn you of the pitfalls of train travel in my country.

France train station in rural settingA typical rural train station in France - Source

What is the best way to travel in France?

There are several methods of transportation in France and each has advantages and disadvantages.

Taking the train

 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

✗  Not every town and village can be reached by train
✗  Trains can be full around major holidays
✗  You may have one or more transfers
✗  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

Traveling around France by car

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
  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

Bus travel in France

✓ 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 in France
✗  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)

Travel by air in France

✓ Low-cost airlines can actually 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 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

Rideshares in France

✓ 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

French landscape seen from trainThe beauty of rail travel in France is that you can simply relax and watch the countryside go by - Source

the different kinds of french trains

There are several trains in France – enough to get you around but not enough to confuse you.

All French trains are managed by the SNCF and its various branches, with very few exceptions for some private trains. Beware of these, though, as they will not accept your SNCF tickets and often run alongside SNCF trains so unless you see a different name painted on the side of the train, you might not know the difference. There are a handful of these, and I have to say I personally haven't come across them in my travels.

TGV

The TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse, or High-Speed Trains) travels between major cities in France at an average speed of 320kph (nearly 200mph) along specially built tracks. 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 might be negligible on some trips, so treat yourself...

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 center to Bordeaux in the west, you cannot do it directly and will usually have to go through Paris.

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 backward 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-smooth 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.

Check schedules and book your TGV here

TGV train in Paris train stationTypical TGVs, here in the Gare de l'Est in Paris - Source

Intercity trains

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 machines or queues at the train station but you don't have to.

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. Over the years they began to disappear, 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.

Check schedules and book your Intercity here

TER

The TER is the regional train, the one you'll connect to if you're going to a small town. For example, my town, Seyssel, doesn't have any large trains but I can take a TGV to Valserhône and change to a TER there. Most often, the regional trains will wait for the TGV and Intercity if these are late. However, if your TER is late, your TGV might not. So if you're starting a journey on a TER and then connecting, please give yourself plenty of 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.

Popular international train routes in France

Several international trains will either get you to France or take you away.

  • The Eurostar from France to the UK (you can also catch the Eurostar to south of France)
  • The TGV Lyria, the France to Switzerland train
  • The Thalys to Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands
  • Other highly popular routes include the Italy to France train or the Barcelona to Nice train

Taking your car on French railways

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.

Click here to compare car rental prices

How to travel in France by train with your pet

You can absolutely travel with your pet on the France train system.

  • If your pet is small (under 6kg) and carried in a basket, you'll have to book a ticket for him/her (at the time of writing it cost €7). 
  • If your pet weighs more than 6kg (this will probably be a dog), you'll have to muzzle and leash it and pay 50% of the usual 2nd class fare. Even at this price, I'm afraid the dog has to travel at your feet, not on the seat beside you.
  • In some regions, however, a technical glitch won't allow you to book an online ticket for your pet and you'll have to get it at the station. 

Yes, a bit more complicated than it should be but at least, it can be done...

If you want to reserve a ticket for your pet, you'll have to book it directly from the French railway company, SNCF.

Can't decide which train to choose?

If you're having a hard time deciding which train to take, this may help you decide:

  • If speed is of the essence, then consider the TGV. Otherwise just check the schedule and take whichever train suits you.
  • Reservations vs no reservations: if you don't want a reservation, then just show up at the train station and buy a ticket. 

how do you use the train in france?

The French train system isn't overly different from other European train systems but it does have a few idiosyncrasies that might interest you.

  • First and most important, many cities (even smaller ones) have several train stations so make sure you know at which station your train trip starts or ends. This is crucial if you're connecting: in Paris, for example, has seven major (and several minor) stations, some of which are at opposite ends of the city and may require several subway rides.
  • French train stations can also be works of art. Many of them are quite old (in fact, some were so beautiful they have been converted into museums, like the Musée d'Orsay, which was once the Gare d'Orsay). Some are small and picturesque, others are modern and look no different from subway stations. Just be prepared for the variety.
  • When you travel in France by train, you have to validate your ticket before you get on the train. If you don't do that, it's the same as traveling without a ticket and you could get fined. It's called compostage in French, and you do it by slipping your ticket into one of the bright yellow machines you'll find scattered in any station as well as at the head of your platform. The exception: if you have an electronic ticket.
  • Most train stations have departure boards. I say most because some tiny stations have put up new, electronic boards but because there is insufficient maintenance staff, they often break down and repairs may take time.
  • Where there are boards, especially large mural ones, you should know that French trains all carry numbers. You may have two trains leaving at almost the same time for the same destination but since the arrival time at destination isn't listed, you might not know which to take. Use the number to tell them apart or you might spend a lot longer seeing the countryside than you expected.

How to buy train tickets in France

There are several ways to buy your France train tickets.

  • Online is probably the easiest and most straightforward way of booking a train in France, because you can take your time and study all the options. If your plans are relatively clear, just head to the official SNCF website and book your ticket or use Trainline to compare prices; they take a small commission, as do other comparison sites.
  • From a travel agent, if your ticket is perhaps part of a larger trip.
  • At the train station, either from the office or from the machine. Large train stations have offices that are usually open all day. Smaller stations, however, may only be open a few hours a day. If that is the case, there will be a (complicated) machine to sell you your ticket. There is an English option but you may have to click up to ten times to buy a simple ticket, and you'll need a card with a chip and a pin. A regular credit card won't work. Save yourself the hassle and use your phone, the information office, or buy it before you leave home and print it out or download it.
  • Please be aware that you CANNOT buy your ticket on the train! If the machine is broken and the office is closed, you cannot claim you were unable to buy a ticket (I speak from experience). Get on your smartphone and buy it online otherwise you will pay a fine.

train passes in france

If you're planning on doing a lot of train travel in France over a limited time, 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.

  • There are two distinct but relatively similar passes: Eurail if you live outside Europe, and Interail if you live within Europe (UK included).
  • Either pass allows you to travel anywhere between three and eight days during a one-month period.
  • You can get a pass for several countries if you're traveling around Europe by train but you can also get a single-country pass if you're planning a trip to France only.
  • Whichever pass you choose, remember that if you take the TGV, you'll need a reservation. You cannot just hop on.

A pass is a good idea if you plan many long-distance trips or planning to use plenty of trains that don't require a reservation (which can cost extra). It's also great if you want the freedom of not having to plan. While you'll still need to reserve TGVs, you can board all other trains on a whim, in any direction.

Individual train tickets are better when you only plan to take the train a few times, or if there aren't many trains in the region you're visiting. That's rare but it does happen, for example in the Ardèche or in the Luberon region of Provence.

train rides from paris

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:

  • Gare d'Austerlitz: if you're headed to the southwest
  • Gare de Bercy: if you're going to the southeast
  • Gare de l'Est: for eastern France, Germany and northern Switzerland
  • Gare de Lyon: south towards Lyon and onward to the Riviera, to Spain and to western Switzerland
  • Gare Montparnasse: western France
  • Gare du Nord: northern France and Belgium, the Netherlands and parts of Germany – and the Eurostar for the London to France train
  • Gare Saint-Lazare: Normandy

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, make sure, as with all trains in France, that you validate your ticket. It's an easy thing to forget because it isn't common in most countries. If you should forget, all is not lost. The moment you board the train, find the conductor. If s/he's talking to someone, stand nearby and make sure you're seen. Then acknowledge you didn't "compost" your ticket and that should be fine. Just don't wait until the conductor starts checking tickets because the moment the verifications start, you are considered to be riding illegally.

the best train trips in france

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, the everyday journey can be stunning. If you're traveling from Geneva, Switzerland towards Aix-les-Bains, you'll discover two distinct visual gems: the gorges and aqueduct over the Rhône as you speed across the border, and the beautiful shore of the Lac du Bourget, where the train was built hugging the water.

Here's a wonderful list of some of the most beautiful French train journeys.

what if there's a france train strike?

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 travel by train in France, even if workers do decide to walk off the job during your holidays.

Find out about strikes ahead of time

France does not usually have "wildcat strikes", or strikes without warning. They are planned, announced, and efforts are made to minimize disruption.

  • Scour local media looking for these words: "grève + sncf + month and year". This should yield some information, which you can then translate through Google or other translation methods.
  • Check TheLocal.fr. Although this is a subscription newspaper, it often has free coverage for public service items.
  • Download and learn to use the app "SNCF Assistant". It has an English version, and will carry the latest information about your specific train.

Get information at the station

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 the trains are on strike, buses are sometimes put into service on certain routes.

Rebook or get a refund

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.

Have a Plan B

The most important thing you can do is be flexible, whether to catch another train or to find an alternative.

  • I mentioned the bus, but if the SNCF hasn't put one on, you can still check regular bus services for yourself – you'll find the schedules and booking forms here.
  • You can also rent a car (here's the comparison engine I use) to get to your destination. There is an extra cost but you can usually drop off the car in a different city than the one in which you picked it up.
  • Check out Bla Bla Car, the ride-sharing service. It's rare you'll find something at the last minute but if you're desperate...

Do you have any additional travel tips for train travel in France? Please add them below!

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Header photo credit Florian Pépellin CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons