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A Complete Guide for Traveling by Train in France
A dense network of suburban, regional and high-speed intercity services makes France’s rail system the second largest in Europe after Germany. Still expanding and constantly undergoing modernization, rail transportation is one of the favorite ways of traveling in France, without the congestion of the country’s roads yet with high ratings for safety and the quality of service passengers receive.
What’s more, with the French government banning domestic flights when a similar rail route exists, France’s railways are sure to become even more important in the twenty-first century during the fight against climate change.
Predominantly focused on passenger movement rather than freight transportation, the French rail network is also one of the most used in the world. Starting out as a ten-mile line between Saint-Étienne and Andrézieux in southeast France in 1827, the network now has more than 18,000 miles (30,000 kilometers) of accessible track leading to around 1.8 billion individual journeys each year.
Paris, the French capital, is very much the center point of the country’s rail network, with many routes starting or ending their journeys at one of the city’s glorious terminus stations. However, almost all major towns and cities are connected by rail, making trains an ideal way of seeing all of France’s top attractions.
Train companies in France
The French rail network is almost wholly operated by SNCF (Société nationale des chemins de fer français – the national society for French railways), a company wholly owned by the French state. Infrastructure such as track and stations are maintained by SNCF Réseau, while passenger rail services are run under several different SNCF sub-brands depending on the type of train.
The different types of train service run by SNCF can be determined relatively easily:
Local and regional trains are generally TER (Transport Express Régional) services. They stop at most stations along a rail line and are managed regionally to best serve the needs of local populations. Useful TER services include trains running to and from Paris Charles de Gaulle, Marseille and Lyon airports to their respective city centers.
Since they stop at fewer stations, Intercités services are faster, and usually operate on France’s long-distance routes, such as Nantes to Bordeaux and Paris to Toulouse. Although there are still references to intercity night services, they are steadily being removed from the network. Sleeper trains with dedicated couchettes called wagon-lits have already disappeared.
The most famous part of the SNCF network is probably the high-speed TGV (Trains à Grande Vitesse) trains, the domestic lines of which span out from Paris like the spokes of a bicycle wheel to reach destinations including Marseille, Strasbourg and Lille under the INOUI sub-branding.
Several TGV routes also have trains operated by Ouigo, the low-cost subsidiary of SNCF, including Marseille, Bordeaux and Toulouse. Costs are kept low by terminating many Ouigo services outside of city centers at secondary train stations, with passengers then using local commuter services to complete their journeys. In Paris, this includes the metro subway system and the RER network, a blend of metro and commuter rail which stops less frequently than metro trains and operates on its own tracks.
International services are also centered around Paris, with many TGV and long-distance Intercités services crossing France’s international borders into neighboring countries.
Eurostar operates services through the Channel Tunnel to the United Kingdom’s Ebbsfleet, Ashford, and London St Pancras International stations from Paris Gare du Nord with journey times of around 2 hours and 15 minutes. During the summer there are also direct Eurostar trains from the UK to Marseille for the French Riviera, while ski options are sometimes available in the winter months.
Thalys is the main operator running high-speed services from Paris to Brussels and Antwerp in Belgium, and Rotterdam and Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Additional standard-speed services are run by Belgium’s SNCB. IZY services stopped operating in summer 2022.
Deutsche Bahn is the main train operator with services into Germany, alongside SNCF. Destinations include Frankfurt am Main and Munich. Similarly, TGV Lyria trains operate between France and Switzerland, predominantly through the Alsace region and stations such as Mulhouse.
Regular train services also operate to cities in northern Italy such as Milan and Turin, as well as to Monaco and Luxembourg. SNCF’s Renfe services run across southern France to Spanish destinations including Barcelona, although there are no rail services to the Principality of Andorra in the Pyrenees.
Popular train destinations in France
France’s most popular destinations have no shortage of trains reaching them from other towns and cities in France and Europe. But what is there to do once you’ve arrived? We offer our suggestions on the most exciting cities below:
The ‘City of Light’, the French capital and unofficial romantic capital of the world, Paris has no less than five UNESCO World Heritage Sites. With the weather on your side, one of the best ways to explore is on foot, following the flow of the River Seine to the viewing platforms of the Eiffel Tower, the galleries of the Louvre, and the 900-year-old Notre-Dame Cathedral.
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Situated where the River Saône flows into the Rhône, Lyon in southeastern France has attractions spanning back 2,000 years to the time of ancient Rome, when it was the capital of the province of Gaul. Today the city is a bustling cultural and gastronomic hub, which celebrates its role as the birthplace of cinema with the Lumiere Museum and December’s four day Festival of Light extravaganza.
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Although still struggling to shake off its outdated reputation for grittiness, Marseille can be easily reached by TGV services from various French Riviera destinations, including Nice. Make the journey for yourself and you’ll discover a charming old port filled with yachts and lined with tempting restaurants, all watched over by the hilltop Basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde.
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The biggest city in northern France and less than 1.5 hours by train from Paris, Saint-Gilles, and London, Lille’s heritage is as a mercantile city, resulting in a fine array of public spaces and some excellent shopping. The blend of French and Flemish (Belgian) influences makes its architecture unique in France, while a steady stream of annual events includes what’s said to be Europe’s largest flea market, La Braderie.
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Straddling France’s border with Germany on the River Rhine, Strasbourg is the largest city in Alsace, a region which has changed hands between the two countries more than once. Its Grand Ile area hosts many of its historic structures, dating back centuries. The so-called Neustadt (‘New Town’) incorporates grand structures, such as the National and University Library on Place de la Republique, that are themselves now more than one hundred years old.
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The most scenic train routes in France
Looking to combine your rail journey across France with some of the country’s most stunning vistas? Look no further than these three phenomenally scenic routes:
Nice to Digne les Bains
Passing through the foothills of the French Alps via gently running rivers and picturesque villages, this private narrow gauge railway runs inland from the Mediterranean coast revealing an endless panorama of charming landscapes. Lasting approximately three hours and covering just over 60 miles, several departures a day run during the summer from Nice’s Chemin de Fer Provence (CFP) station, a short walk north of Gare de Nice-Ville, the city’s main terminus.
Paris to Mulhouse
Using the old mainline between the French capital and the Swiss city of Basel, the Paris to Mulhouse railway captures the essence of eastern France in a single three-hour rail journey. The highlight is the crossing of the three-story 50 arch Chaumont Viaduct over the Suize River, lit up with hundreds of LEDs after nightfall. Spectacular at any time of year, fall sees the French countryside in this region bathed in a stunning array of autumnal colors.
Villefranche-Vernet les Bains to Latour de Carol
Better known as Languedoc’s Yellow Train, almost the entire journey between Villefranche-Vernet les Bains, close to Perpignan, and Latour de Carol is above 1,000 meters. Together with the open carriages, this provides extraordinary vistas of the Pyrenees. Running a total distance of just under 40 miles, the views can be enjoyed year-round, although unusually heavy snowfalls can temporarily close the line during the winter months.
How to book train travel in France
Reservations for SNCF’s TER Services
Tickets do not need to be purchased in advance for commuter and TER rail services anywhere in France. Reservations are not possible on these trains, and there is no theoretical limit to the number of passengers that can board any specific train of these types. Tickets can be bought ahead of the departure date, but there is no saving to be made compared with purchasing your ticket on the day at the station as these trains use a fixed price (tariff normal) model for ticket sales.
Reservations for SNCF’s TGV and Intercités Services
The vast majority of Intercités services and all TGV trains need to be booked in advance. Tickets for SNCF TGV services come with a compulsory seat reservation at no extra cost. Pre-booking tickets as early as possible is the best way of obtaining the cheapest prices. Booking usually opens four months ahead of time, and tickets can sell out quickly for busy trains and popular travel dates such as the run up to Christmas. Purchasing tickets on the day is usually possible, so long as the train isn’t fully-booked and seats remain available, although you will end up paying substantially more for the same service.
Changes & cancellations
Tickets can be purchased online or directly from train stations and are limited to a specific service. If your plans change, you will therefore need to change your ticket. On the plus side, all fare types can be changed or canceled with a full refund up to 30 days before travel.
Between 30 and three days before travel, there is a €5 fee for making a change in addition to needing to cover any increase in fare. From three days to 30 minutes before departure, changes can be made for a fee of €15. You can still change tickets for the same day and journey within the 30-minute window before departure. After the scheduled departure of the train tickets become non-refundable and non-exchangeable. If you miss your train, you will therefore need to purchase a whole new ticket.
Purchasing tickets at the station
Most train stations have manned ticket booths and automated ticket machines offering sales in multiple languages including English. Tickets for any service in the country can be bought from any train station or ticket machine. Machines only accept credit and debit cards using the ‘chip and PIN’ system. If you still use a signature to confirm a purchase, you will need to go to a manned ticket booth. If you don’t speak French, having the train information written down clearly to present to the staff member will help. Sometimes international ticket sales have their own booth.
French Intercités and TGV services have four main ticket types: two for second or standard class and two for first class. The cheapest fares are known as ‘prems’, and are limited in number. If all prems tickets for a particular train have already sold out, the other ticket option in standard class carriages is called ‘seconde’. There is no difference in service quality between ‘prems’ and ‘seconde’ tickets.
First class travelers are able to choose between ‘premiere’ class (not to be confused with ‘prems’) and ‘business premiere’. ‘Premiere’ ticket prices rise as the departure date nears, while more expensive ‘business premiere’ tickets are always at a fixed rate. They are only available on certain TGV services, including those heading between Paris and Reims, Nantes, and Bordeaux.
Since all tickets are now exchangeable and refundable, the main difference between ticket types is the level of comfort experienced before and during the journey, as detailed below.
Tips for finding deals on train tickets in France
Keep an eye on SNCF social media channels to be one of the first to learn about the latest deals and offers on the French rail network, or simply stick to using Wanderu for all your rail ticketing. Being flexible with travel dates can also lead to some great bargains.
One of the best ways of guaranteeing you’re getting the cheapest prices available on any particular day is to book your tickets as early as possible, with tickets appearing on websites four months before departure on average.
If you’re a frequent user of SNCF services, it may be worth joining their Grand Voyageur rewards program too. Benefits include discounts on bicycle and car rental, home baggage pick up and drop off, and discounted station car parking. However, passengers are likely to find use of TGV INOUI lounges most useful.
Railcards & passes
Pretty much every train traveler in France, regardless of their nationality or home country, is able to purchase an Avantage discount card. They cost €49, are valid for one year, and can be bought for start dates up to five months into the future. They give holders discounts of 30% on Intercités and TGV services within France and on cross-border routes. They come in three different versions: Jeune, for those aged 12-27; Adulte for passengers aged 28-59; and Senior, for those over 60 years of age.
Frequent travelers may also be interested in the Liberté card, which offers discounts of up to 50% on second and first class Intercités and TGV tickets. The price is €399 for one year. Similar weekly and monthly versions called the Forfait card also exist for individual routes or nationwide rail services and allow holders to purchase tickets for €1.50.
European nationals and permanent residents are able to purchase an Interrail Pass, and non-European citizens the Eurail Pass. Both have One Country and Europe-wide ‘Global’ versions, with a range of options extending from three days to three months of travel. Eurostar and all services requiring a seat reservation require pre-booking, removing much of the freedom of the pass. This pre-booking may also be charged at anywhere from €3-25 ($3-27) per train.
Types of train services available in France
TER regional services are the most basic as they are intended for relatively short journey lengths. Consisting only of standard class carriages, they can differ between regions, but are generally modern single-decker services powered by diesel locomotives.
Intercités and TGV services have both second and first class options. Intercités services reach a maximum speed of 125 mph, and while most have compulsory seat reservations, some do not. Once branded as SNCF Teoz, these trains are often powered by overhead electric cables, and tend to have both air conditioning and power sockets for passenger use. As already mentioned, intercity night trains are slowly being phased out, being replaced by early morning and late evening Intercités and TGV services.
TGV trains are able to reach a top speed of between 186 and 198 mph, depending on the route. Services consist of both single- and double-decker trains with onboard restrooms.
Getting to the train station in France
For the most part, France’s train stations are located in town and city centers, often within walking distance of the main sights and attractions. However, some TGV stations are located outside of city centers, requiring passengers to make use of local buses, trams, taxis or Uber to reach them.
Typically, all but the smallest train stations in France are well-equipped to meet the needs of passengers in the 21st century. The largest ones offer complimentary Wi-Fi (sign up may be required), in addition to more traditional amenities and facilities such as restrooms, free seating and places to purchase food, drink and magazines. Many have left luggage facilities with pay-for lockers which take baggage up to large suitcases. Your luggage will likely be scanned like at airports before entry.
In addition to manned and automated ticket booths, information is easy to come by thanks to large screens detailing the next train departures and arrivals. Larger stations also have lounges that can be used by those with first class tickets.
Getting on the train in France
Like in most of Europe, there is no pre-boarding check-in for trains in France. Instead, passengers who already have a ticket can check the right platform using the information display boards and get on the correct train. Platforms will normally have a display board outlining the approximate location of your carriage.
Platforms (voie) are displayed anywhere between 15 and 30 minutes before departure, making the latter the obvious target time for arriving at the station. Train doors usually close 1-2 minutes before departure, and you must be onboard before this happens. You should arrive 45 minutes to one hour early for Eurostar services.
It is increasingly common for TGV platforms at French train stations to have automatic ticket gates. Passengers scan the barcode on their ticket or eticket to open the gates. When in possession of a paper ticket for other train services, it is important to remember to validate the ticket at one of the small yellow colored machines located at the entrance to platforms – watch what other travelers do if you’re unsure.
Once your ticket has been inserted into the machine, it will be stamped with the date and time. Failure to do so is treated in the same way as not possessing a ticket, although conductors sometimes give leeway to tourists. If you have an eticket, there is no need (or ability) to validate it.
Passengers are generally not required to present ID unless crossing an international border, in which case you will need either a passport or other form of acceptable identification and any necessary visas. Passport control for Eurostar services takes place after check-in but before you board the train. Those on other cross-border services usually occur alongside ticket inspection once the journey is underway.
On-board experience on French trains
SNCF TER Trains
Seating on TER trains consists of a mix of airline style seating and groups of four seats facing one another around tables. Since there are no seat reservations, passengers are free to sit where they like. Most trains also have onboard restrooms, luggage racks, and LED screens detailing the next station stop.
SNCF Intercités Trains
All Intercités trains have onboard toilets and somewhere to purchase snacks – either a trolley that passes through carriages or a dedicated café-bar. The latter offers sandwiches, hot and cold drinks (including beer and wine), and some hot meals such as pasta dishes. There is no prohibition on bringing your own food and drinks onboard. In addition, first and second class ticketing is available, with first class carriages being quieter and offering more space per passenger.
SNCF TGV Trains
All TGV trains, except for those serving routes that total less than two hours, also have a café-bar where passengers can buy refreshments. Seating in second class is of a 2+2 arrangement divided by a central aisle. They have drop down tables attached to the seat in front. Power sockets are not guaranteed. Wi-Fi exists right across the network of SNCF-branded TGVs. It is good enough for basic tasks, but shouldn’t be relied upon for streaming videos. Ouigo trains are also expanding their passenger Wi-Fi, naming it Ouifi, but this is an optional extra with additional charges associated with it.
First class carriages have just three seats across the width of the carriage. Each has its own power socket of the European two pin ‘type C’ version. Seats located side-by-side are referred to as ‘duo’ on booking platforms, and single seats separated by the aisle as ‘solo’. A pair of seats facing each other are called ‘Club duo’ or ‘dual face to face’, while ‘club quatre’ refers to four seats situated together around a table.
There are no luggage limits associated with train tickets in France, but it is a condition of carriage to label your luggage. Eurostar services have a two bag limit. Both first and second class TGV trains are wheelchair accessible, and have toilets accessible to wheelchair users. Smoking is not permitted anywhere on these trains. Bicycles can usually be taken onboard, but require their own reservation and must be placed in the specific location reserved for them.
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