As an American, when I think about taking a trip somewhere, I first think of flying or driving to my destination. But in France, train travel is actually one of the most popular ways to get from point A to B. Whether you’re a commuter or looking to go on vacation, France’s railway system is a well-connected and efficient way to travel around France and to other destinations in Europe. Before considering train travel in France, keep reading to learn what you need to know before you go!
Quick guide to train travel in France
Other than commuting to work back in the US, I didn’t have much experience traveling by train. That all changed when I moved to France. From short regional trips to much longer journeys, traveling by train has a lot going for it. Let’s get into what you need to know before you buy a train ticket in France.
Train travel destinations from France
France’s national state-owned railway company is called the SNCF, which stands for Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français. The SNCF was founded in 1938, and runs all rail traffic nationwide as well as in Monaco. This also includes TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) service, the high-speed rail network. France has 27,483 kilometers of railway lines (only second to Germany) making train travel in France a popular option. (via Statista as of 2019).
All of France’s big cities are accessible via train, with Paris being a major hub. In Paris alone, there are six train stations that will get you to other areas of France and Europe: Gare du Nord, Gare de l’Est, Gare de Lyon, Gare d’Austerlitz, Gare Montparnasse, and Gare Saint-Lazare.
In addition to big cities, you can take the train to smaller towns and even more rural areas. Train travel is great for weekend trips from Paris as well. If you’re looking to travel to other areas of Europe via train, you’ve got options. Travel to London, Brussels, Amsterdam and more via SNCF service!
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Types of trains and service in France
Train service in France runs like a well-oiled machine with a wide variety of routes nationwide that include big cities, small towns, and even rural areas. As of 2019, the entire SNCF network has over 27,000 kilometers of railway lines, 58% of which were electrified. Over 15,000 commercial trains run daily, transporting more than 5 million passengers and more than 250,000 tons of goods, reported the SNCF.
Let’s talk about the different types of passenger trains available:
TGV INOUI: The TGV is France’s most well-known train, which stands for Train à Grand Vitesse which translates to high-speed train. They can hit speeds of up to 300 km/h (186 mph). The TGV services 200 destinations and has been operating since 1981. TGV Europe also services destinations in Germany, Italy, Spain, Luxembourg, and Belgium. The TGV is the train you take when you want to get from point A to B as quickly as possible.
TGV Lyria: High-speed service that connects France to destinations in Switzerland.
OUIGO: OUIGO is all about low-cost train fares on the TGV. Be sure to book early to score these offers! Small pets travel for free, a piece of luggage is included in the fare, and they’re a steal if your destination is one of the 41 they service. Kids 0-11 years old travel for 5€ one way.
One drawback of OUIGO service is that you have to arrive 30 minutes in advance so staff can check tickets. In addition, extra luggage and seats with a power outlet cost extra and there’s no dining car. Seats tend to be a bit smaller and less comfortable, so take all of that into consideration. None of these were dealbreakers for me when I’ve taken OUIGO trains, though they may be for some people.
As of April 2022, the SNCF launched the OUIGO Train Classique. It is a slower service debuting between Paris and Lyon and Paris and Nantes. The fares are between 10 and 30 euros each way (5€ for kids) and are a great budget-friendly option for those of us who don’t mind a longer trip. The fares are fixed – even for last-minute travel. Note that these fares are only sold online.
INTERCITÉS: Services 150 French destinations, some of which don’t require reservations in advance. They also offer overnight trains on some routes.
TER: France’s regional trains that operate in 11 regions and also connect to the main lines. These are not high-speed trains.
Thalys: High-speed service to Cologne, Amsterdam, and Brussels.
Eurostar: High-speed service to London from Paris, Lille, or Brussels.
Transilien and public transport in the Paris region: This includes the Paris metro and RER trains, bus lines, and more (operated by the RATP). Transilien refers to commuter service in the Paris area.
Where to buy train tickets in France
You have a couple of options for buying French train tickets. You can buy them in person at any train station either at the automated machine terminals or face to face at the ticket window. If you go the ticket window route, take note that they are generally open during French business hours and not 24/7. Also be aware that there are different types of ticket machines. Some are only for TER train tickets in France, as shown above, and others are for TGV tickets, etc.
Your other option for where to buy train tickets in France is to do so online. As I mentioned, France’s railway network is called SNCF and the official website/app to buy train tickets is now called SNCF Connect (formerly known as OUI.sncf). The new site has easier route mapping, integrated commuter support and so much more that makes planning a trip a breeze. It’s also available in English. You can buy tickets for all the types of transport listed above from your computer or phone via their website or the app. You then have the option of printing out a paper ticket or saving the digital version to your phone.
There are also other sites called Rail Europe and others geared toward English-speaking foreigners. They are third-party resellers that are not official sites where prices are often elevated, so I don’t recommend ever using them.
On SNCF Connect, in addition to actually buying/exchanging your France train tickets, you can also plan your trip, find the best door-to-door route, get traffic updates and alerts in real time and buy and renew regional cards and passes. You can also access bus lines and ride sharing offers.
If you travel frequently, are a student, or a senior citizen, it may be cost effective to look into special train passes, so see if you qualify to save a few bucks.
Just like with flights, train ticket prices in France fluctuate as well. You can usually get a much better deal well in advance, while last-minute tickets are usually the most expensive.
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Expert tips for train travel
1. Buy tickets early for the best price and availability. If you’re looking to travel by train and know your plans well in advance, it pays to buy the tickets well in advance. You’ll get the best price. Another reason why you’ll want to book early whenever possible is because trains in France sell out since all seating is reserved. This can be especially true during the peak summer months, during school vacation periods, and on popular routes. As I recommended above, be sure to only use the official site SNCF Connect for the most accurate information and cost-effective tickets.
2. Book a seat that makes sense for you. All TGV seating is reserved. TGVs and longer trips require you to book a specific seat and there are different configurations. Most are two by two and you have the choice of an aisle or window seat. There are also “family” seats called carré (square) which are 4 seats in a two-by-two configuration but facing each other with a table in between (imagine sitting at a 4-person dinner table). That means two are riding backwards. It can be a little awkward facing a stranger the whole ride. Also, riding backwards isn’t always comfortable for people prone to motion sickness, so pay close attention to what seat you’re choosing.
In addition, some trains are double deckers and have an upstairs level accessible by a staircase. If you have several pieces of luggage or aren’t able to easily climb stairs, upstairs may not be the best option. The booking system will assign you a seat that is easily changed before finalizing your reservation, so again just be sure you’re comfortable with the seat you’re selecting.
3. Consider first class. Along with the above, it might make sense to book a ticket in first class. Sometimes they’re only slightly more expensive than regular second class fares, especially when booked in advance. For more comfortable seats with a little more leg room, more luggage storage, a plug for electronics, and more, first class might be a good choice for business travel or long trips where comfort is important. But overall, I’ve found that first class seats on the TGV aren’t that different from second class so they aren’t worth a splurge if the difference in fare classes is steep.
4. Show up early. If you’re not used to taking the train in France, be sure to give yourself enough time to navigate the station and get to the right platform and track (called voie in French. You’ll see tracks noted as Voie A, for example). Paris stations are big and it can be confusing if you’re not used to how things are organized. Spare yourself the added stress that comes along with rushing or having to rebook a missed train and get there on the early side.
5. Note the number of your train car and line up on the platform accordingly. This is a VERY IMPORTANT tip. For trips with reserved seating, it’s imperative that you look closely at your ticket and mentally note the specific train carriage number in which you’ll be seated. Then find the black display sign on the platform titled “Composition des Trains” that tells you where to stand for your specific car number. It looks like a lit up outline of a train and will usually have a “You are here” dot so you can gauge how far left or right you need to walk to get into position.
TGVs and other international trains can be quite long with 20 or more cars or even two trains that are attached. Because stops are often only a couple of minutes long, you need to be in the vicinity of your assigned seat because you won’t have time to run the length of the platform if you’re near car 4 and yours is actually car 18. This happened to my aunt and uncle in Marseille. They couldn’t get to their train car in time with all their luggage and missed the train.
You can’t just get on and walk between the cars because they aren’t always connected and with the crowds and luggage, it’s not feasible. In some cases, as I mentioned, two separate trains might be connected as they depart Paris but at some point they split and go to different final destinations. It’s really important you check that you’re in the right seat and in the right car! Definitely take extra care when it comes to lining up ahead of time and then finding your seat once on board.
A final note on the Composition des Trains display sign: There won’t be an employee directing you and it’s not required to line up in any specific place. It’s just that the Composition des Trains display is there for a reason, so be sure to take a look so you aren’t on the opposite side of the platform when the train comes. That way you’ll be in the general vicinity of your assigned seat and won’t have to run.
6. Note the train number. Each train has a specific number so when you look up at the big board or screen in the station that lists out all the departures, you’ll see a train number that corresponds to the destination and time. Several trains may be going to or coming from the same place so it’s important to know you’re on the train you actually bought a ticket for.
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7. Don’t forget to validate your ticket. All paper tickets for Europe train travel need to be validated before you get on the train in France. To do this, look for the yellow machines with a ticket slot in the train station. There are several usually at the entrance, on the platform, and around the ticket machines and are marked “Compostez votre billet” (validate your ticket). You insert your ticket into the machine and two seconds later it spits it out with a stamped line of text validating that the ticket is now used. You’ll need to show it to the train employee (contrôleur in French) when he or she checks your ticket after boarding (or in some cases before you board).
Along with that, be sure to have a photo ID with you even for regional trips. In the case of buying your France train ticket online, it’ll be in your name and sometimes they check ID as well. Keep in mind there is no validation process required for e-tickets because they have a special QR code that is scanned directly from your phone. Just the paper ones require the stamp from the yellow machine.
As you’d expect, ID is always checked for TGV and other international trips. Another note on tickets is to always play it safe and buy a train ticket. While the conductor doesn’t always check all tickets, fines are heavy if you try to get a free ride. Another important tip I should mention is make sure your phone is charged if you have an e-ticket since you’ll need it on and functional to show your ticket.
8. Keep your voice down. Train cars tend to be on the quieter side in France and Europe. People tend to keep their voices low when having private conversations and phone calls are not allowed in some cars. It goes toward respecting the public space and not disturbing those around you. The general attitude for train travel in Europe is to keep your voice down.
Pros of train travel in France
Easy and efficient way to travel. While train travel isn’t perfect, it’s a pretty stress-free way to travel. You can easily book your ticket online, arrive at the station, and go. Voilà! France is extremely well connected and whether you’re traveling within France or to neighboring European countries, SNCF Connect has you covered. Also, train travel in France doesn’t require you to arrive hours early like air travel does.
Comfortable seats. Compared to regular economy class on most airlines, trains in France are quite comfortable. You have more legroom, big picture windows to take in the view, decent sized bathrooms, and more. You can head to the bar/food car on some trains where you can buy something to eat or drink. You’re always welcome to bring your own food as well. Many newer trains also have free Wi-Fi.
Lots of options in terms of timing. Most routes have several trains per day (even hourly!) so you have your pick as to whether you leave in the morning or evening or somewhere in between. Train travel is extremely convenient and that’s a top pro.
Cons of train travel in France
Possibility of strikes and delays. Like air travel, train travel isn’t without its drawbacks. Strikes and delays are not uncommon occurrences. The bright side is strikes are usually announced in advance so you can plan ahead but delays come down to luck. Weather, technical issues, and more play into whether your trip will be delayed so it just comes with the territory. I take the train regularly and I’m happy to say I’ve only been inconvenienced by strikes and big delays a handful of times in 10 years.
Trips can be long and routing isn’t always direct. If you’re in a rush, train travel may not be for you. TGV and other international high-speed options aside, if you’re trying to get from Angers to Perpignan like I had to when my flight was canceled a couple of years back, be ready for a long day. Routes aren’t always direct and many go through Paris. In my case I had to change train stations (not just the train!) in Paris which required a taxi. Then my second train was a very slow one that made all the stops. I think the trip was over 8 hours total (flight would have been an hour and 20 minutes). So if you’re in a rush or hate long trips, train travel may not make sense for your specific situation depending on your route.
Not great if you have a lot of luggage. Unlike air travel where you can check large pieces of luggage, when you go by train, you’re responsible for hauling your suitcase(s) onto the train and stowing it in the luggage area. Depending on where you’re seated, this can mean lugging it up or down stairs. This can be even a bit more challenging on crowded trains when luggage areas are already full. While there aren’t firm luggage limits on regular fare trains, it can get really cumbersome when you have two or three suitcases.
If you are traveling solo and have two or more pieces of luggage, keep in mind that trains only stop for a few minutes so take steps to make the whole on/off process run as smoothly as possible. This includes booking a ticket on the lower level so you can avoid stairs and making sure that you line up on the platform in the area that corresponds to your reserved seat, as we talked about above.
Also, when it’s time to get off, start getting your suitcase out of the luggage area a few minutes before the train arrives in the station. People who got on after you might have boxed your suitcase in so leave yourself time to get organized.
Have you traveled by train in France? How was the experience? I hope my guide to train travel in France was helpful! Bon voyage!
Traveling to France soon and want to be prepared? Check out my eGuide titled “75 Beginner France travel tips for a standout trip!”
Disclosure: This is a sponsored collaboration between SNCF Connect and Oui In France. All opinions are my own.