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Everything you need to know about taking the train in France

Everything you need to know about taking the train in France
Photo: Cisalpin1984 Train/Flickr
Here's a guide to using French trains from foreigners who know how confusing, infuriating yet ultimately rewarding it can be.

The French train system, almost exclusively operated by state-owned company SNCF, is admired in many countries for its efficiency and relative value. 

While people who actually use them on a everyday basis might dispute the system’s hallowed reputation, it’s hard to argue with the pleasure of getting on a TGV in Paris and ending up in Marseille just over three hours later or Bordeaux in two hours (thanks to the new fast line and ultra-modern trains). And if you’re still unconvinced, maybe SNCF’s rather cool new advert will sway you.

Even so, travelling by train in France isn’t always a piece of cake. Here’s what you need to know about using them from people who learnt the hard way.

Types of train 

In addition to its lauded high-speed TGV trains, SNCF also runs TER trains, which are are local lines connecting smaller towns and villages, Intercité which is the service linking major towns and cities, and Transilien trains which service the greater Paris Île-de-France region. Within Paris, SNCF is also responsible for some of the suburban RER trains, although the Metro, bus and tram network is run by city operator RATP.

On the TGV routes, there are now two options: InOui and Ouigo.

InOui trains which were officially launched in September 2018 are designed for greater passenger comfort and connectivity, where as Ouigo is a budget service with low-cost tickets, restrictions on baggage and a timetable that might not suit everyone.

The two services are compared to the difference between an airline like Air France and a low-cost carrier like easyJet. If you’re travelling on a Ouigo service be sure to check your destination, just like budget airlines some services end at points quite some distance from your specified destination, such ‘Paris’ services that terminate in Massy, 24km away from Paris.

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When to travel

Play it sensible with your journey planning, recommends one reader.  

Unsurprisingly French trains are very popular both with locals and tourists so travelling during busy periods like the school holidays can be hectic. 

“Always check start and end school holiday dates before booking and if you are lucky enough to have a flexible schedule, avoid those days entirely,” says seasoned TGV traveller, Barbara Learmonth. 

Also check the news to make sure there are no strikes planned for your journey date (while the French reputation for striking is slightly exaggerated, there has been at least one train strike in France every year since 1947).

Remember to validate your ticket 

Several readers of The Local stressed the importance of getting your ticket validated.

This should be done before you get on the train and can be done at one of the SNCF validating machines (see below). It’s worth pointing out that this applies to city public transport like the Paris Metro as well, you can be fined if you are caught travelling without a validated ticket.

Photo: Julie Reeman/Flickr
 

Tickets can only be validated on the day of travel so you can’t get away with trying to save time by doing it ahead of schedule. 

People who book online don’t need to worry about this. If you’ve done this, just present your printout or electronic ticket to the inspector when asked.

But – and we’ve all been there – what happens if you end up rushing to make the train and don’t get a chance? 

In that case, make sure you go and find a conductor before they find you. 

“They’re much more likely to be nice about it and maybe even waive the penalty,” reader Christine Cantera says.  

Buying a ticket on the train
 
For those inevitable moments when the ticket machines are out of order or just aren’t there – usually when travelling on the regional TER trains, you can go to the conductor of the train who will charge you the same amount as the advanced ticket fee. 
 
And if the ticket booths were open but you were running late, you should still be proactive and find the conductor. 
 
Barbara Learmonth says: “It may cost €6 or €7 more but a fine is much worse for not having a ticket. It’s your responsibility to find them before they check.” 
 

Another reader, Jennifer Freedman warns: “My 16-year-old daughter was fined €100 in late April because her connecting train (in Switzerland) arrived late and she didn’t have time to buy a ticket.” 

Departure boards

Trains will be displayed on boards with their final destination not necessarily where you are getting off. 

“Use the time and number of your train to find your platform. With local trains that have five digits often the first digit is not used on the display boards,” Barbara Learmonth says. 

Your train will either be displayed on the departure board as à l’heure (on time), retardé (delayed), annulé or supprimé (cancelled). You may also see a service described as perturbé (disrupted).

Photo: Nicolas B./Flickr  

Seats

Each different train type has a different way of labelling their seats, and some local trains have no seat allocations at all. “First, make sure you have the correct coach,” Christine Cantera says. “It’s on your ticket, and on the platform there is a sign that tells you where to stand so that you’re in front of that coach when it pulls in.”

Look for the diagram of the train on each platform.

“If you’re disabled, many trains have stairs to get from the track into the train. Make sure to plan ahead with SNCF to get on the train safely and properly,” recommends Barbara Learmonth. 

Double-decker trains  

Many of France’s trains are double-decker or have two floors. Upstairs is great for the views but not great on a hot and sticky train.

Luggage

Don’t make the mistake of putting your luggage in the racks by the train doors as you get on, one reader advises. 

“A personal gripe of mine is when people put smaller bags in the racks near the carriage entrance. There are large enough luggage racks above your seat for even medium size suitcases. This leaves the entry racks free for large cases.”

And for any cyclists, another reader says: “France is a very bike-friendly country, and many trains have areas specially for bikes.”

There are two options for taking your bicycle on SNCF trains, either disassemble it and pack it in a bag no larger than 120 cm high x 90 cm or store it in the area set aside for bicycles which can be found on most trains.

Pet-friendly

All SNCF trains let you travel with your pet so there’s no need to leave them at home. Just remember, they’ll need their own ticket.

Pets weighing less than 6kg travel on a flat fare of €7. If they weigh more than that they’ll cost 50 percent of the full 2nd class fare (even if you travel in 1st class) on TGV, Intercités and TER trains.  And if you have a pet snail, that will also need its own ticket.

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Photo: csibon43/Flickr
 

Border crossing

Travelling within the Schengen zone is generally a pretty smooth experience, but if you are crossing a border on your journey remember to have your passport with you. Passports or ID cards can be checked at the border itself or on arrival at the station, although in many cases there are no checks at all.

Stave off the boredom

As beautiful as the French countryside can be, you might find that faced with a few hours of staring out of the window you’re ready for something to keep you busy. 

If so, one reader recommends taking advantage of the short story vending machines that you’ll find at many train stations around France. 

Snack time

On the TGV routes InOui trains will have a café so you can tick making a picnic for the train off your to-do list. And they sell warm meals, as well as wine and beer and sandwiches and snacks. One bit of advice though, if you are hungry then get in the queue early before the restaurant coach opens because if you leave it late, you can spend a good 20 minutes in the queue.

Note that Ouigo services do not have a bar.

Check for updates

If you’re planning your journey and want up to date information, for example if you’re worried about strikes or other disruptions, you can check the SNCF website or the SNCF app for the latest news. During strikes, SNCF generally publishes a revised strike timetable at around 5pm detailing services for the following day. 


Member comments

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  1. As a fully “recovered” advertising guy, I have to LAUGH at the dippy name the SNCF came up with for its new “premium” TGV service . . . inOUI. Has anyone else noticed that this is a PERFECT homonym (sound-alike) for (wait for it, drum roll): ennui ? (Boredom).
    HA HA HA HA. Reminds me of the 1968 USA Cadillac car tagline: “Now longer in length.”

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