Savvy traveller 101: navigating the French rail system

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Are you a fan of rail travel? I am, as long as I am in France!

There is no doubt that France has an excellent rail system, but it can be daunting for those new to France, or those who are more used to travelling by car or plane. However, with a little practice and a few expert tips, everyone can end up enjoying French rail travel as much as I do.

While in Paris

Let’s start with the rail system that travellers to France are most likely to encounter – the Paris Métro. This rail system is primarily underground, although some of the 16 lines do take in the gorgeous Parisian views above ground. The Paris Métro is generally safe, requiring only the standard travel precautions, and navigation is easy. Lines are numbered and colour-coded and platforms are identified by the station where your train terminates.

But before you start to explore one of the lines, make sure to take a moment to appreciate the decorative entrances and signage that grace the Paris Métro stations. My personal favourites include all of the Art Nouveau entrances and in particular, the Abbesses station on line 12.

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Ticketing options for the Paris Métro are plentiful. As frequent Paris visitors (and residents) will be aware, you can purchase your tickets from an attendant at one of many manned Metro stations. Alternatively, numerous ticket machines offer single tickets, carnets and Paris Visite passes. The ticket machines are very easy to use and offer the option of making your purchase in English.

However, if the thought of frightening rail staff with your less than excellent French (I will never forget being winked at by the attendant as I attempted to purchase tickets in French – just before he switched to English) doesn’t appeal, and you are not sure about using ticket machines in crowded railway stations, you can purchase your tickets online and have them sent via international courier.

I’ve chosen this option a couple of times, and while the delivery fees certainly add to the overall cost of your holiday transport, the convenience of being able to plan your travel needs from the comfort of your own home can’t be underestimated.

Leaving Paris

When the time comes for Francophiles to make the break from Paris in order to explore more of France, or more of Europe for that matter, the TGV or Train à Grande Vitesse offers savvy travellers a high speed, comfortable and affordable alternative to other forms of transport.

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There is no doubt that the TGV is fast. It literally whisks you away, with top speeds of over 300 kilometres per hour. There are a number of high speed lines running from Paris to five star destinations like Lyon, Bordeaux, Avignon and Marseille.

Passengers have the choice of both first and second class carriages. Both classes offer a high standard of cleanliness and comfort, with the first class carriages providing little extras like adjustable seats and power outlets for your electrical devices.

Other benefits of travelling within France via the TGV include the fact that no time is wasted waiting around in airport lounges or sitting in traffic jams and you can take the spectacular French scenery as it flies by through large windows. And the dining car, as you’d expect in France, offers an excellent range of food and beverages in case hunger strikes while you are travelling. 

While tickets are easily purchased at stations, on each of my many visits to France I’ve gone with the online direct ticketing option, using the SNCF website to book my trips within France.

Booking via the Internet is certainly easy and convenient and your tickets can be printed at home. If my travel plans allow, I start booking fares about three months prior to my journey – this not only ensures I get to where I need to go but that I get a good price. I’ve been surprised at how much more expensive tickets can be when I’ve booked them close to the departure date.

If you are watching your travel dollars but still want to travel at high speeds, you should definitely check out a subsidiary of the SNCF group, OuiGo. This no frills service offers second class TGV travel between selected destinations at reduced rates. Bookings are made online via the OuiGo website.

Further afield

But what about locations not serviced by the TGV? Well, that’s when you need to explore the extensive Transport Express Régional rail system. This system, which is most commonly known as the TER, services the regional areas of France with the same cleanliness, efficiency and eco friendliness of the other French rail services.

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This more leisurely form of rail travel will get you just about anywhere while allowing you to take in the French countryside. Ticketing options are similar to the TGV and you are regularly offered your choice of first or second class carriages. For this mode of transport, I’ve used the ticket machines found in stations numerous times and always found them a quick and convenient option.

The Eurostar and the French rail system

No article on the French rail system could conclude without mentioning the Eurostar. Famous for linking London and Paris, this rail service has allowed me to visit friends in London for lunch and be back in Paris for dinner. It also offers services to Brussels.

The Eurostar arrives and departs Paris from dedicated platforms at Paris Gare du Nord. If you are taking the Eurostar from Paris to London, allow plenty of time to fill in documentation and clear customs prior to boarding your train.

For the return journey, your departure point is the gorgeous St Pancras International station where you can enjoy a spot of British shopping, or relax with a glass of bubbles in the Champagne Bar before your trip. Signage is excellent in both Paris and London, meaning you will have no trouble finding your train.

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Tickets are easily purchased online or at the station. When it comes to deciding between first or second class on the Eurostar, I’ve found that the second class service provides the best value for money.

What’s your preferred mode of transport in France? Any great tips to share? Share them in the comments below!

All images courtesy © Scott Gould.

About the Contributor

Janelle Gould

I have always been interested in France, with that interest growing into full blown obsession after spending a month there in 2008. I fell in love with the people, the culture, the architecture, the food, the wine. Basically I fell in love with everything about the place. You can read about all things French on my blog.

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