The French national train agency, the Sociète Nationale de Chemins de Fer, or SNCF, is fast, punctual, comfortable, and comprehensive . . . when it's not on strike. Traveling across France, you have various options: local trains, overnight trains with sleeping accommodations, and the high-speed Trains à Grande Vitesse, known as the TGV.
TGVs are the best and the fastest domestic trains, averaging 255 kph (160 mph) on the Lyon–southeast line and 320 kph (200 mph) on the Lille and Bordeaux–southwest lines. They operate between Paris and Lille/Calais, Paris and Brussels, Paris and Amsterdam, Paris and Lyon–Switzerland–Provence, Paris and Angers–Nantes, Paris–Avignon and Tours–Poitiers–Bordeaux. As with other main-line trains, a small supplement may be assessed at peak hours.
It's usually fast and easy to cross France without traveling overnight, especially on TGVs, which are generally affordable, efficient, and equipped with creature comforts, such as Wi-Fi. Be aware that trains fill up quickly on weekends and holidays, so purchase tickets well in advance for these times. Otherwise, you can take a slow overnight train, which often costs more than a TGV, with the option of reclining in your assigned seat or bedding down in a couchette (bunk, six to a compartment in second class, four to a compartment in first, or private cabins).
In Paris there are six international rail stations: Gare du Nord (northern France, northern Europe, and England via Calais or Boulogne); Gare St-Lazare (Normandy and England via Dieppe); Gare de l'Est (Strasbourg, Luxembourg, Basel, and central Europe); Gare de Lyon (Lyon, Marseille, Provence, Côte d'Azur, Switzerland, and Italy); Gare d'Austerlitz (Loire Valley and central France, overnight to Nice and Spain); and Gare Montparnasse (southwest France and Spain).
Booking and Buying Tickets
There are two classes of train service in France; first (première) or second (deuxième). First-class seats offer more legroom, plusher upholstery, private reading lamps, computer plugs on the TGV, and wireless connectivity, not to mention a hushed, no-cell-phone environment for those who want to sleep. The price can be nearly double, though there are often deals online.
It is best—and in many cases, essential—to prebook your train tickets. This requires making a reservation online, by phone, or in person at the train station. Rail Europe does an excellent job providing train tickets to those in the United States. It offers a service, and the higher prices reflect that. If you want to save money, however, book directly with the SNCF.
There are two kinds of rail passes: those you must purchase at home (including the France Rail Pass and Eurail Pass) and those available in France from SNCF.
If you plan to travel outside Paris by train, consider purchasing a France Rail Pass through Rail Europe; it allows for 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9 days of unlimited train travel in a one-month period. If you travel solo for three days, first class will run you $283 and second class $230; you can add up to six days on this pass for $40 a day in first class, $31 a day in second class. For two people traveling together on a Saver Pass, the first-class cost is $248 per person, and in second class it's $201.
France is one of 28 countries in which you can use Eurail passes, which provide unlimited rail travel for a set amount of time. If you plan to rack up the miles, get a Global Pass; it's valid for first-class rail trail in all member nations for periods ranging from five days ($581) to three months ($2,037). The Regional Pass, which covers rail travel in and between pairs of bordering countries over a two-month period, is an alternative. Unlike most Eurail passes, Regional passes are available for first- or second-class travel; prices begin at $395 (first class) and $317 (second class) for four days of travel. Whichever pass you choose, remember that you must buy it before leaving for France.
Reduced fares are available for seniors (over 60), children (under 12), and passengers under 26. The Senior+ railcard costs €60, is valid for one year, and entitles you to up to a 50% reduction on full-fare TGV and intercité trains, with a guaranteed minimum reduction of 25% on all other train fares (including last-minute ones). With the Carte Enfant Plus (€60), children 4 to 11 years old accompanying adults can get up to 50% off most trains for an unlimited number of trips; valid for a year, this card is perfect if you're planning to spend a lot of time traveling en famille. You can also opt for the Enfant+: when you buy your ticket, simply show a valid ID with your child's age and you can get a significant discount for your child and a 25% reduction for up to four accompanying adults.
If you purchase an individual ticket from SNCF in France and you're under 26, you automatically get a 25% reduction when you flash a valid ID. If you're under 26 and plan to ride the train quite a bit, consider buying the Carte 12–27 (€50), which offers unlimited 50% reductions for one year. If you don't benefit from any of these reductions but plan on traveling at least 200 km (132 miles) round-trip and don't mind staying over a Saturday night, look into the CarteWeek-end (€75); it gives you and your traveling companion a 25% reduction.
Boarding the Train
Get to the station at least an hour before departure to ensure you'll have time for ticketing and, in some cases, seat selection. If you're taking a TGV, your seat is reserved by car and seat number. Before boarding, you must punch your ticket (composter le billet) in one of the yellow machines at the entrance to the platforms (quais) or else risk a €10–€25 fine (amende) plus a processing fee of €30–€38. Tickets printed by the SNCF must be validated; Eurail passes and tickets printed at home don't need validation. If you board your train on the run and don't have time to punch it, look for a conductor (contrôleur) as soon as possible and get him to sign it. Once you're aboard, note that smoking is forbidden on all public transportation in France. Even lighting up in the bathrooms or connecting compartments will land you an on-the-spot fine of €68.
With an advance arrangement, SNCF will pick up and deliver your bags at a given time. For instance, if you're planning on spending a weekend in Nice, SNCF will collect your luggage at your hotel in Paris in the morning before checkout and deliver it to your hotel in Nice, where it will be awaiting your arrival. The cost within France is €38 for the first bag (up to 30 kg), and €20 per additional bag. Be advised that luggage service is only available Monday to Saturday mornings in mainland France, Germany, Luxembourg, and Switzerland.
You can also book a driver to take you to or pick you up from the station. Rates are fixed, and pickup is guaranteed; even if your train is late, your driver (who carries a sign with your name) will wait for you at no extra cost. With prices starting at €9.90, it's much more economical than a taxi, and the same rate applies for up to four people per car (maximum four pieces of luggage). See www.idcab.sncf.com for details.
To and from the United Kingdom
When you factor in travel time to and from the airport, not to mention flight delays, taking the Channel Tunnel is the fastest and easiest way to travel between France and the United Kingdom. The high-speed Eurostar train from Paris's Gare du Nord to London's St. Pancras Station takes 2 hours, 15 minutes. Eurostar prices vary widely—round-trip tickets range from €620 for first class to €175 for second class—but depending on when and where you travel and how far in advance you book, you should be able to find discounted rates; there are special ones available for early-bird purchasers, children, seniors, and multiple-fare buyers. If you wish to drive most of the route, you can put your car on the train (either through Eurotunnel or Eurostar) for the 35-minute Chunnel crossing between Calais and Folkestone. Britain’s National Rail also has daily departures from London that link up with the Dover–Calais–Boulogne ferry services through to Paris, and there’s an overnight service on the Newhaven–Dieppe ferry.
Britain's National Rail. 0845/748–4950; 44/0207–278–5240; www.nationalrail.co.uk.
Eurostar. 08–92–35–35–39; 0343/218–6186; www.eurostar.com.
Eurotunnel . 08–10–63–03–04 ; www.eurotunnel.com.
Rail Europe. 800/622–8600; www.raileurope.com.
SNCF. 3635; www.sncf.com.
TGV. 3635; www.tgv.com.