It doesn’t get much better than zooming through the French countryside at 200mph. In fact, when it comes to train travel, France is one of the best-connected countries in Europe and you can easily reach many of Europe’s great cities from Paris.
But, like all things French, their rail network can be a little confusing so we’re here to help. In this France Train Guide, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about traveling France by train—from navigating the system to buying train tickets for the cheapest price.
How To Buy Train Tickets in France
Buying French train tickets is generally easy but there are a few quirks that you’ll come across when booking—keep reading and we’ll walk you through the process.
Let’s first take a look at where and when to buy tickets for the best price…
Quick Note On Electronic Train Tickets And Reliable Mobile Data
Most train tickets in France (and Europe) are electronic so having reliable high-speed data for your phone is important—luckily, getting high-speed data in France is simple and affordable. Here are a few articles I’ve written to help you get set up:
Where To Buy France Train Tickets For France
So there are a handful of websites/methods for buying French train tickets and each has its own quirks. Let’s take a look at the various options:
Omio is a search engine that lets you compare and book trains anywhere in Europe. It lets you easily book tickets with your credit card at essentially the same prices as France’s Railways website.
Additionally, Omio searches routes for multiple rail services across Europe so it’s great for international trips (since it can easily combine rail journeys of multiple countries). Omio also gives you the option to print your own tickets or have eTickets sent to the Omio App.
TrainLine is another third-party booking site that connects directly to the French National Rail Network and other European networks. Trainline also accepts international credit card payments and lets you print your own tickets or have eTickets sent to the Tranline App.
SNCF (National French Railways)
The website for the official French Railways is en.oui.sncf. The main problem with this site is that it often tries to redirect you to RailEurope.com—which is SNCF’s official North American partner. Unfortunately, Rail Europe rarely finds the cheapest fares so you have to actively try to keep the site from redirecting you. And trying to book through the official SNCF website can be equally as difficult because it can be plagued with translation issues and sometimes they reject foreign credit cards.
Perosanlly, I’d stick with Omio.
A few years ago the French National Railways created a new low-budget train line called Ouigo. It basically connects Paris with a handful of popular French destinations.
Some Ouigo trains leave from stations outside Paris so it takes a little under an hour by regional train to get there from central Paris. However, some trains do leave from central Paris. There are a few other restrictions (like limited luggage) but the fares can be crazy cheap. Booking websites like Omio will include Ouigo in their results so you don’t have to search Ouigo’s website to find/buy its tickets.
The Eurostar is the train that connects Paris and London. You can usually book this journey on other websites but we’ve found it best to book directly from the Eurostar site for the best prices.
At The Station
Of course, you can buy any French train ticket from any train station — either from a ticket window or an automated machine (you’ll need a Chip & PIN credit card to buy from the machines). You can buy tickets in advance from train stations as well.
HOW TO COLLECT YOUR FRENCH TRAIN TICKETS
Tickets purchased online can be collected in a few different ways. Most times you’re given multiple methods of collecting your tickets:
- Electronic Tickets: You can usually have tickets sent to your phone/tablet. For example, tickets bought via Omio will be sent to your Omio app. You can also have tickets sent to your email. Then you simply show it to the conductor on the train when they check your tickets.
- Print-At-Home Tickets: You can print tickets at home and show them to the conductor on the train when he checks tickets.
- Pick Up At Station: Use your credit card or a booking confirmation number to collect your tickets at the train station. You’re often required to use the same credit card used to purchase the tickets to collect them up at the station — so keep this in mind when booking.
- Also, you’ll need a Chip & PIN card to collect from the automated machines but you can use a swipe card at the ticket window. However, at other times you only need the booking reference number.
- Mailed Tickets: Some services will mail you physical tickets but this is often a slow process. We suggest avoiding this and sticking to the other options.
Do You Need To Buy French Train Tickets In Advance?
France has a number of different train services so it can be a little confusing to know what tickets should be purchased early and which can be bought whenever. We’ll break it down below.
High-Speed TGV Trains — Buy Early As Possible
Yes – book early. Tickets for France’s TGV high-speed trains are available to purchase around 90 days in advance. Booking these early will get you the cheapest tickets and prices will generally continue to rise as the departure date approaches. For example, a day-of ticket can cost well over €100 but that same one bought weeks early might only cost €30.
International Trains — Buy Early As Possible
There are a few separate train services that connect France to other countries. These are high-speed trains so the same rules about booking early apply to these tickets as well.
- TGV Lyria: High-speed trains that connect France and Switzerland.
- THALYS: High-speed trains that connect Paris with Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands.
- Inter-City Express (ICE): High-speed trains that connect France and Germany.
- Eurostar: High-speed trains that connect Paris and London.
Intercité Trains (IC) — Buy A Little Early
Intercité trains are fast trains but not as quick as the TGV trains. They usually also connect shorter distances and the trains aren’t quite as nice as the TGV. These tickets can also be purchased in advance for a discount.
Regional/Local Trains — Buy Whenever
France has a number of slow trains that connect suburban and regional areas. TER (regional trains that connect smaller towns with regional hubs), Transilien (connects suburban Paris), and RER (also connects suburban Paris). These tickets are priced by distance traveled so you don’t need to buy them in advance — simply purchase them at the station right before departure.
Don’t forget to validate your ticket before you get on the train or you’ll be fined.
How To Use Your French Train Tickets
On high-speed trains, your ticket is only good for the specific time stated on your ticket. You’ll also be given an assigned seat. You don’t need a validate your ticket because your seat is reserved (but they might check your ID on the train). NOTE: Your ticket will show the car and seat number so make sure you’re in the right car (the trains are clearly marked).
On regional/local trains, you might have a physical ticket. Make sure to validate (i.e. stamp) your ticket in the validation boxes on the platform before you get on the train. They’re sometimes hard to find so watch what the locals are doing. If you forget to validate, seek out the conductor right away and have him stamp it — if you wait until he comes around you might be given a fine.
Regional trains won’t have seat reservations so just sit anywhere.
Once you’re on the train the conductor will eventually walk through the aisles to check tickets.
HOW TO MAKE RAIL PASS RESERVATIONS
High-speed trains require you to make a reservation when using a Eurail pass — the reservation costs €10-€30/seat for domestic travel and international trains can charge anywhere from €35-€89/seat (depending on destination). As you can see, those international train reservations can be wildly expensive — in fact, the reservation fee is often more expensive than buying a separate ticket.
You must make the reservation before you get on the train. There are a few ways to make reservations:
- Make Reservations Online: Omio lets you book your reservation online through their platform. Simply look for a button that says “I Have A Railpass” and follow the prompts.
- Make Reservations At The Train Station: You can simply go to the train station and book your reservation from the customer service desk or self-service kiosks. You can book it weeks in advance or you can do it the day you depart. We suggest using the kiosks because the ticket window can take forever.
More Tips For Riding Trains In France
Here are a few general tips about train travel in France.
Study The Departures Board
You’ll find your train platform via the departure board at the train station. Don’t worry if you don’t see your train right away because they often only display trains departing within the next 10-20 minutes.
However, do pay attention as sometimes the platform can change last minute.
Know Train Station Names
Most large cities have multiple train stations (Paris has seven) so this often creates confusion. Double-check to make sure you have the right station—especially when booking your ticket.
Self-Service Machines Are In English
Don’t worry if you don’t speak French because the ticket machines (and train station signs) are all in English. Most customer service workers also speak some English.
Cheap Tickets Are Non-Refundable
One downside to cheap tickets is that they’re non-refundable and can’t be changed.
Pack A Picnic
You’re allowed to bring your own food and alcohol on trains. It’s great for those long train rides.
No Luggage Restrictions
There aren’t any weight limits on luggage and you can bring as much as you want (well, as much as you can carry). Simply bring it on and store it above your head, behind your seat, or in the luggage racks in each car.
Your rail journey might require you to change trains along the route. Don’t worry if there are only a few minutes between trains because switching trains is usually fairly quick and easy—it’s not like flying where you need an hour-long layover.
Get To The Train Station Early
Train stations are usually fairly easy to navigate but they can be a little confusing. There isn’t any security that you have to go through (except for Eurostar and THALYS trains) but it doesn’t hurt to arrive about 20 minutes early.
First Class vs Second Class Tickets
First Class tickets normally cost 1.5x the Second Class rate. Second Class is perfectly comfortable but First Class seats are a bit bigger and it’s quieter. Other than that, there isn’t much more of a difference.
Use A Credit Card With A Chip
Automated ticket kiosks require a card with a Chip & PIN so make sure you know your PIN code.
France is well-known for train strikes. They always give ample warning before going on strike and they still run some trains, but it’s something to pay attention to.
Read More Of My Articles On Budget Travel in France
- Paris Travel Guide: Tips For Visiting Paris
- How To Choose The Best Travel Insurance: Travel insurance will help cover those non-refundable train tickets if something goes wrong during your trip.
- Packing List For Europe Travel: Tips on packing light (which makes train travel much easier).
- The Best eSIM Data Plans For France: My guide to the cheapest prepaid eSIM data plans for your trip to France.
- Aer Travel Pack 3 Review | My Hands-On, Travel-Tested Thoughts - September 23, 2023
- The Best Travel Backpacks | In-Depth Buyer’s Guide & Backpack Reviews - September 10, 2023
- How To Travel Solo In Europe | Your Guide To Solo Travel Planning - September 7, 2023
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Thanks For Reading! — James