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 France Train Tickets
Buying French train tickets is generally easy but there are a few oddities that you’ll come across when booking. Keep reading and we’ll walk you through the process.
Let’s first take look at where and when to buy tickets for the best price…
Where To Buy France Train Tickets
So there are a handful of websites/methods for buying French train tickets and each has its own quirks.
Omio: Omio is a search engine that lets you compare and book trains (and buses and flights) anywhere in Europe. It lets you easily book tickets with your credit card at essentially the same prices as the SNCF 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).
RailEurope.com: Rail Europe is the official North American distributor of French rail tickets so payments and booking instructions are hassle-free for North Americans. The website is user-friendly and you get the benefit of local English-speaking customer support if you have an issue. They usually offer electronic tickets or a print-at-home option.
Rail Europe often has the same prices as you’d find on France’s National Rail website. However, sometimes prices are higher on Rail Europe because it can’t always find the sales/promotions. So be sure to shop around.
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 RailEurope.com — this is because Rail Europe is its official N. American partner. The problem is that Rail Europe doesn’t always find the cheapest fares so you have to actively try to keep the site from redirecting you. Normally you can prevent the redirect by making sure the site is set to “Europe (other countries)” (see below) — but sometimes the site still finds a way to redirect you. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Also, download the SNCF mobile app so you can have your tickets sent directly to your phone.
Some Ouigo trains leave from stations outside Paris so it takes 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.
Eurostar: 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 ONLINE 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 (download the oui.sncf App). Simply show to the conductor on the train when he checks tickets. We like to also print the tickets if possible just in case there is an issue.
- Print-At-Home Tickets: You can print tickets at home and show to the conductor on the train when he checks tickets. Easy.
- 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, other times you only need the booking reference number.
- Mailed Tickets: Many services will mail you physical tickets but this is often a slow process. We suggest avoiding this and sticking to the other options.
DO I NEED TO BUY FRENCH TRAIN TICKETS IN ADVANCE?
France has a number of different train service 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 Trains (TGV): 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 bought weeks early might only cost €30.
Intercité Trains (IC): 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: 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 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.
International Trains: 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.
HOW TO USE YOUR FRANCE TRAIN TICKETS
On high-speed trains, your ticket is only good for the specific time printed 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 on 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-€20/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 crazy 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:
- Online: RailEurope.com lets you book your reservation online through their platform. Simply look for a button that says “I Have A Railpass” and follow the prompts.
- 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 FRENCH TRAINS
- 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 because they often only display trains departing within the next 10-20 minutes.
- 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.
- Download The Rail Planner App: There are a number of rail apps but we like the Eurail App — it essentially has the timetables/info for every train in Europe and it doesn’t require an internet connection.
- Cheap Tickets Are Non-Refundable: One downside to cheap tickets is that they’re non-refundable and they 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.
- Luggage: 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.
- Making Connections: Your trip might require you to change trains along the journey. Don’t worry if there isn’t much time between trains as switching trains are usually fairly quick and easy (it’s not like flying).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. There isn’t much more of a difference.
- Use A Credit Card With Chip: Automated ticket kiosks require a card with a Chip & PIN so make sure you know your PIN code.
- Strikes: 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.
LEARN MORE ABOUT TRAVELING IN FRANCE
- Paris Travel Guide: Tips For Visiting Paris
- How To Choose The Best Travel Insurance: Travel insurance will help cover those non-refindable train tickets if something goes wrong during your trip.
- Packing List For Europe Travel: Tips on packing light (which makes train travel much easier).
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Thanks For Reading! — Susan and James