Your Ultimate Guide to Taking the Train in France

Ella Butcher | Live the World

September 8, 2023

Everything you need to know about travelling by rail in France

If you’re planning on doing your own tour de France, travelling by train is undoubtedly the simplest and easiest option. Being one of the largest countries in Europe, France boasts the second largest European railway network, including a recently developed efficient high speed rail network, meaning it really couldn’t be easier to explore this beautiful and varied country. Every city has high speed connections to Paris, with some journeys, including Paris to Lyon and Paris to Bordeaux, taking approximately 2 and 3 hours respectively, making the train journey faster than flying (not to mention a whole lot better for the environment). For those who are looking to explore more of western Europe, France is well connected via rail to its neighbouring countries of Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and the UK and has fast connections to popular cities such as Barcelona, London and Amsterdam.

It’s handy to know that SNCF is France’s national state owned railway company and manages all lines and ticket sales of the French rail network. If you’ve never visited France before, or just haven’t used the train network, you’re in luck! Read this handy little guide to taking the train in France for all the information you need to book a hiccup-free trip.

Photo by Snaptosnack

1. Types of Train

There are several types of trains that operate within France, including high speed, low cost and local services.

TGVs, standing for “train à grande vitesse”, are the fastest kind of trains and run up to a speedy 320km/h. Opened in the 1980s to improve connections between large cities, travelling on a TGV can often be a cheaper and faster option than flying to your destination.

TER, standing for “transport express régional”, is a regional service which runs between towns and villages. Whilst they are nowhere near as fast as TGVs, they tend to stop at a lot of smaller local stations, so are useful if you need to get somewhere more remote.

Intercité trains are non-high speed trains that connect towns and cities across France, covering medium to long distance routes on the main city lines and stopping at fewer local stations. Intercité also operates a night service covering multiple routes, on which you can reserve a space or a whole compartment for yourself.

Ouigo is a recently created low cost rail service which connects many of France’s big cities. These trains only have one class, equivalent to second class travel, meaning that tickets are pretty cheap and making it a good option if you’re not fussed about having an overly luxurious experience.

RER, “réseau express régional” trains, operate within the Paris metropolitan area and are generally commuter trains connecting the outer suburbs to the city centre.

Photo by George Kourounis

2. International Trains

France is ideally situated in the centre of Western Europe, making it the perfect gateway to other countries, especially as it is possible to reach all of its neighbouring countries directly by train.

The Eurostar will take you from the UK to France and through to Belgium through the Channel Tunnel in just 35 minutes. The service runs to Lille, Paris, Brussels, Rotterdam and Amsterdam all year round as well as running a seasonal service to Marseille via Lyon and Avignon. You can buy tickets at a reasonable price, too!

TGV Lyria trains connect France to Switzerland, starting at Paris’ Gare de Lyon and running through Dijon to Geneva, Lausanne, Basel, Zurich and Bern, among other more local stops. During the summer period the service also connects the South of France to Switzerland, starting at Marseille.

TGV INOUI trains run from the Gare de Lyon in Paris to Barcelona in Spain via the towns of Figueras and Girona on the Spanish-French border.

Originally created as a service to take passengers to the Netherlands via Belgium, Thalys trains now also run to Germany, making it even easier to explore gorgeous cities like Cologne, and Dusseldorf, as well as Brussels, Antwerp, Rotterdam and Amsterdam.

3. Booking Tickets

Booking a train ticket is simple. You can either buy a ticket in person at a train station or buy an e-ticket through the user-friendly SNCF website or app.

If you are planning on visiting several destinations, it is definitely worthwhile checking out a Eurail pass or an Interrail France pass, which allow you unlimited travel on the whole 31,000 kilometres of rail network in France, with no daily limit on distance or number of trains. If you thought this sounded good, the pass also has multiple benefits including hotel discounts and reduced museum fares, making it even easier to discover France’s endless cultural sites!

When booking a ticket on most services, you will automatically get a seat reservation which is included in the price of the ticket, however seat reservations on some trains such as TER are not usually necessary.

Photo by Barthelemy de Mazenod

4. Validating your ticket

With a physical ticket, you have to validate it at the designated machines which are usually located just before the platform, or alternatively they can be validated at the counters in the train station. If you have an e-ticket it does not need to be validated but you may need to scan it in order to enter the gates and access the platform. If you have bought an e-ticket and forgotten to download it, or if your phone dies, there’s no need to panic - the conductor will be able to search for it on the system.

5. Train Facilities

All train services in France have good facilities. All classes have a number of luggage storage areas with no luggage limits and most trains include a power socket, a retractable shelf per passenger with enough room for a laptop and WiFi. Seats are arranged in either rows of 2 or in a block of 4 with a table and a reading lamp. Trains with 1st class carriages have more spacious seating, armrests and additional amenities such as food services, and are usually quieter. We would say that it is not normally worth buying a 1st class ticket, unless you find a good deal, as the difference between 1st and 2nd class is not huge. If you are travelling with a furry friend, there is no need to worry as dogs can be taken on all trains in France, under the condition that larger dogs are muzzled. All you have to do is buy a €7 ticket on the SNCF website when you purchase your own ticket.

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