How to Navigate Trains in France

France, Train — By on June 20, 2011 at 6:07 am

By Christine CanteraTrain Station Picture
Special to Lost Girls World

Train travel is perhaps the most delightful way to get around France while you’re on vacation. Athletic types can have their Tour de France inspired treks; and if you feel you may perish if you’re not able to stop at every single vineyard and lavender field in Provence, then renting a car is probably in your future. But French trains are fast, efficient, budget-friendly, and they provide a front-row seat to some of the most spectacular views in France.

First, you’ve got the super-fast TGV network with routes to every major city, which can cut in half your travel time easily. This is the train you want to take when you wake up in Paris one morning and decide you’d like to hit the beach—in Nice. Or have lunch in Lyon. Or seek out your favorite wine in Bordeaux.

Then there are the dozens of regional and local lines that will take you to pretty much everywhere else you want to go. And unlike other countries in Europe (cough Italy cough), the train schedules match up so that you can get off one train and onto another without too much lag time. Also, more often than not, the bus station is either connected to or mere steps away from the train station, making even the smaller villages accessible.

Now that all of France has just opened up to you as a possibility for your vacation itinerary and you’re totally psyched, here are some tips from someone who spends half her life on those very trains…Europe Train Station

  • If you’re flying into Paris and immediately going to another destination in France, note that there are TGV trains that leave from directly underneath Charles de Gaulle Airport. Depending on where you’re going you may have to change trains at some point, but it saves you from schlepping into Paris.
  • There are three types of ticket machines in train stations: national, regional, and local. You can’t use the national or regional machines—they don’t take cash, only French cards which have a little French chip in them. Local machines usually take cash or change, and city transportation machines always take cash and change.
  • You can purchase tickets for anywhere at any train station as much or as little in advance as you’d like—prices don’t really fluctuate based on purchase time, but rather by time of day you’re traveling. In larger cities, look for SNCF boutiques—these are the travel agencies of the national rail system and are a very civilized way to buy tickets. Some of them even have coffee machines!
  • Use the  SNCF website (www.voyages-sncf.com) for research only, and use it in French. It’s not that scary, don’t worry! And it’s better than the English equivalent, which is a TGV site that gives you the results in French anyway. The site is great because the form is intuitive—start to type in “Paris” and you get all the choices, from which you can choose (note that the airport one is “Aéroport Paris-Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle (CDG 2)-Gare TGV”). From there you can choose “Horaires,” which will give you times, or “Réservez,” which will give you times and prices. Then you can just write them down and hand them to the ticket agent. Boom!
  • Always remember to validate your ticket before boarding the train. (If your ticket has more than one leg of your trip on it, just validate it at the start of your trip, not for each leg.) You do this in yellow machines that are at the entrance to each track. You get fined if you don’t, and much signature French disdain from the conductor will be directed your way. Shame will fall upon your family name—best to avoid that.Train Platform
  • Local trains are usually sit-where-you-want, but for longer distances you’re given a car and seat number that will be printed on your ticket. When you get to the track, look for a digital sign that has the train car numbers along with letters of the alphabet. These letters will correspond with signs hanging above and along the track. match up your car number with the letter, and then make your way down there. This way, you’re not running to get to your car when it pulls into the station.

Most of these tips go for European train travel in general—especially the part about buying the tickets at the station and validating your ticket. So, when are you coming over? France is waiting for you!

Christine Cantera writes the francetravelguide.com for Bootsnall.com. Montpellier, France, is her adopted home, but she is in love with weekend trips to the French Riviera, especially Nice.