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The SNCF, France's rail system, is fast, punctual, comfortable, and comprehensive. There are various options: local trains, overnight trains with sleeping accommodations, and the high-speed TGV, or Trains à Grande Vitesse (averaging 255 kph [160 mph] on the Lyon/southeast line and 300 kph [190 mph] on the Lille and Bordeaux/southwest lines).
The TGVs, the fastest way to get around the country, operate between Paris and Lille/Calais, Paris and Lyon/Switzerland/Provence, Paris and Angers/Nantes, Paris and Tours/Poitiers/Bordeaux, Paris and Brussels, and Paris and Amsterdam. As with other mainline trains, a small supplement may be assessed at peak hours.
Paris has six international rail stations: Gare du Nord (northern France, northern Europe, and England via Calais or Boulogne); Gare St-Lazare (Normandy, England via Dieppe); Gare de l'Est (Strasbourg, Luxembourg, Basel, and central Europe); Gare de Lyon (Lyon, Marseille, Provence, Geneva, Italy); Gare d'Austerlitz (Loire Valley, southwest France, Spain); and Gare Montparnasse (Brittany, Aquitaine, TGV-Atlantique service to the west and south of France, Spain). Until 2005 there were smoking and no-smoking cars on the trains, including the TGVs, but smoking is now prohibited on all trains in France.
There are two classes of train service in France: première (first class) or deuxième (second). First-class seats have 50% more legroom and nicer upholstery than those in second class, and the first-class cars tend to be quieter. First-class seats on the TGV have computer connections. First-class fares are nearly twice as much as those for second-class seats.
Fares are cheaper if you avoid traveling at peak times (around holidays and weekends), purchase tickets at least 15 days in advance (look for the billet Prem's), or find your destination among the last-minute offers online every Tuesday.
You can call for train information or reserve tickets in any Paris station, irrespective of destination, and you can access the multilingual computerized schedule information network at any Paris station. You can also make reservations and buy your ticket while at the computer. Go to the Grandes Lignes counter for travel within France and to the Billets Internationaux desk if you're heading out of the country. Note that calling the SNCF's 08 number costs €0.35 per minute; to save this cost, go to the nearest station and make the reservations in person or visit the SNCF website, www.sncf.fr.
If you plan to travel outside Paris by train, consider purchasing a France Rail Pass, which allows three days of unlimited train travel in a one-month period. If you travel solo, first class will run you $303 and second class is $245; you can add up to six days on this pass for $46 a day for first class, $39 a day for second class. For two people traveling together on a Saver Pass, the first-class cost is $258, and in second class it's $211; additional days (up to six) cost $40 each for first class, $33 each for second class. Other options include the France Rail 'n Drive Pass (combining rail and rental car).
France is one of 21 countries in which you can use EurailPasses, which provide unlimited first-class rail travel in all the participating countries for the duration of the pass. If you plan to rack up the miles, get a standard pass. These are available for 15 days ($752), 21 days ($971), one month ($1,196), two months ($1,686), and three months ($2,079). If your travels will be more limited, the Eurail Selectpass gives you first-class travel over a two-month period in three to five bordering countries in 21 Eurail network countries. The Selectpass starts at $312 for five days of travel within three countries. Another option is the Regional Pass, which covers rail travel in and between pairs of bordering countries over a two-month period. Unlike most Eurail passes, Regional Passes are available for first- or second-class travel. Costs begin at $402 (first class) and $345 (second class) for four days of travel; up to six extra days can be purchased.
In addition to standard EurailPasses, there are the Eurail Youthpass (for those under age 26, with second-class travel), the Eurail Saver Pass (which gives a discount for two or more people traveling together), the Eurail Flexipass (which allows a certain number of travel days within a set period), and the Euraildrive Pass (train and rental car). Remember that you must purchase your Eurail passes at home before leaving for France. You can purchase Eurail passes through the Eurail website as well as through travel agents.
Another option is to purchase one of the discount rail passes available for sale only in France from SNCF.
When traveling together, two people (who don't have to be a couple) can save money with the Prix Découverte à Deux. You'll get a 25% discount during périodes bleus (blue periods: weekdays and periods not on or near any holidays). Note that you have to be with the person you said you would be traveling with.
Reduced fares are available if you're a senior citizen (over 60), for children under 12, and up to four accompanying adults, and if you're under 26.
If you purchase an individual ticket from SNCF in France and you're under 26, you automatically get a 25% reduction (a valid ID such as an ISIC card or your passport is necessary). If you're going to be using the train quite a bit during your stay in France and if you're under 26, consider buying the Carte 12–25 (€50), which offers unlimited 50% reductions for one year (provided that there's space available at that price; otherwise you'll just get the standard 25% discount).
If you don't benefit from any of these reductions and you plan on traveling at least 200 km (132 miles) round-trip and don't mind staying over a Saturday night, look into the Prix Découverte Séjour. This ticket gives you a 25% reduction.
A rail pass does not guarantee you a seat on the train you wish to ride. You need to book seats ahead even if you have a pass.
Seat reservations are required on TGVs and are a good idea on trains that may be crowded—particularly in summer and during holidays on popular routes. You also need a reservation for sleeping accommodations.
The Channel Tunnel
Short of flying, taking the Channel Tunnel is the fastest way to cross the English Channel: 35 minutes from Folkestone to Calais, 60 minutes from motorway to motorway, or 2 hours and 15 minutes from London's St. Pancras Station to Paris's Gare du Nord, with stops in Lille, Calais, Ashford (U.K.), and Ebbsfleet (U.K.) The Belgian border is just a short drive northeast of Calais. High-speed Eurostar trains use the same tunnels to connect London's St. Pancras Station directly with Midi Station in Brussels in around 2 hours.
There's a vast range of prices for Eurostar—round-trip tickets range from €450 for first class (with access to the Philippe Starck–designed Première Class lounge) to €85 for second class, depending on when you travel. It's a good idea to make a reservation if you're traveling with your car on a Chunnel train; cars without reservations, if they can get on at all, are charged 20% extra.
British Rail also has four daily departures from London's Victoria Station, all linking with the Dover-Calais/Boulogne ferry services through to Paris. There's also an overnight service on the Newhaven-Dieppe ferry. Journey time is about eight hours. Credit-card bookings are accepted by phone or in person at a British Rail Travel Centre.
Rail Europe (800/622–8600 in U.S. and Canada; 847/916–1028 outside U.S. and Canada. www.raileurope.com.)
Channel Tunnel Car Transport
Rail Europe (800/622–8600 in U.S. and Canada. www.raileurope.com.)
Channel Tunnel Passenger Service
Vélib' (01–30–79–79–30. www.velib.paris.fr.)
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