The SNCF is recognized as Europe's best national rail service: it's fast, punctual, comfortable, and comprehensive. You can get to Provence and the coast from all points west, north, and east, though lines out of Paris are by far the most direct. There are various options: local trains, overnight trains with sleeping accommodations, and the high-speed TGV, the Trains à Grande Vitesse (high-speed trains).
France is rightly proud of its TGV high-speed rail lines, which zoom along at 300 kpm (186 mph). The LGV Méditerranée connects Paris to Avignon and Aix-en-Provence. With the hassles of airport check-in and transfer, you may find train travel the most efficient way to get from Paris to Provence.
In 2013, SCNF introduced Ouigo, a new line of high-speed low-fare trains traveling between a suburb of Paris and Provence. Note that Ouigo has fewer amenities and more restrictions than TGV, including the stipulation that tickets can only be bought online or through a mobile app at least four hours in advance. You'll also need to provide a French phone number and postal code.
All TGV trains to Provence leave from Paris's Gare de Lyon, and Ouigo trains leave from Marne-la-Vallée–Chessy. Travel time from Paris is 2 hours and 40 minutes to Avignon; 3 hours to Nîmes, Marseille, and Aix-en-Provence; 3¼ hours to Montpellier; 4 hours to Toulon; and 5½ hours to Nice.
Certain models of the TGV, called "train duplex," offer luxurious comfort, with double-decker seating and panoramic views. When one of these passes along the coast—especially from Nice to Menton—it makes for a dramatic sightseeing excursion, though it pokes along at a local-train snail's pace. Ask about duplex trains when you're connecting from one coastal city to another (Marseille–Toulon–Fréjus–Cannes–Nice–Menton).
Traveling first class can cost about 50% more than second class, but, with the exception of wider seats, you won't get many more amenities. You'll still need to buy your own food, although in first class you can order a hot meal, served on china, if you're willing to pay a high price for it.
Boarding the Train
Before boarding, you must punch your ticket (but not Eurail Pass) in one of the orange machines at the entrance to the platforms, or else you risk a €10–€15 fine. If you board your train on the run and don't have time to punch it, look for a conductor (contrôleur) as soon as possible and get him to sign it.
If you are traveling from Paris or any other terminus, get to the station half an hour before departure to ensure that you'll have a good seat.
France is one of 24 countries in which you can use Eurail Passes, which provide unlimited first-class rail travel, in all of the participating countries, for the duration of the pass. If you plan to rack up the miles, the passes can be a good deal. They are available for 15 days (€585), 21 days (€754), one month (€929), two months (€1,309), and three months (€1,616). If your plans call for only limited train travel, use the Rail Europe Pass Finder to help find the least expensive way to reach the countries on your itinerary.
For two to five adults traveling together, the France Rail Pass Saver allows three to nine days of unlimited train travel (and a discount on Eurostar) in a one-month period. Prices begin at €153 each in second class, and €189 each in first class. For solo travelers, the France Rail Pass allows one to nine days of unlimited travel in a month, starting at €117 for first class and €83 for second class for one day of travel. Additional days may be added for €30 a day in either class. Another option is the France Rail 'n Drive Pass, which combines the cost of rail travel and a rental car.
Don't assume that your rail pass guarantees you a seat on the train you wish to ride. You need to book seats ahead even if you are using a rail pass. You must always make a seat reservation for the TGV—easily obtained at the ticket window or from an automatic machine. Seat reservations are reassuring but seldom necessary on other main-line French trains, except at busy holiday times (as during the summer), particularly on popular routes. You will also need a reservation for sleeping accommodations.
SNCF offers a number of discount rail passes, which are available only for purchase in France. You can get a reduced fare if you are over 60 with the SNCF's Carte Sénior, which costs €50 and entitles the bearer to deep discounts on rail and TGV travel for a year. There are also passes for young people and those traveling with small children.
Eurostar (0843–218–6186 in U.K.; 08–92–35–35–39 in France [€0.34 per min]. www.eurostar.com.)
Rail Europe (800/622–8600 in U.S. (toll-free). www.raileurope.com.)
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