The French national train agency, the Sociète Nationale de Chemins de Fer, or SNCF, is fast, punctual, comfortable, and comprehensive. Traveling across France, you have various options: local trains, overnight trains with sleeping accommodations, and the high-speed Trains à Grande Vitesse, known as the TGV.
TGVs average 255 kph (160 mph) on the Lyon–southeast line and 300 kph (190 mph) on the Lille and Bordeaux–southwest lines and are the best and the fastest domestic trains. They operate between Paris and Lille/Calais, Paris and Brussels, Paris and Amsterdam, Paris and Lyon–Switzerland–Provence, Paris and Angers–Nantes, Paris—Avignon and Tours–Poitiers–Bordeaux. As with other main-line trains, a small supplement may be assessed at peak hours.
It's usually fast and easy to cross France without traveling overnight, especially on TGVs, which are generally affordable and efficient. Be aware that trains fill fast on weekends and holidays, so purchase tickets well in advance at these times. Otherwise, you can take a slow overnight train, which often costs more than a TGV. There's a choice between high-price wagons-lit (sleeping cars) and slightly more affordable couchettes (bunks, six to a compartment in second class, four to a compartment in first).
In Paris there are six international rail stations: Gare du Nord (northern France, northern Europe, and England via Calais or Boulogne); Gare St-Lazare (Normandy and England via Dieppe); Gare de l'Est (Strasbourg, Luxembourg, Basel, and central Europe); Gare de Lyon (Lyon, Marseille, Provence, Geneva, and Italy); Gare d'Austerlitz (Loire Valley, southwest France, and Spain); and Gare Montparnasse (southwest France).
Booking and Buying Tickets
There are two classes of train service in France; first (première) or second (deuxième). First-class seats offer more legroom, plusher upholstery, private reading lamps, and computer plugs on the TGV, not to mention the hush-hush environment for those who want to sleep. The price is also nearly double.
It is best—and in many cases, essential—to prebook your train tickets. This requires making a reservation (which carries an additional charge of about 10 euros a person) online, by phone, or at the train station. Rail Europe does an excellent job providing train tickets to those in the U.S. They offer a service and their prices reflect that. However if you want to save money, booking with the SNCF is much cheaper.
Buying SNCF Tickets Online
Go to www.voyages-sncf.com (and when you click on the UK flag you get to www.tgv-europe.com). Find "advanced search," and you'll be taken through steps that will allow you to choose your outbound trip, followed by your inbound trip. Fares with the yellow background are the cheapest, a blue background is the midprice, and gray is the most expensive and tends to be flexible. Green background tends to be a class-upgrade suggestion.
Whether you decide to print tickets yourself or pick them up at a station (do not have them sent by mail), select "France" as the country where you will collect your tickets. Do not select the U.S. or you will be redirected to the RailEurope website.
Know that with certain fares or when you mix fares you may be required to pick your tickets up at the station ticket window; make sure to factor in extra time as lines tend to be long throughout the day and be sure to bring ID and the credit card used to make the reservation. Although there's the option to pick them up from one of the automatic machines, they only work with French credit cards that contain a special chip. You may book 90 days in advance for the TGV.
Rail Passes to Choose From
There are two kinds of rail passes: those you must purchase at home before you leave for France, (including the France Rail Pass and the Eurail Selectpass) and those available in France from SNCF.
France is one of 21 countries in which you can use EurailPasses, 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, get a Eurail Global Pass. These are available for various time periods from 10 days ($894 first class) to up to three months ($2,094 first class). If your plans call for only limited train travel between France and another country, consider a Select pass for three to five countries, which costs less than a EurailPass. With the Select pass you can get 5 to 10 flexible travel days for $480 to $725. In addition to standard EurailPasses, ask about special plans. Among these are the Eurail Selectpass Youth (for those under age 26) and the Eurail Selectpass Saver (which gives a discount for two or more people traveling together). Whichever pass you choose, remember that you must purchase your Eurail passes before leaving for France.
The SNCF passes are available at any train station in France. Your rail pass does not guarantee a seat, however. You need to book ahead even if you're using an SNCF rail pass.
You can get a reduced fare if you're a senior citizen (over 60). The Carte Senior is a good option if you're planning on spending a lot of time traveling; it costs €57, is valid for one year, and entitles you to up to a 50% reduction on most trains with a guaranteed minimum reduction of 25%. It also entitles you to a 30% discount on trips outside of France. With the Prix Découverte Senior option, all you have to do is show a valid ID with your age and you're entitled to up to a 25% reduction in fares in first and second class.
With the Carte Enfant Plus, for €71, children 4–12 years old accompanying adults can get up to 50% off most trains for an unlimited number of trips. This card, valid for a year, is perfect if you're planning to spend a lot of time traveling in France with your children. You can also opt for the Prix Découverte Enfant Plus: when you buy your ticket, simply show a valid ID with your child's age and you can get a significant discount for your child and a 25% reduction for up to four accompanying adults.
If you purchase an individual ticket from SNCF in France and you're under 26, you automatically get a 25% reduction when you flash a valid ID. If you're under 26 and plan to ride the train quite a bit, consider buying the Carte 12–25 (€50), which offers unlimited 50% reductions for one year.
If you don't benefit from any of these reductions and if 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.
With an advance arrangement, SNCF will pick up and deliver your luggage at a given time. For instance, if you're planning on spending a weekend in Nice, SNCF will pick up your luggage at your hotel in Paris in the morning before checkout and deliver it to your hotel in Nice, where it will be awaiting your arrival. The cost is €33 for the first bag, and €15 for two additional bags, with a maximum of three bags per person.
Boarding the Train
Get to the station a half-hour before departure to ensure you'll have a good seat. Before boarding, you must punch your ticket (composter le billet) in one of the orange machines at the entrance to the platforms (quais), or else the ticket collector will fine you €15. Tickets printed by the SNCF must be validated; tickets printed at home and EurailPasses don't need validation. 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. Otherwise, you're in for a nasty fine (amende). Once you're aboard, note that smoking is now forbidden on all public transportation in France. Even lighting up in the bathrooms or connecting compartments will land you an on-the-spot fine starting at €65.
To and From the UK
When you factor in travel time to and from the airport, not to mention flight delays, taking the Channel Tunnel is the fastest and easiest way between France and the UK It'll take you 2 hours and 15 minutes on the high-speed Eurostar train from Paris' Gare du Nord to London's St. Pancras Station; if you wish to drive most of the route, you can put your car on the train for the Chunnel crossing, 35 minutes between Folkestone and Calais.
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 center.
There's a vast range of prices for Eurostar—round-trip tickets range from €600 for first class to €80 for second class depending on when and where you travel and how far in advance you book.
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.)
SNCF (36–35 in France [€0.34 per min]. www.sncf.com.)
SNCF Luggage Delivery Service (36–35 from any phone in France then say "bagages" [bah-gahj] [€0.34 per min]. www.sncf.com.)
Britain's National Rail (0845–748–4950 in the U.K.; 44–0207–278–5240 from the U.S. www.nationalrail.co.uk.)
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