The SNCF, France's rail system, is fast, punctual, comfortable, and comprehensive—when it's not on strike. There are various options: local trains, overnight trains with sleeping accommodations, and the high-speed TGVs (or Trains à Grande Vitesse), which average 320 kph.
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. TGVs also go direct to Avignon, Marseille, and Nice.
Paris has 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, southern Germany, and central Europe); Gare de Lyon (Lyon, Marseille, Provence, Geneva, and Italy); Gare d'Austerlitz (Loire Valley, central France, and overnight to Nice and Spain); and Gare Montparnasse (Brittany, Aquitaine, TGV-Atlantique service to the west and southwest of France, Spain). Smoking is prohibited on all trains in France.
The country has two classes of train service: 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 also have power sockets for computer connections and individual reading lights, but fares can cost nearly twice as much as those for second-class seats.
Fares are cheaper if you avoid traveling at peak times of day (and around holidays and weekends) and purchase tickets three months (or at least 15 days) in advance; for the best prices check the SNCF website for deals, including discounted (billet Prem's), or find your destination among the last-minute offers listed under the TGVPop section.
Reserving online is the easiest way to book your trip, but 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, and buy your tickets there. Go to the Grandes Lignes counter for travel within France and to the Billets Internationaux desk if you're heading out of the country.
If you plan to travel outside Paris by train, consider purchasing a France Rail Pass through Rail Europe; it allows for 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, or 15 days of unlimited train travel in a one-month period. If you travel solo for three days, first class will run you $282 and second class $227; eight days costs $465 for first class and $396 for second class. In both first and second class, two or more people traveling together can save 15% on each fare with a Saver Pass, and children often can travel free.
France is one of 28 countries where you can use Eurail passes, which provide unlimited train travel for a set amount of time. If you plan to rack up the miles, get a Global Pass; it's valid for rail travel in first- or second-class in all member nations for periods ranging from $580 (first class) for five days to $2,029 (first class) for three months. The Two Country Pass covers rail travel in and between pairs of bordering countries over a two-month period; a France–Italy pass costs $396 for four days of travel in first class and $645 for 10 days.
In addition to standard Eurail passes, there is the Eurail youth pass (for those age 27 and under), the Eurail Saver Pass (which gives a discount for two to five people traveling together), and the Eurail flexi pass (which allows a certain number of travel days within a flexible period). A select few European train stations sell a limited number of Eurail passes, but they cost more–-so buy yours at home before you leave for France; purchase through the Eurail website or through travel agents.
Another option for those traveling extensively on the French SNCF network is to buy one of the various discount rail cards available to children, youths 12–27, families, and seniors (those over 60). You pay a fee of up to €60 for the card (renewable each year) but then you can save up to 50% on tickets.
A rail pass does not guarantee you a seat on the train. You need to book seats ahead even if you have a pass.
Seat reservations are required on TGVs but not on the regional TER network. So if you're traveling by TER, be sure to board early during busy travel periods, especially in July and August, to ensure you get a seat. The trains are notoriously overbooked, and even a first-class ticket may not guarantee you a seat. Note that you need a reservation for sleeping accommodations.
Rail Europe. 800/622–8600; 847/916–1028; www.raileurope.com.
SNCF. 3635; www.oui.sncf.
TGV. 3635; www.tgv.com.
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 two hours and 15 minutes from London's St. Pancras Station to Paris's Gare du Nord, with stops in Ebbsfleet (UK), Ashford (UK), Calais, and Lille. 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 two hours.
There's three categories of travel and a vast range of prices for Eurostar—round-trip tickets range from €620 for business class (with access to the Philippe Starck–designed Première Class lounge and a three-course Raymond Blanc meal) to €56 for the most basic ticket. Booking early can save you a bundle. Last-minute tickets can cost more than flying.
It's a good idea to make a reservation if you're traveling with your car on a Chunnel train; vehicles without reservations, if they can get on at all, are charged 20% extra.
Channel Tunnel Information
Eurostar. 01–70–70–60–88; 646/934–6454; www.eurostar.com.
Eurotunnel. 08–10–63–03–04; www.eurotunnel.com.