Lots of people put off taking a train in France because they don’t speak French well or they’re not sure how the train networks operate or they worry about ending up in the completely wrong destination.
Here are our top tips for how to take a train in France, based on experience!
The national train network in France is operated by SNCF which stands for Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français. SNCF also manages TGV – the high speed rail network.
RER is the reginal network of trains which runs in Ile de France including Paris.
Buying tickets for trains in France
Look online at what routes are available – be warned, the French websites can be confusing. Don’t leave checking your route or getting a ticket until the last minute.
Buying in advance can mean cheaper tickets – especially for TGV trains, the price goes up as the seat availability decreases.
Vary the date and/or time of your departure/arrival if possible to get the best price available – flexibility on your part can pay off if you’re able to avoid travelling at peak times.
There are reputable agencies that can help you – for instance Rail Europe which organises routes and tickets for travel on any of Europe’s trains – they may source tickets for you at better prices than you can through their contacts and bulk buying.
If you are travelling extensively or undertaking a long journey by train in France – get your tickets delivered to you in advance so you can familiarise yourself with the route, any changes necessary and you don’t have to drag luggage more than necessary and queue up with it.
At the train station in France
If you’re buying a ticket at the station rather than online or through an agency – leave plenty of time to queue. Don’t expect to whizz through a queue at the ticket office. Most stations have ticket machines you can use but if they’re out of order or you’re not confident how to use them you may need to queue for several minutes or a lot more.
Don’t be afraid to ask the station staff for help. We advise you to write down the name of the station you want to go to – sometimes it’s easier to say it and show the written word at the same time!
Ask at the ticket office for the “direction” of the train you want. This will help you to find which platform (quai) to go to as on the main train departure boards only the end destination will be shown – you won’t always see the name of the station you want to go to being displayed. For example, you may want to go to Lille from Paris, but the end destination may be Calais. The train will show as Direction Calais and the platform number/letter. If you know the end destination of the train you will be able to find the platform from the board. At the platform entrance you will find a board with all the stops en route.
Allow time to locate the correct platform – especially at the bigger stations in Paris. Platforms can be numbered or lettered, can be defined by blue or yellow signage and there can be dozens of them spread out.
If you buy a first class ticket you will need to find the correct carriage – they are numbered. Walk down the platform to find the carriage number which will be on your ticket and you’ll see the numbers on the train by the door entrances.
Before you get on the train you must punch your ticket at the yellow machines called composters at the entrance to the platform. If you don’t, you may be liable for a fine. Feed it into the gap on the machine and it will punch the details on your ticket which may be checked on the train.
On the train in France
Keep your ticket handy on the train for validation by the train staff – this is a common requirement so don’t put your ticket in the bottom of your bag where you can’t find it easily!
We’re always being asked “Can I take a bike on the train in France?” – the answer is yes. You’ll probably need to stay with it in or near it so it doesn’t block entry and exit for other passengers.
Listen out for announcements – they are almost always in French but also check the on board display tables above inter-carriage doors – this will indicate what the next stop will be and what stations are on the route.
More useful information for using trains in France: