11 Helpful Tips for Travel on French Trains with a Bike
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As anything travelling on French trains with a bike for the first time can be daunting. It certainly was for me when I first did it in 2018. While you can see what the rules are online it is always hard to gauge what it will actually be like until you have done it. Thankfully the first trip went well, although not without some stress, and I have subsequently caught trains with my bike many more times. My experience has included taking our bike for free packed in a travel bag on the TGV as well as taking an assembled bike on both Intercity trains and TER trains. While it can still be a little stressful overall until you are on the train and seated, I have never had any negative experiences to report.
Travelling by train in France is popular with locals and visitors alike and is becoming more so. I catch trains in France regularly with and without my bike and recommend it highly as a way of getting around France.
Here I list 11 things we discovered and experienced on our journeys to help you navigate the French train stations and trains with your bike. My goal is to provide some real-world information about what it is really like based on my own experiences. If you have never travelled on a train in France before you might want to head over to our article about booking a bike on French trains to understand the different services offered, the rules for bikes on each of the services, and how to book your bike.
1. Understand the rules for bikes on French trains
Perhaps my most important tip, if you are travelling on a French train with a bike, is to understand the rules for bikes on the service you are travelling on. There are 3 types of train service in France, TGV, Intercity & TER, and each handles bikes slightly differently. On both TGV and Intercity trains, you must reserve and pay for a bike space, while TERs allow bikes on without reservation. Bikes can be carried without disassembly on all Intercity and TER services while some TGV services only allow bikes that are disassembled in a bike bag or case. To read up further on this head over to our How to book a bike on French trains page which explains this further.
2. Don’t expect luggage rack space
Don’t expect there to be lots of room for your bike bag if you plan to bring it in a case and store it in the luggage racks for free. It’s not to say there won’t be any space but don’t be surprised to find racks full. If you are getting on the train at the start of the route space is usually much easier to find compared to getting on at one of the stops along the route.
My experience has been mixed when I have had the bikes in a bike bag to go in the luggage rack. Ultimately I have always found somewhere to put the bike but there have been times the bikes have been stored in empty seats or next to the luggage rack. If you can’t fit the bike in the rack do your best to make sure it is not in the way, otherwise, the train staff may ask you to move it.
Another tip is not to expect other people to be considerate of your bike. The first time I travelled with my bike on a French train I had it stored in the luggage rack and assumed others would not pile luggage on top. How wrong I was! I came back to the rack to find other bags shoved on top of the bike. I was able to rearrange things so my bike was not damaged, but after that experience I stand near the luggage racks at any stops to make sure the bike is ok.
3. Book your bike space as early as possible
If you are travelling on a TGV or Intercity train make sure you book your tickets and bike space as far in advance as possible. This is especially the case if you are travelling in the busy summer period and in a popular cycling destination. TGVs and Intercity trains can be reserved up to 90 days in advance.
While it may be possible to grab a space for your bike at short notice, don’t assume you will be able to. I have experienced some issues in the past with being able to get the spaces for the bikes and the earlier you do it the more likely you are of getting the trains you want.
My biggest lesson about bikes on trains in France is that lots of people take their bikes on trains so don’t expect that you are the only one doing this. I have learned that trains early in the morning are usually the quietest and we try and book them where possible.
4. Allow plenty of time at train stations
Train stations can be very busy places, especially in cities, and navigating them with a bike can be a bit tricky at times. Some stations have lifts to get you down or up to the platforms while some don’t, and you may need to navigate stairs. This is more of an issue if you are touring and have a loaded bike but can apply to any type of bike.
In my experience, larger train stations have tunnels under the platforms for you to get to the platform and this will involve stairs. It never takes too long to get to the platform I have found, but it can be a bit awkward with loaded bikes when there are no lifts. I always aim to get there about 30 minutes before departure and this has always worked well.
5. Travel early in the day
Following on from the previous tip, travelling early in the day is best to avoid crowds both at the station and on the train. As an example, I arrived at Bordeaux station late in the afternoon to a station that was packed with people and difficult to navigate with fully laden touring bikes. When I left Bordeaux the following morning at 7 am, the station was practically empty as was the train. It made the whole experience of the station nice and stress-free.
6. Empty platforms are great places to pack or unpack a bike
If you need to assemble bikes after your train journey just remain on the platform once everyone is off the train. I found it provides a nice safe and quiet place to get everything ready for your bike before you get on or off the train. Often train platforms are quite long and moving to the end of the platform keeps you out of the way of any other trains that pull in.
7. Platforms are announced 20mins in advance
Train platforms are generally announced 20 minutes before the train arrives. This gives you plenty of time to make your way to the required platform, especially if you are at a larger station. If you are on a train with designated carriages and seating, the display on the platform will show you where you need to be for your carriage number.
8. Designated bike carriages
The vast majority of Intercités and TER trains that we travelled on have had the designated bike areas in carriages 1 and 4 on a four-car train and 1, 4, 5, and 8 on an eight-car train. The trains generally have a large bike symbol on the door, or next to it, showing you where you need to be. I have never had any problem identifying the correct carriage.
9. Put your bike in the correct place onboard
Make sure you use the designated bike space available to you. We have seen 2 different types, hanging and standing. The hanging types require you to lift your bike and hang it by the front wheel. For us, it meant taking most of the luggage we had on the bikes off to make it light enough to lift. The standing types are easier allowing 3 bikes to lean against each other with an elastic strap to prevent movement. These types meant I only had to take the rear panniers off rather than the front rolls as well.
10. What to do if the bike places are full
If you get on a train and the bike racks are full what should you do? In theory, if the allocated bike spaces are full you should not bring your bike on board. In practice, we have observed people getting on the train and simply standing with their bikes making sure it is not interfering with other passengers. While we have not seen anyone kicked off the train it is possible. The train conductor has absolute discretion as to what happens but we have generally found them helpful. We would also suggest checking the bike spaces in other carriages as you might find them empty.
11. Only standard-sized bikes are allowed on French trains
French trains allow only standard-size bikes onboard their trains. Recumbents, tricycles, or tandems, cannot be taken on a French train. Ebikes pose no problems on French trains as long as they are a standard size. This makes trains a great alternative to flying where e-bikes are banned.
We provide a step-by-step guide to booking your bike on a French train that also includes general information about the French train network. If you prefer to watch a video demonstration of booking the bike head over to our YouTube channel where you can watch our How to book a bike on a French train video. We provide a step-by-step guide to help you through the process.