Trains in France are a great way to get from point to point, especially if you do not like driving in a foreign country. The French train network is extensive and serves over 3,000 stations across the country. This means you can get just about anywhere in the country by train. Your arrival to or from France can be via train as a result of links to England, Belgium, Spain, Italy and Germany.
SNCF, the national rail company, operates three types of services, specifically the TGV, Intercités and TER. Details on each type are included below:
Book tickets well in advance in the busy summer months so that you are able to secure tickets for the days and times you need to travel. Early booking also ensures you have access to cheaper fares, especially important if you are travelling on a budget. Tickets for the TGV and Intercités can only be booked 90 days in advance. Tickets can be purchased online and be printed at home or mailed to your address. E-tickets on a mobile app are available through SNCF and may be available through other vendors.
Travel by train makes moving around the country easy, especially if you do not want to drive. There are none of the hassles of air travel and stations are located in central locations. There are different rules for luggage and bikes depending on the type of train you travel on.
You can also travel to other countries by train, which means your arrival to France or departure from it can also be by train. Destinations currently include London, Brussels, Barcelona, Amsterdam and Cologne.
Fluent French is not necessary to travel on trains in France, although knowing some of the French words you will see at a train station is helpful. Both English and French signage will be available in some, but not all, stations but indicator boards and announcements are usually in French. Vending machines have English as an option but our experience is that it reverts to French for some components of the process.
Train – is train in English although pronounced differently
La Gare – translates to the station. You will generally see Gare du and the name of the station
Voie or quai – the platform. This will appear on indicator boards letting you know which platform your train departs from.
Voiture – this translates to carriage and you will see this on your ticket where there is a seat reservation.
Premiére classe – first class.
Seconde classe – second class.
Sortie – exit. Important for knowing how to get out!
Billet – ticket. You may hear a conductor on the train asking people for their tickets.
Billetterie – ticketing. You may see this on a ticket vending machine.
Les guichets – ticket office
Un aller-retour – a return ticket.
Un billet simple – a one way ticket.
Prix – price.
Prochain arrêt – next stop. You will hear this on board trains or perhaps see it on a display and it would be followed by the name of the stop.
Composter votre billet – you will see this on yellow machines on platforms and it translates to "punch your ticket". You must do this before you board the train otherwise you could be liable for a fine.
The TGV is the French high speed train network which travels across the the country at speeds up to 320km (200m) per hour. It is a great way to get from one place to another especially if longer distances are involved. You can access their network map here.
Tickets can be purchased online up to 90 days in advance and you must have one before you board the train. Both first and second class carriages are available on these trains. First class offers larger seats that recline and is not significantly more expensive than second class. The trains have free wifi available as well as power outlets to charge electrical devices. Food and drink can be purchased on board.
This network operates on medium to long distance routes not serviced by the TGV. The route network for these services can be accessed here.
Tickets are available online 90 days in advance and must be purchased before boarding the train. First and second class carriages are offered on these trains and there are night trains that offer cabins as well. Wifi, power sockets and food services are all available on board.
The TER network travels between towns within the region and trip times are shorter. These trains provide connections to the TGV and Intercités stations.
Onboard you will find first and second class carriages but not wifi, electrical sockets or food for purchase. You can purchase tickets from the station on the day or up to 120 days in advance.
Ouigo is a high speed budget version of the TGV and operates in a similar fashion to a budget airline. The network is much smaller than the full TGV service and tickets can only be purchased online and only through select outlets. You can access their network map here.
These trains do not have first class carriages and if you want a seat with a power outlet you will have to pay extra for it. There is no dining available on these trains and rules around luggage are strict. If you are using this service note that the station may be outside of the city you are going and does not necessarily use the same station as the TGV. But it is cheap!
You can purchase a ticket for any service on the day of travel although you run the risk of trains being full especially in peak periods. For this reason we would recommend purchasing your ticket online in advance so that you travel on the dates you want to. Additionally you will have access to cheaper fares than if you book on the day.
All TGV and many Intercités services have a mandatory seat reservation which is selected at the same time of booking the ticket. All other services operate on a first come first served basis once on the train in relation to seat selection.
Tickets can be purchased from the websites below.
sncf.com – this is the offical website of the French rail company and you can purchase tickets for any of their services without booking fees. Tickets can be printed at home or posted to you.
raileurope.com – this is a North American based company that has existed since the 1930's. It offers tickets for a range of European countries including France. It operates location specific sites so you will be directed to raileurope-world.com or raileurope.ca if you are not in North America. Tickets can be printed at home, printed at a kiosk at the station or posted to you.
trainline.eu – a European based seller for a range of European train companies including France. Tickets are either emailed or available via their app.
There are a couple of other high speed options worth noting that may help you get to or from France.
The first of these is the Eurostar which connects France to England through the channel tunnel. Paris to London services run regularly each day and offer three classes of travel. Trains depart and arrive from Gare du Nord in Paris to St Pancras station in London. For the premium classes a meal is provided to your seat and for other tickets a dining car is available on board. Wifi is available on the newer trains and is progressively being rolled out to all services. Power outlets are available on board but only in specific carriages and accomodate both UK and European plugs. Tickets can be purchased 180 days in advance online. The Eurostar website can be accessed here.
The second of these is Thalys which connects Paris to Belgium, Holland and Germany. Trains arrive and depart from Gare du Nord in Paris as well as Charles de Gaulle airport. Three classes are available on board as is wifi and power sockets. Premium ticket holders are served a meal on international trips over 50 mins and a dining car is available for other passengers. Tickets can be purchased up to 90 days in advance. Access the Thalys website here.
Yes – you most certainly can take bikes on trains. Having done this ourselves on our last trip we highly recommend it. The SNCF web site has two pages with detailed information about bikes on trains. You can find the first page here and the second page here. Eurostar and Thayls bike rules are covered on these pages as well.
Be mindful of the size limits for bike cases where they are an option. The train manager has absolute discretion on what comes on board and they do check these things especially on busy services. Getting on and off trains with bike cases can be a bit of a pain and many of the TGV's have multiple decks which means you may have stairs to negotiate.
TER trains have a bike symbol on carriages that have bike racks on them. You can simply wheel your bike onto these trains without any disassembly. Rack space is on a first come first serve basis and you must put your bike in a rack where available.