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Train Ticket Guides Buying and using Tickets for French rail travel

Buying and using Tickets for French rail travel

This guide will help you save money, time and confusion. (There have been major changes to how tickets can be used on French rail journeys and on train journeys to and from France, so this info is currently being updated).

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Welcome to ShowMeTheJourney's guide to booking train tickets for journeys within and from/to France.

The aim is to provide is some context for the tickets and journey options you should encounter, in usual circumstances when making a booking either online, or by using the app, or at the station.

SMTJ has striven to ensure that the advice presented is as accurate as possible, but a guide such as this cannot cover every combination of journey options.

Good to know:

The eight things most worth knowing about tickets for French train journeys:

1. SNCF operates virtually every train in France, but it does not have a monopoly on ticket sales through its booking site, SNCF Connect.
Other alternative sites including Trainline, Omio and SaveATrain partner with SNCF Connect and they can particularly good options if you’re not in France when trying to book tickets online.
SNCF also operates RailEurope, which is in effect a dedicated online booking service for making bookings from outside of Europe.
If you reside outside of Europe you may discover that SNCF Connect rejects phone numbers or card numbers, but RailEurope won't do so.
Though RailEurope, Omio and Trainline add booking fees when making a purchase

2. Multiple different types of train service can often be available between the destinations that you will be travelling from and to.
3. Tickets will be specific to each type of train service, for example you cannot book a ticket valid for a journey by TER train and then board a TGV train.

4. There are multiple types of tickets that can be booked for French rail journeys, but they are specific to certain types of train service, but when booking 2nd class tickets (and on non TGV journeys in 1st/Premiere class), you will only be offered one type of ticket on each departure.
5. For journeys by TGV and the other express trains (Intercités), you will save money the further ahead you can book before your date of travel.
6. Seat reservations are automatically assigned when booking tickets for any journey by TGV trains, Intercités trains and Ouigo trains.
7. Seat reservations are not available on TER trains.

8. Tickets for the express trains, the InOui, Intercités and Ouigo services, are typically placed on sale from 4 months ahead, but it's often possible to book further ahead than this.
SNCF can run 'promotions' in which tickets can be booked more than 4 months ahead of the travel date, and as the cheapest tickets inevitably sell out fastest, it can pay to take advantage of these longer than usual booking periods.

Booking tickets for rail journeys within France:

Click the questions in the Content menu to jump to the info you need, or grab a coffee and scroll through the entire page; 10-15 mins reading will ultimately save you time, money and confusion!

What types of ticket are made available for train journeys within France?

There are now eight types of tickets which are available for French train journeys, but each type of ticket is only made available for travelling on specific train services; so the type of ticket you will be able to book online will depend on whether you will travelling on a

Prems tickets
These are discounted tickets (until recently also known as 'Exchangeable - Conditions Apply' tickets), which are only available in 2nd class on longer-distance journeys by TGV InOui and Intercités services.
The prices typically rise after being placed on sale; when all the tickets at the cheapest price point have sold out, the next batch of tickets is placed on sale at higher price.
Though as a limited number of Prems tickets are placed on sale for each departure, they can sell out completely on popular departures weeks in advance; and they're unlikely to still be available on any departure if you'll be looking up a journey less than a couple of days ahead.

Seconde tickets
When booking 2nd class tickets for journeys by TGV InOui and Intercités services, when the Prems tickets have sold out, or aren't available for any other reason, these are the tickets which will be available for booking.
Though these Seconde tickets are also often cheaper when they're first placed on sale, so you might be able to save, even if you book a couple of days ahead.

Premiere tickets
When booking tickets for journeys by TGV InOui and Intercités services, this type of ticket will always be available if you want to travel in 1st/Premiere class.
They are cheaper when initially placed on sale, and the prices will rise according to demand, up until departure, so you'll save the further ahead you can book.

These three types of tickets all share the same ticket exchange and refund policy.
The terms on SNCF Connect state:
'Tickets can be only exchanged (adjustment to the current fare) and refunded prior to departure: a charge of € 15 from two days prior to departure.
From 30 minutes prior to departure, tickets can be exchanged up to two times (for the same day and the same journey), and are non-refundable after the first exchange'.
Which could be clearer, but it seems as though the three key things to be aware of are:

  1. Up until two days prior to departure, these types of tickets can be refunded for no additional charge (big tick), but a €15 fee will be payable for making a refund in the two days prior to departure.
  2. If you want to exchange tickets to an alternative departure, you will have to pay any difference in price between the rate you paid and the rate at the time of the exchange.
  3. If you arrive at a station too late to make a train you were booked on to, you won't get your money back on your original purchase and will have to book an entirely new ticket, which will be at the most expensive last minute price.

Business Premiere tickets
More expensive than Premiere tickets for 1st Class/Premiere Class journeys by TGV InOui and Intercités services, but a key difference is the access they provide to the Business Class lounges at stations.
Though what also justifies the higher price is the greater flexibility, because these tickets can be exchanged and refund free of charge up to 30 minutes after departure, so if you get to the station just too late to miss the train you were originally booked on to, you won't lose out financially.

Tarif Normal tickets and Bilet Tarif Normal tickets:
These tickets are the tickets which can be purchased for travel by TER trains, though which of the two types of ticket will be offered varies according to the journey you will be booking
The 'Tarif Normal' tickets can't be refunded or exchanged to another departure, so as they're not discounted when booked online, you won't risk losing out financially if you buy walk-up tickets at the station for journeys by TER trains.
The Bilet Tarif Normal tickets (note the subtle name difference) can't be exchanged, but they can be refunded up until the end of the day before the travel date.
Though as neither of these types of ticket will be of any use if you get to the station too late to board the train you are booked on to, or if you have to cancel a trip at the last minute, there's little advantage in booking then online.

Offre Essentiel Adulte and Offre OUIGO+ Adulte tickets
These are the two types of ticket available for journeys by Ouigo trains, which offer a cheaper alternative on most of the high speed routes taken by the regular TGV InOui trains.
The 'Offre Ouigo' tickets are more expensive, but have double the more limited luggage allowance, which is available on Ouigo trains; and have priority boarding (the equivalent of a check-in is required when taking a Ouigo).

Though the refund and exchange terms of using both of these types of tickets are the same, and as stated on SNCF Connect they are,
'Ticket not refundable. Exchange possible under conditions for the same trip with a 10€ per passenger fee until 1 hour before the beginning of embarkment. Potential price difference between old and new ticket to be added to this fee'.

So if you're considering whether to book a 2nd class ticket on a TGV InOui service, or to save money by taking a Ouigo instead, something to factor into the decision is that if subsequently need to abandon your trip, a ticket for the InOui service can be refunded, but a ticket for a Ouigo service can't!

How do I travel with a ticket that I have booked on the Oui.SNCF website?

Another significant recent change to how tickets can be booked on OUI.SNCF, is that the only type of ticket that will be available, once you have selected a journey, are likely to be E-Tickets.

According to Oui.SNCF you only have two options for using these E-tickets:

(1) Download the attachment on the confirmation email, open it and then print your ticket on to a sheet of A4 paper; the T&Cs on Oui.SNCF are very specific about this,

(2) Access your tickets using the 'My Travel' tab on the SNCF Connect app; you can download your ticket from it and then show the barcode to the conductor on the train, or use it to open the ticket gate.

Logically an option would be to open the confirmation email on your mobile and then to simply download the ticket to the documents folder on your phone; and then access the ticket from there when you need it.
However, the instructions on Oui.SNCF make no mention of this being an option.
And yes, if you're going to use the download the SNCF Connect app methodology in order to access your tickets, you may as well download the app in the first instance and use it to book your tickets.

Although when booking train journeys within France on Trainline and selecting the mobile option, you don't have to download the Oui.SNCF app, or any other app, in order to download the tickets from the confirmation email to your mobile device.

Though something to be aware of, particularly if you won't be travelling by TGV InOui services, is that tickets may not be attached to your confirmation email OR instantly available in the 'My Travel' section of the SNCF Connect app.
So when booking, look out for info on the ticket confirmation page which can be informing you that your tickets will be available a minimum of 4 days before your travel date.

What are the differences between how tickets can be booked and used on the different types of train?

The French national rail operator SNCF, operates four different types of longer distance train services:

(1) Standard TGV trains - now classified as TGV InOui services

(2) More basic low cost TGV trains - Ouigo services

(3) Express trains which aren't high speed - Intercités/IC services

(4) Regional trains, which connect regions on longer routes - TER services

When looking up a journey you will often have a choice of booking tickets for two or more of these services, hence the summaries below of the differences between how tickets can be booked and used on these types of train service

Online Bookings Open*:

  • TGV InOui = 4 months ahead
  • Ouigo = 6 months ahead
  • Intercités = 3 months ahead
  • TER = 3 months ahead

*These are the usual booking periods, they can be shorter during mid September - early November; OR longer if SNCF is running a promotion.

Discounted 'Prems' tickets available:

  • TGV InOui = Yes
  • Ouigo = No
  • Intercités = Yes
  • TER = No

The ability to refund tickets (subject to specific T&Cs:

  • TGV InOui = Yes
  • Ouigo = No
  • Intercités = Yes
  • TER = Some

First Class/Premiere Class Available:

  • TGV InOui = Yes
  • Ouigo = No
  • Intercités = Yes
  • TER = some routes only

Reservations Available: (complimentary and included in the ticket price):

  • TGV InOui = Yes
  • Ouigo = Yes
  • Intercités = on the three main routes
  • TER = No

Choice of seating area/place (window or aisle etc):

  • TGV InOui = Yes
  • Ouigo = No
  • Intercités = on the three main routes
  • TER = No

Choice of specific seat:

  • TGV InOui = (Yes- in 1st/Premiere class only)
  • Ouigo = No
  • Intercités = No
  • TER = No

Can be booked at the station:

  • TGV InOui* = Yes
  • Ouigo = No
  • Intercités* = Yes
  • TER = Yes

*Will be more expensive than booking in advance online.

Can be booked both on Oui.SNCF AND the websites it partners with:

  • TGV InOui = Yes
  • Ouigo = Yes (Ouigo journeys can also be booked on Trainline)
  • Intercités = Yes
  • TER = Yes

Will tickets cost the same price if I buy them at the station ?

IF you will be making a local train journey anywhere in France or making any journey by regional TER trains, the answer is yes.
(TER train services can cover long distances such as Lyon ↔ Marseille and Nice ↔ Marseille).

Although if you will travelling on a NON-high speed route shared by TER train services AND express train services; tickets booked last minute at the station for those TGV InOui or Intercités services tend to be less than €5 more expensive.
So if you won't be travelling particularly long distances on a non-high speed route, keeping your plans flexible and booking tickets at the station, for whatever type of train service will be next to depart, can be a good option.

However, if you will be making a high speed journey by the TGV InOui services, or travelling long distance on the top flight Intercités routes, you should avoid buying tickets last minute at the station if you want to save money.

Does it matter which train I travel by if I've bought tickets at a French train station?

The short answer to this question is yes, you need to be aware of which train services your ticket will be valid for; and then only travel by that type of train service and no other.

When travelling by train between destinations in France there can be, but not always, a choice of:

(1) TER trains - Regional trains and the local trains outside of Paris

(2) TGV InOui trains; the Eistandard, more comfortable high speed TGV trains

(3) Low cost, but more basic Ouigo TGV trains, which have begun to travel on the same routes as the standard TGV InOui trains (but tickets for Ouigo trains CANNOT be booked at stations).

(4) Either one of the two types of Intercités express train services

Those on which seats have to be reserved (included when booking)
These are the Intercités trains which operate on these routes:

  • Paris (Austerlitz) – Limoges – Brive la Galliarde – Toulouse
  • Bordeaux – Toulouse – Narbonne – Nimes – Montpellier – Marseille
  • Paris (Bercy) – Nevers – Vichy – Clermont Ferrand

or Those on which reservations are optional; the Intercités trains on all other routes.

Why this matters:

This choice matters when booking tickets at a station (or online).
If you have booked a ticket that is valid for a journey by TER train, you cannot then use it to travel on a TGV, OR on the type of Intercités train service on which reservations are compulsory.
Similarly if you book a ticket for either type of the Intercités services, you cannot then use it to travel on a TGV train.

In other words you cannot just hop on the next train to your destination, you have to travel by the type of train service that your ticket is valid for
These rules apply even if you will be travelling comparatively short distances.

Do I need to stamp my ticket before boarding the train?

Ticket stamping machines are positioned at the entrances to the voies (platforms/tracks) that a train will be departing from AND/OR in the station buildings, particularly on the concourse.
However, you don't need to stamp tickets that you have booked online and printed.

The only tickets which require stamping are those which you have purchased at a ticket desk, or have purchased/collected from a ticket machine.
You obviously need to do this before boarding, but it can be easy to forget to do so, particularly if you are in a hurry.

Will I save money on French train tickets if I book in advance online?

This depends on two factors:

  • the route you will be taking; and
  • the train service you will be travelling by.

And if there' is an opportunity to save, the amount you will be saving will ALSO depend on how far ahead you will be booking.

Ten things worth knowing if you want to travel at the cheapest possible price:

(1) The prices of 'Exchangeable - Conditions Apply' tickets will be cheaper the further ahead you book.
Limited numbers of discounted tickets will be available per departure, with the prices rising as the numbers of tickets available at each price point sell out.

(2) Tickets for the TGV InOui and Intercités (IC) services can usually* always be booked online from AT LEAST 4 months ahead of the travel date, and from 6 months ahead on Ouigo services.
However, the booking windows can be longer when Oui.SNCF is running a promotion (see below), so when it is you may have to book more than 4 months ahead to obtain the cheapest possible price.

Though on the shorter Intercités routes, the savings from booking ahead can be less than €5.

(*The key exception to this 'at least 4 months ahead' rule occurs if you will be searching for tickets between mid-September and mid-October.
Around that time you may not be able to book for journeys beyond the second Sunday in December, as the new SNCF timetable will come into effect on that date - so tickets can't be placed on sale until the train timings have been confirmed).

(3) Tickets for journeys by Ouigo trains are usually placed on sale up to 6 months ahead on Oui.SNCF.
Meaning that if you look up journeys more than three months ahead on the routes taken by Ouigo trains, you will usually only see the Ouigo services, so in that scenario, avoid assuming that they will be your only option.
But if you look up journeys up to 4 months ahead, the prices of the Ouigo services can be compared with the standard TGV InOui services.

(4) If you are happy to put up with a more basic on-board experience; AND to be at the station a minimum of 30 mins before your train will depart, you may be able to make big savings by taking the Ouigo trains.

Ouigo and TGV InOui trains now share these routes:

  • Paris Gare De Lyon - Lyon St Exupery (Lyon Airport) - Aix-en-Provence TGV - Toulon - St Raphael - Cannes - Antibes - Nice
  • Paris Gare De Lyon - Lyon St Exupery (Lyon Airport) - Avignon TGV - Marseille
  • Paris Gare De Lyon - Valence - Nimes - Montpellier
  • Lille - Aeroport CDG - Marne la Vallée - Lyon St Exupery (Lyon Airport) - Avignon TGV - Aix-en-Provence TGV - Marseille
  • Paris Est - Strasbourg and Metz and Nancy
  • Paris Montparnasse - Poitiers - Bordeaux - Toulouse
  • Paris Montparnasse - Nantes
  • Paris Montparnasse - Rennes

On these routes, you can often save more than €40 if you book tickets for the Ouigo train.

(5) When different train services are available between two destinations, the slower TER services can actually be the most expensive option, if you can book in advance.

However, this flips when booking last minute at the station, because they will then be cheapest option; though the price difference with the express services when booking on the travel date can be less than €5.

(6) That's because the prices of tickets for journeys by TER services aren't discounted, so you won't save by booking them in advance online.

(7) The most heavily discounted (cheapest) tickets inevitably sell out fastest on the most popular TGV and Intercités departures, so you can often save by taking alternative earlier/later trains on your travel date.

(8) SNCF applies an airline style pricing policy to TGV InOui journeys and the longer distance Intercités journeys; meaning that prices can be more expensive at times of likely high demand.

So it CAN be worth avoiding:

  • Travelling to/from Paris on the afternoon/evenings on Fridays and Sundays.
  • Travelling long distance on routes to/from the coast on summer weekends (Friday - Sunday) particularly in August.
  • Long distance trains in winter towards ski resorts after midday on Friday and back from the ski resorts on Sunday afternoons/evenings.
  • Summer journeys on Friday-Sunday on routes that have comparatively infrequent TGV and Intercités services.

However, working out which alternative dates have cheaper tickets available can be looked up on the price calendar - find out more HERE.

(9) If you'll be booking several long-distance tickets per year and:

  • are aged 12 to 27
  • OR aged 60 or over
  • OR will be travelling in a family group,
  • OR making return journeys which involve an overnight stay on Fridays - Sundays
    Oui.SNCF has introduced a new range of discount cards, which all cost €49 and entitle their holders to significant price reductions on tickets; and you don't have to be French to purchase and use them.

(10) Special 'ECO' tickets are made available on some Intercités departures, they cost from only €15, but can only be booked on the French language version of the Oui.SNCF website

SNCF's Summer and Winter promotions:

Tickets for journeys by long-distance train within France are normally placed on sale three months ahead of the travel date.
However, the national rail operator SNCF has been running summer and winter 'promotions' meaning that twice per year this usual three month booking window has been extended.

During the summer promotion, towards the end of March it becomes possible to book journeys by for journeys by TGV InOui and Intercités (IC) services, which involve travelling up until the beginning of September.
Then in around the beginning of October, during the winter 'promotion' tickets have been released for sale for journeys which involve travelling up until mid-March.

What SNCF is 'promoting' is the earlier than usual release of discounted tickets, at their usual cheapest price points, for journeys by these express train services.
As per usual, limited numbers of these tickets at their cheapest price points will be made available per departure; so the situation of booking tickets at the earliest opportunity to save, also applies during these promotions.

However, this also means that if you'll be travelling between July and early September, or between early February and mid-March - and then book 4 months ahead, there's a chance that the cheapest available tickets will have already sold out.
This particularly matters if you'll be heading to summer holiday or winter sports destinations, because those travel periods coincide with times of exceptional demand; and high demand pushes up prices.
So as these promotions open the booking windows earlier than usual, it can pay off to take advantage of them; hence a recommendation to sign up to Oui.SNCF's email service, or follow it on social media, so that you're aware when these promotions commence

Can I save money by taking the TER trains?

If you have a choice between taking a

  • TER service,
  • or a TGV InOui service
  • and/or an Intercités (IC) service
    and you will be buying tickets last minute at the station, the TER service will be the cheapest option.

The price difference in comparison with an Intercités (IC) service can be less than around €5, but last minute tickets for journeys by TER trains, can be more than 50% cheaper than last minute tickets for travel by the TGV InOui services.

High speed TGV services vs TER services:

When you have a choice between taking a TER train or travelling along a high speed line by TGV InOui service, then if you can book ahead, the TER service can be more expensive.
On the high speed routes, the discounted 'Exchangeable - Conditions Apply' tickets will be placed on sale for at least some of the TGV InOui departures; but not the TER services.
Routes on which this scenario applies include:

  • Lyon ↔ Marseille;
  • Paris ↔ Le Mans: and
  • Paris ↔ Dijon.

Booking ahead and saving on the NON-high speed routes:

Between some French cities there are no high speed lines, examples include:

  • Marseille ↔ Nice
  • Montpellier ↔ Perpignan; and
  • Toulouse ↔ Bordeaux.
    On these routes, longer-distance TER services often share the railway line with the express Intercités and TGV services.
    When that is the case, if you can book ahead the 'Exchangeable - Conditions Apply' tickets for those express services can be the cheapest option.
    Though on some routes, tickets for the TER trains are always seemingly slightly cheaper.

If you will be booking last minute at the station, the price difference between the TER and those two express train services can be around only €5.

What if I'm booking tickets for a French train journey which involves a change of train?

If you will be looking up a new journey on Oui.SNCF it is a good idea to leave the 'direct trains' box unticked.
Also be aware that some of the connections between trains on multi-train end-to-end journeys can be tightly timed.

Despite this, the Oui.SNCF website does not give an option to extend connecting times between trains when looking up journeys.
More info on how to check the connecting time between trains is available on our Oui.SNCF booking guide; see below

Connections between trains are NOT guaranteed, but tickets will be valid on the next alternative train to depart; even if you are travelling with 'Exchangeable - Conditions Apply' tickets.
If you are connecting into a TGV or Intercités train, so have seats reserved on that train, you will need to stop by the ticket desk in order to have your reservations re-issued for a later departure.

Though at times when multiple train delays are occurring you can have your ticket 'validated' at an 'Accueil' information desk and show it to the conductor when boarding your next train; though if you do this, seats WON'T be guaranteed.

What about seat reservations on French trains?

On your ticket(s) 'voiture' = coach/carriage number, ‘Place Assise’ = the seat number.

Reservations will automatically be included and specific seats assigned when booking tickets for journeys by standard TGV InOui and Ouigo trains.

If you book 2nd class tickets on Oui.SNCF for a journey by an InOui service, you can choose seating preferences such as window or aisle.

However, if you're booking 1st/Premiere class for a TGV InOui departure, you'll also have the option to choose specific seats on a seating plan.
If TGV Atlantique and TGV Océane trains are being used for your selected departure, when booking 1st class tickets, you can choose seats which face forwards, but this facility is not available on departures by TGV Duplex trains.

On Ouigo trains, your seat(s) will be automatically assigned when booking and you have to accept the booking and travel only on these seats.

If you will be travelling by IC (Intercités) trains, then only on these routes reservations will automatically be included and specific seats assigned
However, reservations are optional when travelling on other IC train routes; including all IC trains from/to Paris Est, Paris Nord and Paris St. Lazare.

Reservations are not possible on TER trains, so you won’t guarantee a seat on a TER train by booking tickets online.

What about child tickets on French trains?

Children aged under 4 travel for free (but you need to travel with them on your lap) and children aged 4-11 pay half fare on all trains; except for Ouigo trains, these have different terms for child tickets.

The adult rate is charged for all travellers aged 12 and over.

How do I claim a refund if the train I've booked is subsequently cancelled by SNCF?

If you have booked a ticket on Oui.SNCF and your train has subsequently been cancelled you can apply for a refund.

This is the page on the Oui.SNCF website in which you can find the info relating to refunds and commence your claim

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Booking tickets for international rail journeys from and to France:

Oui.SNCF, Omio, RailEurope and Trainline sell tickets for international train journeys from and to France; including many journeys that require changes of train outside of France.

Although it can be worth comparing prices with alternative ticket agents, as follows:
(the links to all of these ticket booking services can be found below).

  • To/from Belgium AND journeys by Eurostar and Thalys trains; check B-Europe,
  • To/from Germany; check DB,
  • Check Eurostar prices on Eurostar.com

Trenitalia does not sell tickets for the TGV France-Italy services

International booking agents:

Author

Simon Harper

I wanted to share my passion for train travel and explain how anyone can take the fantastic journeys I have taken.

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