Travelling by train in France

General information

Welcome to our guide how to save money, time and confusion when travelling in France by train.

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Travelling on French trains can be an exhilarating experience, and once you’re used to the many quirks of national rail operator SNCF, it can be less complicated then it first seems.


The Eleven Things Most Worth Knowing About Travelling By Train in France:

. SNCF is the national rail operator in France and it provides virtually all French train services - which are grouped into these five categories

(1) TGV France = standard TGV services, which use the high speed lines for all or most of their journeys.
Modernised versions of these trains are now braended as 'TGV InOui' services.

(2) Ouigo - More basic lower cost TGV services, which provide an alternative to the TGV France services on comparatively few routes.

(3) Intercités = Express train services which don't use the high speed lines.

Cities which are only served by Intercités trains include Amiens, Caen, Clermont-Ferrand and Limoges.

(4) TER services = The regional train services in France, but this encompasses a broad swathe of services including;

(i) trains that can spend more than two hours travelling between cities - and some of these routes can parallel the high speed lines;

(ii) the local trains outside Paris.

(5) Transilien services - the longer distance 'commuter' trains to/from Paris.

The RER trains which travel across Paris are co-operated between SNCF and RATP, which operates the Paris Metro.

2. TGV trains can travel long distances away from the high speed lines.

But on these non-high speed routes, travelling by TGV services can* be more expensive than taking alternative Intercités or TER services.

* Tickets for the TGVs will be more expensive if you book last minute at the station, but will usually be cheaper if you book in advance.

The most popular routes on which TGVs DON'T travel at high speed are:
Bordeaux ↔ Toulouse
Marseille ↔ Nice
Bordeaux ↔ Biarritz/Hendaye/Lourdes
Rennes ↔ Quimper/Brest

3. French train timetables are particularly irregular, many train services/departures only operate on certain days of the week.

Also few train services operate at regular intervals - timetables on which trains leave at the same minutes passed every hour are rare in France.

On TGV France routes the service can vary from a train every 30 mins at peak times, to gaps of two hours or more between trains in the middle of the day.

Regional TER trains also tend to operate to very sporadic timetables.
1 x train per hour is the exception rather than the norm - on many TER routes there can be gaps of 3-4 hours between trains.

4. All on board announcements on domestic trains are French language only.

The conductors may not speak English on IC and TER trains, particularly those that don’t serve Paris.

5. There is no main central station in Paris instead the city is ringed by seven terminals.

Train services between Paris and destinations to the north depart from and arrive at the Gare Du Nord, while those between Paris and the south-east France use the Gare De Lyon.

The two stations are linked by frequent RER (commuter) trains.

However there are direct TGVs between Lille and many destinations served by trains to/from the Gare De Lyon, including Avignon, Lyon, Marseille and Montpellier.

6. If you buy a ticket(s) at the station it will be train service specific.

Meaning that if you buy a ticket that is valid for a journey by TER train services, you cannot then use it on Intercités or TGV trains etc.

7. Tickets for journeys by Intercités and TGV France trains are GENERALLY placed on sale 3 months (90 days) ahead of the travel date - but this booking period can be extended when SNCF is running a promotion.

8. The earlier you can book journeys by by Intercités and TGV France trains, the more money you can save.

That's because only limited numbers of the most heavily discounted tickets are made available on most routes taken by TGV and Intercités trains.

9. If you want to take a standard (non-folding) bicycle on an Intercités or TGV train without dis-assembling and bagging it, you will need purchase a bike ticket, though worth knowing is that you can't take a non-bagged bicycle on TGV Duplex trains.

Though these bike tickets aren't required on TER trains - more info is available on ShowMeTheJourney's guide to taking bicycles on French trains.

10. Have your passport (or another form of ID) with you on any journey including domestic journeys solely within France.
You need ID with you for ANY ticket to be

11. TGV services that are also branded 'InOui' services offer enhanced Wi-fi, but if you will be travelling on other TGV trains, the connectivity can be patchy and is only theoretically available on the high speed lines.
⁹Few other train services have Wi
-Fi, it's not available on the Intercités services.


Nine Other Things That Are Good To Know about French Trains:

1. French national rail operator SNCF has embarked on a policy of sub-dividing its TGV France services into two categories.

SOME departures on which TGV Duplex trains are used and ALL departures on which TGV Océane trains are used, are now specifically branded as 'TGV InOui' services.

The key benefits of an InOui service are enhanced Wi-Fi connectivity and on the departures on which the TGV Duplex trains are used it indicates a modernised interior including power sockets in Seconde/2nd class. 
All departures on which the TGV Océane trains are used come into the InOui category, because these are brand new trains.

2. There are four* different types of TGV train, which travel on the TGV France routes.

You can check which of these TGV trains will be used on a departure you will be taking by following these simple steps.

*Technically there are more than 4 types of TGV train, but we have focused on the four trains, that will have obvious differences in the on-board experience.

3. However, on an increasing number of routes, travellers now have a choice between travelling on standard TGV France service, OR on low-cost, more basic TGV services, which are branded 'Ouigo'.

In contrast to TGV France services, the Ouigo services:

(i) are 2nd class only,
(ii) have no catering facilities available
(iii) have no Wi-Fi etc,
(iv) don't permit bikes on board,
(v) require pre-booking for pushchairs/strollers,
(vi) have a less generous luggage allowance
(vii) have a different boarding procedure
(viii) have tickets that that can be booked up to 6 months ahead.

Previously most Ouigo services had used alternative stations away from the city centres, some still do so, but new Ouigo routes now offer a like-for-like comparison with TGV France services.

Particularly because many Ouigo services now depart from stations in central Paris.

4. TER train services are the regional trains in France, they can vary between local stopping trains in cities or rural areas - and faster services, which cross multiple regions.

The four key things worth knowing about TER services are:

(1) Seats can't be reserved.

(2) Tickets aren't discounted, so you will pay the same price if you book last minute at the station - so if you'll be making a journey by TER trains there's no need to book online.

(3) No on-board catering services will be provided.

(4) A wide variety of trains are used for TER services, you could be travelling on a brand new train, or a train that still conveys its sense of 1970s style.

5. Somewhat confusingly there are two distinct types of non-high speed express train services, which are both branded 'Intercités'.

(1) Longer distance trains which are the top-tier services on long distance routes that have no, or very limited, TGV services.

We have used the Intercités branding on ShowMeTheJourney for these train services - because they have specific ticketing terms and conditions, including the fact that seat reservations are compulsory.

(2) The shorter distance express train services, particularly between Paris and destinations to the north and east of the capital.
ShowMeTheJourney has classified these services as 'IC France' - due to the differences in ticketing terms with the other Intercités trains.

6. Reservations are compulsory for all journeys by TGV France services, irrespective of whether the journey is on a high speed line - AND on those long-distance Intercités trains.

The reservation will automatically be included when booking tickets for journeys by these trains online, but rail pass users, will need to arrange and pay for these reservations prior to boarding.

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

8. Each individual train service has its own Train number and this 4-digit number will be printed on your ticket/reservation - usually under the departure date and time.
To find your train you may need to match this train number (and not your destination), to the information displayed on departure screens at stations.

9. Despite France's reputation for fine-dining, the catering on French trains isn't exemplary.
No standard SNCF express trains have restaurant cars and regular 'Premiere/1st class' tickets do not give access to complimentary food/drink.

An at seat service can be rare, we've only seen a trolley of drinks/snacks appear on one Intercités service - and the on-board bistros can be a tad disappointing.
So taking food/drink on board with you is recommended for long journeys.


More info is available on our French trains GUIDE - recommended if you are new to travelling in, or to/from France by train.

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Using the major French Train Stations:

Most of the main stations in French cities are very evocative of how they were originally constructed back in the 19th century.

So they can be beautiful locations in which to wait for and board a train, but they weren't built to accommodate 21st century travel requirements.

As a result the access to and from the trains at some non-terminal stations can be comparatively awkward, because at this type of station, a passage beneath the tracks can be the only means of accessing many of the voies (platforms/tracks) which the trains depart from and arrive at.

And these passage ways are often not equipped with escalators or lifts (elevators) and if they are provided at all, their use is restricted to travellers who require mobility assistance.

Meaning that steps can be the only means of transferring to and from the trains, at some or most of the platforms/tracks at many stations including Bordeaux St Jean; Dijon-Ville; Nantes and Toulouse Matabiau.

More info, including how to find your way to your train, is available on our GUIDE to using French stations.




Nine general things that are particularly good to know when using any major station in France:

1. 'Voie' = the platform/track.

2. The voie (platform/track) that an express train will depart from is divided into zones, a repére = a zone.

3.  Letters and not numbers are used for each repére (zone), but at some major stations the voies (platforms/tracks) also have letters in place of numbers.

4. If you be will taking an Intercités or TGV service, for easy boarding when you are on the voie (platform/track) that your train will be leaving from, you can use the info screens to check which specific repére (zone) each 'voiture' (coach) will occupy.

This repére (zone) information is only usually available when you are on the voie (platform/track).

5. The number or letter of the specific voie (platform/track) that a train will be departing from will not usually be confirmed until 20 minutes before the departure time
It may only be confirmed only 5 minutes in advance.

As a result the concourses at major stations can become crowded.

6. Because the voie (platform/track) is only confirmed so soon before departure, few major stations have departure sheets/posters.

If, for example, you want to check the return timings of a TER train, a good option is to pick up a pocket timetable for the route you will be taking, from a ticket office or 'Accueil' information desk.

7. However, not all 'Accueil' information desk staff will speak English.

8. All tickets* must be stamped at on the small yellow machines prior to boarding a train.
Normally these can be found at the entrance to a voie/track/platform.
*Tickets = tickets printed out by ticket machines or issued at ticket counters.

9. French stations have staffed luggage offices, you need to process your bags and then having done so, you take them to a locker.
Therefore pay attention to the opening times when you drop off your luggage, you can only return and retrieve it at designated hours.

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French Train Tickets - The 12 things that are particularly good to know:

1. If you will be travelling by local or TER trains, tickets will cost the same price if you buy them last minute at the station.

2. If you buy a ticket(s) at the station it will be train service specific.
Meaning that if you buy a ticket that is valid for a journey by TER train services, you cannot then use on Intercités or TGV trains.

3. Limited numbers of the most heavily discounted tickets are available on most routes taken by TGV France and Intercités services – but NOT by TER services.

How tickets can be booked on Oui.SNCF has recently been simplified, find out more HERE.

4. Tickets for journeys by Intercités and TGV France trains are GENERALLY placed on sale 3 months (90 days) ahead of the travel date.

However, this booking window can be extended between late March and early June, during SNCF's summer promotion - and between early November and mid-December if SNCF has a winter promotion.

As the limited numbers of discounted tickets at the cheaper prices, inevitably sell out faster, the earlier you can book, the more likely it is that you will save money.

(ShowMeTheJourney's guide to what to look out for when booking tickets on the PC (desktop) version of Oui.SNCF is available HERE)

5. In contrast tickets for Ouigo services are typically available more than 6 months ahead.

If you look up journeys MORE than 3 months ahead on Oui.SNCF, on routes shared by TGV France/InOui and Ouigo services, you will usually only see the Ouigo departures listed - so in these circumstances, don't assume that travelling by a Ouigo service will be your only journey option.

6. Ticket prices can be dependent on how popular a specific departure is likely to be, so different Intercites and TGV trains leaving the same day can be (much) cheaper than others.

7. If you can book ahead, it's possible that tickets for the TGV trains and Intercités MAY be cheaper than taking the TER trains.
So you can have the option of getting to your destination faster AND save money.

TER train tickets can cost more than you might expect.

8Children aged under 4 travel for free (but you need to travel with them on your lap)

Children aged 4-11 pay half fare on all trains EXCEPT for Ouigo services, on which they travel at a flat rate of €5.

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

9. Reservations are compulsory for all journeys by TGV train, irrespective of whether the journey is on a high speed line, AND on some (but not all) Intercités trains.
The reservation will automatically be included, when booking tickets for journeys by these trains online.

10. If you are booking 2nd class tickets for TGV France services you can choose the part of the train you would prefer to travel in.

However when booking 1st class tickets, you can also select specific seats from a seating plan.

11. Reservations are also mandatory on virtually all express trains to and from France including:

Eurostar, DB-SNCF, Lyria, RENFE/SNCF, Thalys, TGV France/Italy and the TGV trains between France and Belgium.

The reservation will automatically be included, when booking tickets for journeys by these trains online.

12. On your ticket ‘voiture = the coach/carriage number, ‘Place Assise’ = the seat number.

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