Welcome to the guide on how to save money, time and confusion when travelling in France by train.
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.
This page on the Oui.SNCF ticketing website, has a summary of the latest rail travel info for journeys within and to/from France in connection to the pandemic.
Of particular note is that a 'health pass' is now required prior to boarding TGV, Ouigo and Intercités* and on international express services, except for the Eurostar.
Random spot-checks will be carried out to ensure all travellers have a pass, hence SNCF, the national rail operator's advice to arrive at stations in time to allow for the possibility of these checks to be carried out at stations pre-boarding.
Presumably the intention is for trains to depart on time, with passengers who have not arrived in time for checking being left behind.
*=Only the Intercités services with compulsory reservation.
And this page on the SNCF website has further details of the current rail travel measures.
Health passes are not required for travel by TER trains, or on the commuter (RER and Transillien) services in the Paris region
The overwhelming majority of services have resumed, but in order to keep track of what precise departures are still operating SNCF is suggesting that travellers should download the SNCF Assistant app.
The main change introduced by SNCF is that all types of tickets can be refunded or exchanged free of charge for any booked journey by TGV InOui, Intercités and Ouigo trains up to three days before the travel date.
Limited International trains:
Services are now available on the majority of the international express train routes to and from France, but a reduced timetable is currently available on these routes:
According to the ticketing availability, the service level on the London <> Paris route is now operating approximately 80% of its usual timetable for the foreseeable future; though tickets remain unavailable for journeys to and from Ashford or Ebbsfleet.
(2) High speed trains between France and Spain:
Only 1 x train per day is available for booking on the Paris <> Barcelona route, but a second daily service will be operating between June 20th and September 11th , but the Lyon <> Barcelona service Marseille <> Madrid service are both now available.
Permanently suspended international services.:
(1) The daytime Thello services on the Marseille/Nice <> Milano route,
(2) The night train from Paris to Venice/Venezia via Milano
(3) The Hendaye <> Lisboa/Lisbon night train
French train timetables are often 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 comparatively usual in France.
Though what's becoming more common is that the same departure and arrival times are used on each day, but the train services can be travelling to and from different final destinations on different days of the week.
Meaning that the shorter the distance you will be travelling, the more likely it is that you will able to take trains leaving at regular intervals.
On TGV InOui 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.
The longer distance 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.
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 InOui = standard (superior) TGV services, which use the high speed lines for all or most of their journeys.
(2) Ouigo - More basic lower cost TGV services, which provide an alternative to the TGV InOui services on the high speed lines.
(3) Intercités = Express train services which don't use the high speed lines.
Cities which are only served by Intercités trains include Clermont-Ferrand and Limoges.
(4) TER services = The regional train services in France, but this encompasses a broad swathe of services including;
(5) Transilien services = the longer distance 'commuter' trains to/from Paris.
(The RER trains which travel across central Paris are co-operated between SNCF and RATP, which also operates the Paris Metro).
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.
The modernised trains used for many '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.
Few other train services have Wi-Fi, it's not available on the Ougio or Intercités services.
There are four* different types of regular TGV train, which travel on the TGV InOui 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.
The Ouigo Services:
However, on most the high-speed routes, travellers now have a choice between travelling on standard TGV InOui service, OR on low-cost, more basic TGV services, which are branded 'Ouigo'.
In contrast to TGV InOui services, the Ouigo services:
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 InOui services.
Particularly because many Ouigo services now depart from stations in central Paris.
Away from the LGVs (high speed lines):
TGV InOui trains can travel long distances away from the high speed lines.
But on these non-high speed routes, travelling by InOui 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 the InOui trains don't travel at high speed are:
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 (so are included when booking tickets).
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:
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.
The most stunning journeys taken by long-distance trains are:
Other beautiful journeys by local and regional trains include:
Toulouse <> La Tour de Carol
Marseille <> Sausset-Les-Pins (the Cote Bleu route)
Vallorcine > Chamonix - St Gervais
Perpignan <> La Tour De Carol (not SNCF)
Nice <> Cuneo
Nice <> Digne (not SNCF)
Nice <> Ventimglia
Gap <> Briancon
Perpignan <> Cerbere
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); if they are provided at all, their use is restricted to travellers who require mobility assistance.
Meaning that staircasess 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 the guide to using French train stations.
Eight 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.
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.
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.
On your ticket ‘voiture = the coach/carriage number, ‘Place Assise’ = the seat number.
Also 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 valid.
The earlier you can book journeys by Intercités and TGV InOui 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, but not by TER services.
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.
Tickets for journeys by Intercités and TGV InOui trains are generally placed on sale 4 months (120 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.
In contrast tickets for Ouigo services are typically available more than 6 months ahead.
If you look up journeys MORE than 4 months ahead on SNCF Connect, on routes shared by TGV 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.
Introducing SNCF Connect:
SNCF Connect is the new website for French rail tickets, hence ShowMeTheJourney's guide to what to look of when making a booking.
Though some less obvious key features when booking on SNCF Connect, which are also different to the norm when booking European train tickets, are:
Aside from booking in advance for journeys by Intercités and TGV InOui trains, other money saving tips are:
And if Ouigo trains are an alternative to the TGV InOui trains when making a high speed journey, you'll save money by taking a Ouigo.
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 (some TER routes to/from Paris are now an exception).
However, when 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 InOui trains.
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.
Reservations are compulsory for all journeys by TGV InOui trains, 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; this also the cause when booking tickets for Ouigo journeys
If you are booking 2nd class tickets for TGV InOui 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; the more expensive of the two types of Ouigo tickets also enables the selection of specific seats.
Reservations are also mandatory on virtually all express trains to and from France including:
On Eurostar, DB-SNCF, Lyria, RENFE/SNCF, Thalys, TGV France/Italy services and the TGV trains between France and Belgium, the reservation will automatically be included when booking tickets for journeys by these trains.
Children aged under 4 travel for free.
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.
These guides all contain info relevant to French train travel, so dive in and discover more about how to explore France by train.
This is one of more than 150 train guides available on ShowMeTheJourney, which will make it easier to take the train journeys you want or need to make. As always, all images were captured on trips taken by ShowMeTheJourney.