< Back to the blog

Train Travel in France: A Quick Guide for Beginners


Bonne année !
Je te souhaite plein de bonheur et de réussite pour 2016. :)

Also, here are 2 episodes for you on January traditions in France:
2 Unmissable French January Traditions (Including : Les étrennes)
How to Eat La Galette des Rois

Trains are super useful to travel around France. I received many questions from my viewers about the French railway, and they’re right, it’s confusing.

How can I book my train ticket?
Can I take the TGV to anywhere?
What is really a Thalys anyway?

Well, today I’ll tell you everything you need to know about French trains: best times to take train, the cheapest places to buy a ticket, the french railway network & much more!

Welcome aboard the Comme une Française express!

Le Pass Interrail
Le Transilien
Captain Train

EDIT: I completely forgot to talk about « Composter son billet » !!! Thanks for mentioning this in the comments. 😀
Once you got your train ticket, before getting on the train, « il faut le composter »: punching/validating it in a machine. These machines are usually yellow. It means that you cannot use this ticket again.

Et toi ?

When did you last take a French train ? Which one?
Do you have any advice to share about taking the train in France?
>> I’m sure you do! This would be very useful to the Community!

Bonne journée et à tout de suite dans les commentaires,


Bonus Material: Download the Transcript

Salut c’est Géraldine, bienvenue sur Comme une Française TV, Sound French, even to the French.

All aboard the Comme Une Française express ! Today, we’re going to talk about French railway system ! Choo choo !

1. The French railway network

In France we have an extensive and technically reliable railway system. Only one company manages the trains on the rails : la SNCF, the “National Company for French Railroads." It has a long and complicated history, with political and ideological ramifications that I won’t talk about today. You may hear about “les grèves," the French rail workers’ strikes, that happen from time to time, some might even say “regularly." But in my own experience, it very rarely caused me a problem. Yes, I’m very lucky.

Long distances by TGV

To travel between cities around the country, you’ll get to ride the famous jewel of French technology : I’m talking about the TGV, “Train à Grande Vitesse," “High Speed Trains." They’re fast, they’re slick, and they’re a very practical way of traveling in France. Paris is the TGV network’s center. From there, you can easily reach any big city in France in three or four hours in a relaxing train car.

For TGVs, you HAVE to book. The earlier the better. We’ll see how later in this episode.

We also have special lines to some of our European neighbors : Thalys are trains going North, to Bruxelles and the Netherlands, while Eurostar trains take the tunnel across the Channel to go to London and the UK. These lines mostly use TGV as well.

Intercités, TER and international lines

TGVs don’t make every trip : for small distances between cities or for less-connected destinations in France, you might have to take “un train Intercités," or “un Train Express Régional (TER)” instead. They’re not bad per se, but they’re usually slower and they stop in many stations along your way.

Transilien, and RER !

“Transilien” are trains connecting the suburbs in “Île-de-France," the Parisian area. While a separate company for Parisian public transportation (“la RATP”) is responsible for “le métro," “le Transilien” is managed by the national railway company (la SNCF). However, they’re well connected and complement each other.

“Le Transilien” consists of fourteen main lines ; the most used and famous are the first five, called “RER” and lettered A, B, C, D, and E.

The RER has regularly congestion problems, and isn’t as emblematic as le métro, but it still has its fans. I’ll let this Japanese vidéo give you the illustrated presentation : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HafLUc6rw9E

2. Why use the trains ? What other transportation can I use ?

In France, trains are generally quite a cheap, fast, convenient and reliable mode of transport, relative to their competitors, especially for long-distance trips across the country.
But which other option do you have ? Let’s review the competition.

For the shortest trips, you can… walk, bike, or use public transport. French cities have large sidewalks and, frequently now, cycle lanes, les pistes cyclables. And most cities have a reliable public transport system.

You can also use your car; it can be cheaper and more convenient than a train in a way, but traffic and tiring hours behind the wheel might make you choose the faster and safer railroad.

A booming transport mode now in France is carpooling, “le covoiturage," with its leading website and app “BlaBlaCar." It’s slower and less reliable than the train, but usually cheaper and you get to meet new people. Hitch-hiking is also possible, mostly safe, but an adventure in itself.

And finally, planes ! Planes are obviously king for intercontinental travel, but they’re tied with the train for European trips ; the “Interrail” pass (http://fr.interrail.eu/passes/choose-right-interrail-pass) offers cheap prices on European railway lines ; it’s slower than a plane but very popular among people who want to be able to appreciate the scenery outside the window during their trips. Check it out.

However, for trips inside the country, we usually prefer train to plane, and planes are mostly used for business trips.

3. How to buy your tickets

For suburban trains and TER, the ticket price is fixed and you can buy a ticket at the machines or tellers in any train station, or in most metro stations. There’s usually a ticket to travel in the city itself, and separate and more expensive tickets if you want to travel to a specific station in the suburbs or between two such stations. Many plans are available though, like a global ticket for the day or the month, and you can find more information by asking a teller or online. [http://www.transilien.com]

For long trips using TGVs for example, it’s different. The prices fluctuate according to supply and demand ; it’s really complicated and you usually find that the one train you can take is more expensive than tickets for the same line but on a different day or at a different time, but basically, the earlier you book the cheaper it is.

You can book your railway ticket at any train station, but most people do it online : the SNCF has a website and mobile application where you can easily see and buy your tickets. I prefer to use another website, called CaptainTrain (www.captaintrain.com) , that does the same thing but in a better, simpler way.

Either way, they send you a special code and you use it to print your actual ticket at the train station before you leave, at automatic machines. Or you can print your ticket at home or you can just use their app: easy.

For some trips, you might have the option to try iDTGV ; it’s for online-only tickets : you can print them at home or save the QR code on your phone, so that your mobile device is your ticket. So if they ask you for your “MBA," don’t worry, you don’t need a business diploma ; they mean “m - billet," or “mobile ticket," that particular QR code.

4. Last tips

Trains have two classes ; if you travel “en première classe” or “en première," you’ll pay a bit more but in a TGV you’ll have more room for your legs, and most of the time access to an electrical outlet. With “la seconde classe” or “en seconde," outlets are only available between coaches near luggage, or in the bathrooms. And don’t expect WIFi anywhere, by the way. France is not there yet.

Food and drinks are usually available in trains for longer trips, but it’s really expensive and there’s a line of people waiting. A good idea is to bring your own bottle of water if you can. Or pack your own sandwich and cookies before leaving !

One last thing, more personal, about trains. My own parents first met on a train many years ago, so you can thank the railway system—if there were no trains, you wouldn’t be watching this video !

Et toi ? When did you last take a French train ? Which one? Do you have any advice to share about taking the train in France? This would be very useful to the Community.

Share your experience (in French if you dare!) in the comments below. We can all learn from your story. The comment section is the best place to start discussions and ask questions! --- If you liked this video, share it with your friends on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest! Help me spread the word about Comme une Française. Merci !

Love France? Dream of sounding French, even to the French? Learn how with me, Geraldine, on Comme une Française.com and subscribe to my email updates for exclusive tips on Real Life in France every Tuesday PLUS an exclusive video lesson: “Introduce yourself in French.” It's FREE!

Merci for watching Comme une Française TV, sound French, even to the French.

Bonus Material: Download the Transcript

Check out my other French Episodes

Bonjour !

Some French slang sounds disgusting–especially when you try to translate it literally.

They’re colourful (but mo...

Bonjour !

Darkness falls across rural France; creatures crawl in search of camembert.

What demon lurks in the night?
What s...

Bonjour !

Despite the hard work of “l’Académie française”, French language is still incomplete.

And it’s hurting our abil...