France has one of the most extensive rail networks in the world, and as rule, French trains are convenient, comfortable, and punctual. Traveling by train is a great way to see France because you don’t have to do anything but lean back and enjoy the scenery. And it’s quicker and easier than flying.
You can usually get where you’re going in a matter of hours. And you can make most of your arrangements before you leave home.
If you do a little trip planning in advance, the experience should be painless. Learn a little basic French and familiarize yourself with the signs that you’ll see at the station.
For short trips, reservations aren’t necessary, but you’ll need to make them for long-distance French trains in advance. Most trains can be reserved online or by phone, and you’ll pay a small surcharge for the convenience. You can book through Rail Europe, which has an easy-to-use, English-language site.
Fares bought on the day of travel are more expensive, so if you buy tickets in advance you’ll save money too. You can usually make reservations 90 days before departure.
If you can’t reserve specific seats on your train, get to the station early, so you can get a good one. Validate your ticket in one of the yellow machines on the platform, or quai, as it’s called in France. If you don’t do it, you could be fined by the conductor.
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Even if you’re only taking a few train trips, you should still look into a France Rail Pass. Sometimes a pass will be less expensive than several point-to-point fares, especially if there are two of you traveling together. A variety of passes are available including fares for those under 26 and over 60, and some include a couple of days of car rental.
Bear in mind that reservations are required for TGV and other trains and there’s a charge to make them. So factor that into your calculation when you compare the cost of a Rail Pass.
You’ve probably heard about France’s high-speed train, the Train a Grande Vitesse or TGV. In the past several years, SNCF has expanded their TGV service and today, you can reach most parts of France quickly via TGV. For instance, the journey from Paris to the South of France takes just three hours.
Two types of service are usually available — Premiere or first class and Deuxieme or second class. First class is more comfortable, offers more amenities, and is usually about twice as much as second. On TGVs, first class seats have a fold-down desk big enough for a laptop and a power source. But you’ll need an adaptor to use it because it is the French two-prong kind.
There are several seating configurations. For couples, Club Duo will put you facing each other over a table. Duo will put you side by side. Many of the new TGVs are duplex, or double decker. You’ll get the best views if you sit on the upper deck.
You can stow your luggage above your seat or at the front or back of the car. On some trains, you can rent DVD players, and there’s usually a café car for drinks and light meals. You may want to find out what’s available on your train before you board, so you can take along something to eat if there’s no buffet. In some stations, you can buy madeleines in vending machines on the platform.
Although they’re not as fast as the TGV, Teoz trains travel at 125 miles an hour and serve many places in France. If you prefer a night train, the Lunea trains offer Couchettes for sleeping.
If you want to go to London, the Eurostar goes from Gare du Nord in Paris to St. Pancras Station in London in 2 hours and 15 minutes. Ticket prices vary widely, starting around $115 and topping out around $900.