Train travel is a way of life in Europe and offers an easy, efficient, and economical way to travel between cities and major towns. For visitors to Europe, there’s a real romance about traveling by train. We love the idea of relaxing on the journey, perhaps a glass of wine in hand, savoring the scenery as we pass through the countryside. Most of the travelers on our European Experiences trips spend some time in other parts of Europe before and/or after meeting us for our week together and most do travel by train. Our travelers usually enjoy their train trip (especially on the high speed trains), but often find the process of planning and booking train travel difficult and frustrating.
Our fellow Slow Travel Tour leader Matt Daub of Arts Sojourn has written several great posts about train travel in Italy on this blog. The system is somewhat different in France, so we wanted to also provide some helpful resources about train travel in France. In this first post we’ll help you understand the French train system, introduce a great resource for buying tickets, and review the booking process. Hopefully we can help make the process easier to understand so you can make your arrangements and look forward to an enjoyable ride on the train.
France’s state-owned railway company is SNCF (Société nationale des chemins de fer français). There’s about 20,000 miles of railway track and 14,000 daily trains in France, and much of the country—though not all—can be reached by regular rail service. There are several types of train service:
- TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) – These high-speed trains cover long-distance routes, usually linking major towns and cities. TGV trains may travel as fast as 200 mph. With the introduction of the TGV, it’s now possible to travel from the center of Paris to Avignon (430 miles) in just two hours and forty minutes. These are sleek, air conditioned, and very comfortable trains. Reservations—including a seat assignment—are required and discount fares are often available for advance purchase. Reservations for these trains usually open 92 days in advance.
- iDTGV – This is a special brand of TGV trains that runs a few times a day on some major routes, intended to compete with the budget airlines. Bookings for iDTGV trains open earlier (sometimes six months in advance), and the trains may even be coupled with regular TGV trains. If you look at schedules more than 92 days in advance, these will be the only trains you will see.
- Corail or InterCité– These national trains (not high speed) provide long distance service to areas without a TGV line. You can expect comfortable trains with air conditioned cars… just a slower trip with potentially more stops. Reservations and a seat assignment are normally required.
- TER (Transport Exprès Régional) – These trains offer local service within 22 regions of France. Fares on these trains are fixed. You can buy your tickets at the station, as there are no seat reservations and also rarely the option for an e-ticket. The quality of the train cars varies, but these are typically short journeys.
- RER (Réseau Express Régional)– This system supports the Paris metropolitan area, encompassing 257 stations in the city and suburbs. For example, RER trains run from Charles de Gaulle airport to several stations in the center of Paris. You can purchase tickets for these trains at ticket windows at the stations. (Magnetic strip credit cards—without chip-and-pin—normally do not work at self-service machines in France.)
Resources for Booking French Trains
The process of checking schedules and purchasing tickets for the French train system used to be very challenging for most English-speaking travelers. You had to either utilize the French train system website www.sncf.com (which did not offer an English-language option) or book through Rail Europe www.raileurope.com, a North American distributor of European train products which charges a premium for tickets booked through its site. Many English-speaking travelers ended up paying a fee to book through a travel agent because the process was so complicated. Since 2012 there has been a new option that we highly recommend: Capitaine Train (www.capitainetrain.com). This is a very easy-to-use online source for checking schedules and prices and for purchasing tickets for French trains. Capitaine Train also now sells tickets for trains in Germany (Deutsche Bahn), as well as tickets for the Eurostar train between Paris and London. There are no hidden costs and no booking fees.
On the Capitaine Train website you can select an English-language option, check schedules and prices, pay using your home-country credit card (without having to telephone your credit card company in advance), and often print your tickets easily at home. The system is very intuitive, and there are excellent “Help” resources if you have a question. All discounts available on the SNCF website are available on Capitaine Train. (These discounts are not available on Rail Europe.) You do have to register on the site to check any train schedules and also list details for at least one passenger, but I can promise you that they will not deluge you with future emails. This website is very much focused on the user and very easy to use!
In the rest of this article we’ll refer to Capitaine Train as we discuss the process of booking train tickets in France. Other than buying tickets at the station on the day of travel, we think this is unquestionably the best way to access the French train system and buy your tickets.
Schedule and Booking Availability
French train schedules are normally posted 92 days in advance, though iDTGV trains will be available as much as six months in advance. Capitaine Train shows a variety of options for your journey and clearly indicates the departure and arrival times, the duration of the trip, and the costs for first and second class. If you click on a specific schedule and class of service, you’ll see on the right if you’ll need to change trains during that itinerary. If you want to check schedules further in advance, plug in “dummy” dates (using the same day of the week you’ll travel) to see what schedules will probably be available. Just remember that schedules may change due to various reasons including seasonal changes and maintenance work; prices may also be quite different. European train schedules are always given based on a 24 hour clock. (So, for example, 2:00 pm is shown as 14:00.) Many cities (like Paris) have multiple stations, and it’s important to be sensitive to this. If you choose the generic city name, the Capitaine Train system will check all options and then specify the train stations involved in the detail of each option.
Many travelers to France arrive at Charles de Gaulle airport. There’s a TGV station right at the airport, so there’s no need to go into Paris if you’re headed directly to another destination in France. The name of the station is “Aéroport-Paris-Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle CDG.” On the Capitaine Train system, just start typing “CDG” and the full airport name will appear as an option on the right.
Fares and Discounts
We recommend purchasing tickets as close to 90 days as possible, which enables you to access the deepest discounts, usually for off-peak or weekend travel. It’s possible to get discount fares from Paris to Avignon for prices as low as 20 euro. (If you book later or travel at peak times, you may pay over 100 euro.) The deepest discount fares (called “Prem”) do not allow any refund or transfer. Other discount fares (“Loisir”) have options for exchange or refund.
In the example above, I’m booking a ticket for Charley on a train from the CDG Airport to Lyon in December. I elected to see trains beginning at 8:00 am and you can see the schedule and the range of fares. I’m booking two months out, so there are some deep discounts available (38 euro at 08:33) on some trains. For the train at 13:58 (not shown here), the fares jump to 80 euro for 2nd class and 100 euro for 1st. I probably would have had even lower fares available if I had booked the ticket a month ago at the earliest possible date. If you elect a Prem non-refundable fare, it’s critical to make your booking correctly. If you make a mistake when booking your ticket, you’ve lost your money and will have to buy another ticket. (I can attest to this first hand!) So be sure to double or triple-check your details before clicking “purchase.”
First or Second Class?
On TGV trains and many other longer-distance trains you’ll be offered a choice of a first or second class seats. We think second class seats and coaches are just fine… it’s not the same as the difference between first class and coach on an airline. For example, you’ll have plenty of leg room. But first class train seats are a bit bigger and more plush and you’ll have a little more room and privacy. We’ve also found that first class coaches tend to be quieter… fewer people and families. If the additional cost of a first class seat is minimal (10-15 euro), we’re willing to pay the additional cost for first class. But otherwise we’re very happy in second class and we’d rather save our money for some other splurge on our trip. For our trip to Lyon in December, we’ll go ahead and splurge on first class since it’s just 7 euro more at the time we want to travel. But I need to book this ticket as soon as possible, as these fares may not be available long.
On the iDTGV trains, in both first and second class, you can also choose “iDzap” or “iDzen” cars to choose a lively or quiet atmosphere. (Families with young children should select “iDzap.”)
You can add other passengers to your booking and will always need to include their birthdate. The name and birthdate of each passenger is stored in the Capitaine Train system and printed on any e-tickets. The conductor may ask to see your passport on the train to verify that the person traveling is the same person ticketed.
TGV trains and most intercity trains require a reservation and seat assignment at the time of booking. If you’re traveling with a group, we recommend booking all the tickets at the same time to ensure you have seats together. Many TGV trains are “duplex” (double-decker) trains, which offer an option of sitting on an upper or lower deck. There is a better view from the higher level, but the steps to the top are somewhat steep, narrow, and usually curved, so it can be challenging to get yourself and your bags upstairs. Unless we’re traveling with little luggage, we’re normally very happy to sit on the lower level, and we think the view is usually just fine.
Depending on the class of service, carriage configuration and the number of people you’re booking, you will be offered a variety of seating choices: upstairs, downstairs, window, aisle, side-by-side, face-to-face, solo, or 4-seater. In face-to-face or 4-seater seats, you’ll face each other across a table. The system will then assign you to a particular carriage and seat(s), hopefully of the type you requested. On Capitaine Train you can also request a seat next to a particular seat (you’ll need to know your friend’s carriage and seat number), but there is no guarantee the neighboring seat is available. You cannot change your seat once you’ve made your booking. (But of course you can always move to an open seat on the train if it’s not already reserved.)
Paying for Your Tickets
On Capitaine Train your tickets are pre-booked when you place them in your cart, and you will have a defined amount of time to confirm and pay for your booking. If your pre-booking expiration is some time out, they will send a reminder email message.
(In this example, since it involved a Prem discount fare, I didn’t get much time to decide.) You’ll be able to pay with Visa, Mastercard or American Express and also by Pay Pal. We have not had any problem with our American-issued Visa card being accepted. (When we used to purchase tickets on www.sncf.com, we had to call our credit card company in advance to authorize a foreign transaction.) Capitaine Train will then send you a confirmation email and instructions for printing your e-ticket. There may be a delay of several hours to receive your confirmation to allow for manual credit card verification.
If an e-ticket is not an option, then elect to pick up your ticket at the ticket window of the station. You’ll need to present the same credit card you used to pay for the tickets online, so be sure to take it with you. If you have a chip-and-pin credit card, you should be able to print your ticket at the automated ticket machines; otherwise you’ll need to go to the window.
You can print your e-tickets at home on regular letter-sized paper. Your Capitaine Train confirmation will provide instructions. If you lose the email, you can always log back into your Capitaine Train account to open and print your ticket.
CapitaineTrain has a very good Help section where you can find most answers to your questions about French train travel and using their website. Another great resource– which covers train travel throughout Europe and now worldwide– is The Man in Seat 61. This website started as a British train-traveler’s hobby, but is now much more elaborate and his full-time activity. Click here for his information on train travel in France. And if you’re planning to travel in Italy, be sure to see Matt Daub’s articles Mastering Train Travel in Italy on the Slow Travel Tours blog.
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In our next post we’ll talk about French train stations, what to do when you arrive at the station, what to expect on a French train, and managing your luggage when traveling by train. My booking for a trip in December wasn’t imaginary. We’re headed to France for most of the month of December and will be traveling from CDG Airport to Lyon and then later from Lyon to Avignon by train. We’ll take some photos on our trip to share in our next post.
See our next post: Train Travel in France: At the Station & On the Train
Kathy Wood and her husband Charley lead European Experiences, week-long “slow tours” in some of the most beautiful areas of Europe, including The Luberon Experience in Provence, France. National Geographic Traveler magazine named The Luberon Experience one of their “Tours of a Lifetime” for 2012, the top 50 tours in the world.
Kathy and Charley offer Experience weeks in the Luberon, the Chianti region of Tuscany, Alsace, the Dordogne, and the Cotswolds. In 2017 they’re offering a new European Christmas Experience trip, and in 2018 they’re launching The Cornwall Experience in southwest England. See their 2017 and 2018 schedule here.
Kathy and Charley have been traveling in Europe for over 25 years and love sharing their special places in Europe with other travelers. They’ve hosted 85+ Experience groups since they launched in 2006. They now live part-time in their beloved village of Bonnieux in the Luberon. Read more about Kathy and Charley here.
Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.