With over 18,500 miles of track (including 1,250 miles of dedicated high-speed track), the French train system offers an easy, efficient, and economical way to travel between cities and major towns. Train travel is often a better alternate to flying or driving, which is why it’s so popular with the French. In our last post, we introduced the French train system and the process for booking tickets online. Now you know how to make your arrangements, in this post we’ll discuss what to do when you arrive at the station and what to expect on board the train. Once you’ve made your first trip on a French train, I promise it will be much easier the next time! We’ve been traveling by train in France for over 20 years and have illustrated this post with photos taken over the last few days, December 5 and 6. We arrived at CDG airport early Friday morning and took the TGV to Lyon, 1 hour 57 minutes. (This would be a 4 hour and 31 minute trip by car, assuming no delays.) After 30 hours in Lyon enjoying the amazing Fête des Lumières, we continued our journey by TGV to Avignon. (1 hour 1 minute on the train vs. 2 hours 19 minutes by car.)
Friday’s train trip was uneventful and very relaxing; after flying overnight, we both slept for a while on the train. Yesterday’s trip wasn’t so easy though. We arrived at the Lyon Part-Dieu station to find our train wasn’t listed on the schedule board! We have no idea what happened… apparently the train was cancelled. While Charley waited with our bags, I joined a long line in the ticket office. Fortunately, there was another train headed south 30 minutes later, and we were rebooked on that train. We had first class tickets for our first train trip and second class tickets for the second trip. I don’t think the classes are distinctly different… maybe plusher seats, a little more room for luggage, and more options for seat configurations in first class. First class cars are also closer to the bar/café car. We’ve always been very happy in second class seats and only book first class if the price difference is very small.
Although most train trips in France will be like our pleasant journey on Friday, sometimes the unexpected can happen. Your train could be cancelled, there might be a strike, or there could be bad weather or some emergency on the route. Stay calm and seek help from station personnel or friendly fellow travelers. If you have access to the internet, you can check the status (in English) on SNCF’s Infolignes website. Be sure to have a phrase book handy at the station if your French language skills are limited; the section on Transportation will help you communicate in French if needed.
Preparing for your Journey
Luggage: You’ll carry your luggage onto the train with you, so it’s very important to bring only what you can manage yourself! When you’re traveling by train, you should always pack light and avoid oversized and heavy suitcases. Keep in mind that you may need to carry your luggage up or down steps at the station and will need to quickly haul your bags up the steep steps of the train and onto a luggage rack. If your seat is on the upper level of the train, you’ll need to get your bags up those narrow steps too. You’ll definitely want a rolling bag since you may have to walk some distance in the station, and backpacks and shoulder bags are helpful so you have at least one hand free. Some trains (like the TGV and InterCite trains) have no luggage restrictions, but other trains may have luggage restrictions. See the Capitaine Train website for useful information about luggage limits.
Food and drink: TGV trains have a café-bar where you can buy food and drink, and other long-distance trains usually have a food cart passing through. But you can also bring your own food and drink and have a picnic lunch at your seat. If you’re departing from a larger station, you’ll find takeaway food like baguette sandwiches for sale. This can be a fun aspect of a train trip, and you can even bring your own wine on board. Don’t forget your corkscrew and plastic cups!
Restrooms: All trains have onboard restroom facilities, but you may want to use the restroom at your departure station. Restrooms at some stations may require a small fee.
At the Station
There are over 3,000 rail stations in France… in cities, towns, suburbs, and villages. Stations in major cities are big and busy with restaurants, shops, waiting rooms, restrooms, and attended ticket offices. The Gares En Mouvement website provides information about facilities at the larger stations including shops, attended hours, restrooms, and left luggage facilities. We’ve used a station in a village in the Dordogne that is just a small platform with no station building. (You buy your ticket on board from the conductor.) That station was actually easy, but in large stations, you may need to access your track by a ramp, elevator, escalator, or steps and you may need to walk a long way to reach your train.
When to Arrive: If you already have a printed ticket, you should arrive at the station at least 30 minutes before your departure. If you need to buy a ticket, you’ll need more time, as there may be a line of people with problems and limited staff to help customers. Arriving early will also give you time to understand the station layout and to buy some provisions for the train. There are automated machines for purchasing and retrieving tickets, but you must have a “chip and pin” credit card to use these machines. (Most American credit cards will not work in these machines, so you’ll need to see a “live” ticket agent.)
Information on your Ticket: Your ticket will provide your train number, the departure station and time, the arrival station and time, your car number (“voiture”) and seat number (“place”). Here’s the top portion of my e-ticket for our trip from CDG Aeroport to Lyon, a first class ticket. (The ticket also specifies the type of seat… one of two side-by-side.) Finding your Train’s Platform: Once you’re inside the station, look for the large schedule board or display monitors for the upcoming Départs (departures). Find your train by the train number, as only the end point of the route and major stops are displayed, and your stop may not be listed. The board or monitor will indicate if your train is on time (“à la heure”) or late (“retard”). “Voies” (platforms or tracks) may be a letter or a number, depending on the station. This information is not provided to passengers until 15-20 minutes before departure, so passengers wait where they can watch the board and see their voie displayed. Once the voie information appears, you’ll need to move quickly. Yesterday the platform for our train to Avignon was posted only 10 minutes before departure. Everyone dashed for the escalators and stairs to the track at the same time and it was quite frantic on the platform as people looked for their train car, complicated by another train loading on the other side of the track. Once again, it is important not to have too much luggage at moments like this.
Validating your Ticket: If you have a ticket from the ticket office or a self-service machine (about the size of an airline boarding pass), you’ll need to locate a yellow “compostage” machine. These machines may be found in the station or at entrances to the platform. You can do this before the platform is posted.
To validate your ticket, just insert the left end of your ticket (with a bar code and SNCF logo). You’ll hear the sound of the machine printing the date and time on the end of your ticket. You can be liable for a fine if your ticket is not stamped, so be sure not to forget this step.
If you have a e-ticket printed off the internet on 8-1/2 x 11 paper (which will include your name and birthdate), your ticket does not need to be validated… in fact, it’s not possible to insert your paper into the machine!
It’s not possible to validate your ticket until the track is posted. If you try to insert your ticket too early, it won’t be accepted.
Locating your Train Car: If you’re traveling on a train that requires seat reservations, your ticket shows the “voiture” (car) and “place” (seat). The car numbers are usually noted on an electronic panel by the door. If you’re boarding a train at its origination point, you’ll walk down the length of the train and will have plenty of time to locate your car.
If you’re boarding at an intermediate stop, trains will stop for a very short time. You’ll need to wait at a specific place on the platform to board your assigned car. In the station or on the platform, look for an electronic display labeled “Composition des trains.” This diagram shows the arrangement of the train’s cars. Underneath the picture of the train and its cars, you’ll see some letters. Find the letter closest to your car number. There are signs with these letters all down the platform. Stand by your letter and you should be in the right place to board your car when the train arrives. (In the photo above at the CDG Aeroport TGV station, you can see the letter “F” on the platform.) If you are short of time and can’t find your car, get on the train at any car. You can then make your way to your car and seat through the train.
On Board the Train
Finding your Seat: You must wait to board the train until all the departing passengers have exited. Sometimes there isn’t much time to board and it can be a bit stressful… especially if you have too much luggage! The doors to the train close two minutes before departure. Once on the train, make your way to your assigned seat. If you’re traveling on a local train that doesn’t require seat reservations, you may choose any vacant/unreserved seat on the train.
Storing your luggage: Luggage storage for larger bags is at the end of each car. Depending on the configuration of the car, sometimes there is a place for larger bags in the middle of the car too, or there may be a space to store a bag between two opposite-facing seats. The overhead storage above your seat is for coats and smaller bags. You do have plenty of space on the train– more than you do on an airplane– so you can also store some small items at your feet. Keep any valuables with you at your seat. When we first traveled by train in Europe, we took a bicycle lock with us to secure our luggage at the end of the compartment. We don’t feel this is necessary on the long-distance trains in France, but you should use your own judgment about this.
Ticket and ID: Have your ticket handy during your journey so you can show it to the train conductor. (We did not see a conductor or show our ticket on either of our trips this weekend.) If you have a ticket printed on your computer which includes your name and birthdate, you’ll likely also be asked to show a photo ID, as these tickets aren’t transferrable.
Approaching your stop: About five minutes before a stop, an announcement will be made over the PA system. Usually these announcements are made in French and English, but they can be difficult to understand. We watch the time ourselves and don’t wait for the announcement to get organized and make our way to the end of the train car. We like to get our luggage together and be one of the first to get off the train. If you are the first to exit, wait until the train comes to a full stop and then push the big button to open the door.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Settle back, relax, sip your glass of wine, and enjoy your train trip through the beautiful French countryside. It’s an important part of your experience in France!
Kathy and Charley Wood 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 top 50 tours in the world in 2012.
Kathy and Charley host Experience weeks in the Luberon, the Chianti region of Tuscany, Puglia, Alsace, the Dordogne, and the Cotswolds. They also offer two longer tours: The European Christmas Experience (12 days) and The Cornwall Experience in southwest England (10 days).
Kathy and Charley have been traveling in Europe for almost 30 years and love sharing their special places in Europe with other travelers. They've hosted 120 Experience groups since they launched in 2006. They have a second home 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.