Public Transport : Trains

If driving is out of the question or you if just fancy a break, then taking the train is a great way to travel around France. The country's vast railway network is quick, efficient and just about covers every major town and city. There's also plenty of services that head off into neighbouring countries if you fancy a change of scenery.

This guide has been designed to tell you everything you need to know about using the train in France. We'll tell you about the different types of services and ticket options, as well as some general info to make your trip as painless as possible.


Types of train service

Currently, all domestic rail services are operated by the state-owned operator SNCF. This will change in future as parts of the rail sector is opened up to competitive tendering as governed by new EU rules, the first services moving to new operators from 2025.

Many services are operated using double-deck duplex trains, allowing you to sit back and enjoy the views. TGV Inoui, Intercités and Ouigo services all require mandatory seat reservations, meaning a guaranteed seat and no overcrowded trains.

This is SNCF's flagship high-speed train service, providing fast services between 230 towns and cities across France. TGV services have revolutionised rail travel in France since their inauguration in 1981; capable of speeds of up to 320 km/h, these trains are remarkably quiet and smooth, providing a very relaxing ride.

Seat reservations are compulsory on TGV services, which is great as it means everybody is guaranteed a seat and trains aren't overcrowded. If you book online, you can even pick your seat. Trains are also air conditioned, with wifi and sockets, and there's a cafe bar provided in case you need refreshments.

These are longer distance services that operate on routes not served by TGV services. Running on the classic railway network, these routes are not as fast, although they still get up to speeds of 200 km/h and facilities are broadly similar to their high speed counterparts.

This network is much smaller, as over time some routes have been replaced by faster TGV lines, whilst less porfitable services have transferred to regional TER Krono services.

A number of night routes run to additional destinations, including some served by TGV services.

TER: Trains Express Régionaux
TER services are local regional trains that are provided in partnership with regional authorities. Using a vast array of trains in all shapes and sizes, these services are grouped into four types of service:
 - Transilien, offering services from Paris out to the wider suburbs and neighbouring towns.
 - Citi, frequent services in the major metropolitan areas;
 - Krono, providing fast services between regional centres, often former Intercités services.
 - Proxi, connecting rural communities and serving local branch lines

International services
If you're travelling to or from further afield, there are plenty of international services running under different brands:
  Eurostar - London to Paris; London to Brussels and Amsterdam; Paris to Brussels and Amsterdam
  TGV Lyria - Paris to Zurich, Geneva, Basel and Lausanne; seasonal service between Marseille and Geneva

TGV Inoui and Trenitalia offer services to Italy, whilst TGV Inoui and Renfe provide services to Spain. SNCF also offer a variety of services to Germany in partnership with Deutsche Bahn, as both TGV and classic rail services.

Low cost rail options
If you're travelling on a budget, SNCF offers a low cost service called Ouigo, which is similar to that provided by the likes of Ryanair and Easyjet. Trains are standard class throughout, although there are no refreshment facilities so you'll need to bring your own food and drink with you (although hot food is not permitted).

However, the thing to bear in mind is that you'll pay extra for things like large items of luggage or single seats. Once everything is added up, it may cost just as much (or more) than a ticket on a regular TGV or Intercités service.

PDF maps are available showing the main TGV and Intercités rail routes, or if you prefer, the entire French rail network!


Buying tickets

You can book tickets for travel on all SNCF services at the SNCF Connect website. Other websites are available, however they may charge booking fees unlike SNCF.

On TGV INOUI, Intercités and Ouigo services, you can buy tickets as early as three months before travel. The cheapest tickets are called Prems, but are often booked up very quickly. They are not refundable or cannot be exchanged, so you need to make sure you can travel on the service you select.

If a Prem is no longer available, look out for Premieres (first class tickets) and Secondes (standard class). You can still get some really great deals, but prices will typically increase as more seats are booked. An interesting upshot of this is that that Premieres can be cheaper than Secondes!

Fares are more expensive during peak and holiday periods. The good thing is that these tickets are flexible, so if your plans change then you can rebook onto another journey, as long as you do so before the scheduled departure time.

Fares on TER services are the same whenever you book.

Child fares are available for children aged 4 to 11. Infants travel free, although you can purchase a seat for them at a reduced rate (Forfait Bambin) if you would rather they didn't sit on your knee.

If buying online, you have the option of printing off your ticket or using the SNCF app. Another option is to collect it from a self-service machine at the station, however this requires verification using the same card you paid with.

If you're travelling on a Ouigo service, then you must print off your ticket or save it to your phone - Ouigo is only available to book online.

Seat reservations
Seat reservations are mandatory on all TGV INOUI, Intercités and Ouigo services. When booking, you will be allocated a seat which will be printed onto your ticket. The great thing about this is that you'll be guaranteed a seat, and services won't be overcrowded.

 If you're travelling using a rail pass such as Interrail, you will need to book a seat reservation (a small fee is charged).


Paris stations

Much of the long distance railway network centres on Paris, a legacy of how the railways were originally built in the 19th Century.

It is possible to make through journeys on some routes, such as Lille to Marseille via Lyon, as some north-south TGV services are able to make use of a dedicated line that bypasses Paris to the east of the city.

However, many journeys will still require a cross-city transfer via the Métro or RER from one of the main central termini to another. If this is the case, make sure you allow enough time to make your transfer. It is possible to change routes away from Paris (in particular Lille), however services may be less frequent than those that run to or from Paris.

The list below shows the major cities that are served by each of the seven main stations (via the quickest route, some cities are served by slower trains from other stations):

Gare d'Austerlitz Limoges, Orléans
Gare de Bercy Clermont Ferrand
Gare de l'Est Metz, Mulhouse, Nancy, Reims, Strasbourg
Gare de Lyon Annecy,  Avignon, Besançon, Dijon, Grenoble, Lyon, Marseille, Montpellier, Nice, Perpignan, St Etienne, Toulon
Gare Montparnasse Angers, Bordeaux, Brest, Le Mans, Nantes, Poitiers, Rennes, Tours, Toulouse
Gare du Nord Dunkerque, Lille - also Eurostar and Thalys services
Gare St Lazaire Caen, Cherbourg, Le Havre, Rouen

Ouigo services generally use suburban stations at Marne la Vallée Chessey or Massy.


Other things to consider

Bringing a pet
If you want to bring your pet along, bear in mind that fares are charged on French trains.

Small animals weighing less than 6kg are charged €7.00, and for larger animals it is 50% of the second class fare. Assistance dogs travel free and don't need a ticket.

All animals (except assistance dogs) must be carried in a pet carrier or otherwise wear a muzzle. They must be kept at your feet or, if in a pet carrier, on your knee. Remember to bring all documents with you.

Get there early
Make sure you don't miss your train. We recommend you arrive at the station at least 10 minutes before your train is due to depart. This will ensure you have enough time to walk from the concourse to the platform. Likewise, allow for at least 10 minutes if you are changing trains as again, this will allow enough time to change platforms. Ouigo customers must be at the station at least 30 minutes before departure.

If you're using a larger station, give yourself a bit longer - perhaps 15 to 20 minutes. Some of the Parisian stations are huge, with different sets of platforms for local and long-distance services. If you're catching Eurostar to London, you'll need to allow sufficient time for customs and security checks.

Know your train
Every train has it's own four digit identification number, which will be printed on your ticket or e-ticket, and will also appear on departure boards. This is useful if you need to check you have the right train, particularly if a couple of trains going to the same destination are running close together or in the rare occasion it is running late.

Validate your ticket
If you have a paper ticket, you must validate it by inserting it into the yellow machines that are located around the station. If you don't, then you risk being fined. If you have an e-ticket (either on the SNCF app or if you've printed it at home), then you don't need to do this.

Keep a close eye on your possessions
Don't leave luggage unattended, and avoid leaving valuables in easy-to-reach places. Not only could you cause a security alert, pickpockets love to work in busy places. They will take your belongings without you noticing.

If you do need to leave luggage anywhere, consider using the consigne manuelle (left luggage desk). On the train, we recommend using overhead compartments rather than under your seat.

What's on board
You can find many mod-cons on board selected French trains, including TGV Inoui and Intercités services:

- free wifi
- at seat power points
- on board refreshments
 - quiet zone (selected trains)
- family areas
- baby care facilities

All trains are climate controlled, ideal for those hot summer days or cold winters.

You can also take your bike with you, however charges may apply if it cannot be folded. Bikes cannot be carried on Transillien services during Monday to Friday peak periods.


For more information on travelling by train in France, or anywhere else for that matter, we highly recommend The Man at Seat 61 website which is run by the highly respected railway expert, Mark Smith.