Show Notes for Episode 428: All Aboard the French Train System

Category: France How To

Planning stages – figuring out where you can go on a train

How and when to buy tickets

For long distance and all TGV lines, tickets are sold in advance and can get very expensive close to departure.  Tickets are released at different points depending on a bunch of factors.  There is a website to look up the release dates here: . This webpage has a link to sign up for an email alert when your route opens on a given day. The SNCF-connect app will also offer to send you an alert if you are searching too far in advance.

There are three apps that are commonly used in France to buy tickets: SNCF-Connect, Ouigo, and Trainline. Ouigo only sells Ouigo tickets, which are cheaper but don’t have the amenities of regular trains. SNCF-Connect is the official app of SNCF, the large parent company for the rail lines in France, and allows you to buy Ouigo tickets but also all the other brands.

  • Inoui is the French brand that’s a step up from Ouigo.
  • Lyria is jointly owned by SNCF and the Swiss federal railways. Runs trains between Paris and Geneva, Lausanne, Basil, and Zurich.
  • Eurostar is jointly owned by SNCF, the Belgian railway, and two investment funds. Eurostar trains run from Brussels to London via Paris.
  • Thalys has the same ownership as Eurostar. Runs trains in France, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands
  • ICE – Intercity Express, flagship train of the German state train system Deutsche Bahn, but you can book tickets on ICE via the SNCF-connect website for routes that include France (i.e. Paris – Stuttgart)
  • Trenitalia – owned by Italian train system, but tickets can be booked on the SNCF-connect website for routes that include France
  • Intercités – Fully owned by SNCF. These are the old trains from before TGV, and tickets can be booked in advance, just like with Ouigo or Inoui.  They include night trains (lignes de nuit).  For example, you can leave Paris at about 9pm and arrive in Nice at about 9am via the Intercités train. There are three levels of service: seat, couchette (bed in a shared car, ladies-only cars available), or private car.

The Trainline app allows you to buy all the tickets that are available through the SNCF-connect app, plus tickets in other countries. Trainline was started in France but purchased by a British company, so they have English-language customer service.  Their search engine tends to put the options in a different order, so I usually look at both Trainline and SNCF-connect.  In general, Trainline’s search seems to present more logical routes first, so if you really only want to download one, I think Trainline has the slight edge.

For the TER, there’s not much pressure to buy tickets in advance.  You can sometimes get deals in advance, but last-minute tickets are not very expensive. Paper tickets purchased at the station used to be standard and needed to be validated (composter) at one of the yellow machines.  But now the majority of TER tickets are sold as etickets and presented as a QR code using an app. The yellow composting machines are being phased out, and while you can still buy paper tickets at the station, they usually have a QR code printed on them. If you end up with a TER ticket that doesn’t have a QR code, look for a yellow machine to validate it.

For the Ile-de-France region around Paris, there’s a totally different system in place. Regional trains within this region are not called TER, and cannot be booked with the SNCF connect app.  Instead, you can either buy a single paper ticket, called an origin-destination ticket, or a daily, weekly, or monthly pass on the Bonjour RATP app.  Right now this capability to put a pass on a phone is only available for Android, but they are rolling out iPhone capability this year.

The paper origin-destination tickets can be purchased from machines at stations, or from a person if the counter is open. Their price is capped at 5 euros each way if you are staying in the IDF region. These tickets are tied to a route, but not a specific train leaving at a specific time.

A week’s pass runs from Monday to Sunday and costs 30 euros for all zones in the IDF region.

You can’t put a weekly pass on the Navigo Easy Card.  If you are a tourist and don’t have an Android phone, your only option right now is the Navigo Découverte card, which requires that you bring a small photo and costs 5 euros.

There are some trains that start in the IDF region and travel out of it, and are called TER. These CAN be booked with the SNCF Connect app. There is sometimes overlap for cities close to the border, so don’t be confused if you see that you can get some places by both SNCF and RATP.

Now that I have tickets, how do I take the train?

Your train will leave from a train station, or a gare in French.  Not to be confused with “gare routiere” which is a bus station. There are 7 major gares in Paris proper, each one serving a different region of France, with some overlaps.

Map of regions served by each major gare in Paris:

All of these seven major stations in Paris are terminal stations, which means that the layout of the long-distance tracks from above looks something like a giant flattened fork, where the trains come in along the handle of the fork, and then they are sent into different tines of the fork so that multiple trains can load and unload at one time.  There’s a big hall running along the pointy end of the fork so that people can find the correct train.

These big train stations also have metro, RER, and Transilien lines, but they will be in a different part of the station, often a different level. Sometimes there’s a long walk between the metro part and the “Grandes Lignes” or grand lines for long-distance trains. They will always have signs so that if you are coming in from the metro you just follow the signs to the part of the station you need. If you enter from the outside of the station, the Grandes Lignes should be close to the entrance.

If you’re in a train station that isn’t a terminal station, but instead a place where trains can stop to let people off and on and then keep going in the same direction, the trains will still be parked parallel to each other, but because there isn’t an end to get on and off, you will have to go underground into a tunnel that runs under the parallel tracks.

Either way, once you’ve found the grand lines part of the station, you need to find your specific train.  Each train is usually not assigned a track at the station until 15 to 20 minutes before departure, so if you’re earlier than that, you will just have to wait.

The platform for your train (Voie in French) will be announced on the blue boards.  It will also show up in the app. In order to know which platform to look for, you need to find your train number, and then find that on the blue sign.  There will also be the name of the city that’s the final destination for the train, which is not necessarily where you are going. Once the Voie, or platform is announced, you just make your way to that platform.  There are numbers up above.

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Category: France How To