Transcript for Episode 428: All Aboard the French Train System

Table of Contents for this Episode

Category: France How To

[00:00:00] Annie Sargent:

[00:00:16] Annie Sargent: This is Join Us in France, episode 428, quatre cent vingt-huit.

[00:00:22] Annie Sargent: Bonjour. I’m Annie Sargent and Join Us in France is the podcast where we talk about France. Everyday life in France, great places to visit in France, French culture, history, gastronomy and news related to travel to France.


[00:00:36] Today on the podcast

[00:00:36] Annie Sargent: Today, I bring you a conversation with Jennifer Gruenke and Patricia Perry about taking the train in France. This is going to be a big one because the idea is to explain how French trains work to someone who’s never taken these trains, perhaps someone who’s never taken a train anywhere.

[00:00:57] Jennifer is a professor and I should really call her Dr. Gruenke, and she put her professional hat on and prepared a great summary of all the things you need to know to be really comfortable taking the train in France.

[00:01:12] Annie Sargent: The guest notes she submitted are outstanding as well, and that’s what we use to guide us through our conversation.

[00:01:20] Annie Sargent: Both Jennifer and Patricia live in Paris, where they don’t have a car because you don’t really need a car when you live in Paris, and they take lots of trips all throughout France, so they have lots of personal experience and you can not beat personal experience, can you?

[00:01:36] Annie Sargent: I think you’re going to love this episode and listen to it again before your next visit to France, and I’m going to recommend this episode as well as required listening for any of my itinerary customers who include trains in their plan, I give them a write up, but I think listening to this whole thing is going to be much, much more effective.

[00:01:59] Podcast supporters

[00:01:59] Annie Sargent: This podcast is supported by donors and listeners who buy my tours and services, including my Itinerary Consult Service and my GPS self-guided tours of Paris on the VoiceMap app. And you can browse all of that at my boutique

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[00:02:27] This episode runs a little long, so I will forego the magazine part of the podcast. But I do want to thank several new patrons this week Lola Falana, Tamara Block, Nicole Segura. Rene Hettinger and Cori.

[00:02:44] Annie Sargent: Thank you so much for becoming patrons and making this podcast possible.

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[00:03:04] VoiceMap Tour of Paris Eiffel Tower

[00:03:04] Annie Sargent: My VoiceMap tour of Paris of the Eiffel Tower is selling really well, and I’m going to release it in French as well. I was still hesitating, I’ve decided to pull the trigger and start the translation. Hopefully, it will be out in the next couple of weeks.

[00:03:19] Annie Sargent: And if you’d like to get my VoiceMap tours with the podcast listener discount or perhaps hire me to be your itinerary consultant, go to, it’s all explained there.

[00:03:33] France Bootcamp

[00:03:33] Annie Sargent: Last week I told you that there were a few openings for the France Bootcamp of 2023, and it’s now all sold out. Thank you all for your interest. I think this event is going to be a lot of fun. We have a lot of great things planned.

[00:03:48] Next week on the podcast

[00:03:48] Annie Sargent: Next week on the podcast, an episode with Elyse Rivin and me about all the wonderful things coming up in Paris in 2023, so you can mark your calendars and enjoy Paris to the fullest.

[00:04:01] Annie Sargent: And now here’s your Guide to Taking the Train in France.


[00:04:15] Newbies’ Guide to Taking the Train in France

[00:04:15] Annie or Patricia: Bonjour Patricia and Jennifer.

[00:04:19] Jennifer Gruenke: Bonjour Annie.

[00:04:22] Jennifer Gruenke: So, the three of us are sitting around a table and we are going to give you kind of a, the rundown of taking trains in France for newbies, or dummies or train virgins. I don’t know how to put this, but it’s for people who’ve never taken the train in France. And we’re going to tell you everything that you need to know that will make your life very easy.

[00:04:46] Jennifer Gruenke: Now, the reality is I don’t take trains all that much in France because I have a car and I like my car. But both Jennifer and Patricia take the train a lot, and they have noticed a lot of things that will make your life simple.

[00:05:00] Jennifer Gruenke: So, mostly this episode is going to be Jennifer and with Patricia jumping in withextra helpful stuff. So take it away Jennifer!

[00:05:08] Overview

[00:05:08] Jennifer Gruenke: Okay. I have this divided into sort of three steps. First, planning where you want to go on the train, next how to buy tickets, and then after that how to actually get on the train after you’ve purchased your tickets.

[00:05:25] Annie or Patricia: Sounds great.

[00:05:26] Chronotrains

[00:05:26] Jennifer Gruenke: Okay, so there’s a website I really like called Chronotrains. And this website allows you to click on a city in Europe. So you can click on Paris, for example, and it will give you a map of where you can go on the train in 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 hours.

[00:05:45] Annie or Patricia: That’s really nifty. And is it just France or anywhere in Europe?

[00:05:49] Jennifer Gruenke: Anywhere in Europe.

[00:05:49] Annie or Patricia: Very cool.

[00:05:50] I also have provided some network maps for your show notes.

[00:05:57] Annie or Patricia: Right, the show notes for this are really going to be important. So this episode is going to be transcribed, but there’s also going to be show notes and guest notes. And in this case, you really want to look at the guest notes because Jennifer’s a professor and she wrote this up like a professor. It’s fantastic. Take a look.

[00:06:13] I have a link to the official French network of trains, and it’s a very detailed PDF that you can zoom in, but it also has the fast TGV lines in blue and the regular lines in purple. And that’s important because the fast lines go much, much faster. And so that shows you where you can get quickly.

[00:06:35] Traveling from a French city to another via Paris

[00:06:35] Annie or Patricia: Right. And really it makes sense to go certain place on the train and other places it makes more sense to fly or to drive. Because if you want to go between Bordeaux and Lyon, there’s no way to do it across the country. You have to go through, so you do Bordeaux, Toulouse, Montpellier, Avignon, Lyon. It’s a big thing. Or you would do it going to Paris first and then, you know, Baron Haussmann made everything go through Paris. So if you want to go from French city to another French city, that does not include Paris, it’s sometimes complicated. In those cases take a look at flights or plan on driving. And unfortunately, the biggest company that does flights between French cities is Volotea and they are not great, in my opinion.

[00:07:26] Annie or Patricia: They’re fine, but it’s not a fun experience flying Volotea or anything like that.

[00:07:30] Regional trains TER

[00:07:30] Jennifer Gruenke: So each region of France has a separate regional train system called TER with two exceptions, Corsica, which is an island so it kind of does its own thing, and Île-de-France, which is the area surrounding Paris, and they have their own separate systems. I’m going to talk about Île-de-France regional trains. But you won’t find a TER webpage for Île-de-France.

[00:07:59] Jennifer Gruenke: But if you’re going to any other region, so you’re going to Normandy or you’re going to Brittany, I love Brittany, there is going to be a TER webpage, and I have a link here where you’ll see a map of all the regions and you can click on the region you’re interested in and it will take you to the webpage for the TER for that region. And you can click on “se déplacer” and then there’ll be a link under that, that will tell you where the map is, and you can see a map of the regional trains in that area.

[00:08:31] Annie or Patricia: That’s really helpful, just to see where you can go, what’s available. That’s great.

[00:08:35] The RER system in Paris

[00:08:35] Jennifer Gruenke: Yes, I was not able to find an official map that I like of the train system in the Île-de-France region, but there’s one on Wikipedia that a very helpful user has made, and it’s a map of the Île-de-France region with the border kind of outlined in red. And then it has all of the trains, the regional trains, that consist of the RER lines. And if you’ve been to Paris, you’re probably familiar with the RER system. They’re lettered A through E and they go through Paris so that you can use these RER lines to move within Paris and also in the region, so you can move outside of Paris and go pretty far away.

[00:09:19] Jennifer Gruenke: There are also Transilien trains that are lettered H J K L N P R N U. And each of these terminates in one of these large train stations in Paris, like Gare du Nord or Saint-Lazare, one of these Gare de l’Est. And their first stop is going to be outside of Paris. And so these are just commuter trains that gets you into the region or back into Paris.

[00:09:43] Yes, that’s what I have on the RER system in Paris for now. Awesome.

[00:09:48] Rome2Rio

[00:09:48] Jennifer Gruenke: Another website that might be of interest is called Rome2Rio, and it’s the number two, Rome2Rio. This website helps you plan not just for trains, but for other modes of transportation.

[00:10:02] Jennifer Gruenke: So for example, if you want to take the train, and then take a ferry or a bus after that, it will show you your options for connections. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good.

[00:10:13] This is a good one to try if you have no idea what’s available between city A and city B. It’ll give you a very good overview of what’s available. And it might also include taxis. At one point they might say, oh, well, to get to the very end, you need a taxi, that’s a possibility.

[00:10:29] Annie or Patricia: And there’s another site, originally German, but it’s an all flavors called and it will provide you with information on trains, planes, buses, if you know where you’re starting and where you’re ending.

[00:10:44] How and when to buy tickets

[00:10:44] Jennifer Gruenke: Okay, next we have how and when to buy tickets. If you’re doing a long distance trip or any of the high speed TGV lines, you want to buy your tickets in advance. If you buy them last minute, they can get really expensive. Not always, but you don’t want to take a chance of having to pay 300 Euros to just go a couple of hours on the train.

[00:11:04] The release dates are complicated and I suspect that SNCF doesn’t always know when they’re going to release them.

[00:11:12] Annie or Patricia: It’s actually on purpose because this morning I was noticing an email I got, it said Uh,or something like that. So they want you to hunt around and wait and you know, they want to keep you on your toes about when the tickets are going to be released for the towns you want at the prices you want. So it’s a bit of a hunting game for the best tickets. But there are some general rules and you can sign up for email updates, but I’m sure Jennifer will tell us about that.

[00:11:44] Jennifer Gruenke: Yes. The next thing I had was a link to the Ouverture-des-ventes webpage for SNCF. And this is a little chart that tells you when particular lines are supposed to be open, and then it’ll have a link there as you just said, that you can sign up for an alert because they want to bug you about buying that ticket in the future.

[00:12:05] Annie or Patricia: Yes, they do.

[00:12:06] Apps useful to buy tickets

[00:12:06] The three apps that I most commonly use to buy tickets are “SNCF-Connect”, “Ouigo” and “Trainline”.

[00:12:15] Jennifer Gruenke: Now the Ouigo app only sells the Ouigo tickets, and these are the cheap tickets and it’s budget travel. They’re going to charge you extra if you want a place to charge your phone or if you want to have luggage and the seats are smaller. There isn’t usually a place to, you know, a car to buy food, but it’s cheaper and sometimes it’s the best option, but not always. The Ouigo app is, I think, optional if you’re just an occasional traveler here in France, because you can buy those tickets using other things. The one I use the most often is the SNCF-Connect app, and this is the main official app.

[00:12:56] Jennifer Gruenke: SNCF is the big parent company that runs most of these trains in France. And you can buy Ouigo tickets there, you can buy “Inoui” tickets there, and “Inoui” is the train system that’s a step up from Ouigo.

[00:13:11] Annie or Patricia: Right. So that’s called, actually, sorry to correct you, that’s “inoui”.

[00:13:17] Jennifer Gruenke: Go ahead.

[00:13:17] Annie or Patricia: Like as an unbelievable, c’est inouï, it’s unbelievable. That’s where it comes from. So it’s ‘in’ and then ‘oui’ and those are the best tickets you can buy, especially if you go first class.

[00:13:31] Annie or Patricia: And they have an application for your phone, you can get it in French or English, and there’s a website also.

[00:13:38] Annie or Patricia: So those are, you can do them in French or in English or whatever language.

[00:13:41] Jennifer Gruenke: So when you’re looking at SNCF Connect app, you will see Ouigo, you’ll see Inoui. You also will see many brands that are partners with neighboring countries. So Lyria is Swiss and French, Eurostar is British and French, Thalys is also British and French, ICE and I think it’s just German, and then there’s TrenItalia, which is Italian, and Intercités which is like the old French lines.

[00:14:17] Annie or Patricia: Intercités, that’s the old trains, before we had TGV we had Intercités. These are the trains that go at regular speed, but they go a lot of places. So they can be interesting if you’re not in too big a hurry, you know, it’s a good option. And to add to your list is Renfe, the Spanish, they also send trains into France at this time.

[00:14:40] I think there’s going to be more and more kind of Inter-European trains. And so you buy a ticket from SNCF, but you’re riding on a Spanish train or an Italian train, or an English train or a German train. It is just like the code sharing that they do with the airlines. It’s not that different.

[00:14:58] Sleeper trains

[00:14:58] Jennifer Gruenke: Yes. So the main thing is don’t worry if you see all these different brand names. The only one that’s going to be the super cheap is Ouigo. All these others are nicer trains. I wanted to add also that the Intercités recently introduced sleeper trains where you can do an overnight trip and you can book a bed to sleep in.

[00:15:20] Annie or Patricia: Yeah. That’s not something I would risk doing because I did it when I was a young person, and it was okay, but it was a little, you know, because you don’t know who’s going to be in the train car. You’re not going to be the only person sleeping in that train car. So imagine sharing a room with people you don’t know.

[00:15:40] That’s all you need to think about.

[00:15:41] Jennifer Gruenke: I think if I were going to do this, I would get a couple of friends and book an entire car. You can pay a small extra fee and get the entire compartment to yourself.

[00:15:51] Annie or Patricia: That’s an entirely different thing. Yes, it’s much better.

[00:15:56] Jennifer Gruenke: So the Trainline app allows you to buy anything that you can get through the SNCF-Connect app plus tickets for trains in different countries. If you are planning a major journey across Europe, where you’re going to be taking trains in Italy and Spain and France, this is the one you would want cause it allows you to do all of that in one place.

[00:16:19] It was started in France, but it has been purchased by a British company, so they have more English speaking help for you.

[00:16:28] You’re talking about Trainline here, right?

[00:16:30] Annie or Patricia: Yeah.

[00:16:31] Eurail app

[00:16:31] Annie or Patricia: Oh, and what’s the name of that? Eurail thing. Let’s mention that quickly. I think people have this idea that Eurail is fantastic and I don’t think it is for most people unless you plan on hopping on a train every other day and you really want to see a lot of Europe fast, don’t do Eurail because there are a lot of restrictions on what days you can travel. They’re really expensive. You’re better off just buying the tickets that you need ahead of time.

[00:16:57] Jennifer Gruenke: That was my conclusion. I think the one point where Eurail tickets might be of interest is if you want to travel first class. There’s more availability. Because the problem people run into when they do these Eurail passes and the way it works is you pay a flat fee and it’s all you can travel for four days in one month, which sounds awesome.

[00:17:17] Jennifer Gruenke: However, there are just a very limited number of tickets for each train that are set aside for those people, and you have to really book way in advance to get them. There are more people who are looking for the cheap tickets because people think that this is a great deal if you’re on a budget and really, the cheap tickets go fast.

[00:17:37] Jennifer Gruenke: But there is more availability for the first class tickets because people don’t think of it.

[00:17:42] Jennifer Gruenke: Also with the rail passes, you are obliged to pay additional fee for reserving your seat. So every time you reserve a seat, it’s going to be a fee from 10 to maybe 20 euros. So it’s better to just go ahead and buy the specific tickets usually that you want. If you book in advance, they’re not that expensive.

[00:18:00] Jennifer Gruenke: Okay, so that was if we’re going to purchase tickets in advance for the TGV or Intercités long distance routes. So what if you’re going to just take the TER, this regional train?

[00:18:15] Deals if you book in advance

[00:18:15] Jennifer Gruenke: It’s much easier, you don’t necessarily have to buy tickets in advance. You can if you want to most of the time, but most people just buy tickets right before they travel. You can sometimes get deals if you book in advance. So if you know for sure that you’re going to be traveling on a certain day, go ahead and book the tickets in advance and look for something called PREMs.

[00:18:38] Jennifer Gruenke: These are the discount tickets in advance. But just buying tickets at the last minute is usually not super expensive.

[00:18:45] Annie or Patricia: Yeah. Typically when I take a TER, I don’t even, you know, I get to the train station and I buy the ticket. But, it’s true that on holiday weekends, Christmas, times like that you’re better off booking in advance. But if it’s a regular weekday and you just need to go between, I don’t know, Toulouse and Cahors, you can just show up at the train station and buy the ticket right there and then, it’s very simple.

[00:19:11] Buy tickets at the machine or use the SNCF-Connect app

[00:19:11] Jennifer Gruenke: So you can buy that paper ticket at a machine at the station, or you can use your SNCF-Connect app. And I usually use the app just because I find it easy. You can just put your credit card in, you don’t have to wait in line for the ticket machine, and they will give you a QR code on the app. Sometimes if you buy a paper ticket, you need to validate it whenever you get on the train.

[00:19:34] Jennifer Gruenke: They’re phasing this out, but there’s still a few places where this is in use. So if you end up with a paper ticket that does not have a QR code on it, you want to look for this little yellow box. It looks kind of like one of those things that put hand sanitizer on you. So you just slide your ticket in and it stamps it. And that validates your ticket.

[00:19:57] Jennifer Gruenke: Otherwise, if you have a QR code either on your phone or on a printed form, they’re going to come around and check that sometimes and scan the QR code so you don’t have to do anything before you get on the train.

[00:20:10] Île-de-France region

[00:20:10] Jennifer Gruenke: Now specifically for the Île-de-France region.

[00:20:13] Jennifer Gruenke: Now, this was the most complicated part of this because you can’t buy regional tickets, a single ticket on your phone. I don’t know why, it would be easier if you could, but you can’t. So if you want to buy a single ticket you have to buy a paper ticket at the station. There is a 5 Euro cap, so you’re not going to pay more than 5 Euros for a single trip within the Île-de-France region, which is nice.

[00:20:41] Annie or Patricia: So like, if you’re going to where for example?

[00:20:43] Jennifer Gruenke: Provins.

[00:20:45] 428 Annie and Patricia (clean): Oh yeah. Provins. Yes. Yes.

[00:20:46] Jennifer Gruenke: That’s pretty far away. It’s two hours on the train, but it’s only 5 Euros.

[00:20:50] Jennifer Gruenke: Or Versaille from Paris. Fontaineblau. So there’s lots of little towns that are surrounding Paris that make very nice day trips that you can get to for five euros each way. You can buy a ticket at the station. There are machines where you can click to English or you can find a counter and talk to somebody who may or may not speak English, but they can sell you a ticket.

[00:21:19] Annie or Patricia: And these are usually the machines that say “Grandes Lignes” right?

[00:21:24] Jennifer Gruenke: No, if you’re just doing local trains, so I’m talking about the RER and the Transilien trains.

[00:21:31] Annie or Patricia: Oh, different. Yes.

[00:21:32] Annie or Patricia: Okay. Yeah.

[00:21:32] Jennifer Gruenke: So this is going to look like a metro ticket. It’s a little paper ticket.

[00:21:35] Annie or Patricia: Yeah. And a lot of these towns are within, what the metro system is to divide up to five zones. So they may be in zone five and you may have a Navigo or metro type pass that allows you togo to zone five. You’ve already paid a fee for it and you don’t have to do anything. So like Disneyland too, right?

[00:21:55] Annie or Patricia: That’s the end of the line. Yeah.

[00:21:57] Week’s pass

[00:21:57] That was the next thing on my list, so I’m glad you brought that up. You can buy a week’s pass and it runs from Monday to Sunday, not just whenever you start it. That costs 30 euros for all five zones in the Île-de-France region. You can use it on the metro in Paris, or you can use it for these trains that go out of Paris into the countryside.

[00:22:21] Annie or Patricia: What about to go to the airport, to and from the airport?

[00:22:25] Jennifer Gruenke: It can get you to Charles de Gaulle, but you cannot take the Orlybus.

[00:22:31] Annie or Patricia: Ah, okay. So it’s Charles de Gaulle, but not with the bus.

[00:22:34] Jennifer Gruenke: Not the Orlybus.

[00:22:36] Annie or Patricia: Okay. See, it’s all complicated.

[00:22:37] Jennifer Gruenke: Once you know the rules, it’s not too bad. It’s anything except for the Orlybus.

[00:22:42] Annie or Patricia: You can also buy what’s called a Mobilis, and that’s a one day pass. And you can get it, define it by, I want just zone one and two, or I want through zone five, and I think it’s maybe like eight and a half euros right now.

[00:22:55] Bonjour RATP app

[00:22:55] Jennifer Gruenke: So the part where it gets complicated is where do you put this pass? If you have an Android phone, you can put it on your phone, and that’s the easiest thing, and I do this all the time. I literally walk up and scan my phone. So my phone is acting as the card, you know, you put your credit card information into the app.

[00:23:14] The app is the Bonjour RATP app. And if you have an iPhone, they’re in the process of testing the system and they’re hoping to roll out the Bonjour RATP app for iPhone and let you put the pass on it. The app exists, but you can’t actually put the pass on it.

[00:23:36] Annie or Patricia: And it doesn’t work on all Android phones. It works on all Samsungs, but many other Android brands, like my phone, it doesn’t work on.

[00:23:45] Jennifer Gruenke: Have you tried it recently? Because as of October it’s supposed to work on all recent, okay, the way to know is just to download the Bonjour RATP app and see if it gives you the option to put the ticket on your phone.

[00:23:57] Annie or Patricia: Yeah, I have an iPhone and I couldn’t get, I couldn’t put tickets on my phone at this time, but the app works, but just it won’t hold tickets for me.

[00:24:06] Jennifer Gruenke: They are hoping by the summer of 2023 you’ll be able to put the tickets on your Apple Watch.

[00:24:13] Annie or Patricia: Wow.

[00:24:13] Jennifer Gruenke: That will be nice if it happens, but you can’t now.

[00:24:17] Navigo Découverte card

[00:24:17] Jennifer Gruenke: So if you have an iPhone rather than a Samsung phone and you would like to do the pass and you don’t live in Paris or the region surrounding Paris, your only option is to buy the Navigo Découverte card, the discovery card. For this, you have to bring a small photo of yourself. And I’ve done this. Printed it at Walgreens at home and a tiny, you know, little picture brought them, and you have to stick your picture on there. They want it to be dedicated to you. It cost 5 Euros, but you can keep it for 10 years.

[00:24:50] Jennifer Gruenke: So I still have it from many years ago and it still works and you can load a week’s pass using your iPhone, you put your iPhone to the back of the card and you can load it that way.

[00:25:03] Annie or Patricia: And for the photos, there are photo stations at every metro station that you can pay maybe about 8 Euros, and you get the official size photos. So if you don’t have a photo, you can have one made.

[00:25:14] Annie or Patricia: But you know what? I have a Navigo pass like that with my photo and everything, but I never use it anymore.

[00:25:19] Annie or Patricia: I just use the Navigo Easy Tickets. If you’re just within Central Paris, that’s all you need. If you’re going to go to Disneyland, just buy the extra ticket for that. But, and that’s 5 Euros. Or Versailles. There’s going to be a flat fee, 5 Euros to get to Versailles and then you don’t have to figure out all these zones and blah, blah, you know, makes your head explode.

[00:25:44] Annie or Patricia: Mine, anyway.

[00:25:45] Jennifer Gruenke: That’s a good point. You can’t put a weekly pass on the Navigo Easy Card and a lot of tourists like this Easy Card, but it only works within Paris. I think that the week’s pass makes a lot of sense if you’re going to be doing multiple day trips or traveling a lot within Paris. I think the point where it starts to make sense is where you’re doing three or four trips per day within Paris. If you’re doing a day trip every day, it’s cheaper to buy the pass, but if you’re only going to do one day trip and you know, your hotel is near the museums, you want to see, just buy individual tickets and you’re fine.

[00:26:19] The way I recommend people do visit Paris is that they go to one area in the morning, so no matter where you’re staying, you will probably need the metro first thing in the morning just to get there. But then you’re going to walk around that area all day and then you need another ticket to get back to your hotel at night.

[00:26:36] Annie or Patricia: So that means you’ve used two metro tickets, and in that case, you really don’t need a whole pass. You know? This is for people who are zooming around and doing it wrong, anyway.

[00:26:46] Annie or Patricia: So don’t do that.

[00:26:49] Getting the right train to go to Giverny

[00:26:49] Jennifer Gruenke: So the last thing I have on here is that there actually are some TER trains that leave from Paris and travel out of the Île-de-France region. The point where you might want to take one of these is, say if you’re going to go Giverny to see Monet’s, I guess his workshop is there. And it is technically just outside the border of the Île-de-France region into Normandy.

[00:27:13] Annie or Patricia: Right. It’s in Normandy.

[00:27:15] Jennifer Gruenke: So you can technically buy a ticket on I think the J train, but you don’t want to do that cause it’s going to stop a bunch of times. You want to get the TER that is more or less direct and you can buy that ticket because it’s TER on the SNCF-Connect app.

[00:27:35] Annie or Patricia: Yeah. As you can see, figuring out where to buy the ticket is sometimes half of the battle.

[00:27:40] Jennifer Gruenke: Well, if it’s TER you can use the SNCF Connect, if you’re within Île-de-France, you can use the Bonjour RATP app to buy a pass or you can buy an individual paper ticket. So that’s the summary.

[00:27:55] Jennifer Gruenke: Okay. Any more comments about buying tickets?

[00:27:59] Annie or Patricia: No, I think that’s, you know, I mean, generally speaking, go talk to a human. You know, like we have humans in this country and they know things. And I really rely on them. Just this morning my sister was asking me all these questions, you know, detailed questions about taking the train, and I just said, walk to the train station and talk to a person.

[00:28:21] She did, and she now knows everything. If you don’t speak French, perhaps you’re intimidated by that, but a lot of these people have at least basic English. So if you have some basic French and they have some basic English, you’ll figure it out. It’ll be fine.

[00:28:33] How do you take the train?

[00:28:33] Jennifer Gruenke: Okay, so the next section is, now that you’ve managed to get your tickets, how do you take the train? And this is the thing that I think really intimidates people who have never done it before. And really I just learned kind of the hard way by watching what everybody else is doing, and after a while you realize there’s a system and the system is easy once you understand it. So this is the part that I’m most excited about explaining to people.

[00:28:58] Jennifer Gruenke: So your train is going to leave from a train station called a gare. You got to get that French R in there. Not to be confused with a gare routière, which is a bus station. There are seven major gare or train stations in Paris proper.

[00:29:16] Each one serves a different region of France with a little bit of overlap. So you can’t just say, I want a train that goes to X part of France, specifically from this station, because the stations usually are dedicated to a particular part of France.

[00:29:34] Annie or Patricia: Yes. For example, you cannot go to Toulouse by leaving from Gare de Nord. Because Toulouse is in the west of France, Southwest of France, and so you have to go to the train station that sends trains to the southwest of France, okay?

[00:29:48] Jennifer Gruenke: Which is Montparnasse.

[00:29:49] Annie or Patricia: Which is Montparnasse, and so this is a basic error that some people make. They’re like, but why can’t I find tickets?

[00:29:57] Annie or Patricia: So when you choose your tickets, you can say any train station in Paris, you can say I want to go to Paris and the app will figure out which train station you need to go to. You don’t need to know all of this stuff.

[00:30:09] Annie or Patricia: I provided a link to a map I really like that has a map of France color coded for all of these different stations. So it shows you, if you want to go to this particular town in France or this particular city, which train station will get you there. All of these seven major stations in Paris are terminal stations, which means that they’re the end of the line.

[00:30:34] Annie or Patricia: And so the trains all kind of pull up parallel to each other and stop there. I think of it as like a giant flattened fork, and the tines are all the tracks where the trains pull up. So you imagine the trains pulling up along the handle of the fork and then branching out to these parallel tracks, and you’re in a long haul at the pointy end of your fork.

[00:30:58] Annie or Patricia: And so your goal is to find your train. Which one is your tine?

[00:31:03] Annie or Patricia: Wow. That’s really good. That’s really good.

[00:31:07] I’m falling back on my teaching skills here. It’s been a few years.

[00:31:11] Annie or Patricia: You’re awesome.

[00:31:12] Jennifer Gruenke: Oh, thank you.

[00:31:13] Jennifer Gruenke: And if you don’t, once you understand that’s how it’s laid out, it’s a lot less stressful. Because it can feel just like mass chaos and you can’t always see those tracks because there’s a lot of like little shops in the way.

[00:31:26] But there will be signs overhead with numbers, and the French word is voie,

[00:31:33] So voix means voice, but that’s with an X and voie for the trains is V O I E.

[00:31:40] Jennifer Gruenke: Yes. And so you’ll have voie and then a number, and that’s platform number, whatever. And in order to know which platform to go, you need to look at the app where you have your ticket, and it’ll say, this is train number such and such. And for a long distance train, it’s going to be a four digit number and for a short TER it’s usually six digit number.

[00:32:03] Annie or Patricia: Right. So your train number is very important. You have to pay attention to that more than the destination, because in big train stations like Montparnasse, so this is the one I take sometimes, you can have three trains listed going to Toulouse from Montparnasse. And don’t go by time either, because sometimes they leave within two, three minutes of one another.

[00:32:26] Annie or Patricia: So what you need to do is find your train number and match your train number to what you see on the overhead display. That’s how it works in France.

[00:32:36] Jennifer Gruenke: And thedepartures are on the blue sign, arrivals are on the green signs, so if you’re leaving you want to look for the blue signs and it’s like a big TV screen up above and it will have your train number, and then the train number will flip back and forth and it’ll say whether or not it’s on time. “À l’heure” means on time, or it’ll say 15 minutes “En retard”, if it’s 15 minutes late. And then to the right it’ll have the final destination for that train, which might not be where you are going. Then to the right of that, it’ll have your voie or platform number in a little square. If you are too early, then it’ll just be blank and you have to wait, and you’ll see crowds of people staring at the blue signs waiting for their number to appear.

[00:33:27] Annie or Patricia: Right. And as soon as the number appears, everybody moves. Woo. Have you experienced that? Yeah. And actually you may get the information if you’re using the app on your phone before it’s posted on the big panel. So another reason to use the mobile app and have a data plan. Yeah, that’s what the good students do.

[00:33:49] Annie or Patricia: They have it on their app. Use the apps, they’re good.

[00:33:55] Jennifer Gruenke: So the, yeah, the SNCF app will send you a notification if you have it set to allow notifications on your phone that your train is at platform such and such, and if it’s, you know, if your phone is in English, the app will be in English and it’ll even just say platforms. You don’t have to think of voie.

[00:34:14] This works very much like an airport, really, because at an airport you also have the Departure TVs that show you the departures and you have others that show you the arrivals, right? And you wouldn’t expect them to be mixed. So that’s the same. And also, like at an airport, they usually use the same platform for the same destinations, but not always. They can switch.

[00:34:36] Annie or Patricia: So, for people like me who mostly go to Toulouse, I kind of know where they’re going to be and then I’m like oh not this time. So, just match your train number with your voie.

[00:34:48] Annie or Patricia: One other comment, there’s usually no security getting on the train, so although it can pop up from time to time, so when you’re on the train or always take your ID, your passport and be ready to show it.

[00:35:02] Annie or Patricia: Very good point.

[00:35:04] Jennifer Gruenke: I’ve only been asked for my passport once, and I’ve taken the train quite a lot. But they were deliberately pulling out all of the foreigners to look at their passports.

[00:35:13] Annie or Patricia: Do you know why?

[00:35:14] Jennifer Gruenke: They didn’t tell me. It was just on the app that it’s like, you can’t board, you must go show your passport to somebody.

[00:35:20] Was this a train to go outside of France?

[00:35:24] Jennifer Gruenke: No.

[00:35:25] Annie or Patricia: Huh? That’s bizarre. Okay. No, you never know.

[00:35:28] Jennifer Gruenke: But it was just once. I don’t know. I showed my passport, they would let me go, and it was fine.

[00:35:32] Annie or Patricia: When they were having security issues with terrorists and whatnot, they did put in more airport style security at the train station. So, for example, I was going to Brussels and had to go through a metal scanner, had to show my passport. They looked at your luggage, so it can change. Definitely.

[00:35:48] Jennifer Gruenke: So you’ll look, you know, at the hall up above, they will have the numbers of the platforms. You’ll find your number. And there’ll be a mass of people moving towards that number since they all just saw it change. And then you will need to find your coach or car, and the number will be on your ticket.

[00:36:09] Finding your seat

[00:36:09] Jennifer Gruenke: And there’s like on the train, there’s a little electronic sign so they can change it and it’ll have the destination, the final destination. It’ll have the train number. Make sure that you’re getting on the right train, again. And it’ll have the coach or car number. You’ll get on that coach. And then of course, your seat number will also be on your ticket and you’ll find your seat.

[00:36:32] Annie or Patricia: Right, and you can figure that out. Okay, for example, if you’re taking a train from Paris, that’s the terminus, that’s the end of the line. So you’ll have plenty of time to find your car and be in the right place or whatever.

[00:36:49] Where should you stand on the platform for quick stops?

[00:36:49] Annie or Patricia: If you are taking a train, for example, if you are traveling between Paris and Toulouse and the train will stop at Montauban, okay. If you’re at Montauban and you want to catch the TGV to Paris, then the train is only making a very quick stop and you can’t figure out exactly where on the platform, because the platform is a very long thing. So of course, you could hop on the train in any car and move between the cars. It’s not the easiest thing to do, but you can do it. Every time you open that door between the two cars, this massive noise, and it’s unpleasant, but it can be done. It’s best if you find more or less the right spot along the track, and you do that because there’s going to be like X, Y, Z markers. It’s like a cruise ship, okay? When they pull up, they stop in a particular spot. The train is supposed to stop in a particular spot, and you’re going to see there’s a display that says that car number 16 is going to be by the Y display.

[00:37:55] Annie or Patricia: And so when you show up, if you show up in advance, you can just say, okay, I’m going to be by the Y, so I’m going to stand by the Y, and then your car is going to be right around there, you know, within a few meters. It makes it easy, but I assume that most of you are going to be taking the train from Paris anyway, where this does not matter at all.

[00:38:14] Catching a train from a station that’s not a terminal station

[00:38:14] Jennifer Gruenke: But yeah, that’s a good point. Especially if you’re, I mean, you might have to get the train back to Paris if you’re, you know, going someplace else. And if you’re in a station that’s not a terminal station, but a continuing station, then instead of this fork with the point pointed towards you, you have a bunch of parallel tracks and there’s a tunnel underneath the tracks.

[00:38:39] They don’t want people like walking across the top of the tracks. So there’s a tunnel that goes under, and you have to find this long haul, and it has the numbers of the different platforms that you can go up. And then once you’re there, they’ll have numbers on the platform telling you where your particular car is going to be.

[00:38:58] Jennifer Gruenke: Not always, but sometimes.

[00:38:59] Entering or exiting the train at a continuing station

[00:38:59] Annie or Patricia: Yeah, usually. And if you either enter the train or exit the train where it’s not the terminus, then you have to be ready. That’s the only thing I can say. You know, you need to be ready, you need to have your stuff, travel light as much as you can because it’s pain, you know?

[00:39:13] Have your stuff ready, be more or less at the right marker, or if you are on the train, you want to get off, all of you in your party need to be right at the door as the train pulls into the station. So pay attention to, you can see on the apps, you can see your train progressing, right? If you have data, you can see what station you’re pulling up into.

[00:39:34] Annie or Patricia: They will probably make announcements. Well,they do make announcements and so it’s going to be in French. So whether or not you’ll understand, but you know, keep track of how far your train is and then be ready to exit the train quickly if you’re not ending at the terminus.

[00:39:50] Jennifer Gruenke: Yeah, I enjoy watching my train on Google Maps because there’s of course the little blue dot and you get to see your dot moving across to the countryside. You will probably not get good signal, cell phone signal when you’re way out in the countryside though. So once you get closer to a town, your phone will suddenly get the signal from that town and you’ll show up as a blue dot coming in close to that particular city.

[00:40:15] Annie or Patricia: Patricia, have you exited a train like this at an in between station?

[00:40:20] Annie or Patricia: Yeah. And you got to be ready to get off too. You need to, when you see your station coming up, you need to get your luggage, go to the door and be ready to hop out.

[00:40:29] Annie or Patricia: Yep. And usually you won’t be the only one. There’s going to be other people exiting there too.

[00:40:33] Annie or Patricia: So just be in line and you can do this in an orderly way, and the train should not start moving until everybody’s off because there is a person managing, you know, the watching to see that all the doors are closed and everybody’s off. But somebody on the podcast told me that they jumped off a moving train so it can happen, okay?

[00:40:52] Just one of the note on data and using Google Maps and stuff, the SNCF often advertises they have wifi, don’t count on it.

[00:41:00] Annie or Patricia: I can never get it to work. Don’t do it. Don’t count. Yeah. Do not count on it, it’s horrible. Even in first class, it’s horrible. Way too many people.

[00:41:07] Annie or Patricia: So the first few people who get a signal, I guess, have it, but then everybody else, forget it.

[00:41:14] Don’t count on good data on the train

[00:41:14] Jennifer Gruenke: And when you can get it to work, a lot of times it’s very slow and you know, you can’t, you know, stream music or a movie or something like that because the data is just not good enough, even when it is working.

[00:41:28] Annie or Patricia: Well that’s why Netflix, they make it possible for you to download your movies before. Yeah.

[00:41:33] Jennifer Gruenke: Yes, I do that now. I’m prepared, but the first time I thought that the wifi would be good enough to watch my Netflix while I’m on the train, and it’s definitely not.

[00:41:43] Annie or Patricia: Denied.

[00:41:44] Jennifer Gruenke: Yes, they will cut you off. If you download more than a certain amount of stuff. Anyway, something I should have said before, backing up just a little bit, is if you’re in one of these big stations in Paris and you’re coming in through the Metro or the RER system, you’re going to be coming into a different part of that station.

[00:42:03] Grandes lignes vs Metro lines, etc.

[00:42:03] Jennifer Gruenke: And the magic words you want to look for are grand are big lines, grand lines, and you’ll see signs pointing you to those grand lines. And those are the trains that are going to take you out of Paris. So sometimes you have to walk, you know, a good 10 to 15 minutes within a station to get from the Metro part to the part where the bigger trains are.

[00:42:24] Annie or Patricia: Yeah, and at Montparnasse anyway, they also have the confusion of the Hall 1, Hall 2 that’s like the word the English Hall, but that means that’s the general forky area that she was talking about, because you can have more than one in the same train station. So you know you have to, and that’s where sometimes I get confused.

[00:42:49] Annie or Patricia: I’m like, okay, I can see that… but your train number will tell you, because if you are, if you get to one of the Halls and it doesn’t show your train number, then you’re in the wrong one. And even in Paris, they never have more than 2. But between Hall 1 and Hall 2 in Montparnasse it’s a good 15 minute walk. So, you know, that’s why you should arrive a little bit in advance. It’s wise to do that.

[00:43:12] Food at the train stations

[00:43:12] Annie or Patricia: Also at the train stations, you can generally count on, you can, you’ll be able to pick up a meal or a sandwich. Don’t count on the food, on the train. It’s very basic. You can get a cup of coffee and a mediocre sandwich. So you might want to pick up any food you want to eat and you can eat on the train, or there are restrooms on the train, within those, those halls.

[00:43:30] Annie or Patricia: So give yourself a little extra time to do that. There are restrooms in all the train stations also, but they may not be easy to find. That’s true. That’s a good point. The bathrooms at the train station are usually very small and not, I mean, they have so many people, how would they possibly build enough bathrooms for all these people at, if they all want to pee at once, we’re in trouble.

[00:43:50] Annie or Patricia: So, but there are bathrooms on the train and they’re not very, you know, good. But it’ll do the job

[00:43:57] Jennifer Gruenke: There’s a chain store called Relay, and most even smaller stations will have a Relay where you can buy a sandwich or something. That’s usually going to be better than what you’re going to get on the train.

[00:44:08] Annie or Patricia: Yeah, and they often have a Paul, or they have a croissanterie or something. Some of them, some of the bigger train stations have burger places, have restaurants, Brasserie, whatever. It depends on where you are. And there’s always a vending machine on the platform. You know, in between every two or three cars you have a vending machine.

[00:44:28] Annie or Patricia: I always see French people exiting the train so they can take a smoke and go to the vending machine and they miss their train. They can’t get back in fast enough. So yeah, don’t plan on that.

[00:44:38] Jennifer Gruenke: You mean vending machines for coffee, yes?

[00:44:41] Annie or Patricia: For water, for sodas, for cookies and there are some for coffees as well. But the reason why French people exit the train, is the smokers that exit the train, you know, they get off just to have a smoke and then they can get back on. But if they have a smoke, and also try and get something out of the vending machine, I’ve seen them miss the train.

[00:44:59] Annie or Patricia: You could sit inside and just enjoy the view.

[00:45:03] Large train stations have lockers and Nanny Bags

[00:45:03] Annie or Patricia: One last service I’ll mention, the train stations is they have lockers where if you arrive someplace earlier in the middle of the night, you can store your bags for a fee, usually small, medium, large, so it’s a reasonable service.

[00:45:14] Annie or Patricia: Or if you want to do that within Paris, there’s also private things like Nanny bag and other places like that.

[00:45:21] Annie or Patricia: But of course those are not open all the time because that’s a vendor, that’s like a pastry shop or a shoe shop that has some room in the back office and they can store your luggage for a few hours. But of course, that’s only available during business hours. So but once, you book those in advance and so you can see what’s available at the time when you need it.

[00:45:42] Discount cards for French trains

[00:45:42] Jennifer Gruenke: So the last little section I have here is on the discount cards for the French trains. There are three advantage cards. The youth card is age 12 to 26. The adult is 27 to 59, and senior is 60+. You don’t get to choose, it’s based on your age, but they all cost the same. They’re 49 Euros per year, but sometimes they go on sale, I think half price. And so if you can get them on sale, that’s nice too. The discount that they give you is 30% off, but it’s not all the trains. For example, the Ouigo, the cheap trains, you don’t get the discount. Also, there’s a major limitation where they don’t want business travelers to get this discount.

[00:46:28] Jennifer Gruenke: So the adult card that’s the 27 to 59 will only give you this discount if your trip includes a weekend day or if you’re traveling with children. But to make up for that limitation, they allow you to get the discount for a second adult. So if you’ve got two adults and two children for example, you can get a pretty good discount even with this more limited adult card.

[00:46:54] Annie or Patricia: Yeah, I haven’t used the discount cards, but yes, they do exist. And my sister was telling me a funny thing this morning. So she’s buying tickets to come from Toulouse to Paris and she talked to an actual human and she was saying, because I told her, go talk to a person, they can help you. And she was like, yep, they did.

[00:47:13] Annie or Patricia: They were funny because they sold her a discount card, and they asked if she wanted to put the name of her spouse on the card. And she says, No, I might change, in the meantime, and the ladies were cracking up, so they were all cracking up. You never know my sister, but hopefully it was just a joke, I don’t know.

[00:47:34] Annie or Patricia: One other comment on the discount cards is that you don’t have to be a French resident. You can do it all online. And once again, if you’re using the app, it’s incorporated into the app when you buy your tickets and the pricing, so once again, all this stuff use it, use the app stick, keep online.

[00:47:50] Use the app

[00:47:50] Annie or Patricia: The apps. I think if you have the app and you have the ability to go talk to a human to ask your questions, that’s the sweet spot. But then make your reservations on the app because it’s easier to cancel things or to change dates or to any of that sort of thing, or to get notifications if anything is delayed or if there’s a strike, which, you know, heaven forbid, stuff like that. The app makes it very simple for you to get notified of all of these things.

[00:48:19] One other comment on the app also, if your train is delayed or canceled, you get a certain amount of payment back and you file for that online on the app. So another reason to do that, some tickets are changeable, some are not. When you buy your ticket, you need to notice that. Some will be changeable with a fee, some will be changeable without a fee, some will be not changeable at all. So beware.

[00:48:43] Annie or Patricia: Yeah, read the fine print, and it’s true that when you qualify for a discount because your train was late or whatever, they will ask you if you want your discount, you know, the money back on your card or if you wantkind of gift certificate for next time.

[00:48:59] Annie or Patricia: Well obviously, get the cash back on your card, okay? Because the gift certificate, you don’t know when you’re going to use. Because the gift certificates are only good for six months, so don’t do that.

[00:49:06] Advantage card and why the Trainline app is useful

[00:49:06] Jennifer Gruenke: The last thing I had here was that if you buy the Advantage card on one app, you can transfer it to another. So if you purchase it on the SNCF website, you can load it onto the Trainline app, for example.

[00:49:17] Annie or Patricia: Oh, I didn’t know that. I have bought tickets at the train station and then transferred them to my app, but I hadn’t done, I haven’t used the Trainline app at all. I mean, I hear good things. Elyse likes it, you like it too.

[00:49:29] They used to charge a fee, but now they get a commission from SNCF, and so as far as I can tell, the tickets are always the same price. I have mostly used SNCF Connect, but I’ve heard lots of good things about Trainline. I like to have Trainline on my phone just so that I can use their search engine. Sometimes they will give you better options, I think that their algorithm is a little bit better. I was looking for tickets from Paris to Lille, and the SNCF Connect app will, if you just put in Paris-Lille, put on the first page these terrible options where you start from Disneyland. And Disneyland is an hour away, so you have to go an hour outside of town to get to your starting train station. You do not want to do that. That’s a terrible option. But if you don’t live here, you might not know that. Whereas the Trainline app will not show that option on the first page.

[00:50:29] Date format

[00:50:29] Annie or Patricia: One other comment on kind of dates and things. You must be aware that dates in France and most of Europe start with the date, and then the month, and then the year. So be aware, and if you’re looking at a calendar format, like a monthly calendar format, it will start with Monday, not Sunday. So keep aware and pay attention to your dates and days.

[00:50:54] Annie or Patricia: The first day of the week is Monday. I don’t know what’s wrong with you people. Like when do you go to work after the weekend? Do you go on Sunday? No, you go on Monday, right? So voila. First day of the week is Monday, and yes, I do prefer the American, you know, month, date and the year. But in France it’s day, month, and then year.

[00:51:16] Annie or Patricia: Yep.

[00:51:17] Jennifer Gruenke: Well, I hope that we have inspired some of you to plan a train trip within France in the near future.

[00:51:24] Travel light and train travel with kids

[00:51:24] Annie or Patricia: And there’s really no reason to not try it. It’s fun. Especially if you’re with kids so long as you can travel light, train travel with kids is fun, but don’t bring the house, you know? You have to keep it simple.

[00:51:40] Annie or Patricia: Yeah, there’s one luggage rack usually at the back or the front of your train car, and then there’s small spaces above the seats for a backpack, maybe a skinny backpack.

[00:51:51] And if you are worried about somebody taking your luggage, your suitcase, you can tie it to the rack if you would like. I’ve never known anybody who got robbed on a train, but it must happen. I don’t know. Just buy one of these retractable lines that you can, a simple thing that you can, you know, like with a number combination.

[00:52:12] Annie or Patricia: And if anything, it will stop somebody from taking your suitcase by mistake, you know? Which also has never happened to me, but it must happen sometimes. Well, ladies, thank you so much, Patricia and Jennifer, especially you Jennifer, you really put a lot of time into this and it’s much, much appreciated.

[00:52:32] Annie or Patricia: And there’s going to be photos of all these displays that we mentioned, on the website. Take a look at the website because it’s going to help you plan your trip, I think in this case, more than normal. Merci beaucoup. Au revoir.


[00:52:53] Copyright

[00:52:53] Annie Sargent: The Join Us in France Travel Podcast is written, hosted, and produced by Annie Sargent and Copyright 2023 by Addicted to France. It is released under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial, No Derivatives license.

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Category: France How To