SNCF Train: Guide to Traveling France by Rail

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SNCF Train – Using unfamiliar forms of transportation can be incredibly stressful, especially in a foreign country where you don’t know the rules or, worse, the language.

As many Americans don’t have experience with train travel, I found myself giving extremely detailed advice to friends who planned to visit France.

Armed with this guide and vocabulary, you will be worry-free when you take the rails.

Beginner’s Guide to Swiss Glacier Express Train

About France’s SNCF Train (The French Railway System)

The French railway system, SNCF, is a government-owned network of trains throughout the country.

Even small towns have their own railway stations, and the really tiny villages are usually linked to the rail network via SNCF bus.

The high-speed TGV links France’s largest cities and will get you to your destination in no time flat—for a price, while the TER provides regional trains linking cities within regions.

The French rail system is usually quite punctual.

Be aware that national strikes and inclement weather can cause major delays, however.

photo credit: Matt Seppings

How to Buy Your Ticket

If you plan on doing a substantial amount of traveling within the country, you may want to consider getting a France Rail Pass.

These are only available to non-European residents before your departure abroad, so be sure to plan ahead.

You can get a ticket for 3-9 days of travel within a month.

If you are only going to be taking the regional trains, all you need is your rail pass to board.

Any TGV train, however, will require you to buy a seat reservation in addition to your pass.

Tip: if you can, buy these reservations within France rather than through the Rail Europe website.

When I had my pass in fall 2010 it cost 3€ to get a seat reservation at a French train station versus $11 to buy it through the website.

If you only plan on taking one or two day trips, you can buy your ticket through many online websites.

The TER ticket prices remain stable, but the TGV ticket prices increase the longer you wait.

If you book your ticket about a month in advance you’ll be privy to “PREM” prices—a significant discount.

Travelers aged 12-25 who plan to be in France for a few months should strongly consider buying the Carte 12-25, which gives discounts of 25-50% on all train travel.

The card is good for a year after you buy it, even if you buy it on the eve of your 26th birthday.

What to Do at the Train Station

Plan on getting there 20-30 minutes before your train is due to depart.

Unless you’re taking the Eurostar or another international train, you won’t need to go through any security measures.

In the main lobby of any train station there will be a big board that has all the trains by number, hour of departure, the name of the stop at the end of the line, and the platform number.

You’ll see a lot of people congregated around it, looking up.

Oftentimes, the platform number won’t appear until a half hour or so before the train is due to depart.

So don’t fret if you don’t see one listed right away.

Just watch for it to appear as your departure nears.

If you’ve chosen an e-ticket option, you’ll need to print that out at one of the yellow kiosks using your six-letter e-ticket number and your last name.

You can choose to use the kiosks in English.

How to Validate Your Ticket

Before you board the train, you’ll need to stamp your ticket you just printed, or “composter le billet” (/com-pos-tay luh bee-yay/).

There are yellow machines outside the entrances to the platforms where you must insert your ticket to stamp the date and time on the edge.

This is to ensure you don’t try to use the same ticket on multiple journeys.SNCF Train Ticket Machine, France

Here is a picture of the machine for stamping the ticket

How to Board the Train

After you’ve arrived on your platform you can feel free to board the train.

On the right side of your ticket it will say what voiture (car) you’re in.

This is written next to each door of the train.

Your seat number will be under that.

The train cars usually either have a big “1” or “2” on them– this is to demarcate whether it’s a first or second class car.

There are luggage racks at either end of a car, and sometimes in the middle as well.

If you’re able to put your bag on the ledge above your seat, do that.

There have been some instances of theft on the trains.

If you can’t fit it above you, just saunter by nonchalantly every now and then to check on it.

Don’t be too conspicuous about it or you’ll make your bag a target.

What to Expect on the Train

While you’re on the train, an employee will come around to check tickets.

Present him/her with your composted ticket, along with any other pass or discount card.

If everything is up to snuff the employee will punch your ticket and move on.

TGV trains will usually have a food and beverage cart where you can get a snack.

Be sure to pay attention for your stop, as not all conductors will announce the name of the town when you arrive.

Train Vocabulary

Gare (/gar/): train station

Voie (/vwah/): platform

Arrete (/a-RET/): stop

Composter (/com-pos-TAY/): to stamp

Billet (/bee-YAY/): ticket

TGV (/tay-zhay-vay/): train à grand vitesse– high speed train

TER (/tay-euh-air/): regional train

Guichet (/GEE-shay/): ticket counter

Voiture (/vwah-TYUR/): train car

Place assise (/plahce a-SEEZ/): seat

Je cherche (/juh sherche/): I’m looking for…

Parlez-vous anglais? (/par-LAY voo an-GLAY/): Do you speak English?

This post is part of a series about France and teaching abroad, written by our dear friend Nina Petersen-Perlman.

Nina Petersen-Perlman has visited Paris on 13 different occasions, eight of which were during the last year when she was an English teaching assistant in a small town in Burgundy.

Paris In a Day ~ How to See Paris in 25 Hours

It’s not hard to see why Paris is one of the biggest tourist destinations in Europe.

You get slapped in the face with charm and whimsy just taking a stroll practically anywhere in the city, what with all the boulevards and the quaint boulangeries and the riverboats and the amour in the air.

Navigating the city, especially on a tight time-frame, can be a bit of a nightmare, however.

There are simply so many incredible and worthy things to see that you may feel discouraged before you even begin your weekend jaunt.

The following itinerary is one I made for my friends visiting France for the first time who were going to be in Paris for a mere 25 hours during a quick stopover from England.

It was whirlwind and hectic, to be sure, but I think I gave them a good taste of what the city had to offer.

Paris In a Day

Saturday, 11:00:

I picked my friends up at the Gare du Nord when the Eurostar train came in.

They had a large suitcase and carry-on apiece, which we heaved up and down multiple sets of stairs on the métro.

I must reiterate: Paris was not built to accommodate the weak-kneed.

We found and checked into our hotel in the St. Germain des Près neighborhood.

12:30-13:00:

We took a stroll down the Boulevard St. Germain des Près, stopping for some savory crêpes on the way, and then poked around in the quarter’s eponymous church for a look-see.

Crêpes are a ubiquitous—and cheap—street food in Paris. You can get them savory or sweet (or one of both).

13:00-13:30:

Even though my friends would only be there for a short time, I needed to give them a taste of my favorite French pastry: macarons.

In my humble opinion, there is no better place to get them than Ladurée, also known as my happy place.

Please get the salted caramel and then get ready to swoon with ecstasy.

We took our loot from the St. Germain shop on Rue Bonaparte and then headed down to the banks of the Seine while we waited for a riverboat cruise to dock.

Tea and pastries at Ladurée

13:30-14:30:

We paddled in our Batobus toward the Ile de la Cité and the Ile Saint Louis, made a loop around them, and continued west until we stopped at the Eiffel Tower, passing the Louvre and Musée D’Orsay on the way.

These bateaux mouches are a great way to get your bearings when you first arrive in the city.

14:30-16:00:

Thankfully my guests heeded my pleas not to waste their precious time climbing the tower, but were content to snap some photos in front of it and take a peek beneath it.

Be extremely aware of your personal belongings when you’re around big tourist traps like this, or you’re bound to leave lighter in the wallet than when you came.

After they’d had their Ei-fill of wandering about, we got back in line to take the Batobus to the Musée D’Orsay.

16:00-17:30:

This was apparently the perfect time to go to the Musée D’Orsay, home to works by Van Gogh, Dégas, Seurat, Manet, Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Rodin, Renoir, and others.

Unlike every other time I’ve gone, there was absolutely no line to wait in.

We gazed upon masterpiece after masterpiece until the museum shut its doors for the night.

17:30-19:00:

To reward my friends for agreeing not to mount the Eiffel Tower, I took them up to Montmartre for an aerial view of the city.

We got off at the Abesses métro stop (tip: take the elevator to avoid the billion stairs to the top) and headed up the hill to the Sacré Coeur basilica. The church features beautiful mosaics.

19:00-20:30:

By this time we were exhausted from all the wandering and the stairs and the crowds, so we just plopped down at the first good-looking restaurant we happened upon.

We feasted upon escargots as a starter, duck with honey sauce and boeuf bourguignon as a main course, and crème brûlée and mousse au chocolat for dessert.

We shared a bottle of Bordeaux.

Most restaurants will have a menu, a fixed-price, multi-course meal.

If this is going to be your only real meal in Paris, go all out!

Try something a little scary but delightfully French.

20:30-21:00:

I hatched a plan to take mes amies on a forced march through nighttime Paris so they could see some of the important things we wouldn’t have time for on Sunday.

Our first stop was the Moulin Rouge, which is on a very lewd streets with sex shops as far as the eye can see.

We then took the métro to Opéra, so they could see the magnificent rococo opera house in real life after seeing the model of it in the Musée D’Orsay.

21:00-22:00:

We walked down the Avenue de l’Opéra to the Louvre, the gigantic palace that is now one of the world’s most important art museums.

We arrived just as lights on the Eiffel Tower began to sparkle.

Which it does every night starting at 10:00 for five minutes on the hour.

22:00-23:30:

We strolled along the Seine until we reached Notre Dame, and paused to watch a group of buff French rollerblading make magic with their limbs along a course of overturned cups.

We got a bit lost on our last leg of the trip, but we made it back to the hotel safe and sound, and promptly passed out.

Notre Dame at night

Sunday, 9:00-10:30:

After breakfast at the hotel, we set out for Notre Dame.

My friends toured the cathedral while I waited in line to go up the towers.

This was a perfect plan, because by the time they were done exploring the line had stretched down the block.

We climbed the tight spiral staircases to the top, and were rewarded with magnificent views of the city.

View of Montmartre (and Sacré Coeur) from the top of Notre Dame

10:30-11:00:

We trucked over to Saint Chapelle cathedral, which is a hop, skip and a jump away from Notre Dame on the Ile de la Cité.

It’s home to beautiful stained glass windows.

We were properly awestruck, and glad we went.

Stained glass windows at Sainte Chapelle

11:00-12:00:

I took a slight detour so I should show the bibliophiles Shakespeare & Co., a Left-Bank, English-language bookstore where Hemmingway used to hang out.

We got some panini sandwiches at a nearby street stand for lunch, and then hightailed it back to the hotel so we could catch the métro in time for our respective trains.

25 hours in Paris: c’est possible!

Travel in Paris: Top 6 Tips

Paris is an enormous city with delicious food and wine, museums for every taste, and thousands of years of history.

If you don’t have much time to spend there, it’s easy to get overwhelmed.

These tips should help you get where you need to go with the maximum amount of time for soaking up the magic of Paris.

Wear comfortable walking shoes

Yes, the underground métro network is extensive, but you are still going to need to hoof it up and down more flights of stairs than you ever dreamed possible to get to and from the stations.

Buy Your Tickets in Bulk

Buy your métro tickets in carnets (CAR-nay), packs of 1

Split it with your travel companion if you don’t think you’ll use them all yourself to save a few Euros.

Go in the Off-Season

The best time to travel is October through March if you want to avoid the gigantic hordes of tourists.

December, around Christmas time, also gets busy.

Paris Tips Patisserie

photo credit: HerryLawford

Get a Good Guidebook

Invest in a good Paris city guide with a pull-out street and métro map.

Skip the Eiffel Tower

The lines are insane at any time of year and the tickets are pricey.

If you want an aerial view of the city, try climbing the Arc de Triomphe.

The tight spiral staircase will make your thighs burn, but you’ll have a great view of Parisian landmarks, and you’ll actually get to have the Eiffel Tower itself in your photos.

Skip the Louvre

If you’re only going to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, skip that too.

There is always a horde of people surrounding the painting, which is behind glass.

You can’t get a very good look at it.

Nina Petersen-Perlman has visited Paris on 13 different occasions, eight of which were during the last year when she was an English teaching assistant in a small town in Burgundy.