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Train travel in France

I am familiar with trains in Germany. Looking for guidance for France. Germany has many day or multiple day passes. Does France?

Posted by
4654 posts

Rail passes are less useful in France as most long-distance services have compulsory seat reservations, which you have to pay for even if you have a pass and get at the station before you board the train.

Posted by
16766 posts

I think Gary is thinking about the very low-cost regional tickets/passes that can make traveling in Germany so inexpensive--and even more so when multiple people are traveling together. I'm not aware of equivalent deals in France; I haven't seen anything like that mentioned on this forum.

Posted by
1653 posts

There is an SNCF day pass in Provence, well hidden in the regional fare selection machines, but it's mostly useful for people who plan a day trip by train within the region as a group of 2+ people (the more the better). It's a great call for a day trip to Marseille from Arles or vice-versa. But for, say, Marseille to Aix, or Avignon to Isle sur Sorgue, the distances are too short and the fares too low to make it worthwhile!

Posted by
11704 posts

I haven't seen anything that worked as well as Germany. Getting to most cities a train is fine coupled with walking at the destination (Chartres, Reims, Strasbourg, etc.) If you want to see outside a city (Burgundy, Alsace, Champagne, Loire, Brittany, Provence, etc.), it's usually better to have a car.

There is generally an additional charge/fee/tax for picking up at an airport - factor that into your plan as well.

Posted by
16764 posts

Germany has some cheap deals valid for all-day travel on the regional trains. These are mostly slower trains and therefore tend to work best on shorter distances. But in addition to that, even Germany's fastest long-distance trains don't require seat reservations, so multi-day rail passes can be used there with hop-on convenience.

France takes the opposite attitude to reservations. Mid-speed and faster trains all require seat reservations at some point before boarding, as Philip said, leaving relatively few trains (only regional trains) that you're likely to just hop on with a pass in France. The only reason to choose a pass would be if it saves money overall, which will depend on distance and how many trains you are or aren't willing to book ahead (and how far ahead). See also https://www.ricksteves.com/travel-tips/transportation/trains/france-rail-passes.

In France, unreserved regional trains are a good choice when they come up naturally on timetables as the primary form of service, such as from Paris to Normandy. But they don't make a good substitute for faster trains on routes that are primarily served by faster trains. For instance, Paris to Marseille takes 3h15m or 3h30m by direct TGV, but takes 9h30m if you wanted to do it by unreserved train with a connection at Lyon (running only about twice/day). In other it's not easy to fight the system.

You're probably familiar with DB's train schedule search and it also works well for schedule options in France (but not pricing, since it doesn't sell the tickets).

Posted by
132 posts

I just did the RS calculation and our railpass (inc res costs) was half the cost.

Another thing I heard was limited availability. I was able to reserve 2 seats from Paris to Carcassonne via Bordeaux and Toulouse in mid July 15 mins pre departure. Also hopped off a regional at Straz and booked 2 to Paris 30 mins pre departure. So we were either very lucky or it is very unlikely you miss out.

Pre booking well in advance is probably always the cheaper option. I prefer a flexi plan.
Also pre booking ahead does have pitfalls.
A strike one day in the far south was no issue for us as we had already decided to extend our stay. A couple I met were quite put out though. They had pre booked all rail and hotels. They were obliged to book a hotel at short notice in the tiny village and were trying to get a refund at the hotel they now couldn't get to. I assume there was a flow on effect from the delay. Maybe they got refunds but I was glad to not be in their shoes.

Posted by
7168 posts

So your "RS calculation and our railpass (inc res costs) was half the cost" can be very misleading. Did you compare your railpass to full fare tickets? Did you use RailEurope to compare your ticket prices? Or did you use the real sncf.com to compare fares with your railpass?

All of the above makes a big difference in comparisons, and you should really lay out the facts if you'd like to explain your savings calculations.

And yes, a big gamble of French train travel is the chance that the French Rail workers will actually be working on the day you need to travel.

Posted by
132 posts

I think that was pretty self explanatory Tim. I did the RS calculation and compared it to the cost of our railpass. Our railpass cost us half of what the RS calculation came up with, them's the facts laid out for you Tim. I didn't make any big statement regarding other comparisons.

Posted by
16766 posts

But what does "RS calculation" mean? Rick Steves (and RailEurope) do not run the trains in France. SNCF is the place to buy French train tickets without surcharges or wacky exchange rates, so it's the fares on the SNCF website that should be compared to rail pass prices. The cost of a rail pass can be double the cost of point-to-point tickets, or more, if the traveler is able to pin down the dates and times of one or more long rail journeys. Shorter trips on regional trains don't vary in cost, so one can keep those trips totally flexible without risking any extra cost. In some cases a rail pass might be more expensive than full-fare walk-up tickets, though that obviously depends on the traveler's itinerary.

Posted by
16766 posts

Rick's rail-fare maps show last-minute, full-fare prices, rounded to the nearest $5. For most tourists it's not necessary to pay those fares, at least not for all their travel legs. Even I, the queen of unplanned trips, do not pay those fares a lot of the time. I use my flexibility to adjust the date or at least the time of departure to avoid the most expensive tickets; sometimes (as during Holy Week in Spain) I book tickets well ahead of time because I have to lock down my hotels anyway. And I nearly always book hotels for long stays at high-traffic locations (the capital cities, Barcelona, etc.), so rail tickets into those cities can also be bought well ahead of time, while bargain tickets are still available.

Furthermore, no European ticket prices cited in US dollars are going to be terribly accurate except by chance. What currency-conversion rate is being used? I'm sure that fare map isn't updated very often.

And there are occasional bargains even on very late ticket purchase. They crop up on the SNCF website when ticket sales are slow. Those deals cannot be reflected on the fare map.

Only those for whom price is no object should use that fare map to make a decision about a rail pass. Unfortunately, many folks don't understand its limitations, and they may also be unaware of the cost of seat reservations.

Posted by
132 posts

I would hope people would use such a guide only as a way to check whether or not a railpass is worth investigating.
For me I looked up the SNCF site then simply searched for the cheapest ticket for next day travel for all our pencilled in long journeys. Basically how we would be rolling without a railpass, we typically decide to stay or go at the end of each day. The maths on that was significantly higher than the railpass even factoring in reservation fees.
For me that was good enough. The bulk of our on ground travel expenses were paid before we flew out of Australia. The actual cost of our 2 person railpass was pretty low anyway.

Posted by
16766 posts

Aah, you're an Aussie. If you're taking an extremely long trip as many Aussies seem to, the average daily cost of a rail pass is a lot lower. But people taking super-long trips (I'm one of them) constitute probably less than 1% of the folks on this forum (and of the readers of Rick's guidebooks).

Posted by
132 posts

Well the daily average cost of the pass for the entire trip worked out at 70% of my daily commute costs at home.
I note you have over 15000 posts on this forum. That would indicate you spend a remarkable amount of time thinking about travelling. For me I do a good bit of pretrip research and planning but I am not going to be searching every rabbit hole for a way to save a few $. The railpass worked out cheaper than the other convenient method of purchasing (for our type of travel) eg walk up and buy on the day.

Posted by
181 posts

Thanks to all who responded. I appreciate your time and thoughts. I plan to travel Paris to Bayeau/Caen for a tour of Normandy. Suggestions? Thank you. 3 people...me,son and grandson

Posted by
16766 posts

What are your travel dates?

Follow the link immediately below this paragraph, enter Paris (All stations - FR) as your origin and Bayeux (Normandy - Fr) as your destination. Choose your travel dates from the calendars. Adjust the travel time if you need to. Then click on Apply. The website will ask how many travelers there are and their ages. Use ages as of the date of the trip to Normandy. Provide the requested information and click on Search.

https://en.oui.sncf/en/

The website will return a list of possible trains. If you want to see what's available later in the day, click on Show following trips. You'll need to select one of the outbound trips in order to see the schedule of trains returning to Paris. Fares will be shown for each available train. To learn about the fare rules, click on the box displaying the fare.

You'll be able to tell from the initial screen how many transfers you'll have to make for each of the possible routings. The subsequent screen (after you click on the price) will show how much time you have at each transfer point.

Try this for yourself and come back with any questions. If your trip is way in the future you may not see fares for your travel dates. In that case, back the date up a week or so at a time until you see all the details. Buying tickets early (best shortly after they go on sale, assuming your travel plans are totally firm at that time) will give you a very good chance of scoring bargain tickets if part of your trip is on a TGV (one of the fast trains), but the cheapest tickets will generally be non-refundable and changeable only for a fee (I think--SNCF has changed its policies in the last year, I believe).

I try to minimize transfers just because I don't especially enjoying dragging my suitcase up the steps onto a train. Otherwise, I choose my train based on the fare, how long the trip will take, and the sanity of the departure time. Routings that include travel on a TGV are not necessarily faster, overall, when you're going to a small city like Bayeux. You're going to have to spend some time on a regional train (TER) for at least part of the trip. The amount of time you'll lose at the transfer point can vary considerably. If I'm buying a ticket close to my departure date, I check those part-TGV routings very carefully. They may cost a lot more but not be any faster, if there's a long wait at a transfer point.

Posted by
5288 posts

Gary, will you be renting a car for your Normandy trip or just taking organized tours from Bayeux ? If renting, then a train only as far as Caen may be better because of the larger number of rental sites at the Caen train station.