France December 2013

Hi, Just needing some suggestions and advice for a 2 week trip I am planning for next year. We are getting the France Rail Pass (9 day one) and have worked out that we'll be visiting Paris for a couple of nights, then to strasbourg, then to colmar for a day trip to visit the christmas markets, from there we'd like to visit a nice mountainy town somewhere in the alps that's easy to access by rail (any advice?). From there we are hoping to travel down to aix en provence for a couple of nights, then to Sarlat (accessed by bordeaux?) and then from there visit the coast of Brittany or Normandy to finish off the trip (any advice on where to go). We're both interested in good food, small traditional towns and seeing beautiful scenery (not so much museums and etc) Hoping someone has advice on places they think would be good to fill in the gaps above and hopefully places that are accessible by train as that will be our only method of travel (and by foot of course!)
Thank you so much!

Posted by Adam
Boston
2633 posts

If you stick to the east with those priorities then I think your logical progression is to end in St. Paul dV and fly home from Nice. Or else start there and work your way to Paris. The French rail passes used to be pretty good deals when you could get them in 2nd Class, less so in 1st. The pass's natural advantage of flexibility is eroded by the need to purchase reservations for TGVs, which are not always available to pass holders. On the other hand there are lots of trains on the routes you would want, and it's the off season, so that may not be a problem for you. One thing you can do that time of year is to travel freehand without reservations. This lets you change your itinerary on the fly in response to weather or serendipity. When you leave one city for the next, call before you leave in the morning to secure a reservation. As long as you are a little flexible you should have no problem finding places to sleep this way. Of course if that's not your style or you are going to buy train tickets in advance you might as well reserve your rooms that way too.

Posted by Nigel
East Midlands, England
8756 posts

A couple of thoughts, Charlotte... It is very rare that folk here have been able to make a railpass pay in the last few years - if anybody can it looks like your trip through much of France may do the trick. Do be aware of a couple of things, though. It looks like much of your travel will contain segments of TGV - the French high speed train. The SNCF (French Railways) is notorious for having very small allocations for pass holders. You do need to make, and pay for, the mandatory TGV reservations for every segment which includes them. So if you change trains from one TGV to another that is 2 reservations and 2 fees. Also, are you aware of the weather in coastal Normandy and Brittany in winter? Unless you have pass-days to burn it would be a waste of money to use passes for a day trip between Colmar and Strasbourg. If you have an active day, use it all day if you like (and some of your trips will be) but don't use a day for a short trip unless, as I said, you would throw them away otherwise. Happy Planning...

Posted by Darcy
Lewiston, Idaho, USA
1202 posts

Charlotte, one recommendation I have is to check out the DeutschBahn site (bahn.de) to determine your train travel and the direction of your trip. (It's the German rail site...Only tickets to/from or within Germany can be purchased there but the schedules are accurate and the site is the easiest one to use.) For example, traveling from Aix en Provence to Sarlat shows 11-20 hour trips! It actually would be easier to travel from Paris to Sarlat, then back to Paris and then Paris to Strasbourg, then Aix. We have done a quick loop tour from Paris to Sarlat by train, then Sarlat to Arles by car, then train to Aix, to Beaune to Paris. Definitely a high-speed vacation but a fantastic one with some friends; it was even better than what they hoped for!

Posted by Adam
Boston
2633 posts

Charlotte, I hope you will take the weather and the season into account. In December, you will be short on daylight, and many attractions will be closed or on short hours. Some local bus routes may not be running, which will limit your mobility unless you rent a car. Combine that with the possibility of rain, snow, or mistral, and you might want to organize your itinerary around cities. Which offer indoor pleasures in all weathers. This argues against the more rural, western part of your itinerary. Logistically I think your rail-based plan breaks down after Provence. Sarlat is 12 hours by rail from Aix. Sarlat to Quimper (in Brittany) is 11 hours. Even Strasborg-Annecy is at least 6 hours. Annecy-Aix is 4, though you might find more to see and do based on Avignon or Arles. If you go for the urban strategy, Lyon is right on your route (4 hours from Strasbourg, 2 from Annecy, 2 from Aix).

Posted by Charlotte
Lennox Head, NSW, Australia
8 posts

thanks so much for your feedback and advice! I definitely agree that the trip was flawed after Provence and that it could be a waste of a day doing a trip from Strasbourg to colmar by train. we're now thinking of forgetting about the west side and just doing the east now. so Strasbourg is still in, chambery maybe? then someone just suggested a nice place near Geneva and annecy and then there's a lovely place behind nice I wanted to visit called Saint Paul de vence and then aix en Provence then finish off in marseille. do you think that's better?
it's the only time of year I can get off work and as I have family in Belgium to visit, I've been hoping for so long to do a little trip around France too hence why we are going that time of year.

Posted by Nigel
East Midlands, England
8756 posts

In that case, Charlotte, given that you will traveling many fewer km by train, and given that you can pounce on the Prems (discount tickets) when they become available, I suggest you bin the idea of a railpass - or at least price it out carefully.

Posted by Charlotte
Lennox Head, NSW, Australia
8 posts

thanks for your reply Adam & Nigel, the only reason I thought a pass would be better is because of ease and also thought it would be more cost effective? I tried researching how much normal trains would cost instead of getting the high speed train everywhere, especially if our trip will consist of not traveling too big distances, apart from Paris to Strasbourg. do you think it would be easier and cheaper to just go with the normal rural trains and pay per ticket instead of getting a pass? we would be booking accommodation in advance as we'd be going during Christmas and don't want to waste too much time trying to find vacant accommodation at that time.

Posted by Southam
Windsor, Ontario, Canada
912 posts

Charlotte, rail passes are not necessarily a time-saver since high-speed trains require seat reservations obtained separately. Various forums report hassles over reservations that include restricted allotments for passholders and extra fees. All of that eats up time and generates stress.
As for saving money, point-to-point tickets bought well in advance carry substantial discounts and include the seat reservation.

Posted by Charlotte
Lennox Head, NSW, Australia
8 posts

Okay thanks for that! Looks like buying a pass might not be the best option after all. So any suggestions on anywhere else pretty to go? :)
Thanks!