Let’s be real, I’m holding my own hand here.
I am reminding myself that I write for me, not for other people, but it still ought to be said that I am no expert at train travel in France. I take trains outside of Paris about 5-7 times per year, largely to go on vacation, and sometimes to travel with friends on the weekends or visit folks living around the country.
Here is my step by step guide for how to survive and enjoy train travel in France!
- Buy the right ticket.There are cheap ways to get around France, and there are fast ways to get around France. Sometimes, those ways are the same, but it’s not always the case. A ticket for a TER train will likely be cheaper, and stop in more cities, but it will also be much slower. Conversely, a TGV is usually quite fast and more direct. For example, I recently took a TGV to Grenoble that stopped in Lyon, and it took about 3 hours. Two summers ago, I went down to Lyon on a TER, and it took me 5.5 hours.
- Pack a lunch, water, and a snack.This is key. The French train company SNCF is trying to improve their on-board culinary offerings, and yet they’re still terrible and overpriced. I would always recommend getting a sandwich + drink + desert combo from a bakery and taking it with you. For larger groups, we’ve gone shopping the night before and made a ton of sandwiches to take with us on the train. It’s never worth it to buy food on the train, and things inside the train station are often overpriced and sub-par.
- AVOID HOT FOOD ON THE TRAIN.When the entire train car smells like your McDonald’s fries, we all lose. Don’t do it. Eat a sandwich, a salad, a cold pasta, fruit, cookies, anything that doesn’t reek of grease!
- Don’t forget your discount card.If you, like me, have a discount card, make sure you bring it with you. It sounds basic, but when you watch someone get fined 65+ euro for holding a discounted ticket without the card to back it up…
- Bring a scarf.It might be 90 degrees outside, but you should still bring a scarf for the train. Unless you’re deeply unlucky and wind up on a train without air conditioning, it’s likely to be a little chilly on the train. Wrap yourself in your scarf and take a nap!
- If you can, download the SNCF application.This should probably be tip number 1, considering it saves you a huge hassle as long as your phone doesn’t die! When you print a ticket out at the station, you need to stamp it or “compost” it in the bright yellow boxes at the front of the platform. With the SNCF app, you can load your train ticket onto the app using your confirmation code, which allows the conductor to scan your ticket. That means you don’t have to compost it before you get on the train, and you can therefore avoid the fine (40 euro!) for failing to get the appropriate stamp.
- Know your rights.It’s not necessarily as dramatic as it sounds, but you have the right to certain reimbursements or coupons if your train is more than 30 minutes late. SNCF guarantees that your train will depart within 30 minutes of its scheduled time, and if that doesn’t happen, you can use the SNCF app or the SNCF website to claim your refund. My train to Grenoble was 63 minutes late on Friday, meaning that I’ll receive about 14 euros in my bank account sometime soon.
Aside from these 7 tips, I’d also recommend getting to the station at least 15 minutes before your train leaves. The doors lock at least two minutes before the train is scheduled to depart, and it might take a few minutes to find the correct train hall, then to find the correct platform, and finally to find the correct train car. If you’re truly pressed, you can get on the train wherever and walk through to find the right car, but train cars of different seating classes don’t always connect, so be careful!