Taking the train is a simple way to travel in France, and it can also be done very cheaply. We show you how to buy tickets at bargain prices.
SNCF, the French national train operator, seem to have taken a leaf out of the book of the UK railway companies in having a pricing structure that is almost incomprehensible, even to the French!
Does it make sense to book at the last minute, or is it best to book well in advance? Would if be cheaper to buy a rail pass, or simply travel using promotional offers?
You can never be quite sure, although the general principle to apply is that the best offers can be found by paying in advance. However, as SNCF seek to optimise the number of passengers on each train, you also need to take into account the time and day of your departure.
To help you through the maze of tariffs and cards here is a brief explanation of just what there is available.
This is the standard SNCF ticket, available 90 days in advance or on the day of travel.
Buying a month or more in advance can give a reduction on the full price averaging around 35% on the standard price. Those tickets charged at the full rate are called Plein Tarif Loisir.
The tickets are fully reimbursable right to the day of departure, although there is a charge of €10 per ticket (or 50% of ticket price if less than €20) if you seek reimbursement on the day of departure itself.
These are tickets purchased in advance for departure on a particular date, at a particular time, offering a reduction in price of up to 70% on the standard price.
If you can plan it properly, the tickets offer incredible value for money, including tickets for first class travel.
However, the tickets are only offered in limited quantity, they are not always available to all destinations in France, and they are not reimbursable.
There are different types of Prem’s:
Standard Prem’s– These tickets are available between 3 months and 14 days before departure, costing between €15 and €25 one way for journeys throughout France.
Prem’s Weekend– Provided you are happy to arrive around 0100 hours at your destination and arrival points, these tickets are also very good value. The cost is between €25 and €45 per ticket.
Prem’s Dernier Minute– Last minute tickets sold only over the Internet, provided places are available, up to 60% cheaper than the standard rate. They are normally available three to ten days prior to departure.
Prem’s Vente Flash– These are promotional tickets that are available from time to time.
French Rail Passes
There are a range of different rail passes available that offer price reductions of a minimum of 25% on standard fares.
They are normally valid for a year, and the tickets are reimbursable.
The cards also offer ‘S Miles’ that are convertible into tickets or presents.
Carte Enfant + - Available for children under 12 years old with one card that offers price reductions for up to four other people accompanying the child. Price reductions of a minimum of 25% on the standard fare are offered. The cost of the card is €71 per year.
Carte 12-25 – The most interesting of all the cards, offering reductions of up to 60% off the standard fare but with a guaranteed reduction of 25% even if booked on the day of departure. The card costs €50 a year.
Carte Escapades – Available to those aged 26-59 it costs €76 per year and offers reductions of up to 40% for return tickets, which must include a Saturday night and a return journey distance of at 200 kilometres. A guaranteed reduction of 25% on all tickets purchased.
Carte Senior– Available to those aged 60+ it costs €57 and offers price reductions of up to 50% on the standard fare, with a guaranteed reduction of 25% on all tickets purchased. Tickets can be reimbursed and exchanged right up to the day of departure, subject to administrative fee of €3.
Forfait Bambin– A child under 4 years old can travel free of charge on the lap of an adult on a French train, but by using this card they get their own seat. The cost is €9.
Carte Familles Nombreuses– Available to families with at least three children. It costs €18 and offers reductions of between 30% and 75%.
The iDTGV is a low cost high speed train tariff, aimed mainly at young people, but available to anyone!
The main aim of the tariff is to compete with the low cost airlines.
The service offers a choice of comfort, whether in a coach for relaxation, or one for disco dancing! There are also DVD rentals and other high tec offers available.
The train takes the same routes as the normal TGVs, and, indeed, most are part of the regular TGV service.
There are both day and night trains, with departures from most main stations in France.
Tickets can be had for a little as €15 one way for many journeys between the major cities of France. A return train ticket to Paris from Bordeaux can be purchased for €38! The earlier you book, and the more flexible you are on the times and dates, the cheaper is the ticket.
Tickets can be booked up to six months in advance, and go on sale from a specified date every three months.
The tickets are non-reimbursable, although they can be exchanged.
The tickets can only be purchased and printed on-line on the site of iDTGV.
Buying Tickets for Trains in France
Tickets for trains can be purchased either from a local SNCF rail or travel office, or over the internet at www.voyages-sncf.com
Colour coding of the tickets gives you an idea of the price range: the orange band is the cheapest, with blue for normal, and grey for the most expensive.
Remember, however, that iDTGV trains need to be purchased direct from their site.
In addition, there are other sites where you can buy unwanted tickets, or where you can sell your own.
The main sites are KelBillet.com, Trocdestrains.com and Zepass.com
Enjoy your journey!