|How to Buy Train Tickets in France
|It used to be easy. Now it's complicated. It's worth it to learn in advance the best way to buy tickets for your train trips in France.
Buying train tickets in France can be challenging for a variety of reasons. If you don't know how to buy your ticket, in the time it takes you to learn, you may miss your train.
France's SNCF railway network operates 15,000 departures daily carrying 10 million passengers to 3000 stations. The service offers a variety of trains, services, and fares: RER, Transilien, TGV, inOui, idTGV, TER, Intercité, Thalys, Eurostar, Ouigo.
Four Ways to Buy Tickets
This is best, if it's possible for you. No in-person language barrier, no worry that your credit or debit card won't be accepted at the station, no ticket-machine learning curve, no search for a ticket office with only minutes to catch your train.
SNCF train tickets go on sale three months in advance. Fares offered early in the three-month period can be substantially lower than those offered close to the travel date.
How to Save Money
An example: we bought one-way First-Class TGV inOui tickets for a trip from Strasbourg to Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport three months in advance for 49€ per person. On the day before our journey, fare for the same seats was 86€—nearly twice as much! And if the train had been fully booked (complet), we would have had to travel at a different time. Buy early, save money!
Set up an account (free), input the details of your proposed trip: One-way/Return (Round-trip), From, To, desired date and time of departure, passenger age, etc.
Click Search and you'll see a variety of departures, travel times, and fares for standard SNCF regional, national and international trains. (The cheapest trains and fares, idTGV and Ouigo, may not be among the choices—you must go to those separate websites for them. More...)
Download the SNCF Connect App to your smartphone and you'll have your e-tickets with QR codes right in the app along with complete train itineraries, alerts to changes/delays, and other useful information. You'll show your e-ticket on the app before boarding and/or while on the train.
If you're traveling by SNCF's premium TGV InOui trains, download the TGV InOui Pro app for even better service.
If you prefer a paper ticket, you may be able to print your tickets—if you have a computer printer available. If you can't, write down the reservation code and retrieve your ticket either from a ticket machine at the departure station, or from a ticket agent there.
2. Ticket Machines
At train stations you will see ticket machines of several types.
In Paris train stations, for example, you'll see ticket (billet) machines for Île-de-France (local and regional) trains, and other machines for Grandes lignes (mainline national and international trains).
Touch the screen, select your language, and follow the instructions:
Ticket machines accept only credit cards with chips (puce) or RFID payment app (such as Apple Pay, Google Pay, etc.), or euro currency (notes and coins). If your ticket is for a short trip on a local or regional train, it may be easy enough to pay with 2€ and 1€ coins or small notes/bills. For Grandes Lignes tickets, you will need an acceptable credit/debit card or RFID smartphone payment app. More...
3. Ticket Agents
Large urban stations and most city and large-town train stations have human ticket agents from whom you can purchase tickets with cash euros (notes/bills and coins), with chip credit cards and such smartphone payment apps.
Follow the signs to the Billetterie (Ticket Office):
Allow plenty of time to get through the ticket-buying process. There may be a waiting line for the ticket agent(s), perhaps as much as 15 or 20 minutes long.
The agent(s) may speak no language but French. In large stations, some agents may speak English and perhaps other languages.
Language is usually not a problem if your itinerary is simple, such as "I want a one-way (aller) or round-trip/return (aller-retour) ticket for one adult (adulte) from Paris to Reims" (then give dates and times.
One of the best deals going for touring France, and indeed all of Europe is the Interrail or Eurail Pass. (Interrail Passes are for European residents. Eurail Passes are for everyone else.)
How Interrail & Eurail Pass Work
Passes can be for 3, 4, 5, 6 or 8 days of unlimited train travel within any 30-day period.
For example, you arrive in France and you want to go straight to Provence. or the Côte d'Azur. You take a train right from the airport to your destination—Orange, Marseille, Nice, wherever. Change trains as needed. You needn't worry about tickets, just board the train and settle into your First Class or Second Class seat (depending upon which Pass you've purchased).
(High-speed trains and night trains require seat reservations, but these cost you no more, and can be made online.)
After Provence, you want to see Normandy. Use another day of your Interrail/Eurail Pass to get there.
From Normandy you want to go to Paris. That'd be Travel Day 3. So you can travel to three different regions of France in, say, a 10-day trip, with the cheapest Interrail Pass (3 travel days).
Children (4 to 11), Youth (12 to 27) and Seniors (60+) can take advantage of discounted Pass prices.
For the full story and to order an Interrail or Eurail Pass, click here.
Boarding Your Train
At large stations, your train's track/platform will be announced 10 to 20 minutes before the scheduled departure time. At smaller and originating stations, you may be able to board up to 30 minutes in advance at origination stations. In any case, be on the platform ready to board more than five minutes before departure time. The train doors may close a minute or two before departure time.
There are two possible boarding procedures, depending on the station:
Major stations are equipped with computerized turnstiles at which you scan the QR or barcode on your ticket (smartphone or paper) or Interrail/Eurail Pass in order to enter the platform.
If you do not see computerized turnstiles, and if you have a paper ticket bought from an SNCF machine or agent and valid for any train, you must follow the older procedure of validating your ticket before entering the platform.
Validating Your Paper Ticket
If the station does not have computerized turnstiles, if you don't have an Interrail Pass, and if you have a paper ticket bought from an SNCF machine or agent, look for the yellow compostage machines near the entrance to the train platforms. Insert your paper ticket into the machine (barcode/QR code end first). The composteur will read the barcode or QR code and thus your ticket will be validated. (On the larger paper tickets it may also print the date and time on the end of your ticket.)
There are no validation machines on platforms or on trains! Validate in the station, before going to the train platform and boarding your train.
If you fail to validate your ticket, an inspector aboard the train may levy a substantial fine for your failure to validate.
If you bought your ticket for a particular train on a particular date and time, it is probably précomposté (pre-validated). Most tickets bought online, including those you have printed yourself, and many bought from ticket machines and ticket agents for specific trains, are pre-validated, especially tickets for discounted fares available only on that particular train. Read your ticket. If you see a specific train number, date and time, your ticket is pre-validated. You need do nothing else for validation, but you may have to scan its QR or barcode at a turnstile to enter the train platform.
Validating on the Train
If you have an open ticket on paper and you've neglected to validate your ticket before boarding and the train has departed, find the conductor (Chef de Bord), show him or her your ticket, and the conductor will validate it, saving you from legal and financial embarassment. Conductors usually begin their inspections at the rear of the train and work their way forward, so walk toward the rear of the train to find them.
If you wait at your seat and the conductor comes through checking tickets and finds yours unvalidated, you may be subject to the fine.
Finding Your Train Coach
A complet (fully-booked) SNCF train may carry as many as 1200 passengers. There's a system for getting them all on board quickly.
Your ticket shows the number of your train coach (voiture), and the number(s) of your seat(s). When your train's platform (quai) is announced, go there and look for a screen showing the Composition de train (in railroad parlance, the "consist," or order of train cars.) Identify your car in the train symbols, and note the alphabetical letter for the position (repère) the car will take on the platform (A, B, C, etc.) Move to that position and you should be able to board quickly.
When you enter the train, look for the arrows showing the direction of the seat numbers ( such as: <—1 à 34, 35 à 76—>).
Place large suitcases in the luggage racks just inside the doors of the seating area, and smaller items in the rack above your seat.