France Travel Planner by Tom Brosnahan & Jane Fisher   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.





Gare de Lyon, Paris, France

Gare de Lyon, Paris.














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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.

Many Types of Trains

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.

Click here for a look at the different types of French trains.

Four Ways to Buy Tickets

1. Buy Your Ticket(s) Online or by App

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!

Buying Your Ticket(s) Online or by App

SNCF, France's national railway company, operates numerous websites in many languages, but the one you want is SNCF Connect (https://www.sncf-connect.com/en-en/).

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...)

SNCF Connect App

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).

SNCF Grandes Lignes ticket machine, Paris, France Paris & Île-de-France train ticket machine, Paris, France
Intercity & international
ticket machine
City & regional ticket machine

Touch the screen, select your language, and follow the instructions:

SNCF ticket machine screen, Paris, France
Welcome screen: note the language choices, lower left:
English, French, German, Italian, Spanish...

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):

Sign for Billetterie Grandes Lignes, Gare Montparnasse, Paris, France
This is a sign for the mainline trains ticket office.
The office for local and regional trains may be in a different location.

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.

Grandes Lignes ticket office, Gare Montparnasse, Paris, France
Grandes lignes ticket office, Gare Montparnasse, Paris, France.
Nowhere does it say Billetterie or Ticket Office...

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.

4. Interrail or Eurail Pass

France's excellent trains are the best way to get around: forget the challenges of driving in a foreign country—let alone paying tolls (they're high in France) and parking.

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).

Interrail/Eurail Discounts

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:

Computerized Turnstiles

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.

SNCF train ticket, paper, France
SNCF train ticket from a machine, utilisable for any train from Colmar to Strasbourg during the week from 3 to 9 October. Note the QR code, which will be read by a turnstile or a yellow compostage machine to validate the ticket.

Validating Your Paper Ticket


  Composteur de billets at Gare Montparnasse, Paris, France
 

A composteur:
validate 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.

Pre-validation

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.


About French Trains

Types of French Trains

Onboard a French Train

TGV High-Speed Trains

Paris Train Stations

Air Travel to & in France

Car Travel in France

Car Hire/Rental

Bus Travel

Transport in Paris

Transport in France

 

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SNCF Paris & Île-de-France train ticket machine

Is this where you buy your train ticket? Do you have the right kind of payment? There's a lot to learn...


















Grandes lignes ticket turnstiles, Gare Montparnasse, Paris, France
Grandes lignes ticket turnstiles, Gare Montparnasse, Paris: scan your e-ticket QR code or paper-ticket barcode as you pass the turnstile to the train platform for boarding...





Eticket scanner, Gare Montparnasse, Paris, France
Scan the barcode of your paper ticket or e-ticket here...





 




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