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  • Writer's pictureParisian Niche

Taking the Trains in Paris (and France)...


All Aboard! Today, we are very honored to welcome Bob Kolinski (Guest P'Niche Reporter) to offer up some pro tips on using the French train systems (of which he is quite well versed). Come on board the P'Niche Express and give your warmest welcome to dear friend and P'Nicher, Monsieur Bob Kolinski!


image: courtesy Bob Kolinski

First, let's get to know Bob as a friend and Francophile.

P'Niche: Tell us, Bob, what led to your love of France and the French language?


Bob: I came to love French in High School.

P'Niche: Wait, we need the P'Niche Time Machine!


Bob: laughs: Anyway, in my freshmen year, we had to make the decision between learning 1 of 4 foreign languages. I chose French because to me, it sounded so beautiful and musical (I still feel that to this day). French is a living work of art. There's so much I don't know - and love the adventure of learning more. The more time I spend with it, the more I love it.



image: Bob Kolinski

P'Niche: - that leads us forward in the P'Niche Time Machine (awesome, right?!) to the Immersion Programs you have done...


Bob: kindly humors P'Niche: Loved zooming about in the P'Niche Time Machine - what a ride! Anyway...when I graduated high school, I was basically fluent, and really proud of that accomplishment - it meant (and means) a lot to me.



image: Bob Kolisnki

In my university years, I continued to take French classes for credit, but ended up studying pharmacy as my major career path trajectory, losing my French skills along the way (until my 2019 retirement).


It was upon leaving the full time workforce that I decided to reboot my French skills, exploring French Immersion programs to really get deep into both the language and the culture.



image: Bob Kolinski

Part of my love of these immersion programs is having the opportunity to live in (and deeply explore) all of the wonderful regions of France.


I've had the chance to stay outside of Lyon (42), Alsace (near Colmar), and in Sancerre (P'Niche interrupts: ooh - the wine!) On the list, of course, is Tours, with the lovely and accomplished Véro.


To get to these many regions (and beyond), I rely heavily on the French train and rail system.



image: Bob Kolinski

P'Niche: Brilliant! Please tell us how it works - I myself am a navigationally challenged traveler, so am looking forward to this lesson! Choo Choo!


Bob: All aboard - away we go!


Truly, you will need to be comfortable with using technology (smart phones, internet, and apps) on your travels. The main website for the French train system is: SNCF-connect.com/en-en/. The app is called SNCF Connect (available on Apple and Android devices). Even better, they are all in English. Look for the British Flag if the screen starts off in French and make sure that you save that setting.


Bob's Pro Tips: When creating your account, make sure you enter your birthday correctly - DAY-MONTH-YEAR - (reverse to how we list in the USA). Make sure you double check all entered details before hitting submit. Also, their weeks begin on Monday, so the calendar icon will begin Monday (not Sunday)!



image: SNCF app

As to the types of trains, France has three different types of trains:

  • TGV (high speed - big city to big city rail)

  • Intercities (Faster than TER, but not TGV)

  • TER (Regional, has many stops - like a local train)


For TGV, there is either INOUI - you want this one - or OUIGO, a lower fare, with a restricted baggage option. INOUI is worth a few extra euros for first class with a dedicated seat and consistent Wi-Fi.


OUIGO offers cheap fares. However, you only allowed a small back pack / purse size item - just one - this is NOT a carry on. If you have a carry on, you need to register it ahead of time for 5 Euros each (10 Euros if you book at the train depot).


The best way to decide what train type works for you is to see what operates to and from the cities you are looking to visit.


The SNCF website has this information all well arranged and laid out. Your only choice would be to choose between INOUI or OUIGO. When you book, make sure to take note of the type of train that will be operating for your travels.



Bob's Pro Tip - often times cities have more than one station, so a quick Google search will serve you well to find out what works best for your needs. Unless super familiar, I'd stick with the main stations, where less chance of error can occur.


So let's say for example you wish to travel from Paris to Avignon.



First, you'd go to your SNCF app or website and select the departure city (Paris) and arrival city (Avignon).


Again, make sure to look for the right station. Paris comes up as "Paris Ville." In this case, it would route you to Gare de Lyon, as you will transfer through Lyon.



When booking dates, again, be vigilante in making sure the day and month are as needed as you don't want to book a ticket for October 11, when you wish to travel November 10. (Reminder to look for the calendar days of the week as your guide.)


Now, as you can see, this train has a transfer (DUN DUN DUN)!



Definitely note that the French train transfer times are oftentimes ridiculously short. One of my visits had only an 8 minute connection time! The shorter the connection time, the more stressful the connection may be.


Bob's Pro Tip: make sure that you have at least 20-30 minutes to change/transfer in big cities.


Trains may be delayed, have extra stops, etc. and you'll be glad to have that time cushion in order to have an easy trip.


Once you've settled into your connection, you can enjoy the rest of your ride, ensuring that you take all of your belongings with you when you exit at your final destination.



Bob is kind enough to list even more pro tips below...



  • Get to the station early. Stations can be very confusing. With construction and other changes, you will want time to find signage (and your gate). Like any big airport, you'd want to get there 45-60 minutes early to settle in. (You can board trains 20 minutes before departure.)

  • Make sure you check the Departures Board for the gate. Sometimes what is on the website may vary if trains have had to make changes, for whatever reason.

  • Paper Tickets... if you use the app, all is electronic. If you feel the need to print out paper tickets, you can print at the station, but you MUST validate them before your board the train.

-- Conductors can (and will) slap you with a 135 Euro fine - no questions / no exceptions.




  • When on the trains (in first class) the etiquette is more business like. People are quiet and speaking on mobile phones is frowned upon.

  • Sometimes your luggage will be on rack behind you (out of your line of vision). I use luggage locks (on everything). For safety, this is what I do - for all journeys.



  • Always have a Plan B / Système D. The reasons are: strikes, delays, acts of natures, human misbehaviors, etc. I don't ever board a French train without bread, cheese, and a beverage. Bring food and snacks, and a bottle or two of water - you may get stuck for a while and be glad you can have a nibble.



  • Always make sure you use the restroom (BEFORE) you get on the train. While not often, it *can happen that the restrooms provided on the trains might be out of order, leaving you in a ... situation.

  • When you board the train, the TGVs will usually have displayed the train #, so make sure you are getting on the right train / car. You can always an SNCF attendant to make sure you are at the right voie (gate).

  • If all else fails (i.e. a strike) and you need to get your destination... you have options

    • Flix Bus has a website and an app

    • France does have Uber (but expect price gouges)

    • Bla Bla Car (app) rideshares can also be an option. (And hey, you might meet some French people)...

    • You could also rent a car - but that's a story for another blog post.



Carte Advantage is a discount card program (available thru the SNCF site). They offer great sales, discounts for seniors, special fares (the earlier you book, the better).


Last year alone, I spent only $25 on the card program fees, but saved nearly $100. This was a great return on my investment!



Should you find yourself derailed in a smaller French town - be aware that les toilettes are often not free and are "Cash Only". This means no credit cards. Make sure you have some euro with you. Remember, in France, it is not free-free to pee pee!


That said some of these derail times have been among my most charming and favorite adventures in France.


For international trips starting in France, you can book it all on the SNCF app, but when you get to the station, it will ask you to print the ticket you will use to travel AND return. You must print in France BEFORE you depart France and validate along the way of your journey.


On a final note, don't be afraid to ask questions. People will generally be polite and helpful.



image: courtesy Bob Kolinski

P'Niche: Wow! You are a wealth of info and I speak for all P'Nichers when I give you a big Merci! You've made train travel in France (and beyond) much less intimidating!

Bob: That's wonderful! It's my hope that everyone can find these tips helpful in planning their own French adventures outside of Paris. On y va - let's go!

P'Niche: Ok, first, gotta park the time machine...


With another huge thank you to Bob for his friendship (and superior navigational skills), what do you say, P'Nicher, are you ready to explore France more via the rail system now? Let us know in the comments below et à bientôt! 


7 comments

7 Comments


Debra Borchert
Debra Borchert
Apr 03

Gosh, I wish I had known all this before I learned the hard way. I also "think" that on one of the train systems, I used it to travel from Strasbourg to Colmar, I learned that if I bought a ticket for let's say 4 pm, I could use it on trains before and after that set time. Bob, can you confirm that?

Thanks! Debra

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janet
Mar 09

Great tips! Merci Bob et Christina !

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chrissy
Mar 22
Replying to

merci at toi (et Bob!)

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Susan Maxheim Carter
Susan Maxheim Carter
Mar 07

Great information, Bob, thanks for sharing. Back in the day when we took trains all around France and Europe, we had a suitcase stolen from the luggage rack and from then on always chained and locked our suitcases together.

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chrissy
Mar 22
Replying to

so cool, thank you for sharing!

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Veronique Savoye
Veronique Savoye
Mar 06

Inspiring (and helpful) article P’Niche! As a train travel aficionada myself I can only concur. This is the best way to explore France if you do it right (and thanks to Bob’s tips many will!) — As a side note, thank you for the shout out, Monsieur Kolinski. I’ll be sure to let you know when my upcoming French immersion workshops get launched in Tours :-) A bientôt. Véro

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chrissy
Mar 22
Replying to

we await word on Tours, Madame!! et merci bien! 😎

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