Real Life in France - Tips and traps
by train: Finding the best deals online
France is a wonderful country to travel in by train; most large cities, and even many of the out of the way places, are accessible by train, the TGV lines are very fast, and it can be very cheap if you organize yourself well in advance in order to benefit from special fares. However, there are a few drawbacks: it is not easy to find good information on connections on the SNCF website, or to identify the best ticket formula – and getting help is not always very easy. A few suggestions.
Searching for the right train and schedule
It is not very easy to find the proper website among the series of SNCF sites. There is an English version for the purchase of tickets* but the information is very limited. If you feel comfortable in French, the best way to access the time & fare schedules is to go to www.voyages-sncf.com (a travel agency belonging to the SNCF where you can also buy plane tickets, book hotels, etc.), and then click on “Train”. Then you can try something on the page “Rechercher votre billet” (Look for your ticket) – which is almost the same, even if the title of the page is not translated, in the English website, but not as complete as the French one. However, if your trip will involve changing trains more than twice, or if you want to travel to a neighbouring country, the website is unable to provide further information. For such cases we suggest another website which is much easier to use when there are a number of connections, and which gives all routing details about the stations you would go through, etc. This is… the German railroad website! And there is even an English version:
Getting back to the SNCF website, that you have to use to purchase your ticket, on this “Rechercher votre billet” page you will be asked at Nr. 3 “Qui participe à ce voyage?” (Who will travel on this trip?). There you are asked for your age, and what kind of travel card (carte senior, etc.) you have. We suggest that you not reply at all to these questions and just indicate the number of passengers. Then, when the various schedules appear on the next page, you will see the price of the tickets. At this point, you can try to look for cheap fares (see below). Only if you don’t find any reduced fares, you can go back to those Nr. 3 questions and indicate your age – and, of course, if you have one of the travel cards.
Several kinds of lower-priced tickets
If you plan a trip by train, it is always advisable to book far in advance (but not earlier than 3 months) to get the best price. There are two very good fares, on both 1st and 2nd class: the “Prem’s”, and the “Piccolo”, even cheaper, and its various forms such as “Piccolossimo”: with these tickets the prices can be as low as 30 to 50% of the full fare. To find the train which will allow you to get this price, you need to check the various trains and hours possible – contrary to easyJet’s website, the SNCF website doesn’t display several possible trains at the same time, not to mention several days, and will certainly not direct you to the cheapest price straight away! One more detail: “Prem’s” and “Piccolos” are often cheaper than a reduced ticket for seniors or children. And this is why we advised you above not to mention the age of the passenger at first: the ticket offered for a 6-year-old child might be more expensive than a “Prem’s”…
It may also happen, not so often though, that tickets are sold at a reduced price at the last minute, “Dernière minute”. It is always worth checking.
Tuesday's Discount Purchase
Another way to get a good price ticket is to check the availability on Tuesdays. On that date, some unsold tickets are sold at half price. However, to find them on the web is quite difficult. Forget about the English version where they don't appear at all. On the French one, click first on “Voyages-sncf.com”, then on “Promos” (the yellow button, top right). Then, in the “Train” box of this new page, click on the third button:
Here they are!
Note: all “Prem’s”, “Piccolos” and Tuesday's tickets are non-refundable and you cannot change the date – except if you have subscribed to a cancellation option (2,50 € per passenger per trip), but be careful, it only works under specific conditions that are indicated on the website (“En savoir plus”). “Dernière minute” tickets cannot be reimbursed at all. And for any other full fare ticket, you should always to try and cancel your trip before the time of departure of the train in order to get a refund. Look carefully at the cancellation conditions on the webpage – they appear even on the English version!
Reservations: some are compulsory
They are only compulsory for the TGVs. If you want to change a reservation at the last minute, you can do it before getting on the train at the ticket windows of the “gare”, on electronic “bornes” called “Echange Minute TGV” when they are available – and when they work. If you want to take an earlier train and you just don’t have the time to change your ticket, you can always (but don’t tell anyone that we gave you this advice!) get on the train, you won’t be kicked off, and manage to see the “contrôleur” before he comes to your seat to explain to him, with your most serious and sincere voice, that you had to change trains and just couldn’t make the change of ticket in advance.
The most important thing for the SNCF is that you don’t forget to “composter” your ticket in one of these orange or yellow “bornes” in the station. If you fail to do so you will have to pay a fine – unless you manage to convince the conductor by using your most sincere voice, etc. etc…
Finalizing the purchase
on the web
Assuming that you finally found the right ticket at a decent price, now you need to purchase it. For TER (Transports express régional) forget it, they are not sold on line, and you have to get them at the station– any station, though. For the TGVs they can be purchased on line, but the SNCF website, on the page “Comment retirer votre billet” (How to get your ticket), will propose as a first option for some ticket purchases (but, strangely enough, not for all), that you print your ticket yourself. That might be a good thing to do if you are sure to travel yourself, but such a ticket is not transferable and must be used by the person whose name is on the ticket. The only advantage is that you don’t need to “composter” before getting on the train. However you need to have your ID card, with the exact name that is on the ticket, with you when you are checked by the conductor. This is why we suggest that you ask to have the ticket sent to your home by mail. This is a quick and free service, and then you can always give the ticket to someone else if you cannot make the trip yourself.
Good luck!… and enjoy the beautiful countryside of France once you manage to get on the train – and if there aren't any strikes at that time...
Sncf website in English
IDTGV: a new formula
A new formula was launched a few years ago by the SNCF, on four lines from Paris only: the “IDTGV”. It is a good way to get excellent fares on special trains, from as low as 19 € for a one-way ticket on these lines. Another advantage is that there is a special website, easily accessible, and with a totally identical English version: www.idtgv.com
The four lines link Paris to Bordeaux, Marseille, Montpellier and Nice, with stopovers, depending on the line, at Aix-en-Provence, Avignon, Cannes, Nîmes, Saint-Raphaël, Toulon and Toulouse.
As you will see on the website, these tickets can only be purchased on line, and have to be printed out by, and can only be used by the purchaser. You don't, however, have to “composter” these tickets.
French Accent Magazine - January 07