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I booked our tickets for the TGV from Paris to Cannes today. I remember when I bought train tickets for travelling in France, for the first time last year. It was quite daunting and confusing. I trawled TA for information and was thankful when one of the posters came to my aid with some much needed information. Living in Australia puts us in a different region for most bookings and puts us at the mercy of random French quirks such as credit card usage, etc. Also, sometimes booking on the French website gives you better prices compared to booking on an English site. I thought I’d write this post to help some other fellow traveller who may be looking for answers and tips on how to book a train ticket.

If you read French, the best site to use for train bookings for travel within France and from France to another European city would be the SNCF website. If you do not read French then your other option is the Rail Europe website. However, prices on the Rail Europe website are so ridiculously inflated it’s not funny. I’ve read that the American website is especially good at charging their customers almost double the price as compared to the French SNCF website. If you are patient, you can check your travel dates and times with the Rail Europe website, but book via the SNCF website so you get a better price. Check out this website for more information on how to navigate the crazy Rail Europe websites and step by step info on how to book on the French SNCF website. (This is valuable information especially if you are booking from the US.) Note : I checked my ticket prices this morning on the Rail Europe Australian site before I booked with SNCF and the tickets i wanted were the same price, but when I checked prices for another trip I wanted to book, the Australian site was more expensive. It’s always a good idea to check against the SNCF site.

Although TGV and most train tickets now work via the e-ticket system, some tickets still require collection at the ticket booth or via the ticket vending machines at the train station. Bear in mind that ticket booths at train stations have operating hours. So if you are taking a 11pm train, chances are you won’t be able to find a ticket booth that is open if you are in a small town. To collect your ticket from the ticket booth, you will need to present the same credit card that you used to purchase the tickets. If you are in a small town, remember that the person at the ticket booth may not speak English. (I experienced that last year at Saint-Pierre-des-Corps. Luckily, I knew enough French to get by.) You also have the option of collecting your ticket from the self-serve ticket machines (which have an English option). Again, you will need the same credit card used to purchase the tickets, and the credit cards must have a chip and PIN. So if you have AMEX or Diners, you will need to collect your tickets from the booth. I have also read that some people have had issues with using their credit cards at the ticket machines even though the cards had chips and PINs (the French don’t like foreign credit cards… LOL.)

Tickets go on sale exactly 90 days before the travel date. You cannot book ahead of 90 days. Also, remember that Europe have different timetables for winter and summer so there is also timetable changes mid June and mid December, which can mean that the 90 days may get squeezed to 60 days or less around those dates. You can however check the time and prices for tickets in advance. I have found that they don’t change much. If you have set dates for travel, booking 90 days ahead is definitely the better way to go. Booking your tickets this way, you will have access to PREM fares. PREM fares are non-exchangeable or refundable, but they give you awesome discounts, sometimes as much as 50% off the regular price. Like today, I booked our tickets – PREMs of course – and paid an extra 4 euro each for 1st class tickets compared to the normal economy class prices.

Another option for savings is the iDTGV although it’s a bit of a hit and miss. IDTGV bookings open 120 days in advance. They are basically extra carriages attached to the TGV train. You have the option of choosing a lively carriage or a ‘zen’ carriage where mobile phones are banned and where calm and tranquility rules. The prices are quite good but most people I know have had problems getting their payments to go through. Again, foreign credit cards are not welcome and it’s a bit of a hit and miss which cards go through. I have known of a couple of people whose cards went through but for the majority of us non-French people, the common error message we get is ‘votre carte crédit n’est pas acceptée’.

I won’t elaborate on the process of booking a ticket as the above mentioned website ‘The Man is Seat Sixty-One‘ does a great job of that with step by step guide and pictures. I really encourage you to book through the SNCF website though. It is not as difficult as you may imagine. Just one tip from me – when it comes to filling out your personal details, Nom is surname/family name and Prénom is your given name. The French ask for your family name first, instead of your given name, like we normally do here in Australia.

Other random facts on train travel in France:

  • TGV  stands for Trains à Grande Vitesse which literally translates to ‘trains at great speed’. They can run at up to 320km/h. The one that I’ve booked for us from Paris to Cannes is double-deckered and I have chosen seats for us on the upper deck. This should give us a good view of the countryside. According to the train seating plans, we should be on the right of the train, which should hopefully give us great views as we pass the coastline.
  • All long-distance TGV have a bar serving drinks and food, but you can always bring your own food and drink (including alcohol) on board. In fact, the French do that all the time.
  • If you do not have an e-ticket, you must validate your ticket before boarding the train. You do this by placing them into a yellow machine with ‘compostage de billets’ written on them. Failure to do so can result in a fine!
  • You can bring your bicycle with you on the train. It is usually free for short distance travel but may require a small fee on some longer routes.
  • The French love their dogs so of course your dog can travel with you on the train. Sometimes it may incur a small fee. In my imaginary world, I can see us boarding a train, heading to our next holiday destination in France, with our beloved Chloe in tow 🙂
  • If you are booking more than one ticket, do not be alarmed if you do not get consecutive seat numbers. As long as you are booking all the tickets together, you will still be seated together… unless of course, you are booking for 20 people, at the very last minute.

Well, that’s it for my brief introduction on train travel and ticket purchasing for France. I hope it helps someone with their trip planning.