The SNCF, France's rail system, is fast, punctual, comfortable, and comprehensive—when it's not on strike. There are various options: local trains, overnight trains with sleeping accommodations, and the high-speed TGV (or Trains à Grande Vitesse), which average 255 kph (160 mph) on the Lyon/southeast line and 320 kph (200 mph) on the Lille and Bordeaux/southwest lines.
The TGVs, the fastest way to get around the country, operate between Paris and Lille/Calais, Paris and Lyon/Switzerland/Provence, Paris and Angers/Nantes, Paris and Tours/Poitiers/Bordeaux, Paris and Brussels, and Paris and Amsterdam. As with other mainline trains, a small supplement may be assessed at peak hours.
Paris has six international rail stations: Gare du Nord (northern France, northern Europe, and England via Calais or Boulogne); Gare St-Lazare (Normandy, and England via Dieppe); Gare de l'Est (Strasbourg, Luxembourg, Basel, southern Germany, and Central Europe); Gare de Lyon (Lyon, Marseille, Provence, Geneva, and Italy); Gare d'Austerlitz (Loire Valley, central France, and overnight to Nice and Spain); and Gare Montparnasse (Brittany, Aquitaine, TGV-Atlantique service to the west and southwest of France, Spain). Smoking is prohibited on all trains in France.
The country has two classes of train service: première (first class) or deuxième (second). First-class seats have 50% more legroom and nicer upholstery than those in second class, and the first-class cars tend to be quieter. First-class seats on the TGV also have power sockets for computer connections (although Wi-Fi is not yet available) and individual reading lights, but fares cost nearly twice as much as those for second-class seats.
Fares are cheaper if you avoid traveling at peak times (around holidays and weekends), purchase tickets at least 15 days in advance (look for the billet Prem's), or find your destination among the last-minute offers online every Tuesday. For the lowest possible fares on soon-to-depart trains, check the SNCF website's "Les Petits Prix Train" section; twice a year, SNCF also has early-bird prices for travel in France.
You can call for train information or reserve tickets in any Paris station, irrespective of destination, and you can access the multilingual computerized schedule information network at any Paris station. You can also make reservations and buy your ticket while at the computer. Go to the Grandes Lignes counter for travel within France and to the Billets Internationaux desk if you're heading out of the country.
If you plan to travel outside Paris by train, consider purchasing a France Rail Pass through Rail Europe; it allows for one, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, or nine days of unlimited train travel in a one-month period. If you travel solo for three days, first class will run you $283 and second class $230; you can add up to six days on this pass for $40 a day for first class, $31 a day for second class. For two people traveling together on a Saver Pass, the first-class cost is $248 per person, and in second class it's $201.
France is one of 28 countries where you can use Eurail passes, which provide unlimited train travel for a set amount of time. If you plan to rack up the miles, get a Global Pass; it's valid for first-class rail travel in all member nations for periods ranging from five days ($581) to three months ($2,037). The Regional Pass, which covers rail travel in and between pairs of bordering countries over a two-month period, is an alternative. Unlike most Eurail passes, Regional Passes are available for first- or second-class travel; prices begin at $395 (first class) and $317 (second class) for four days of travel; up to six extra days can be purchased.
In addition to standard Eurail passes, there is the Eurail youth pass (for those under age 26, with second-class travel), the Eurail Saver Pass (which gives a discount for two or more people traveling together), and the Eurail flexi pass (which allows a certain number of travel days within a flexible period). Remember that you must buy Eurail passes at home before leaving for France. You can purchase them through the Eurail website or through travel agents.
Another option is to buy one of the discount rail passes available for sale only in France from SNCF. You can, for instance, save up to 50% by purchasing a discount Railcard.
Reduced fares are available for senior citizens (over 60), and for children under 12 and up to four accompanying adults. If you purchase an individual ticket from SNCF in France and you're under 26, you also get an automatic 25% reduction (a valid ID such as an ISIC card or your passport is necessary).
If you're going to be using the train quite a bit during your stay in France and if you're under 27, consider buying the Carte 12–27 (€50), which offers unlimited 50% reductions for one year on TER and intercity trains without reservations (provided that there's space available at that price; otherwise, you'll just get the standard 25% discount).
If you don't benefit from any of these reductions and you plan on traveling at least 200 km (132 miles) round-trip and don't mind staying over a Saturday night, look into the Carte Week-end. This ticket also gives you a 25% reduction.
A rail pass does not guarantee you a seat on the train you wish to ride. You need to book seats ahead even if you have a pass.
Seat reservations (available at a minimal fee) are required on TGVs and are a good idea on trains that may be crowded—particularly in summer and during holidays on popular routes. You also need a reservation for sleeping accommodations.
Rail Europe. 800/622–8600; 847/916–1028; www.raileurope.com.
SNCF. 3635; www.voyages-sncf.com.
TGV. 3635; www.tgv.com.
The Channel Tunnel
Short of flying, taking the Channel Tunnel is the fastest way to cross the English Channel: 35 minutes from Folkestone to Calais, 60 minutes from motorway to motorway, or two hours and 15 minutes from London's St. Pancras Station to Paris's Gare du Nord, with stops in Lille, Calais, Ashford (UK), and Ebbsfleet (UK). The Belgian border is just a short drive northeast of Calais. High-speed Eurostar trains use the same tunnels to connect London's St. Pancras Station directly with Midi Station in Brussels in around two hours.
There's a vast range of prices for Eurostar—round-trip tickets range from €620 for first class (with access to the Philippe Starck–designed Première Class lounge and a three-course Raymond Blanc meal) to €175 for second class, depending on when you travel. It's a good idea to make a reservation if you're traveling with your car on a Chunnel train; vehicles without reservations, if they can get on at all, are charged 20% extra.
Channel Tunnel Information
Eurostar. 08–92–35–35–39; www.eurostar.co.uk.
Eurotunnel. 08–10–63–03–04; www.eurotunnel.com.