7 Tips To Know Before You Take The Train In France

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Ticket Puncher /FrenchToday.com.

There is much to say about taking the train in France: the main network is called “la SNCF” and the big stations are divided between “les trains grandes lignes” and “Les trains à grande vitesse TGV” going across France, and “les trains de banlieues” also called TER serving the surrounding area.

Paris has 7 main train stations:

- La Gare Montparnasse
- La Gare de Lyon
- La Gare St Lazare
- La Gare du Nord
- La Gare d'Austerlitz
- La Gare de l'Est
- La Gare de Bercy

Going there for the first time can be overwhelming since on top of the SNCF network, you may also have the subway and other local trains. So make sure you follow the signs, and don't hesitate to ask fellow passengers or SNCF employees.

However, I thought I'd share with you some tips that can be surprising and help you feel ready for your next trip to France.

1 - Don't Forget to Punch Your Ticket or You'll Get a Fine!

Insert your ticket in the puncher and turn and repeat until you hear a punching sound. The box (usually yellow or orange) will punch the date on your ticket. If you forget to do this, you'll get a fine when the controller gets to you.

If you have purchased a ticket at a station or received a paper ticket by mail, you absolutely need to punch it. If you got a ticket online and printed it yourself (e-billet), then you don't need to punch it. If for some reason you didn't punch it, get to the controller before he controls you, and tell him/her.

The puncher are located at the beginning of the platforms, and/or in the station.

2 - Where Is The Seat Number On a French Train?

Finding your seat is yet another challenge; 

  • The seat number may be located on the back part of your seat, next to where your head would be, between the 2 seats. 
  • The number can also be on the side, still on the back part of the seat.
  • Or it can be on the wall, next to your seat.

There often are several numbers: two for one seat. The correct one for that train is the lit one.

3 - When Are Platforms Announced For French Trains?

The train platforms are only announced about 20 minutes before the departure of the train, which can be nerve wracking when you are in a big "gare", and then a wave of people rushes to the platform, which can also be difficult to navigate. Look at the "tableau d'affichage" to find your platform.

4 - French Trains Can Be Quite Long, So Wear Your Best Walking Shoes

I am a fast walker. And I've counted 10 minutes from the station to my car (admittedly the last one of the TGV). See, TGV are often paired by 2, then the trains separated and each goes its own way after a certain station. So they can get VERY long. If you are running out of time, you may have to climb into the train just before it departs and continue walking to your car through the sitting passengers...

Go to page 2 for more.

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5 - How Far in Advanced Can you Buy Your Ticket

Usually, train tickets go on sale 3 months before the departure. For special occasions, such as school vacations, tickets for major touristic destinations may be available sooner. I strongly recommend you check out "Capitaine Train" to buy your tickets. This site is way better than the SNCF one in my opinion. Their customer service is very responsive.

Tell them I sent you!

6 - Don't be Alarmed If You See Soldiers At the Train Station.

As I write these lines, France has just been stricken by the terrorists attacks of January 2015. So believe me, there are many soldiers patrolling stations and touristic areas. 

But even in normal times, when there is not particular threat, it is not unlikely to walk by heavily armed (machine guns) soldiers patrolling railway stations - Don't be alarmed, it is normal for France.

The army often takes care of routine security in France, there is nothing unusual about it.

7 - Is Your Luggage Safe In The Luggage Compartment?

You can place your luggage in a compartment at the beginning of the car, or on the overhead compartment (rather small), or on platforms located in the middle of the car.

In First class of TGVs, you can sometimes slide your suitcase under the triangle formed by the back part of 2 seats. 

As far as I know, luggage compartments are rather safe – there are however thieves that come in just before the departure of the train, go through a car, grab a bag (often a smaller such as laptop bag or purse) and get off the train just before it leaves the station.

 

I would not, leave my computer bag or handbag unsupervised at any time, or travel with very luxurious bags and leave them unattended... But I often ask another passenger: “est-ce que vous auriez la gentillesse de garder un oeil sur mon sac” (would you be kind enough as to keep an eye on my bag) as I go to the bathroom or the snack bar.

 

Voilà, I hope this helps. The travel section of About has a huge section on traveling to France by train, so I advise you take a look at it for more detailed info. 

Follow these links for more of my taking the train in France related articles:

French Train Vocabulary,
- 7 Need-to-Know Facts Before You Take the Train in France
20 Typical Q&A You'll Use When Taking the Train in France
Master Train Announcements in French
Let's Take the Train Together - Bilingual French English Story

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