Monday, March 8, 2021

How To Travel Around France

Europe France How To Travel Around France

By plane

The following airlines offer domestic flights in France:

  1. Air France has the largest domestic network in France
  2. HOP!, a subsidiary of Air France, operates domestic flights with smaller aircraft than Air France.
  3. easyJet, a low-cost airline, has the second largest domestic network in France
  4. Ryanair, another low-cost airline, mainly serves secondary airports.
  5. Volotea has a network of domestic flights
  6. Air Corsica connects Corsica with mainland France
  7. Twin Jet operates domestic flights with 19-seater Beech 1900D aircraft.
  8. Hex’Air operates flights between Paris-Orly and Lourdes with 19-seater Beech 1900D aircraft.
  9. Eastern Airways offers domestic flights between Lyon and Lorient.
  10. ChalairAviation has a limited network of domestic flights, mainly with 19-seater Beech 1900D aircraft.
  11. HeliSecurite (Cannes (Croisette heliport), Nice (Côte d’Azur airport))
  12. Helicopter from Nice (Cannes (Croisette Heliport), Nice (Côte d’Azur Airport))

By car

France has a well-developed motorway network. Most of the motorway network consists of toll roads. Some have a single toll station that gives you access to a section, others have entry and exit toll stations at each junction. When you enter a toll road section, you must collect an entry ticket from a machine that registers the starting point of the road and ensures that you only pay for the distance travelled. Make sure you don’t lose your ticket or you will be charged for the longest distance. All toll booths accept all major credit cards, but not necessarily foreign credit cards. It is also possible to use the automatic booth, but only if your card is equipped with a special chip.

Roads range from narrow, single-lane rural roads to major motorways. Most cities were built before the car was widespread, so city centres tend to be unsuitable for cars. Bear this in mind when renting a car: large cars can be very bulky. It often makes sense to park and use public transport.

A French motorist flashing his headlights enforces his right of way and warns you of his intentions and presence. Do not use it to say thank you. Flashing your lights can also mean: “Attention, there is a police speed check in front of you! The horn should only be used in legitimate emergencies; using it in urban areas outside of these circumstances may result in a ticket. Drivers in Paris have been known to honk at anything and everything, although stricter controls have greatly reduced this practice.

Rent a car

Once you arrive in France, you may need to use a car rental service. Most major companies operate from French airports and it is advisable to book a rental car in advance. At smaller French airports, it is common that you will not get the type of car you booked online, but a different model. Sometimes the alternative model is very different. Therefore, check carefully before accepting the vehicle and hold it if it does not match your booking request and is not suitable for your needs.

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Most cars in France are equipped with a standard gearbox, due to both driver preferences and the specifics of French driving licence legislation (automatic gearboxes are usually only used by elderly or disabled people). This also applies to vehicle categories that are rarely equipped with a manual transmission in other countries (read: the US), such as vans and large sedans. As a result, almost all vehicles available in the average car rental will be equipped with a manual transmission. If you do not know how to drive a car with a manual transmission and do not have time to learn before your trip, you should book your rental car well in advance and confirm your reservation. Otherwise, you may end up in a car that is much bigger than you can afford (or no car at all).

It is a good tip if you are travelling in a group to let one member of the group go directly to the car rental with hand luggage before everyone else, this will avoid a clash once the main luggage is picked up on the conveyor belt.

By thumb

France is a good country to stop in. Be patient, be prepared for a long wait or a long walk and enjoy the scenery while you wait. A walk awaits you. People who stop are generally friendly and safe. They will appreciate you more if you speak a little French. They never wait for money for the ride.

Don’t forget that it’s almost impossible to get out of Paris with your thumb. You can try your luck at the “Portes” (city gates), but the heavy traffic and limited stopping zones will test your patience. It’s a good idea to take a local train to a nearby suburb, as this will greatly increase your chances of being picked up.

Outside Paris, it is advisable to try your luck at roundabouts. As it is illegal to hitchhike on the motorways and they are well guarded by the police, you can try your luck at a motorway junction.

The best chance is at toll stations, some of which require all cars to stop and are therefore good places for a ride. If you have been waiting for a while and don’t know where to go, give up and just try your thumb. You can also try being driven in the wrong direction to the next good spot. Note, however, that hitchhiking from a tollbooth, although common, is illegal and the French police or road safety authorities, who are usually very tolerant of hitchhikers, can stop you and force you to drive away. Free maps are available at the toll booths – they also show where to find the “all-stop toll”.

By train

The train is a great way to get around France. You can travel almost anywhere by train. For long distances, use the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse), which requires a reservation. But if you have time, take the slow train and enjoy the countryside. The countryside is part of what makes France one of the best destinations in the world.

The French national railway network is managed by SNCF Réseaux, a subsidiary of the French national railway company (SNCF).

Passenger trains are operated by various companies:

  • Most trains are operated by the SNCF
  • Some low-cost TGVs between Marne-la-Vallée (Disneyland), Lyon and Marseille or Montpellier are operated by Ouigo. This service is modelled on the budget airlines, so watch out for hidden charges. Also, Ouigo tends to serve destinations further away when rail and station access fees are lower, which can make travelling to your final destination expensive and time-consuming.
  • Some other TGVs to and from Paris are operated by iDTGV.
  • Some trains between Italy and Marseille or Paris are operated by Thello.
  • International high-speed connections to the rest of Europe are operated by several companies, including Eurostar (London), Thalys (Brussels, Amsterdam), Lyria (Switzerland), DB (Germany) and RENFE (Barcelona).

Each company has its own conditions of carriage and most of them do not accept SNCF discount cards for international travel (Ouigo and iDTGV are also separate from SNCF within France, although they are owned by SNCF).

For regional trains, timetables are available on ter.sncf.com (select your region and then “Map and timetables” for maps and timetables). Reservations are available in two classes: first class is less crowded and more comfortable, but can also be about 50% more expensive than second class.

On the SNCF Gares & Connexion website, you can find live train timetables that inform you about the number of platforms and delays. This information is also available on smartphones via the free SNCF app.

There are different types of high-speed trains and normal trains:

  • TER (Train Express Régional): Regional trains and the backbone of the SNCF system. TERs are sometimes slower but serve most stations. Available on Eurail and InterRail cards. As they are the property of the respective region, SNCF conditions of carriage do not apply and you are not entitled to reimbursement if the train is late.
  • Intercities: From 2012, the regrouping of the former Corail services. Includes trains with compulsory reservation (former Téoz and Lunéa night trains) and those with optional reservation (former Intercités). The trains with optional reservation are those that are often used on the passes. Some trains go to regions not served by the TGV, for example Auvergne.
  • TGV (Trains à Grande Vitesse): France’s famous high-speed trains run several times a day from Paris to the south-east: Nice (5-6 hours), Marseille (3 hours) and Avignon (2.5 hours), to the east: Geneva (3 hours) or Lausanne, Switzerland and Dijon (1.15 hours), to the south-west: Bordeaux (3 hours), to the west: Rennes (2 hours), Nantes (2 hours), Brest (4 hours) and to the north: Lille (1 hour). The Eurostar to London (2h15) and the Thalys to Brussels (1h20) use almost identical trains. Reservations are compulsory.
  • There are also night train services (Night Intercity). They include second class berths (6 bunk beds in one compartment), first class berths (4 bunk beds) and reclining seats. Sleeping cars (one compartment with 2 real beds) have been completely removed from French night trains. However, you can request a “private room” (first class). The night trains have been phased out in recent years and only a handful of them will still be in service in 2015.

Fare system

The SNCF fare system is somewhat complex, but still easy to understand.

There are many types of tariffs, but the two most important are the following:

  • Dibs, preferential prices, non-exchangeable and non-refundable
  • Leisure tickets and tickets with a discount card are exchangeable and refundable tickets (minus a tax) before the train departs. Tickets are usually cheaper the more they are bought in advance.

There are three types of tickets:

  • Ticket, classic paper ticket, bought at a ticket office. If you lose it, you have to buy a new one.
  • Electronic ticket that… is not an “electronic ticket” at all. It is also a normal paper ticket, but bought online. Again, if you lose it, you have to buy a new one.
  • e-Billet, which is an “electronic ticket”. Only available on certain TGV connections. All you need is a printed e-ticket (from your own printer or from a ticket vending machine). Tickets can be reissued as often as necessary, but they are nominative: your name must match the name on the ticket.

For regional (TER) and Intercity trains without reservation, tickets purchased at a ticket office are valid for any train within two months … except that there are two “travel periods” depending on the departure time of your train:

  • Blue period, the cheapest
  • White period, the most expensive

A calendar describes the time and days of each period. You can travel during the blue period with a “white period” ticket (because it is more expensive), but you cannot do the opposite.

Young people (12-28 years) and people aged 60 and over receive a 25% discount on tickets for TER and Intercités trains when travelling during the Blue Period. There is also a Senior+ train pass that you can buy for €60/year, which gives its holder additional privileges.

If you are under 28 and make more than two return trips to France, you can save money with a ‘carte jeune’. It costs 50 euros, is valid for one year and entitles you to a discount of 25-60%, depending on when you book the ticket and when you travel.

Ouigo only sells tickets online and you must present the QR code in a scannable form (print or screen).

Online reservation

Booking tickets online can be quite confusing: SNCF itself does not sell tickets online and it is possible to book the same journey through different travel agency websites (in different languages and currencies). Fares for travel in France are the same at all travel agencies.

  • Voyages-sncf.com French language booking site from Expedia and SNCF. It can be confusing at times and we know it doesn’t work very well if you are trying to buy a ticket from abroad or with a non-French credit card. Attention: you need the credit card you paid with to collect your tickets at the ticket office. If you don’t have it, your tickets will be lost and you will have to buy new ones.
  • Reservation page in French, English, German and Italian by Captain Train. It is designed to be as easy to use as possible. Unlike “Voyages SNCF”, you don’t need your credit card to retrieve tickets, just the reservation number and the last name entered when making the reservation. You can pay by Visa, MasterCard, American Express or Paypal. Tickets can be printed or downloaded to your mobile phone or an Apple or Android watch. This site sells tickets for 19 European countries, including Deutsche Bahn (DB) tickets for travel in France and Germany, Lyria tickets for travel in Switzerland, Eurostar tickets for travel in the UK, Thalys tickets for travel in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, and Thello tickets for travel in Italy. For Alleo journeys (joint operation of SNCF and DB) between France and Germany, Captain Train automatically compares SNCF and DB fares and shows you the cheapest of the two (although SNCF and DB have their own fares for the same train).
  • RailEurope are reservation agencies that belong to SNCF. Fares on these sites are often higher than on the “official” sites, but they are generally easier to use than the SNCF sites.

Boarding

To find your train, look for your train number and departure time on the departure board. A track number (“Track”) is displayed next to the train and departure time. Follow the signs indicating this track to board the train. On TGV trains, you have a reserved seat. On other long-distance trains, you have the option of making a reservation (at least one day in advance); if you do not have one, you can use any unused seat that is not marked as reserved. To find your reserved seat, first look for the number of the train car (“Voit. No”). Watch out for possible confusion between the track number (Voit. No) and the carriage number (Voit. Short). When you leave the track, the wagon number is displayed on an LCD screen on the wagon, or maybe just written in the window or right next to the doors.

The rules regarding reserved seats are lax; you are allowed to change seats or use another seat (in the same class, of course) if it is free because the TGV is not full, or if the other person agrees to change with you. The only condition is not to continue using a reserved seat if the person who reserved it asks to do so.

On the main lines, the TGVs often travel in pairs. There are two possibilities: Either the two TGVs are considered as one train with one train number (in which case each coach has a different coach number); or the two TGVs are considered as separate trains running together for part of their journey, with two different train numbers (in which case the two trains may have two numbers close to each other, e.g. 1527 and 1537), and each train has its own coach numbering. So make sure you are on the right train (the train number is displayed on the LCD screen together with the carriage number).

If you are early, there is often a map somewhere along the line that shows how the train and carriage numbers on the line line up according to the letters that are either on the floor or on the signs above. This way you can stand next to the letter that corresponds to your carriage number and wait to board the train that is closest to your carriage. You can easily change from one carriage to another. So if you are very late, get into any carriage of the same class before the train leaves, wait until most people are seated and then go to your carriage and seat number.

Attention: To avoid any form of fraud, your ticket must be punched by a ticket punching machine before entering the platform area in order to be valid. The old machines are bright orange, the new ones are yellow and grey. The machines are located at the entrance to all platforms. Failure to punch the ticket may result in a fine, according to the conductor, even if you are a foreigner with limited French vocabulary, unless you approach the conductor as soon as possible and ask for the ticket to be validated. Similarly, if you board a train without a ticket, you must find the ticket inspector and inform him of your situation before he finds you. However, electronic tickets must not be punched: If in doubt, punch it anyway, you will not be punished for punching an electronic ticket.

French-language information kiosks, especially in large stations, can be unhelpful, especially if you don’t understand much French. If something doesn’t seem to make sense, just say “sorry” and they should repeat it.

Train exchange

As it is cheaper to book and buy train tickets, especially if they are booked in advance, the trade in non-exchangeable and non-refundable train tickets on the internet is relatively lively. See these pages.

Be very careful if you do not buy an “e-ticket” or a printed ticket: The seller could cancel the ticket after the transaction and you would be considered a fraudster on board the train.

By bus

There is no uniform national bus service. Until recently, buses were limited to local public transport or departmental/regional transport. Following a similar liberalisation of the market in Germany, long-distance buses are now allowed to operate throughout France and prices can be quite low, especially if booked in advance. However, journey times and comfort tend to be worse than on trains.

By bike

France is not a particularly bicycle-friendly country (unlike the Netherlands, for example), but the situation is improving: more cycle lanes are being built and about 40 cities have a public bicycle system.

Beware of bicycle thieves. If you have to leave your bike on the street, make sure you lock it properly, especially in big cities and at night. Avoid using cable locks, which can be cut in seconds, use U-shaped locks, chains or foldable padlocks instead. Secure your bike to a fixed rack, e.g. a U-rack. Secure the frame (not just the wheels) and ensure that your wheels cannot be removed without the help of a more determined thief with tools.