Before you go anywhere in France by train, you need to buy your train tickets! This can be done in a couple ways. First, there is the train station itself. With rare exceptions, you can purchase a train ticket from/to anywhere in France in any train station.
Larger cities in France also have storefront offices called SNCF Boutiques. Here, you can sit down across a desk from someone and discuss your trip, if you wish, or simply purchase your ticket in a more relaxed environment. Any travel agency can also issue tickets, making it easy if you’re in a smaller town.
If you’re nervous about the language barrier, you may want to go to the SNCF website to look up times and prices. Although there is an English language option on the website, it takes you to another site entirely, which can be confusing and not as comprehensive. But if you’ve ever filled out an Internet form before, you can handle the French site. Choose “Horaires” if you just want to know the times, or “Reservez” for times and prices. I recommend “Reservez,” as trains in France tend to be priced differently depending on the time of day you’re traveling – so taking a later or earlier train can save you a surprising amount of money.
When it comes to paying for your ticket, you’re going to need to do so in cash. For some reason, their card machines (both at the counter and the stand-alone ticketing machines) only take cards issued in France, which have a special chip in them. This is another good reason to know the prices, so you’re not running around looking for an ATM.
Note: Be aware that Italy has recently made it extremely hard to purchase tickets for their trains in France, and each leg comes with a 5-euro surcharge. So if you’re crossing the border, it may be best to purchase those Italian train tickets once you’re in Italy.
In France, you have to validate your ticket at the start of your trip. If you have more than one destination on that ticket – for example, a ticket from Montpellier to Nice will have a stop in Marseille you only need to validate it once. But if you don’t do it at all, you could face a fine (and the disapproving sigh of the conductor).
Ticket validating machines are about waist-high, bright yellow, and are at the beginning of every train track entrance. Just stick your ticket in, wait for the thunk/beep and take it back out. If it doesn’t stamp it, turn your ticket around. Then you’re good to go!
Oh! And one last thing, which is rare but did happen to me recently. Some train routes are replaced by a bus. If this is the case with your train, it will be written on your ticket (albeit in French), and on the departure board/screen there will be a note as well. Sounds easy, right? Well, not unless you know that the word for these replacement buses is “Autocar.” Sometimes it will just say, “Car.” So if you see that on your ticket or at the station, head outside and find the bus depot!
Written by Christine Cantera for EuropeUpClose.com