How to take the SNCF (a.k.a. my love affair with the difficult French train system)

This one's special- so short.

This one’s- special so short.

It’s time to talk SNCF. This post has been in the making for quite some time, as I have had an intimate and frustrating relationship with the French trains over the past 7 1/2 months. But let’s go to the start.

My relationship with the SNCF began when I was a young, optimistic, 18-year-old backpacker with nothing but love in my heart. I was charmed by SNCF’s allure. It was so efficient, so connected, it could take me anywhere- places I’d only dreamed of. After all, I was a mere Texan, where trains transported cargo or cattle, not people. It was easy to fall for SNCF’s appeal.

But as I grew older, and spent more time with SNCF, it grew distant. It let me down. It was unreliable, inconsistent and resistant to providing the information I needed. I became frustrated and bitter, longing for the unknowing innocence of my youth.

Oh SNCF. How complicated you are.

Oh SNCF. How complicated you are.

So now I write. I write so you can know. And because in spite of it all, I still have love for the SNCF.

Step 1: If possible, get a pass. 

First and foremost, decide how long you will be traveling in France. If you are traveling around Europe, consider Eurail. If you are traveling to multiple destinations in France, look into the passes.

For example, if you are under 25, or even if you are under 30, get the carte 12-25. It costs 50 euros and gives you anywhere from 25-60% off of tickets. Buy it in person as the website is hellish (more on that later). Sometimes it goes to 25, 27 or even 30. It depends on the deals they are offering. Bienvenue a SNCF.

*Note- you will need a french passport style picture. You can come prepared, or take one in any of the ready photobooths at the train station.*

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This little guy has saved me so much!!

STEP 2: Decide how fast, and how much (and no, this is not a Boratesque proposition…) TER vs. TGV. 

Depending on where you are going, and how much you want to spend, you might want to take the TGV or the TER (or a night train, but that’s a whole other ballgame).

The TGV is a high-speed train that gets to your destination faster and usually more comfortably. However, it is more expensive and contrary to popular belief, can be a pain in the ass (more on that soon). Here’s what you need to know:

  • TGV can cut your train travel in 1/2, so if you need to save time, it’s worth the cost.
  • There are two prices for the TGV- 2nd class and 1st class. Don’t waste your money on 1st.
  • You have assigned seats on the TGV. Look on your ticket for voiture, your car number, and place, your seat. When the train pulls up, it will have the car number on the side and when you get inside, you will see seat ranges to find your place (ex. 61-80 to the right). If all else fails, there are usually conductors for you to gesture at your ticket and figure out the right direction.
  • More often than not, to get to your TGV, or to get into the center of town, you will have to take a navette, or shuttle service. It basically looks like a big tour bus that costs anywhere from 1.50-2.50 euros.

This is where TGVs can be a pain in the ass. The stations are usually located on the outskirts of towns, so you have to take a navette from the local train station to the TGV station. Ultimately you pay for the navette, and take more time, as you’re out in the middle of no where. I would recommend sticking with local trains, the TER, unless you are traveling to big cities like Paris or Lyon. They seem to have it down.

The TER is the local train that usually takes longer (as it makes many stops), but is cheaper. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Again. Don’t waste your money on 1st class. Stick with 2nd.
  • Pay attention to “période bleue” and  “période blanche” when buying tickets. Blue is usually more expensive as it’s during commuting time. White is cheaper.
  • Pay attention to the train as it pulls in. You can get a preview of what kind of seating you want. Each train is different, and sometimes each car is different. You can have anywhere from normal seating, to cabin seating, where 8 people fit in one cabin. Depends on how you like to travel and how many you are traveling with.
  • If there is construction, sometimes your train is replaced with an autocar- a bus that will take you to your destination.
  • In big cities pay attention to the name of the train station. Sometimes there are multiple stations.

Sometimes you take more risks with the TER- delays, construction, cancellation, but the trains are cheaper, the refunds easier and usually you don’t have to wait long to catch the next available train. Usually.

*Note- A plus of the TER is refunds. Should you have any problems, you can get a full refund before your train departure. If you want to cancel or refund a TGV, there is a small fee.

IMG_2361

The cabins even have privacy curtains

Step 3: Reservations/Buying the Ticket

Depending on how much of a planner you are, you have a few options.

  1. Buy tickets online
  2. Buy tickets at counter (speak to person)
  3. Buy tickets from machine in the train station

1. Buying tickets online would seem like the easier option. However, if you do not have a French card, purchasing can be difficult. Be warned that the SNCF website can be confusing to say the least. This can help you through the process:

http://www.seat61.com/France-trains.htm#How to use voyages-sncf.com

2. If you have questions, do not know the best option, or need help arranging travel plans, speaking to someone with access to all the train times can be helpful. Usually you can find some one who speaks English and is more than willing to help. Again, usually.

3. If you have an idea of the destination and times, the ticket machines in the station can be your friend. It also has options for several languages. However, yet again, if you do not have a French card, this can be a problem.

Step 4: Riding the train

IMG_2369

Once you have successfully purchased your tickets. It’s time to ride the train! But wait- it’s not quite that simple.

First thing you need to do- arrive early. Give your self time to figure out where to go and to find the voie, or platform.

In theory, your voie is displayed 20 minutes before your train departure. Most of the time, it’s more like 10 minutes. If it’s anything under 10 minutes, seek help. Even if you don’t speak French, gesture at your ticket, and you’ll get somewhere. I made the mistake of growing accustomed to SNCF’s delays, and thought 5 minutes was plenty of time. Turns out, my “train” was an autocar.

IMG_4499

I was taking the 9:50 Valance train. Note the time…

While you’re waiting for you voie, composte, or stamp your ticket in one of the many machines. But wait! It’s not that simple either. More often, than not, the lovely machine will reject you. ….or at least your ticket.

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It’s temperamental

Turn your ticket multiple times- try the front, the back, the other side- until the machine has been appeased.

Once your number or letter comes up on the screen, follow the signs for your train and hop aboard!

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STEP 5: Extra- Things to Bring

Just as a little tid bit, these things can be quite helpful:

  • a book and/or music
  • scarf (doubles as blanket)
  •  granola bar/snack as train food is expensive and you don’t know when you’ll be delayed
  •  water bottle
  •  tissues- doubles as napkins and toilet paper
  • patience

All things considered, the SNCF has been there for me. It’s been temperamental and we’ve had our fair share of fights, but at the end of the day, it’s taken places- places I only dreamed of.

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