By Rick Steves
Are rail passes a good value for France?
Rail passes can be a solid value in France, especially if you expect to have at least three days of significant train travel. The most basic single-country France Rail Pass, for example, is cheaper than full-fare round-trip Paris–Avignon train tickets. But if you're making just a couple of trips and can commit to dates and times in advance, look into France's advance-purchase discounts on point-to-point train tickets, which can save you money over a pass.
Also, France's fast TGV trains require that you pay extra for seat reservations…while restricting the number of seat reservations sold to rail-pass holders — which means trains can "sell out" for passholders well before they've sold out for ticket buyers, making rail passes far less convenient in France than they are elsewhere.
How do I see whether a rail pass makes sense for my trip in particular?
Train Fares: France
Map shows approximate costs, in $US, for one-way, second-class tickets at peak-time rates. For first-class fares, add 50 percent.
Use this map to add up approximate pay-as-you-go fares for your itinerary, and compare that cost to the price of a rail pass for the number of days you expect to spend on the train. Also, follow the links below for:
• More tips for figuring out whether a pass makes sense for your trip
• The basics on choosing among rail passes
• More tips on how to save money by fine-tuning your rail pass
• Advice on deciding between first and second class
• Fare-estimate maps outside France
• Answers to frequently asked rail-pass questions
Choose one of the passes below to check prices and to buy your pass (orders are fulfilled by Rail Europe).
On most regional trains, such as between Paris and Normandy, rail pass holders can just hop on and find an open seat. But many types of French trains always require paid seat reservations:
- TGV trains, the high-speed trains that serve most main lines and international routes, require seat reservations, and limit places for rail-pass holders. If you're traveling on a multi-country pass that covers France, you'll pay $25 to reserve a seat — and reservations at this (exorbitant) price can sell out quickly, especially in second class. If you have a single-country France Rail Pass you can get seat reservations for just $11, though these also have limited availability. Once those rates are sold out, passholders with France-only passes can choose an "Easy Access" seat reservation for $27, paying more to access additional places on a busy train.
- International trains charge a range a prices for required seat reservations (higher than rates within the country, and sometimes higher in first class).
- Night trains within France (such as Paris to/from Nice, Hendaye, or Cerbère), four-passenger couchette compartments require a first-class ticket or rail pass, six-passenger couchettes accept second-class rail passes, and there are no private sleepers.
Book your required-reservation train trips as soon as you can commit to a date and time; they're available starting 90 days in advance. With a rail pass you can't book TGV reservations at French stations within three days of departure, but you may be able to book them online after that (provided reservations are still available).
To check whether a given train requires reservations, check online train schedules.
What do rail passes cover in France?
Aside from the extra reservation fees required for certain classes of train (see above), rail passes cover most travel on trains run by the SNCF, France's national railway. Rail passes do not, however, cover most privately run trains, such as these biggies:
- Thello night trains: These trains are your only direct night-train option between Paris and Italy. For the best price, buy your ticket months ahead (or consider flying).
- Thalys: These trains have a monopoly on the Paris–Brussels direct route, and reservations cost $40–95 in addition to a rail pass that covers both Belgium and France. To avoid Thalys fees when heading from Paris to Bruges or Brussels (or from Brussels or Bruges to Paris), you can take a little more time and connect in Lille to a TGV train (still requires reservations, but only cost $11, provided you reserve ahead).
- iDTGV and TGV OUIGO: These discounted TGV services operate on limited routes.
- Eurostar: The trains that cross the English channel aren't covered by rail passes, but passholders are eligible for special fares provided their pass covers either France or England (these fares also sell out in advance of the rest of the train).
Single-country France passes also offer a long list of minor sightseeing discounts. Multi-country rail passes that include France cover only a few non-train bonuses in France (described when you click through to purchase and in materials that come with the pass).
If a rail pass doesn't pencil out for your trip, you may be able to shave off the cost of your train tickets with some of these tips:
- Off-peak fares: Unlike most countries, France discounts point-to-point train ticket prices in non-peak times (the map above reflects peak-time fares). For instance, a direct Paris–Nice second-class ticket costs about $175 at "peak" fare or $145 at "normal" fare. (The trip costs more if you break it with stops along the way. Paris–Lyon costs $130 peak/$100 normal; Lyon–Avignon $70 peak/$55 normal; and Avignon–Nice $85 peak/$70 normal; which can add up to $285 for a leisurely Paris–Nice route.)
Advance-purchase discounts: Buying tickets in advance can get you 50 percent off the full fare. International TGV, Thalys, and overnight trains also offer big advance ticket savings. The best deals have limited seat availability, sell out early, are not refundable or changeable, and aren't sold by US-based retailers. Here's a quick how-to:
- Visit the SNCF's site once you feel comfortable committing to a travel date (tickets are on sale starting about three months out).
- If asked to "choose a country" from a drop-down menu, select "France," then, when presented with choice of flags, choose "Other Countries (EUR)," which gets you the English version of the site.
- After you've entered the arrival/destination cities and dates for your trip, use the drop-down menu to select "France" (yes, France) as your "Ticket collection country."
- Look for the cheapest, non-refundable category of ticket for your journey.
If a ticket in the "Prem's" category works for you, you can purchase it through the SNCF via PayPal; choose the eticket delivery option and print your ticket at home.
You can buy other fare types on the French site only if you have set up the "Verified by Visa" or "MasterCard SecureCode" program for your US credit card. Otherwise, check here for your next-best options.
- Youths (25 and younger) and seniors (60 and older) get a 25 percent discount on non-peak-time, non-TGV trains. Purchasing a card (youth: €50, senior: €60, also available for families) gets you bigger discounts (up to half-off, though reduced tickets are limited).
Also see our general tips for buying point-to-point tickets.
France Rail Passes: Key Details
Single-country France Rail Pass: Also covers direct TGV service to Barcelona, Turin, and Milan with normal (domestic) TGV reservation fees ($10–50). Note that adding extra days on this pass, at about $20–30/day, is significantly cheaper than doing so on a multi-country pass — but that this pass is valid for just one month after you’ve activated it (whereas multi-country passes offer a two-month window). Also: While this pass offers a senior discount (for travelers 60 and older) on first-class passes, seniors traveling with at least one other person will save more by getting a saverpass (and even more by getting a second-class pass).
Benelux–France Eurail Pass: "Benelux" = Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Valid on Thalys trains between Amsterdam, Brussels, or Cologne and Paris, but only with a seat reservation, which costs an additional $40–95. If you expect to be taking several long train trips in France, however, this pass can still save you money (since French trains require either a reasonably priced extra reservation fee, or none at all). Still, be aware that both the Thalys trains and TGV trains limit the number of seat reservations sold to rail-pass holders — reserve as far ahead as you can.
France–Italy Eurail Pass: Does not cover night trains between Italy and Paris, and direct daytime connections on this route require a substantial reservation fee ($41 in first class, $26 in second), and sell out fairly far in advance. See our further advice on Paris–Italy trains.
France–Spain Eurail Pass: If you're only dipping into a bit of Spain, this pass probably doesn't make sense. For instance, a ticket from the French border at Cerbère to Barcelona costs only $35 (or, if on a direct TGV train to Barcelona, the price of a seat reservation) in addition to a single-country France Rail Pass.
France–Switzerland Eurail Pass: Covers many Swiss boats as well as trains — see our Switzerland rail-pass page for an outline of coverage. If your trip is really Swiss-focused with just one train ride in France (e.g., Paris–Basel for $150, or less with advance-purchase discount ticket), consider getting a Swiss Travel Pass plus a separate French train ticket.