By Rick Steves
Are rail passes a good value for France?
Rail passes can be a good value in France if you'll be taking some long-distance rides, or riding mostly on trains that don't require reservations — but beware that a pass can limit your options in France. That's because France's fast TGV and international trains require that you pay extra for seat reservations…while sometimes restricting the number of seat reservations sold to rail-pass holders — which means trains may "sell out" for passholders well before they've sold out for ticket buyers.
If you're taking just a couple of train rides and can commit to dates and times in advance, look into France's advance-purchase discounts on point-to-point train tickets, which may save you money over a pass.
How do I see whether a rail pass makes sense for my trip in particular?
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).
Extra tip: If you're considering a two-country Select Pass for France and Switzerland but your trip is really Swiss-focused with just one train ride in France (e.g., Paris–Basel for about $140, or less with advance-purchase discount ticket), consider getting a single-country Swiss Travel Pass (which offers better coverage of Switzerland than a Select Pass) plus a separate French train ticket.
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 of France's main lines as well as some international routes, require seat reservations. Seat reservations for domestic routes start at $11, and go up to $27 as seating sells out.
- International TGV trains charge a range of prices for required seat reservations (higher than rates within the country, and sometimes higher in first class — and may limit places for rail-pass holders). On direct TGV Lyria trains between France and major Swiss cities, for example, reservations are fairly expensive (about $35 in second class or $70 in first), but cheaper on TGVs within France, such as the Paris–Strasbourg route. To use a rail pass to cover an international train to/from France, the pass must include both France and the second country. (Trains between France and the Swiss cities of Basel and Geneva however, are covered by any rail pass that includes France, since both cities are right on the border.) Be aware that seat reservations for direct daytime connections between Paris and anywhere in Italy or Spain sell out fairly far in advance. See our further advice on Paris–Italy trains.
- Thalys trains, which have a monopoly on the Paris–Brussels direct route (and also connect beyond Brussels to/from Amsterdam and Cologne/Dortmund), require reservations that cost $25–35 in addition to a pass that covers both ends of the trip. Reserve as far ahead as possible for Thalys trains to/from France.
- Eurostar trains across the English Channel between London and France (Paris, Lille, and Disneyland) accept Eurail Global Passes, as well as three- or four-country Select Passes that cover France. Reservations cost about $35 in Standard class or $45 in Standard Premier in addition to starting use of a rail pass travel day.
- Night trains within France are now rare. On those still running, 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. (Direct night trains to Italy, however, do not accept rail passes; see our advice on Paris–Italy trains.)
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 (sometimes even earlier).
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 for France cover most travel on trains operated by the SNCF, France's national railway.
International trains are covered by rail passes as long as the passes cover the countries at both ends of the train journey. For example, a pass that included both France and Spain would cover a direct TGV between Marseille and Barcelona (though an extra seat-reservation fee would be required — see above). But a single-country France pass, or a pass for, say, France and Switzerland, would not cover this connection at all. (Travelers who purchased a single-country or two-country pass for France before April 1, 2018, can still book seat reservations for international Eurostar, Thalys, and France–Spain TGV trains by phone with Rail Europe, but not online.)
Rail passes do not, however, cover other privately run trains, such as these biggies:
- Thello: These trains are your only direct night-train option between Paris and Italy; they also operate a daytime Milan–Genova–Nice–Marseille route. While passholders are eligible for a 25 percent discount on the night trains, this doesn't beat most advance-purchase deals — for the best price, buy your ticket months ahead (or consider flying).
- iDTGV and TGV OUIGO: These discounted TGV services operate on limited routes.
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:
- Advance-purchase discounts: Buying tickets in advance can get you 50 percent off the full fare. The best deals have limited seat availability, sell out early, are not refundable or changeable, and aren't always 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, sometimes earlier).
- If asked to "choose a country" from a drop-down menu, select "France," then, when presented with choice of flags, choose "Europe (other countries)," which gets you the English version of the site.
- After you've entered the arrival/destination cities and dates for your trip, look for the cheapest, non-refundable category of ticket for your journey.
- If asked to select your "Ticket collection country," choose "France" (yes, France).
- 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 (27 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 Eurail Pass: Note that this pass is valid for just one month after you've activated it (whereas multicountry passes offer a two-month window).