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 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, and be the best way to secure seats on your prefered train departures (as reservations may be limited for passholders).
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
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. These trains can fill up, especially around weekends, holidays, and special events.
- International TGV trains charge a range of prices for required seat reservations (higher than rates within the country, and often higher in first class — and the number of places available for rail-pass holders can be limited). On direct TGV Lyria trains between France and major Swiss cities, for example, reservations are fairly expensive (with a Eurail Global Pass, about $35 in second class or $70 in first), but cheaper on TGVs within France. 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 France–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 (or $35–45 on direct Paris–Amsterdam trains). 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, but not the single-country France Pass. 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.
Rail passes do not, however, cover these privately run trains:
- Thello: Thello operates the only direct night train between France (Paris or Dijon) and Italy (stops include Milan, Verona, and Venice); they also run the only daytime trains on the Milan–Genova–Nice–Marseille route that don't require a change at the border. (These trains may show up as "EuroCity" or "EC" on some schedules.) While the Eurail Global Pass will get you a 25 percent discount on Thello trains (also works if you have either a Eurail France Pass or Italy Pass), this doesn't beat most advance-purchase deals — for the best price, buy your ticket months ahead (or consider flying).
- TGV OUIGO: These discounted TGV services operate on limited routes, and work somewhat like a no-frills airline (e.g. they limit luggage size and seat selection, and require early check-in).
- Trains on the island of Corsica and those between Nice and Digne (just buy tickets in stations as you go).
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.
- Youths (27 and younger), seniors (60 and older), and families can purchase a discount card for €49 to get additional 30 percent discounts on many train tickets. Note that the offer is new and not well described online.
Also see our general tips for buying point-to-point tickets.