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?
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).
Extra tip #1: If your train travels include Spain as well as France, it's worth noting that seat reservations on the direct France–Spain TGV trains (Paris–Avignon–Barcelona or Marseille–Barcelona–Madrid) cost the same with a single-country France Rail Pass (or Spain Eurail Pass) as they do with a Select Pass covering both countries ($13–32 in second class or $17–41 in first class, depending on distance). However, other Select Passes that include France, but not Spain, only cover you to/from the French border, not in unnamed countries.
Extra tip #2: 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 far 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 main lines and international routes, require seat reservations, and may limit places for rail-pass holders. Seat reservations for domestic routes start at $11, and go up to $27 as seating sells out.
- International TGV trains charge a range a prices for required seat reservations (higher than rates within the country, and sometimes higher in first class). On direct TGV Lyria trains between France and major Swiss cities, for example, reservations are fairly expensive (about $30 in second class or $70 in first), but cheaper on TGVs within France, such as the Paris–Strasbourg route. (For more on international trains to Spain, see "Extra Tip #1," above). Be aware that seat reservations for direct daytime connections between Paris and anywhere in Italy 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, require reservations that cost $25–45 in addition to a rail pass that covers Belgium and/or France (reserve as far ahead as possible).
- 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: 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 these 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.
- 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 on this page reflects peak-time fares). For instance, a direct Paris–Nice second-class ticket costs about $150 at "peak" fare or $125 at "normal" fare (the trip costs more if you break it with stops along the way).
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, sometimes earlier).
- 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 Thalys service to Amsterdam and Brussels, as well as TGV service to Barcelona, Turin, and Milan, as well as one train a day between southern France and Madrid, with normal reservation fees ($10–50). Note that the flexipass version of this pass is valid for just one month after you've activated it (whereas multi-country passes offer a two-month window).
France Rail Pass Spring Sale: Promo offers 20 percent off regular prices of all iterations of the single-country France pass. The discount isn't automatically factored into regular France Rail Pass orders; you must use the sale link above. Sale may end as soon as May 2, 2016; passes are valid for travel within 11 months of purchase. This discounted pass is not refundable.