How to Navigate the French Train System (and Help with the Italian Trains too)

Travel Tips:  Navigating The French Train System

First of all, the French Train system is slightly better than the Italian train system in several ways. The agents are much nicer!  And they actually have a system and try to keep the trains coming into and going out of stations at the same platforms all the time especially on the routes traveled the most. But they still do wait till 20 minutes before the train is scheduled to leave to announce the platform in many cases and then you have to run to it and find the assigned car if you have one. More on that later.

Also if your train number has only 4 or 5 digits, as you look on the departure board, look for those digits as the last ones on the train number. Often the board will have a 6 digit number instead but they have just added 2 numbers or letters in front of the number on your ticket. And also if your destination is one of many the train is going to, it may not be listed on the board, so it’s important to look for the number of the train. The departure platform will be listed to the extreme right when it finally shows up.

Don’t forget to validate your ticket! They have small Yellow machines everywhere at the stations and you just push your ticket with the bar code end into the  machine first. It will click and numbers will be added across the ticket. In Italy the machines are Green and Red.

Stained Glass Carcassonne Cathedral
Stained Glass Carcassonne Cathedral

How to print your e ticket.

In France the ticket machines are Yellow. First pick the flag that shows your language. They don’t have the American flag, just the British one, to show English. So click on that and then you will see a box that says retrieve your ticket with an email confirmation. Click that and then it asks you to put in your code you got in your email. When that is done it asks for your last name. Put that in and it prints your ticket. Simple. Then just validate it and you’re good to go.

Theoretically this works the same in Italy, but the machines are Green. However, about half the time my codes would not work so I had to go to the ticket office to get the tickets printed. If that happens to you, go to the ticket office and look by the door for a little machine that spits out tickets so you can get service. Then look at the number and watch the boards above the agents to see when your number comes up and the gate you will need to go to. Then ask if they speak English. About half the time they do or will find someone who does. If not, say I need a biglietto and show them your email. They can print it for you. We found that the train agents in Italy were not very nice about half the time. They seemed rather annoyed to have to deal with Americans. Not sure if it’s because we speak almost no Italian and I do speak French somewhat, but the French agents were much nicer in general.

Important: Be sure to ask if it needs a validation. Just say validation? and they will answer yes or no. If they say yes, you need to find one of the little Yellow (France) or Green and Red machines (Italy) at the end of the platforms and push your ticket into it. No one told us this so that’s why the agent on our first train was quite annoyed.

Mary and Jesus at Albi France St Cecile Cathedral
St Cecile Cathedral,
Albi France

Anyway, when you get to the platform you have to find your car if you have a reservation. This is not easy to do. But on some of the stations the sign above the trains will have little numbers across the bottom with a blinking light on the one that is that car number. Otherwise ask the ticket agent if you see one. They really want you in the correct car. However, it the train isn’t too crowded and you get on the wrong car as has happened to us, the agents won’t say anything. We barely made it to one of our trains on time and just got on or we would have missed it. Then we sat there and worried, but our ticket agent just smiled and told us we were on the train and that’s what counted. Whew!

(In Italy we didn’t know where or how to validate our ticket and the agent really was upset with us. I just kept smiling at him and shrugging my shoulders and since he spoke no English and I spoke almost no Italian he finally muttered something and wrote a bunch of stuff on the ticket and let us go with no fine. I found out later he could have fined us the price of the ticket! plus 500 euros! )

Angel in the cathedral at Carcassonne France
Angel in the cathedral at Carcassonne France

Where to Search for French train tickets:

In France or Italy or Spain, you can go to http://www.raileurope.com/index.html and put in your starting city and destination and they will give you a list of options. Also in France you can go to http://help.en.voyages-sncf.com/en. On either site look for the British flag, and also the currency so you will have a correct idea of the price if you are not familiar with the currency values of euros compared to dollars. Also, don’t waste your time looking for a rail pass unless you are still in the United States. They suggest you buy one and then after much hassle the site says you can’t buy one if you are already in Europe; you were supposed to buy it before you left. For more about buying the passes before you leave I suggest a Fodor’s Travel guide.

Caution: Sometimes they will suggest connections with 20 minutes or less in between trains. But if you have any luggage you will have a very difficult time making the connection, especially in larger stations where you will have to run from your train platform back to the station to see which new platform you have to reach for your next train. We never saw a single train leave late, so if you aren’t there you will miss the train. I try to book them with an hour in between. Or at least 45 minutes. That way you don’t have to run up and down stairs with luggage, which isn’t safe anyway. (Most stations have stairs going up or down to the platforms.) And if you have trouble finding a validation machine you will still have enough time.

Then the fun begins while you watch the departure boards to find out your platform.

Siena Cathedral stained glass
Siena Cathedral stained glass

All in all it’s still easier than going to any airport in the world today. There are police walking around, and sometimes the agents check your ticket before letting you on the platform. But no luggage search! No body scanner. We like it a lot. Lots of scenery even on the high speed trains. Lots of leg room. You can walk around and go to the dining car and have snacks. A lot of the trains have wifi. I fall asleep more than I would like lulled by the sound the train makes on the tracks. Just be sure you know which city you’re getting off. They don’t give you much time to debark so you need to be ready especially if you have a lot of luggage.

If you are unsure, just show your ticket to one of the French passengers who looks friendly and ask them “C’est ici?” (pronounce as Set E-C?) It means roughly, “Is this the station?” They will happily tell you yes or no. We found the French to be friendly and polite to us always. Especially if you smile first. It also helps to always say “Bon Jour” first before you ask them anything. They are taught from birth to always begin any conversation this way. So smile, say “Bon Jour”, (or “Bon Soir” if it’s evening), and ask. Someone will help you!

If you want more help on where to go and what to see and how to get there, I highly recommend Fodor’s travel guides. We are using this one for our travels in France:

 Fodor’s Essential France (Full-color Travel Guide)

But there are older ones available too, and of course guides for any country you can imagine. So far every recommendation has been totally helpful and thorough. I don’t think you can go wrong using a Fodor’s Travel guide!

One last photo for you:

Lights in Albi, France 12-25-2014
Lights in Albi, France 12-25-2014

All Photos, © Heather Burns, 2014. Please do not copy.

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