Driving is the simplest way to get around France, but a car is a liability in traffic-plagued, parking-starved city centres, and petrol bills and autoroute (dual carriageway/divided highway) tolls add up.
France is famous for its excellent public-transport network, which serves everywhere bar some very rural areas. The state-owned Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français (SNCF) takes care of almost all land transport between départements (counties). Transport within départements is handled by a combination of short-haul trains, SNCF buses and local bus companies.
France's high-speed train network renders rail travel between some cities (eg from Paris to Lyon, Marseille and Bordeaux) faster and easier than flying.
Airlines in France
Air France (www.airfrance.com) and its subsidiaries Hop! (www.hop.com) and Transavia (www.transavia.com) control the lion's share of France's domestic airline industry.
Budget carriers offering flights within France include EasyJet (www.easyjet.com), Twin Jet (www.twinjet.net) and Air Corsica (www.aircorsica.com).
France is great for cycling. Much of the countryside is drop-dead gorgeous and the country has a growing number of urban and rural pistes cyclables (bike paths and lanes; see Voies Vertes online at www.voievertes.com) and an extensive network of secondary and tertiary roads with relatively light traffic.
French law requires that bicycles must have two functioning brakes, a bell, a red reflector on the back and yellow reflectors on the pedals. After sunset and when visibility is poor, cyclists must turn on a white headlamp and a red tail lamp. When being overtaken by a vehicle, cyclists must ride in single file. Towing children in a bike trailer is permitted.
Never leave your bicycle locked up outside overnight if you want to see it – or at least most of its parts – again. Some hotels offer enclosed bicycle parking.
The SNCF does its best to make travelling with a bicycle easy; see www.velo.sncf.com for full details.
Bicycles (not disassembled) can be taken along on virtually all intraregional TER trains and most long-distance intercity trains, subject to space availability. The charge for TER and Corail Intercité trains is either free, €5 or €10 depending on the route; TGV, Téoz and Lunéa trains require a €10 reservation fee that must be made when you purchase your passenger ticket. Bike reservations can be made by phone (36 35) or at an SNCF ticket office but not via the internet.
Bicycles that have been partly disassembled and put in a box (housse), with maximum dimensions of 120cm by 90cm, can be taken along for no charge in the baggage compartments of TGV, Téoz, Lunéa and Corail Intercité trains.
In the Paris area, bicycles are allowed aboard Transilien and RER trains except Monday to Friday during the following times:
- 6.30am to 9am for trains heading into Paris
- 4.30pm to 7pm for trains travelling out of Paris
- 6am to 9am and 4.30pm to 7pm on RER lines A and B
With precious few exceptions, bicycles are not allowed on metros, trams and local, intra-département and SNCF buses (the latter replace trains on some runs).
Most French cities and towns have at least one bike shop that rents out vélos tout terrains (mountain bikes; around €15 a day), known as VTTs, as well as more road-oriented vélos tout chemin (VTCs), or cheaper city bikes. You usually have to leave ID and/or a deposit (often a credit-card slip of €250) that you forfeit if the bike is damaged or stolen.
A growing number of cities – including Paris, Aix-en-Provence, Amiens, Besançon, Bayonne, Bordeaux, Caen, Clermont-Ferrand, Dijon, La Rochelle, Lille, Lyon, Marseille, Montpellier, Mulhouse, Nancy, Nantes, Nice, Orléans, Rennes, Rouen, Toulouse, Strasbourg and Vannes – have automatic bike-rental systems, intended to encourage cycling as a form of urban transport, with computerised pick-up and drop-off sites all over town. In general, you have to sign up either short term or long term, providing credit-card details, and can then use the bikes for no charge for the first half-hour; after that, hourly charges rise quickly.
There are boat services along France's coasts and to its offshore islands, and ferries aplenty to/from Corsica.
Transportation and tranquillity are usually mutually exclusive – but not if you rent a houseboat and cruise along France's canals and navigable rivers, stopping at whim to pick up supplies, dine at a village restaurant or check out a local château by bicycle. Changes in altitude are taken care of by a system of écluses (locks).
Boats generally accommodate from two to 12 passengers and are fully outfitted with bedding and cooking facilities. Anyone over 18 can pilot a riverboat, but first-time skippers are given a short instruction session so they qualify for a carte de plaisance (a temporary cruising permit). The speed limit is 6km/h on canals and 8km/h on rivers.
Prices start at around €650 a week for a small boat and easily top €3500 a week for a large, luxurious craft. Except in July and August, you can often rent over a weekend.
Advance reservations are essential for holiday periods, over long weekends and in July and August, especially for larger boats.
Rental agencies include the following:
France Afloat (https://franceafloat.com) Anglophone, canal-boat specialist in France.
Free Wheel Afloat (www.freewheelafloat.com) UK-based, self-drive barge specialist.
H2olidays (www.barginginfrance.com) Hotel barges, river cruises and self-drive barges.
Worldwide River Cruise (www.worldwide-river-cruise.com) River-cruiser rental, price-comparison website.
Buses are widely used for short-distance travel within départements, especially in rural areas with relatively few train lines (eg Brittany and Normandy). Unfortunately, services in some regions are infrequent and slow, in part because they were designed to get children to their schools in the towns rather than transport visitors around the countryside.
Some less-busy train lines have been replaced by SNCF buses, which, unlike regional buses, are free if you've got a rail pass.
Car & Motorcycle
Having your own wheels gives you exceptional freedom and makes it easy to visit more remote parts of France. Depending on the number of passengers, it can also work out cheaper than the train. For example, by autoroute, the 930km drive from Paris to Nice (9½ hours of driving) in a small car costs about €75 for petrol and another €77 in tolls – by comparison, a one-way, 2nd-class TGV ticket for the 5½-hour Paris to Nice run costs anything from €69 to €120 per person.
In the cities, traffic and finding a place to park can be a major headache. During holiday periods and bank-holiday weekends, roads throughout France also get backed up with traffic jams (bouchons).
Motorcyclists will find France great for touring, with winding roads of good quality and lots of stunning scenery. Just make sure your wet-weather gear is up to scratch.
France (along with Belgium) has the densest highway network in Europe. There are four types of intercity roads:
Autoroutes (highway names beginning with A) Multilane divided highways, usually (except near Calais and Lille) with tolls (péages). Generously outfitted with rest stops.
Routes Nationales (N, RN) National highways. Some sections have divider strips.
Routes Départementales (D) Local highways and roads.
Routes Communales (C, V) Minor rural roads.
For information on autoroute tolls, rest areas, traffic and weather, go to the Sociétés d'Autoroutes website (www.autoroutes.fr).
Bison Futé (www.bison-fute.gouv.fr) is also a good source of information about traffic conditions. Plot itineraries between your departure and arrival points, and calculate toll costs with an online mapper such as Via Michelin (www.viamichelin.com) or Mappy (https://fr.mappy.com).
Theft from cars can be a major problem in France, especially in the south.
Two types of environmental zones aim to reduce the road-traffic pollution in heavily built-up or busy areas by permanently or temporarily restricting road traffic.
ZPAs (air protection zones) can cover an entire département or region and usually only apply for a few days, often during hot or bad weather, when air pollution peaks.
In ZCR zones, all cars, motorcycles and trucks registered after 1997 have to display a Crit'Air sticker to enter. This applies to the city of Paris within the périphérique (ring road) between 8am and 8pm Monday to Friday. Stickers can be ordered online (www.crit-air.fr); you'll need to upload a copy of your vehicle's registration certificate and allow time for it to be mailed to your home. Prices for a Crit'Air Vignette start at €3.11. Fines for not displaying a valid sticker start at €68.
Check www.green-zones.eu or download the Green Zone App to check current zones.
To hire a car in France, you'll generally need to be over 21 years old, have had a driving licence for at least a year, and have an international credit card. Drivers under 25 usually have to pay a surcharge (frais jeune conducteur) of €25 to €35 per day.
Car-hire companies provide mandatory third-party liability insurance, but things such as collision-damage waivers (CDW, or assurance tous risques) vary greatly from company to company. When comparing rates and conditions (ie the fine print), the most important thing to check is the franchise (deductible/excess), which for a small car is usually around €600 for damage and €800 for theft. With many companies, you can reduce the excess by half, and perhaps to zero, by paying a daily insurance supplement of up to €20. Your credit card may cover CDW if you use it to pay for the rental, but the car-hire company won't know anything about this – verify conditions and details with your credit-card issuer to be sure.
Arranging your car hire or fly/drive package before you leave home is usually considerably cheaper than a walk-in rental, but beware of website offers that don't include a CDW or you may be liable for up to 100% of the car's value.
International car-hire companies:
- Avis (www.avis.com)
- Budget (www.budget.fr)
- EasyCar (www.easycar.com)
- Europcar (www.europcar.com)
- Hertz (www.hertz.com)
- Sixt (www.sixt.fr)
French car-hire companies:
- ADA (www.ada.fr)
- DLM (www.dlm.fr)
- France Cars (www.francecars.fr)
- Locauto (www.locauto.fr)
- Renault Rent (www.renault-rent.com)
- Rent a Car (www.rentacar.fr)
Deals can be found on the internet and through companies such as the following:
- Auto Europe (www.autoeurope.com)
- DriveAway Holidays (www.driveaway.com.au)
- Holiday Autos (www.holidayautos.co.uk)
Rental cars with automatic transmission are very much the exception in France; they usually need to be ordered well in advance and are more expensive than manual cars.
For insurance reasons, it is usually forbidden to take rental cars on ferries, eg to Corsica.
All rental cars registered in France have a distinctive number on the licence plate, making them easily identifiable – including to thieves. Never leave anything of value in a parked car, even in the boot (trunk).
If you don't live in the EU and need a car in France (or Europe) for 17 days to six months (up to one year if you'll be studying), by far the cheapest option is to 'purchase' a new one and then 'sell' it back at the end of your trip. In reality, you pay only for the number of days you have the vehicle but the 'temporary transit' (TT) paperwork means that the car is registered under your name – and that the whole deal is exempt from all sorts of taxes.
Companies offering purchase-repurchase (achat-rachat) plans:
- Eurocar TT (www.eurocartt.com)
- Peugeot OpenEurope (www.peugeot-openeurope.com)
- Renault Eurodrive (www.eurodrive.renault.com)
Eligibility is restricted to people who are not residents of the EU (citizens of EU countries are eligible if they live outside the EU); the minimum age is 18 (in some cases 21). Pricing and special offers depend on your home country. All the plans include unlimited kilometres, 24-hour towing and breakdown service, and comprehensive insurance with absolutely no deductible/excess, so returning the car is hassle-free, even if it's damaged.
Extending your contract (up to a maximum of 165 days) after you start using the car is possible, but you'll end up paying about double the prepaid per-day rate.
Purchase-repurchase cars, which have special red licence plates, can be picked up at about three-dozen cities and airports all over France and dropped off at the agency of your choosing. For a fee, you can also pick up or return your car in certain cities outside France.
Driving Licence & Documents
An International Driving Permit (IDP), valid only if accompanied by your original licence, is good for a year and can be issued by your local automobile association before you leave home.
Drivers must carry the following at all times:
- passport or an EU national ID card
- valid driving licence (permis de conduire; most foreign licences can be used in France for up to a year)
- car-ownership papers, known as a carte grise (grey card)
- proof of third-party liability assurance (insurance)
Essence (petrol), also known as carburant (fuel), costs between €1.48 and €1.65 per litre for 95 unleaded (Sans Plomb 95 or SP95, usually available from a green pump) and €1.35 to €1.60 for diesel (diesel, gazole or gasoil, usually available from a yellow pump). Check and compare current prices countrywide at www.prix-carburants.gouv.fr.
Filling up (faire le plein) is most expensive at autoroute rest stops, and usually cheapest at hypermarkets.
Many small petrol stations close on Sunday afternoons and, even in cities, it can be hard to find a staffed station open late at night. In general, after-hours purchases (eg at hypermarkets' fully automatic, 24-hour stations) can only be made with a credit card that has an embedded PIN chip, so if all you've got is cash or a magnetic-strip credit card, you could be stuck.
Third-party liability insurance (assurance au tiers) is compulsory for all vehicles in France, including cars brought in from abroad. Normally, cars registered and insured in other European countries can circulate freely in France, but it's a good idea to contact your insurance company before you leave home to make sure you have coverage – and to check whom to contact in case of a breakdown or accident.
If you get into a minor accident with no injuries, the easiest way for drivers to sort things out with their insurance companies is to fill out a Constat Aimable d'Accident Automobile (European Accident Statement), a standardised way of recording important details about what happened. In rental cars it's usually in the packet of documents in the glove compartment. Make sure the report includes any information that will help you prove that the accident was not your fault. Remember, if it was your fault you may be liable for a hefty insurance deductible/excess. Don't sign anything you don't fully understand. If problems crop up, call the police (17).
French-registered cars have details of their insurance company printed on a little green square affixed to the windscreen.
In city centres, most on-street parking places are payant (metered) from about 9am to 7pm (sometimes with a break from noon to 2pm) Monday to Saturday, except bank holidays.
Enforcement of French traffic laws (see www.securiteroutiere.gouv.fr) has been stepped up considerably in recent years. Speed cameras are common, as are radar traps and unmarked police vehicles. Fines for many infractions are given on the spot, and serious violations can lead to the confiscation of your driving licence and car.
Speed limits outside built-up areas (except where signposted otherwise):
- Undivided N and D highways 80km/h (70km/h when raining)
- Non-autoroute divided highways 110km/h (100km/h when raining)
- Autoroutes 130km/h (110km/h when raining, 60km/h in icy conditions)
To reduce carbon emissions, autoroute speed limits have recently been reduced to 110km/h in some areas.
Unless otherwise signposted, a limit of 50km/h applies in all areas designated as built up, no matter how rural they may appear. You must slow to 50km/h the moment you come to a white sign with a red border and a place name written on it; the speed limit applies until you pass an identical sign with a horizontal bar through it.
Other important driving rules:
- Blood-alcohol limit is 0.05% (0.5g per litre of blood) – the equivalent of two glasses of wine for a 75kg adult. Police often conduct random breathalyser tests and penalties can be severe, including imprisonment.
- All passengers, including those in the back seat, must wear seat belts.
- Mobile phones may be used only if they are equipped with a hands-free kit or speakerphone.
- Turning right on a red light is illegal.
- Cars from the UK and Ireland must have deflectors affixed to their headlights to avoid dazzling oncoming motorists.
- Radar detectors, even if they're switched off, are illegal; fines are hefty.
- Children under 10 are not permitted to ride in the front seat (unless the back is already occupied by other children under 10).
- A child under 13kg must travel in a backward-facing child seat (permitted in the front seat only for babies under 9kg and if the airbag is deactivated).
- Up to age 10 and/or a minimum height of 140cm, children must use a size-appropriate type of front-facing child seat or booster.
- All vehicles driven in France must carry a high-visibility reflective safety vest (stored inside the vehicle, not in the trunk/boot), a reflective triangle, and a portable, single-use breathalyser kit.
- If you'll be driving on snowy roads, make sure you have snow chains (chaînes neige), required by law whenever and wherever the police post signs.
- Riders of any type of two-wheeled vehicle with a motor (except motor-assisted bicycles) must wear a helmet. No special licence is required to ride a motorbike whose engine is smaller than 50cc, which is why rental scooters are often rated at 49.9cc.
Priority to the Right
Under the priorité à droite ('priority to the right') rule, any car entering an intersection (including a T-junction) from a road (including a tiny village backstreet) on your right has the right of way. Locals assume every driver knows this, so don't be surprised if they courteously cede the right of way when you're about to turn from an alley onto a highway – and boldly assert their rights when you're the one zipping down a main road.
Priorité à droite is suspended (eg on arterial roads) when you pass a sign showing an upended yellow square with a black square in the middle. The same sign with a horizontal bar through the square lozenge reinstates the priorité à droite rule.
When you arrive at a roundabout at which you do not have the right of way (ie the cars already in the roundabout do), you'll often see signs reading vous n'avez pas la priorité (you do not have right of way) or cédez le passage (give way).
Speed-Fiends, Take Note
When it comes to catching and punishing speed fiends, France has upped its act in recent years. Automatic speed cameras, not necessarily visible, are widespread and the chances are you'll get 'flashed' at least once during your trip. Should this occur, a letter from the French government (stamped 'Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité – Liberty, Equality, Fraternity') will land on your door mat informing you of your amende (fine) and, should you hold a French licence, how many points you have lost. Motorists driving up to 20km/h over the limit in a 50km/h zone are fined €68 and one point; driving up to 20km/h over the limit in a zone with a speed limit of more than 50km/h costs €135 and one point.
There is no room for complacency. Moreover, should you be driving a rental car, the rental company will charge you an additional fee for the time they spent sharing your contact details with the French government.
In many areas, Autoroute Info (107.7MHz; www.autorouteinfo.fr) has round-the-clock traffic information.
Hitching is never entirely safe in any country in the world, and we don't recommend it. Travellers who decide to hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk. Remember that it's safer to travel in pairs and be sure to inform someone of your intended destination. Hitching is not really part of French culture.
Hitching from city centres is pretty much hopeless, so your best bet is to take public transport to the outskirts. It is illegal to hitch on autoroutes, but you can stand near an entrance ramp as long as you don't block traffic. Hitching in remote rural areas is better, but once you get off the routes nationales, traffic can be light and local. If your itinerary includes a ferry crossing, it's worth trying to score a ride before the ferry since vehicle tickets usually include a number of passengers free of charge. At dusk, give up and think about finding somewhere to stay.
A number of organisations around France arrange covoiturage (car sharing), ie, putting people looking for rides in touch with drivers going to the same destination:
- Covoiturage (www.covoiturage.fr)
- Bla Bla Car (www.blablacar.fr)
- Karzoo (www.karzoo.eu) International journeys.
France's cities and larger towns have world-class public-transport systems. There are métros (underground subway systems) in Paris, Lille, Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse and Rennes, and tramways in cities such as Bordeaux, Grenoble, Lille, Lyon, Nancy, Nantes, Nice, Reims, Rouen and Strasbourg.
In addition to a billet à l'unité (single ticket), you can purchase a carnet (booklet or bunch) of 10 tickets or a pass journée (all-day pass).
All medium and large train stations – and many small ones – have a taxi stand out the front. In small cities and towns, where taxi drivers are unlikely to find another fare anywhere near where they let you off, one-way and return trips often cost the same. Tariffs are about 30% higher at night and on Sundays and holidays. A surcharge is usually charged to get picked up at a train station or airport, and there's a small additional fee for a fourth passenger and/or for suitcases.
Providing you're able to connect to the app and order a car on your smartphone, Uber can be a cheaper alternative to regular city taxis. While Uber fares in Paris are not dramatically cheaper than an official taxi, Uber fares in other French cities can be up to one-third cheaper.
Travelling by train in France is a comfortable and environmentally sustainable way to see the country. Since many train stations have car-hire agencies, it's easy to combine rail travel with rural exploration by car.
The jewel in the crown of France's public-transport system – alongside the Paris métro – is its extensive rail network, almost all of it run by the heavily indebted, state-rail operator SNCF (French President Macron announced plans to reform and privatise the company in 2018, prompting huge strikes). The SNCF employs the most advanced rail technology, but its network reflects the country's centuries-old Paris-centric nature: most of the principal rail lines radiate out from Paris like the spokes of a wheel, the result being that services between provincial towns situated on different spokes can be infrequent and slow.
Since its inauguration in the 1980s, the pride and joy of SNCF is the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse; www.tgv.com), pronounced 'teh zheh veh', which zips passengers along at speeds of up to 320km/h.
The main TGV lines (or LGVs, short for lignes à grande vitesse, ie high-speed rail lines) head north, east, southeast and southwest from Paris (trains use slower local tracks to get to destinations off the main line):
- TGV Nord, Thalys and Eurostar Link Paris Gare du Nord with Arras, Lille, Calais, Brussels (Bruxelles-Midi), Amsterdam, Cologne and, via the Channel Tunnel, Ashford, Ebbsfleet and London St Pancras.
- LGV Est Européene (www.lgv-est.com) Connects Paris Gare de l'Est with Reims, Nancy, Metz, Strasbourg, Zurich and Germany, including Frankfurt and Stuttgart. The super-high-speed track stretches as far east as Strasbourg.
- TGV Sud-Est and TGV Midi-Méditerranée Link Paris Gare de Lyon with the southeast, including Dijon, Lyon, Geneva, the Alps, Avignon, Marseille, Nice and Montpellier.
- TGV Atlantique Sud-Ouest and TGV Atlantique Ouest Link Paris Gare Montparnasse with western and southwestern France, including Brittany (Rennes, Brest, Quimper), Tours, Nantes, Poitiers, La Rochelle, Bordeaux, Biarritz and Toulouse.
- LGV Rhin-Rhône High-speed rail route that bypasses Paris altogether in its bid to better link the provinces. Six services a day speed between Strasbourg and Lyon, with most continuing south to Marseille or Montpellier on the Mediterranean.
TGV tracks are interconnected, making it possible to go directly from, for example, Lyon to Nantes or Bordeaux to Lille without having to switch trains in Paris or transfer from one of Paris' six main train stations to another. Stops on the link-up, which runs east and south of Paris, include Charles de Gaulle airport and Disneyland Resort Paris.
Long-distance trains sometimes split at a station – ie, each half of the train heads off for a different destination. Check the destination panel on your car as you board or you could wind up very far from where you intended to go.
Other types of train:
TER (Train Express Régional; www.ter-sncf.com) A train that is not a TGV is often referred to as a corail, a classique or, for intraregional services, a TER.
Transilien (www.transilien.com) SNCF services in the Île de France area in and around Paris.
Tickets & Reservations
Large stations often have separate ticket windows for international, grandes lignes (long-haul) and banlieue (suburban) lines, and for people whose train is about to leave (départ immédiat or départ dans l'heure). Nearly every SNCF station has at least one borne libre-service (self-service terminal) or billeterie automatique (automatic ticket machine) that accepts both cash and PIN-chip credit cards. Select the Union Jack for instructions in English.
Using a credit card, you can buy a ticket by phone or via the SNCF internet booking website Voyages SNCF (www.voyages-sncf.com), and either have it sent to you by post (if you have an address in France) or collect it from any SNCF ticket office or from train-station ticket machines. Alternatively, download the SNCF app and buy/store your ticket on your smartphone.
Before boarding the train, paper tickets must be validated (composter) by time-stamping them in a composteur, a yellow post located on the way to the platform. If you forget (or don't have a ticket for some other reason), find a conductor on the train before they find you – otherwise you can be fined.
Changes & Reimbursements
For trains that do not assign reserved seats (such as regional TER trains), full-fare tickets are usable whenever you like for 61 days from the date they were purchased. Like all SNCF tickets, they cannot be replaced if lost or stolen.
Prem's, Intercités 100% Éco and other promotional tickets cannot be changed or reimbursed.
If you have a full-fare Loisir ticket, you can change your reservation by phone, internet or at train stations for a charge of €5 as of 30 days from departure; changes made the day before or day of your reserved trip incur a charge of €15/12 for TGV/Intercity tickets.
Pro tickets allow full reimbursement up to 30 minutes after the time of departure (by calling 36 35) and can be cancelled up to two hours before.
Because of security concerns, few French train stations have consignes automatiques (left-luggage lockers). In larger stations you can leave your bags in a consigne manuelle (staffed left-luggage facility) where items are handed over in person and X-rayed before being stowed. Charges are around €7 for up to 10 hours and €12 for 24 hours; payment must be made in cash.
SNCF Fares & Discounts
Full-fare tickets can be quite expensive. Fortunately, a dizzying array of discounts are available and station staff are very good about helping travellers find the very best fare. But first, the basics:
- First-class travel, where available, costs 20% to 30% extra.
- Ticket prices for some trains, including most TGVs, are pricier during peak periods.
- The further in advance you reserve, the lower the fares.
- Children under four travel for free, or pay €9 with a forfait bambin to any destination if they need a seat.
- Children aged four to 11 travel for half-price.
Run by the SNCF, Ouigo (www.ouigo.com) is a low-cost TGV service whereby you can travel on high-speed TGVs for a snip of the usual price to 17 destinations in France, including Aix-en-Provence TGV, Angers-St Laud, Avignon TGV, Le Mans, Lyon, Marseille, Montpellier, Nantes, Nîmes, Paris, Paris Disneyland's Marne-La Vallée-Chessy TGV station and Paris' Aéroport Charles de Gaulle.
- Tickets can only be purchased online from three weeks until four hours before departure; tickets are emailed four days before departure and must be printed out or readable on a smartphone with the Ouigo app (iPhone and Android).
- The minimum single fare is €10. Children under 12 pay a flat €5 single fare.
- Each passenger is allowed to bring on board one piece of cabin luggage (35cm x 55cm x 25cm), one piece of hand luggage (27cm x 36cm x 15cm) and a child's pushchair for free; an extra bag and/or a larger bag costs €5 (€20 if you rock up at the train without registering the bag online in advance).
- If you want to plug in while aboard, be sure to reserve a seat with electric plug socket for an additional €2.
The SNCF's most heavily discounted tickets are called Prem's, available online, at ticket windows and from ticket machines: 100% Prem's are available from Thursday evening to Monday night, for last-minute travel that weekend; Saturday-return Prem's are valid for return travel on a Saturday; and three-month Prem's can be booked a maximum of 90 days in advance. Prem's are nonrefundable and nonchangeable.
Intercités 100% Éco can be booked from three months to the day of departure, and offer cheap tickets between any stops, in any direction, on four main lines: Paris–Toulouse, Paris–Bordeaux, Paris–Nantes and Paris–Strasbourg. A single fare costs €15 to €35.
On regional trains, discount fares requiring neither a discount card nor advance purchase include the following:
- Loisir rates Good for return travel that includes a Saturday night at your destination or involves travel on a Saturday or Sunday.
- Découverte fares Available for low-demand 'blue-period' trains to people aged 12 to 25, seniors and the adult travel companions of children under 12.
- Mini-Groupe tickets In some regions, these bring big savings for three to six people travelling together, provided you spend a Saturday night at your destination.
Reductions of at least 25% (for last-minute bookings), and of 40%, 50% or even 60% (if you reserve well ahead or travel during low-volume 'blue' periods), are available with several discount cards (valid for one year):
- Carte Jeune (€50) Available to travellers aged 12 to 27.
- Carte Enfant+ (€75) For one to four adults travelling with a child aged four to 11.
- Carte Weekend (€75) For people aged 26 to 59. Offers discounts on return journeys of at least 200km that either include a Saturday night away or only involve travel on a Saturday or Sunday.
- Carte Sénior+ (€60) For travellers over 60.
Residents of Europe (who do not live in France) can purchase an InterRail One Country Pass (www.interrail.eu; three/four/six/eight days €170/197/242/281, 12 to 25 years €148/171/210/243), which entitles its bearer to unlimited travel on SNCF trains for three to eight days over the course of a month.
For non-European residents, Rail Europe (www.raileurope-world.com) offers the France Rail Pass (two/four/five days over one month €123.50/184.50/209.50, 12 to 25 years €101.50/151/171.50).
You need to really rack up the kilometres to make these passes worthwhile.