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Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Nope, it's a TGV train!
Societe Nationale des Chemins de Fer Francais SNCF (France)
Member Name: sy2kgbr
Societe Nationale des Chemins de Fer Francais SNCF (France)
Advantages: Cheap fares not hidden, excellent on-board facilities and trains that arrive on time!
Disadvantages: SNCF staff strike fairly often.
SNCF stands for Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français, aka the public enterprise running all of the trains in France. It's a huge undertaking, and as such, around 180,000 people are involved in making sure everything runs smoothly. Before going to France to work for seven months, a friend of mine told me that I absolutely had to buy a magical thing called a "Carte 12-25" the second I touched down on French soil, as it would save me a small fortune. I took her advice, and thanks to the saving this magical card provided, I could afford to travel by SNCF fairly often, and as such, am writing this review with a lot of experience to back it up.
If you have a French debit card (Carte Bleue) and know where you're going, you can save time by using one of the automatic ticketing machines. However, if you have a 'foreign' card (e.g. a British one), it's not worth trying. Either your card will be unrecognised, or worse, it will get swallowed by the machine and you'll thoroughly annoy all the French people in the key behind you. On the plus side, if you can find someone to open up the machine for you, your card will be in one piece, and you will learn lots of new French swear words.
French people hate queuing, so if you have a complex query and queue up to speak to someone at one of the guichets (counters), everyone behind you will hate you. This is not important though, as they would do the same thing themselves if they needed to and in fact, are mostly quite rude people, so don't worry about it. In the large train stations, you will find English speaking staff, so this can be handy for the British traveller.
If you want to travel somewhere on a set date, but don't have to be there at a fixed time, you can ask the member of staff to look for the cheapest fare possible and advise you when's best to travel. They're very good at giving you advice on how to save money and will sometimes offer fares that you cannot buy online. (If your journey involves many changes or the train is leaving soon, the web site will refuse to sell you that ticket.)
The SNCF site itself is very easy to navigate, although most French people hate it. Most non-French people come to hate it too, but personally, I've never had a problem. Be aware that most big cities have more than one station and that TGV stations are normally in fact outside the city, so you will need connecting transport (a 'navette' - type of bus - is normally available, but do check). If you have a loyalty card (and these come automatically with the discount cards you can buy - more on them later), you will need the number on the card to claim your points ("S'miles"). Armed with that info, it's not hard to get around the site and find the best fares to suit you. The SNCF site is available in many different languages, including English. I've tested the English version for you, and it gives you pretty much the same help as the French one, so don't worry about getting ripped off.
If you'd like to collect loyalty points do, but they build up very slowly and as such, you would probably need to spend a decade in France before having enough points to travel anywhere for free!
You can reserve a train ticket way in advance without paying for it - nope, no deposit required. If you decide not to use that train journey, you don't lose any money, and I think you have up until a few days before you travel before making your mind up whether you want to keep the ticket or not and pay for it! Excellent stuff.
Now, I don't know anything about geography, so I'm going to compare two train journeys that have a similar travel time.
If I wanted to leap on a train right now from Paris and go to Lyon, it would set me back 44€ as a young adult or 29.30€ as a young adult with a discount card. The full price adult fare would cost 58.70€.
If I wanted to leap on a train right now from London and go to Manchester, it would cost me £56.10 (no discount for being youngish!) or £37.05 with my young person's railcard.
So, both journeys take 2 hours and the adult fare is almost the same amount. Except the French price is in euros and therefore a lot cheaper. Sold yet?
Before getting on your train, il faut composter your ticket, so look for the yellow lumpy stampy machine (not the best technical description I've ever read, but you'll understand when you see one). You stick your ticket in and it date stamps your ticket, thus making it valid. If your station has many platforms and you need to take an underpass to get to the side you want, sometimes there is a yellow stampy machine in that underpass, but don't risk going all the way over and not finding one (or more annoyingly, finding a broken one): validate your ticket in the main hall.
The reason for validating your ticket, is that if it's not stamped, you can get it reimbursed, and thus you're not really travelling on a proper ticket if it's not stamped. If you get caught, you will usually get fined unless you own up to the first SNCF conductor you can track down.
There are some routes where it's unlikely you will get checked, but unless you know enough French to plead ignorance and ill fortune, it's not worth finding out which routes these are. Personally, I wouldn't even consider trying to get away without paying - without the income from all of those tickets, it's possible French trains would turn into horrid British ones!
When the SNCF staff are working, they're normally quite helpful (unless you give off the air of being really stupid, in which case they will try to get rid of you as soon as possible) and will advise you which train would be best for you to catch, where you should stand on the platform to get into the right carriage when the train comes in, how to dislodge someone from the seat you paid for during rush-hour and all sorts of other similar train questions.
If you are disabled, you will automatically get upgraded to first class, in order to fit your wheelchair onto the train. If a friend is travelling with you (even if you don't need that person's help and you've invited him or her for fun) then your friend gets upgraded too, free of charge. How's that for customer service? Pretty damn good.
One thing to bear in mind however, is that SNCF staff strike, and strike often. A strike ("une grève") can make your life hell, but usually you will have advance warning (if you read the papers). In smaller stations, staff do what they like and may well strike without any notice. You have been warned!
Whenever trains are delayed, a computer voice will announce this to you. I've only heard an announcement for a late train once, and the little computer lady was apologising profusely for a 2 minute delay. The French take punctuality seriously! In rural areas, the trains can be tiny bumpity things that make you want to die, but generally speaking, they're very swish indeed. Some trains even have special 'child carriages' which look like crèches on wheels. You can sleep quite happily on a French train and not wake up with a broken neck.
The TGV trains are very fast, and in some cases, can form a cheap alternative to flying across the country.
During the day, train stations are very efficient places and bigger city stations will even come with left luggage lockers (I think they're still all open, even in this political climate). You must pay to use a toilet, but they're normally well maintained, so at least you have that comfort (only up until about 10pm though).
At night, train stations do not become a place you want to be. Everything shuts down and the staff go home. At least in big airports like Charles de Gaulle, there is a skeleton crew on shift, in case you have any major problems. In train stations, all you have is your little mobile phone and the number '112' firmly imprinted in your head.
Thanks to a friend reading the timetables wrong, we got stranded in Gare de Lyon (one of the big Paris stations) in the wee hours of a Monday morning once, where we got mistaken for two poor Croatian girls with no money or food. This may partly have been due to us wearing an odd mixture of clothes retrieved from our suitcases because it was absolutely freezing (this was February) and the fact we were refusing to speak in French, in the hopes people would lose interest in us and go away. A man from Serbia, I think it was, offered to buy my friend off me so I could have money to use a vending machine and get food out.
Tempted as I was, my friend objected! Funny, that! Anyway, the bottom line is: do not stay overnight in a train station if you're stuck with a huge gap until the next train. Check yourself into a hotel somewhere!
SNCF FOR THE 12-25S
Until you hit the grand old age of 26, you're not a 'proper' adult in France, so you benefit from cheap train travel and housing benefits. Now, if you're only visiting France, the only part that will interest you is the cheap train travel, so let me fill you in on that.
For a bargain price of 49€, you can pick up a Carte 12-25 from any train station in France and save up to 50% off train fares in Période Bleue. I suppose the best way to describe this is as a sort of off-peak period. The discount applies to pretty much all of the trains out there, but when more than 50% of the total tickets available for that train sell out, you only get the discount that you would get for Période Blanche (busy period; rush-hours, etc).
Whenever you don't get the 50% discount (e.g. during Période Blanche), you do get a 25% discount instead. This is guaranteed. However, you might like to bear in mind that 'young adults' (e.g. up to 25 years old) do get a 25% discount anyway just because of their age.
SNCF FOR THE 26-59S
If you're 26 over over, hard luck, because in France you won't get any of the good discounts again until you turn 60. There is a discount card available for you to buy, called Carte Escapades, and it will set you back a nice 85€. Like with the Carte 12-25, you are always guaranteed at least 25% off your train tickets and this is more useful for you, because you don't get any automatic discounts. Without this card, you pay full whack.
On most journeys during Période Bleue (the less busy period), you will get 30% off, and sometimes with the TGV trains and other nice looking trains, you will get up to 40% off. If you're planning on a long stay in France with a fair bit of travelling (let's say at least 3 to 4 weeks), then this card could come in handy.
SNCF FOR THE OVER 60S
For those who are over 60 and want to travel around France, the Carte Senior is available. As with everything else, there is a limited number of tickets available for the cheaper tariffs, but you will always get at least 25% off, and in most cases, 50%. The Carte Senior is almost identical to the Carte 12-25 in advantages and costs 53€ - a mere few euros more. Definitely worth getting if you want to see a bit of France.
As an older traveller, you can play the 'age' card and access other services created with you in mind. SNCF run a door-to-door service in mainland France, to help get your bags from where you're staying to where you're going. The 24 hour promise does not apply on the weekends or on public holidays but it's useful for weekday travel as you won't have to lug your bags everywhere yourself. It costs 25€ for the first piece of luggage and there are reductions for each subsequent piece. You can reserve this service when you buy your train ticket from the guichet (I don't think it's available online, sorry) or by calling 3635 from France, saying "Bagages" or pressing "41".
In many towns you can request someone to come collect you from the place you're staying, to the train station and make sure you get onto the right carriage. You don't need to have any special card; you just need to be over 60. For more information, call 3635 from France, then press #66 and say "LISA". You must reserve this service at least a week in advance and I think there is a fee for the service, but I couldn't find details of this anywhere. If you're a nervous traveller or would just appreciate a bit of extra help, it may be worth looking into.
SNCF FOR THE KIDS
Got kids? The Carte Enfant + is designed for people travelling with a child aged under 12 years old. Up to 4 people (a mixture of adults and children) along with the first under-12-year-old can travel on this card. You don't actually need any legal ties to the child named on the card - so you can can take a friend's child out if you know someone in desperate need of a little break from the little nightmare!;)
Right, now this is a wee bit more complicated than the other cards, so I'll try and explain it as best I can. All children under 12 travelling on the card pay half the adult price. If the named child is under 3, then that child travels completely free of charge. For all the other people travelling on the card, a minimum reduction of 25% is available, but can go up to 50% in Période Bleue (the cheap period).
The card costs 68€, which isn't bad at all if you consider how many people get to save money on it! But you will need a small child to travel with you, or it's not valid.
SNCF FOR FREQUENT TRAVELLERS
If you catch the train regularly, you can buy a subscription that lasts between one week and one year. Walk into the train station ask about the "Abonnement Forfait" or "Abonnement Fréquence". You can save up to 50% on your regular journey, but I haven't gone into any detail here, as it's probably more suitable for commuters going to and from work at set times, rather than UK Dooyooers popping across to France on a jolly.
If your only experience of train is in the UK, France will blow you away. The trains are built better, they're faster and they run on time. Strikes do happen regularly, but in between, the service is amazing and the train tickets themselves, don't exactly cost a fortune. If you're prepared to book way in advance, you can even buy a special ultra-cheap ticket called a Prem, although this is 100% completely non-refundable if you don't use it.
I do really miss French trains; they're much better than this GNER rubbish we have over here!
Thanks for reading:)
Summary: For fast, cheap rail transport, ditch the UK and move to France.
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