On our last trip to Europe, my husband had a business trip that required him to go to Portugal for a few days. I opted to stay in Paris and he would meet up with me later in the week so we could head off to Bordeaux. A few years ago, taking a train would have never even crossed my mind, but taking into the account the time and cost of getting back to CDG, waiting to get through security, taking a flight, deplaning, etc, hopping onto a train is definitely an excellent alternative to flying. We packed up in Paris, headed to Gare Montparnasse (conveniently located near our Airbnb apartment), and took a fairly pain-free trip all the way to Bergerac.
Book your tickets in advance using SNCF.fr.
SNCF is France’s national state-owned railway company and manages the rail traffic in France. Just like airplane tickets, the prices are usually better when you book in advance, but definitely sign up for the mailing list to get alerts for travel deals. Keep the email bookmarked on your phone, or write down your booking number, so you can reprint your tickets (will-call style) at the Gare (station) of your departure.
If you can, spring for first class seats.
Often, first class tickets are just about $20-40 more than economy (depending on the trip). In first class, you have more room and nicer cars, which makes a huge difference if you’re doing a longer train ride.
Pack as light as possible.
On the trains, larger bags must be stowed at the front of the car, often times out of sight from your seat. I am a paranoid traveler and like to have all my things close to me, so I usually only travel with a 19″ international carry-on roller, and an overnight bag. In any event, try to keep a close eye on your bags, because thievery does happen on occasion.
If you’re traveling in a pair, try and get the seats that face each other.
Once, my husband and I weren’t able to pick the “2-top” style seat, so we ended up riding facing a mother and daughter traveling together. No big deal, but if you like your private space, choose your seats wisely!
Bring a snack if you need to.
At some of the larger train stations (i.e. Gare Montparnasse in Paris), there are little shops that offer takeaway food that you can dig into on the train. I’m not a fan of eating on the go in France, but when you have a five hour train ride and you face an hour delay and won’t get dinner till after 9pm, you’ll be happy to have that prepackaged snack and a bottle of water.
Additional tips for traveling via train in France:
- If you’re traveling with Wi-Fi enabled devices, you’ll be happy to find that there is free WiFi at almost every train station!
- Bring headphones – I watched a couple of movies on my laptop while riding from Paris to Bordeaux.
- While waiting at the train stations, be wary of pickpockets – I got my wallet stolen from my purse while I was distracted.
- Bring change with you in case you need to use the restroom – the WC is hardly ever free, so bring at least a Euro’s worth of coins out with you.