France

Transportation

Transportation - Get In


By plane

Flights to/from Paris

The main international airport, Roissy - Charles de Gaulle (IATA: CDG), is likely to be your port of entry if you fly into France from outside Europe. CDG is the home of Air France (AF), the national company, for most intercontinental flights. AF and the companies forming the SkyTeam Alliance (KLM, Aeroméxico, Alitalia, Delta Air Lines, Korean Air) use Terminal 2, as do Oneworld airlines, while most Star Alliance airlines use Terminal 1. A third terminal is used mainly for charter and some low-costs flights. If transferring through CDG (especially between the various terminals) it is important to leave substantial time between flights. Ensure you have no less than one hour between transfers. Add more if you have to change terminals as you will need to clear through security. For transfers within CDG you can use the free train shuttle linking all terminals, train stations, parking lots and hotels in the airport.

Transfers to another flight in France: AF operates domestic flights from CDG too, but a lot of domestic flights, and also some internal European flights, use Orly (IATA: ORY), the second Paris airport. For transfers to Orly there is a bus link operated by AF (free for AF passengers). The two airports are also linked by a local train (RER) which is slightly less expensive, runs faster but is much more cumbersome to use with heavy luggage. AF, Corsair, Emirates, Qatar Airways have agreements with SNCF, the national rail company, which operates TGVs (see below) out of CDG airports (some trains carry flight numbers). The TGV station is in Terminal 2 and is on the route of the free shuttle. 

Some low-cost airlines, including Ryanair and Volare, fly to Beauvais airport situated about 80 km northwest of Paris. Buses to Paris are provided by the airlines. Check schedules and fares on their websites.

Flights to/from regional airports

Many airports outside Paris have flights to/from international destinations: among the most served are Bordeaux, Clermont-Ferrand, Lille, Lyon, Marseille, Nantes, Nice, Toulouse, they have flights to cities in western Europe and North Africa; these airports are hubs to smaller airports in France and may be useful to avoid the transfer between the two Paris airports. Two airports, Basel-Mulhouse and Geneva, are shared by France and Switzerland and can allow entry into either country.

Regional airports in France are also served long-haul from these cities:

  • Antananarivo (Madagascar) : Marseille (XL Airways France)
  • Dubai (UAE) : Lyon (Emirates), Nice (Emirates)
  • Montréal (Canada) : Bordeaux (Air Transat), Marseille (Air Transat), Lyon (Air Canada, Air Transat) Nantes (Air Transat), Nice (Air Canada Rouge, Air Transat), Toulouse (Air Transat)
  • New York City (USA) : Nice (Delta Air Lines)
  • Punta Cana (Dominican Republic) : Bordeaux (XL Airways France), Lyon (XL Airways France), Marseille (XL Airways France), Nantes (XL Airways France), Toulouse (XL Airways France)
  • Toronto (Canada) : Marseille (Air Transat)

By boat

France is served by numerous services from England to France:

  • P&O Ferries - operate freight and passenger services from Dover to Calais.
  • DFDS Seaways - operate freight and passenger services from Dover to Dunkirk.
  • LD Lines - operate freight and passenger services from Portsmouth to Le Havre.
  • Brittany Ferries - operate freight and passenger services from Portsmouth to Caen, Cherbourg, andSt Malo, from Poole to Cherbourg and from Plymouth to Roscoff.
  • Condor Ferries - operate freight and passenger services from Portsmouth to Cherbourg, Poole to St Malo and Weymouth to St Malo.

Prices vary considerably depending on which route you choose. Generally the cheapest route is the short sea route across the English Channel which is Dover to Calais, so it is worth comparing prices before you decide which is the most suitable route to France.

Passengers travelling from Dover by ferry to France go through French passport/identity card checks in the UK before boarding, rather than on arrival in France. Passengers travelling from all other UK ports to France go through French passport/identity card checks on arrival in France.

There are also connections from Ireland to France:

  • Irish Ferries - operate ferry services from Rosslare to Cherbourg and from Rosslare to Roscoff

Numerous companies now act as agents for the various ferry companies much like Expedia and Travelocity act as agents for airlines allowing the comparison of various companies and routes. Two well known brands are Ferryonline and AFerry.co.uk.


By train

The French rail company, SNCF, as well as many other companies (sometimes in cooperation with SNCF), provide direct service from most European countries using regular as well as high speed trains.

  • TGVs between Paris, Metz and Luxembourg, as well as TGV between Brussels and France (except Paris) are operated by SNCF
  • TGVs between Paris, Lille, Calais and Ebbsfleet, Ashford and London in the UK, through the Channel Tunnel (also called Chunnel by some), are operated by Eurostar
  • TGVs between Paris, Lille, Belgium, Netherlands and northwest Germany (Cologne, Essen) are operated by Thalys
  • High speed trains between France and South Germany (Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Munich) are operated by Alleo, with either a SNCF TGV or a Deutsche Bahn ICE, and bilingual crew from both countries.
  • TGVs between France and Switzerland are operated by Lyria
  • TGVs between France and Italy are operated by TGV France Italie
  • TGVs between France and Barcelona/Madrid are operated by Elipsos, with either a SNCF TGV or a RENFE AVE, and bilingual crew.
  • Night trains between Paris, Dijon and Italy are operated by Thello
  • Day trains between Marseille and Milan (via Nice) are operated by Thello as well
  • Night trains between Moscow and Paris operated by the russian RZD run up to twice weekly, they stop en-route in Belarus (Minsk), Poland (Warsaw, Poznan) and Germany (Berlin, Erfurt) [www]
  • Night trains between Moscow and Nice operated by the russian RZD run weekly, they stop en-route in Belarus (Minsk), Poland (Warsaw, Katowice), Austria (Vienna, Linz, Innsbruck) and Italy [www]
  • Upon reservation, you can take your bike with you in night trains and single-deck TGV's.

By bus

Several companies operate between France and the rest of Europe:


By car

Several weekends throughout the year in France are known as 'Black Saturday' (Samedi noir) because of the start or end of school holidays and the coinciding traffic jams on French roads caused by thousands of tourists travelling to and from their holiday destinations. When possible it is wise to avoid these days. For traffic reports, see the website of the French traffic service .

Ridesharing, or carpooling, is very popular in France. Websites such as BlaBlaCar allow drivers with empty seats to safely connect with passengers looking for a ride.

See the 'By boat' section above for information on car ferries to France from the United Kingdom and Ireland.

From Belgium

  • As according to an agreement with the CFL, the Belgian railways are directing all passenger trains to France through Luxembourg (thus causing an extra unnecessary border crossing), it may be useful to cross the border directly, on foot. The terminus of the French railways in Longwy can be reached from the Belgian train station of Halanzy (the line operates only on work days, however), or from the bigger Belgian stations of Arlon or Virton. Between these two stations there's a bus operated by the TEC company which stops at Aubange Place, a good point of departure/arrival for the walking tour. The path leads almost exclusively through inhabited areas in the community of Mont-Saint-Martin (yet partially in a forest if you go to/from Halanzy) and takes some 7 km. The city of Longwy itself is quite steep in some of its parts, so pay attention to this when planning your route.
  • There are domestic Belgian trains that terminate in Lille (station Lille-Flanders).
  • Between the De Panne terminus of the Belgian railways (and the Coast tram – Kusttram) and the French coastal city of Dunkerque, there is a bus line run by DK'BUS Marine. It may, however, be operating only in certain time of the year. It is also possible to take a DK'BUS bus which goes to the closest possible distance of the border and then cross it on foot by walking on the beach and arriving at a convenient station of the Coast tram, such as Esplanade.

Transportation - Get Around


By plane

The following carriers offer domestic flights within France:

  1. Air France has the biggest domestic network in France
  2. HOP!, a subsidiary of Air France, operates domestic flights with smaller aircrafts than Air France
  3. easyJet, a low-cost airline, has the second biggest domestic network in France
  4. Ryanair, another low-cost airlines, serves mainly secondary airports
  5. Volotea has a network of domestic flights
  6. Air Corsica links Corsica with mainland France
  7. Twin Jet operates domestic flights with 19-seat Beech 1900D aircrafts
  8. Hex'Air operates flights between Paris-Orly and Lourdes, using 19-seat Beech 1900D aircrafts
  9. Eastern Airways operates domestic flights between Lyon and Lorient
  10. Chalair Aviation has a limited network of domestic flights, using mainly 19-seat Beech 1900D aircrafts
  11. Heli Securite (Cannes (Croisette Heliport), Nice (Cote D'Azur Airport))
  12. Nice Helicopteres (Cannes (Croisette Heliport), Nice (Cote D'Azur Airport))

By car

France has a well-developed system of highways. Most of the motorway (autoroute) network is made up of toll roads. Some have a single toll station giving you access to a section, others have entrance and exit toll stations at every junction. Upon entering a tolled section of a road, you must collect an entry ticket from a machine which records the point on the road you started at and ensures you only pay for the distance you travel. Be careful not to lose your entrance ticket or you will be charged for the longest possible distance. All toll stations accept major credit cards although they may not accept foreign credit cards. It is also possible to use the automatic booth, but only if your card is equipped with a special chip.

Roads range from the narrow single-carriageway lanes found in the countryside to major highways. Most towns and cities were built before the general availability of the automobile and thus city centres tend to be unwieldy for cars. Keep this in mind when renting: large cars can be very unwieldy. It often makes sense to just park and then use public transportation.

A French driver flashing headlights is asserting right of way and warning you of intentions and presence. Do not use it to mean thanks. Flashing headlights can also mean, "Watch out as there's a police speed-check ahead of you!" Horns should be used only in legitimate emergencies; use of the horn in urban areas outside such circumstances might win you a traffic ticket. Parisian drivers were notorious for honking their horns at anything and everything, though increased enforcement has greatly reduced this practice.

Don't forget that in France they drive on the right!

Renting a car

Once you arrive in France you may need to use car hire services. Most of the leading companies operate from French airports and it is advisable to book car hire in advance. It is a common experience at smaller French airports to not get the type of car you booked online but an alternative model. Sometimes the alternative model is quite different so check carefully before accepting the vehicle and stand your ground if it does not match your booking request and is not suitable to your needs.

Most cars in France are equipped with standard transmissions, a fact that derives equally from the preferences of the driving public and the peculiarities of French licensing laws (automatic transmissions are generally only used by the elderly or those with physical disabilities). This extends to vehicle categories that in other countries (read: the US) are virtually never equipped with a manual transmission, such as vans and large sedans. Accordingly, virtually all of the vehicles available for rent at the average car hire will be equipped with a manual gearbox. If you do not know how to drive a car with a manual transmission and don't have the time to learn before your trip, be certain to reserve your rental car well in advance and confirm your reservation. Otherwise, you may find yourself in a car that is much larger than you can afford (or with no car at all).

It is a good tip when travelling in numbers to get one member of the party with hand luggage to go straight through to the car hire desk ahead of everybody else, this will avoid the crush once the main luggage is picked up from the conveyor.


By thumb

France is a good country for hitchhiking. Be patient, prepare yourself for a long wait or walk and in the meantime enjoy the landscape. A ride will come along. People who stop are usually friendly and not dangerous. They will like you more if you speak a little French. They never expect any money for the ride.

Remember that getting out of Paris by thumb is almost impossible. You can try your luck at the portes (city gates), but heavy traffic and limited areas for stopping will try your patience. It's a good idea to take the local train to a nearby suburb as your chance of being picked up will increase dramatically.

Outside Paris, it's advisable to try your luck by roundabouts. As it's illegal to hitchhike on the motorways (autoroutes) and they are well observed by the police, you may try at a motorway junction.

The greatest chance is at toll plazas (stations de péage), some of which require all cars to stop and are thus great places to catch a lift. If you've been waiting for a while with an indication of where to go, drop it and try with your thumb only. You can also try to get a ride to the next good spot in the wrong direction. Note with caution, however, that hitching from a péage, while a common practice, is illegal and French police or highway security, who are normally very tolerant of hitchhikers, may stop and force you to leave. You can get free maps in the toll offices - these also indicate where you can find the "all-stop-Péage".


By train

Overview

Trains are a great way to get around in France. You can get from pretty much anywhere to anywhere else by train. For long distances, use the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse, or High-speed train) on which reservations are obligatory. But if you have time, take the slow train and enjoy the scenery. The landscape is part of what makes France one of the top tourist destinations in the world.

The French national railway network is managed by SNCF Réseaux, a branch of the nationalised company SNCF(Société nationale des chemins de fer français).

Passenger trains are operated by different companies:

  • Most of the trains are operated by SNCF
  • Some low-cost TGVs between Marne-la-Vallée(Disneyland), Lyon, and Marseille or Montpellier, are operated by Ouigo. This service is modeled after low-cost airlines so watch out for hidden fees. Furthermore, ouigo tends to serve more out if the way stations to lower track and station access charges, which can make the way to your ultimate destination expensive and time-consuming.
  • Some other TGVs to and from Paris are operated by iDTGV
  • Some trains between Italy and Marseille or Paris are operated by Thello
  • International high-speed services connecting to the rest of Europe are operated by several companies, including Eurostar (London), Thalys (Brussels, Amsterdam), Lyria (Switzerland), DB (Germany) and RENFE (Barcelona).

Each company has its own conditions of carriage, and most of them do not accept SNCF reduction cards for international journeys (Ouigo and iDTGV are also distinct from SNCF within France despite being owned by SNCF).

For regional trains, schedules can be found at ter.sncf.com (choose your region, then "Carte and horaires" for maps and timetables). Booking is available in two classes: première classe(first class) is less crowded and more comfortable but can also be about 50% more expensive than deuxième classe (second class).

The SNCF website Gares & Connexions provides live train schedules, keeping you informed about platform numbers and delays. This information is also available on smartphones via the free application SNCF.

There are a number of different kinds of high speed and normal trains:

  • TER (Train Express Régional): Regional trains and the backbone of the SNCF system. TER are sometimes slower but do serve most stations. Available on Eurail and InterRail passes. As they are owned by each region, SNCF conditions of carriage do not apply and you are not entitled for a refund in case of a delayed train.
  • Intercités: As of 2012, the bundling of the former Corail services. Includes trains with compulsory reservation (former Téoz and the Lunéa night trains) and those for which reservations are optional (former Intercités). The reservation-optional trains are what one will often use on passes. Some trains go to regions that the TGV services don't, for example the Auvergne.
  • TGV (Trains à Grande Vitesse): The world-famous French high-speed trains run several times a day from Paris to the south-east Nice(5-6h), Marseille (3h) and Avignon (2.5 h), the east Geneva (3h) or Lausanne, Switzerland and Dijon (1h15), the south-west Bordeaux(3h), the west Rennes (2h), Nantes (2h), Brest (4h) and the north Lille (1h). Eurostar to London (2h15) and Thalys to Brussels (1h20) use almost identical trains. Reservations are compulsory.
  • Night train services (Intercités de Nuit) also exist. These include couchettes second class (6 bunk beds in a compartment), first class (4 bunks) and Reclining seats. Wagon-lits (a compartment with 2 real beds) were totally withdrawn from French overnight trains. However, you can ask for a "private room" (in first class). Night trains have been gradually phased out in recent years and only a handful of them still remain in service in 2015.

Fare system

The SNCF fare system is a bit complex but still easy to understand.

There are many kinds of fares but the two most important are:

  • Prem's, early bird fares, non-exchangeable and non-refundable
  • Loisir, as well as tickets with a reduction card, are exchangeable and refundable tickets (minus a fee) before the train departs. Tickets are generally cheaper the further in advance they are purchased.

There are three kinds of tickets:

  • Billet, classic paper ticket, bought at a ticket office. If you lose it you have to buy another one.
  • Billet électronique, which... is not an "electronic ticket" at all. It's also a normal paper ticket, but purchased online. Again, if you lose it you have to buy another one.
  • e-Billet, which is an "electronic ticket". Only available on some TGV services, you only need to have a printed e-ticket with you (from your own printer or from a ticket machine). Tickets can be reissued as many times as needed, but are nominative: your name has to match the name on the ticket.

For regional trains (TER) and Intercités without a reservation, tickets purchased at a ticket office are valid for any train within two months... except there are two travel "periods" depending on the departure time of your train:

  • Période bleue, the cheapest
  • Période blanche, the more expensive

A calendar describes the time and days for each period. You can travel during "période bleue" with a "période blanche" ticket (as it's more expensive), but you cannot do the opposite.

Youths (12-28) and seniors 60+ are eligible for a 25% discount on tickets for TER and Intercités trains if traveling in the Période bleue. There is also a Senior+ Railcard that you can purchase for 60 €/year that gives the holder extra privileges.

If you are younger than 28 and will be doing more than about 2 return journeys in France, getting a "Carte Jeune" will save you money. They cost €50, last a year, and give anywhere from a 25% to 60% discount depending on when you book the ticket and when you travel.

Ouigo only sells tickets online and you have to present the QR-code in a scannable form (printed out or on a screen).

Booking online

Booking tickets online can be quite a confusing process: the SNCF does not sell tickets online by itself, and it is possible to book the same journey through a number of different travel agencies websites (in different languages and currencies). The fares for journeys inside France are the same with every travel agency.

  • Voyages-sncf.com French language booking website by Expedia and the SNCF. It can get sometimes confusing, and is known to hardly work when you try to buy a ticket from abroad or with a non-French credit card. Be careful: you will need the credit card that has been used for payment to retrieve your tickets from the ticket machines. If you don't have it, your tickets will be lost, and you will need to buy new tickets.
  • Captain Train French, English, German and Italian language booking website. It aims to be as easy to use as possible. Unlike "Voyages SNCF", you don't need your credit card to retrieve the tickets, only the reservation number and the last name entered for reservation. You can pay with Visa, MasterCard, American Express or Paypal. Tickets can be printed or downloaded on your mobile phone or Apple watch or Android watch. This website sells tickets for 19 European countries, including Deutsche Bahn (DB, german rails) tickets for trips in France and Germany, Lyria tickets for trips to Switzerland, Eurostar for trips to the UK, Thalys for trips to Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, and Thello tickets for trips to Italy. For Alleo (SNCF-DB joined operation) journeys between France and Germany, Captain Train automatically compares SNCF and DB fares, and shows you the cheapest of both (although it's for the same train, SNCF and DB have their own fares).
  • RailEurope are booking agencies owned by the SNCF. Fares will often be more expensive on these sites than on the "official" sites, but they are generally easier to use than the SNCF sites.

Getting onboard

To find your train, locate your train number and the departure time on the departures board. There will be a track ("Voie") number next to the train and departure time. Follow signs to that track to board the train. You will have a reserved seat on TGV trains. On other long-distance trains, you can optionally make reservations (at least one day in advance); if you do not have one you may use any unused seat not marked as reserved. To find your reserved seat, first look for the train coach number ("Voit. No"). Pay attention to the possible confusion between track number (Voie) and coach (voiture) number (abbreviated Voit) As you go down the track, the coach number will be displayed on an LCD screen on the car, or maybe just written in the window or right next to the doors.

The reserved seat rules are lax; you are allowed if you switch seats or use another seat (of the same class of course) if it is empty because the TGV is not fully booked or the other person agrees to switch with you. The only requirement is not to continue using a reserved seat if the person holding the reservation claims it.

On the main lines, TGVs often run in twos. There are two possibilities: either the two TGVs are considered as one train with one train number (in this case each coach has a different number); or the two TGVs are considered as separate trains which run together during a part of their journey, with two different train numbers (in this case, the two trains may have two close numbers such as 1527 and 1537), and each train will have its own coach numbering. So be sure you are in the right train (the train number is shown on the LCD screen, with the coach number).

If you are early, there is often a map somewhere on the track that will show how the train and car numbers will line up on the track according to letters that appear either on the ground or on signs above. That way, you can stand by the letter corresponding with your coach number and wait to board the train closest to your coach. You can easily go from one coach to another, so if you are very late, jump in any coach of the same class before the train starts, wait until most people are seated, then walk to your coach and seat number.

Beware: To avoid any form of fraud, your ticket must be punched by an automatic machine ("composteur") before entering the platform area to be valid. Older machines are bright orange, newer machines are yellow and gray. The machines are situated at the entrance of all platforms. Failure to punch the ticket may entitle you to a fine even if you are a foreigner with a limited French vocabulary, depending on how the conductor feels, unless you approach the conductor as quickly as possible and request that your ticket be validated. Likewise if you step aboard a train without a ticket, you must find the conductor ("contrôleur") and tell him about your situation before he finds you. However, e-Billet electronic tickets do not have to be punched: in doubt, punch it anyway, you won't be fined for punching an e-Billet.

French information booths, especially in larger train stations, can be quite unhelpful, especially if you do not understand much French. If something does not seem to make sense, just say "excusez-moi" and they should repeat it.

Troc des trains

As it is cheaper to book and purchase train tickets, especially those with reservations, in advance, there is a relatively lively trading of non-exchangeable and non-reimburseable train tickets on the Internet. See these sites.

Be extremely careful not to buy an "e-billet" or a printed ticket: the seller could cancel the ticket after the transaction, and you would be considered in fraud on board of the train.


By bus

There is no single national bus service. Until recently , buses were limited to local mass transit or departmental/regional service. Following a similar liberalization of the market in Germany, long distance buses are now allowed to run everywhere in France and prices can be quite low, especially when booked in advance. However, journey time and comfort tend to be worse than on the train.


By bicycle

France is not a particularly cyclist-friendly country (unlike, say, the Netherlands), but the situation is improving: more cycle paths are being built and about 40 cities have a bike-sharing system.

Beware of bike thieves. If you have to park your bike in the street, make sure to lock it properly, particularly in larger cities and at night. Avoid using the cable-locks that can be cut within seconds, instead use U-shaped locks, chains or folding locks. Lock your bike to a solid fixed support like a U-Rack. Lock the frame (not only the wheels) and make sure that your wheels cannot be removed without a more-determined thief with tools.

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