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No Car, No Problem — France’s Public Transportation System
At a Glance:
- France’s rail network offers travel opportunities for every budget and to almost every part of the country.
- Coaches are becoming increasingly popular throughout France and the rest of Europe.
- Many French cities have an extensive tram and métro system, allowing for an easy commute.
- France has international airports in Paris, Nice, Lyon, Marseille, and Toulouse for a quick week-end get-away.
If you don’t like heavy traffic or would generally prefer not to drive yourself, France’s public transportation system offers a great alternative. With great connections to all parts of the country and travel options for those who value luxury as well as those who would rather save a penny or two, trains, planes, and coaches are a particularly convenient way to get around.
That being said, Frances public transportation system is fairly prone to recurring strikes (les grèves). Before you book your ticket, take a look at the French news, and get in touch with your airline, or contact the SNCF to find out if your connection is affected by a potential strike.
France by Train
For those who need to travel around France for business meetings or who would like to explore the country, the extensive rail network is a good alternative to driving. Major cities and towns are all connected to the French railway network, and are usually linked by regional trains (TER — Trains Express Régionaux) or the famous high-speed trains (TGV — Trains à Grande Vitesse).
The service is mostly provided by SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français), France’s state-owned railway company. SNCF offers many different services at different prices. Aside from regional and middle-distance connections, there are also rail links to other European countries, such as Germany, Belgium, UK, Italy, Luxembourg, Monaco, Spain, and Switzerland.
TER: Regional Transportation
TER (Transport Express Regional) is the regional service provided by SNCF. With a combination of rail and coach services, TER connects towns and suburbs in 20 regions around the country. Many people use TER to commute, and SNCF reports one million TER passengers per day.
These train connections are developed in close collaboration with the transportation authorities of each region to decide on the specific routes, services, and prices. If you take the train to work, chances are that it’s operated by TER.
Intercités — Go the Middle Distance
Intercité trains are used for middle- and long-distance connections across France. They link major towns and cities in the country and operate day and night. In total, 340 intercité trains are in service, carrying about 100,000 passengers daily.
City-to-city links include connections between Bourdeaux and Lyon, Quimper, Nantes, Bourdeaux and Toulouse, as well as Lyon, Tours, and Nantes. Moreover, intercité trains allow you to reach Paris from Rouen, Orléans, Amiens, or Caen in less than two hours.
Luxurious Travel with the TGV and Eurostar
The TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) is another “specialty” of the SNCF. This high-speed train service has been in operation since the early 1980s, with its popularity peaking in the mid-90s. It allows you to reach over 15 countries all over Europe at 320 km/h.
Eurostar offers a high-speed link between Paris, Lille, or Calais and the UK, allowing passengers to reach London in under 2 ½ hours. This train has been running since 1994 and crosses the Channel via the Eurotunnel.
Ouigo — Traveling on a Budget
Ouigo is a particularly affordable travel option for passengers on a budget. These high-speed trains connect to towns such as Aix-en-Provence, Avignon, Marseille, Montpellier, and many more. Fares can be as low as 10 EUR for a ticket from Paris to southern France.
While the fares are low, the standard is also simpler than on other long-distance trains. If you want to charge your phone or work on a presentation during the journey, you have to book a power socket in advance or select a seat with a free power socket at a higher price. You will also have to pay extra for bigger or additional luggage, so it makes sense to travel light on the Ouigo trains.
Prices and Tickets
The price for a train ticket depends largely on the duration of the journey, the type of train, and how far in advance you book your ticket. Cheaper tickets are available but often sell out early. For a longer trip with the TGV, it makes sense to book a seat well in advance.
However, don’t forget to visit the website of SNCF to look for special deals and last-minute bargains. Trips to other European countries are sometimes available for as little as 29 EUR. If you use the train frequently, look into their cards and discounts. SNCF offers rail cards to specific age groups which allow them to save on train tickets. Group discounts and special fares for students, military personnel, and people with disabilities are available as well.
To save some money on your daily commute, you can buy a pass from your regional TER website or point of sale. No matter how you travel the French rails, it makes sense to shop around for the cheapest fares.
Exploring France by Coach
Another increasingly popular option for exploring France is to travel by coach. These are not your average run-of-the-mill buses you would use for your daily commute, but comfortable, modern vehicles with wifi, power outlets, and clean toilets. They offer an affordable alternative to long-distance and international trains.
The Ouibus service, for instance, is run by SNCF and departs from city centers all around the country. They operate 130 routes nationwide and connect you to 46 French and European destinations. You can easily travel from Paris to Brussels or Lyon to Milan with this coach service.
Another popular operator is Eurolines which combines the services of 29 independent coach companies, creating one of the largest networks in Europe. Destinations in their French network include Paris, Bordeaux, Lyon, Marseille, Nantes, Toulouse, and Strasbourg, to name just a few. Tickets are available from 8 EUR upwards.
Flixbus has only been in business since 2013 but has quickly become one of the most popular coach services in Europe. Although the company is based in Munich, they also have a huge network in France. Most connections start or end in Paris, but there are also Flixbus services between many other French cities, from Brest to Marseille and Orléans to Toulouse. Tickets might be a bit more expensive though, starting at about 19 EUR.
Transportation in the Cities
Public transportation is also the easiest way to get around a city like Paris, for instance, where traffic is heavy and parking is rare. Fortunately, the public transportation systems in French cities are well-developed.
The following cities have an underground subway system, also known as the métro, in addition to their bus system:
Moreover, the following cities have a tram service which runs roughly between 5:00 and midnight:
In Paris, the métro runs approximately every five minutes and reaches almost every neighborhood of the capital. In addition to the métro, trams, and buses, Paris also has the RER (Réseau Express Régional). This express train connects the city of Paris to its suburbs.
Most départements also offer regional bus services that connect smaller towns. That being said, the service in rural areas can be rather limited, especially at night and on weekends. If you are not living in one of the bigger cities, do your research on whether taking the car is the more practical solution ahead of time.
Let’s Fly Away — International Airports in France
International airports in France include those in Paris, Nice, Lyon, Marseille, and Toulouse. If you reach the country by plane, chances are that you’ll land at one of these airports. The capital itself has two international airports, Orly and Charles de Gaulle, which offer connections to more than 470 destinations.
If you travel to or from France by air, you can choose from many international airlines, big and small. The country’s biggest airline, Air France, is just one of them. Air France has its headquarters in Paris which is why it mostly operates out of Charles de Gaulle and Orly. The airline has been in service since the 1930s.
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