With the most extensive train network in Western Europe, France is a great country in which to travel by rail. The national rail company, SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer), runs fast, efficient trains between the main towns. Buses cover rural areas, but services can be sporadic, with awkward departure times. If you want to get off the beaten track the best option is to have your own transport.
SNCF (0844 848 5848) operates one of the most efficient, comfortable and user-friendly railway systems in the world. Staff are generally courteous and helpful, and its trains – for the most part, fast, clean and reliable – continue, in spite of the closure of some rural lines, to serve most of the country.
Pride and joy of the French rail system is the high-speed TGV (train à grande vitesse), capable of speeds of up to 300kph, and its offspring Eurostar. The continually expanding TGV network has its main hub in Paris, from where main lines head north to Lille, east to Strasbourg and two head south: one to Marseille and the Mediterranean, the other west to Bordeaux and the Spanish frontier. Spur lines service Brittany and Normandy, the Alps, Pyrenees and Jura.
Bookable online only, iDTGV trains compete with low-cost airlines and have quiet areas, a bar, facilities to watch DVDs and play computer games. Available on routes to more than 30 destinations from Paris including Bordeaux, Mulhouse, Marseille, Nice, Perpignan, Toulouse, Strasbourg and Hendaye, travel times can be changed for an additional fee. Intercité is the catch-all brand name for trains providing intercity services on routes not yet upgraded to TGV. Though not as fast, they have decent facilities including restaurant cars. Intercité sleeper services link Paris, Toulouse, the Alps and the south. Local services are covered by TER regional express trains.
Aside from the regular lines there are a number of special tourist trains, usually not part of the SNCF system or covered by normal rail passes, though some offer a discount to rail-pass holders. One of the most popular is the spectacular Petit Train Jaune, which winds its way up through the Pyrenees.
Tickets can be bought online or at train stations (gare SNCF). If you have language problems or there are long queues at the counter, note that touch-screen vending machines with instructions in English sell tickets for express services in most stations; separate vending machines for regional (TER) services have basic English labelling. All tickets – but not passes or computerized tickets printed out at home – must be validated in the orange machines located beside the entrance to the platforms, and it’s an offence not to follow the instruction Compostez votre billet (“validate your ticket”).
Timetables covering particular destinations are available free at stations. The word Autocar (often abbreviated to car) on the timetable signifies that the service is covered by an SNCF bus, on which rail tickets and passes are valid.
Fares are cheaper if you travel off-peak (période bleue or blue period) rather than during peak hours (période blanche or white period); peak period generally means Monday mornings and Friday and Sunday evenings. One-way iDTGV fares from Paris to Nice start at around €56, and from as little as €30 one-way to Toulouse. Tickets are sold a maximum of three months in advance on national trains and four months in advance on TER. You can choose your seat on TGV; reservation is obligatory on certain Intercité services.
On certain mainline routes a limited number of discount tickets, known as tarifs Prems can be bought up to ninety days in advance; these are non-refundable and cannot be changed. Prices start at €25. It’s worth checking the Trainline.com website for last-minute offers, too.
SNCF offers a range of travel cards, which are valid for one year, and can be purchased online, by phone (33 892 35 35 35), through accredited travel agents and from main gares SNCF. For example, the Carte Weekend (€75) offers a discount of between 25 and 50 percent for cardholders and a companion for weekend journeys including travel on TGV trains. The Carte Jeune (€50) for 12- to 28-year-olds implements a 25 to 50 percent discount at any time. Similar deals are available for the over-60s (Carte Senior; €60) and families with children under the age of 12 (Carte Enfant +; €75).
Non-Europeans also have the option of picking up the France Rail Pass (starting from $205/$371 for three days unlimited travel in one month) before arriving in France. The pass is available for 3- to 9-day periods.
SNCF operates bus services between train stations in areas no longer accessible by rail. Additionally, private, municipal and departmental buses can be useful for local and cross-country journeys – for instance along the long coast of the Var, much of which is not served by train. If you want to see much outside the main towns be prepared for early starts and careful planning – the timetable is often constructed to suit market and school hours. As a rule, buses are cheaper and slower than trains.
Larger towns usually have a gare routière (bus station), often next to the gare SNCF. However, the private bus companies don’t always work together and you’ll frequently find them leaving from an array of different points (the local tourist office should be able to help locate the stop you need).
Most of France’s coastal islands, which are concentrated around Brittany and the Côte d’Azur can only be reached by ferry. Local companies run services, with timetables and prices varying according to season. Some routes have a reduced schedule or cease to operate completely in winter months, while in high season booking ahead is recommended on all but the most frequent services.
Arriving by air from outside Europe, you may be able to get a good deal on add-on domestic flights. Air France operates the majority of routes within the country, although competition is hotting up, with the likes of easyJet running internal discount flights from Paris or Lyon to Biarritz, Brest, Corsica, Nice and Toulouse.
Driving in France can be a real pleasure, with its magnificent network of autoroutes providing sweeping views of the countryside. If you’re in a hurry, it’s worth paying motorway tolls to avoid the often congested toll-free routes nationales (marked, for example, RN116 or N116 on signs and maps), many of which have been reclassified as routes départementales in recent years. Many of the more minor routes départementales (marked with a D) are uncongested and make for a more scenic – if slow – drive.
There are times when it’s wiser not to drive at all: in big cities; around major seaside resorts in high season; and at peak holiday migrations such as the beginning and end of the month-long August holiday, and the notoriously congested weekends nearest July 14 and August 15.
Licences, petrol and tolls
US, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, South African and all EU driving licences are valid in France for up to twelve months, though an International Driver’s Licence makes life easier. The minimum driving age is 18 and you must hold a full licence. Drivers are required to carry their licence with them when driving, and you should also have the insurance and registration documents with you in the car.
All the major car manufacturers have garages and service stations in France, which can help if you run into mechanical difficulties. You’ll find them listed in the Yellow Pages of the phone book under “Garages d’automobiles”; for breakdowns, look under “Dépannages”. If you have an accident or theft, contact the local police – and keep a copy of their report in order to file an insurance claim. Within Europe, most car insurance policies cover taking your car to France; check with your insurer. However, you’re advised to take out extra cover for motoring assistance in case your car breaks down.
Note that petrol stations in rural areas tend to be few and far between, and those that do exist usually open only during normal shop hours – don’t count on being able to buy petrol at night and on Sunday. Thankfully, some stations are equipped with automated 24-hour pumps. Most sell unleaded (sans plomb), and diesel (gazole or gasoil); some also sell LPG and an increasing number are selling SP95-E10, a form of unleaded which includes 10 percent ethanol. Not all cars can run on this, so check with the manufacturer before using it.
Most autoroutes have tolls: rates vary, but to give you an idea, travelling by motorway from Calais to Montpellier costs roughly €65.70; pay in cash or by credit card (get in a lane marked CB at the toll-gates). You can work out routes and costs of both petrol and tolls online at the useful viamichelin.com. UK motorists can use the Liber-T automatic tolling lanes if their cars are fitted with the relevant transponder; to register in advance for a transponder and for more information see saneftolling.co.uk.
Rules of the road
Since the French drive on the right, drivers of right-hand-drive cars must adjust their headlights to dip to the right. This is most easily done by sticking on glare deflectors, which can be bought at most motor accessory shops, at the Channel ferry ports or the Eurostar terminal and on the ferries. It’s more complicated if your car is fitted with High-Intensity Discharge (HID) or halogen-type lights; check with your dealer about how to adjust these well in advance. Dipped headlights must be used in poor daytime visibility.
All non-French vehicles must display their national identification letters (GB, etc) either on the number plate or by means of a sticker, and all vehicles must carry a red warning triangle, a reflective safety jacket and (since July 2012) a single use breathalyser. You are also strongly advised to carry a spare set of bulbs, a fire extinguisher and a first-aid kit. Seat belts are compulsory and children under 10 years must travel in an approved child seat, harness or booster appropriate to their age and size.
In built-up areas the law of priorité à droite – giving way to traffic coming from your right, even when it is coming from a minor road – still sometimes applies, including at some roundabouts. A sign showing a yellow diamond on a white background indicates that you have right of way, while the same sign with a diagonal black slash across it warns you that vehicles emerging from the right have priority. Cédez le passage means “Give way”; vous n’avez pas la priorité means “You do not have right of way”.
If you have an accident while driving, you must fill in and sign a constat d’accident (declaration form) or, if another car is also involved, a constat aimable (jointly agreed declaration); in the case of a hire car, these forms should be provided with the car’s insurance documents.
Unless otherwise indicated speed limits are: 130kph (80mph) on autoroutes; 110kph (68mph) on dual carriageways; 90kph (55mph) on other roads; and 50kph (31mph) in towns. In wet weather, and for drivers with less than two years’ experience, these limits are 110kph (68mph), 100kph (62mph) and 80kph (50mph) respectively, while the town limit remains constant. Many towns and villages have introduced traffic calming and 30kph limits particularly in town centres where there are lots of pedestrians. Fixed and mobile radars are now widely used. The alcohol limit is 0.05 percent (0.5 grams per litre of blood), and random breath tests and saliva tests for drugs are common. There are stiff penalties for driving violations, ranging from on-the-spot fines for minor infringements to the immediate confiscation of your licence and/or your car for more serious offences. Note that radar detectors and SatNav systems that identify the location of speed traps are illegal in France.
To rent a car in France you must be over 21 (25 with some agencies) and have driven for at least a year. The paper counterpart of UK driving licences is now obsolete and therefore for UK licence-holders to prove to any car rental agency that they have not exceeded the maximum twelve penalty points, it is essential to go to the “Share Driving Licence Service” with the DVLA website prior to your rental, where you can attain the necessary evidence.
Car rental costs upwards of €80 a day and €100–250 for a week for the smallest car; reserve online well in advance to get the best price. You’ll find the big-name international firms – Avis, Hertz and so on – represented at airports and in most major towns and cities. Local firms can be cheaper but they won’t have the agency network for one-way rentals and you should check the small print. Unless you specify otherwise, you’ll get a car with manual (stick shift) transmission.
Car rental agencies
By scooter and motorbike
Scooters are ideal for pottering around locally. They’re easy to rent – places offering bicycles often also rent out scooters. Expect to pay in the region of €35 a day for a 50cc machine. If you are over 24 years old, you don’t need a licence for a 50cc moped – just passport/ID – but otherwise you’ll need a driving licence. For anything 50cc–125cc you’ll need to have held a driving licence for at least two years regardless of your age, and for anything over 125cc you need a full motorbike licence. Rental prices are around €60–70 a day for a 125cc bike and expect to leave a hefty deposit by cash or credit card – over €1000 is the norm – which you may lose in the event of damage or theft. Crash helmets are compulsory on all bikes, and the headlight must be switched on at all times. For bikes over 125cc it is compulsory to wear reflective clothing. It is recommended to carry a first-aid kit and a set of spare bulbs.
Bicycles (vélos) have high status in France, where cyclists are given respect both on the roads and as customers at restaurants and hotels. In addition, local authorities are actively promoting cycling, not only with urban cycle lanes, but also with comprehensive networks in rural areas (often on disused railways). Most towns have well-stocked repair shops, but if you’re using a foreign-made bike with non-standard wheels, it’s a good idea to carry spare tyres.
You can take your bike free of charge without reservation on many TER and Intercité trains; look out for trains marked on the timetable with a bicycle symbol. Folding bikes travel free on TGV and Intercité trains if they’re packed into a bag no more than 90cm x 120cm; for non-folding bikes you’ll have to pay a €10 fee and it may be necessary to book a space in advance. Another option is to have your bicycle delivered to your destination for a fee of €80. Eurostar has similar arrangements. On ferries, bikes count as your “vehicle” and attract much lower charges than taking a car across. Some airlines, such as British Airways, will not charge an additional fee for a bicycle if it’s within your free baggage allowance; others now charge – check when making your booking.
Bikes – usually mountain bikes (vélos tout-terrain or VTT) or hybrid bikes (vélos tout-chemin or VTC) – are often available to rent from campsites and hostels, as well as from specialist cycle shops and some tourist offices for around €15 per day. Many cities, including Lyon, Marseille, Nice and Paris, have public self-service bike hire schemes with hire points scattered widely throughout the city.
Canal and river trips
With over 7000km of navigable rivers and canals, boating is one of the most relaxed ways of exploring France. Expect to pay between around €800 and €2500 per week, depending on the season and level of comfort, for a four- to six-person boat. There are many companies offering boating holidays or you could contact the Fédération des Industries Nautiques (01 44 37 04 00). If you want to bring your own boat, contact Voies Navigables de France (VNF) (0800 863 000), which has information in English on maximum dimensions, documentation, regulations and so forth. The principal areas for boating are Brittany, Burgundy, Picardy-Flanders, Alsace and Champagne. The eighteenth-century Canal de Bourgogne and 300-year-old Canal du Midi in particular are fascinating examples of early canal engineering, the latter being a UNESCO World Heritage Site.