Rail travel can be expensive in France but it is possible to pay less by knowing the system and planning out your trip.
The average cost for a train fare is €0.19 per km, which increased from €0.16 in 2019 according to the leading French consumer organisation UFC-Que Choisir.
Short trips of less than one hour are more expensive at €0.23 per km, while trips of more than four hours cost on average €0.15 per km.
Among the most expensive routes is Paris – Reims, which costs on average €0.36 per km.
This is still lower than the UK average of €0.21 per km (£0.34/mile), however people unfamiliar with the SNCF are likely to pay more than they should.
To help you grapple with rising SNCF prices, here is our list of 9 ways to pay less and go further.
1. Remember the basics
TGVs cost 30% more than Intercités, however its low-cost cousin, the Ouigo, can cost less than both. When planning a trip, always check to see if there is a Ouigo route first.
TERs and Intercités are regional trains, which receive financing from the state, the region and users, which means their prices can be very low in some areas.
2. Buy early
Although the SNCF does sell last-minute tickets for discounted prices, as a rule, it pays to buy tickets early. In a study of 79 TGV and 16 Intercités routes, UFC-Que Choisir found that the last available tickets were on average €0.05 per km more expensive than the early tickets.
3. Buy a railcard
Passengers can buy a railcard on the day of departure, meaning the discount will be applied immediately. In some instances, this first discount can fully pay for the price of the card.
The Avantage railcard, for example, offers a 60% discount for three children travelling with the card holder. When the card is available for only €24.50, as is the case each year in early September, passengers travelling with children can see the card pay for itself in a single trip.
4. Use the once a year 25% discount
Each year residents in France are entitled to a 25% reduction on a return trip of over 200km for their holidays. This reduction is extended to their partner, children and parents (if the passenger is single) if they are travelling together.
This once a year discount is called the billet de congé annuel and was created in 1936 at the same time as the first paid holidays (your trip must be during traditional holiday periods).
There is some paperwork involved in getting the discount, such as proof that anyone travelling with you is a family member. For more information, the SNCF advises passengers to talk to its chatbot.
5. Check for ‘flash sales’
Ouigo runs flash sales each year at the rentrée, starting September 6, with prices as low as €10.
To be the first to know about flash sales, passengers should follow Ouigo, TGVs and the SNCF on social media.
6. Do not buy from the ticket office
Ticket offices in stations can offer valuable information and advantageous prices, but for same day tickets and discounts, your first reflex should be to buy online.
On the first weekend of each month all TER trains in Occitanie cost €1. However, in a quirk of SNCF bureaucracy, these prices only apply online or at certain terminals. The €1 price does not apply if you buy a ticket from the ticket office in a station.
Similarly, Spanish low cost operator Renfe sells tickets for travel between French stations from €9, however the SNCF will charge more for these same tickets.
7. Check the prices in the ticket machines
The machines labelled TER are for regional train tickets and should offer the best prices for regional trains.
Machines labelled SNCF are best avoided since they cannot offer discounts that are financed by the region, or the same discounts as you find online, and unlike a ticket office, cannot tell you if tickets are cheaper elsewhere.
8. You do not need to pay all at once
The SNCF lets you pay tickets in three instalments if the total price is over €150 and below €999. This payment method only works for reservations online made by bankcard and will incur some extra expense.
9. Do not pay on the train
Even honest passengers sometimes do not have time to buy tickets. The advice in such instances is to find the controller as soon as you can on boarding and buy a ticket on the train.
However, be warned: you will have to pay a €10 fee in addition to the ticket price for a trip of only 25km, rising to a €60 fee for tips of over 151km.
Idea of flat rate local transport ticket mooted
One possible way that the complex ticketing system could be simplified would be by introducing a flat rate for unlimited access to local trains, buses and metros.
President Macron told Youtuber HugoDecrypte on September 4 that he was “very favourable” to such a pass, based on the German model.
The idea received immediate support from the Minister of Transport Clément Beaune, who tweeted: “For the environment and for spending power, let's make this train pass happen with the state and the regions working together”.
However, not all welcomed the suggestion.
“It’s the regions that pay for trains,” said Franck Dhersin, vice president of the Hauts-de-France region, “The president often has these really clever ideas, but really should stop having ideas about how regions should spend their money.”