Why Train is Ideal for visiting France and Europe
No airport stress
Imagine not having to arrive 2-3 hours early, wait in long cues, go through the check-in procedure and the security checks, take off your shoes and empty all your liquids and gels, not to mention other embarrassing personal belongings into a box? No unpacking your things, random searches, turbulence etc?
What's more, when waiting to board, you attempt the breathing exercises you've been told will help you combat your fear of flying. But it's no use. You're still filled with terror. Eventually, when you do take off, your pulse races, your palms are sweaty, you need to pee because you're nervous but you can't because the stewards' trolley is blocking the aisle. Finally, your big chance… the trolley's gone, but no, you hear a 'ding' followed by an irritating voice announcing you're about to land. So you sit down, shut up and strap on your safety belt. (Why, you wonder as you grit your teeth, doesn't that thing you're sitting on come with a discreet potty?)
Next, you disembark. More cues, and you still haven't had a pee as you're forced to wait for your massive monster of a suitcase to edge its way around the carousel. When it finally does, you need to cue again in order to get out of the ugly airport building, then more cueing for the taxi or bus to take you into the city. Voila! I rest my case. Apart from being a highly stressful experience, the one-hour budget flight has just taken up more than half your day.
Not so with trains, for starters most train stations are located centrally. You get on at a central location and get off at a central location. Easy. More often than not, trains are faster than flights and much more comfortable when you take into account the time spent getting to and from the airport etc.
Need more reasons? How about this…No more putting up with rude and annoying airline staff! I once asked a stewardess for a glass of water and was told that my request was impossible, as I wasn't sitting in her aisle.
In addition, if you've packed a bottle of wine or peanuts, no one's going to arrest you, body search you or fine you for bringing them through customs because frankly, in France (and probably the rest of Europe), they just don't care. Security checks on trains in France are virtually non-existent.
There is no surprise or extra charges you sometimes get landed with (Ryan air springs to mind) if you happen to be a couple of kilos over-weight. Not you, the bags, but I'm guessing with world obesity being on the increase, people might be next.
More chill out time
In France, the preferred method of travel is definitely trains. Why? Because in general, the French are a pretty relaxed bunch. Train travel equals virtually zero stress. Pack a book, meditate, eat, sleep or take in the spectacular surroundings. On top of that, there's no toilet anxiety. The toilets on the TGV are fairly clean and user-friendly - not always an easy thing to find in Europe.
Why stop at France? There's no reason one can't do all of Europe by train. With Eurail train passes, you can choose from a variety of packages depending on your time, budget and where you want to go. To get a better idea, check out Rail Europe or EuRail for details.
The TGV is a peculiar beast indeed. Prices vary massively. It's a lot cheaper if you book ahead via the Internet. And sometimes, you'll find a first class ticket for only a fraction more. For example Paris–Marseille TGV tickets go between 45-100€ aller simple (one-way), depending on the time, day and deal available.
Find deals at: SNCF Travel Deals
Do your bit for the planet
It's the greener way to travel. With trains releasing 10 times fewer greenhouse gases per average passenger journey. Need one say more?
Smoke if you need to
Die-hard smokers can still get off during the trip and have a quick puff on the platform. You're probably not supposed to but everybody does. The French don't go much for hard and fast rules and do pretty much as they please, which is all part of the appeal of the country.
The journey itself is part of the holiday, not just a way to get from A to B. It's also a great way to meet people. You get to wander around, stretch your legs a little, practice your French and buy an overpriced café and ham and cheese sandwich, but who cares? At the end of the day, you're on the high-speed TGV, (average speed 350 km per hour), which is an experience in itself. If you're on a budget why not buy a baguette, water and other supplies before you board (stations are fine but you'll find a better deal in a supermarket). That way you'll save some money so you can splash out on a nice glass of wine instead. It's all about priorities and yes, there's a bar! Les Voitures Corail is where you'll find the car full of goodies. Just follow the signs.
Quick language reference
If your French is non-existent, do yourself a huge favor and practice a little before you head for the land of cheese. All you need is a couple of words under your belt to transform your trip from "Dear God, the French are bloody rude" to "Aren't they a lovely, race? Not sure what you're on about, but I had no problems whatsoever".
Au revoir (Goodbye)
S'il vous plait (Please)
Merci (Thank you)
Pardon (Excuse me)
Parlez-vous anglais? (Do you speak English?)
Je voudrais un billet (I'd like a ticket…)
Aller simple (One-way)
Aller et retour (Return)
Je ne comprends pas (I don't understand)
Ou est…? (Where is…?)
Ou sont les toilettes? (Where are the toilets?)
Tout droit (Straight ahead)
À gauche (Left)
À droite (Right)
Before boarding any train in France (and Europe) you need to validate your ticket in one of the yellow composteurs you'll find at the end of the platforms. Failing to do so will get you in trouble with the ticket inspector who may or may not (depending on his or her mood at the time) decide to fine you. If you do forget to validate, just use a bit of French and plenty of charm when he or she stops by. Occasionally, that'll do the trick.
How to read the actual ticket
On the ticket, look up the voiture (your carriage/car) number. There's an electronic panel on every platform (lit up with a picture of the train). You'll need to match your voiture with the allocated area (where it stops) so you can stand at the right spot (look for the signs along the platform A, B, C, D etc). It's organized in this way so you can board the train quickly and efficiently. Often, especially if you're at a smaller station, the TGV doesn't stop for too long, so you'll need to be ready.
Next step, find your place assise = seat number. Fenetre = window seat. Couloir = aisle seat. This is easier said than done. Here's why…
You need to claim your seat my friends!
After you board, 9 times out of 10, someone will be sitting in your seat. That's only because they're being sneaky and they've chosen a more appealing option for themselves in the hope that the seat will not be filled.
This is easily fixed. Simply smile, say excuse me, but I think this is my seat (excusez-moi, mais je crois que c'est ma place). You'll then probably get some sort of a blank or baffled stare as if they don't know what you're talking about, after which you will pull out the trump card. Your ticket, which you will casually wave past the person's baffled face. Pretending to be startled and perplexed at this revelation, they will eventually excuse themselves and move to where they were supposed to be. It's all part of the game, but you need to know how to play it.
TGV verses TER
The TER (local train) is often a much cheaper option than the TGV. You can use TER's to travel interstate but not across the different states. Technically you could, but you'd need to change trains too often, which would defeat the purpose of cutting costs. Interstate, however, they work just fine and sometimes they almost take the same amount of time (with a marginal difference).
It's best to take a small bag, as small as humanly possible. Why? No struggling through the aisles, and most of the time, train stations in France use good old-fashioned stairs between the platforms, which means you'll have to lug your luggage up and down the endless stairs, winding tunnels and too many people. Funny isn't it, on the one hand, the French get it right with technology. The fastest train in the world etc, on the other hand, they don't do escalators. Go figure.
In any case, the population in France sits at around 63 000 000 people. Imagine if everyone carried around his or her massive Louis Vuitton suitcase? There'd be no room left for the 365 different types of cheese. Best of all, if you choose a smaller, lighter option, it's fun to watch other people struggle with all of their 'stuff'. Try it; you'll never go back to lugging.
Strikes – a national past time
Providing the country is not in the mood for a train strike, you should be fine. Very frustrating when you're on a time-schedule like most of us are. However, the French themselves don't seem overly stressed about these things. It's all about social rights and supporting their fellow strikers.
Whereas anyone else around the world might be put out by the whole thing and complain, the French take it all in their stride. After all, if there's a train strike they don't have to go to work, which suits them just fine. If you happen to be stuck in one of these situations all I can say is this: 'When in Rome…' do as the Romans do. And thank whoever's responsible for giving you the extra time to explore. What else can you do? Bonne chance! And happy travels.
A FrenchFriends.info exclusif by Tanja Bulatovic