Train tickets in France and Paris.
In Europe, train tickets are now largely dispensed by machines. (Photo by Richard York.)

Train tickets in France: How to buy them, when to book in advance, how to reserve a seat or couchette, and when to get a railpass

Choose the right passBuying train tickets in Paris—or anywhere in Europe—is fairly straightforward exercise. Just go to any train station—but be warned: lines at ticket windows can be long and the wait even longer. Get to the station at least 30 minutes early, more if you can manage it.

Even better, pop by the station a day or two before you plan to leave and go ahead and buy your ticket in advance. It will save you from headaches later, and ensure you at least won't miss your train because you were standing in an interminable line waiting to buy the tix.

Luckily, over the past decade automated ticket machines have been springing up in most major European stations.

These machines employ keyboards and touch screens, so using one is as easy as typing in your destination, tapping on the departure time you want, then slipping in some Euros or your credit card, and grabbing the printed ticket from the slot at the bottom.

Or you can wait in line for half an hour at the ticket window. Your choice.

Reservations and ticket tips

Are there train tickets I have to book in advance?

Any train marked with an R on a schedule needs to be reserved ahead of time (you get an assigned seat) for a fee ranging from $10 up beyond $80 (the latter when a meal is included).

Sadly, all trains that cross international borders now require set reservations. So do all night trains.

Reservations are also required on some of the speediest of the high-speed runs, including the following in France:

And these named trains elsewhere in Europe:

  • AVE, Le Frecce, Cisalipino, City Night Line, Elipsos Train Hotel, Glacier Express, GoldenPass, Bernina Express, Chocolate Train, William Tell Express, ICE (Sprinter trains), SJ, and long-distance Renfe trains in Spain.

How can I reserve a train ticket?

You can buy tickets ahead of time through RailEurope.com, or just go to the local train station in Europe.

I find that, in most cases and for most local runs, you can almost always wait to reserve a seat just a few hours ahead of the train's departure.

That means, in effect, you can show up before the train leaves and buy a ticket—or, if you have a railpass, purchase the reservations and any high-speed supplement.

However, I always play it safe by booking a few days in advance.

If I'm only going to be in town for a day or two, I go ahead and book my ongoing ticket as soon as I arrive. It's easier.

If I'm lucky enough to be sticking around longer, I just drop by the train station to book tickets on my penultimate day in town.

Should I book every train journey in advance?

Beyond the required ones above, there's no need to buy train tickets in advance or make reservations through your travel agent before you leave home.

Doing so will only lock you into a schedule that you may want to change once you're on the road. Plus, the travel agent will charge you a few extra bucks to take care of it.

(Keep in mind, though, you will have to buy any railpass before leaving the United States .)

I make only two exceptions to the no-advance-tickets rule:

  • It's always a good idea to reserve a seat on the Eurostar train from London to Paris. England's frequent "bank holidays" (three- or four-day weekends) often book the train solid with Londoners taking short vacations to Paris.
  • I would also reserve any sleeping berths or couchettes because there's nothing worse than trying to sleep sitting up all night.
What about railpasses?

There's an entire page devoted to railpasses, but in brief:

Railpasses are one of the original budget tools for European travel. It's like a ticket good for unlimited travel on the trains. Railpasses come in two main flavors: The regular, consecutive day railpass gives you, say, one month in which you can ride the rails as often as you darn well please.

The cheaper flexipass version grants you a certain number of unlimited-ride days you can use, one-by-one, at any time within a set time period, usually two months. Luckily, a "day" starts the evening before so you can take advantage of overnight trains (so if you board one after 7pm, you write the next day's date on the pass). 

There are passes just for France, others that allow you to travel in France plus one, two, five, or up to 20 neighboring countries, and others that mix rail days and car-rental days.

For the full scoop, check out the railpass page. For a shortcut to individual passes at RailEurope.com:

• France Railpass
• France Youthpass
• Senior Passes
• France Rail n' Drive Pass
• France Rail Pass Premium
• France Day Pass

• Eurostar: London to Paris
• France - Italy Pass
• France - Spain Pass
• France - Switzerland Pass
• Eurail France/ Belgium/ Netherlands/ Luxembourg Pass

• Eurail Pass

• Eurail Flexipass
• Eurail Saver Pass
• Eurail youthpass
• Eurail Select Pass
• Eurail Select Pass 'n Drive

What about the "high speed supplement?"

The old "high speed supplement" that railpass holders once had to pay technically no longer exists—pretty much because every fast train now requires advance seat reservations, so the "supplement" is simply folded into that.

Useful French phrases for rail travel
Train station la gare (lah gahr)
ticket un billet (uh bee-yay)
first class première classe (pruh-mee-yair klahs)
second class deuxième classe (duhz-zee-yem klahs)
one way Aller (ah-lay)
round trip (return) aller-retour (ah-lay-ray-tour)
Just a seat reservation Seulment une réservation (suhl-mahn oun ray-sair-vaht-tzsee-yon)
I have a Eurailpass J'ai le Eurailpass (szhay luh you-rail pahs)
sleeping couchette couchette (kou-shet)
berth in a sleeping car une place wagon-lit (oou-n plahs en ahn vah goh-lee)
track quai (kay)

 

 

 



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The high-speed Eurostar train through the Channel Tunnel gets you from London to Paris or to Brussels in just 2:40
The high-speed trip on the Eurostar through the Channel Tunnel is a 45-minute non-event in darkness—but, hey, you sure do get to Paris in no time. Still, I kinda miss watching the white cliffs of Dover recede into the distance whilst chugging across the English Channel aboard a slow ferry (though I don't miss the ten hours it took to get to Paris that way).