The art of French train travel with Eurail
Nothing evokes the glamour of train travel quite like stepping into the Art Nouveau splendor of Paris’ Gare de Lyon. An hour later, you’re strolling through the Luxembourg Gardens on the way to an enchanting little sidewalk café in the Latin Quarter for an aperitif. Edith Piaf’s songs suddenly take on a new meaning.
Oh, France: where a perfect baguette is a work of art and smoking cigarettes still passes as sexy. Where tortured artists during the fin de siècle came to paint their masterpieces in Provence, celebrities preen on yachts along the Côte d’Azur, and oenophiles worship wine in the Rhône Valley.
It’s true: France is the most visited country in the world. And with countless train connections to the rest of Europe, it remains a favorite with Eurail pass holders. While navigating the rails can present a few challenges, here are a few ideas to ensure smooth travels.
The pleasures and pitfalls of high-speed trains
There’s nothing quite like crossing the Loire Valley at 200 miles per hour past stately chateaux in the distance. TGV trains remain a world standard in speed, luxury and convenience.
Reservations are compulsory on all TGV high-speed trains (€9) and InterCités de Nuit night trains (9 Euros for a reclining seat, 20.60 Euros for a couchette), most InterCités day trains (9 Euros, or 1.50 Euros on trains in which reservations are merely recommended) and other international high-speed trains that originate in France.
Here’s the tricky part: the allocation for Eurail pass reservations is limited. They sell out quickly, even during off-season. Come summertime, reservations can be downright impossible: book well in advance (up to 3 months) by phone or at the station. Once all Eurail seats are allocated, the only options are to buy a full fare ticket or take regional trains. Reservations can be changed for free until the day before departure or for 10 Euros on departure day.
Advantages of regional trains
Luckily, faster is not always better. What regional trains lack in speed, they make up for in flexibility, budget, and vivid experiences off the beaten path.
Popular French train routes
You needn’t make the tough choice between the bohemian charms of Paris’ Montmartre and the sultry lure of the French Riviera. The efficient French rail network, the SNCF, makes it easy to travel cross-country in less time and with less hassle than flying.
It was nearing Christmas, yet I was enjoying a lazy breakfast on the beach: croissants and café au lait under soft blue skies framed by palm trees. Welcome to Nice, where you can hit the beach in the morning and take a train to Paris with time to shop before dinner.
The quickest option:
Direct TGV trains connect Paris Gare de Lyon to Nice in less than 6 hours. Alternatively, bunk down on the InterCités de Nuit night train (9 Euros for a reclining seat, 20.60 Euros for a couchette) and wake up to ocean breezes. Can’t-miss day trips from Nice include Antibes and Cannes. James Bond fans should hit the blackjack tables at the opulent Monte Carlo Casino in nearby Monaco, the backdrop for several 007 films.
Head to Lyon by regional train (5 hours), then connect to the lively port town of Marseille (2 hours) before the final leg to Nice (2.5 hours). Stop over in the cultural and historic gems of Avignon and Aix-en-Provence, or go slightly out of your way to relaxed Montpellier or Roman Nîmes.
Full of skiers in winter, and bankers all year round, this train rocks both a business and pleasure vibe as it climbs into the snow-capped Alpine peaks.
The quickest option:
After departing Paris’ Gare de Lyon on the TGV, you’ll be at the shores of Lake Geneva, Switzerland in just over 3 hours. From here, connect to the scenic Golden Pass line in Montreux.
At more than 8 hours, this journey on regional trains offers the perfect excuse to make an overnight stop in Lyon. Come hungry: its France’s – and arguably the world’s – most revered culinary scene. From Lyon, it’s roughly 2 hours to Geneva.
My favorite wine destination? The Bordeaux region, worth a trip for the vineyards alone. The eponymous neoclassical city – nicknamed La Belle au Bois Dormant, or Sleeping Beauty – is the perfect place to get schooled in wine knowledge at the École du Vin.
The quickest option:
From Paris Montparnasse, the TGV speeds to Bordeaux St. Jean in just over 3 hours.
Starting at Paris Austerlitz station, take a more leisurely journey by regional train to Limoges (3.5 hours), celebrated for its 19th century porcelain. It’s another 2.5 hours to Bordeaux.
When Connecting in Paris…
Paris is known for its grand, elegant stations. It’s also known for confusing travelers needing to cross the city to catch a connecting train. Say you arrive on the Eurostar at the Gare du Nord, but your next train, headed for Toulouse in the south of France, departs from the Gare d’Austerlitz. While taxis remain an option, the Metro (1.70 Euros) is quick and cheap. Purchase single tickets at station kiosks. Do make sure to double-check your arrival and departure stations through the Eurail timetable, or the new Rail Planner app.
France can be visited with the Eurail Global Pass or various Eurail Regional Pass country combinations. Check out this example Eurail itinerary that includes stops within France.