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By Liz Webber–
As Cheapos know, it’s almost always less expensive to buy train tickets directly through the website of a country’s national rail service rather than through RailEurope’s English-language site or overseas agents, especially for France’s TGV system. Fares can also be cheaper booking online than buying the tickets in person at the station.
However, booking a ticket in another language can be intimidating. France’s SNCF website is fairly easy to navigate, but if your French doesn’t extend much beyond “Parlez-vous anglais?” use this cheat sheet to book day trips from Paris or crisscross the country!
Step 1: Choose where and when you’re going
On the SNCF homepage, there is a box on the left-hand side for quickly booking trains. First, enter the “départ” (where you’re “departing” from) and “arrivée” (where you’ll be “arriving”).
Next choose your departure date in the box next to “Aller le” (“going the…”) and return date in the box next to “Retour le” (“returning the…”). If it’s a one-way journey (“aller-simple”) leave the return date blank. Note that the dates follow the European format of DD/MM/YYYY.
Also choose your desired departure time for both directions (“à partir de” means “starting from”). Remember that these times will be written in standard 24-hour format.
Specify how many people will be traveling using the drop-down menu next to “Adultes” (adults), and select either first or second class.
For direct trains only (without transfers), click the box marked “trajets directs.” Then hit the orange “Rechercher” (“search”) button to begin searching for tickets.
Note: Under the search box, you’ll notice a tempting array of little flags. If you’re already feeling a bit nervous, you’ll understandably be drawn to the English flag. Sure, clicking it will change the language to English–but it will also send all results through RailEurope, a helpful agency for foreign tourist that usually adds a substantial mark-up to ticket prices.
Step 2: Select your tickets
Now a page will open with options for the first half of your journey. Prices can vary greatly depending on the travel time and the day of the week, and only reflect half the cost of the total journey for a round-trip ticket (“aller-retour”). However, when booking for more than one person at a time the price reflects the total cost for all tickets.
The box at the top shows all the options at a glance, from which you can then scroll down to select the one that best fits your specifications. Tickets are color-coded by price range, whereby orange designates the cheapest fares, blue more moderate fares, and gray the most expensive.
When you check one of the circles to choose a ticket, a so-small-you-might-miss-it box pops up underneath all the options for that departure time that says “Choisir Ma Place” (“Choose My Seat”). From the drop-down menu, specify if you’d like to sit “à côté de” (next to) a particular seat, or simply give a preference for “fenêtre” (window) or “couloir” (aisle). Pretty much all trains in France have assigned seats, so be sure to keep that in mind when you go to board.
Note: If you’ve selected an “iDTGV” train, you will be permitted to choose your “ambiance.” “iDzap” is a train friendly to portable electronics, DVDs, cellphones, etc., while “iDzen” restricts electronics, cellphones, and anything that makes noise.
Be careful of tickets marked only “non échangeable” (non-exchangeable) or “non remboursable” (non-refundable), though most fares cannot be exchanged or refunded “après départ” (after departure). Certain tickets must be paid for online and printed at home – if so the fine print will read “Paiement en ligne. Billet à imprimer vous-même” (“Online payment. Print your own ticket.”)
Once you have figured out what time you want to leave and have chosen your seat, click the orange box directly underneath marked “Valider cet aller” (“Validate this part of the trip”). Make sure you hit the right one!
You’ll then go through the same process again for the return journey. Again, remember that the price is for one way of the journey.
Step 3: Payment
On the following page, confirm that all parts of your journey are correct then click “Valider votre réservation” (“Validate your reservation”) to proceed.
Next come three questions before the actual payment.
IMPORTANT: Since the majority of SNCF ticket machines do not accept American credit cards, be sure to click “Gare ou boutique” (“Rail station or boutique”) for question 1 in order to pick up your tickets from a ticket window at the station. Also note that if you’re booking an iDTGV (as pictured), you will only be given the option of printing your own ticket.
Question 2 requires the input of a “civilité” (“title”), “nom” (“LAST name”), “prénom” (“FIRST name”) and e-mail address for confirmation purposes.
Under question 3, check the box to indicate that you agree with the SNCF terms and conditions. Then click “Valider votre commande” (“Validate your order”).
Finally, it’s time to enter your credit card information. Note: The card you use to book must be presented to pick up your tickets, so be sure to use the card that you’ll be taking with you on your trip.
After entering all your data, hit the “valider” button one last time to complete the transaction. A screen should pop up with your confirmation code, which will also be sent in an email along with your itinerary. Print either for your records and to bring with you when you collect your tickets.
Step 4: Picking up your tickets
Now comes the easy part! Simply head to your departure station with your credit card and booking number to get your tickets. Many SNCF agents even speak English and so can help you make any changes to your reservation and get you to where you’re supposed to be.
Departure tracks are usually announced 20-30 minutes before the train is scheduled to leave, so be sure to leave enough time to pick up your tickets and figure out where you need to go. And don’t forget to stamp your ticket in the machine by the track before getting on the train!
Bonus tip: Reserve now, pay later
The SNCF website lets you reserve a ticket online without paying for it in advance or even giving a credit card. On the pre-payment page, instead of clicking “Gare ou boutique” under question 1 hit “Option.” The red text lets you know the date and time by which you need to confirm your reservation (usually 24 or 48 hours before departure), and you’ll receive an email with a booking code.
If you’re not sure what your schedule will be like or don’t want to give out your information online, reserve your seat then bring your confirmation number to the station before departure to pick up and pay for your tickets.