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A "How To" Guide for the French TGV
The TGV or (train a grande vitesse) is the pride of the French National Rail System (SNCF). With operational speeds up to 300km per hour it is a fast, convenient, safe, and relatively economical way to travel around the country, and with connections to many of France's neighbors, it is an integral part of the trans-European rail network. This article provides the basic information you need to use the TGV and a few notes on taking the TGV from Paris to Provence.
Purchasing Tickets for the TGV
The TGV Ticket - an example
Here is a scan of a recent TGV ticket that I have broken the ticket up into three parts (see the full ticket here). The ticket shows the date/time and destination, your train car and seat, and the price you paid.
This ticket is for one adult going from Paris (Gare Lyon) to Aix en Provence.
The ticket is for January 21, train 6173, leaving Paris at 9:34am, arriving in Aix at 12:32pm. The seat information is: second class seat (Classe), in train car 15 (VOIT, an abbreviation for voiture, or car), seat number 13 (place no).
This ticket cost 44.40 euro.
All Aboard - Getting On the Train
Plan on getting to the train station 15 - 30 minutes ahead of your train for stress-free travel.
1. Determine the track your train will be on.
When you arrive at the station, locate the track number (voie). You will find it on the large board announcing departures (departs) - look for the train departure time and train number on the board and go to the track indicated.
Train departures board at the Aix en Provence train station
2. Stamp (validate) your ticket
Remember to stamp your ticket before getting on the train. As in Italy, you must stamp your ticket at a special machine (to validate the ticket) before getting on the train. You will find these stamping machines all around the station. Just stick your ticket in and you will hear it being stamped. Failure to do so can result in a fine on board the train. The only exception to this rule is if you have purchased your tickets on-line and have printed them off yourself. In this case, you do not need to stamp your ticket, but will need to show photo ID on the train itself.
If you are having trouble finding the spot to stamp your ticket, try the following phrase in French - S'il vous plait, ou est-ce qu'on peut composter les billets?
3. Find the your train car
Once your ticket is stamped and you are at the track for the train, consult your ticket to find your car number (voiture).
This sign shows cars 01 through 08. Car 04 is the bar car.
Usually, there is an electronic schematic of the departing train that will tell you where to wait on the track for your car. That way you can board the proper car and not have to move from one car to the other carrying your luggage. The car number will also be written on the side of the train near the doors.
4. Board the train, stow your luggage and find your seat
Consult your train ticket again to find your seat number. Once on the train, store your larger pieces of luggage in the common luggage racks and your smaller pieces in the overhead racks. There are restrooms in each car. There will be a bar car where they serve drinks, snacks and sandwiches. The food, however, is not great and overpriced, so you might want to bring something along for a longer trip.
Taking the TGV from the CDG Airport (ROISSY)
You can now take the TGV directly from CDG Airport (Aeroport), the main international airport near Paris, to a number of destinations around France. It is easy to do and may be a great option when traveling in or out of France from somewhere other than Paris.
Map of CDG airport, click for larger version
The TGV station is in the middle of the airport between the Terminals 2E/F and 2C/D. The walk from 2C/D is about 15 - 20 minutes. Figure a 30 minute walk from 2A/B or 2E/F. There are also shuttle buses to take you around the airport. To be safe, you should allow a good 1 1/2 hours from when your plane arrives to when your train departs. You'll need more than that if you are coming by train to the airport and then catching an international flight, as you need to allow extra time to go through check-in, security etc.
When flying into CDG and traveling to another destination in France, deciding to take the train or to connect to another flight or to rent a car and drive depends on many variables. Aside from price, there is convenience of connecting times, proximity to your final destination, and the hassle of having to pick up your luggage and get it on and off the train.
Added note:American Airlines advertises they have SNCF as a codeshare partner. You might be able to make a simple roundtrip to CDG including the "before" and "after" legs on the TGV for no additional cost. United's website states that they also have a "ground link" that adds the TGV at what they imply is no added cost, to the following cities: Angers, (QXG), Avignon (XZN), Bordeaux, (ZFQ), Le Mans (ZLN), Lille (XDB), Lyon (XYD), Marseille (XRF), Nantes (QJZ), Poitiers (XOP), Rennes (ZFJ), Tours (XSH) , Valence (XHK).
Taking the TGV to Provence
With the extension of the high-speed TGV network all the way from Paris to Marseille a number of years back, life in the south of France changed markedly. Aside from real estate prices jumping, the biggest change now is that with just three hours to get from Marseille to the center of Paris, a long weekend break in either direction is a regular occurrence. It's even possible to do a day trip to Avignon or Aix from Paris without too much hassle. The same line has cut the time on the train from Paris to Nice or Perpignan considerably, though it should be noted that the high-speed part only takes you part of the way.
A few things to note about taking the TGV to Provence:
Avignon-TGV vs. Avignon-Centre
Confusingly, the TGV can arrive at either of two train stations in Avignon: Avignon-TGV or Avignon-Centre. More commonly, trains arrive at the Avignon-TGV station, which is located about 5 minutes outside the city center. Less frequently, trains arrive and depart from Avignon-Centre, which is the station just outside the walls of the old city and within easy walking distance of the center of town.
If your final destination is within the old walls of Avignon and the times are convenient, try to book for Avignon-Centre. Otherwise, go with Avignon-TGV. If you are renting a car and driving somewhere else, go with Avignon-TGV. (Make sure you have booked your rental car at the same train station where you will arrive.) There is a frequent and fast shuttle bus service between the two stations.
There is a station Aix-TGV located about 15 minutes outside of the city center and also a Gare Centrale right in town. The TGV only goes to the station outside of town. On the SNCF web ite you can enter either station, but if you choose Aix-Centre it will either send you through Marseille or put you on a bus from the Aix-TGV. There is no reason to do this. If your final destination is the Old Town of Aix, book your ticket to the TGV station and then take a shuttle bus or taxi.
The TGV arrives at the main train station, the Gare St. Charles. From there it is an easy taxi or metro ride to the Old Port and other parts of this wonderful city. However, unless your final destination is Marseille, I don't recommend taking the TGV here. Marseille is a major city and can be a pain in the neck to drive around. Instead, take the TGV to Aix or Toulon and rent your car there.
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