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A "How To" Guide for the French TGV

Kevin Widrow

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

  • TGV tickets can be purchased at any train station, either at the ticket window or from the electronic self-service machines. They can also be bought online from the SNCF website (more on this later).
  • Unlike local and regional trains in France, all seats on TGVs are by reservation only (similar to the EuroStar in Italy). You must know the date/time when you plan to travel before purchasing your ticket.
  • Currently most tickets can be booked 90 days in advance, but this may vary by the type of ticket (more on this below). While the major TGV lines have many trains running per day, try to make your reservations as far in advance as possible, especially if your travel dates are during peak holiday times (long week-ends in May, Christmas, July and August, etc.).
  • The TGV has first and second class service. There isn't a whole lot of difference between them. Both are relatively comfortable. I wouldn't advise paying much extra for first class.
  • There is no cost advantage to ordering round-trip tickets. This allows travelers maximum flexibility to, for example, arrive in one city and return from a different one.
  • All TGVs are non-smoking.
  • When making your reservation, you can choose a window or aisle seat or upstairs or downstairs. Take a window seat upstairs for the best views.

Information about ordering tickets online.

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.

TGV train ticket

This ticket is for one adult going from Paris (Gare Lyon) to Aix en Provence.

TGV train ticket

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).

TGV train ticket

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 Avignon train station

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.

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.

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

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.

Aix-en-Provence

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.

Marseille

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.


Kevin Widrow and his wife Elizabeth run the B&B Mas Perreal in the Luberon, near the village of St. Saturnin les Apt. www.masperreal.com

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