Taking a Train Through France

Taking a Train Through France

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Karen FawcettTraveling the highways, byways and rails of France during the past 22 years, I’ve come to the conclusion that all is never sans effort. I have been lost in the tiniest of towns, as well as missing major axes to one of France’s multitudinous autoroutes. . One might call me – and many people have – Karen-with-no-sense-of-direction. Alas, this has been the story of my life. During the many years I lived, part-time, in and out of New York City, I always found myself going north when I should have been heading south. Ditto for east and west. I can only surmise that I was born without a directional gene.

I am currently sitting on a train to Paris convinced we are heading south. Sometimes it is hard to find a contrôleur — they seem to come around only when you forget to composter your billet in that funny looking orange box at the entrance to the quai where your train is departing. Be sure to turn the ticket up so that the magnetic strip glides under the hole punch and you hear a click. Then you are legal.

The first challenge is boarding the correct car. I have seen so many tourists running to climb aboard a train, only to realize that #1 and #2 are not voiture numbers, but instead, refer to first and second classes. Next, if you are running late and just want to hop on, you need to know this. Some trains split; for example, half goes to Montpellier, while the other half continues to Marseilles. It’s hard to make that lightning-speed switch to the other half of the train if you’re loaded down with baggage and may not end up in the destination of choice.


Finding your train seat is the next stumbling block. If the train looks as if it is going to be empty, I grab a seat (well, a row) that is heading in the same direction as the train. I have decided it’s some type of plot that the SNCF can’t tell passengers what direction the seats are heading. This is fine if one does not get sick if going backwards. That happens to be me, so I grab a seat and hang onto it by nefarious methods that usually work but sometimes are not appreciated. I will not elaborate further in order to protect people from figuring out this system, using it, and thereby taking my future seats away from me.


Food, glorious food. Well, it’s not. Not only is it guaranteed to be soggy, but so overpriced that you could have stopped at Hediard and bought a glorious picnic plus a bottle of wine. Unfortunately, train food tastes similar to plane food. Order a sandwich if you must.


Some other changes I have noticed over the years: Smoking is now verboten on TGV’s. In newer cars, electric outlets have been installed for people who want to be computer connected and those numbers have grown.


Portable phones now ring non-stop. Some of the best conversations have been overheard as one-person talks into the phone. Even though there are signs in the trains that phones should not be used, cell talk is here to stay. But hey, it’s better than smoking, unless you’re trying to sleep.

The SNCF received so many complaints about cell phones ringing that they designated “Silence cars.” Not everyone religiously adheres to the mandate. However, passengers are generally more conscientious and whisper or leave the car during conversations.


Regarding the SNCF website: I’m delighted to report it’s become more user friendly and is almost a pleasure to use. There is even a passenger’s guide on its English language site: http://www.voyages-sncf.com/info_resa/passenger_guide/home.htm that takes some of the guess work out of which ticket is right to buy for your needs.


If you’re buying a Eurail pass– (click here for Rail Europe)— there are decisions to be made. Do you qualify for a student pass, a senior pass, or a couples (no, you don’t have to be married.) pass? Do you want to travel exclusively in France, and for how many days? Is it worth buying a pass at all? My theory is it isn’t unless you making four days worth of “training” for over 400 kilometers.


Many senior citizens (uggg — means 60 years-old) don’t know they qualify for a Carte Senior. For a reasonable sum, you can buy a card that is valid for a year, and entitles cardholders to a 25% to 50% reduction depending on which train you book.


I’m a big advocate of traveling by train. You don’t have to worry about being stuck in traffic or paying very high tolls and gas prices. You lose the option of wandering onto roads rarely visited. However, an easy solution exists. Rent a car when you arrive in one of France’s belles regions and explore from there. Anyway, that would be my vote. I’d like to hear yours.


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