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Deciphering French Train Travel

Figuring out the SNCF’s train website – is baffling to say the least. If you haven’t already done it the easy way i.e. buying you’reEurail Pass or your Flexipass here is a follow up to some of my past posts on booking train tickets while you’re in France.
I will say the obvious once again. Booking a ticket with no seat reservations in second class is the cheapest and most flexible way to go-especially if we’re talking about mid-week, off-season travel. Today I took the train from Bernay in Normandy to Paris and lolled around in a car with just one other passenger for most of the one and a half hour trip. However for the return trip on a Friday night, catching a non-reserved seat might be a little more dicey. To ensure your chances of picking up a non-reserved seat, arrive at the train station early – i.e. 20 minutes before departure. Once the quai number is posted on the departures screen, you can proceed immediately to your car, and when it’s a non-reserved ticket, just walk and walk until you get to the very end of the train. The unreserved seats are always at the end of the train.
Today, the conductor didn’t even bother looking at my ticket – I tried to hold it up and he said ‘Later’ (which turned out to be never). He couldn’t help but throw in, “There must be a huge difference in price between the reserved and non-reserved seats.”
Of course, when you’re converting these into dollars from Euros – the answer is ‘Yes’.
But more important than saving a few Euros, you have open ended tickets which means if you miss your first train – for whatever reason, like you got sidetracked in some amazing shop in St. Germain-des-Pres and by the time you got back to the Gare St. Lazare on the Right Bank – your train had left without you – then you just ‘composter’ or ‘stamp’ your ticket and hop on the next train to Normandy or Brittany.

Promotion‘ deciphering

First of all, you’ll note that the Promotions offered on the English version of SNCF’s site (which is a TGV site or high speed train site) are completely different from the promotions on the French language site.
Promotions or deals look really great until you realize that the prices posted are always for One-way Fares. By the time you look up the date of your return trip, the return trip fares are ridiculously higher. But sometimes you’ll find the right fare by juggling dates around.
Keep in mind that the best fares can be had by including a Saturday and Sunday in your dates (usually).
Also the SNCF agent told me that it’s best to book three months in advance to get the best rates.
Here are some of the names of ‘Promo’ rates I’ve encountered:
Smilys (yellow highlighted rates are the cheapest)
Mezzo Plus
What you’re looking for is anything except ‘Normal’ that is unless you want a fully exchangeable, refundable ticket. Smilys are the best rate and non-exchangeable, non-refundable. For the rest of the rates, be sure to ask about the restrictions for each kind of ticket.
For advance ticket reservation over the net, you can ‘hold’ a booking for about seven days, but eventually you’ll want to go to the train station to pick up your actual ticket which you can get either from an agent or from one of the automated ticket processors (with English instructions available).
If you haven’t taken a train in recent years, you’ll find that train travel is much less stressful than air travel. Depending on where you get a seat, 220 volt outlets are available for laptops (usually where you see two rows of seats facing one another in the middle of the car).
Food & Drink
The traditional restaurant car seems to be falling by the wayside. Be especially careful if you’re taking a train from Paris to Frankfurt. We have the very bad memory of taking the overnight train – with no food whatsoever on the train – and worse than tha,t on another eastward trip – there was not even bottled water available. This was obviously a fluke, but always bring at least a bottle of water along with you. Just in case. For short trips, a cart usually goes through the entire train offering light snacks, sandwiches and drinks (which is how you can spend all those Euros you saved by taking a non-reserved seat).