SNCF (Société nationale des chemins de fer français) is France’s national state-owned railway company and manages the rail traffic in France and the Principality of Monaco. SNCF operates the country’s national rail services, including the TGV, France’s high-speed rail network. Believe me, you don’t want to miss the TGV experience. What works in your favor, is that there is plenty of competition in the transport sector. This means that there will always be cheaper ways for train travel in France, unlike in Germany.
You will need a fair bit of patience with this one. The SNCF website, though available in English, is not recommended. It happens to be connected to an English vendor. If your booking is stuck, or you cancel it, the refund might not be directed to you immediately. In fact, I never got my refund for the tickets I booked to Nice. And those were expensive! SNCF also has a phone app. I used it to track ticket rates. I found it useful to check the trend of the rates before I booked them. Even advance tickets can get expensive, so it is advisable that you verify tourist season and make your bookings early. The tickets can be printed at home (make sure the bar code isn’t damaged) or you can keep a PDF version on your phone/tablet.
OK, now here comes the best part about SNCF. They have loyalty programs! Ta-Da! This is a very good reason to celebrate if you plan to live in France and travel extensively like I did. SNCF calls these Cartes de réduction. If you are between 12 and 27 years of age, Ma Carte Jeune is the one for you. If you are neither young, nor a senior, then I am afraid, you can only use the Ma Carte Week-end. I was 24 and promptly got a Carte Jeune. For a mere €50, you can use this card for a whole year. If you travel long distances, you will get your value back in as less as 3 trips. Also, there is a waiver on renewal of this card for the second year. You can buy your card at any SNCF office. The major ones are La Défense, Lazare and Nord. But really, you can get them at any SNCF office. Make sure you always carry it when you travel. They check quite rigorously!
How does the SNCF card work? If you look at the picture below, you will see that I selected my age and the Reduction Scheme. You can try to check a fare without this selection and compare the difference. Believe me, you will wish you had a discount card!
Like I said earlier, the French website might look difficult but it will grow on you in time. After initially using it book tickets, I moved on to just finding cheap fares. I liked the security of the hard printed ticket and a physical transaction (after I lost money on the Nice fare). But don’t let my experience with the English website stop you from using the French one. I have the highest recommendation for it. Don’t be afraid to change the departure and arrival time window. You can get some pretty good deals if you move your travel time by an hour. Do choose Fenetre (window) when you book tickets. Don’t be tempted by ‘First Class’. The second class is quite royal!
If you have questions or need assistance, feel free to ask.
P.S. – I traveled with SNCF quite extensively. I covered Fontainebleau, Lille, Provins, Nice, Amiens, Rouen, Chartes, Blois, Chantilly, Mont St. Michel and Annecy in 3 months.