This information is correct at 26 April 2013. If SNCF changes its web site, the information here will be updated as soon as possible. Please read all the way through before you start buying tickets. If you find any errors, please contact me.
The information below relates to buying from the SNCF web site, which is notoriously user hostile. There is now a better alternative, which has the same prices as SNCF, is easier to use, and accepts foreign credit cards. I would suggest you use www.capitainetrain.com.
Train travel in France
All mainline trains in France are operated by SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer - National Railway Corporation). The very fast trains linking major towns are called TGVs (Trains à Grande Vitesse). There are also a number of other kinds of trains. With the exception of some night trains, all French trains are comfortable in second class, and there is no need to spend extra money on first class. Smoking is prohibited on all French trains, and the long-distance trains are all air-conditioned, as are many local trains.
It is very unlikely that any train pass will be worthwhile in France. Passes do not include the cost of the seat reservations required on all the faster trains, and the number of seats available to passholders is limited. Provided that your plans are firm, you will get by far the best value by buying your tickets as early as possible direct from SNCF. Tickets normally go on sale three months before travel, and the cheapest seats can sell out quickly. As an example of the savings, a TGV from Paris to Avignon would cost over €100 if I book now for tomorrow, but only €25 if I book for 3 months ahead.
How to book online
Before we start, note that SNCF makes use of the Verified by Visa and Mastercard Secure card verification programs. If your card is not registered with one of these programs, you will not be able to buy online.
You can get train times and costs, and make bookings, in English at en.voyages-sncf.com/en/. When you go to that address, you will initially see this screen:
You want to book train tickets, so go to the area labelled "Book your train tickets". When you click on a control in that area, it expands to show more options:
If you are travelling from or to major stations, you can type just the first few letters of the town name and then pause. A drop-down list will appear, from which you can select the town you require. However, this does not work for some less important places, so if you are going to (say) Sarlat-la-Canèda, you may have to type the full town name. This illustration shows choosing Paris CDG Airport by typing "par" and then selecting the airport from the list provided.
Once you have completed "From" and "To", select your departure date (format DD/MM/YYYY) and approximate time. If you do not want a return journey, leave the return date blank. Uncheck the "Direct trains" box and set the number of passengers. If you are from the USA, use any other English-speaking country as the "Ticket collection country". If you say you are from the USA, you get transferred to RailEurope.com which usually has higher prices and does not list all the trains. For some other countries, you may get the option of transferring to RailEurope or staying with tgv-europe. Stay with tgv-europe. If you give your "Ticket collection country" as "Antarctic", you will not be transferred to any branch of RailEurope. Once you have filled out the form, click "Search".
Occasionally RailEurope will have cheaper prices than tgv-europe, so it is worth checking. In USA, www.raileurope.com. In Australia, www.raileurope.com.au. In the UK, RailEurope usually has the same prices as tgv-europe for French trains.
Once you have completed the form, it should look like this:
After you click "Search", there is a pause while the SNCF booking engine looks for trains and prices. You then see a screen with information on trains. The top section will look like this:
Note that the prices shown are the total for all the travellers, not per person. If there were two adults travelling, the best price shown for the first train would be €114. You can see earlier or later trains by clicking on "Previous trains" and "Following trains". If you see two trains travelling at the same time, this means only that two sets of cars have been coupled together and each has its own train number.
You may have noticed that both this screen and the previous one have an option to see the best prices over a month. If you click on this, you get taken to a different process that is explained here.
You select the train and price you want by clicking the radio button next to the price. A grey panel labelled "Choose my place" appears next to "Choose this outward journey". Click on this to select the kind of seat you want.
The exact choices available vary depending on the kind of cars being used and the number of passengers. They are mostly straightforward. "Beside" and "Opposite" allow you to request seating next to or opposite someone who already has a booking: you will be asked to enter that person's allocated car and seat. Note that it is not possible to specify direction of travel: the trains get turned in service, and a particular seat might face either forward or backward. Once you have selected your seat preference, click "Choose this outward journey".
The next screen shows the details of the booking. Check the time and date of travel carefully, then click "Confirm".
Part of the next screen asks how you want to obtain your ticket. The available options here are:
e-ticket: If this option is offered, take it. You will get a PDF ticket confirmation that you can print at home and carry as your ticket.
Collection from an Automatic Ticket Machine: This option is not available to anyone who does not have a "chip-and-PIN" credit card. At present, few banks in the USA provide such cards. You must have the exact same card as you used for the booking, even if has since expired and been replaced. Note for Australians: Although some of our banks issue "chip-and-PIN" cards, our experience in May 2011 is that the PIN part does not work in France: we always have to sign for purchases. This means our cards did not work in unattended machines, including SNCF ticket machines. If you select this option and your card does not work in a machine, you will have to retrieve the ticket at a station (see below).
Delivery free by post: SNCF will not post tickets to addresses in the USA. I recommend that people from other countries should avoid this option, as there have been complaints of delays in delivery.
Retrieval in a French station: This is the best choice for residents of the USA when the e-ticket option is not available, although it is not always shown. You receive a PDF confirmation with a reference number. Take this to a staffed ticket office at any SNCF station or an SNCF boutique shop, together with the exact same card as you used for the booking. Be sure to allow plenty of time for collection, as the queues can be long at major stations, including Paris CDG airport. You may do better to collect from an SNCF boutique shop: you can locate one from this page by scrolling to the bottom and selecting a region or town.
The remaining sections of this screen ask for the names and dates of birth of all passengers, your name and e-mail address, and confirmation that you have read the Terms & Conditions. When you click "Continue your order", you get yet another screen with the details of your travel, and asking for your credit card details. When you continue from this screen, you may see a screen relating to the "Verified by Visa" security system (or the Mastercard equivalent). This screen is supplied by your bank, so there will be many versions. If you have problems with this security system, contact your bank. There is a final screen confirming that your card has been charged and your booking made. This screen has a link reading "Print ticket" or similar wording. If you click on this, you receive a PDF file which you should print. SNCF also send you an e-mail which has a link to the same PDF file.
If you have bought e-tickets, the PDF will look like the illustration below. This is your authority to travel. Carry it with you onto the train and be prepared to show it when the train conductor comes around checking tickets. You may be asked to show identification, so have your passport available too.
If you have chosen to pick up the tickets, the PDF will be a confirmation of the booking. If you will be picking up from a ticket office, you will need the file reference and the exact same card as you used for the booking.
If your card is rejected
There have been reports of cards being rejected for no apparent reason. There does not seem to be any pattern behind these rejections. Wait 24 hours, make sure your bank knows you will be buying French train tickets, and try again. Or try another card. If the problem continues
www.capitainetrain.com is a private website which links directly to the SNCF ticketing system and sells at SNCF prices.
When not to book in advance
For some journeys, you will find that all the trains are local (TER) trains, as in this case:
There is absolutely no point in booking these trains in advance. There are no seat reservations, so tickets cannot sell out, and there are no discounts for advance purchase. Just buy the tickets in France.
Tickets bought or collected in France
If you buy a train ticket in France, or collect a pre-paid ticket, you will receive a card that is very similar to an airline boarding pass, like this:
Note the wording near the top: "à composter avant l'accès au train". This means you must validate (composter) the ticket before you get on the train, by time-stamping it in a machine at the entry to the platforms. Insert the ticket into the machine printed side up, with the barcode going into the machine. You should hear it print information onto the ticket, like this one which shows that the ticket was composted at Dijon on 22 June 11 at 09.14:
If you buy a ticket from the "Immediate Departure" ticket counter at a major station, it may already be composted even though it has the "à composter" message. If so, it will have printing such as this, which shows the ticket was composted when it was issued on 20 June at 11.45: