The Living France Guide to Transport in France

With its fast and efficient transport system, travel in France is a breeze. Kate McNally throws the spotlight on all the available options to make sure your journey goes without a hitch

Planes…

Air France KLM is the national flag carrier and despite increased opening up of French air space in recent years, it is still the primary airline in France. Until the merger with KLM in 2004, Air France was majority owned by the French state. However, the public stake is now below 20%.

For many French people, Air France KLM remains the airline of choice, although the budget airlines, Easyjet and Ryanair, have made significant in-roads over the past decade in terms of European destinations. Ryanair, in particular, has raised the profile of several smaller domestic airports across France by buying the right to use them for European passenger flights, although not all routes proved viable in the longer term.

Most international flights are routed via the two Paris airports, principally through Air France KLM’s global hub Charles de Gaulle and also from Orly airport. But several other major city airports – for example Lyon, Nice, Marseille, Bordeaux, Toulouse – also cater for some international travel as well as a large number of European flights.

As for travelling within France, most domestic flights are routed in to and out of the capital but it’s always worth checking if there is a more direct flying route as it may well prove cheaper and simpler than rail travel. Again, the majority of domestic flights are operated by Air France KLM which flies to 35 destinations within the country.

Trains…

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France has one of the most sophisticated rail networks in the world and some of the best and fastest trains in the world. Unlike the UK, the network has not been privatised and the state-owned company SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français) runs an efficient and, in comparison to UK prices, affordable railway operation. The government considers rail travel a public service and hence provides financial subsidies.

The high-speed TGV trains (train à grande vitesse) provide a rapid form of transport serving most major cities. However, like domestic air travel, most routes connect to or through Paris. These trains can travel at a speed close to 350mph, making them competitive with aeroplanes in terms of time.

Standard TER trains (train express régionale) are not as fast as a TGV. However, they are by no means slow and operate on direct routes in the regions, stopping between main stations only.

Last, but not least, are the omnibus trains which travel at slower speeds and stop at every station on branch lines servicing suburban areas.

Regrettably, many smaller routes at the outreaches of the rail network were closed during the 1960s as freight transport took increasingly to the roads so if you’re travelling to a more rural area, you will probably need to connect to a coach or bus to finish your journey. Generally in France, the bus station is located close to the train station but check timetables in advance as bus services can be sporadic outside peak hours.

Many trains in France are double-decker and include several carriages so there is rarely need to stand. As in the UK, you can pay more for a first-class seat and equally lower fares are available if you are quick of the mark when advance tickets go on sale – usually three months before the day of travel.

Métro…

The Métropolitan underground rail network is the pride of Paris, criss-crossing the capital and inter-connecting with the RER trains servicing the suburbs. Tube trains are regular, buskers (and beggars) numerous in the linking walkways indicated as ‘correspondance’, and be prepared for some fairly overt staring in the train as people-watching isn’t a hobby reserved for cafés only!

Most French cities have their own Métro and in recent years many cities, including Paris, have reopened or developed a tramway system. Add to this a well-developed bus network and you have few worries for getting in and out of French city centres.

Coaches and buses…

France does not have a comprehensive coach network akin to the National Express service in the UK. This is basically because the railway network is so good that there is little need for an alternative. For routes that aren’t well served by the trains, you will often find that it’s the SNCF that provides a coach option which is included in the rail timetables.

That said, the vehicles we know as ‘coaches’ operate as buses in more rural areas, providing transport between villages and towns. The routes can be fairly long so check out the timetables in advance as there are only a handful of buses passing through each day, and even fewer on Sundays.

Most rural areas have a good school bus service which is subsidised. Regular users are issued with a photo bus pass. The government also offers a small annual petrol subsidy for families of children who live more than 3km away from the nearest school and who are not served by a school bus route.

As we find across most of Europe, French towns operate an extensive bus service. In larger towns and cities, many buses have two carriages joined by a flexible middle section making them look like little caterpillars wiggling through the roads.

Roads…

Despite sophisticated domestic rail and air networks, France remains the most car dependent country in Europe. Fortunately it has one of the densest road networks in the world and the second largest motorway network in Europe after Germany.

The autoroutes are run by private enterprise, hence the tolls. However, France also has an extensive system of state-owned trunk roads (routes nationales) so if you don’t want to pay to use the roads you don’t have to. That said, the French motorways are worth the expense; providing incredible numbers of clean service stations (aires de service) along the way and traffic-free driving, except on a handful of weekends at peak holiday times.

Smaller roads, known as the routes départementales, are well-maintained for the most part and in extreme weather conditions, such as ice and snow, the gritters will get out early to spread sand on all the primary B-roads linking to towns as well as on much-used village access roads.

French authorities have come down heavily on speeding over the past decade as part of continued efforts to reduce its high incidence of road accidents. So keep an eye on varying speed limits when making car journeys. Top speed limits are 130km/h on motorways, 110km/h on A-roads, 90km/h on B-roads coming down to 50km/h as you drive through towns and villages. In adverse weather conditions, these limits are reduced by 20km/h on motorways and by 10km/h on other roads, and in poor visibility drivers should not exceed 50km/h on any roads.

Bikes…

In the past decade in Paris and other cities, an innovative bike hire system known as Vélib has proved very successful. Tourists and inhabitants alike can hire a bike to get from A to B in the city, picking up and returning bikes from and to numerous hubs around the city.

Users can buy a 1-day ticket for €1.70, a 7-day ticket for €8 or opt for an annual subscription for €29. Having paid for a ticket or subscription, each bike journey is free for the first 30 minutes with a fee of €1 for the second half hour and €2 for a third half-hour.

This simple, unmanned, eco-transport is incredibly efficient and has become part and parcel of inner-city French life.

Travelling Tips

• In general, you should buy a train ticket before boarding the train and make sure you ‘punch’ it in the ticket machine (this will have a sign on it saying ‘validez’) before going on to the platform as this in effect validates the ticket for your journey on that day. In emergencies, it is possible to buy a ticket on the train.

• Métro tickets must be bought in advance (you can buy them in packets of 10 if anticipating a few journeys) and as with the London Underground ticket barriers are in place to access platforms.

• Bus tickets can be bought in advance but it is usual to buy them when boarding the bus. Again make sure you validate the ticket by punching it into the punch slots located on various poles inside the bus.

• In France, every car is required by law to carry an emergency red triangle, a luminous yellow vest (accessible from inside the car), and a breathalyser test pack.