Schemes for Cheap Train Tickets in France

by  Mose Hayward
LAST UPDATED ON  2023-06-21
PUBLISHED ON  2023-06-02
The minimalist cheapskate writer of this article on a Ouigo train

I’ve been whizzing around France on TGV and other trains as cheaply as possible for over two decades.

And here, my dear penny-pinching minimalists, is an insider’s guide to the best current strategies, booking platforms, discount cards, sales, and future insights for bopping around on the French train system without shedding too many Euros.

Unfortunately, there aren’t as many weird little tricks for good prices as there were in times past—so it’s really not worth overthinking this. Most of us will get our cheapest possible French train tickets by simply booking as far in advance as possible on a good ticketing platform, and perhaps by having a bit of flexibility on dates and destinations.

But below, for those who care, we’ve done a deep dive into whatever possible deals there are. And we’ve also included some wisdom from a French ticket inspector who has offered us his insider tips (but no, sweet as he is, he couldn’t share his employee discount with you all).

In a Nutshell: Our Strategies for Cheap Train Tickets in France

In approximate order of importance:

  1. Buy your tickets as far in advance as you can (and when they are available—about 3-5 months ahead). More details on when particular trains are available for advance purchase below.
  2. Use the booking platform Trainline to ensure that you consider all competing options (all SNCF trains, Ouigo, Renfe and Trenitalia operating in France, even long-distance buses if you want…). Details on booking platforms below.
  3. Consider Ouigo, France’s budget train system. The trains are clean, modern, equipped with WiFi, and high speed (except for Ouigo Classic, which uses conventional trains). You may even want to base your itinerary on where Ouigo routes go, as detailed below. Ouigo routes will also show automatically in your Trainline search for any route where they are available.
  4. Be flexible with your dates; travel on weekdays and less popular dates and times, detailed below.
  5. There are other strategies that don’t work out to really offer savings for most travelers, but are included here for completeness: We discuss the rarely worthwhile annual discount cards (full of exceptions) alongside the very overrated Interrail / Eurail for France. We lament discontinued deals. And finally we gripe about how the French system is really lacking competition, for you nerds who are interested in that deep dive and what the future may bring.

Buy Your Tickets As Far in Advance As Possible (Usually 3-5 Months Ahead of Travel)

The earlier you buy, the cheaper French train tickets tend to be. As soon as you know your plans, go ahead and book.

It’s even worthwhile in most cases to book before you’re completely sure about your travels, because so many tickets are refundable and exchangeable (you’ll see this when choosing tickets on Trainline). If you change your mind you can change your ticket (you’ll likely have to fork over a bit more to meet the new price), but if you end up sticking with your original plans you’ll have locked in the best (earliest) price. (The budget train Ouigo is a notable exception as its tickets are not free to exchange/refund.)

When tickets will go on sale is a bit unpredictable; you can attempt to get info from the SNCF help section on the topic here. The general rule is that most train tickets in France go on sale about 3-5 months ahead of travel, but it depends on the type of train and the time of the year. Tickets are released at different times for holidays and special events.

TGV INOUI & INTERCITES (long distance trains)4 months (but different for many holidays)
TGV INOUI Brussels, TGV INOUI Luxembourg-Paris, TGV INOUI Fribourg-Paris4 months
TGV INOUI Europe (crossing to Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland)6 months
TER (regional trains)between 3 and 5 months
OUIGO (budget train system)between 2 and 9 months
THALYS (crossing to Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands)4 months
EUROSTAR (crossing to the UK)11 months

The Cheapest Tickets Aren’t Necessarily Available Directly from SNCF—Why it’s Worth Trying Another Platform

People often start their ticket search with SNCF Connect, the official website of the SNCF, the French rail operator. It’s fine to book there, and if you can get through the error messages and foreign payment card problems, you can book directly with no add-on booking fee.

But there are other platforms that also offer the same French train tickets at the same dynamic pricing, plus tend to offer much better fares on certain trips. For example, SNCF Connect doesn’t like to show you the limited Trenitalia and Renfe routes that compete with the SNCF within France. And prices on SNCF Connect are usually worse than those found on competing platforms when the route involves changing to a different train operated by a different company accross the border.

Among the various platforms, our favorite is Trainline. It offers budget Ouigo fares (recommended, see the Ouigo section further down) as well as bus and bus plus train options. It’s also just much more straightforward, easy-to-use, and painless than trying to book with SNCF Connect.

Two other good alternative platforms, Omio and RailEurope, don’t have complete Ouigo coverage. Trainline also came out a bit ahead of RailEurope in our overall pan-European train platform comparison in terms of getting the cheaper and better routes on international trips. But all three of these private platforms are easy to use and functional.

Whilst these private platforms often tack on a booking fee of a couple of Euros (Trainline’s fee is generally the lowest), it’s usually worth paying this additional cost to avoid the problems of the official SNCF site and to get cheaper routing options on complex trips. However, you could try SNCF Connect if you know you only want the routes it offers and wish to save on this fee.

Affiliate reminder: We get a silly pittance of a commission from tickets purchased through our links to any platform: SNCF Connect, Trainline, Omio, Rail Europe, etc. It doesn’t matter which you choose and it doesn’t cost you extra. But it does help keep our research and travels going.

Ouigo: France’s Railroad Version of a Budget Airline

The SNCF’s INOUI trains compete with their own budget brand: Ouigo. Here they are side-by-side in Paris Gare de Lyon.

Ouigo is the SNCF’s budget high-speed train system. We have an article explaining what Ouigo is and its pluses and minuses; the main things to keep in mind are that standard tickets include carry-on baggage only, the routes sometimes go to stations well outside of city centers (which means you may have a bit of a trip after your trip), and that seating is a bit more cramped (though not bad).

Ouigo tickets can be purchased from Ouigo’s website, but the site is in French only and a bit fiddly to use even for French speakers.

For non-French speakers, the same Ouigo prices can be found in English at SNCF Connect. And they’re in English and 15 other languages at Trainline. Trainline is a bit better about showing Ouigo in combination with other services when useful, such as a combination of Ouigo with long-distance buses or traditional trains.

On both SNCF Connect and on Trainline, Ouigo routes show automatically in search results if available for the route you want; they show up alongside other SNCF services with a Ouigo icon.

Ouigo is so much cheaper that you may even want to base your itinerary in France on where Ouigo trains can take you; this can certainly save money. The current Ouigo map is below; click to enlarge.

The Ouigo map with high-speed budget trains in pink, and the slower, conventional Ouigo trains in blue

Note that Ouigo also runs trains in Spain and Catalonia, but not between Barcelona and France; there are rumors that Ouigo will soon launch a service in Italy as well.

Keep in mind that unlike with standard SNCF TGV INOUI service, on Ouigo you pay a bit extra for anything larger than a carry-on sized piece of luggage (this optional fee is shown in the booking process). However, Ouigo’s prices are so much lower than those of standard trains that they usually work out as much better value despite this potential add-on.

A Note About Ouigo Destinations

On Ouigo, it can sometimes be cheaper to take trains that start from or leave you at the outskirts of a city. For example, it can be cheaper to depart from the Paris airport TGV train station (Paris Airport Roissy-CDG 2) or from the station near Disneyland (Paris Marne-la-Vallée – Chessy – Disneyland). These stations are accessible via the Paris region commuter trains RER; a search in Google Maps will show you how to get to those stations from your lodging. If you’re staying in a city center, you’ll need to factor in the cost and time hassle of getting to such far-flung train stations to see if it’s actually worth it for any extra savings.

If you’re searching on Trainline or on SNCF Connect you can manually enter these further-out stations, as they won’t show up in a simple search for Paris as the arrival or departure. If you’re searching on Ouigo’s site (in French only), you can choose “Paris toutes gares” (“Paris all stations”) and these options will come up. Here’s an example of such a search on Ouigo’s site:

Here the €19 fare might seem tempting as it saves €10 over leaving an hour later from Gare de Lyon, but this saving would basically be cancelled out by the cost of getting from the Paris city center to the airport. If you’re staying within Paris it’s almost certainly better to go from Gare de Lyon, but it may be worth checking the other options.

How Flexibility with Dates and Times Can Save You Money on French Trains

Because prices are dynamic, if we’re flexible and know how to search, we can get better deals on certain routes, times, or days for SNCF and Ougio trains.

The best (and now, only) search function for flexible dates for French trains is with Trainline. There is no direct way to do this, but if you search for a specific date you will then get a drop-down menu in your search results that says “Other days from…” Click on that, and you’ll see the best prices for a few days before and after your initial search.

The price options on different days shown in a Trainline search for Paris to Barcelona.

If you’re even more flexible than that, you can re-run your search for the week before or week after.

You’ll start to get a sense of which days and times are more popular to travel in France, and thus more expensive. A few general rules to keep in mind:

  • Trips on Friday and Sunday evenings tend to be in demand; if you can go on the Saturday morning or Monday morning you may get a much better deal.
  • The exception is French national holidays, which obviously extend the weekend when they fall on a Friday or a Monday. More surprisingly to some, the French also typically extend their weekend with le pont (literally: the bridge) when holidays fall on a Thursday or a Tuesday, taking off that in-between day as well to get a four-day weekend. Train tickets will be more expensive around such holidays.
  • Trips around weeks-long French public school holidays (page half in English, half in French) are very in demand.
  • August, of course, is the main French holiday time when everything shuts down and everyone flees Paris and the big cities. July is popular too.
  • Early morning and late evening arrival and departure times may be inconvenient… but that can mean they’re unpopular and thus have cheaper fares.

If you’re curious about why certain times and days are cheaper, it’s because the SNCF practices yield management, meaning that prices go up and down according to demand for specific days and routes. For the rail operator, it means trying to maximize revenue by keeping trains full.

An investigation by the French newspaper Figaro (in French) found that there are about 90 “yielders” in SNCF offices working to maximize profit through dynamic pricing. For example, they attempt to ensure the availability of expensive tickets for last-minute business travelers at key morning and afternoon times, while keeping rates low on trains that are not proving profitable, in an effort to fill them.

Train Alternatives: Cheaper Options via Bus and Ride Share

In Trainline you’ll see bus options alongside your train options, as well as train plus bus options for some routes. Omio has bus and plane options as well, and BusBud specializes in buses, with generally very wide coverage of your options for Europe. All three of these work great for France.

Another option to consider is BlaBlaCar, where people offer to carpool between various cities. It usually means starting out on the outskirts of one city and going to the outskirts of another, or whichever area the person happens to be driving to. Sometimes you can get lucky and find rides to out of the way places not served by trains. For large festivals, you may find others attending the same festival as yourself and driving there and back from Paris or another major city. I’ve had good luck with BlaBlaCar when I used it in the past, but I’ve also been stood up for rides a couple of times.

Unpromising for Savings in Most Cases: Interrail / Eurail Passes for France and the SNCF’s Annual Discount Cards

Discount cards that last for a year can be purchased from SNCF. They are usually only worthwhile if you live in France and travel by train several times per year. Crucially, these cards don’t include any Ouigo trains, and many of the other services are not eligible for these discounts.

We’ve covered these options for children and youth up to age 27, seniors, and adults aged 27 to 59 separately.

You can also find out more about the discount cards as well as monthly unlimited subscriptions on the SNCF Connect’s English version of its discount catalogue.

As for Interrail and Eurail passes … if you are travelling around France (or all over Europe), these packages allow you to take certain trains rather spontaneously over a specific period. We’ve done the math for various scenarios, and honestly, in our calculations, Interrail and Eurail passes are almost never worth it, even if you’re on a whirlwind tour, making a lot of stops, and only deciding where to go at the very last minute. If you’re curious about checking them out anyway and you’re a European resident, the Interrail pass is for you; non-Europeans should get the Eurail pass (both cost about the same). You can do the math yourself at those sites: pay close attention to the many exceptions and supplements listed in the fine print and make sure to compare point-to-point tickets for your itinerary via Trainline or SNCF Connect. I’m convinced that very few people actually save money with the passes in the final tally, as much as they sometimes convince themselves that they do. For France, it’s particularly important that Ouigo trains are not included in the passes.

Other, More Doubtful Ways to Try to Save Money

The following strategies involve a certain amount of inconvenience and perhaps speaking French. But if you’re willing to try them, you can save a few Euros on your trip.

  • Babysitting on the train: If you like kids, speak French, and travel a lot in France, check if it’s worth the cost and time to sign up as a babysitter on KidyGo. Your rides are heavily subsidized or free if you accompany someone’s kids; this is paid for and arranged by their parents (it’s not a service of the SNCF).
  • Delayed train refunds: In just over 10 percent of cases, French trains are delayed. If your train is delayed by more than 30 minutes, you are in theory eligible for at least a partial refund. This may come in the form of discount vouchers for other trips, which I’ve found complicated to spend. The request information is here in English.
  • Make friends with your ticket inspector: If you’re friendly, they will likely be so as well. In rare cases they give out freebies, especially to help smooth over troubles with delays and the like. And if you’re at risk of missing a connection or need to extend your trip further than originally planned, they may be able to help.
  • Hopping on the train without paying for a ticket: This is mostly impossible now, as access to the platforms often now involves a ticket check. And even if not, as a ticket inspector shared in an article on this site, his kind already knows all your tricks, like hiding in the restrooms. Just pay for a ticket.

Past Strategies for Cheap Tickets that No Longer Work, Canceled Services, and Discontinued Deals

The following are strategies that we’ve recommended in the past that are no longer in play, so feel free to skip this section.

We’re recounting them here only for those who may still be looking for them and wondering what happened to these deals and what to do instead.

  • Izy by Thalys was a low-cost service that served Paris, Brussels, Dortmund, and Amsterdam, and launched in 2016 and ended in 2022. For less than the price of a Parisian cocktail, you could grab a ticket to Brussels and then a more-reasonably-priced Belgian beer. Those days are gone, but if you look well in advance you can still get cheapish high-speed train tickets for the route. Or, to travel at prices similar to Izy, check the various bus options for the route.
  • Intercités 100% Éco were select routes on mainly Fridays and weekends on slower and older-but-refurbished trains with tickets going for about €15 for second class and €22 for first. You can still take the ever-diminishing set of Intercités routes shown here and they’ll show up, usually cheaper and slower, as options in Trainline and SNCF Connect searches.
  • Happy Hour Intercités were discounted long-distance, slower trips that had not sold well and were being offered at the last minute (five days before departure). The program has been discontinued. With the SNCF’s dynamic pricing, if a particular route is not selling well, you’ll in theory see it available for cheaper in your searches but there is no specific listing for what those options are at any point in time.
  • Buying others’ unused train tickets: The sites d’échange (ticket exchange sites) no longer make much sense because tickets are now generally refundable and exchangeable, and also issued in the name of a particular person. The sites Zepass and Trocdestrain used to do this but I’m not sure I can see how they’re useful any more and have thus removed the hyperlinks. Also, our site’s resident ticket inspector-turned-writer warns you to pay attention to the fact that contrôleurs like himself can and do ask to see your discount card and ID for tickets that require these, so pay attention to whether the ticket you’re purchasing is strictly nominatif (for a specific person) and for a specific discount card.

One Reason for Fewer Budget Fares: True Competition on the French Rails is Still Mostly Blocked—For Now

Those riding the rails in various parts of Europe have had the advantages of being able to choose between the national train operator and newer start-up services. This has brought down prices in some countries. For example, Spain has four high-speed operations for travelers to choose from between Barcelona and Madrid, as well as other key cities. Germany and Sweden have FlixTrain, in addition to the traditional national operators.

A variety of competing services have been proposed and then postponed for France; RailTech.com has a good explainer on the misadventures. In a nutshell, the costs associated with competitors to the SNCF getting their trains rolling on French tracks are too high as things are currently structured. There are continued promises to improve the situation from all sides; we’ll be watching hopefully.

There is one competitor for the route from Paris to Lyon to Milan: Trenitalia. The service was previously called Thello and is now under the brand of Trenitalia’s Frecciarossa. This competing option is shown in Trainline searches for Paris to Milan (and stops in between) side-by-side with the SNCF’s TGV INOUI; you don’t get these fare options from SNCF Connect.

A four-seat cluster in a Trenitalia fast train
A TGV INOUI train boarding at the platform

Bon Voyage, Cheapskates!

Frankly, in this article’s current update, it has been depressing to see the more limited options for cheap, interesting discounts. So perhaps this has been a downer, dear readers. Sorry! As detailed above, if competition eventually improves, so might our options for cheaper fares.

Until then, the main takeaway is to analyze all our options (including different dates and Ouigo or Frecciarossa when relevant for our routes) by searching for our routes on Trainline.

And if the train is still too outrageously expensive, bus and plane options are also shown on Omio.

We appreciate any comments and tips from readers; they help us update this article as new options for cheap French rail travel emerge. Bon voyage!

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