Travel to/within France

Airfares to France from North America vary widely, so it’s best to use a site that will search multiple airlines for the best airfares (e.g., Kayak.com, Orbitz.com, or Travelocity.com). Make sure you take into consideration length of layovers, giving yourself at least two hours if you’re making a connection after your first stop in Europe/France (for passport control). Note that France is a relatively large country and therefore it may make sense for you to fly to a city close to your destination (e.g., Geneva for the Northern Alps, Grenoble for the Southern Alps, or Toulouse for the Pyrenees; Lyon is also an excellent destination as it is 2 hours from the Southern Alps and a little further to Provence and Mt. Ventoux).

Travel by Train
Once in Europe you have numerous options for travel in France. One of the best options is train service, including the high-speed TGV, which travels to 320 destinations in France at nearly 200 miles per hour! Given that gas (petrol) often costs in excess of $5 per gallon, and that the French highways are often crowded, particularly during the summer months, train travel is often the fastest and least expensive way to travel throughout the country.

Once you know your specific destination(s) in France you can plan your train travel accordingly.  Start by searching fares on the Rail Europe website at http://www.raileurope.com/europe-travel-guide/france/how-to-book-train.html. Alternatively, visit the official French National Railway (SNCF) site at http://www.sncf.com/en/passengers. Be sure to check the Special Deals section of the site http://www.sncf.com/en/special-deals as well as the Travel at the Lowest Fares informational page at  http://www.sncf.com/en/reductions/lowest-fares.

** Travel Gem **:

Note that the links are to pages in French, but even if you don’t speak French you can still understand them by translating the pages to English. For example, the Google Chrome browser prompts you as follows at the upper right page:

Select always translate French if you want pages in French to automatically be translated into English in the future.

** Travel Gem ** :

What if you don’t speak French but have questions about rail travel, accommodations, etc.? No problem. Use the free Google Translate to translate your question/request from English to French.

For example, suppose you want to travel from Paris to Grenoble (near Alpe d’Huez) and are looking for a direct train. Type “Is there a direct train from Paris to Grenoble” and you will get the following: "Y at-il un train direct de Paris à Grenoble?"

Simply copy the response, “Y at-il un train direct de Paris à Grenoble?” and paste it into the question area of the above SNCF train travel site. When the response comes back to you in French simply do the reverse and translate it from French to English!

And if you’re attempting to learn French, click on the audio icon in the bottom right box of the translation, so you can hear what it sounds like in French.

** Travel Gem ** :

You can use Google Translate for questions/inquiries into any language, for travel anywhere!

As with train travel in the States, arriving at a train station (particularly if you’re traveling with a bike) means you’ll need transportation to your hotel. Cabs are always an option, as is public transportation, which can include subways, buses, etc., depending upon your destination.

For local transportation options, start with the official office of tourism website for your arrival city. For example, continuing our Alpe d’Huez example, let’s assume that you’re arriving by train via Grenoble. Since Alpe d’Huez is your ultimate destination start by searching for the official Alpe d’Huez village website.

** Travel Gem ** :

Most destination cities in France have an information packed Official Tourism Office website, which includes a wealth of information about the town and surrounding area, activities, events, and even accommodations. Google the name of the town to find this site, in the case of our example http://www.alpedhuez.com/en/summer for the Alpe d’Huez Summer site in English.

Which Class Tickets?
The real advantage of a first class ticket is a reserved seat in a clearly identified (i.e., Premier or 1st Classe) train car, versus first-come first-served seating in coach. First class is generally 50% more expensive but by booking far in advance you can offset some of the additional expense.

France Rail Pass
An excellent option for those traveling to multiple destinations within France is a France Rail Pass, which is only available online and before you arrive in France. Visit the official website at http://www.raileurope.com/europe-travel-guide/france/index.html for more information. With a France Rail Pass you have a choice of 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 or 9 days within a one-month period, and travel days may be used consecutively or non-consecutively.

** Travel Gem ** :

The France Rail site also frequently offers discounts on TGV tickets, particularly if you buy them well in advance. This site is also helpful in determining whether you should buy separate tickets or a multi-day pass. Visit http://www.raileurope.com/europe-travel-guide/france/how-to-book-train.html for more information.

Bus Travel:
In France, buses are frequently used for short-distance travel within départements, especially in rural areas with relatively few train lines. Note, however, that bus services may be slow and infrequent.

Travel by Car:
For ultimate flexibility, consider renting a car in a bigger city close to your final destination and driving to that destination. For example, in our earlier example of a trip to Alpe d’Huez, consider flying directly to Lyon or taking a train to Grenoble, and renting a car from either city.

French Roads are generally well marked by the Highway number and next town or city in the direction of travel. There are four types of roads in France (and Belgium),  using the following alphanumeric designations:

(A) Autoroutes (eg A14) – Multilane highways, usually with tolls (péages).
(N, RN) Routes Nationales – National highways.
(D) Routes Départementales – Local roads.
(C, V) Routes Communales – Minor rural roads.

** Travel Gem ** :

The above designations are very helpful when plotting out your cycling routes. Generally, D, C, and V roads are smaller and less heavily traveled, and thus better suited for cycling.

** Travel Gem ** :

For detailed information on tolls, rest areas, traffic and weather updates and more, visit www.autoroutes.fr. Also, the websites www.viamichelin.com and www.mappy.fr allow you to plot itineraries for your specified departure and arrival points., similar to an AAA TripTik in the States.

The major US car rental companies all rent cars in France, including Avis, Budget, and Hertz. French options include ADA (http://www.ada.fr/), Europcar (http://www.europcar.com/), Holiday Autos (http://www.ada.fr/), and Sixt (http://www.ada.fr/). You must be at least 21 years old (25 for some companies) and possess a valid driver’s license to rent a car in France or anywhere in Europe, for that matter.

For more information about travel options within France, see The Lonely Planet’s http://www.lonelyplanet.com/france/transport/getting-around (France).