I know many people who would start this list about travelling by train in France with:
Don’t. SNCF, the French rail company, is not the most dependable in the world. Its many strikes have people wanting to picket its offices, or to have the guillotine brought back for use on its directors and disgruntled employees. (Disclaimer: I don’t for a minute believe all its employees are disgruntled, or deserve the guillotine – only the ones who strike at the drop of a hat.) SNCF’s trains are also frequently late. When I booked my ticket I was offered insurance – for a price – against delays on my journey. What other company makes its customers take insurance against its (own) inefficiency?
- Fly. If possible, rather look for cheap flights with companies like easyJet. They strike less and are often cheaper – if one books early enough. Sure, they just kind of dump one out on the runway, leaving one to fend for oneself … but one can’t be too picky when paying peanuts for a flight!
- Or drive, even. Trains do not, in general, go through the most beautiful, touristy areas of a country, and when they do one is travelling so fast that one can’t really appreciate them fully (see point 11 for more). Driving allows one to take detours and well-composed photos one actually wants to show one’s friends and family after the trip. Go by train and you will probably see people and living conditions that other people (and travel marketing types) would like to pretend don’t exist. You will see graffiti galore if you travel by train, but that isn’t necessarily all bad – I happen to like graffiti.
- If one absolutely must take the train, wear comfortable shoes, preferably trainers. On the trip that I just took from Annecy in the French Alps to St Raphaël on the French Riviera, our TGV (high speed train) arrived in Marseille 15 minutes late. The station was absolutely chaotic – wild-eyed people running higgledy piggledy, trying to find their connections, with the announcements coming through thick and fast: “Such and such a train to wherever is leaving IMMEDIATELY from platform whatever…” For someone with barely-functioning lungs and no clue of the Marseille train station’s layout, that sprint from one side of the station to the other nearly killed me, let me tell you! Fortunately my connecting train was in fact also late. Again, when changing stations in Paris, and using the metro, high heels are seriously out of place. (Disclaimer: Not that I would ever contemplate wearing high heels. My high-heel wearing days are over!)
- Book online, or from a machine at the station. This takes all human interaction out of the equation! You know how French people have the reputation of being surly and rude to foreigners? Well, I think it may well have been based on railway and metro employees … Even people with the most iron-clad confidence can be rocked by a French ticketing officer looking disparagingly down his nose at them.
Check back tomorrow for Part 2 …