Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Train Tip - Buying train tickets at the station

Whichever station you head to for your day trip from Paris you have a couple of options.

Of course, you can buy your tickets in advance from an SNCF Boutique. But, if you are like us, and you don't decide until the day you are going to leave that you are going somewhere it is just as easy to buy the tickets at the train station.

In each train station there are two options: either buying tickets at the counter, or using the automated machines.

Buying tickets at the counter is pretty easy, especially if you have written down where you want to go. Most of the tellers speak some English, and its pretty obvious what you want to do. Every time I have need to use a counter the staff have been very helpful. However, there are often very long lines to get to the counter. And, as most people who are using them are either changing an existing booking or there is a reason they aren't using automated teller machines, it can take a long time for the queue to move.

Important: to use the yellow machines you need to have a "chip" credit card. If you don't, you can't use these machines and will need to buy your ticket from the ticket counter.

One of the many collections of yellow ticket machines

The automated teller machines are yellow (the green ones are for RER and Metro tickets only) and are touch screen and you need a credit card with a chip to use them (they do not take cash).

The main screen of the automated ticket machine
Select your language in the top left of the main screen

Don't panic if you don't speak French, you can select the option of English, German, Italian, Spanish, or Dutch. On the assumption that you are reading this blog in English, I have selected English. From here you just need to follow the onscreen instructions to buy your ticket.

Options (in English) on the main screen

Firstly, you need to decide when you want to go - either immediate departure (which will give you the option to pick any of the next three or four trains heading to the destination you select) or a later train. You also have the option to collect electronic tickets using the "File and Electronic Ticket Collection" option. If you have a chip credit card you have the option of booking your ticket online and collecting them from these machines at the station. You cannot use American Express for this option and it is only available in France and Luxembourg however, you can pick up tickets for any station in Europe as long as you collect them in France.

Options for immediate departure from Gare du Nord

If you want to head off for your day trip now (or very soon), select "Immediate Departure". If you are in a major train station the machine will assume that you want a ticket from that station. In this example I am Gare du Nord and the machine will insert this for me and give me the most popular destinations from this station. If you are in a station in an outlying area (for example, Chantilly) you may need to enter the station you are leaving from first.

Next, select where you want to go. In this case, Lille. If the destination you want is not listed you can select "other destinations" on the bottom right - this will allow you to enter your destination on a keypad. Normally you only need to enter three letters before the machine will give you the list of possible destinations. The keyboard will remove letters that you can't use for a place name to ensure you spell it correctly.

List of options for Lille - note some are Lille Europe
and some are Lille Flanders. Its good to know which you need

Once you have selected the destination you want the machine will display the upcoming train options, departure time, arrival time, total travel time (including changes), and changes and the final destination. For Lille, (for example) there are two stations (Lille Europe and Lille Flanders) and no changes on route. Select the train you want by pressing the option on the screen.

See the right side of the screen for the selection of one way
or return options. This can be easy to miss.
The next step is whether you want one way or return. If the train is a TGV, reservations are required, therefore we will normally buy our return ticket and choose the time before we go. All of the other trains do not require a reservation and have no limit on the number of passengers they will take (this does not mean everyone will get a seat). In this case, you may as well buy your ticket when you are ready to leave rather than deciding at the beginning of the day when you will return - that way you can take advantage of any opportunities that the day may present to you. However, it always pays to know when the last train home is regardless of whether you choose to buy now or later.

First or second class option

You then have the option of choosing first class or second class. See my post on the difference between first class and second class to help you decide. We always choose second class.

Selecting one passenger

The following screen lets you select the number of passengers. The trick to this screen, and all screens thereafter, is you need to also press "confirm" in the bottom right-hand side of the screen after you select. This can be quite frustrating especially when you are in a hurry.

First select your tariff
Then if you are part of a loyalty programme

You will then have options for selecting age, and various options for ticket prices which unless you are living in France you select "no" for. The TGV has two options which are shown here - TGV PRO 2nd and TGV Plein Tarif Loisir. The TGV PRO 2nd is the more expensive option and is probably better know to western travelers as a fully flexible ticket. You can change or cancel the ticket up to the time of departure and, under certain circumstances, after departure. The TGV Plein Tarif Loisir is the full price (ie no discount) leisure ticket. It is generally cheaper. If you are purchasing the ticket several days in advance, it is free to change the Plein Tarif Loisir up to the day of departure. If you change it on the day of departure there is a 10 Euro charge and it is non-refundable and non-exchangeable after departure. But, it is the cheaper option.

You will then also have to select if you are part of a loyalty programme - generally the answer will be no.

Then, the option for a French discount card. Again, if you are visiting, the answer will be no.

Then any applicable discount cards
Annoyingly, you will need to do these for each person, and make sure you push the option, followed by "validate" in the bottom right of the screen to continue to the next option.

This can be the most frustrating part of the whole experience, especially if there are several of you in the group and the train is not too far away. It can feel like it is taking forever (and actually it can be - they aren't always the quickest of machines)

Summary of your order

Touch the "Pay this order" option
Once you have selected your travel options you will be presented with your final selection. The left-hand side will show the destination with the date, departure time, any changes, total travel time and the train type and class. The right-hand side will show the number of passengers, the fare types for each of them and the total price.

Touch the "Pay this order" box with the price in the bottom right corner. This will then activate the credit card slot and the pinpad for completing the payment.

Use the credit card slot on the right
side of the screen


Remember, you must have a "chip" card to use these machines. This means that on the front of your card, on the right hand side, there will be a gold "chip". If you don't have one, or are not sure, you should go to a counter, because it is incredibly frustrating to get to this stage and find out that you can't pay.

Once you have successfully paid for the ticket the machine will ask you if you want a receipt before printing out the tickets. These will appear from one of the slots beneath the machine.

If you are travelling on a train other than the TGV you must ensure you composte or validate your ticket prior to boarding the train.

We will often decide the night before, or on the day that we want to head somewhere. We always check that there is a train heading to where we want to go using the SNCF website or the SNCF app which will also tell you which train station you need to go to. There are seven around Paris. Then we arrive about 20 - 30 minutes before the train is due to depart to buy our tickets. We have been as late as 7 minutes before the train is due to depart. However, the yellow machines can be painfully slow, especially when you have left it late to buy the ticket.

If you are late to the train and don't have time to buy a ticket it is possible to purchase these on the train. It's better to have the ticket first, because technically if you don't have a ticket you should not board the train. However, if it's critical get on and find the conductor and explain the situation. If he comes to you, you are more likely to get fined for not having a ticket. All SNCF conductors carry mobile ticketing machines that take cash and major credit cards.

If you are aren't sure of somewhere to go on your day trip from Paris, check out the options for day trips from Paris.  


  1. Thanks for such a clear explanation. I will be directing our guests to read it before travelling to us by train.

  2. Glad it is of use to you! Let me know if there is anything else that might be of use to your guests.

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