We spent a total of nine days in France, split between Lyon in the Rhone Valley (central France), Montpellier in the South, and Paris. It was a lot of ground to cover in that time, and we purposely picked cities that had relatively short and cheap transportation connections. (We couldn’t do an open jaw flight into, say, Lyon, and out of Paris on this trip, because Paris was technically a nine day stopover on the return of our award tickets from DC to the Seychelles and back.) In the end we did two intercity rides on SNCF, the French national rail company, and one domestic flight on Air Francet went through France included two train legs – a two hour ride on the TGV from Paris to Lyon, and a shorter one hour leg from Lyon to Montpellier. Neither of our train trips were particularly notable, but I figured I would do one brief post summarizing the train experience.
We were supposed to head to Lyon directly from the airport upon arriving from Ethiopia (from CDG’s own rail station), but needed to swing through Paris to pick something up on the morning of our arrival. We had bought our tickets on the high-speed rail (“TGV”) from Rail Europe, SNCF’s U.S. Agent, and changing them turned out to be a major hassle, even though we had purposely purchased changeable tickets. First, I had trouble accessing the appropriate Rail Europe website from the lounge in Ethiopia, as the site would constantly redirect me to their South African site. I was only able to get to the right page by switching from Firefox to Internet Explorer. After entering the booking info, I was told we couldn’t change our tickets online because we had used two different credit cards on the booking (which makes no sense). So we then had to call Rail Europe’s US offices. We were able to make the call over wifi, but were told there was a wait of 58 to 120 minutes and were placed in the queue for a call back (it was Friday mid-day on the East Coast at the time, not some crazy middle of the night thing). About 20 minutes before we left the lounge in ADD, we finally got a call back and were able to make the changes to our tickets – which entailed canceling the old e-tickets and getting 93% of their value back, and then booking new tickets in a separate transaction. Not particularly efficient, and we could have saved money by booking the new tickets ourselves.
After a taxi into the city and running our errand, we took the Metro to Paris’ Gare de Lyon station. The station is massive and confusing – a hodgepodge of different connected halls – and was pretty crowded on a Saturday morning, with a lot of Parisians heading out of town for a ski or snowboarding weekend. We left the station for breakfast at a brasserie, thinking they might have more substantive options, but it turned out their “all hours” menu meant “all hours after 8:30,” and they only had croissants and coffee until then. We then realized that we could switch to an earlier train to Lyon – in fact, the train we were originally scheduled on out of the airport. To do so, though, we had to wait on a 20 minute line, since our tickets had been purchased from Rail Europe. It was an even exchange, though, and it left us with just enough time for us to grab coffee for the train and board.
Rail travel in France is very popular, and pretty efficient. Our high-speed train from Paris to Lyon was completely full, and we struggled to make room for our luggage. It was somewhat less comfortable than Amtrak, with older narrow seats and aisles. There was no wifi, and no in-seat power. Our assigned seats in second class were in a four-set, with two seats facing two seats with a table in between. Our seats were supposed to be facing each other, but one was taken, so we just took the two empty seats next to one another. The train passengers were a cross-section of French society (or the bottom 80% or so) – with people of all ages, classes, and races. Alas, one of the students in our berth was blasting his iPod with loud Euro-techno-pop music. Welcome to France!
It was an easy two-hour trip, and we got to take in some interesting bits of the French countryside as we headed south. We got into Lyon’s Part-Dieu station at around 10:30 in the morning. It was a long day of traveling from the Seychelles, but pretty smooth.
Lyon to Montpellier
Our trip from Lyon to Montpellier, in the south just off the Mediterranean was very different. The Lyon Part-Dieu station was an easy tram ride from our hotel, the Hilton in Cite Internationale. Although not as bad as Saturday morning, there was still a bit of a bustle at the station on a Monday afternoon – with even a long line at Starbucks. The Lyon station had free wifi, and we didn’t wait long before boarding. The train was a newer double-decker TGV, and was pretty empty, less than half-full on the upper level of our car. The seats were roomier and newer, as well. And even though our part of the train ride was pretty short, there was a bar car on the train. It was a pleasant trip as we rolled through the countryside from Central France into the South. One thing that stood out to me was the pricing of our two tickets. Although the trip from Lyon to Montpellier was only a little shorter than the Paris to Lyon leg (1h 43m v. 1h 59m), the second trip cost less than half – 39 Euro as opposed to 79 Euro. Perhaps the difference was due to route demand, or to weekend versus weekday travel.
In all, trains are a great way to get around France, even between cities with direct air connections. My word of advice would be to try to avoid booking with Rail Europe if possible, either by waiting until you get to Europe or using a non-US address.