Rail Travel

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Routes

Rail travel to France is by Eurostar which in London runs from St Pancras International.  St Pancras is next door to Kings Cross and a single tube stop (or 10 minute walk) from Euston.  The journey from other London termini is almost as straightforward.  There are also stations at Ebbsfleet (close to the M25) and at Ashford in Kent, though not all trains stop at these stations.  In France, SNCF, the national rail company, provide fast, comfortable and direct TGV (high speed train) services.

You can get a direct Eurostar to Avignon on summer Saturdays or change in Paris or Lille for a TGV to Avignon (2 hours from Le Vieux Mas) or Nîmes (1 hour).  There is more information on how to book below but first comes some information to help journey planning.

Our preferred journey is from London to Nîmes, changing in Paris, but there are other choices on destination and places to change trains:

A tip: if you take this service, mid summer, to Avignon Centre, hire your car at the TGV station and take the bus shuttle there, to avoid long queues.

A tip: if you are keen on changing at Lille you might want to consider, as well as direct trains, services with a further change at Lyon.  Again this is just platform to platform, and gives you more options for a shorter overall journey.

A tip: this may suit travellers from north of London as the Eurostar departs St Pancras at 10.15, returning at 18.46

A tip: book Eurostar seats in coach 18 for the trip to Paris to save a long walk down the train when you get there.

A tip: Nîmes is on the line to Montpellier, Perpignan and Spain: Avignon has trains going to Marseilles or places beyond such as Toulon, Nice and Italy.  But the lines split only just north of Avignon, so if your best direct connection from the Eurostar goes to Avignon, you can often change at Lyon or Valence if you prefer to go to Nîmes.  To see connecting services on the main SNCF site (see below) make sure "direct services" is unchecked.  You can also see final destinations of trains (useful for boarding) and their intermediate stops here; just type in the departure station and date/hour of the train.

Sleepers and Motorail

There is no longer a sleeper service from the north of France to Nîmes or Avignon.  Nor is there a motorail service from Calais - but with Auto-Train (also bookable via Rail Europe) you can put your car on a train at Paris and collect it from Avignon the next morning (yourselves stopping overnight in Paris or Avignon - the car travels separately, and there is no suitable sleeper.)

Local Trains

If you wish, you can get the train from Nîmes to within 8 km of Le Vieux Mas, to a tiny hillside station at Ste Cîcile d'Andorge, once the haunt of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.  Doing so could enable you to holiday without a car, though we wouldn't recommend it except for keen cyclists or walkers.  For the latter, a taxi will get you to the house in about 15 minutes.

Slightly more practically, there are trains from Nîmes to our local town Alès, but the car-hire options there are more limited, so it doesn't confer any great advantages unless for guests visiting when you are staying at the house.

Buying tickets - without making a meal of it

It is easy to buy return tickets to from London to Avignon or Nîmes.

Obviously, if you are travelling on the direct Eurostar service to Avignon, it's best to buy the tickets from Eurostar itself (and, as noted above, tickets may be on sale as early as the previous Christmas.)

If you are changing trains in France, you can buy through return tickets priced in sterling from Eurostar or from SNCF.  You can also buy tickets priced in euros from SNCF (the link is to the English language version of their main French site).  These may be cheaper, and can be purchased with a UK credit card.  It is worth checking each of these sites because the options and prices offered can (and do) vary.  

To buy the best value tickets you should aim to buy them as soon as they go on sale.  For Eurostar this is 180 days - about six months - in advance (with Avignon direct and Disneyland services available even earlier).  However tickets for travel in France are usually available only 90 days (about three months) and this includes for through returns. So Eurostar can't sell you a through return ticket to Nîmes until 90 days before your return journey.  However for the peak summer season tickets in France normally go on sale more than 90 days in advance, and it helps to know when.  You can check the dates here

Buying through return tickets this way is convenient but usually more expensive - because you can't buy the Eurostar tickets as far in advance as is possible and they may well be more expensive when you do buy them.  Also some travel options and the cheapest prices for travel in France are not usually captured by through tickets.  So the next bit  goes into detail to help you save money and make sure you have the best journey for you.

Buying tickets - getting best value

Buying the cheapest tickets usually means buying them as soon as they go on sale and, because of the different advance booking periods, that means buying Eurostar tickets for travel to France before SNCF tickets for travel in France.  For SNCF travel, it is also usually best to buy single tickets as they go on sale.  It's more or less the same as buying "advance singles" in the UK.  

Why should you devote effort to buying tickets in this way?  Well, it is mainly cost.  If you follow the guidelines below, your return journey from London to Avignon or Nîmes can cost under £120 (though it is harder to achieve this in the summer) compared with as much as two or three times that.  Doing so will also clarify your journey choices and enable you to plan a better journey than might be visible buying a through return ticket.

Obviously the first thing to do is to plan your journey carefully.  Because you will be buying different legs of the journey at different times, you need to make sure everything fits together!  So you need to check all train times before making any booking.

Eurostar is straightforward - the site shows train times six months in advance, the same as the booking period.  But since you will probably be booking Eurostar before the French leg, you need to see SNCF times ahead of their 90 day booking period.  To do this, use the French language SNCF website to see the times (the other language sites don't have this function).   Enter a journey, from Paris or Lille to Nimes or Avignon, and then click "Horaires seules" to give you the available journeys.  Note that this will not give train times before the annual timetable is published - which is in early September for the following year.

Once you have planned your preferred journey, you need to decide when to buy the tickets.  The key point to understand is that tickets are (generally) released on a day by day basis and, once released, the price starts to rise, sometimes very quickly.  So identifying the dates on which your tickets go on sale is important. Theoretically your best bet might be to buy four single tickets per person, two Eurostar and two TGV, each on the date they first go on sale.  However, for Eurostar, now that tickets are on sale six months in advance, this is rarely worthwhile, not least because buying two single tickets always costs more than a return for the same journey.  Only if you are going for a longish holiday in peak season would it be worth considering whether to get two singles, each at the instant of them being on sale.  By contrast, it is always best to buy SNCF singles separately as they go on sale - there is no advantage in buying a return, and the penalty in increased cost of the outward ticket can be high if you wait for the return journey to go on sale.

As will be evident, the key to this is to know the rule for when tickets go on sale: but there are differences between Eurostar and SNCF, and each has variations and exceptions.

For Eurostar, it is relatively straightforward.  Tickets go on sale 180 days in advance (and normally at midnight on the due day.)  This applies to all services to Paris and Lille.  For Avignon direct, tickets go on sale around Christmas and it is worthwhile to find out the date, if necessary by contacting Eurostar to ask the direct question.  For Disneyland, the tickets are released in blocks and the same general rule about pressing Eurostar for transparency applies.

For TGV travel within France it is a bit more complicated:

"Standard" TGV tickets normally go on sale 90 days in advance (and normally at midnight French time , thus 11pm British time).  However for the summer (and Christmas) they are released in blocks (either ahead of or behind the normal 90 days).  Sales open in early April for travel until late August and in early May for travel into September.  For the Christmas period, the opening date is in early/mid October.  You can check the dates TGV tickets go on sale here and maybe get information on the time on the SNCF facebook page. 

There is also a separately branded "iDTGV" service, with at least one train each day to and from Paris to destinations including (at possibly convenient times) Nîmes.  "iDTGV" is only a brand: coaches with a certain "ambiance" attached to normal trains, but with a simpler (and normally cheaper) fare structure.  There is a separate website for iDTGV services but the trains are also shown on the normal voyages sncf.com site.  iDTGV tickets can be purchased 4 - 6 months in advance, with dates released in blocks.  For the main summer period, iDTGV sales open in early March and for the autumn, it's early/mid June.  For Christmas it's early October (just a few days before "standard" sales) and for the spring it's early/mid December. The main TGV site has the dates here and the iDTGV facebook page should give the approximate hour.

From 2013, there is another new brand, "Ouigo".  This runs from Marne la Vallée (Disneyland) to the south at extra-low prices.  Advance booking is similar to that for iDTGV.  Mentioned for completeness only because it does not link with the Eurostar service, though the station is also accessible by RER and from Lille. 

Obviously, if you are taking this approach you need to set about it purposefully. To sum up, plan your journey carefully, consider whether buying two Eurostar singles or one return is best and then put either three or four dates in your diary for buying tickets.

Supplementary

The cheapest Eurostar fare is £69.  Lille costs the same as Paris.  

The cheapest single tickets in France are €19 on iDTGV (€10 on Ouigo, but this is available only from Marne la Vallée.)   These sell very quickly, but the next higher levels are still good value.  The lowest fare for standard TGV ("Prems")  is €25. (That's usually cheaper when they first go on sale than the level the iDTGV fare has reached by that date for the same train.  By a similar quirk, first class "Prems" tickets can sometimes remain available below the cost of the cheapest available second class tickets - the booking site will show if this is the case.)

Eurostar do not offer their lowest advertised fare on all trains.  If this is a concern try to establish what the opening fare for your preferred train may be (by looking one week or one month ahead).  Or you could always try asking them.  Also note that there can also be very few tickets in the next higher categories so available fares can go up quickly.

SNCF do offer the lowest fares on all trains, but of course there can be few and they go very quickly.  The normal fares vary according to time of day, etc, but higher fares on non-peak trains are not excessive. 

Remember that you can also keep up to date on the opening of TGV ticket sales here.

If you are booking after the opening date, it is all the more important to check all options.  For example it may be that, at a point, Avignon is much cheaper than Nîmes.  Or even, a through single fare from London to the south or visa versa (purchased on any of the main sites) may be cheaper - but check the selected journey as it may be sub-optimal in terms of changes or total journey time.  

Railcards

If you have children, buying a Carte Enfante can save even on a single journey.  You can test this on the SNCF without buying the card by checking the relevant box when specifying passengers.  The card can be bought online alongside the tickets.

Other railcards in France are of doubtful value unless you travel regularly.

Changing at Paris

Well, it is just like changing trains anywhere, but the Gare du Nord is quite large, and has quite a few levels, so here are a few points to help:

You can see much of this on a YouTube video

The reverse is simpler, in that Gare du Lyon is smaller.  Look for RER line D, platforms 2 and 4 (not 1 and 3) and it is two stops (usually from platform 4) to Gare du Nord -  called Paris Nord on the metro.  Line D destinations include Orry La Ville and Stade de France - St Denis, there are others but they all go to Gare du Nord, as shown on the destination board on the platform. 

Other Links

The master of all rail travel is the man in Seat 61.  For travel by Eurostar, look here.  For his take on travel from London  to the south of France look here.  He also has a section here on London to Nîmes,  including a timetable, but this is based only on changing at Lille which (as it demonstrates) can include some extended waits between trains.  If you want to find out about sleepers, auto-train or much else, this is the site.

 

 

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