Most visitors to France travel by car. If you want to explore the French countryside, driving isn't always the best option.

The French rail network is excellent, and it's easy to travel by train, and it's cheap too. You don't have to worry about headaches over parking, traffic, motorway tolls or unexpected breakdowns, all great ways to ruin your holiday.

Local buses fill in the gaps that the rail network doesn't reach in more rural areas. Even if only for a few days, hiring a car may be the most practical option if you want to explore beyond the larger towns.

Everything you need to know to get around in France can be found here.

Make the most out of every adventure with help from our weekly newsletter delivered to your inbox.

Sit back and take the train for an easy trip across France

Traveling by train is enjoyable. If you plan ahead and book in advance, the SNCF is one of the best train networks in Europe.

The entire country can be reached by high-speed TGV trains, which travel at speeds of up to 300 km/h. The high-speed lines run from Paris to the north, east, southeast and southwest. Spur lines are currently under construction or planned to be built.

Smaller towns located on different parts of the network tend to have slower and less frequent connections to the rest of the country. Conventional tracks are used away from the main lines.

TER or Corail trains are less flashy and slower than the TGV network. It is worth noting that long-distance trains sometimes divide along the route with each half of the train heading off to a different destination; check the destination panel on your car as you board or you could end up far from where you intended to go.

A mother and son riding on a train in France
Trains in France are fast and efficient – and the views are great! © andresr / Getty Images

Buying and collecting train tickets

Train tickets can be purchased online. It's important to book in advance for the best fares. You can download e-tickets onto your phone from many train services. The reference number for your booking and the credit card used to make the booking are required if you plan to collect them.

Most mainline train stations have automated ticket machines on the concourse where you can purchase tickets, but note that on-the-day purchases are likely to be more expensive, especially for longer journeys.

Tips for traveling by train in France:

  • For the best fares you need to book ahead as far ahead as possible; check SNCF Connect for fares, train times and online booking. 
  • Standard class is very comfortable, but if you book well in advance, you can sometimes get some great deals on First Class too. 
  • If you’re not too fussed about getting from A to B as fast as possible, check out the cheap fares on Ouigo Train Classique, which offers travel between several major cities (for example, Paris to Lyon, Dijon or Nantes) for a fraction of the regular price.

Explore rural areas of France by bus

Many bus and coach companies compete with the SNCF's rail services, offering cheaper but slower services between large towns and cities. Eurolines runs the cross- Europe coach network.

In areas with few train lines such as Brittany and Normandy, buses are often used for short distance travel. It is possible to get around in places where rail travel isn't possible. You can travel for a low flat fare in some areas.

Sometimes there is only one bus in the morning and afternoon, and sometimes there is no bus at all at weekends or during school holidays.

Cars on the Champs-Elysees in Paris at night
A rental car is a great way to explore France, though driving in larger cities is not for the faint-hearted © Ioan Panaite /

For maximum freedom, nothing beats a car

Traveling by car in France is a great way to see the country. One of France's greatest pleasures is strolling along country lanes. Driving in France isn't always fun. It can be difficult to find a place to park in the city. In the south, car theft is a problem.

You can hire a car for a short period of time if you need it. If you want to combine train and car travel, you can pick up a rental car at a train station. It is worth doing your sums because shorter hire periods attract higher rates.

The priorité droite rule, which requires you to give way to approaching cars from the right, is one of the quirks that takes some getting used to. radar traps and speed cameras are becoming more and more common.

Information on traffic conditions, rest stops and service stations can be found at the Sociétés d' Autoroutes. You can plot your route and calculate toll costs with an online map.

  • Autoroutes (with names beginning with A) are multi-lane divided highways that charge tolls (péages) except near Calais and Lille. The further you travel, the more you pay. It’s possible to pay via credit card or cash at toll stations: if you’re doing loads of autoroute driving, you could also consider getting an automatic toll pass (such as the ones provided by Bip&Go or Eurotunnel & Emovis) which will charge you automatically as you pass through. Tolls are cheaper for motorcyclists, and more costly for cars towing caravans. 
  • Routes Nationales (N or RN) are national highways, with divider strips on some sections. They often run alongside or close to autoroutes and pass through main towns – they’re slower, but toll-free.
  • Routes Départementales (D) are local highways and roads.
  • Routes Communales (C, V) are minor rural roads.

Paying autoroute tolls

You are charged for the distance you travel when you drive on French auto routes. You will get a paper ticket when you join the motorway. You can pay by cash or credit card if you put the same ticket in another toll booth after you leave.

Fees can be calculated at Some lanes are automated, some have attendants, and some are reserved for frequent users with automated Liber-T passes. Unless you have a pass, don't enter one of the lanes marked by a big orange 'T' unless you have a picture of cash or a credit card, and you should be fine.

Car parking in France

It can be difficult to find parking in French towns. You will almost always have to pay for on-street parking if you manage to find a space. Cash and credit cards are accepted at the parking meter. The chargeable hours are generally 9am to noon and 2pm to 5pm or 6pm, but this is not always the case.

A public car park is the best place to park. These can be very expensive in larger towns and cities. You usually collect a ticket on entry, pay the fee at an automated machine when you want to leave, and then insert the ticket at the exit barrier.

You won't be able to pay at the barrier when you leave. It is very embarrassing to be stuck there with a long queue of drivers lined up behind you and have to back up to let you go.

A group of people riding bikes through the golden vineyards of Alsace
Cycling in the countryside is one of France's great joys © oksanaphoto / Getty Images

Explore the countryside by bike

France is a great place to ride a bike. There are a lot of bike paths and bike lanes in the country that make for lovely, traffic-free cycling. Lots of rental companies are setting up shop for Vlos lectriques.

The Loire Valley, the Luberon in Provence, and Burgundy are some of the places where you can explore on a bike. France isn't always flat, you may have to tackle some hills en route, but hopefully nothing that's likely to feature in the Tour de France

Catch a ferry to the islands

Regular ferry services to several French ports are available. The Channel Islands, Corsica and the French mainland are connected by boats.

The Canal du Midi and the Loire are both popular destinations for cruises in houseboats. It is a great way to explore, allowing you to stop to pick up supplies, eat at a village restaurant or check out a chteau by bike.

The system oflocks takes care of altitude changes. There are usually two to 12 passengers on a boat. France Afloat rents and sells canal boats.

Only fly in France if you really need to 

France's fast, comprehensive rail network means that train travel between Paris and most major French cities is almost always faster and easier than flying. Traveling from Paris to the south or southwest of France is often done by train.

It is possible to travel between cities on different TGV networks, for example Lyon to Nantes or Strasbourg to Nice, though some flights connect through Paris. Unless you want to take your own car, flying is the better way to get to Corsica.

Smaller airports, like Paris Beauvais, which is used by many budget airlines, are close to the city center. It costs more and takes longer to get into town if you use a bus or rail link.

Air France operates the majority of France's domestic flights. Air Corsica, EasyJet, Twin Jet and Volotea are budget airlines that offer flights to France.

Paris Metro Sign with Christmas lights on surrounding buildings
The Paris Metro is one of the world's best-loved public transport systems © anouchka / Getty Images

Public transportation in cities is inexpensive and frequent

The métros, trams, and buses are used in France's urban transport systems. Changes to other forms of transportation are covered by the same ticket, so you only have to buy one ticket to get anywhere you want. If you want to use the ticket later on to transfer, composter is a good idea.

A single ticket is called a billet l'unite. You can buy a carnet of 10 tickets or an all day pass. You may need to buy a ticket before you board a bus or tram because the drivers don't sell them.

Paris' public-transit network is trying to switch to a paperless system. The old paper carnets are being replaced by credit-card style passes, and you can buy your tickets by phone.

Taxis are convenient but often expensive in France

The taxi rank is in the front of most train stations. If there aren't any cabs parked, you'll need to call to get one. Cabs can be ordered online in many cities via the G7 or their app, as well as being able to summon cars through the app.

One-way and return trips are often the same in small cities and towns where taxi drivers are not likely to give you another fare. The tariffs are higher at night and on holidays. If you're picked up at an airport or train station, you'll usually have to pay a surcharge, as well as an additional fee for a fourth passenger.

Why the train is my favorite way to travel in France

There is no better way to travel in France than by train. The French have created a network that is up there with the best in the world. The trains are fast, comfortable and reliable. It is possible to travel from central Paris to the south of France in less than 3 hours. There's no airport queue or auto route to worry about.

Accessible transportation in France

France has many challenges for visitors with reduced mobility, from cobblestones and sidewalks crowded with cafe tables to a lack of curb ramps.

Parts of the Paris metro are not good for wheelchair users. It is difficult to navigate Line 14 even though it was built to be wheelchair accessible. Paris buses are easy to get to. G7 has vehicles that are specially adapted to carry wheelchairs.

It is always worth asking ahead to make sure the help you need will be available on the train you wish to travel on. You and a person with you in a wheelchair may be eligible for a discount.

The article was first published in June of 2021.