Transport in France
Your guide to travelling around France by road, rail, bus and bicycle
The French road network is extremely dense, linking major cities and remote rural areas alike, so it’s small wonder that many locals and tourists take to the road in large numbers to criss-cross the country.
France’s motorway network is the second largest in Europe, after Germany, with the famed autoroutes assuring a fast, comfortable journey – with the exception of a few peak holiday travel dates in the annual calendar! It does come at a price, however, with regular péages collecting a toll for your pleasure at the wheel. On longer routes, the cost can add up, so it’s worth totting up the total in advance (go to aprr.fr). That said, if you want a relatively hassle-free trip with regular rest stops (called aires) and clean service stations along the way, it’s the way to go.
The cost of the tolls is calculated according to distance travelled and vehicle class, and you can pay by cash, credit card, or purchase the Liber-t télépéage badge in advance for quicker passage through the péages.
For those who want to save money and/or see more of France, there is also an extensive system of state-owned trunk roads ( routes nationales). The N-roads are direct, and can even be quicker than the motorways during the peak holiday travel periods.
The smaller roads, known as the routes départementales, are generally well maintained. In extreme weather conditions, for example ice or snow, the gritters get out early to spread sand on all the primary B-roads linking to towns as well as roads providing principal access to villages.
Keep an eye on the different speed limits when making car journeys, because the French authorities are hot on speeding offences, deploying large numbers of traffic police and radars in efforts to reduce accidents.
Speed limits are 130km/h on motorways, 110km/h on A-roads, 90km/h on B-roads, coming down to 50km/h as you drive through towns and villages. In adverse weather conditions, these limits are reduced by 20km/h on motorways and by 10km/h on other roads.
The French rail network is one of the most comprehensive in the world, and also carries one of the fastest trains linking major cities – the high-speed TGV ( train à grande vitesse). The only drawback with the TGV service is that its network mostly connects to or through Paris.
Standard TER trains ( transport express régional) are not as speedy as a TGV, but they offer a good, fast service and operate on direct routes in the regions, stopping between main stations only.
Finally, the branch lines are served by omnibus trains, which travel at slower speeds and stop at every station servicing suburban areas.
Many of the TGV and TER trains are double-deckers, thereby providing adequate seating – the dream of many a UK commuter!
To date, the network has been run by the state-owned company SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français), however, plans are underway to open the market in line with European competition rules. For the TER network, open access will be implemented from December 2019, with contracts being put out to tender as and when they come up for renewal. The TGV network will implement the change from 2021, however, it is likely the government will look at a regional contract system similar to that in the UK to prevent companies seeking contracts to operate only the more profitable routes.
The Parisian underground rail network has a smell, a sound and a vibe all of its own. Kilometres of joining walkways host endless buskers and entertainers, tiled platforms with colourful advertising, and trains with sociable four-by-four seating. Buzzing with life underneath the Paris streets, the Métro delivers passengers all around the capital, linking with the RER trains out into the suburbs.
Many of France’s larger cities also have an underground train network and, like Paris, often an overground tramway service too. With a good bus service finishing city centres’ transport offering (many buses with a caterpillar double carriage), it’s always relatively easy to get around.
BY COACH OR BY BUS
There is no national coach service in France that is comparable to the UK’s National Express, however, in 2015 FlixBus started operating an intercity coach service across the country that is growing in popularity.
In addition, coaches (known as ‘ cars’ or ‘ bus’) operate on a more regional and local level, stopping regularly along their given route. Some of the longer coach routes are in fact run by SNCF and included in their transport timetables. Coach stations in major towns are often found next to the train station, as in the UK, facilitating onward journeys to the final destination.
In rural areas, the coaches link villages to nearby towns, and in some areas where there is no service, local authorities have opened up the heavily subsidised school bus service for use by paying members of the public.
Always check the coach/bus timetable in advance, particularly in more rural areas, as services can be limited at weekends and off-peak hours. In areas where buses are scarcer, hitch-hiking remains a common and effective means of getting around.
Travel within France is also well served by the domestic air market, with notably the budget airlines offering affordable, accessible flights across the country. To counter the inroads being made by the likes of easyJet and Ryanair in this sector, the former giant of the French skies, Air France-KLM, launched its own budget brand Hop! in March 2013 targeting cheaper domestic passenger flights.
Most international flights continue to be routed via the two Paris airports, but France has several major airports serving the bigger cities, with good parking facilities and transport links.
If travelling abroad, you need to plan to arrive well in advance to get through reinforced security and passport controls – passport control in particular can sometimes take a very long time! Bear in mind that, since January 2017, all minors departing French territory alone or without their parents must have a signed parental authorisation form ( une autorisation de sortie de territoire, AST – forms can be downloaded online, at service-public.fr).