The French countryside is world-class splendorous, but I have a short attention span.
So for me, nothing is better than hopping onto one of the world’s fastest trains and watching all those quaint cows and immaculately provincial French towns zoom past.
The problem is that to ride the French rails, I’ve sometimes had to talk to actual French humans, and worse, even to some employees of the SNCF, the national train company.
While they’re generally efficient and unfriendly in that typical best-you-can-hope-for class of French customer service, if anything goes wrong they can be bizarre, rude and aggravating.
All while putting you through dysfunction that leaves you wondering if the term kafkaesque has a French translation (answer: yes, kafkaïen).
So let’s have a little talk about the basic French terms that can help you with the tougher parts of train rides in France, and get you straight to enjoying the paysage (landscape) whizzing by the window.
This article is appropriate for those who are just starting out in the language as well as those who have a fair degree of mastery but want to make sure they have all the right words for a trip. You should of course also have some basic French pleasantries for travel and might want some food and drink vocabulary.
Here we’ll go through the vocabulary you need to book your trip, find your seat and know what to say once you’re on the train itself.
Why Learn French Train Vocabulary?
As you’ll see later in this post, many of the train ticketing websites also have English versions. In any event, you can typically get by with just English almost anywhere in Europe.
But even if you can get by with English, knowing these French terms will make your trip much smoother. You won’t get lost or confused so easily, and you’ll be equipped to handle all the little frustrations inherent to the French train system.
I also encourage you to speak every word of French you can when you climb on board. Doing so will lead to a much richer experience. It’s what sets you apart from any old tourist. It’ll also reinforce the vocabulary you learned—actually using words in their proper context is the very best thing for memory.
In fact, that’s the premise behind FluentU.
Check out the FluentU free trial, and you can prep for your upcoming trip with authentic videos including a cute little promo from the SNCF, followed by a famous YouTuber’s less-than-complimentary take on SNCF travel.
French Train Travel Vocabulary for Navigating the Rails Like a Native
Types of French Trains
The French train network is extensive and a true pleasure to use when things go right. You can go between most major cities via TGV, France’s famous fast trains.
A bit slower are the regular Intercités long-distance lines. Smaller towns are served by the regional express service TER, and there’s a cheap high-speed option called Ouigo, which is less comfortable and less conveniently located sometimes, but meant to compete in price with budget airlines.
Buying Tickets for French Trains
Tickets for French trains can be bought in person at SNCF shops or in train stations.
You can also get tickets online via the national train company’s Voyages-SNCF website, but know that it’s often dysfunctional, particularly for users ordering from other countries or those using non-French credit cards. Seat 61 has a long, useful guide to using the site in English from abroad while trying to avoid being redirected to subsidiaries that may charge you more for fewer options.
If you’re trying to avoid those problems by purchasing on the French version of the site, or if you’re buying your ticket in person, here’s some of the vocabulary you’ll want to know:
départ (departure point)
arrivée (arrival point)
aller (outward journey)
retour (return journey)
gare (train station)
toutes gares (all stations)
For example, choosing this option for a trip to Paris allows you to see route options going to any station in Paris.
trajets directs (direct routes, i.e. no changing trains)
1ère classe (first class)
2ème classe (second class)
calendrier des prix (a price calendar)
This is helpful if you want to find which day would be cheapest to travel on.
carte de réduction (reduced fare card)
These are optional cards for certain groups like young people and old people that can be purchased and may be worthwhile if you travel frequently on French trains.
15h53 (3:53 p.m.)
The above is an example of the 24-hour clock (“military time” for Americans and Canadians) that you’ll encounter in France, with an “h” (for heure, hour) where we would put a colon.
bus, car (bus)
Both words mean bus. The train site also shows bus options for your route.
choisir cet aller (choose this outward journey)
détails du voyage (trip details)
Veuillez démarrer une nouvelle réservation. (Please start over again with your reservation.)
The website punishes you with this phrase if you take too long to consider your options or if it just decides to inflict other errors.
Il n’y a plus de place au tarif sélectionné. (There are no longer tickets available at the selected price.)
This error message pops up very frequently right after you select a trip price that seems too good to be true. You’ll be asked to accept a much higher price or start over.
voiture (train car)
This will be followed by the number.
Other train ticketing websites for France include the more functional private platforms Trainline.eu and Loco2.com. As I was browsing the SNCF website to write this, it gave so many fatal errors that I’d have switched to one of the private options if I was looking to buy right now—though often you’ll succeed on SNCF without much fuss.
If you wish to publicly share your experiences concerning the SNCF staff or ticketing websites, you can Tweet to @SNCF or @GroupeSNCF. I’ve done so a few times over the years, and they don’t seem to care very much, but a source that I have working deep in the belly of the beast assures me that Tweeting is the best you can do to try to help draw attention and reform its practices.
The French You Need for Finding Your Seat
You have your ticket. You’re in the station. Here’s the vocabulary that’ll be useful for finding your seat, as well as validating your ticket if necessary. You’ll also want to know your French numbers if you have to ask people about a seat or train number!
grandes lignes (main lines)
Follow such signs to the main long-distance trains.
départs banlieue (suburban departures)
RER (Paris’ suburban train system)
voie (train track)
billet cartonné (traditional printed ticket)
billet à composter avant l’accès au train (ticket must be validated before boarding the train)
You’ll stick the end of your billet cartonné into a little slot at the ticket validation machine and hear a satisfying crunch of numbers being printed on your ticket. You then withdraw it and board.
confirmation E-billet (confirmation of E-ticket)
These don’t need to be validated but you should carry a copy.
Est-ce que c’est le train pour Nantes/Paris/Barcelone? (Is this the train to Nantes/Paris/Barcelona?)
It’s always wise to double-check and make sure that you’re on the correct train, even if you think you’ve done everything flawlessly!
Words and Phrases for French Train Travel
Comfortably seated on a train and enjoying the French scenery? That doesn’t mean you should stop using your French!
Here’s some of the vocabulary you might want once you’re on board:
contrôleur (ticket checker)
arrêt (a stop)
voiture-bar (the café/bar car on the train)
Even train croissants will be better than any croissant you’ve ever had outside of France.
formule (a meal deal offered)
For example, a special price when certain foods and drinks are purchased together.
croque monsieur (a grilled cheese sandwich, but better—with ham)
pause salée (the SNCF’s salty snack offer of nuts and an alcoholic drink)
pause sucrée (the SNCF’s sweet snack offer)
Muffins and a hot drink, for example.
Ça va ? (Is it going okay?)
Want to strike up a conversation with a French person in the train bar? My favorite opener in French is this classic.
A French person in an untalkative mood will simply respond, Non (no). A more friendly one will launch into a rant about whatever specifically isn’t going well (the SNCF itself is always a good subject for strangers in such a context).
Ready to hit the rails in French? With any luck, you’ll have some great memories (rolling hills, whizzing past cars on the highway beside you at twice their speed or a glass of wine in the train bar and a heartfelt conversation with a stranger, who like you, has a few bones to pick with the SNCF…)
Mose Hayward writes tips on European travel, including how to deal with using an American credit card to purchase French train tickets.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn French with real-world videos.