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Best Budget Transportation Options in France

Affordable train travel in France on bullet trains.
Bullet trains in France are a great option.

Cheap transportation these days requires research to pick among the best offers and avoid hidden expenses.

Savings Are in the Air in France

Free competition in the European Union has paved the way for budget airlines, so flying may be the cheapest way of getting to and around France. However, buyer beware! Ryanair has invented a whole host of additional fees for "services" that are not included — such as checking in a suitcase. Furthermore, Ryanair and certain other budget airlines often fly to smaller airports while advertising big city names. For its flights to Paris, the Beauvais airport is, in fact, 50 miles from the capital.

Although I use the term budget airline, the border between budget and ordinary airlines is increasingly blurred since traditional airlines have had to adjust their European fares to compete. Therefore, you may fool yourself by searching only for "budget" airlines. If you're overwhelmed by the choice of airlines, check the website for the airport to which you are flying and note their list of airlines and connections. According to European regulations, you may be compensated for delays, overbooking, and lost baggage. Know your rights before traveling and claim them if you're entitled to them. Volunteering not to travel on an overbooked flight but waiting for the next one could boost your travel budget.

Take High-Speed Trains in France

You can avoid overpaying for train travel in France with the discount options available. High-speed trains such as TGV, Thalys, and Eurostar compete well with air prices. Take advantage of the cheap but non-refundable "PREMS" tickets that are even cheaper if you print them online and the IdTGV service targeted at cybertravelers. You may even get a first-class seat cheaper than second-class. If you are using a PREMS ticket, you must show a photo ID with your train ticket, and all your details must match the details printed on the ticket. If a train arrives more than 30 minutes late, you may receive compensation through a voucher. Ask at the arrival station in case of a delay. However, you may be back home before you get the voucher, as it is issued by a national office. Find out if you are entitled to any student, youth, senior, large-family, or other reductions, and check if an Interrail pass suits you. Note that trains in France can only be booked three months in advance. In case a strike results in canceling your train, you will usually be entitled to a full refund. Remember to composter (validate) your ticket before you board the train (except for a PREMS ticket). It doesn't mean throwing it into a compost heap but getting it stamped by one of the red or yellow machines at the entry to the platform.

Get on a French Bus

Use shuttles and other buses when available. The French taxpayer pays for some of your vacation, subsidized by the public, as are the trains. Be clear that a car in French is a tourist bus, not a car. Finding information can take time and effort. Airport sites usually have shuttle information. Public transport is managed by a conseil général or a conseil régional, so these council websites often offer bus information.

Cars and Driving in France

Driving a car is never cheap in France, but if you do, here are some ideas: Most French freeways are inaccessible but toll roads. Online maps can calculate itineraries without toll roads. Yet, these are often inconvenient, and the accident risks increase outside of freeways. Fuel is cheaper on freeways and at large shopping malls like Auchan, Carrefour, Géant/Casino, and Leclerc. Elf often matches their prices, though. Plan to leave the freeway near cities where you'll find shopping malls with cheap gas stations in the suburbs. Fuel is cheapest around cities where there is most competition. They calculate an increased price in the countryside, so it is not worth using the extra fuel to drive further to the closest shopping mall. Fill up when you pass the malls, even if you still have fuel left. Some GPS sites have lists of all gas stations.

Gone are the days when you could drink a bottle of wine, then speed down the road and risk no more than a polite police officer suggesting that you calm down. French roads are now littered with speed cameras, and police are instructed to enforce a zero-tolerance policy. Their equipment automatically applies a 5 km/h margin for speeds up to 100 km/h and 5% after that. Nonetheless, above that, you may be fined for driving just 1 km/h beyond the speed limit. However, most cars have speedometers that show your current driving speed at about 5% greater than your actual speed, so there is no need to become obsessed about your driving speed. If you use GPS, it should show you your exact speed and warn about fixed-speed cameras — but beware that there are mobile cameras, too!

French roads have default speed limits that apply unless otherwise indicated. Know and respect them, bearing in mind that any junction automatically reinstates the default limit. During rain, speed limits are lower. Beware of specific parking regulations, such as the zone bleue in which you must display a particular disque with arrival and departure times on the windscreen. The spaces are usually marked with blue paint, but not always.

French Urban Transport

Paris and Marseilles now have systems of public bicycles for hire at stands throughout the cities. If you use public transport such as the metro, find out if a weekly or daily ticket is cheaper than a single ticket. The weekly (Monday-Sunday) Passe Navigo may suit you in Paris, but it requires a small photo about 1" x 1". The Paris Visite card is more flexible for short-term visits of 1,2,3, and 5 days and can be purchased at the RATP stations.

Taxis and Other Private Road Transportation

Anyone transporting others for money must have a transport license, and they must carry it in the car. If you're afraid of being taken for a ride, you can verify online that a company is licensed before booking. A taxi must also have a taxi license. The fees are regulated by decree, and the trip is metered. Uber operates in Paris, but prices are often variable and drivers may not speak English. Other transport companies not running scheduled services can set their own charges. Be sure to get a firm quote in advance.

Plan, Plan, and Plan

By doing your homework before traveling to France, you will save money and avoid missing any vacation time trying to figure out how it all works. Bon voyage!

For More Information

Air Websites Worth a Visit

See our picks for Best Transportation Websites for a list of cheap airlines and airfare search engines.

Some Good Train Websites

The national train company is called SNCF

SNCF: General SNCF site, links to other SNCF sites including highspeed TGV trains.

Use Eurail and many other flexible train passes for use in France and Europe.


Eurolines France: Private company for long-term bus travel in France, with over 600 destinations.

Cars My preferred online map. Association of French freeway companies.

Urban Transport

RATP: Public transport in the Paris region. Official site.

Vélib' Métropole public hire bikes in Paris. Passes available to share bikes around the city.

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Budget Travel in France
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Budget Travel in France: An Insider's Tips
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