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Ten years ago I travelled around Europe for the first time and in some countries I was very frustrated by high cost of trains and lack of alternatives to them.

I remember being in Cannes with a friend who had tons of money. I had already spent most of my inheritance despite trying to keep costs as low as possible.

We wanted to do something vaguely like Cannes - Avignon - Lyon - Dijon - Paris (I can't remember exactly any more).

But it seemed that each hop in back-then prices on the TGV was about 50 euro whereas we could go straight to Paris for something like 100 euro.

Furthermore, unlike Germany which I was used to travelling around in by then, there seemed to be no cheaper options for slower trains. I always chose the slowest train because I was never in a hurry and enjoyed the scenery. But in France there was no such option.

In other countries I knew how to travel in, like Australia or Canada or Mexico or would take a long distance bus. But as covered by another question, there don't seem to be any long distance buses in France.

So this lone option of the TGV made it at least double the price and I had already blown some money on trains from Monaco to Nice to Cannes.

We argued and debated and decided it would be worth the gamble to take a train to Marseilles where we expected we would have a lot more options than in Cannes. But when we got there we found it bigger and busier but with the same expensive TGVs and still no other cheaper slower options.

We gave up and just went straight to Paris very grumpy. To this day I have been put off trying to travel around France for the same reason.

So enough whiny anecdotes and on with the actual question: Were we doing it wrong? Are there ways to visit all these places without blowing the budget on TGV tickets? Is there any other mode of long-distance overland travel within France? (No flying please, I want to go on roads or tracks through the countryside.)

Oh and just to make it difficult, I like to travel with no plans. So I can't buy passes or book tickets months ahead and I'm too old for student specials.

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One thing that wasn't mentioned is ride sharing or “covoiturage”. Might be an option. I also believe long distance buses are beginning to appear. –  Annoyed Nov 10 '13 at 19:02
    
@Annoyed: It's worth submitting that as an answer. I didn't know about it when I was in France a decade ago but I did know about the German equivalent. In fact it seems everybody knows about German ride sharing, so we should have stuff about French ride sharing too. –  hippietrail Nov 11 '13 at 5:15
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4 Answers

up vote 18 down vote accepted

There are a couple of possibilities.

  • Eurolines operates bus lines between several French cities

  • There are slower regional trains, the so-called TER. On longer trips it requires changing trains a couple of times. However, I am not sure if on these long trips the TER will be much cheaper than high-speed trains (TGV).

  • Have a look at iDTGV, these are a kind of low-cost TGV. They are a bit cheaper than the regular TGV's.

  • Train tickets are cheaper if they are booked in advance. The earlier you book, the higher will be the chance to find cheaper tickets.

  • If you are flexible, avoid traveling during peak times (e.g. Friday and Sunday evening, early in the morning on the weekdays, ...)

  • You could also have a look at rail passes. It can be cheaper than buying the tickets for each trip separately, but there is no guarantee for that.

  • There are overnight trains running within France. On longer trips that could be a possibility to save some money. Indeed, when traveling on night trains you don't have to pay for accommodation.

  • If the objective is to minimse costs, you can also have a look at flights. Easyjet and Ryanair operate flights within France.

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I'm definitely flexible about times and durations but flying takes all the fun out of it and I'm to flexible to book in advance. I might specifically restrict the question to overland since it's what I meant really. Great answer though! –  hippietrail Nov 9 '11 at 9:42
    
No problem lejohn! I sometimes forget to mention the "no flying" caveat and it seems on travel.SE that 5 tags is often not enough. –  hippietrail Nov 9 '11 at 9:54
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The overnight trains also have sitting place, which are cheaper. The price they advertise on the webpage is for couchette. –  mithy Mar 9 '12 at 13:17
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A rail pass is definitely a cheap way to travel a lot if you don't live in France.

As for Eurolines, normally you can't use it to travel from one city to another in France. You can only use it to travel abroad.

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I am sorry, but your claim about Eurolines is not correct. –  user766 Dec 3 '11 at 10:02
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Now you can (but the change is recent); before, national passenger travel was a monopoly for the SNCF. –  tricasse Sep 29 '12 at 22:23
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Seriously, if you have time and really want to get to know a region, a walking holiday is ideal. I haven't tried it in France, but check this out. Like many western European countries, France has an extensive trail system.

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I think this is actually a great idea for France! –  hippietrail Nov 10 '11 at 0:44
    
One of my dreams is a walking holiday in France. Someday... –  Byron Schmuland Nov 10 '11 at 0:57
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Le john says most of what I would answer. As I have already said in the related question. The key to cheap traveling in Europe is planning all your traveling ahead and online. If you have to revert to counters you are doomed to pay a lot.

If, as you have indicated, you don't want to plan. The options are hitchhiking, cycling, or walking. I have just seen a documentary on the "El camino de compostella". It was amazing, so if time is really not an issue, I would recommend walking one of the routes. According to the documentary you will never walk alone.

In the Netherlands there is foundation call "Vrienden van de fiets" (friends of the bicycle). They publish a paper-based annual listing of addresses, also in france, where cyclists are more then welcome to stay.

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Indeed. We have been giving similar answers to similar questions at the same time ... –  user766 Nov 9 '11 at 9:50
    
I think this is a terrible idea for France, they're making things really hard for backpackers. Fortunately for me I have taken up hitchhiking since that trip I was whining about, though I do find it harder in richer developed countries I never tried it in France yet. +1 for the walking suggestion alone! Maybe I could rollerblade one since I'm not much of a bicycle man? (-: –  hippietrail Nov 9 '11 at 9:52
    
Sorry about the similar questions. After finishing the French buses one I realized I might get answers about alternatives to buses and that I wanted to know that stuff too but it got busy here and it took me so long to ask the second question that some answers already came in on the first one. –  hippietrail Nov 9 '11 at 9:58
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