Transportation in France: How my travel life has changed since leaving the USA

THIS COULD BE YOU. AND YOU. AND YOU.

Oh the joys of traveling in Europe. Wanna jet off to Lake Como for the weekend? Grab a cheap airfare. Wanna slither down to the south of France and bronze your booty on the côte d’azur? Just hop on a high-speed train. Wanna picnic near the Seine next to your ridiculously tiny Parisian apartment? Just grab your walking shoes, your bike, rent a city scooter, hop on the bus, duck down into the metro or flag a cute Frenchie on his moped…. Let’s just say the options are endless for getting there people!

Due to the ease at which even the most directionally challenged adults like myself can travel around France/Europe, I have given my siblings a very exaggerated image of my jetsetter life. It’s hard to defend my lack of “luxury lifestyle” when I’m visiting Denmark, Sweden, Italy, France and Germany in the span of 6 months and then telling my family I live a pretty average life in Paris.

But I’m here to dish the dirt today friends, because while we could say that I prioritize my fun money for traveling, my jetsetter lifestyle is less drinking champagne onboard Kanye’s private jet and more wondering if RyanAir will charge me for the amount of oxygen I consumed onboard during my low cost flight. But at the end of the day, I do manage to get from point A to point B more efficiently, cheaper and some could argue more comfortably than my fellow compatriots in the home of the free. So let’s explore why that is.

             Air Fare           

I think it’s best to address airplanes first since we, the world, officially passed 4 billion airplane passengers in 2017! #recordbreaker. It’s clearly a form of transportation that’s popular not just among the Frenchies and the Americans, so maybe I should be surprised that my siblings tease me for spending every other weekend in an airport. But even if air travel is incredibly popular in the US (no surprise there since it takes on average 5 days to drive across the entire country) there is still one big difference with France and that’s the price you gotta cough up for the ride.

Yes, it is. Yes, it is.

An average domestic airfare in the US in 2018 was 346 bucks. Considering that this price is at an all-time low, this should give you an impression of how not affordable that would be for anyone outside of the finance or tech industry to be travelling every other weekend by plane. If you can catch a break with a low cost airline in the US like Spirit or Southwest, you’re still counting on something between 110-175 dollars. Definitely more affordable than the going rate, but you’ve got to be flexible about the days and hard core plan in advance.

In France, the average price for a flight staying within Europe in 2018 was 160 dollars. This is on airlines like AirFrance, AirItalia, KLM… airlines like Delta and United. When we start talking about low cost flights, we’re looking at round trip air fares for as low as 50 dollars, if you can be flexible on the days. It’s like the cost of my trip to Target when I only plan on buying a bottle of shampoo and I get overly excited about the dollar spot. So of course, when I see those prices, I’m like well why the hell shouldn’t we do a long weekend in Prague in September and then hit up Portugal for one last beach weekend in October? As long as you’re ready to get charged for your actual body weight as you step on that low cost flight, there’s no reason not to.

TRAINS

Who doesn’t love a good train? It’s like a trip down memory lane to the days when Thomas, the little engine that could, was everyone’s best friend. Well in France, the country may have a love hate relationship with the company that runs the trains (SNCF), but they sure do still count on those little engines like it’s their best friend today. And who can blame them? Trains are convenient (no need to arrive 2 hours before it leaves), comfortable and at times, way more affordable than planes.

There are two types of trains in France, TGV and TER. The TGV are the high-speed trains that whip you from one large French/European city to another at around average speeds of 200 mph. TER trains chooch along at a much slower pace since they connect all the smaller towns in France and don’t run on the high speed railways. TGV trains are fancier with their assigned seats, shotty wifi and plugs. TER have no assigned seats (so get ready to stand if a train is unusually crowded), I’ve never seen wifi and plugs are few and far between. HOWEVER, TER tickets are dirt cheap compared to the TGV tickets and they cost the exact same no matter how far in advance you buy them or what time of day you use them. Example: Robin and I took the TER train round trip from Paris over the weekend 5 days ago. It took us 3.5 hours and we paid 25 dollars. It would have taken us 4 hours to drive by car round trip and we would have paid 50 bucks each in gas and tolls. Sweet deal right?

The TGV is always a sweet deal when it comes to efficiency. When we migrate south to spend time with Robin’s family, we could drive 16 hours round trip or take a 7 hour train. The real downside is if you want to travel at peak hours like a Friday night, over a holidays break, tickets can skyrocket so you need to plan in advance. A good deal for us to get down south would be anything less than 125 dollars round trip. The norm is more like 200 dollars per person, so a car would be significantly cheaper when you split the trip in 2.

My love for trains is a new obsession since I almost never took the train growing up in the states. From time to time we would take the train into Chicago, but it was never the quickest option, nor the most affordable, so it was rare. Like an idiot, I would have told you 2 weeks ago that railroad tracks are pretty non existant in the US. I did some research before I started spreading #fakenews and found out that the US actually has the most abundance of railroad tracks in the world. Say what! We’re just focused on moving freight from one place to another rather than unruly passengers. Which consequently means that the train usually isn’t the most comfortable, efficient or cost friendly way to travel. Fun fact: one railroad line in France has more annual passengers than all the railroads in the entire U S of A. Now that’s just cray cray.  

CARS

So if air travel is reserved for special occasions or the mega-rich, and trains are pretty non-existent, how do Americans get around the massive country they call home? Well it won’t surprise anyone when I say they are using their cars. Europeans are completely aware of car usage in the US since we are massively polluting the world with our preferred form of travel, but there are laws being passed to clean up our mess ASAP, so I won’t get into that right now.

But what I will get into, is how incredibly intense car ownership and usage is in the US. For every 1,000 Americans, 811 of them own cars. 81% is an impressive penetration rate if you ask me, but maybe it’s not so surprising since other forms of transportation aren’t as readily available. Now I live in Paris where car ownership is a lot lower than the rest of France. Having a car in a big city can be more of a pain than a perk. But the French do own cars. It’s more around 47% of the population than 81%, but still. Amost every other Frenchie has a car. So why don’t they use them as much as Americans?

One reason has to be the abundance of other reliable public transportation, but a close second, if not first, has got to be the price of gas. On average, gas is 5.54 dollars per gallon vs 2.50 dollars in the US. So it’s not always cost efficient to grab your car, flip on the radio and drive down the open highway with no real destination in mind. Comfort has also got to play a role because cars are teeny-weeny in France compared to the US and in my personal opinion less comfortable too. It makes sense that since Americans spend so much time in their cars, they would have high expectations for comfort. If you’re used to taking your car on short trips to work and the grocery store, you don’t necessarily need satellite radio and personalized leather seat covers.

PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION

And finally, I couldn’t finish up this article without mentioning public transportation. I have lived in 4 towns in France ranging from 75,000 to 2.5 million people and the infinite number of reliable public transport options were an amazing discovery when I first got here. City bikes, tramways, metros, night buses, electric scooters, city mopeds, city cars… everything is put in place to help people that don’t have a personal form of transportation besides their own two beautiful feet.  

My Public Service Announcement is now done.

I grew up in a town of 150,000 people. There was no tram, no metro, no bikes rentals… not even a bus route that covered the entire city. I know that the US is larger than France. I understand that my hometown has 1/10th of the population of Paris but covers 1.5 times the area of Paris. I know that public transportation costs money and it people don’t use it enough, it’s a loss of taxpayers money. BUT, for the 20% of the population that can’t afford to own a car in the US, they rely on public transportation to work and live and if we don’t start building efficient systems that cater to this 20%, then we’re ignoring a population of our compatriates who need us the most.  If you want to join my “we love public transportation” private group on facebook just reach out. I’m co-founder, president and sole member for the moment 🙂

I hope you all, including my darling siblings, got some insight on how and why my life has gone from cars, cars and more cars, to planes, trains buses and bikes! Thanks to this efficient and cost effective public transportation, I get a lot more opportunities to travel and explore, even if it’s not aboard Kim Kardashian’s private jet….yet.  Don’t hesitate to leave any comments and check out the corresponding video!

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