How to take your bike on holiday to France by rail
A cycling holiday in France ticks all the right boxes: gorgeous scenery, charming towns and villages, increasing numbers of well-marked routes and not forgetting the fantastic food and drink. Of course, the other advantage for UK tourists is that it is feasible to take your own tried and tested bike with you without even having to take it apart.
In order to do this though you will need to be organised and plan ahead and there will be some additional costs (although you obviously won’t have to rent a bike when you get to the other end).
Whilst recent changes to the rules regarding the size of ‘suitcases’ have made it harder to take dismantled bikes on Eurostar (for free), there are still spaces to take complete bikes on most Eurostar trains (for a fee) which can be reserved in advance. Being dropped off in central Paris will be the best bet for most onward travel – as it remains the centre of the French railway network – but it is worth checking connections from the other Eurostar hub of Lille, as it can throw up some good alternatives.
Unless you are intending to cycle directly from Paris or Lille, your next step will be to catch a domestic train. Thanks in part to the lobbying of our ECF's member organisations in France, the national rail operator, SNCF, has been increasing the provision of cycle carriage on their trains and many now provide some space for complete bicycles and not always for a fee. SNCF have also recently announced that for the first time spaces will be included in their double-decker high-speed TGV trains, as part of the next round of refurbishments due to start later this year.
The move reflects the increasing numbers of people that take their bike on trains in France and the wider growth in cycling tourism amongst both their domestic and overseas markets. In 2012, the single deck TGVs carried nearly 40,000 cyclists, a figure up 10% on 2011, and it is estimated that cycle tourism now contributes €7.49 billion to the French economy every year.
The difficulty for overseas travellers however, remains making reservations for your bike. Although it is possible to reserve your seat online from the comfort of your own home, you cannot book a bike on the same train at the same time. Instead you should make your reservations with both Eurostar and the SNCF by phone.
Providing online booking services for bicycles is one of a number of issues that we have been raising with rail operators at the European level. Despite the fact that we are hindered somewhat by the rather weak wording of the relevant European legislation, it is pleasing to see progress now being made in introducing measures designed to encourage the carriage of bicycles in many parts of the continent. In Germany for example, our Member organisation ADFC have successfully lobbied Deutsche Bahn to include spaces for 8 bikes in the next generation of IC trains.
Back to France though, and SNCF advise that booking your bike is currently possible through the Rail Europe call centre in the UK, which can be reached on 08448 484 064. Alternatively you can visit their Travel Centre in London (more details here). Be aware that the bicycle reservation has to be made at the same time of purchase of the main travel ticket. The good news is that SNCF do have plans to introduce online booking in the future. We have been informed that the booking system is going to be tested on the domestic version of their website next year and, all being well, it will then be extended to cover the European markets.
To make a reservation in advance on Eurostar call 0844 822 5822 or visit the EuroDespatch Centre at St Pancras International. In this case you will need to have bought your ticket already - apparently if there isn't enough luggage space in the hold on your particular train, you can change your bike booking to travel with it on another Eurostar train.
One final point, as there are only limited numbers of spaces for complete bikes on each train, you will need to be flexible if travelling with a group, which may possibly involve splitting your party up over two or more trains. Europe’s rail operators are starting to realise the benefits of making things easier for cycle tourists to use their services and hopefully the numbers of spaces given over to bicycles will continue to increase in the years to come. We’ll certainly continue to push for them to do so!
There is lots of useful information on the SNCF website in English, including how to make a reservation for your bike. As you will see, your options are widened even further if you have a folding bike or you are willing to dismantle your bike and place it in a cycle bag measuring no more than 120 x 90cm.
Please note that Eurostar’s allowances are not so generous and you should consult their website for the latest information on their booking requirements.
Ed Lancaster has worked for the European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF) on cycle tourism and regional policy for the past two years. Before moving to Brussels he worked for various local authorities in the South East of England as a town planner and he remains a member of the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI).