Transit in France: Learn the Related French Vocabulary

There are many ways to get around in France, including bus, bike, and the well-known Paris metro. Like other large cities, Paris has an extensive subterranean train that takes people to all parts of the city, as well as to the city’s outer reaches. When the actress Virginie Ledoyen was getting famous she said she took the metro because it was a way to experience the soul of the city. Other cities in France have similar means of transport and in cities such as Strasbourg there are tramways, which are being revived all over France, after a shift to bus operation in the 1930’s which resulted in their decline.

Introduction About French Transportation

If you would like to travel to different parts of France, you can take one of the trains run by the national train network, the Société nationale des chemins de fer français, or the SNCF, including the Train à Grande Vitesse, or the TGV. If you are seated in the TGV and look out of the window at one spot and let your head swivel while you try keeping your eyes on it, you can get the slightest bit nauseated since the train goes so fast, so keep your eyes forward, if you are sensitive. If you are somewhere like Japan, your trains go at least this fast, so disregard this piece of advice – you already know what to do.

Société nationale des chemins de fer français | Source: Wikipedia

When I lived in Paris, I often took the metro or the bus, which I would take to the Bibliothèque nationale de France while I was working on my Master II. It was the most practical way to get to a random part of the 13e arrondissement nobody ever went to. To pass the time on my way back and forth, I’d memorize poetry. I’m not sure why I thought I needed to memorize Ronsard’s “Je ne veux comparer tes beautez à la lune” (yes, “beautés” was spelled with a z in 1578), but it did make the time pass by and the 25 minute bus ride gave me the time to do this.  

Pierre de Ronsard, French poet. | Source: Wikipedia

To say to friends that I was going to take the bus to the BNF, I’d say “Je vais à la BNF en bus”, because that was the most convenient way for me to get there, but others might say “J’y vais en métro”, or “J’y vais à vélo”. So when do you use “à” and when do you use “en”? According to Le Figaro in a June 2018 article, L’Académie française recommends the following: “réserver la préposition ‘en’ aux véhicules ou aux moyens de transport dans lesquels on peut s’installer, prendre place”. In the same article, we have Claude Duneton, their linguistic authority, explaining that when we talk about “by means of” we can also use en, which is why someone would exclaim about Aladdin: “Il voyage en tapis volant !”

Peniche on the river bank | Credit: Rémi Bertogliati

Although you might hear other ways of expressing these means of transport in everyday speech (there is some confusion over what to use with “vélo”, which was pointed out in the Figaro article), I do think the Académie’s explanation is useful for clarity, so here are some means of transit and their corresponding prepositions:


en autobus, bus by bus
en avion by airplane, plane
en bateau by boat
en car by coach
en fusée by rocket
en luge by toboggan, sledge, sled
en métro by subway
en taxi by taxi, cab
en train by train
en tramway, tram by tram
en voiture by car

That fifth one was for those who would like to talk about space travel, or at least discuss the Superman origin myth.

Here are some more, for navigating narrower paths, pavement, fields, or slopes covered in snow:

à cheval on horseback
à mobylette by moped
à moto by motorbike
à patins by ice skates
à pied on foot
à scooter by scooter
à skis by ski
à vélo by bicycle

That first one was for those who live on a ranch, or at least for discussing how Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kirsten Dunst go out to see the rogue planet headed for Earth in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia.

Of course, you can say “Je vais prendre l’avion” or “Je vais prendre le train” when the emphasis is on the means of transit, but with verbs such as aller or voyager, when you are talking about getting to a place by a certain means, you would use a preposition with the mode of transit to which you refer.        

You’ll need directions to navigate and this is what you might hear if you ask a French-speaker, or French Siri, where to go in order to get somewhere:

à gauche to the left
à droite to the right
tout droit straight ahead
au coin de la rue at the corner, on the corner
de l’autre côte de la rue on the other side of the street
à .... rues .... blocks away
en face de facing
autour de around
à côté de beside
près de near
tout près de very near
loin de far from
à l’intérieur inside
à l’extérieur outside

For rapid transit in France, you will need to purchase a ticket. The Paris metro, by far the oldest subway system in France, having opened in 1900, has many ticket options, from single rides to yearly passes, for which you will need a Passe Navigo that has an identifying photo.

To travel across France, you can take one of the long-distance trains run by the SNCF and use either a paper ticket or store an electronic ticket on your phone. If you do have a paper ticket, make sure and validate it by getting it time-stamped by one of the ticket machines on the platform before boarding the train, or you could be fined. Some trains split at certain cities and head to different destinations, so make sure you are seated in the correct area.        

To travel to London from Paris, you can take the Eurostar, which leaves from the Gare du Nord for a 2 ½ hour trip to London’s St. Pancras International. If you travel by air, you will arrive 5 minutes later than when you left, because of the time difference. E.g., if you leave Roissy at 17.15, you get into Gatwick at 17.20, as the UK is on Greenwich time.        

Eurostar | Source: The Independent

Generally, travel in France is not that difficult at all, and it is good to be familiar with the above terms, as you will probably use a fair number of them while you travel there!

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