U.S. and Canadian agents selling European rail tickets and railpasses generally do a good job of covering the options. But they don’t sell some rail deals offered locally within Europe: “Those products are not designed for the North American market,” as one representative put it. Although those products aren’t “designed” for North Americans, we can still buy them and use them once we arrive.
Several European rail systems sell railcards that provide full-year discounts as high as 60 percent. Rail cards are more useful than railpasses when you plan to take a lot of short trips over a week or more. Most railcards cover all rail travel within the issuing country; some include cross-border services, and most include a few miscellaneous discounts.
Britain: The British rail system offers several National Railcards that can be advantageous to visitors from the U.S. or Canada. All listed railcards are available for use by visitors. Although National Rail provides for online buying, the system will mail railcards only to addresses in the UK. So unless you know someone in the UK who can receive the railcard shipment and forward it to you, you can’t use the discount to buy advance-purchase tickets before you arrive. You can buy Railcards on arrival at any staffed rail station, including stations at UK airports other than Heathrow.
• Network Railcard provides 33% discounts on most standard class rail trips within the “network railcard area,” which includes most of southern England, as far out of London as Kings Lynn, Cambridge, Harwich, Dover (including Canterbury), Brighton, Weymouth, and Exeter, including Gatwick, Heathrow, and Luton airports. Discounts are valid after 10:00 am weekdays and all day during weekends. Discounts are not available on Eurostar, in first class, on advance tickets, and are subject to a £13 minimum on weekdays. One card covers the holder plus up to three accompanying adults. Price £30 (about $45). See more
• Two Together Railcard gives two adults 33 percent off rail fares when they travel together by standard and first class anytime, off-peak and advance fares after 0930 Monday to Friday, and any time at weekends and on Public Holidays. Price £30. (Get more details) A similar Family & Friends railcard gives 33 percent discounts to families up to four adults and four children. Price £30.
• 16-25 Railcard gives travelers age 16 through 25 33 percent off most standard and first class tickets, including airport expresses. The deal is also available to “mature students” over 26 who can document student status. Price £30. See the details
• Senior Railcard gives travelers age 60 or over the usual 33 percent discount on almost all UK rail tickets for travel any time except during peak morning commute trips inside the London and South East area. Price £30. See the details
France: The French rail system SNCF sells two railcards that could be useful to many North American visitors. Although the SNCF provides for online buying, it will not send cards to North American addresses. Instead, you can buy at most rail stations; bring proof of age and one passport-type headshot.
• Carte Jeune, for travelers age 12 – 27. Provides discounts of 25 percent-60 percent on most second class internal train travel, including TGV; price €50 (about $58).
• Carte Senior, for travelers age 60 and over. Provides discounts of 25 percent-50 percent on most second class internal train travel, including TGV, and 40 percent discounts on all first class train travel; price €60 (about $70). See more
Italy: Trenitalia offers two discount cards useful for North American visitors. Buy after arrival at staffed stations. Check the details
• The Green Card (“Carta Verde”) for travelers age 12 to under 25 provides discounts of 10 percent off base fares in all classes on all national trains and 25 percent off on international connections; price €40.
• The Silver Card (“Carta d’Argento”) for travelers age 61 or over provides 15 percent discounts in all classes on all national trains and 25 percent off on international connections; price €30 for travelers 61-74 and free to travelers 75 or over.
Spain: Renfe offers roughly the same mix as SNCF: Annual discount cards for youth and seniors:
• Youth Card for travelers age 14-26 that provides 30 percent discounts on AVE high-speed and other long-distance trains; price €11. See more
• Tarajeta Dorada Card provides discounts to travelers age 60 or over: 40% Monday-Thursday or 25% friday-Sunday on AVE high-speed trains; varying discounts of 25% to 40% on other trains; price €6. See the details
SNCF operates a low-fare service called Ouigo that runs two daily round-trips between the nominal Paris station at Marne la Vallee Chessy (Disneyland Paris) and Marseille and one between Paris and Montpellier. Trains use high-speed TGV equipment but are all second class, with minimal on board service. Fares on most days start at €10 and increase as low-fare buckets fill. Most trains stop only at TGV stations, not downtown. You can reach the Paris station by taking the suburban RER from central Paris or by taking a TGV from the Charles De Gaulle Airport station (for about double the fare to Marsielle). RailEurope does not list Ouigo fares or schedules, but Ouigo’s website does.
— Ed Perkins, editor
For more travel tips from Ed Perkins, see our companion site Ed on Travel