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Buying European Railway Tickets – Part 1

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Trains are a great way to get around Europe. Whether for long-haul city-to-city trips, day trips from a base city, or metros getting around within a city. European trains are faster and more frequent that anything we’re used to here in the U.S. or Canada.

Lots of visitors to Europe  opt for a railpass that gives them unlimited train travel: consecutive passes that allow travel on every day during the pass’ period of validity, or “flex” passes that allow travel on a set number of days within a one-month or two-month period. Passes range from Global covering travel in all 28 participating countries down to passes covering only a region within one country. If a railpass meets your needs, you must buy most before you leave home. RaiEurope  is the leading source of railpasses in the U.S. and Canada; it enjoys a semi-official relationship with European railroads. But ACP Rail, Euro Railways, Railpass and RailSaver  also feature the full spectrum of passes. And, of course, most travel agencies, both bricks-and-mortar and online—can get you the railpass you need.

But railpasses don’t work well for all European visitors who want to travel by train, at least part of the time. Consecutive passes work best if you want to move around frequently over large distances, and flex passes are good for taking long trips on the limited days you can travel. For frequent, short day trips in and out of major cities, individual train tickets are often more economical. And many national rail systems offer discounts on individual tickets that you don’t find with railpasses.

You can buy individual tickets on major European railways online, through their local websites. These websites also display special deals and discounts. And, for some European countries, you can buy tickets with a U.S. credit or debit card, download the ticket, and either print it or load it onto your smartphone or tablet. Here’s our guide to those websites for the five countries where you’re most likely to want to take a train.

[For part 2 of this special report, covering Italy, Switzerland and Germany, see http://www.rail-guru.com/?p=842]

UK

The extensive UK passenger rail system is operated entirely by some 28 different private companies holding franchises to use limited portions of the nationalized track and station system. Fortunately, you don’t have to know which company can take you from, say, London to Stratford upon Avon. Several websites allow you to enter your origination and destination points and the site displays the best routing—including different operators, when appropriate.

The UK has only one true high-speed corridor: London to the Chunnel entrance, used by Eurostar trains to Brussels and Paris and by Southeast express trains from London to Canterbury, Dover and other coastal towns. But conventional express trains on the main trunk lines, from London to Edinburgh, Glasgow and “the West” cruise along at some 125 miles per hour.

National Rail Enquiries seems to enjoy semi-official status, but Raileasy also lists all the options. Both can direct you to schedules and the lowest fares; I especially like Raileasy because you can enter “London mainline stations” as your origin, while with National Rail Enquiries you have to enter an individual station.

Open Access operators are just beginning to become important in the UK. The two biggest systems are Grand Central and Hull Trains, both of which run from London/King’s Cross to the north. The fare finder on National Rail seems to post these operators’ schedules and fares.

Fare Structure

Like most European railway systems, the UK operators generally emulate airlines in pricing tickets on a capacity-controlled and restricted basis. On a day trip from London to Stratford-upon-Avon, for example, prices for a one-way ticket range from £6 to £51.20. The lowest fares are for nonrefundable advance-purchase tickets valid only on a specific scheduled train; the top prices are for refundable tickets valid on any trains at any time.

Discounts

Access to discounts on individual tickets in the UK requires purchase of Railcards, valid for a full year and obtained in advance. Among the cards most likely to interest North American visitors:

  • Two Together: Two named adults, traveling together, get 1/3 off virtually all tickets, including advance fares and first class, provided you start travel after 9:30 a.m. weekdays and any time weekends. Cost: £30 covering both travelers.
  • 16-25: Travelers age 16-25 get 1/3 off virtually all tickets; the card is also available to full-time students up to age 26. Cost: £30.
  • Family & Friends: Up to four adults get 1/3 off regular adult fares and 60 percent off children’ fares for up to four children, for many but not all tickets. Cost: £30.
  • Senior: Travelers age 60 or over get 1/3 off most tickets for a year. Cost: £30.

Although the Railcards website provides for online purchase, as far as I can tell, the only way for North Americans to buy is after you arrive in the UK: Online purchase requires a credit or debit card from a UK bank and a UK mailing address in addition to all the other stuff. That means you can’t buy the card before you start your trip. However, also as far as I can tell, you can still buy a discounted advance-purchase ticket in advance, online, and arrange to claim it at a station upon arrival, so long as you buy your Railcard before you claim the ticket.

Buying Tickets Online

You can buy individual train tickets online through the National Rail website, which automatically directs your inquiry to the operating company that serves the route and schedule you select. Some private operators support e-ticketing and others do not. Operators do not mail tickets outside the UK, so if you can’t do an e-ticket, you arrange to pick up your ticket at the station where your trip originates (or some other station if you prefer). Unfortunately, for some mysteriously British reason, you can’t pick up your ordinary train ticket at Heathrow, but you can pick up ordinary train tickets at Gatwick, Luton and Stansted (AE, MC, V). All three airport express services—Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted—issue e-tickets.

France

Currently, almost all the internal action is with the national rail system, SNCF and affiliated cross-border operators Eurostar (the Chunnel train), Elipsos (Spain), Lyria (Switzerland), Thalys (Belgium, Netherlands and Germany), and Thello (Italy). Paris is connected to most other big cities either by TGV high-speed trains or by hybrid TGV-standard services, with several important planned TGV expansions coming online in a few years. On other routes, SNCF operates regional trains that, by US standards, are quite fast and frequent.

So far, independent open-access operators have not become important in France. But France does have a handful of small private regional lines, some narrow-gauge that serve small markets.

Fare Structure

As in the UK, French rail fares depend on how far in advance you buy and how many restrictions you are able to accept. Fares for TGV and named cross-border trips are typically higher and require that travelers pay for advance seat reservations.

Discounts

The SNCF website includes a “Special Deals” link that highlights current promotions along with 90-day advance-purchase “prems.” However, for year-round discounts, SNCF relies on railcards. Among the cards most useful for North American travelers:

  • Jeune 12-17 and Jeune 18-27 Railcards, 50 euros per year, gives young travelers 25 percent discounts on all trains, 50 percent discounts off-peak on trains that do not require reservations, up to 60 percent discounts on TGV trains with advance booking, and access to other deals.
  • Weekend Railcards (75 euros per year) for travelers of any age give 25 percent discounts on all trains and discounts up to 50 percent on TGVs and regional trains at off-peak times.
  • Senior+ Railcard (63 euros per year) gives travelers age 60 or over 25 percent discounts on all trains with no restrictions, discounts of 40 percent on first class travel on all TGV and intercity trains, up to 50 percent discounts on TGV and intercity trains with advance purchase, and 50 percent discounts on intercity and regional off-peak trains.

As with UK railroads, SNCF does not provide for online purchase of Railcards from the U.S. or Canada. However, it appears that you can buy a ticket in advance at the Railcard price, buy the railcard on arrival, then show the railcard on the train.

Ouigo

In 2013, SNCF launched Ouigo (say “we go”), a “low fare” high-speed train service that emulates the principles of low-fare airlines. So far Ouigo serves two corridors: Paris to Marseille or Montpellier) and Nantes or Rennes to Tourcoing, with only a few trains that go from Tourcoing to Marseille/Montpellier. But the experiment seems successful, so Ouigo is looking at further expansion.

Ouigo sells tickets only online or through a mobile app, at least four hours before departure. Seating density is higher than on the TGV, with no first class or dining cars at all and it charges extra for any baggage larger than 10x14x22 inches. Also, it uses secondary stations Marne le Valee (Disneyland) for Paris, Tourcoing for Lille and Lyon St. Exupery (airport) for most Lyon stops. Initially, a few seats for all trains start at 10 euros, but even the highest fares are lower than TGV fares, Except for the lack of frills and extra fees, Ouigo trains are the same high speed units as TGVs. Although you can find links to Ouigo on the SNCF website, you find more information going to Ouigo.

Buying Tickets Online

You can buy individual train tickets online through the SNCF website, which also posts Ouigo options. E-tickets are available for most SNCF train trips. The online buying page asks if you’re a youth or a senior, but when I checked I didn’t find any fare differences. One attractive option is you can upgrade some discounted advance-purchase fares to first class for very little extra: 38 euros to 45 euros on a Paris-Lyon trip in one example.

[For part 2 of this special report, covering Italy, Switzerland and Germany, see http://www.rail-guru.com/?p=842]

Ed Perkins, editor

For more travel tips from Ed Perkins, see our companion site Ed on Travel

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