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Avoid en.voyages-sncf.com/en when buying French train tickets from the USA

Rick,

Let me start by saying I love your books, and I've read a lot of travel guides over the last 35 years of my international travels. But I have to say that your advice on buying advance French rail tickets from home (I live in California) via the en.voyages-sncf.com/en web site was a bit off the mark. For those looking for a good alternative, I suggest this one instead:

www.trainline.eu

The SNCF site initially presented itself to me as being "foreigner friendly". It has one of those Union Jack buttons in the upper right corner to translate to it English and during purchase I could select that prices be displayed in US dollars. But as I proceeded through the purchase, I found it got harder and harder to use.

First, it forced me to enter a French cell phone number as part of identifying myself. I couldn't leave the field blank and it wouldn't accept my US cell number. So I made up a French looking number to get past it. If SNCF is going to try to send me a text, I'm not going to get it.

Second, it wouldn't accept payment on my US credit union VISA card. Even after I called the credit union to tell them to let the purchase through, SNCF wouldn't accept the card. I was able to pay using a US credit union Mastercard, after I called the credit union to preauthorize the purchase. But both required phone calls to the credit union. I spent hours on the phone puzzling through this.

But the absolute worst thing was after the purchase was completed, it told me that the tickets wont be emailed to me until 4 days prior to the train trip. Now in the case of those particular tickets, that's going to be ok for me because I'll still be home 4 days prior to the train trip (I fly to Paris from San Francisco the next day), so if they show up on time I should have time to print them out before I leave.

But how is the traveler to deal with this when they buy tickets for later in their trips? Chase around what ever French town they happen to be in on that 4th day prior for a print shop and somehow get the emailed PDF ticket off their cell phone and into a printer? And who wants to deal with this while on vacation anyway? I'm trying to do everything in advance from home so I can relax and enjoy myself during the trip.

I called the SNCF help line. Nice lady who spoke English well, but no way to get those tickets emailed to me sooner.

In contrast, the www.trainline.eu site doesn't require any French cell numbers, took my VISA card without even a phone call to the issuing credit union and I got the ticket PDF files immediately. They emailed them to me immediately and the PDF files are presented as links to download at the bottom of the purchase receipt page, so I didn't even need to get the email. I've used the www.trainline.eu for all train ticket purchases subsequent to that first one from the SNCF site and all have gone without a hitch.

I've compared the prices presented on www.trainline.eu vs. those on the SNCF site and in all cases, the lowest www.trainline.eu site prices have been a bit less than those on the SNCF site. This was not the case on ricksteves.mytraintravel.com, where the lowest ticket prices were significantly higher than either of the other two (like 3 times as much).

In all fairness, the only reason I know about www.trainline.eu is because it was suggested to me by your excellent staff in response to an emailed query I made to you, so hats off to them for that one.

But you really should update the advice in your book (p. 1103 of Rick Steves France 2018) and on this site. I note that:

https://www.ricksteves.com/travel-tips/transportation/trains/france-rail-passes#ticket-tips

still recommends the usage of the SNCF site for advance ticket purchases.

Thanks,

Jeffrey Haran

Posted by
1814 posts

in all cases, the lowest www.trainline.eu site prices have been a bit less than those on the SNCF site

If that was so, you were lucky with the exchange rate. In principle, trainline can not undercut the prices of SNCF (or DB or any other state railways in Europe) because it is a reseller of those railways. If they did, they would lose access to the databases of these railways and their business would be ruined.

Posted by
7262 posts

you forgot to say avoid raileurope also when buying French train tickets from the USA

Posted by
465 posts

Jeffrey,

Thanks for your suggestion and the heads-up. I'm made a note in my 2017 France book to look carefully at both sites for my trip next summer.

Posted by
15 posts

If that was so, you were lucky with the exchange rate...

I was comparing the quoted prices from the 2 sites at the same time. For instance, a couple days ago I bought 2 train tickets from Beaune to Lyon on 9/27/2018. Same train, both second class. The SNCF price for both was $48.05 (converted to US dollar), the www.trainline.eu price was $46.57.

I suppose they may have had access to different exchange rates, but $48.05 is over 3% higher than $46.57.

That's a pretty wide spread.

Jeffrey Haran

Posted by
16941 posts

I never look at the dollar price, since they are priced in EUR. If you pay in USD, you are entering the realm of Dynamic Currency Conversion.

But to your point, I always use trainline. But I use SNCF to see what the current prices are (in EUR). The direct trains from Beaune to Lyon Gare Part Dieu are all TER trains, and the price is always 27.20 EUR, unless you are 60 or older, in which case the off-peak price is 20.40 EUR. No need to buy in advance. You just buy out of the ticket machine, or at the ticket window. They are unreserved, so there is no advantage to buying on-line in advance.

Posted by
16883 posts

Hi, Jeffrey. I believe the only SNCF ticket type that should be emailed closer to the departure date is for low-cost, low-frills "Ouigo" branded departures, which have different rules than other departures. Tickets can be displayed on SNCF's mobile app. Relevant notes for all 3 web sites are on p. 1107, including the advice that your US credit card is not likely to work.

Posted by
15 posts

the price is always 27.20 EUR, unless you are 60 or older, in which case the off-peak price is 20.40 EUR.

I'm 62 and will be traveling with my 24 year old daughter who may be getting a youth discount because the ticket prices for both of us are the same. But I've found that the train ticket prices I've seen online are generally highly variable (they are just like the g** d*** airlines). Granted the Beaune to Lyon tickets are being priced at a fixed 20.40 EUR, but other of the train tickets I've bought have been all over the place in price. For instance, we are traveling from Paris to Colmar on 9/20/2018. I just entered that into the SNCF site and the prices quoted right now for different times of the day on 9/20 vary from a low of 38.00 EUR to a high 221.40 EUR (same class, same exchangeability). I don't know what I would find at the ticket window for that trip. I'd rather not get a bad surprise and end up having to pay 6 times as much as I could have.

No need to buy in advance. You just buy out of the ticket machine, or at the ticket window.

That's how I've done it in the past, but in the past I've always made hotel reservations and the like as I go through the trip. For this trip, I'm reserving all the hotel stays ahead of time so I don't have to bother with that during the trip and won't stress the prospect of not finding a room and end up sleeping on the sidewalk. And I've been quite surprised at how many of the hotels I've contacted have been all booked even a month ahead of time. For instance none of the lower cost hotels in the Steves France 2018 book had rooms with twin beds available for our 2 day stay in Lyon. I'm glad I'm not doing the just show up and find a room thing I did when I was younger.

But that means I have to travel on the days I intend to travel and am concerned that if I don't buy train tickets ahead of time, I may find them sold out on my travel days. Some of the these hotel reservations are non-refundable so I want to make sure I get to them on the reserved dates.

Jeff Haran

Posted by
4955 posts

I've bought tickets from the SNCF site a few times and never needed to give a French phone number. I have heard great things about TrainLine.eu and have recommended them solely based on overwhelmingly positive feedback about them...but I still prefer to use the "source" website (like SNCF) if possible, first, unless I just can't do it with them.

Looking at the SNCF site again, pretending to buy a ticket...I still don't see where I would be required to enter a French phone number. There is an optional field for it on the last page where I need to give the billing address for the credit card, but it is not "starred" (* obligatory field.

So I'm not quite sure what you mean by that? What part of the process required entering a French phone number?

It is true that sometimes one US credit card won't be accepted on a site like this. Fortunately, I have multiple cards, so it's never too hard to find one that works.

Posted by
15 posts

Hi, Jeffrey. I believe the only SNCF ticket type that should be emailed closer to the departure date is for low-cost, low-frills "Ouigo" branded departures, which have different rules than other departures. Tickets can be displayed on SNCF's mobile app.

Laura, "Ouigo" sounds familiar. I think that's what these tickets were. They were quite a bit cheaper than I feared they might be. 8^)

Can you elaborate on this app a bit? Are you saying that if I install this SNCF app on my phone that I will be able to get the tickets sooner than the 4 days prior? Or does it mean that I will be able to download some sort of ticket to the phone and show it instead of the printed ticket?

I've checked out https://en.oui.sncf/en/mobile/functionalities, its not terribly clear on what exactly the app does.

I'm a bit leery of these phone resident options. High tech tends to fail at the most inopportune times, like when the conductor is looking at you and you have no printed ticket and the phone decides not to work, particularly when you are using your phone in a different country than you bought it. I worked in software development for 42 years before retiring a couple years ago, and as the old saying goes "If you like sausage you shouldn't watch it being made." It's doubly true for computer software in general and triply so for the crud code that makes its way onto phones.

Relevant notes for all 3 web sites are on p. 1107, including the advice that your US credit card is not likely to work.

All the more reason to suggest www.trainline.eu first instead of the SNCF site. The US credit cards work, you get the tickets pronto, the prices are just as good as or better than SNCF and there's none of this silliness about having to enter a French cell phone number that you don't have yet because you aren't in France yet. The book does indeed mention trainline.eu, but its only in passing.

Its up to Rick Steves and Company to decide how they want to advise their readers. All I can do in this forum is present what I've found when I tried to apply what I've read. And my experience is the SNCF site is a major pain in the posterior. I think readers would be better served if they were steered away from the SNCF site and to trainline.eu. Maybe my experience is not typical.

Posted by
15 posts

So I'm not quite sure what you mean by that? What part of the process required entering a French phone number?

I don't know how to copy the contents of the site to this forum, but it was quite demanding of that phone number. I just now selected the same tickets (Paris->Colmar on 9/20) in the SNCF site. I select the 38 EUR tickets. When I hit the Confirm Pay button it takes me to this URL:

https://en.oui.sncf/en/reservation/order#

and in section 3 "Enter your surname, first name and E-mail address" at the bottom it asks for that mobile phone number:

Mobile number * (Ex: 6XXXXXXX)

+33 (0) -space to enter local number-

* obligatory fields

It even says its an "obligatory field" with the asterisk.

I fill in bogus names, birth dates and email addresses for the passengers. I leave the phone number empty and when I hit "Validate and pay" at the bottom it redisplays the page with this error message at the top:

The following field is missing: "Mobile number"

So I try to enter my real cell number (+1 for US international code where the +33 is, followed by my 10 digit US cell number). Now it says:

The following field is not valid: "Mobile number"

It requires a number and it has to look like a French one. Try it yourself.

Maybe this only happens for these OUIGO tickets that Laura mentioned. Maybe it works differently depending on where you are coming from.

Jeff Haran

Posted by
16941 posts

Look on trainline for that 38 EUR train. Ouigo trains are the SNCF version of Ryanair. They don't even sell bottles of water and charge extra for luggage over a certain size. But they do get you from point A to point B as fast as a TGV.

I use trainline for the same reasons you have outlined. Much easier credit card verification. Exact same price, as long as it is in EUR. But Ouigo trains have there own ticketing quircks, as Laura has described.

Posted by
4955 posts

Jeff, you're right, it does ask for and require a phone number if you book an OUIGO ticket.

I entered my phone number with +01 (not +1) for the country code and then my 10 digit US number and it went through just fine. Obviously a bug on the SNCF site.

Posted by
1381 posts

I bought an OUIGO ticket a month or so ago. Don't recall if I needed a phone #, but had no problem entering my US cell # if it did.
I do think you aren't sent a link to the ticket until 4 days before the trip, but didn't see that as a problem. Either I can save it on my cell, or print at hotel if necessary.

Posted by
5 posts

This is a bit off the original topic but since there seem to be a few people who are familiar with French trains I thought I would as my question here. We are arriving at CDG at 10:55 am and are traveling to Bayeux. We have 2 options. Take the 12:48 train from CDG for which the first leg is a TGV. The other option is to go to St Lazare in Paris and take the 3:08 train direct to Bayeux. We are not sure how long it will take to get through customs and collect our luggage, so we are thinking of just winging it and if we get out in time, just going to the train station at CDG and buying the ticket then and if it is too late, just going into Paris on the RER and taking the train from there. In both cases we will not purchase tickets ahead of time. Is this a bad idea?

Posted by
16941 posts

The 12:48 is a TGV to Le Mans, then a TER to Caen, then a TER to Bayeux, getting you there at 17:57. Taking the RER to Gare St Lazare and taking the 15:08 will get you to Bayeux by 17:18, about 45 minute sooner as well as for less money.

Posted by
5 posts

Thanks. Do you think it is Ok to buy tickets day of travel?

Posted by
1080 posts

My experience has been different from poster. I've used the sncf website (now branded as 'oui') several times to buy advance tickets on French trains; it has worked fine. Easy to see all trains, schedules, and prices, easy to buy tix using my US credit card, got tickets immediately via email.

Posted by
4955 posts

My experience has been different from poster. I've used the sncf website (now branded as 'oui') several times to buy advance tickets on French trains; it has worked fine. Easy to see all trains, schedules, and prices, easy to buy tix using my US credit card, got tickets immediately via email.

Me too - but he was trying to buy a OUIGO ticket, which requires a phone number to complete the process - and there is a legitimate bug on the SNCF website where they won't accept "+1" as a legal country code. But "+01" worked for me.

Posted by
28110 posts

What happened was that you ventured into a world not contemplated when the book was written, the super-complicated and many picky rules world of OUIGO, not a normal SNCF train. As said above, they, like RyanAir, make much of the money beyond the extremely low headline price on what they consider extras and normal people consider part of normal service.

Using OUIGO and saving a little will get you there and if you jump through all the hoops will save you a little money. But. Big but. You have to check in exactly 30 minutes prior to departure. You have to sit in the exact seat they put you in. You have to pay extra for every piece of luggage, even carry on depending on size. There is no food available. There is no water available. If they could they would charge you to use the toilet (if one is working). Please don't be surprised when they start charging extras on the day.

There have been discussions on the France Forum about OUIGO.

Posted by
8506 posts

I just stumbled onto the Ouigo website and couldn’t get the info I needed out of it either, and that’s after decades of successfully buying SNCF tickets on sncf.fr. It just wasn’t developed with people in mind who used rotary phones in their youth.

Posted by
15 posts

I entered my phone number with +01 (not +1) for the country code and then my 10 digit US number and it went through just fine. Obviously a bug on the SNCF site.

Good debugging. I just duplicated what you suggested and if I add that extra 0 before the 1 for the USA country code, then it accepts my mobile number too. The question becomes if they attempt to use that phone number to contact me or any other US traveler (like with one of those tickets in a text message that they talk about on the site), will that call/text get through?

I just ran a little experiment. I picked up my US land line phone, dialed 011 for the international call prefix, dialed 1 for USA and then dialed my 10 digit US mobile phone number. After a few rings my cell phone started ringing. I answered it and I could talk to myself over the two phones.

After I hung up I did the same thing, except this time I entered 01 for the USA country code and what I got was a recorded message telling me that the call could not be completed as dialed.

Now I can't know for sure what the SNCF site would do with that extra 0 in the country code when attempting to call me with it, but the simplest thing for it to do would be to just dial all the numbers I entered. In which case, the call would most likely not go through because it would contain the extra 0 (unless the international phone exchange works differently when accessed from France than the US).

Which means most likely the SNCF web site developers never once tested their system with a US phone number because if they had tested it even once they would have found it wouldn't work. Either that or they did test it, found it didn't work and then just punted.

Very sloppy QA.

Posted by
15 posts

Using OUIGO and saving a little will get you there and if you jump through all the hoops will save you a little money.

A little money? On that Paris to Colmar line the OUIGO tickets are about 1/3 the price of the lowest priced of the other tickets and about 1/6 the price of the most expensive other tickets. Maybe you are better off than me, but to me saving 2/3 of the price is more than a little money.

You have to check in exactly 30 minutes prior to departure. You have to sit in the exact seat they put you in. You have to pay extra for every piece of luggage, even carry on depending on size. There is no food available. There is no water available. If they could they would charge you to use the toilet (if one is working).

Indeed, they charged us an extra 10 EUR in total for our full sized bags. The resultant 48 EUR is still way cheaper than all the other tickets advertised. They warned us about being on the platform 30 minutes ahead of time too. Thanks for the warning about the water. I'll bring a water bottle, but I can live without eating for the 2.5 hour duration of the trip. As for the non-working toilet, I guess I'll bring an empty water bottle too, just in case. At 62 I can't hold it for 2.5 hours.

Posted by
4955 posts

Good debugging. I just duplicated what you suggested and if I add that extra 0 before the 1 for the USA country code, then it accepts my mobile number too. The question becomes if they attempt to use that phone number to contact me or any other US traveler (like with one of those tickets in a text message that they talk about on the site), will that call/text get through?

Well, it's true that +01 2125551212 isn't technically a valid phone number. And I suppose you take a tiny chance that if they can't text you at that number, you wouldn't get your tickets...but I'm guessing they would email them to you also.

If you google a little, you'll find that this SNCF site bug has been around a year or two. Sometimes people just enter in a fake number to get to the next screen. I came up with the +01 work-around myself. At least, using +01 instead of a fake phone number would allow you to enter in your real number. if a human at SNCF saw that their machine could not text you, they would be able to correct the phone number (and hey, maybe even report the bug to their developers!).

Posted by
415 posts

I can’t remember which train website required me to enter in a local telephone number. However, I took the advice from some travel forum and I enter in the number of the hotel where I would be staying. That worked fine.

Posted by
15 posts

but I'm guessing they would email them to you also.

I called the SNCF help line and the lady who answered looked up my reservation number and told me they would email me the tickets. She also confirmed they couldn't email them to me until 4 days before the train trip. That's 1 day before I get on the plane for Paris, so if they don't show, I've got 1 already hectic day to try to resolve the problem before I leave.

If you google a little, you'll find that this SNCF site bug has been around a year or two. Sometimes people just enter in a fake number to get to the next screen.

I found the same google droppings. That's why I entered the fake French looking number. 2 years to fix a bug like this? I guess there's a reason Silicon Valley isn't in France. I suppose the food and wine make up for it.

if a human at SNCF saw that their machine could not text you, they would be able to correct the phone number (and hey, maybe even report the bug to their developers!).

Your observation that the bug has persisted for 2 years tells me that there is no such human operator in the picture and all those texts are going into the bit bucket. But if I find I absolutely have to use this site in the future, I'll keep your +01 work-around in mind.

Have you ever actually received a text from them after entering one of these +01 work-around numbers?

When I went to the SNCF site today to try verify that your +01 work-around worked, they popped up a window asking me to complete a customer survey. The first question was how satisfied I was with the experience on a 0 to 10 scale so I selected 0. They then popped up a box for me to say why, so I told them about all the problems in great detail. At which point the site told me I had exceeded their length limit. See no evil.

Posted by
15 posts

However, I took the advice from some travel forum and I enter in the number of the hotel where I would be staying.

The main point of my post was that all these issues that occur with that SNCF site and their OUIGO tickets can be avoided using the www.trainline.eu site instead. These work-arounds are interesting, but to me the easiest solution is to just avoid the SNCF site. I wish I had known that a week ago before I bought my first set of tickets.

It could be that people have problems with www.trainline.eu too, but since this experience with SNCF I've bought several other tickets from trainline and have had no problems and got tickets at good prices.

Posted by
4955 posts

(shrug). Hey, all websites have bugs (I have created a few myself). I don't judge a whole company or their website based on one little glitch. I've used SNCF before and will use them again if need be. No, I've never gotten my tickets by text or even a text message from them by text (I've never used the +01 trick for real or needed to).. It may be they never text international numbers anyway - who knows? They may still not even know about the bug.

There are so many things to worry about in regard to international travel that this one thing would rate pretty low in my book. If you don't receive the email tickets as expected on time, as you would if you didn't get a text, at least you have the customer service number!

Here's a more frustrating bug: checking in online for my Iberia flight home, using Iberia's website. They would not let me check in without a visa number, for a flight that goes on to the US. But...I don't need (or have) a visa number for traveling in Europe. Too bad - can't check in with Iberia without a visa number!!!

I could either have gone to the airport early to wait in line and check in in person - a huge inconvenience - or, as with SNCF, find a work-around, which with Iberia was just to enter a fake visa number. This was also something I found out by googling, another case of a bug known for years but not fixed. I got home with that boarding pass just fine. At least in your case you had many options to buy tickets besides the SNCF website.