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Travel By Train Questions - Spain & France

Hi!
We are a family of four who will be spending three weeks in Spain / France in July / August. The plan is four cities: San Sebastian, Barcelona, Sarlat-le-Caneda and finishing in Paris.

I think we will travel by train between all cities. From Barcelona to Sarlat will be especially long but less stressful than driving.
I am using Rick Steve's Rail Europe site to learn more about the train travel.

I have two main questions:

1) Should we go ahead and get a pass for this kind of train travel? Will it cover other transportation besides train travel between these four cities? Does it cover all trains between these four cities even if they are different carriers??

2) For the trip from Barcelona to Sarlat - it is three different transfers. Is it safe to assume that we catch the next train or bus in the same place as where we get off even if they are different carriers? I can't tell one way or the other from the website. Maybe that's because it's a given, but I didn't want to assume.

Thank you!!

Posted by
2516 posts

Rather than the Rail Europe site, try looking at https://www.seat61.com/ instead. I've found his advice for train travel all over Europe to be invaluable. Also look at his advice about Eurail passes vs point to point tickets.

Posted by
2035 posts

I would think long and hard before buying four Eurail passes. Rail Europe is probably the most expensive website there is for buying point-to-point tickets, so compare the cost of point-to-tickets to the cost of passes on another website. I like trainline - they charge a small handling fee, but it is very user-friendly.

Don't assume that your next train or bus will depart from the same station where you arrived - especially in larger cities.

I looked at the trip from Barcelona to Sarlat on rome2rio.com. This is a great website for planning a trip - but I much prefer using it as an app on my phone. That's a pretty long train ride, have you considered breaking up the trip by spending a night or two in Toulouse?

https://www.thetrainline.com/

https://www.rome2rio.com/

Posted by
17099 posts

Is there a reason you must go first to San Sebastian and then to Barcelona? The trip to Sarlat le Caneda would be faster from San Sebastian.

I'm sorry, but I haven't made any of the transfers you plan to make so I cannot say for sure, but if the trips are all by train (not bus), I believe you'll just make the transfers in the same building. Last summer at least one of the railway lines into Sarlat was being repaired (I assume), and I had a make part of the trip to Sarlat by bus. The bus left from right in front of the train station.

If you plan to pin your itinerary down well in advance (and you really need to do that since you're hitting some highly popular places during peak season), is there any reason you cannot also buy your train tickets well ahead of time? Rail tickets bought shortly after they go on sale will be a lot cheaper than a rail pass.

Some of your travel within the Dordogne (if you make side-trips from Sarlat) might be by bus. Unless the buses are run by SNCF (replacing trains), a rail pass will not cover the buses. It also will not cover city transportation in Barcelona, San Sebastian or Paris (except maybe the RER in Paris--I'm not sure).

Edited to add: I've used Rome2Rio a great deal, and I've found it to be extremely unreliable as to fares, travel times and frequencies. I have not noticed problems with the transfer points it identifies or with the mere existence of the modes of transportation it suggests. But you cannot use it reliably to decide whether a bus will be faster than a train (if both exist) or how long a trip will take. What you can do is keep clicking through on Rome2Rio.com until it gives you the name of the transportation company (bus or train) running the service and go to that company's website for accurate information. Usually Rome2Rio gives you a link you can click on.

Posted by
7 posts

Thanks for the comments so far! Our flights are already booked and have us flying into Bilbao so we are stuck starting in San Sebastian. When I was first researching the trip, it wasn't clear to me that it would be easier to get to Sarlat from San Sebastian (it looked like travel time was the same from either San Sebastian or Barcelona).

I'm not sure I have the time to book through individual carrier sites. I am fine booking tickets in advance, but really need one central website on which to do this. I wasn't sure if it was advisable to book in advance but, if it is, I certainly will do so!

Posted by
2035 posts

I've used Rome2Rio a great deal, and I've found it to be extremely unreliable as to fares, travel times and frequencies. I have not noticed problems with the transfer points it identifies or with the mere existence of the modes of transportation it suggests.

I have never used it for anything but a high level view of routes and transfer points, and have found it to be extremely useful for that purpose.

Posted by
16791 posts

Before you click through to Rail Europe, I recommend reading more pages of Rick Steves own related content. See my more specific response on your other, parallel thread.

Posted by
17099 posts

I can understand wanting to use a single website to buy train tickets. In that case, I'd use trainline.com. There will be a service charge, but it is not terribly large. And you should be offered all the possible trains. RailEurope sometimes doesn't make all the options available (often omitting the less expensive ones), and it was often far more expensive than alternative sources.

Posted by
7 posts

This is all super helpful - thanks so much!! I checked out seat61 and trainline and found a better way to get from Barcelona to Bordeaux. There is 2-hour TGV from Barcelona to Narbonne that I learned about on seat61 that was not coming up on the other sites or even on trainline when you put in Sarlat instead of Bordeaux. I could see going to Bordeaux and then maybe doing an overnight in Bordeaux, then renting a car the next morning to drive to Sarlat? I spent a summer abroad in Bordeaux so it would be fun to go back. But then it cuts down the time we have in Sarlat, so I'm not sure. I will have to think on this!

Posted by
7 posts

How far in advance is it recommended to book the train tickets? I assume I can't book now for August. It seems like booking too early could be risky because times and routes could be altered. Is 2 months the right amount of time for advance booking? 1 month?

Posted by
17099 posts

To be sure of getting the cheapest (non-refundable/non-changeable) tickets on the segments of your trip that involve fast trains (AVE, etc. in Spain; TGV in France), you should buy your tickets soon after they go on sale--but not before you're certain of your itinerary, of course. The seat61 website provides info on the approximate timing of ticket sales in each country. I believe SNCF (France) is a bit more consistent in its on-sale dates than Renfe (Spain); you may need to check repeatedly.

If you wait too long, other passengers will have snapped up all the cheap tickets and you'll be stuck paying more--sometimes a lot more.

Posted by
5379 posts

What do you plan to see from Sarlat? Might be advisable to rent a car for a few days to explore nearby towns, prehistoric cave sites.

Posted by
3455 posts

You said you are landing in Bilbao. Good choice of airport and destination. But no mention of visiting the city itself, which is well worth a couple of days for its art museums (not just the famous one), industrial heritage and food.