I’ve been an avid train rider in France for the past 16 years, and frustrated with the error-prone SNCF (official French national railway) websites in their various incarnations for just as long.
There are now two great private alternatives for booking train tickets that cost exactly the same as the official OUI.sncf site (as well as a number of pretty much useless other booking portals.)
We’ve tried all of them, and in this article we’ll detail all of our test results (we checked hundreds of routes). There was one clear overall winner.
The Best Platform for Train Tickets in France
- For simple tickets, Trainline has the same prices as when buying directly from SNCF and unlike other private portals even offers Ouigo (low-cost French train system) tickets.
- For international or complex trips changing trains, Trainline found us much faster routes and cheaper fares than SNCF through its smarter backend tech.
- Everything about Trainline is smoother and easier to use than the SNCF’s site.
- Trainline doesn’t tack on booking fees for most users.
There’s a caveat: Trainline does now charge booking fees for users in some countries outside of Western Europe. If you come up with a booking fee (usually about 3%), you can avoid that by heading over to the competitor Loco2, which doesn’t have booking fees for anyone. However note that Loco2 doesn’t have as extensive coverage (lacks Ouigo).
And neither of these otherwise excellent portals has a “flexible dates” search feature; for that, the official OUI.sncf site is the only search option (though there’s nothing to keep you from coming back to Trainline to actually purchase, especially if you have SNCF website problems).
Update History of This Article
The Advantages of Trainline for Buying Train Tickets for France
After its merger with CaptainTrain in 2016, Trainline became the leading portal offering European train tickets. This means it has more data, experience, and resources to help ensure the best routes, and to make order out of the ensnared and often conflicting European train systems.
Trainline isn’t perfect, but easily beats out the official OUI-sncf site, and also remains well ahead of other private competing portals. Let’s start with the positives.
- The same prices as buying directly from SNCF for simple tickets: Tickets are available for exactly what they would cost total from the French national train company, whatever the train. This is also true for its tickets in Germany, Spain, Eurostar (Paris to London), Italy and more. Trainline takes its cut from the train companies (a commission) rather than charging the customer a surcharge, like some other portals. The exception is if you’re booking from certain countries outside Western Europe, in which case you may see a booking fee, usually of about 3%. (If this applies to you, it can be worth trying Loco2, described below.)
- On routes crossing borders outside of France, you will very likely get cheaper tickets from Trainline than you would with the SNCF or anyone else, because Trainline is able to create combinations with other countries’ ticketing systems directly that SNCF and single national systems can’t offer. We ran a full study of cross-European train ticketing, and Trainline’s prices and routes were the best, by a lot.
- Trainline accepts non-French credit cards, including Visa, Mastercard, Paypal, American Express, and Apple Pay. The SNCF sites sometimes reject foreign credit cards. There is an exception if you’re buying certain budget-train tickets, as Ouigo blocks cards from certain countries from being purchased on any platform, official or private, including Trainline. See the link for a workaround if you have issues.
- Smooth, functional website: This is where Trainline is way ahead of SNCF’s array of sites, which are prone to strange error messages and especially to sending you back to the beginning of the booking process when they feel like it.
- Great, fast customer support: Trainline prides itself on quality, very fast customer support. I can say from several personal experiences that it can be a nightmare to have to deal with the French train company directly if anything should come up. Trainline offers much more normal, human responses, and very quickly.
Get a ticket for any French train: France has a confusing array of high speed (TGV), long-distance (Intercités), regional (TER), and discount high-speed (Ouigo) trains. Trainline is the only private platform to offer all of them from a single search, and is much more convenient than checking through the various official websites for both regular and discount trains.
- Trainline shows bus routes where applicable in its search results, which can save money compared to trains. It also suggests some smart bus+rail combos on occasion. (While they are always marked as bus routes, we do wish that this marking was a bit more obvious.)
- Age and other discounts: If you’re eligible for senior or youth discounts, Trainline automatically walks you through that to make sure you’re getting the best deal. This is not possible on most private ticketing portals, and can be confusing with the SNCF.
- Easy-to-receive tickets: You will receive an email from Trainline with options for the type of ticket you have chosen. We think the safest method to choose is to just print the tickets yourself at home; there is a dedicated Trainline app but phones can run out of juice or malfunction at the wrong time. Also try to avoid the hassle of printing the tickets yourself at the station if you can, but know that if you have to you’ll use a booking reference rather than your credit card (these machines sometimes can’t read foreign cards, so this is a very good thing).
- Easier cancellations: If you’ve purchased refundable tickets, you can get your money back via Trainline’s cancellation page, which is simpler than facing off with the SNCF directly.
Indicate seat preferences: This is possible on Trainline; not so with some competing portals.
- Bring bikes and pets: Trainline allows you to purchase these options for those French trains for which this is possible. Again, competing portals don’t. For more, see our full guide to dogs on European trains.
- No ads: This is part of breathing easier during the booking process. Trainline simply sells tickets; there are no ads or popups to distract you with rental car offers and the rest. It seems like a small thing, but makes a difference. Some private portals and even the official SNCF sites hound you like crazy, unfortunately.
A Few Minor Disadvantages
There are a few downsides that we wish Trainline would fix.
- Trainline currently doesn’t offer a flexible dates option. So if you’re flexible on dates and willing to travel on whichever day is cheapest, you will probably want to first run a search on OUI.sncf (stay on a European version of the site). Choose flexible dates to see a month or so worth of options around a particular date. You can then pop back over to Trainline to grab the same dates at the same prices with a speedier booking process and better customer support.
- Slightly more expensive for some non-French tickets: While tickets for France cost the same as with the SNCF, if you’re buying tickets within points in Benelux countries, Austria, Denmark, and Czech you may pay a bit more than those national carriers charge themselves, typically 2-4 euros. But our tests have also found these rail company’s sites often to be very, very difficult to use in English and with a foreign credit card, so when visiting these countries we still either buy in the station or with Trainline. Also, as mentioned above, Trainline is now charging a booking fee to some users with IPs outside of Europe.
- Trainline recently failed to show us some potential Ouigo routes on our initial searches. This was solved by selecting and then unselecting “direct trains” after the initial search.
Other Options for Booking Train Tickets for France Online
Loco2 is our second choice, and has the same prices for simple tickets. It doesn’t have quite as complete seat choices and options, nor as complete coverage of discount routes (Ouigo). It’s quickly getting better though, and unlike Trainline it charges no booking fee for anyone, even if you’re not in Europe.
OUI.sncf is the French national rail company’s sometimes-functional website. As we mention above, it is worth checking if you are flexible with your dates and want to know which dates might be cheapest. The booking experience for foreigners is typically terrible though; there are surprise redirects to other sites (Americans, for instance, often get sent to the RailEurope site below, which tacks on extra fees).
RailEurope is the SNCF’s official site for Americans, and if you’re shopping from America you may annoyingly be redirected there from OUI-sncf. RailEurope has its own unique set of prices — higher ones — and is a terrible deal. The user interface is about as cluttered as that of OUI-sncf. It doesn’t give you seating options nor does it offer all of the discount train routes (like Ouigo). There are annoying ads.
Ouigo (French language only) is the official site for purchasing discount high speed train tickets on Ouigo, the French train company’s answer to budget airlines. The site works relatively well if your French is good, but you can instead purchase the same tickets for the same price from Trainline, which also allows you to compare and combine with other, non-Ouigo routes. Many Americans and other international users have problems with their credit cards on Ouigo.
Rome2Rio has an interesting search mechanism that compares driving, buses, planes and trains. Its coverage of train routes is much less complete than Trainline or OUI-sncf.
Omio This site simply doesn’t offer as many ticket routing options and times as our main pick, nor does it give as many travel options such as seating, bicycles, etc. It does allow you to search many carriers for bus and planes as well, all at once. But our main pick does that for buses and provides more options, more simply.
GoPili.com, GoPili.co.uk and GoPili.ca are English-language versions of the French travel portal KelBillet.com. The user interface is simple but a bit clunky, and just sends you back to OUI-sncf to actually purchase your tickets, with all of its associated problems.
Conclusion: The Easiest Way to Book French Train Tickets
We think Trainline is the best bet for almost all cases, because it gives you the same prices as you’ll find from the official train operator SNCF but without the extra hassle.
If you’re outside of Europe, however, you may want to make your purchase on Loco2, which has no booking fees for anyone.
And if you are flexible on dates, in which case you might want to first narrow yourself down to a specific date on OUI.sncf. But that site is more confusing and buggy, and in the case of complex trips crossing borders is more expensive, so you’ll probably want to head back to Trainline to actually book.