Fortunately, there are easy solutions as well: options for buying French train tickets from private portals. You can get the same tickets at exactly the same prices without the hassle of the SNCF’s — how shall we put this? — highly “varied” levels of website usability and customer service.
Don’t get us wrong, we still use the official OUI.sncf site in some cases, and especially use it for initial searches for cheap tickets within France for its “flexible dates” feature to decide on what date to travel on for the best prices.
But ultimately when it’s time to book we usually switch over to a private platform to buy at the same price without the website errors and redirects.
Solutions for SNCF websites
That said, those outside of mainland Europe may save a few dollars, pounds, or whatever by booking on Loco2, which doesn’t have booking fees for anyone, anywhere. It is also quite user-friendly. However, unlike Trainline, it doesn’t offer the complete range of French train tickets including the low-cost Ouigo routes.
The French national train company’s websites have so many errors that they can be difficult to impossible to use. Sometimes — more than half of the time, in our experience — OUI.sncf works great, but the website errors are so aggravating when they do happen that we no longer bother trying. Trainline or Loco2 are the best way to avoid these issues.
- The Frequent Complaints About the SNCF Websites for Buying Train Tickets
- Conclusion: Our Favorite Alternative to the Error-Ridden SNCF websites
Update History of This Article
The Frequent Complaints About the SNCF Websites for Buying Train Tickets
Any recent Twitter search or review of travel forums and blogs shows vast swaths of the French and foreign train-travelling public griping about the site errors that prevent them from getting information and the tickets that they want.
I myself have frequently traveled on French trains over the past decade, and just as frequently been appalled by the problems with the SNCF websites and apps.
Credit card problems with SNCF
Latin American, USA, Australian, Canadian and other international credit cards are often rejected by SNCF sites; see that article for more on those issues. And even Trainline has been obligated by Ouigo to reject certain countries’ cards for its tickets.
In some cases (especially USA, as one commenter pointed out) it can help to contact your card issue and authorize the purchase if you have a non-European card and are purchasing on Trainline, Loco2, or SNCF sites. This does not fix the Ouigo issue however.
Geographical Redirects on OUI.sncf to More Expensive Websites
OUI.sncf sells tickets to foreigners, but also tends to redirect these users based on their IP locations to the much more expensive and less complete websites run by the SNCF for other countries, especially Rail Europe. And while these are better translated and generally accept non-French payment options, the problem is that these SNCF-affiliated websites tack on huge fees and have fewer routes. Add to that, the SNCF’s Eurostar site was caught vastly overcharging senior citizens and young people for tickets.
You can refuse the redirects like the screenshot shown above. And if necessary use the language menu at the top right to choose France or another language.
If you don’t speak French, choose “Europe (other countries)”. This will keep you on the regular OUI.sncf site with the same prices, but the user experience will be (mostly) in English. Definitely don’t choose “Russia” or “Rest of the World” as these can lead to much higher fares.
Note however that if you’re outside of France and you do manage to purchase your tickets through OUI.sncf, they cannot be mailed to you outside of France. You must do an E-ticketing option.
Overall, rather than all of this, we think you’re much better off with the private ticketing option mentioned at the top, Trainline, for the same prices, E-tickets, and no re-directs to other sites.
Handling the Error Messages on OUI.sncf
There are error messages that pop up in French (no matter that you’re using the site in English), like “L’accès au service de réservation de billets de train est actuellement indisponible.” (“The access to train ticketing reservations is currently unavailable.”) Usually any trips that you have saved are then lost and you have to start over.
Google Translate offers browser extensions that can help you with reading untranslated portions of the site, and sometimes its machine translations can even be more comprehensible than the English version for fare rules and such.
Here are some more error messages in English we got recently during a survey of prices of European rail carriers:
There are many other error messages, often containing no explanations, or infuriatingly vague or useless instructions.
SNCF is infamous for not providing any useful response to such customer inquiries via their website support. The only option when these things happen is generally to try back later, or, as we said up top, the private booking sites that offer the same rates.
Some of my Own Horror Stories with SNCF Booking
I speak fluent French so the language oddities of the SNCF’s sites haven’t been a problem. But I still have had plenty of issues.
I once ended up with a ticket purchased from the SNCF website that said that it had to be withdrawn from a ticket machine in a station. But when I went, the ticket machine produced an error and was unable to print my ticket and said to see station staff. The staff was also unable to produce my ticket and said that I would have to come to the station in Nantes at 6am the next morning to speak to a manager. The manager was not to be found the next morning, and so I was issued a ticket at the counter for the non-existant train car. It was a valid ticket so I was still allowed to board the train, but this caused quite a bit of confusion for the ticket inspectors, who photographed my ticket and sent it in to the station.
On a separate incident, I was once promised at a train station that a full refund for a mistaken credit card charge from the SNCF site would be mailed to me. Instead, however, I received coupons for future train trips. I was unable to use most of them before they expired, and the so the SNCF still owes me about €160. Dearest SNCF, if you’re reading this website and you don’t like it, how about refunding me some cash? And taking care of your countless other customer complaints on Twitter and other sites?
Conclusion: Our Favorite Alternative to the Error-Ridden SNCF websites
I’ve been personally much happier since I switched to Trainline, which isn’t perfect but avoids all of the problems above, and has relatively great customer service. Their main issue is the 3% or so booking fee they now add on for those outside mainland Europe. If this applies to you, try Loco2 instead, unless you’re going on a budget train route (Ouigo). (And see also our general tips for cheap French train tickets.)
We’ve also found Trainline to be the overall best bet for buying not just French but most Western European train tickets. The German rail company website isn’t so bad, but most of the European rail operators websites are even worse than those of the SNCF. Their translations are universally terrible.
Once you board a French train, though, and get a croissant and café in the bar car, all the hassle seems worth it as the beautiful countryside slips past your window.