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 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 on train routes as when buying directly from SNCF and unlike other private portals even offers Ouigo (low-cost French train system) tickets. That said, for some especially non-French users there can be a small booking fee of a couple of euros. But even they will often save money due to the next point.
- 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.
The closest competitor to Trainline is RailEurope.co.uk (formerly known as Loco2). It works just as smoothly and we like the map on the search results. However, it’s booking fee generally works out a bit higher at £4.95, €5.95 or $5.95, depending on the currency you’ve chosen and it 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 then coming back to Trainline to actually purchase, especially if you have one of the frequent SNCF website errors or credit card problems. And returns and customer service, should you need it, with SNCF are dreadful. But on the other hand they don’t charge a booking fee at all.
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 SNCF site, and also remains well ahead of other private competing portals. Let’s start with the positives.
- The same prices on train routes as buying directly from SNCF for simple tickets: Trainline pulls its prices directly 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, with direct connections to those countries’ systems. It can often have no booking fee if your IP address is in France, but otherwise you’re likely to see a booking fee of a few euros on the purchase page. (We really wish Trainline would be more transparent and consistent about its booking fees, but the overall savings and convenience still makes it worth it, usually.)
- 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 have a huge list of problems with foreign cards. There is an exception if you’re buying certain budget-train tickets, as the train system Ouigo blocks cards from certain countries from being purchased on any platform, official or private, including Trainline. See that link for a list of the blocked countries — if your card comes from one of them you’re simply out of luck and have to buy a different, non-Ouigo ticket.
- 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 pop-ups 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.
- Small-but-opaque booking fees: Trainline will not say who pays exactly what booking fees, and you only see what fee will be added to your ticket at the last stage of the booking process. Generally if your computer’s IP is in France and you’re buying French tickets, it seems in our tests that there is no fee. But for others there is likely to be a fee of a few euros, 1-4%. It’s still generally worth it to save the trouble with the SNCF, particularly if you’re not French and used to dealing with them.
- 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. On the other hand, Trainline has also offered routes that were not available or blocked on other websites, including on the official SNCF site.
Other Options for Booking Train Tickets for France Online
Raileurope.co.uk is our second choice train booking platform for France. Note that it is different from RailEurope[dot]com discussed below! The platform was previously known as Loco2 and has been folded into the SNCF companies, but the site still works great. That said, for France it doesn’t have quite as complete seat choices and options as Trainline, nor as complete coverage of discount routes (Ouigo). Booking fees are £4.95, €5.95 or $5.95, but they are per order rather than per ticket. We’re curious and watching to see how it evolves as it is under the SNCF umbrella.
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 to travel on. 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). And often the site comes up with mysterious errors. But there is no booking fee at all, so if it works, you can save a couple of euros. (But do check Trainline anyway if your trip involves changes, for the better routing options.)
RailEurope.com has been the SNCF’s way of gouging the non-French on train tickets for many years, and if you’re shopping from the Americas or other places 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. All that said, it handles your own country’s credit cards well.
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.
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.
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