Trouble with an American credit card and the French train system? You're not alone, but there really are solutions that don't involve aggravation, nor travel agents and their extra fees. Photo credits Tomas Depenbusch and ccPixs.

We've travelled on French trains regularly for more than a decade, and often purchased tickets using American credit cards. This unfortunately leads to some problems and many — probably most — Americans who take trains in France come across some of the same. Yes, we can take heart: even French people, with their French language and French bank cards, also have all sorts of issues buying tickets from the bureaucratic behemoth SNCF, or  French state-owned rail company. But it still sucks.

We'd frankly had it, and so spent a few weeks researching the best options for foreigners looking to purchase French train tickets ahead of time. We'll discuss the major options, from the SNCF's own dysfunctional-but-sometimes-useful website to the many private options.

There was one clear winner that makes it easiest and cheapest for foreigners to buy train tickets for France. And frankly, it's so good that we think most French people are better off switching away from the official SNCF-Voyages as well.

Trainline

The increasingly clever and robust Trainline.eu is the easiest way we've found to purchase train tickets for France — and its prices are exactly the same as when purchased directly from SNCF.

It is a particularly ideal way for Americans to avoid the hassle and problems that can come from using an American credit card (with pin and chip, or without) in trying to purchase tickets from the randomly dysfunctional SNCF website. It also avoids the problems of retrieving and printing pre-purchased tickets  from ornery French train station machines (which may require a French bank card to print, even if the tickets were already paid for).

Trainline is like Google Flights or Skyscanner for trains — it offers very smart routing and gives you the cheapest possible access to tickets. Trainline also sells you the tickets itself — and has much better customer service than the SNCF.

Update History of This Article

This article was published on Oct. 10, 2017.

Our Favorite Train Ticketing Platform for France

When we originally set out to research this article, we assumed we'd be writing a guide to help foreigners with issues on Voyages SNCF and the French national train company's other confusing ticketing websites. But in the end, we found a better ways to buy that don't cost extra; the best right now for France and the rest of mainland Europe is Trainline.

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.

The Advantages of Trainline for Buying Train Tickets for France

Trainline isn't perfect, but easily beats out the official SNCF websites, and also remains well ahead of other private competing portals.

  • Same prices as buying directly from SNCF (and sometimes even cheaper): Tickets are available for exactly the same prices as from the French national train company, whatever the train (SNCF, Eurostar, iDTGV, or OUIGO). This is also true for its tickets for 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. On routes crossing borders outside of France, you may actually get cheaper tickets from Trainline than you would with the SNCF, because Trainline is able to create combinations with other countries' ticketing systems directly that SNCF and single national systems can't offer.
  • Works with American and other international credit cards: Trainline accepts Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and PayPal. While official websites for Voyages-SNCF, Ouigo, and iDTGV also say that they accept these, often American and other international users find that they reject your credit card outright, or sell you a ticket promising that you can retrieve it from a French ticket machine, which you are then unable to do once at the station in Paris, Bordeaux, or whatever. Also, often Americans cannot even be sure if their credit card has been charged or not by SNCF sites. Trainline payment, on the other hand, works like any normal website, and you immediately receive a completely comprehensible email with your itinerary and receipt.
  • 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.
  • A train pulling up in a small town in northern France; photo by Alfenaar

    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 and iDTGV) trains. Trainline is the only private platform to offer any of them from a single search, and is much more convenient than checking through the various official websites for both regular and discount trains.

  • 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 American credit card (which these machines sometimes can't read).
  • Easier cancellations: If you've purchased refundable tickets, you can get your money back via Trainline's cancellation page, which is simpler than facing the SNCF directly.
  • Seats on a TGV train in France; photo by Sharon Hahn Darlin

    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 French trains for which this is possible. Again, competing portals don't.
  • 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.

The Disadvantages of Trainline

There are two 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 check out SNCF's "calendar" search page in English, which can show you a month or so worth of options around a particular date (at least sometimes; in one test while writing this article we got error pages five times before getting a result). 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: If you're buying tickets within points in Benelux countries, Austria, Denmark, and Czech you may pay a bit more, typically 2-4 euros.

Other Options for Booking Train Tickets for France Online

Voyages-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). French people have lots of trouble with the site and complain about it constantly themselves, which is why we think our main pick above is now a better option even for them.

RailEurope is the SNCF's official site for Americans, and if you're shopping from America you may annoyingly be redirected there from Voyages-SNCF.  RailEurope either uses fishy exchange rates or else tacks on a rather large commission — it's generally a terrible deal. The user interface is about as cluttered as that of Voyages-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 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 but you can purchase the tickets for the same price from our main pick portal above, which also allows you to compare and combine with other, non-Ouigo routes. Some Americans and other international users have problems with their credit cards on Ouigo.

Loco2.com is nearly as cool as our main pick, and generally has the same prices, but tacks on a 2.5% credit card fee. It also doesn't have quite as complete seat choices and options, nor as complete coverage of discount routes (iDTGV). We think it's one to watch, however.

Rome2Rio has an interesting search mechanism that compares driving, buses, planes and trains. It sends you to a partner like Loco2.com (above) to actually purchase tickets however.

GoEuro.com: 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 Voyages-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.

The exception is if you are flexible on dates, in which case you might want to first narrow yourself down to a specific date on either Voyages-SNCF or RailEurope. But those sites are more confusing, buggy, and in the case of RailEurope more expensive, so you'll probably want to then head back to Trainline to actually book.