If you are blocked by problems on the SNCF websites when trying to buy tickets, you're not alone. The websites have lots of redirects and undergo constant updates that can render them unusable.
Fortunately, there are easy solutions as well: options for buying French train tickets from private portals. You can get the same tickets at the same price without the hassle of the SNCF's — how shall we put this? — highly "varied" levels of website usability and customer service.
We're frequent travellers across Europe ourselves, and have found that one website in particular comes out on top for buying French train tickets. We still use the SNCF website occasionally when we want to check which date is the cheapest to travel on, but otherwise our top pick makes the whole ticketing process so much smoother.
The main problem with French national train company's websites is that there are so many errors that they can be difficult to impossible to use. Sometimes — more than half of the time, in our experience — they work great, but the website errors are so aggravating when they happen that we no longer bother trying.
Trainline offers the smoothest experience of several ticketing websites that we've tried (the others are also reviewed below). It also consistently offers excellent customer support — again in stark contrast to the SNCF.
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. And I myself have frequently travelled on French trains over the past decade, and just as frequently been appalled by the problems with the SNCF websites and apps (Voyages-SNCF, RailEurope, and Ouigo)
- American, Australian, Canadian and other foreign credit cards get rejected or are not recognized by the SNCF websites. These sites have also been known to trigger fraud alerts, especially on foreign cards.
- Voyages-SNCF redirects at random, inopportune moments to more expensive and less functional websites run by the SNCF for other countries, especially RailEurope. This happens particularly if you are using the website from outside of Europe. The problem is, these other SNCF websites tack on fees and have fewer ticketing options. And if you do manage to stay on and purchase your tickets through Voyages SNCF, they cannot be mailed to you outside of France.
- 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.
- The SNCF's Eurostar site was caught vastly overcharging senior citizens and young people for tickets.
- 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 customer inquiries via their website support. The only option when these things happen is generally to try back later.
Some of my own horror stories: I once ended up with a ticket purchased from the Voyages-SNCF website that was for a train car and seat that didn't exist. I was once promised that a refund for a mistaken credit card charge from the site would be mailed to me and received coupons of limited use for the SNCF instead. And of course the site has frequently gone down or redirects when I'm buying tickets from inside or outside of France.
I've been personally much happier since I switched to Trainline, which isn't perfect but avoids all of the problems above, charges exactly the same for tickets as SNCF, and has relatively great customer service.
Our Favorite Alternative to Voyages-SNCF, Ouigo.com, and Rail Europe
Trainline became the top private portal for buying European train tickets upon its merger with CaptainTrain in 2016. There are a few other options that are pretty good (detailed below) but have extra fees. Plus, Trainline has the large resources to ensure the most complete pan-European routing and help you find the best trip at the best price.
- Prices are the same as tickets available at any one time directly from the SNCF. Trainline makes its money through commissions from national train companies, rather than by charging customer surcharges like you find on other portals. This is also true for international trains, including those to Spain and Germany, and Eurostar service to the UK. On occasion, complex international routes are actually cheaper than those you'll find on the SNCF sites, because Trainline has deeper access to other national networks' ticketing systems and can come up with more options.
- The website actually works. In fact, it's a breeze to use, simple, and well-designed. It lacks the noisy advertising of Voyages-SNCF and there are no pop-ups pushing hotels on you as with some private portals.
- Foreign (non-French) credit cards are readily accepted: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and PayPal. This is particularly useful for Canadians, Americans, and Australians.
- Simple access to the entire French train system. France has high speed (TGV), long-distance (Intercités), regional (TER), and discount high-speed (Ouigo and iDTGV) trains. But there is no need to learn about what each one is, as with Trainline you're presented with any relevant options for your route in a single search.
- Full access to French train ticketing options. This includes options on the relevant routes for senior and youth discounts, seat preferences, bikes and pets, and more.
- Quality customer support. Whereas the SNCF has a nightmarish reputation in this area, Trainline is generally seen as fast and competent in this area should anything come up. You still do have to deal with SNCF staff in the trains and stations, of course.
There is one disadvantage that we note. Trainline doesn't currently offer a search option for flexible dates. If you're willing to decide on which date you will travel based on prices, you can save a few euros by first running a search on the SNCF's "calendar". Once you've decided on your date, you can then head back over to Trainline to enjoy the easier booking process and better customer support at the same prices.
Other Alternatives to the SNCF websites
Loco2.com is smooth to use like our main pick, but adds a 2.5% credit card fee, and lacks certain choices and routes.
Rome2Rio compares trains with driving, buses, and planes as well. But for train tickets it sends you to Loco2 (just above) to actually purchase.
GoEuro.com: This site lacks many routes and add-on options.
GoPili.com, GoPili.co.uk and GoPili.ca are the English-language versions of the French site KelBillet.com. They are still pretty clunky, and you still are redirected back to Voyages-SNCF to actually make your purchase.
Conclusion: Our Favorite Alternative to the Error-Ridden SNCF websites
We've found Trainline to be the best bet for buying French (and almost all European tickets) at the same prices as you'd find from the often dysfunctional SNCF websites. We've now gladly switched over to Trainline for prepping our train travel in Europe.