Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Kudos to Capitaine Train


Find your train.
There are two ways to get around Europe inexpensively--no-frill planes or trains.

If you enjoy struggling to find out-of-the-way airports, being pretzled into a seat that only comfortably fits someone 4'11", and packing only one pair of jeans and a toothbrush, maybe the no-frill airlines are for you.  But once you add on $10.40 for every pound of luggage over 33, factor in the fee to board first and the seat fee itself, you discover these no-frill airlines are not necessarily low-cost.

I prefer train travel because it's cheaper and much more comfortable.  Buy tickets three months in advance, and you'll pay only $39 to ride a spacious train from Paris to Milan or $30 from Paris to Brussels.  You'll also find the station right there in the middle of town.  No taking an expensive taxi ride to a remote airport.  All the other advantages to train travel, and there are many, were outlined in the last post.
Join the waiting crowd.
So, now that you're convinced train travel is the only way to go, all you need to know is how to buy tickets.  And that process has been tremendously simplified thanks to a wonderful new website called Capitaine Train.

While many train tickets for European travel have been relatively easy to buy thanks to English versions of several countries' ticket sites (for example, Trenitalia in Italy and Bahn in Germany), France's SNCF has long been the hold out.  They, and their subsidiaries--Rail Europe in the UK and the States--had a monopoly on e-ticket sales.

To take advantage of the advance sale tickets called "prems," you had to be proficient in French to navigate the SNCF site and pretend to be from another country.  If you switched the SNCF site to the English language version and identified USA as your home country, you were automatically re-directed to the Rail Europe site. But when forced to use Rail Europe, you would not find the sale prems and would consequently pay steeper prices, e.g. $120 instead of $32 for a ticket from Paris to Nice. 

That's why Capitaine Train is so wonderful.  Since SNCF lost its court case and has been forced to allow all travel agencies to sell its tickets, a couple new ticket sites are now contenders on the web.  The best one for Americans buying French train tickets is Capitaine Train.

Capitaine has made it incredibly easy.  A simple sign-up process (They make this a 30-second painless procedure and promise not to use your information for nefarious purposes.)is required, and then you access a no-ad uncluttered site that quickly gives you the cheapest prices available for both first and second class train travel.  You can also choose your seat and whether you want to be facing forward or backward as you travel.  If you do have any problems, it's easy to shoot the webmasters an e-mail to which someone will promptly respond in English.  Print your e-ticket at home or pick it up at any SNCF ticket machine using a code Capitaine provides, and you are good to go.

Not only is the Capitaine website incredibly easy to use, but the people who maintain the site are downright friendly.  I've received a welcome e-mail and another reminding me that the staff members are there to help with any problem I might encounter.  That's quite a contrast to the SNCF agent in Paris who refused to change a train ticket for me because my French wasn't up to his standards!

Get on board.
So, don't hesitate to buy your train tickets to take you all over Europe.  It's now easier and cheaper than ever!

Practicalities -

Mark Smith has an award-winning website, The Man in Seat Sixty-One,  where you can learn how to travel and buy train tickets for trips all over the world.  For Mark's overview of French train ticket sales, see this page.

Read about the de-regulation of the SNCF ticketing system and the creation of Capitaine Train here.

UK residents may find it helpful to buy SNCF tickets from loco2.com.  This site is similar to Capitaine Train, but only sells to UK residents.