What are your main options for booking independent travel or rail-ski packages from tour operators?
Train journeys to the Alps might be wonderful, but booking the journeys isn’t quite as easy as it should be – certainly for independent travel. The various European train companies have created a fantastic rail infrastructure, but they have failed to devise a system where tickets can be booked in a simple way that shows you your available options and consistenly finds you the best available fare and is easy to understand. It's now 2018. We put people on the moon in 1969. We invented the Oyster card, and Citymapper. And yet we still can't make it simple to buy tickets for a rail journey?
Hopefully this guide will help provide answers in an understandable and actionable way.
Depending on your destination and which trains you take, some journeys are easier to book than others. Whatever happens, don’t feel stupid or frustrated wondering how to book. It's not you, it's the system - or lack of it! But with a little knowledge, or knowing who to ask, you can book some fantastic rail journeys to the Alps. This guide is here to help.
Independent rail travel vs rail-ski packages
As you’ll be aware, no doubt, you can book ski holidays independently, putting all the elements together yourself; or you can book a package with a ski tour operator, where elements like rail travel, transfers and accommodation are all packaged up together and booked for you.
Both have their advantages and disadvantages. The first priority is to find a resort that is going to suit your party, with accommodation that you are going to love – accessed by a good train journey. If you want advice on this, Snowcarbon founder, Daniel, is always happy to help (just send Daniel an email saying you'd like some suggestions).
But let's assume you've already got idea of which resort (or resorts) you are interested in, what kind of accommodation you want and what trains you can take to get there. You then need to consider booking a package with a ski tour operator, or booking independently.
This raises several questions:
Q1. Is it cheaper to book independently or to book with a ski tour operator?
A: In many cases, it will work out about the same cost. Sometimes it will be better value to book with a tour operator, sometimes not. What is true is that it will often be easier to book with a tour operator, as they will package everything up for you, and the holiday is protected by tour-operator bonding.
Q2: Can a ski tour operator offer the kind of trains and journey that I want?
A: It depends on the destination and type of journey (more explained below)
Q3: Is there more availability of rail tickets with independent travel or with a tour operator?
A: It depends. For journeys on the Eurostar Ski Train, some of the larger ski tour operators have their own special allocation of tickets, but once these run out they can’t get any more, in which case you’ll need to book independently or with a tour operator that simply buys public tickets on your behalf (see more explanation below).
Tour operators can be divided, broadly, into three types:
Type 1: The tour operator offers packages on certain trains (usually the Eurostar Ski Train) and has their own allocation of tickets for each date of the season. Once their allocation has sold out, they may not be able to offer a package with the train. Sometimes their rail-ski packages are priced at the same rate as flying, and sometimes there is a supplement for taking the train. Normally these allocations can be booked further in advance than public fares – which is a big advantage if you are thinking about peak periods such as February half-term.
Type 2: This kind of tour operator doesn’t have a specific allocation of tickets, but can book ad hoc. They might choose only to book rail travel on certain trains, or they might be able to offer any train. They basically book the rail travel at public fares, so you don’t pay less or more than if you travelled independently, but the tour operator books the travel for you (and your travel and holiday is protected by their tour operator bond).
Type 3: This tour operator doesn’t offer rail travel as part of their packages. They might be able to offer an accommodation-only price if you are not using their flight, and you can put the money saved towards train travel.
If you know which resort you want to go to, the first thing to check is which trains and schedules might suit you best. On Snowcarbon's ski resorts and journey planner section you can view the best journey schedules. You can also check updated independent rail fares, at a glance, on our ski-trains price-check section.
The sections which follow offer a guide to booking each type of rail journey to ski resorts.
Booking by phone versus booking online
In a normal world it would be straightforward to book train travel from the UK to the Alps online - and be confident of finding the best travel options and cheapest fares for your journey. However, that's often not the case.
Train operating companies have created a network that is safe, fast and enjoyable to travel on. However, for journeys into Europe, the train companies haven't made it easy to find the journeys and tickets that you want. Because of this, it is often worth booking by phone - after doing your initial fare and journey research online. Here are seven reasons why you might want to book on the phone:
1. The outbound and return leg of your journey involves different kinds of trains
Rail company websites frequently don't allow you to book different types of train in combination. Indeed, choosing a certain type of train may mean that other perfectly viable train optoins don't even show up as bookable. Crazy, but true.
2. You want to break the journey in Paris and allow more time to do so, for example to have a meal on the way, or for a stopover journey where you stay the night in Paris.
Booking sites like Loco2 allow you to do this using their 'via' option, but they way they do it doesn't always allow you to get the cheapest fares. It may be easier to get this sorted on the phone.
3. You want to choose the seats you are booking, or clarify what seat positions (e.g. table, aisle etc) you could get before you book.
In most cases you can have more certainty about this when booking on the phone.
4. You want to book an 'espace privatif' on a sleeper train from Paris (this is where you book the couchette privately for yourself, even though you haven't filled the couchette).
This can only be booked on the phone.
NB: There are few sleeper-train services from Paris since SNCF sadly axed loads two years ago, despite their popularity.
5. You have questions and need help
Why try and work everything out yourself and get frustrated when you could also phone? Plan in advance, perhaps with some timetable information in front of you. Perhaps put some nice relaxing music on in the background (and a nice hot cup of tea?), before phoning. Give yourself time and have a pen and paper handy so you can make clear notes.
6. You are unsure in any way about what kind of seat or ticket you are buying.
Don't take a guess and risk booking the wrong journey. Phone and check instead.
7. You want to book a rail package with a ski-tour operator
Some ski tour operators can offer rail-inclusive packages, but they don't show these on their websites. Don't assume that they can't offer train travel. Phone and check. You can also send Snowcarbon Founder Daniel Elkan an email, to ask which tour operators offer rail-packages, and he will be happy to help.
BUT. And it's a big but:
There are many, many occassions when call-centre staff also get things wrong. Over the years, and recently, we've tested this on many occassions. So never assume that what someone tells you on the phone is correct. It's not unusual for call-centre staff to get things wrong, for several reasons:
1. Often they rely on the same online web interface that you see online - and get fooled accordingly because certain journey options or fares become effectively hidden.
2. Lack of training.
3. The system that they used doesn't access all the available journeys or fares (operator bias).
4. Just stuff more stuff they just don't know, that few people are even aware of.
So so take what they say with a healthy dose of scepticism, not as gospel. But overall, using a combination of websites and the phone, you have the highest chance of booking the journey that suits you most at the best prices.
If you are unsure of something you can send Snowcarbon Founder Daniel Elkan an email.
Here are phone numbers for rail companies and booking agencies with whom you can book rail travel to the Alps over the phone:
|Rail company||Phone number||Opening hours|
|Eurostar||01233 617 575||8am - 7pm Mon-Fri; 9am - 5pm Sat-Sun.|
|Voyages SNCF||01732 520 550 or 0844 848 5848||9am - 7pm Mon-Fri, 9am - 6pm Saturdays.|
|Switzerland Travel Centre||0207 420 4934||9am - 5pm Mon-Fri; 9am - 1pm Saturdays.|
Eurostar: £10 per booking
Voyages SNCF: £8 per booking
Switzerland Travel Centre: none
Rail booking experts: Ffestiniog Travel
One option that may appeal to you is to let rail-booking experts source and book tickets for you. There are a few companies in the UK that do this, who offer a very useful service by making sure that you are offered the most suitable journey options, for the best prices.
Ffestiniog Travel are one such company, organising rail tickets across the UK and Europe including, of course the snow trains. There is a booking fee for all ticketing arrangements made – this is minimal and charged as a percentage of the total booking cost, ranging from a few points up to a maximum charge of £30. As you can imagine, its expertise and understanding of rail ticketing means that they are able to advise clients on, source and take advantage of cheaper ticket prices – they know when reservations should be made to secure the best possible prices, offers and upgrades on your behalf.
The company was established in 1974 and is owned by a Charitable Trust and profits go to support the world-famous Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways. Established in 1974, Ffestiniog Travel offers a portfolio of escorted tours and tailor-made itineraries across the UK, Europe and worldwide, as well as its ticketing service.
Phone: 01766 772 030; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; website: visit: https://www.ffestiniogtravel.com/rail-ticket-service
How to book the Eurostar Ski Train
The Eurostar Ski Train goes direct from London to the Tarentaise region of the French Alps. There's a daytime and an overnight service, which is on sale for the whole 2017-18 season. If you are booking a return journey independently on the Eurostar Ski Train, you can book online either on Eurostar's website, Loco2 or Voyages SNCF (formerly Rail Europe).
Prices are advertised as 'From £149 return, per adult' (from London to the Alps - standard class). But what does it cost in reality? For non-peak dates, standard-class fares do indeed start at £150, and if you book in advance you could get fares of £150 - £220 return per adult, which will gradually creep up to the £320 return mark the logner the train is on sale. However, for peak dates (Christmas, New Year, February Half-term and Easter), the fares automatically seem to start at £300 return per adult, and range from £300 - £450 return per adult, depending on the date. Fares for children aged 4-11 are about 30% cheaper than adult prices, and children under four years old can travel for free without an actual reserved seat.
You can also book the Eurostar Ski Train as part of a rail-ski package - see our rail-ski packages section.
Booking Eurostar + TGV journeys
Travelling to Paris by Eurostar, and then changing onto a TGV train to the Alps is an alternative to the Eurostar Ski Train, and also gives a far wider range of ski destinations, because TGVs serve far more ski resorts than the Eurostar Ski Train alone does. Eurostar + TGV journeys for the winter season go on sale every October, and you can then book around 90 days in advance of your date of travel.
You can book Eurostar + TGV journeys online either with Loco2 or with Voyages SNCF (formerly Rail Europe), or for certain destinations on Eurostar's website. Prices start from £109 return per adult from London to the Alps, but for peak dates (Christmas, New Year, February Half-term and to a lesser extent, Easter), expect much higher prices (£225 - £400 per adult, depending on availability).
You can also then book a taxi transfer between Paris-Nord and Paris-Lyon stations, to connect relativley seamlessly between the Eurostar and the TGV.
As with the Eurostar Ski Train, fares for children aged 4-11 are 30% cheaper than adult prices, and children under four years old can travel for free without an actual reserved seat.
You can also book the Eurostar + TGV journeys as part of a rail-ski package from ski tour operators. See our rail-ski packages section.
What if you wish to have a longer duration between trains in Paris?
Rail-company websites pair Eurostar and TGV trains together to give you the quickest possible journeys while respecting the time that they deem acceptable for changing stations in Paris. However, there are several reasons why you might want to allow more time between your Eurostar arriving and your TGV departing (or vice versa). For example:
1. You want to have a long lunch in Paris, or visit sights, or meet a friend.
2. You want to stopover in Paris and catch an early TGV the following morning.
3. The train company website has paired two trains together with quite a tight connection and you would like to allow more time to change - as highlighted in this article for the Telegraph by Snowcarbon founder Daniel Elkan.
The answer in this case is either to do the booking by phone or via a rail-booking agency such as Ffestiniog Travel (see section above).
French, Italian and Andorran ski resorts - independent rail travel
To book to French resorts, either with the Eurostar Ski Train or by going indirectly via Paris, the best booking option is to book online either with Loco2 or with Voyages SNCF (formerly Rail Europe), or Eurostar. The direct Eurostar Ski Train goes on sale in July 2014, while indirect train journeys to the Alps are bookable 90 days in advance of the date of travel. The same applies for Italian and Andorran resorts (except that they aren't served by the direct ski train).
You can check the best journey schedules by visiting the Snowcarbon resorts and journeys page. You'll see that for each resort listed, we have a journey planner, showing hand-researched journey schedules. And from there you can look up the cheapest available fares for your date of travel, click to book independent travel (via one of our online booking partners, Loco2) or browse rail-inclusive ski packages.
Swiss ski resorts - how to book independent rail travel
The best way to book to a Swiss resort is with Switzerland Travel Centre (STC) using an online booking enquiry form. STC with then research the lowest fares for you and offer a no-obligation quote. You can usually book usually up to 90 days before the date of travel but if your enquiry is made in advance of that date then STC will make sure that you receive a quote on the day the booking opens, giving you the opportunity to get the best fares.
You can also look up times, fares and book online with www.loco2.com - although for journeys for larger groups or with more than two changes of train it may be wise to contact Switzerland Travel Centre too, as online searches cope less well with more journey legs and may not always give you all the available discounts if you have a big party, such as a family group, with multiple ages, etc (especially as Switzerland has generous family discounts etc)
We've created a special section about how to travel to Swiss ski resorts by train, with resort and journey summaries, and an enquiry form that you can send straight to STC.
Austrian ski resorts - how to book independent rail travel
Rail travel from the UK to the Austrian Tirol, with a standard-class seat on Eurostar and a place in a six-berth couchette on the NightJet, start at £215 return per adult. However, prices always depend on availability, and at peak dates will likely be higher. Depending on ages, children get about 30% off the adult fare.
Ffestiniog Travel is an excellent, specialist rail-booking travel agency and can book the entire journey for you and make sure you get the lowest fares, offers and upgrades. There is a booking fee for all ticketing arrangements made – this is minimal and charged as a percentage of the total booking cost, ranging from a few points up to a maximum charge of £30.
Phone: 01766 772 030; email: email@example.com; website: visit: www.ffestiniogtravel.com
Eurostar website and NightJet websites
You can book the journey as two separate sections online currently.
London to Brussels by Eurostar, book on at www.eurostar.com
Brussels to Austria with ICE and NightJet, book at www.nightjet.com
The excellent website Seat61 has a guide about travelling from London to Austria by NightJet - check it out.
Daytime travel from London to St Anton
The daytime journey to St Anton and neighbouring resorts by train is a beautiful one. The journey to St Anton via Switzerland and into the Arlberg valley is very scenic and relaxing.
First check the best journey schedules by viewing the St Anton Journey Planner.
Then, send Snowcarbon Founder Daniel Elkan an email, and he will help advise on your best booking options.
Rail-ski packages from tour operators
Rail-inclusive ski packages are holidays provided by a ski tour operator, with train travel, transfers and accommodation in the resorts all included. The benefits are:
- Easy to book
- The rail travel is included in the package and booked for you by the tour operator.
- In some cases the travel is at preferential rates, saving you money over independent fares.
- The transfers between the train station and your accommodation are included in the price.
- The packages are bonded, offering you extra protection.
- The packages are often bookable further in advance than when you book independent rail travel.
Many tour operators can offer tailor-made packages, so that you can choose what date and trains you travel on, so just ask for what you would like. Many packages include the Eurostar Ski Train, others a include a journey with a Eurostar and then a TGV, or with the new Eurostar to the French Alps via Lyon. And you can also tailor make them with a Eurostar and then a sleeper train from Paris.
You can view a range of these packages at the rail-ski packages section.
How to book an 'espace privatif' (private couchette)
On sleeper trains from Paris, the couchette compartments contain either six berths (Standard Class) or four berths (First Class). However, if you are 4 or 5 people in Standard Class, or if you are 1, 2 or 3 people in First Class, you can have privacy and book the whole couchette to yourself, simply by paying an 'Espace privatif' supplement.
Not a lot of people know this is possible, and indeed we discovered it from the excellent Mark Smith, founder of rail website The Man in Seat 61.
Options for booking an espace privatif:
Loco2.com: not bookable on Loco2
Capitainetrain.com: Currently you can only book this for First Class travel, which gives you the option to select a 'First Class compartment'.
Voyages SNCF (online): not bookable online
Voyages SNCF (phone): you can book this on the phone (0844 848 5 848). Be aware that some of their staff may not have heard of this, so you might diplomatically have to ask for a supervisor, in that case.
How much does it cost:
|Class||Minimum number of people||Total supplement required|
|Second Class||4 or 5||€45|
You can also read about the 'espace privatif' on Seat 61's page about sleeper trains from Paris
Like more help and advice?
If you'd like more help and advice the best train travel options, resorts and accommodation, feel free to contact Snowcarbon's founder, Daniel.
He can help with specific advice and suggestions, using his years of experience as a ski journalist and expert on how to travel to the Alps by train.
Daniel knows lots of great accommodation and tour operators and independent providers that can help, so you'll get some great suggestions.
Just send Daniel an email and he'll be back in touch.