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  This site is similar to Capitaine Train, but only sells to UK residents.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Traveling Europe by Train

In a recent New York Times article, writer Daniel Klein talks about the joy he now derives from what you might call "non-travel."  Instead of darting about Europe, trying to see as many places as possible within a limited time frame as he did in his younger days, he now prefers to stay put.  One place, for a month or two or three, suits him just fine.

I agree with Klein's philosophy and will probably want to stay in one place, too, when I'm in my mid-seventies, but for the moment, David and I are still "darters," albeit slow-paced ones.  The trip we're planning for June is no exception.  We will be averaging at least four nights in most places and a week in the Alsace region of France, but we plan to visit four distinct regions in two different countries.
London's St. Pancras train station
To make sure we see as much countryside as possible, though, our transportation of choice between major cities or from one country to the next is always the train.  I've listed a few of the reasons down below, but the most important one is that, unlike airline tickets, we are always assured of getting sale prices by ordering as far in advance as possible--ninety days in advance for most tickets and 120 days in advance for the Eurostar--and the savings are considerable. We will almost always save at least fifty percent and often more.

Our London to Paris train trip in 2012 cost £56 instead of £112 because we bought Eurostar tickets four months in advance. (See the article about that purchase here.) A ticket from Paris to Amsterdam costs €35 if bought a couple months in advance or a whopping €130 if bought the day of travel, according to The Man in Seat Sixty-One, the best website about European train information.  So, the message is clear.  Buy early and take advantage of guaranteed low prices. 

And with the de-regulation of France's train ticketing system, buying inexpensive tickets has never been easier.  In the next post, I'll tell you all about the new ticketing site that makes train ticket purchasing a breeze.

Practicalities -

The advantages to train travel are many beginning with the starting point.  Rather than take a long taxi or bus ride to the airport, the train station will most likely be located in the center of town.  That means you can spend extra time in the city instead of a waiting room.  Even the wait time is less because trains require you arrive only  twenty to thirty minutes ahead of departure time, not an hour.

Take all your luggage with you without worrying about being charged for overweight bags.

Pack a lunch or grab a bite from the restaurant car.

Sit back and truly enjoy your trip because you'll have room to stretch your legs while viewing fascinating scenery right outside the window.

Friday, January 17, 2014

New Air Travel Search Sites

Before you squeeze yourself into another airplane seat, make sure you squeezed the best price possible from the airline.  This article, "How to Choose an Air Travel Search Site," by Seth Kugel, the New York Times frugal travel reporter, will help you in your search.

He didn't mention my favorite place for information, ITA software, but he does supply the latest sites that will help you decide on the best airline for your particular destination.  Check out the article and discover some newbie sites that provide valuable information.