Ski resorts by train

Tix on sale 3rd Nov + ways to book

Mon 01 November, 2021


Daniel Elkan

On Wednesday 3rd November, train journeys in France, for travel dates 3rd January to 28th March 2022, go on sale, around 5am UK time. This means that for those dates, Eurostar journeys can be combined with onward trains to the Alps.

The two main ways of booking independent travel between the UK and the Alps are.

Option 1: online, using a rail-company or rail-ticket website
Option 2: using a tailor-made rail-booking agency

Here are some thoughts about each of these ways of booking.

Option 1 – booking yourself online

Rail-company websites (such as Eurostar) and rail-ticket websites (such as Trainline, Rail Europe and give you immediate results.

They also give the impression that any journey is easy to view and book.  However, that is not always the case.

These websites are set up to show you the best possible journey schedules and available tickets — at the same time. By trying to do these two things at the same time, they sometimes fail to show you the true availability or the best journeys. There may be preferable connections that you could take; and if a website says, for a specific train, that tickets are ‘not available’ there’s a good chance that this is not actually the case.

The reason why this problem happens is that the algorithms that power these online searches struggle with the complexities of the multiple types of train ticket that exist.

For some journeys, booking yourself online works fine; and for other journeys, it doesn’t.

The problems to be aware of include:

1.    Journey options that exist, not showing up in online searches
2.    Difficulty booking stopover journeys or if you want more time to change train
3.    Difficulty booking different outbound and return routes (e.g., outbound via Lille, back via Paris)

This nonsense has been going on for years.  Companies like Trainline and Rail Europe spend a lot of money trying to solve these problems, but with limited success. Every train-booking website should come with a warning that it cannot be fully relied upon to show you the best journeys due to the ridiculous complexities of the ticketing system.   

Few people are aware of these problems, and I think it’s important that people do know. What makes things worse is that rail companies and rail-booking websites try to get people booking online without offering decent phone-support.

Also, if you are a group of 10 travellers or more, you can’t book altogether online — which also seems nuts.

I enjoy using rail-booking websites – they are hugely useful.  If you are aware of their limitations, it’s a big advantage.

A quick tip to help ensure you see what's really available: when researching a journey, get a pen and paper and — for timetable research only, not for booking the trains — separate the journey into one-way outbound and inbound journey searches.

An alternative way to book your journey — something that I’ve recommended to many skiers over the years — is to use a rail-booking agent.

Option 2 – rail-booking agents

A solution to the problems above is to use an experienced rail-booking agent. There are several excellent ones.  These companies:

1.    Have experienced staff
2.    Have sophisticated, geeky booking systems that enable them to book and combine any journey
3.    Use human judgement and knowledge, not algorithms

The reason that you might not have heard of them is that they are relatively small companies, without huge marketing budgets.

Really, these rail-booking agents should be celebrated and promoted by rail companies, because they enable people to book journeys easily that one would struggle to book online.

Seriously, Eurostar should be emailing its huge customer list to say that ‘wherever you want to travel to in Europe, there are rail-booking agents who can help’. Instead, Eurostar’s consistently myopic newsletter yesterday told customers to ‘get ready to satisfy your wanderlust’ by visiting…wait for it…Brussels!

Rail-booking agents are really useful because:

1. Their booking systems are more sophisticated and flexible than online websites, book any specific route or trains, thinking proactively about the best way to get you to your destination.

2. Rail-booking agents can book the journey as a whole, rather than booking separate legs, thereby offering you more protection in the case of any train cancellations.

3. Rail-booking agents can help find cheaper fares, as well as taking advantage of available discounts, such as for children or groups or for going via a certain route.

4. If you are a group of 10 or more, which can’t be booked online in one booking, rail-booking agents can book the journey so that you are booked and seated together, and can take advantage of group discounts.

5. If you want to break your journey, allow more time somewhere on route, do a stopover journey - rail-booking agents can do this for you (whereas online you might have to split the journey into separate bookings).

6. You can save time and hassle using a rail booking agent.

The disadvantage is that it’s not immediate, but you won’t be waiting long and you can email them in advance of trains going on sale, of course.

Rail-booking agents charge a small per person fee and then get a little commission from train companies. I think they offer a great service.  Over the years I’ve seen them help a lot of skiers book train journeys to ski resorts. Snowcarbon doesn’t have any commercial relationship with these agencies (nor with any train companies or ticket websites).  

Here are the rail-booking agents that I would recommend. All are very experienced:

The Travel Bureau
There’s a booking fee of £10 per traveller (sometimes less for larger groups).
Phone: (+44) 01902 326 662 (10:00 – 16:00 Monday – Friday)

There’s a booking fee of £10 per traveller.
Trainseurope charges a fee of £10 per traveller.
Phone: (+44) 01354 660222 (09:00 – 17:00 Monday – Friday; 09:00 – 15:00 Saturday)

International Rail
Booking fees are depend on the total value of the order: Under £100.00 = £15.00; between £100.00 - £300.00 = £25.00; over £300.00 = £35.00
Phone: (+44) 03330 030 413.  (Calls free within inclusive minutes package on mobile; otherwise standard rates apply.)
Call centre times: 09:00 – 17:00 Monday-Friday

Ffestiniog Travel
Ffestiniog charges 9% per booking, to a maximum of £40 per traveller.
Phone: (+44) 01766 515630 (09:00 – 16:45 Monday – Friday; 09:00 – 13:00 Saturday)

Tips for using rail booking agents
1.    Prepare an email with relevant details, such as desired dates of travel, destination and route (if you have decided on a particular route), approximate departure times, ages of travellers.
2.    Plan this in advance so that you can allow the rail-booking agent time to respond, and time for you to consider what they come up with.
3.    If you are in the middle of an enquiry but have found a different solution and no longer need their services, ping them an email to let them know, in order that you don’t waste their time.

Point 3 is really important. By taking 30 seconds to send an email saying that you’ve found another solution, you could save someone 30 minutes or more of spent looking up journeys for you.

I hope this email has provided some useful guidance to help you make the journeys you want. In a separate newsletter (hopefully tomorrow), I’ll provide some example rail schedules.

Best wishes,
Daniel Elkan
Snowcarbon Founder