How to book independent travel and rail-ski packages to the Alps
Train journeys to the Alps are fantastic. The experience is much more enjoyable and social than flying or driving. Travelling by rail means you can spend quality time with friends and family, enjoying the space and scenery. And it's far more sustainable too.
But what is the best way to book your journey? Train companies haven't made booking as simple as it should be. Rail-booking websites can be hugely frustrating, and often — even if they make a search seem simple — they don't give you the right results (see film below). For example, you'll do a search and it will come back with very few options when actually there are many that the system just doesn't show. If you are ever on a rail-booking website and you end up feeling frustrated or annoyed, remember it's not you being thick. It's the system - which basically isn't fit for purpose. Flights are easy to book; trains, well not so much. And it shouldn't be that way.
However, Snowcarbon is here to help. We don't book journeys for you, but what we will share with you is the knowledge about the best way to do. We can help by recommending the best websites, rail booking agencies and tour operators. Snowcarbon doesn't make any money from recommending any of these websites or agencies.
Depending on your destination and which trains you take, some journeys are easier to book than others. Some journeys are easy to book online, other journeys are much better booked for you by some of the expert rail-booking agencies (see below).
With this knowledge and knowing who to ask, booking can be straighforward, leaving you to be excited about the journey ahead.
Booking independent rail travel online
If you want to book train travel independently, the quickest and most immediate way is to book tickets online. There are several websites that you can do this on. Booking online has advantages and disadvantages. Here are some thoughts:
Advantage 1: It's immediate
If your journey is one that can be booked online, then rail-booking websites will give you an immediate result. You could literally be booking a journey to the Alps and back within a couple of minutes. Job done.
Advantage 2: Low booking fees
Rail-booking websites charge low booking fees. By contrast the fees you pay with a rail-booking agent can be higher (but not by much, and can be worth it for other reasons).
Disadvantage 1: Many journey options can't be booked online
There are plenty of journeys, or journey options that can't be successfully booked online. That's because the rail-ticketing system is overcomplicated and the algorithms that power the searches online often don't cope well. As a result, journey schedules that exist and are bookable don't show up online, or show as 'unavailable'.
Disadvantage 2: Rail-booking online can be confusing
Although the websites are set up to look simple, you might find yourself going round in circles trying to work out how to book. Again, not in all cases, but in some cases.
Disadvantage 3: Lack of flexibility
Want a journey that goes out via Paris, but back via Lille? Difficult to book online. Want more time to change station, or to break your journey with a stopover? Same problem. Rail-booking websites are very blunt tools and may not be suitable for giving you the journey that you would ideally want.
Disadvantage 4: You can only book for up to nine people
Are there 10 or more people in your party? If so, this can't be booked online in one booking, and to be sure of sitting together, you'll need to book through a rail-booking agency. Why the rail industry has this rule, I don't know.
So in summary, online booking can work well in some cases, and not in others. Fortunately, using a rail-booking agent to book your tickets can be an excellent alternative solution, which we will take a look further down this article.
How to find hidden train journeys online
The idea that rail-booking websites hide some of the best journeys between the UK and the Alps might sound mad. But it happens all the time. They don't do this on purpose. It's just that the booking algorithms can't cope with the task that they are being asked to do. This video shows you how this happens - and how you can find these hidden journeys.
Booking rail travel with a rail-booking agent
Rail-booking agents offer a really fantastic service, and yet many travellers are unaware of their existence. These agencies are able to book virtually any trains for you, enabling you to book trains and journeys that you might not have been able to do online. But because these small companies don't have big marketing budgets and are not actively promoted by train companies, you probably haven't heard of them. Well you have now.
Rail-booking agents charge a small fee, which they add on to the cost of the tickets. This is often about £10 per journey or about 10% of the cost of the travel. But the fact that they can save you money or enable you to book trains that you couldn't have done as cheaply or as easily online, means this can be well worth it.
How is it that rail booking agents can do so more than you can yourself online? It's because they've got more geeky, sophisticated booking systems and loads of knowledge and experience. The difference in booking systems is like the cockpit controls of an aeroplane compared to an automatic car. Or a meal from a personalised chef versus the menu at Nandos - except without the stark difference in price.
The reason that we are so enthusiastic about rail-booking agents is that we've seen time and time again how they can make it easy for skiers to book travel. But as with any method of booking, there are advantages and disadvantages. Let's take a look at these here:
Advantage 1: Flexibility to book any trains
Rail-booking websites are very restrictive in what they let you book, unless you split everything into separate bookings, which is inadvisable. By contrast, rail-booking agents are able to put together an itinerary of any trains you want and book it in the most financially advantageous way possible.
Advantage 2: You may be offered journeys that weren't even showing up online
It's not uncommon that for some journeys, when you do a search for times and tickets online, you get a null result, or only see a fraction of the trains that are actually possible. By contrast, agents are far better able to see what's available and offer this to you.
Advantage 3: You maybe be able to get a quote held
If you are booking for a number of friends or for another family too, it can be reassuring to be able to show others a quote to get everyone's agreement before going ahead. Sometimes rail-booking agents can hold quotes for a short period too, although even when they can't, prices are not going to change too dramatically if you are delayed in getting a decision from your buddies.
Advantage 4: You can book 10 or more people this way
As mentioned in the section above, rail-booking websites don't allow bookings of 10 or more people in one go. But with a rail-booking agents, it doesn't matter how many people are in your party — the agent can book you as a group.
Disadvantage 1: It's not immediate
Booking with a rail-booking agent is normally done by email and phone. Initially, you might have to wait up to 24 hours to get an answer, although we've seen queries mostly answered much faster. But a little bit of patience will pay off, in terms of time saved, journeys offered and the ability to book what you are ideally looking for.
Disadvanatage 2: Refunds can take longer
As you may know, if your train journey is cancelled, you are entitled to a monetary refund, regardless of how you book. If you've booked through an agent, they have to apply for the refund for you. And what we saw over the past two years is that, unfortunately and unfairly, rail companies were quite slow to reimburse agents for cancelled trains. So your refund might take longer to arrive than if you'd booked the journey directly with a train company or a ticket-agent online. This is, of course, an unlikely scenario, but it's worth noting nevertheless.
Rail booking agents
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. These companies charge a fee but are able to find you the best fares available as soon as trains go on sale. They can often hold seats further in advance than you could yourself online; and they take the hassle out of booking. All the companies below can book any journey for you.
NB: direct journeys on the Eurostar Ski Train are better booked directly online or by phoning Eurostar.
The Travel Bureau
Helping people book rail travel since 1984, The Travel Bureau has an expert, knowledgeable team who can book journeys for you and can help with any journey.
The Travel Bureau charges a fee of £10 per traveller (sometimes less for larger groups).
Phone: (+44) 01902 326 662 (10:00 – 16:00 Monday – Friday)
Helping people book rail travel since 1986, Trainseurope has an expert, knowledgeable team who can book journeys for you.
Can help with any journey.
Trainseurope charges a fee of £10 per traveller.
Phone: (+44) 01354 660222 (09:00 – 17:00 Monday – Friday; 09:00 – 15:00 Saturday)
A family run, Hampshire-based rail-booking agent with an experienced team of staff.
Can help with any journey.
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
Established in 1974, Ffestiniog Travel is owned by a Charitable Trust. Profits support the world-famous Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways. There is a booking fee for all ticketing arrangements made, charged as a percentage of the total booking cost, 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.
Phone: 01766 515630
Independent rail travel vs rail-ski packages
You can book ski holidays independently, putting all the elements together yourself; or you can book a package with a ski tour operator, with rail travel, transfers and accommodation all included. Currently, there are very few tour operators that package accommodation with train travel. The main player now is Travelski Express, which has exclusively chartered the Eurostar Ski Train and sells it with all-inclusive packages. You can find out more in our Guide to the Travelski Express and also, in the section below.
Most other ski tour operators don't offer rail-ski packages as such, but that's where Snowcarbon can help. There are advantages (and disadvantages) to each way of doing it. And there aren't many ski tour operators offering rail-inclusive ski packages (even though lots of tour operators would like to be able to do so, and hopefully more will do so in future - something we are campaigning for).
Your priorities are 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.
And if you'd like destination and holiday suggestions, Snowcarbon's founder, Daniel, is always happy to help (just send Daniel an email saying who it's for and what you are ideally looking for).
Booking travel independently, or booking the travel as part of a package with a tour operator can both be good options. Here are a few FAQs:
Is it cheaper to book independently or to book with a ski tour operator?
In most cases, it will work out about the same cost. You might want the tour operator to book the journey for you, as they will package everything up for you, and the holiday is protected by tour-operator bonding. Or you can ask them to book just the accommodation, or accommodation and transfers, and do the rail booking yourself (online, or with an expert rail-booking agency - see below). The exception to this is the Travelski Express, because they have now chartered the train privately and so control their own train prices.
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)
Can a ski tour operator book tickets further in advance?
Generally, not, a few can book the Eurostar Ski Train further in advance.
Is there more availability of rail tickets with independent travel or with a tour operator?
It depends. For journeys on the Eurostar Ski Train, a couple 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).
Types of tour operator (with regard to rail travel)
It can be helpful to think of tour operators as one of 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 journeys for you. 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.
The rail network is safe, pretty reliable and certainly 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 Rail Europe 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 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.
5. 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.
6. 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.
Contact details for train companies
Eurostar's reservation centre can not only book the Eurostar Ski Train for you. They can also book indirect Eurostar + TGV journeys to quite a few French destinations. It can take around 10 - 15 minutes to get through someimes, so do it when you are sitting comfortably.
Phone: 03432 186 186
Mon-Fri 8am - 7pm; Sat-Sun 9am - 5pm.
Booking fee: £10 per booking (not per person)
OUI.sncf (formerly Voyages SNCF)
When it comes to making bookings by phone, OUI unfortunately says 'Non!' - because SNCF closed its UK call centre in March 2018 when it rebranded.
They do have an information line and a booking helpline, but both are horrendously expensive to call. If you are finding that you need help booking online, you'd be better to book with a rail-booking agency (see our list further down this page).
1. Information line: +33 8 92 35 35 35
Mon-Sat 8 am to 6 pm, closed on Sunday (French time)
Calls cost around £1.50 per minute from UK mobile and about £2.50 per minute from a UK landline (cheap overseas call options don't work on these numbers).
2. Online helpdesk (to help you with online bookings) +33 9 70 60 99 70,
Monday to Saturday 9 a.m.-7 p.m (French time), closed on Sunday.
OUI.sncf says: "Our advisors are here to help and accompany our customers during their online experience on OUI.sncf." - while you get more and more wound up by the cost of the call...
Calls cost around £1.50 per minute from UK mobile and about £2.50 per minute from a UK landline (cheap overseas call options don't work on these numbers).
The German rail operator can book any journey to European destinations and has expertise as a booking agent.
Phone +44 8718 80 80 66 (costs depend on provider)
Mon-Fri: 09:00 to 20:00 (GMT), Sat-Sun: 09:00 to 13:00 (GMT)
How to book the Travelski Express 2021-22
Since 1997, the Eurostar Ski Train has taken skiers direct from London to the Tarentaise region of the French Alps. There's a daytime and an overnight service, which usually goes on sale in mid July. However, as you'll no doubt be aware, Eurostar cancelled the Ski Train for the 2020-21 season, due to the pandemic. And for the 2021-22 season, the Eurostar Ski Train has been charted by French tour operator, Travelski and marketed as Travelski Express. This means you can book a package on the Travelski Express that includes train ticket, transfer from station to resort, accommodation and ski pass.
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 Rail Europe or with Voyages SNCF, 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.
The answer in this case is either to do the booking by phone or via a rail-booking agency (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 Rail Europe or with Voyages SNCF, or Eurostar. The direct Eurostar Ski Train normally goes on sale in July, 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 view independent rail-booking options 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 Rail Europe - 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.
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.
Ski holidays by train — Ask Snowcarbon
At Snowcarbon we are always happy to help you with suggestions for great resorts, fantastic accommodation and how to get there.
Looking forward to helping you.