How to find and book slower trains in Europe
We’ve already published many articles on the subject of booking train tickets in Europe, most of them by our go-to rail experts, the team at hidden europe magazine. I was reminded of their advice earlier this week when trying to find (and book) train tickets from Avignon, in the south of France, to Florence, Italy in January.
Here’s what I found…
1. Start with the national rail Web sites.
Note: As mentioned elsewhere, you have to continue browsing the SNCF site in French, as clicking on the British flag to switch languages will take you to RailEurope, which may not show the same fares. We have this article on how to book tickets in French for non-French speakers.
When I checked on SNCF, the proposed train from Avignon to Florence is a high-speed TGV train running to Lyon, then another TGV to Turin, and finally one last train to Florence. Total time: 11 hr 58 min. Cost €183.
This was deemed a bit too expensive, and also struck me as a bit out of the way.
Furthermore, I wanted to experience smaller trains, not necessarily jetting up to Lyon and down to Turin on a TGV. (Read hidden europe’s excellent piece on opting for the slow train.) I also wanted to hug the Mediterranean for as much of the journey as possible.
But how can you find those slower, more direct, and cheaper trains? You could look at a map and plot it out, but what if you don’t know the route?
2. Find the route on Bahn.de
The German railway, Deutsche Bahn, provides a great service (in English, too!) on their Web site. Do the same search (Avignon – Florence on January 6) and you’ll see that the first result is the same as the SNCF’s, via Lyon. The next results, however, are much more interesting.
Note: In order to see slower and less-direct routes, un-tick the “Prefer fast connections” box before searching.
In the third result, Die Bahn shows a TGV to Nice, then a regional to Ventimiglia (the Italian border town), an Intercity train to Milan and finally a EuroStar Italia train to Florence. Total trains have increased (four), but the time is actually faster (10 hr., 44 min). Only problem, this still heads north to Milan. I want to see Genoa — and trace the Ligurian Sea.
And there it is, the final option: From Ventimiglia I can take a train up to Genoa, and then follow the sea all the way around to Pisa, then Florence.
The only problem: They don’t show fares for these routes and you can’t book them here. Now what?
3. Head back to the national railway sites.
To book this journey, I’ll need to book on two sites: the SNCF and Trenitalia.
Back on the SNCF, I search for Avignon – Ventimiglia. Et voila! There’s a 9:30 TGV from Avignon to Nice, then a slower TER train to Ventimiglia, arriving at 13:43. Total price: €32, when booked in advance. (Note that the Bahn site shows a 10:11 a.m. TGV from Avignon, but I book a 9:30 a.m. train instead, as it will give me an extra hour in Ventimiglia for a little break.)
Then I head over to Trenitalia, switch to English, and do the Ventimiglia – Florence search. And there’s my train: Ventimiglia (14:58) – Genoa – Pisa – Florence. The total ticket price can be as low as €34.80, booked in advance.
4. Booking issues
Now, at this point I’m feeling pretty smart. I go ahead and book the seats on the SNCF site, never switching from French to English.
But when I go to book the tickets on the Italian site, I get booking errors. Something has gone wrong. I have to create an account, but then it won’t let me pay. We’ve hit a snag.
The site tells me:
“Error code : 998 Dear customer, due to some malfunction of the system transaction is unsuccessful. No charges made. Please try again later.”
Not to panic, the base fares for the ticket are still pretty low. If I simply wait to buy the same tickets in Ventimiglia during my one-hour transfer, it will still be €43.80, in lieu of the €34.80 discounted price on the site.
I guess some things can still be booked the old-fashioned way, by waiting in a line.
Even with this little snag, I’ll be able to get from Avignon to Florence for €32 + €43.80 = €75.80, a savings of more than €100.
And yes, even though it will require several more stops and transfers, the trip will mostly be spent hugging the Mediterranean. It just took a little research.