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One of the questions we are often asked is “where do you recommend buying train tickets for journeys from Britain to the Continent?” The good news is that there are many vendors with which we have had very positive experiences in buying tickets (single or return) for journeys that originate in Great Britain. And our decision to turn to one rather than another for a specific purchase is first and foremost influenced by our itinerary.
Too often we hear folk complain that buying international train tickets from the UK is difficult, and too often that supposed difficulty is adduced as an argument in favor of flying. Our experience in buying train tickets has however generally been positive. Buying train tickets from Britain to the near-Continent (and even to spots further afield in Europe) is pretty easy.
Fast and easy with Rail Europe UK
For straightforward journeys to France originating in London a very good choice is Rail Europe UK. A simple easy-to-understand user interface allows for painless online bookings from London (or Eurostar’s two other points of call in south-east England: Ebbsfleet and Ashford) to many stations in France.
Journeys from London booked with Rail Europe always start with a journey on Eurostar. Rail Europe UK gives the convenience of being able to purchase, with just one transaction, tickets from London right through to your final destination (which will often involve a change of train in Paris, Lille or — though only occasionally — Calais).
If you move off the main routes, or search for itineraries with multiple changes of train, you may find that the online booking system will advise you to call the Rail Europe UK booking center (0044 844 848 4064) to finalize your booking. A booking fee of £8 (that is per booking, not per ticket) applies to bookings made by phone. You do need a credit card registered at a UK billing address. Our experience is that the quality of telephone service offered by Rail Europe UK is first class (although at busy times you may have to just be a little patient).
Rail Europe UK is a top choice for journeys not merely to France. Depending on your itinerary, it is a good option for journeys through France and beyond. For example, it makes perfect sense to try Rail Europe first if you are planning journeys to:
1. Central and southern Germany where you particularly wish to travel via Paris rather than Brussels and Cologne;
2. Western and central Switzerland routed via Paris rather than Brussels and Cologne;
3. Spain via Paris, then continuing onward by daytime TGV trains or with the comfortable overnight services from Paris to Barcelona or Madrid run by Elipsos;
4. Belgian Flanders where you wish to connect at Lille (rather than Brussels) onto SNCB local services;
5. Luxembourg via either Brussels or Paris;
6. Aachen or Cologne in Germany if you wish to travel via Paris and then continue with a Thalys train (rather than taking the more obvious and faster route with Eurostar to Brussels and then on to Germany);
7. Northern Italy via Paris.
London to Paris, Brussels, or Lille
For simple point-to-point journeys from London to Eurostar’s direct destinations (eg. Paris, Brussels, Lille, etc), Rail Europe UK is a good choice, though for these straightforward bookings we would also recommend booking your tickets on Eurostar’s own website.
Leeds to Lille, Peterborough to Paris
Where the Eurostar website is superb is in allowing through bookings from over 450 stations in Britain via London and the Channel Tunnel to the continent. You can thus book from many provincial stations in England, Wales and Scotland right thru to any Eurostar destination on the Continent — and even to stations beyond the tentacles of the Eurostar network. You can book online thru tickets to any station in Belgium or the Netherlands, to hundreds of stations across France and to five Swiss cities.
Deutsche Bahn UK
Deutsche Bahn (DB) is our clear first choice for online bookings from London on all journeys to Germany routed via Brussels and Cologne. Online bookings are only possible if you use one of DB’s four daily ICE trains on the cross-border hop from Brussels to Cologne (rather than the more frequent Thalys services). Stick to one of those DB trains, book three months in advance, and you’ll find some mighty bargains for journeys from London to the remotest corners of Germany. If you have any problems booking online, just call the DB UK booking center at 0044 8718 80 80 66.
The Brussels-Cologne route makes perfect sense for journeys from London to northern Germany. If you are heading for Munich or elsewhere in the south, you may secure a faster journey time via Paris (in which case Rail Europe UK is the obvious booking portal).
Through Tickets to Holland
We have from time to time used other sites for booking journeys from London to the near-Continent. For journeys from London to the Netherlands, the NS Hi-Speed site has served us well.
And we are great fans of journeys that combine rail and sea and thus like the Stena Line site which allows us to book thru rail-sea journeys from any one of over 150 stations in eastern England to any railway station in the Netherlands from as little as £39 one-way. Look for the dutchflyer Rail and Sail fares.
Spoiled for Choice
Well are we aware that there are many other vendors who offer tickets in the UK to the Continent, and some will perhaps cry foul that we have not mentioned them here. We have heard folk speak well of new start-up Loco2 (for online bookings) and we have received many good reports of the first-class customer service provided by four long-established agents: Ffestiniog Travel, TrainsEurope, International Rail and Rail Canterbury. We have no reason to doubt those reports — in this article we have merely foregrounded those vendors with whom we have ourselves had positive experiences.
Just in case you wondered, none of the companies mentioned in this article offered any incentive to secure a mention. We review these issues of ticketing in more depth in our book Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide for independent Travellers (published by Thomas Cook).
Finally, we must put in a good word for Mark Smith, the marvelous Man in Seat 61, whose website gives wise counsel on all matters relating to the high theology of European rail ticketing.