I’d like to start this post with a massive thankyou to the Seat61 website, whose excellent (and comprehensive!) articles on booking European trains were very helpful when I was first figuring this out. That said, I thought a more specific, step-by-step guide might be helpful to my fellow Australians. Much of this advice will also be functional for travellers in other countries, but I can’t make any promises. I should also specify that everything I say in this entry is my opinion and your experience might vary.
Step one: Bypass FailEurope.
The RailEurope website for Australia is by far one of the worst that I’ve ever encountered for booking online services; it crashes, it doesn’t display much information, it refuses to refresh and retain any information and its timetables are sometimes spotty or incomplete. It does work, but I don’t want to be doing transactions on a website like this.
On the far left, you’ll be presented with the menu shown at the top of this post. In this instance, I’ve populated it with options for a hypothetical one-way trip from Paris to Lyon on the 18th of December. Also, if you’re a youth traveller (<25 years old) you can hit ‘more criteria’ to specify that and sometimes receive discounted fares.
However, once you click search, the website will realise that you’re in a non-European region and attempt to redirect you to the local arm of RailEurope. This may also happen earlier in the process (when you first specify your region), so be vigilant! Simply select ‘Continue on www.tgv-europe.com’ and this will be prevented. The only downside here is that the prices are in Euros, so you will be charged a conversion fee by your bank, bringing the prices roughly into line with what it seems RailEurope would have charged you anyway. I did a few direct comparisons and RailEurope was generally a dollar or two more expensive, although others have alleged that they sometimes add extra fees.
Step two: Pick a fare and a delivery option.
Once you have evaded the cunning attempt to divert you to the other website, you’ll be presented with a list of available trains on the travel date you specified. Another advantage of this website is that it allows you to book ‘Prem’s’, which are discounted fares that are non-negotiable. Other tickets can be cancelled or exchanged either online or by phone, so only pick this cheaper option if you’re certain of your travelling arrangements.
Select your preferred departure time and pricing option, as well as your place on the train if desired. Different trains have different options for this, depending on the arrangement of the train cars and the class you’ve nominated.
Once you’ve confirmed your choice, you’ll be given the option to choose a delivery method.
The only one I’ve used is the E-ticket service, so I can’t say much about the others. Fortunately, provided you have access to a printer which prints in A4, this service works fine. Outside of France, I booked a ticket from London to Paris via the Eurostar which arrived in my letterbox about ten days later, free of charge.
Step three: Pay and receive your tickets.
Tickets can be paid for using any card which bears the Mastercard or Visa logo, apparently. I successfully used two different Debit Mastercards without any issues. You’ll be asked to authorise through your home bank – which worked fine for me – and then the payment will go through.
Note that they may ask you for your ‘forename’, which is their poorly-translated way of saying ‘first name’. ‘Name’ on this website means ‘surname’. I suspect it’s a holdover from the French prénom (first name) and nom (name).
After this, you’ll be given a receipt (useful to print this as a just in case measure, I saved all of mine as .pdfs and took them with me as well) and will be e-mailed your ticket, including the crucial QR code, which will be scanned on the train.
Step four: Go to Europe.
With your tickets booked, you need only print them out and take them with you to the station, along with valid identification which matches the name on the ticket. I used my passport for this and it was always accepted. Make sure you do print them in advance, however, as I’ve heard stories of them being unwilling to scan the codes from mobile devices, such as iPhones or tablets, and you might not be able to find a printer the morning of departure.
I hope this guide is helpful to some of my fellow Australians seeking to travel by European rail. I found the whole thing a bit confusing at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s really easy. Unfortunately, I didn’t need to book any trains outside of France, except for the Eurostar from London (same procedure, but no eTicket option), so I can’t say whether there are additional steps there.