The hassle of booking an international train

Train station in Switzerland, source: SBB

COLUMN – The reputation of international train tickets is not as positive as it should be. International
train tickets are considered expensive and difficult to book. In reality, they can be amazingly cheap, but are a struggle to find.

In September of this year, I travelled from Copenhagen to Amersfoort, the Netherlands for 34,30 euros. This shows it is in fact possible to find affordable international train tickets. Before Covid-19, I took the Eurostar leaving at 17.19 from St. Pancras in London to Amersfoort twice, for 48 euros. A plane between London and Amsterdam at that time of the day would have cost me at least 200 euros. An extra 200 should be added to the costs to get from the centre of London to an airport and the cost of travel from Amsterdam Airport to Amersfoort.

The problem is that many people are not aware of these possibilities or are unable to find the websites where you can find those cheap tickets. People with expertise use the app DB-Navigator or the website of Trainline.

A few recent examples of people I know:

  • A politician who prefers to travel by train tried to book train tickets from The Hague to Rome for a holiday with her family. She did not manage to find the train tickets. She took the plane.
  • A cousin of mine, a well-educated lady, was asked to speak at a conference in Dresden. It took her half a day wrestling with websites to book a ticket from her home town IJlst, in Friesland, to Dresden. She did not know that early booking might have saved her a lot of money, so she paid far too much.
  • My daughter who lives in La Paz, and who is able to travel all over Latin America, was with her family in the Netherlands. She wanted to go to Brussels, but she got stuck in the website of Dutch Railways NS. I advised her to use the website of Belgian railways SNCB, which proved to be easier. But who knows in the Netherlands that there are other websites?
  • The Connecting Europe Express went Sunday the 3rd of October from Bad Bentheim to Amsterdam. Directors and staff of ProRail and NS were invited to join the train. Similar invitations went to the director of Rover. All those people are experienced travellers by train, so they knew perfectly how to get a ticket to the Dutch border station Hengelo. But how to buy tickets from Hengelo to Bad Bentheim? That proved to be so complicated that everybody had paid a different price varying from 5 to 20 euros for the same short stretch between two border stations.

If the railway undertakings manage to solve this issue in a passenger friendly way, the number of international train passengers will double in a short time.

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Author: Arriën Kruyt

Arriën Kruyt is a Member of the Management Board of the European Passengers Federation (EPF). He also was chairman of Rover, the Netherlands Union of Public transport Users, between 2010 and 2018.

2 comments op “The hassle of booking an international train”

Joachim Falkenhagen|20.10.21|17:15

In addition to better access to truely international tickets, ordinary “inland” tickets at inland prices should be available for train that cross border, just until (or starting at) the border crossing.

For the examples given in the article, a “Dutch” ticket should be available not just to the last station Hengelo before the border, but to the actual border (or the fictive border crossing for ticketing purposes). Similar for a DB ticket from there to the first station in Germany or any other.

Joachim Falkenhagen|20.10.21|17:38

A further problem is that passengers sometimes have to book two different tickets to obtain reasonable prices, e.g. Amsterdam to Zurich or Milan and another one to Rome. If one train is delayed, the other ticket is not usable any more and you end up paying once again for the same route, at a much higher price level than originally. Not to speak of any “passenger right” compensation for the delay, which is not the issue here.

The overcharging for late booking of rail tickets is the main problem.

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