Booking Paris-Barcelona trains: your options in detail

January 7th, 2013 by Kate Griffin Leave a reply »

Last summer I blogged about taking the train from London to Barcelona using the Paris-Barcelona sleeper. There wasn’t room in that post for a detailed comparison of all the booking options, so I thought I would write one in this follow-up post.

I’ve been booking the London-Barcelona train journey in various different ways for nearly seven years now, and I think I’ve tried all the options. The most surprising thing I’ve discovered from this is how few options there really are. There are also a surprising number of fake options which will cause stress and wasted time if you let them. These are listed later in this blog post under “ones to avoid”.

The proliferation of different websites makes it seem at first as if there’s plenty of choice and competition in this market. But, as I explain, that’s not really true.

Before you start reading my detailed list of options, it’s worth understanding that the Paris-Barcelona sleeper is run by a company called Elipsos. This is a 50/50 partnership between RENFE, the Spanish national rail company, and SNCF, the French national rail company. Elipsos was created as a way to handle the logistics of cross-border train journeys.

The best options (in my opinion)…

Loco2 is a low-carbon travel company with a nice simple web interface. (Full disclosure: I’m friends with the people who run it.) You used to have to book the London-Paris and Paris-Barcelona bits separately, but this is no longer true: you can book the whole London-Barcelona journey through Loco2 as one journey if you like. (I don’t do this personally because Loco2 doesn’t let you choose how big a gap you want between the Eurostar and the sleeper, and I like to leave a big over-cautious 4-hour gap.) I used Loco2 for the first time on a trip to Barcelona in October 2012. When the sleeper was cancelled due to strike action, they offered invaluable help. I can really recommend them highly.

Spanish Rail is a British booking agent for Renfe, based in London. You can email them on info@spanish-rail.co.uk or ring on 020 3137 4464. Last time I used them they charged a booking fee of 10 Euros per person (not per journey). The office is closed at weekends and for lunch from 1:30pm to 2:30pm. I found them helpful and quick when I last used them in June 2011, and well worth the booking fee.

Other popular choices…

RailEurope.co.uk: English-language website run by the UK arm of SNCF. Many people see this as the default option for booking this journey. It’s also the option recommended by train guru The Man In Seat 61. I’ve found the website confusing and buggy in the past, but it seems to have improved in the last 18 months or so, perhaps thanks to the recommendations of a usability consultancy they brought in.

You can also book with Rail Europe over the phone on 0844 848 4078. But this incurs a booking fee (£8 last time I checked), so you pay to phone them on the 0844 number, then you pay a booking fee on top of that. Also, they can’t give out seat availability information over the phone because Elipsos doesn’t release it to them. The only way they can find out what’s available is by trying to book a journey. And after it’s booked, if it’s un-booked it stays in their system as taken for 48 hours, so they’re understandably reluctant to try booking lots of journeys just to find out what’s there.

www.voyages-sncf.com: the main SNCF website. You can use it in English, French and German. If you use the English-language version, it’s basically exactly the same as using the RailEurope.co.uk site (and if the RailEurope.co.uk site is down, this part of the www.voyages-sncf.com site will be down too). If you use the French-language version, it’s a different booking interface which I personally find slightly easier, although it’s necessary to understand French well. However, the French-language booking system plays music and adverts at you the whole time you’re trying to book, and there’s no obvious way of turning these off except by turning off the sound on your computer. This for me cancels out the good effects of the slightly simpler booking interface.

And the ones to avoid…

Renfe.com: AVOID. This site seems great: it has an English-language version and a reasonably easy web interface. But if you’re in the UK, you can’t actually book through it! It will let you go all the way through the booking process, including taking all your credit card details. It will even ask you for your passport number and then appear to accept it. But right at the end, just when you think you’re on the home stretch, it will suddenly give you an error message and say “sorry for the inconvenience” in Spanish. And that’s it. Game over. I dread to think how many British tears have been shed over this website.

Elipsos.com: AVOID. This site has an English-language version, which is lovely as far as it goes… but when you click Purchase, it redirects you to the Renfe.com site, which will lead you a merry dance before refusing to sell you anything and leaving you back at square one.

RailEurope.com: DON’T BOTHER. This is for people living in the USA and Canada only. I’ve fallen foul of this in the past, trying to book only to discover it’s impossible with a UK address. These days the site can tell you’re visiting it from the UK and will ask you to confirm this before you go any further. As soon as you do, it redirects you to the RailEurope.co.uk site mentioned above. You might as well save yourself the extra clicks and go straight to RailEurope.co.uk.

If you’ve read this far, I hope I’ve made booking easier for you by sharing what I’ve learnt over the years. My sincere advice would be to use Loco2 or Spanish Rail for the easiest booking experience. If you’re snoozing your way to Spain, it makes sense to find a stress-free way of booking the trip.

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