Désolée, a story about SNCF - Grampies Track the Tortes (2019) - CycleBlaze

March 8, 2019

Désolée, a story about SNCF

The Société nationale des chemins de fer (SNCF) is France's national railway company. In the past we have had few complaints with them. Yes, it can be unclear where to put your bike on a train, or officious conductors may try to shift you around, or stations can have only stairs, making it very difficult to change trains when burdened with loaded bikes.  But, as in the rest of Europe,  their trains go everywhere, are plentiful, fast, and even run on time, mostly.

As a final entry on their plus side, in-station announcements are preceded by a very catchy and friendly little tune, which we are conditioned to associate with good news, like "your train is approaching".

When it comes to booking train travel, we have found a myriad of companies on the internet, ready to scope out a route, and take your money.  Some of the names we have looked at, or tried, are thetrainline.com, raileurope.ca, eurail.com, etc. It' like priceline or expedia or others,  which we use for air tickets.

Probably influenced most by that cheery tune, I decided to use SNCF to book our return train, from Bregenz, Austria to Paris. For Paris to Bregenz we had already used thetrainline.com. That site had planned us a merry escapade, hopping and skipping through Germany and Switzerland - 5 changes.  So I had decided their computer was a little demented.

The SNCF online site is called OUI - again quite upbeat. Oui sent us first to Zurich, and then onto a TGV (fast train) straight to Paris. OK! The site was fairly easy to understand. The only curious thing was a side panel titled "Travel Information" that advertised five little services - like a monthly calendar of fares so you could choose the cheapest day, presumably. But none of these little adds were live links - there was no indication of how you could get to use the services.  This was the scene:

Innocent looking side panel.
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So under the title "Ticket Delivery Options" we have a logo that says 'Ticketless".  It seems to indicate that things are ticketless, which is what one expects from an online site.  And anyway "there is nothing to click here", so I just moved along.

Hah! It turns out that "Ticketless" is something you can aspire to. No way is it automatic, and neither is it available on all trains!  The next hint of something amiss was that my friendly OUI site casually asked for my email address and street address. OK, we're all friends here! 

But then, once my money was safe in their coffers, they used that email address to send a message saying that "As Selected" my tickets would soon be in the mail - to that address in Canada!

No, no, we are leaving Canada - don't send anything here!

Ok, there has to be a way to "unselect" this non selection. What followed was an hour or two as I crawled every inch of their site, looking for a way out, or at least a way to contact SNCF and get them to fix it.

I am pretty good with computers and patient with web sites. But in time I had to go out and chop some wood, to avoid having a stroke! On OUI, every road to "contact us" leads to an artificial intelligence or FAQ page! They did not seem to have phones or email.

Finally, I left the site and used Google generally to finally come up with a SNCF phone number, and also a way to send an email. I sent the email first. I NEED AN ETICKET! was the jist. They replied that they would reply within 48 hours. 

Next the phone number. It contained an elaborate telephone tree. Thankfully the French voice was quite clear, and I navigated to what seemed a good place. This earned me a "Call back between 7:00 and 22:00".  Of course. That's 22:00 local time to 13:00 tomorrow, local time. No problem, just not an early bed time for me.

At 22:00, or 7:00, or whatever, I called back. After listening to my introduction in French, the lady that answered switched to English. I was glad of that. But she retained one essential French word, critical to anyone behind any sort of counter, in France.  "Désolée".  Technically this just means "sorry", but experience gives us the more complete definition: "Sucks to be you!". This is preferably combined with a Gallic shrug, and the thought that it must be time now to break for a croissant.

The lady went on to explain that an e-ticket was not possible on an "international" train. I guess the news of the formation of the EU has not yet filtered through. Ok, wait. Switzerland is not in the EU. But it was not me that brought up Switzerland, I was just trying to get out of Austria! Anyway, désolée.

But wait, Dodie had armed me with a second ploy. Change the address, to a European one we could reach. Désolée, it is not possible to change the address. Say what? But, I croaked, that address is WRONG. Yes, you have recorded a WRONG, WRONG, WRONG address! You don't need to "change" it,  just correct it!

Well now, the lady was willing to do that. But oh oh, how do you spell out for someone in Paris that the correct town name for that address field is Höchst. In time she got it, and I was feeling pretty good. Until her final words "I will email (someone internal) with news of this address correction".

So there you have it. What are the chances we will get out of Austria? Or will we dwell in Höchst forever?

By the way, 5 days later a reply came for my email: Désolé (sucks to be you)!

Bonus. Not happy with SNCF? Trainline will take you on Deutsche Bahn (DB). But their insane computer proposes up to seven changes of train, with transfer times as little as 3 minutes! Don't worry though, they also will hand you waits of several hours to recollect your thoughts:

Only a computer could like this schedule. Offenburg, or course, is still in Germany, 500 km from Paris. The rest of the trip is on the next page, but I'll spare you!
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Noreen BreIn terms of using the DB website/app, I might be able to help you (if you still need it or if you should need it in the future). Qualifications: long-term-user, German native speaker and I seem to be able to endure much mental pain ;-).

When it comes to dealing with SNCF website, last time I tried, I admit I eventually gave up and went to the DB counter instead to book a journey from Frankfurt to Marseille exclusively in trains that will take bikes - which (as you might know) can multiply the degree of difficulty ...

P.S.: I've been reading some (if not many) of your journals over time and I really enjoy your sense of humor, the photos and your writing style!

Greetings from Mainz, Noreen
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3 months ago
Steve Miller/GrampiesTo Noreen BreHi Noreen, we are pleased to now know someone from Mainz! One day maybe we'll try to pass by and visit.
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3 months ago
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Kathleen ClassenOMG. I will be honest, I have never been successful at booking a train online...I find the only solution is going to a train station, which of course I cannot do until we are in Europe and which always means we pay top dollar. Why is it so hard? Couldn’t their IT department visit an airline for a quick tutorial?? Perhaps you should fly. That would be easy to book from here.
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3 months ago
Steve Miller/GrampiesTo Kathleen ClassenEerrph, the nearest airport is Friedrichshafen, 40 km away on the slow lakeshore road, and then the cost is 5x that of the train (I checked Expedia. However it was impressive that they have heard of these crazy places.)
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3 months ago
Jacquie GaudetI got all the way to paying for our tickets on Ouigo.com and on Trainline.eu, only to discover that Canadian credit cards are not accepted. Nor is PayPal nor any other method of payment I can think of.

I didn't get quite to the payment page on raileurope.ca or thetrainline.com because those sites did not list the earlier, cheaper departure we wanted and which we had seen on the other sites, instead denying its existence.

How did you manage to actually pay for tickets?
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3 months ago
Steve Miller/GrampiesTo Jacquie GaudetA few years ago we established a Euros account with HSBC. The account is run out of Paris, but transfers from Canada are made easy by HSBC's rather international outlook. Dealing with French HSBC is a whole other thing, but often it works out.

This time around they sent a text to our Canadian phone, asking for confirmation that we really wanted to buy these cuckoo train tickets out of Austria. Had we waited to buy the tickets until we were in Europe, then that Canadian phone would have been in Canada. Desole!

In principle we could use our card to buy the tickets for you, but the chance of screwing up the trains or your names or how the tickets are delivered is huge. Still, let us know if you can see a way.
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3 months ago
Susan CarpenterI too have found SNCF/Oui to be increasingly frustrating. Very few TGV trains take bicycles, and the new site doesn't seem to list all the regional TER/ICE train options. The Bahn is quite good, as is the Austrian OBB - both has a toggle that allows you to search using a longer transfer time.
I did look at trainline site, but I couldn't see where a search would include only the trains that allow bikes -which is necessary to confirm before purchasing the ticket. Is it somewhere I missed?
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3 months ago