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Booking rail tickets for Christmas and beyond

By Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries |

Across much of western and central Europe, new train timetables kick in on Sunday 9 December 2012. This is a once-a-year event when public transport schedules are revised. That’s not to say that there will not be further tinkering with timetables during the opening months of 2013, but the major timetable change that sets the general pattern of services for the following 12 months takes place in mid-December each year.

Coordinating international rail schedules is a tricky business and until such time as all the various operators have loaded the relevant schedules into their databases the trains cannot be booked. So the period preceding the timetable change can be frustrating for travellers who are accustomed to booking trains well in advance. On many European rail routes, tickets go on sale three months in advance, so late September and early October is the period when folk might be looking to plan journeys over Christmas and the New Year. But in the run-up to 9 December, the normal long forward booking horizons may not apply.

There is no single date on which all services are miraculously unveiled for booking. Some schedules are more complicated to coordinate than others. So, whether you are booking online or at a station, it is always worth checking back just to see if your preferred train has now become available.

What’s already available?

Tickets can already be purchased for some journeys for the period after the 9 December timetable change. Norwegian Railways generally allow booking three months in advance and has already published schedules and opened booking for journeys after the big shake-up on 9 December. So if you are looking to buy a mid-December bargain minipris fare in Norway, no need to wait. Book soon!

Sweden also already allows bookings beyond 9 December. In fact, many Swedish rail journeys on principal routes can be booked even more than three months in advance, but then often only at the top-of-the-range refundable full fare. Better, we say, to wait till 90 days prior to travel and then catch one of the bargain fares released only at that time. There are however some Swedish routes where even the bargain tickets are released earlier than that nominal 90-day threshold. That applies particularly on services to the far north, which are popular with winter sports enthusiasts. Such routes, notably the Stockholm to Narvik services, are already on sale well into 2013 and prices, we note, are already creeping up.

In western Europe, Thalys services beyond the timetable change are fully available for booking (and that applies even to the bargain no-flex fares). They can be booked up to three months prior to the date of travel.

Eurostar generally has a booking horizon of four months, and all Eurostar trains are already available for booking well beyond the December schedule changes. Eurostar’s direct ski trains to the Alps can already be booked right through to April 2013. The situation with Eurostar bookings that involve other operators is more complicated. Tickets to “any Belgian station” (so with onward travel with SNCB services from Brussels) can already be booked over Christmas the New Year (and up to four months in advance). But through tickets to other continental stations, involving a change of train in Paris, Brussels, Calais or Lille are not yet available on the Eurostar website.

Many ski trains can already be booked for the entire upcoming winter season. This applies, for example, to the Schnee-Express from northern Germany to Austria. And the Alpen Expres overnight trains from the Netherlands to Austria are already fully open for booking.

Finland already has opened up bookings for services well into 2013, but it is worth noting that in Finland (as in Sweden) budget-conscious travellers are advised to defer booking till closer to the date of travel. When bookings first open it is only the eco and flexible tariffs that are available. Then, precisely 60 days prior to travel, a new tranche of cheaper tickets is made available. These bargain tickets, dubbed advance eco, are often just half the price of the regular eco fare. These arrangements are not affected by the December timetable changes. Finland loads its new schedules early in the cycle.

Dates to watch

The principal rail operator in France is SNCF and we expect them to release their first tranche of domestic services for 9 December and beyond for booking in the early hours of the morning of Thursday 11 October. Our experience with SNCF is that not everything is there at once, so if you are looking for a particular route and it does not feature on day one it is worth checking back.

We understand that bookings for many international journeys on TGV services to and from France will open later than the 11 October debut date for domestic bookings. Our best guess is that bookings for TGV services from France to Germany and vice versa will open on Tuesday 16 October. TGV routes from France to Switzerland and vice versa usually open rather later than others: again, we have received no firm date, but we’d say Friday 16 November might be a good bet.

Deutsche Bahn will open bookings for its services to, from or through Germany on Tuesday 16 October — again most probably in the early hours of the morning. Last year, we noted that seat reservations were not available on some services until a day or two later. We expect bookings for City Night Line services for dates after the timetable change also to open on 16 October.

For journeys within Switzerland from 9 December, national operator SBB expects to open bookings on 11 October, with many international routings following in the days thereafter. ÖBB in Austria has yet to announce an exact date, but mid-October would be the norm. Thello tell us that they expect to open bookings for their night trains from Paris to Italy in mid-October.

Our experience is that online bookings for services in Spain, Italy, Poland and the Czech Republic all open in early November.

These are just general guidelines and it is easy to find exceptions. For example, within Germany, the new HKX Hamburg-Köln Express is already available for booking through to mid-January. DB Autozug services can already be booked right through to early April 2013.

We haven’t mentioned many countries. In some, such as Portugal and Ireland bookings can in any case generally only be made 30 days in advance and that norm prevails year round. The timetable change in December thus has no effect on advance booking periods. In Great Britain, ever a law unto itself, many rail operators will indeed introduce new schedules on 9 December, but the exact date on which tickets will go on sale will vary by operator.

Copyright © Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries. All rights reserved.
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About The Authors

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries

Nicky and Susanne manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers and the authors of the book Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide. The 17th edition of that book was published in 2022 and reprinted in July 2023. You'll find a list of outlets that sell the book on this website.

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