We have compared the exchange and refund conditions of the different railway companies in France. Here is our ranking.
Due to the health crisis, most railway companies, following the example of the airlines, had decided to relax the conditions for exchanging and refunding their main line tickets. But with the return to activity, they are once again tightening their conditions to the detriment of flexibility, sometimes beyond reasonable. It is to forget that in France, the first competitor of the train is not the plane, but the car. It offers the advantage of total flexibility: it imposes no penalties when you decide to leave an hour earlier or an hour later!
Let’s start this comparison with a practical reminder: it is with the person who issued the ticket (“the distribution channel” as they say in the trade) that you must request an exchange or refund. For example, a Thalys ticket purchased on SNCF Connect must be exchanged on SNCF Connect and not on thalys.com.
TGV : 8/10
The health crisis has had the effect of relaxing exchange and refund conditions – only to a certain extent. From now on, all tickets are exchangeable (with price readjustment) and above all refundable without penalty up to 3 days before departure. As such, the SNCF is one of the best-priced companies on the market. One caveat, however: if you change your mind within 3 days of your departure, the penalty is €15. That’s a lot, especially when you know that the average price of a TGV ticket is around €50. For the record, before the reform of these commercial cards, the penalty for cardholders Advantage cards was €5 in the 2 days preceding departure.
Today, only the “Liberté” card (€399) allows you to exchange and refund without penalty until the time of departure of the train. Because 2nd tickets that can be exchanged and refunded without penalty until departure no longer exist… Rachel Picard, the former travel director, removed them for a sleight of hand: she replaced the Frequency card with the Freedom. The operation was actually intended to hide the sharp increase in ticket prices at that time. While the old Frequency card offered a 50% reduction on the maximum rate in 2nd class, the Liberté card offers a 60% reduction… on the business first rate! This translated for passengers into an increase of 8 to 27% depending on the destination and departure times.
Curiously, the SNCF has not reinstated the informal access to the “framing” trains offered to holders of this card. It was, however, a major advantage in the face of the new competition from Trenitalia.
“For greater simplicity”, says Trenitalia, the Italian national operator only offers a single price range for its connections from Paris to Lyon and Milan. Entitled “Serinita”, it authorizes the exchange of tickets up to the time of departure with fare readjustment, and their reimbursement with a 20% penalty. Trenitalia does not have a totally flexible fare that allows you to change trains without going through the digital box. You must issue a new ticket and pay the difference. However, if the passenger opts for a cheaper fare, the price difference is refunded (which is not the case in Italy).
Thalys has also relaxed its rules… All tickets are now exchangeable. The Covid has been there. Even the cheapest fares, which are non-refundable, can be exchanged for a €5 fee and the fare readjustment. Note that this company was very flexible in reimbursements during the health crisis.
In standard (second) and comfort (first without meal) classes, the highest priced ticket can be exchanged without penalty but with a fare readjustment. They are refundable subject to a 50% penalty. Unfortunately, in these two classes, there is no price that can be modified and exchanged free of charge. Only the Premium ticket (first class with meal) offers this advantage. It should be noted that passengers with Club + loyalty program status have the enormous advantage of being able to take the train they want during the day simply by presenting themselves to the on-board conductor.
The cooperation between the Spaniards of Renfe and SNCF is coming to an end for trains between Barcelona and France. From January 2023, SNCF will resume these connections alone. Unless Renfe decides to widen the competition of Barcelona as far as Marseille and Lyon for example. In the meantime, the fares and the conditions for exchange and reimbursement on these cooperative trains are not the same as in France with the TGVs. There are two fares in first and second: Essential, where exchanges and refunds are penalized by 50% of the ticket price. The other rate: Flexi, not necessarily much more expensive, allows exchanges and refunds free of charge up to 24 hours from departure, and with a 10% deduction thereafter.
As with the Alleo trains to Germany, the TGV Lyria to Switzerland offer different fares and exchange and refund conditions depending on whether you buy your ticket on the Swiss railways website CFF.CH, or on SNCF. Connect. The Federal Railways’ tariff offer is broader with, for example, three second rate tariffs, which range from non-flexible without exchange and refund, to fully flexible. The prices on the Swiss site are generally cheaper than on the SNCF site. The latter, on the other hand, accepts the Avantage and Liberté cards with their reductions, but with different exchange and refund conditions from those practiced in France.
Default average rating for Alleo, the joint cooperation company of SNCF and Deutsche Bahn for trains between Paris Gare de l’Est and Frankfurt via Mannheim on the one hand, and Munich via Karlsruhe on the other. These trains use the high-speed line going to Lorraine.
Indeed, depending on whether you buy your ticket on SNCF Connect or on the bahn.com the Deutsche Bahn, the prices as the conditions of exchanges and refunds diverge. There are three rates in second on the German side: Super Sparpreis Europa, Sparpreis Europa and Flexpreis Europa. There are two on the French side: Second and Business second. There are real after-sales differences between the French and German proposals for the two highest prices, which offer the most flexibility. In general, exchange and refund conditions are more flexible in Germany, except for Super Sparpreis Europa tickets which are neither exchangeable nor refundable. On the other hand, the SNCF Connect site applies the price reductions of the Avantage and Liberté cards but with exchange conditions different from those practiced in France.
Why such a bad rating? Because at Eurostar, the only way to have an exchangeable and refundable ticket up to the time of departure is to pay a fare of €620 in Business Premier. It is historic that this company which connects the continent to London does not offer any refundable ticket in second, called Standard, or in first, called Standard first. Even during the Covid period, tickets were only refundable if the train was cancelled. The company was then on the verge of bankruptcy. Today, despite the Covid experience and new passenger habits regarding flexibility, Eurostar is sticking to its guns – not refunding tickets. On the other hand, it has somewhat relaxed its exchange policy. They can be made without penalty up to 7 days before departure, but with price readjustment. Unlike TGV or Trenitalia, the difference is not refunded if you opt for a cheaper ticket.
In the 7 days preceding departure, it’s a double penalty: in addition to an exorbitant penalty of €40 in Standard, and €50 in Standard Premier, the price readjustment is likely to be colossal. Indeed, Eurostar’s principle is to increase its prices as the departure date approaches, even on sparsely filled trains. This is how the day before or the day before a departure, all the trains of the day will be at the same price – the maximum fare in each class. A way for Eurostar to encourage passengers not to change trains as a “hard low cost” would do.