Booking two people and two bikes onto an overnight train in France with an Interrail pass.

My husband and I have decided to take a trip. We will train and cycle around France, Spain and Portugal for three weeks. We like last minute adventures, and this one will be no different. We have twelve days before we leave, and so far, we have only booked our Eurostar to Paris, and bought some Interrail passes.

As it is warmer further south in Europe, our first decision is to try to get down to Spain as early as possible, using one of the French Intercités de Nuit trains all the way from Paris to the Spanish border in the Pyrenees.

I spend some time working out how to book myself, my husband, and our two bicycles onto this train using our Interrail passes.

  1. I read about Voyages SNCF, the agency for SNCF who can help with this. They have an English website — good. It says there I can take my bike on the train — great. I try to find the train I want with a bike but cannot find the option; it says, please call the helpline. They have a dedicated service for the UK. The number is 0844 and will cost me 7p per minute. does not help me. I refuse to pay to call someone.
  2. I find there is an independent UK agency which will also help me book my interrail tickets. Trains Europe. Their number is an 0871 number. I find the replacement on saynoto0870. Despite minor concerns about them due to their referring to Brexit in “quotation marks” in red comic sans on their website, together with a line about how great the economy is doing against all odds, I decide to give them a call.
  3. I phone Trains Europe on the replacement non-0871 number. The recorded message says “Don’t call this 0871 number. Here is the real number. We are only open 9–5 but we have an outlet in St Pancras”. St Pancras is right by my office, so I put the phone down and walk over.
  4. Arriving at the office, the two women working there say “Trains Europe packed up last week and left. They are in Cambridge now. They even took our printer.”
  5. I phone Trains Europe in Cambridge again. I am on hold for 25 minutes before I give up.
  6. Despite being cross about paying to use the phone, I phone Voyages SNCF. A woman picks up quickly and I tell her my story. I need two tickets plus two bicycle spaces.
  7. She tells me that there is no train on the day I want. It is not running. “It does not exist.” I say, I looked at it earlier in the day, it definitely exists.
  8. I decide that we can probably hang out in Paris for a day and night anyway.
  9. I try for the following day. She says, “Excellent. You can get that train. It is £19 per person in a 6-person couchette cabin. But it is impossible to book a bicycle. I cannot book a bicycle from here.”
  10. “I cannot book a train without my bike”, I say.
  11. She tells me that she cannot help any further and that I need to phone SNCF.
  12. “Are you not SNCF?” I say. “No”, the woman says. “Just Voyages SNCF. We have different systems”.
  13. The woman gives me the French number for SNCF. I decide to find a French person in my office to help me call. I am very lucky. I work with very many Europeans.
  14. Before that, I decide to try to call Trains Europe again.
  15. Trains Europe pick up within one ring!
  16. Trains Europe tell me that I cannot get the train on the Friday, but I can take the one on the Saturday. It is £19 per person. But, you cannot take your bicycle. No bicycles are allowed on this train. Or indeed any night trains.
  17. I point out that the SNCF website says that Intercités de Nuit trains do in fact take complete bicycles. “No,” he says. “There are no bicycles.”
  18. “Hang on,” he says. The man realises that the problem is, that there is no way to book a reservation for someone who has both an Interrail pass AND a bicycle. They are different booking systems. I tell him I am concerned. On the SNCF website, it says you have to book your bicycle space together with your ticket for it to be valid.
  19. He tells me it is unusual that someone would try to take a bicycle on an overnight train booked with an Interrail pass.
  20. He cannot help me right now. “Can I call you back?” he says. He doesn’t call me back.
  21. At home, I go back to researching how to book a bike onto a train. Through a blogpost, I find out that it is indeed possible to book bikes on the Voyages SNCF website. But you have to use the French version, rather than the UK version.
  22. I spend ten minutes trying to stop the auto-redirect to the UK site. I consider installing a VPN chrome extension before I find the button to switch to France.
  23. I use my Best French brain to navigate the site to try to find the place to reserve seats with an Interrail pass. Nope, here you can only book tickets.
  24. My husband has lost his patience. He reserves us two spaces on the train we want, without our bikes. “We can just turn up at the train station with them”, he says. “You can speak French, you can negotiate!”. He has a lot of faith in me.
  25. I decide to phone Voyages SNCF again in the morning to see if they’ll book the bike by itself, even though they said no earlier.
  26. It is the morning. I phone Voyages SNCF. The woman I speak to says, “It is impossible to book a bike space by itself. It is mandatory to book the bike space when you book the ticket. You had better phone SNCF.”
  27. None of my French colleagues are around. I phone SNCF. They have an English option! Just as I was preparing my Best French.
  28. The SNCF hold music is an unsettling vocal arrangement of the French train station public address jingle.
  29. A man answers the phone. He says — “You cannot take your bike on this train. No. It is not possible.”
  30. “Are you sure?” I say. On the website, it says I can.
  31. “Yes. You cannot book it by telephone.”. I say, but, is it possible to take a bike? Or is it just not possible to book by telephone? “Maybe you can try SNCF baggage,” he says. “Call this number.”
  32. I call SNCF baggage. They do not speak English. I have a stilted conversation in French with a nice woman who says she is sorry, but she will speak using easy words for me.
  33. The nice woman tells me, in easy words, to call back but to say the word GARE to the voice recognition machine to get to the right department.
  34. I put down the phone. I call SNCF again and listen to the unsettling PA jingle for a little while more. I say GARE at the automated voice several times. It says “Desolé” back to me.
  35. I press some buttons at random. Somehow, I am put through to a nice French man who sings a song when I ask him if he can speak English with me — “Je ne parle pas anglais, mais je t’aiderai”. Nice tune. I agree to speak and sing French with him.
  36. The man sings to me that I can only take a bag on the train. I sing thank you and goodbye to him.
  37. My husband emails Interrail for help.
  38. Interrail write back letting us know, helpfully, that we cannot take our bikes on long distance or overnight trains in Germany. Also, that we can only book our bikes onto trains in the stations. They send us a link to book some trains in Germany.
  39. Lol.
  40. We decide to just turn up at the station in France when we arrive, and see what happens.
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