If you go to Rail Europe and purchase a ticket, chances are you won't actually be sent real tickets. Instead you'll be sent an itinerary with some reference numbers. Then when you get to the station, you go to a machine and pick up the real tickets. So I was trying to get to Basel In Switzerland and chose the train since I had too much baggage to go on the plane and also felt like going on the train was the right thing, environmentally, to do.
So I got to St Pancras and started typing in my reference numbers. My Eurostar tickets popped out but I was unable to get the tickets for the rest of the journey. I thought perhaps this was because I needed to pick them up from the station in Paris so didn't worry too much.
I arrived in Paris, dragged my stuff to Gare d'Est and tried to type in my reference numbers again and got nowhere. The touch screen computer helpfully had an English option with a button so small that it was almost impossible to hit the screen in the correct place to get it working. Nice touch, SNCF. So I started queuing up in the ticket office but time was running out, so I headed for the train. After all, I had an itinerary that included my seat number, so it was obvious that it was my seat. Unfortunately, the ticket inspector didn't see it that way. I didn't have a ticket. Yes, the train was fully booked and nobody was demanding to sit in my seat but I didn't have a ticket. With the man next to me translating, I tried to argue my case, but got nowhere and ended up paying for my ticket again. Ho hum. The ticket inspector did assure me I could get my money back if I went to the ticket office when I got off.
But at least I managed to get to Basel. So the next thing to do was get my ticket refund and get my ticket for the return leg of my journey. Unfortunately the ticket office in Basel informed me I was now in the wrong country to pick up my tickets for the return journey and would have to go to France. Fortunately Basel is only eight minutes from the border so this wasn't too time consuming or expensive. When I got to St Louis, the lady in the ticket office was very nice and her English wasn't too good (although clearly much better than my French) so after getting my return ticket I thought better of trying to explain why she needed to give me some money due to her jobs worth co-worker.
So lesson learned, trains may be more environmentally friendly but train companies don't seem to be in any rush to actually compete with airlines. They cost more, take longer and make life difficult for their customers. To solve one of these problems, here's a suggestion for you, how about sending the tickets along with the itinerary and then I might be tempted to use the train again in Europe?