[UPDATE March 20, 2013] Apparently the Thai Railways have ceased to allow online ticket purchases. You will now need to go to a train station in person several weeks in advance of your train ticket booking or see a travel agent. This is a really sad development for independent travelers in Thailand. Hopefully this was a step towards making the trains more accessible for locals and not a trade between rail officials and tourist agencies. Please see this post for more information.
I love the independence I get from traveling in the age of the internet. If I have any questions about a destination, packing lists, or travel tips, I can search deep into the archives of travel bloggers, hit up the Lonely Planet travel forums, or simply cry out for help on Twitter until someone comes to my rescue.
If I’m the damsel in distress, tearing my hair out over whether to wear a tank top in Malaysia, then the internet is my knight in shining armor, galloping up with a virtual shawl for recommended, but not mandatory modesty. Unfortunately, I’m not exactly a gracious when my virtual Prince Charming doesn’t give me what I want, when I want it.
Take, for instance, booking train travel in Thailand.
The government-owned Thai railroad system traverses the country with three main lines: Northern, Southern, and Northeastern. With many overnight trains, this type of traveling is appealing to the budget tourist and locals alike, as it kills the distance-covering and sleeping part of your journey with one relatively inexpensive ticket. It’s the slow pace of overland travel without the decidedly dirty and unromantic buses or a rental car’s isolation. Even when something is a little bit dirty, or hot, or inconvenient, or bathed in terrible fluorescent lighting, it’s on a traaaaaain, so it’s romaaaantic.
But the booking process is kind of brutal. Seriously. After spending all day Saturday agonizing over whether or not we’d actually be able to book the four legs of train travel between Chiang Mai and Singapore, I was kind of an anxious mess. I’d like to share the wisdom I’ve gained through trial and error to the internet in hopes that train travel will go more smoothly for others.
How to Book Train Tickets in Thailand
1. Try to book tickets online well in advance.
You can begin buying online tickets for travel 60 days in advance, and it’s not unusual for trains to sell out, especially those that cross borders. I would recommend booking tickets at least two weeks in advance for domestic travel, and a lot longer if you want to travel internationally. This will give you time to book all the legs of your travel and get that air-conditioned second class sleeper you’ve had your eye on. Otherwise, you might be spending all night awake without AC in an upright position. Generally, the trains that leave later at night have seats and sleeper berths available closer to the departure date.
2. To use an American card to buy tickets, use a debit card and select the Kasikorn Bank payment option.
We learned the hard way that it is impossible to pay for the Thailand trains with our local Siam Commercial Bank accounts or with our American credit cards in any other magical combination offered. You do not need a Kasikorn Bank account for this to work. If you go through the booking process only to find that your American credit card won’t work, your seats will be marked as booked for at least an hour afterwards. This means that you can effectively make the system think that the train is sold out and sabotage your own travel. If you wait long enough, they’ll open up, but you can’t guaranteed that someone else won’t snag them.
I learned this the hard way, and I really hope that by publishing this post, I can save others from afternoons spent cursing at your computer screen and whispering threats at your credit cards. Remember: K Bank + debit card = ticket.
3. If your train sells out, try the train station and vice versa.
From what I can tell, the train station and the online ticket outlet sell seats on different cars for the same train. When we booked our tickets from Bangkok to Chiang Mai last month, we went through an agonizing process of changing our itinerary around based on the seat information coming from the website and compensating for the seats the system falsely labeled as booked from our credit card dilemmas. Yet, as we were waiting on in the Bangkok train station, we saw folks march right on up to the ticket counter and book seats for that night.
This weekend, I thought I might give the train station a try in booking our tickets to Singapore. I made a list of all the train numbers and departure times listed on the website that would work for us and attempted to buy them in person to avoid the credit card trial-and-error dance of psychological torture. However, the trains I wanted, and had verified as having open seats immediately before going to the station, were not available for purchase. At first, I sighed and took the first option available that let us out in Bangkok at 4:30 in the morning. We walked about 10 steps before Andy said, “screw this” and returned the tickets. This led to a mad dash back to the apartment to grab my computer and verify whether those better seats on better trains leaving at better times were available. Luckily, they were.
Lesson? If you see good tickets online, TAKE THEM!
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