When you buy a train ticket online, do you know what you’re getting? We found that people weren’t always as clued-up as they thought they were. So what are the pitfalls of buying online and how can we avoid them?
Over half the people we asked told us they were always clear on their tickets’ terms and conditions when buying online, but just 1% managed to identify all the correct attributes of the main ticket types.
Watchdog Passenger Focus found something similar. While people were confident when buying online, their confidence was misplaced and they often didn’t get the best value.
We also observed five Which? staff buying tickets on websites of their choice. None knew that an off-peak return from London to Edinburgh lets you break your journey and take a range of off-peak trains both ways. They all thought it committed you to a particular train both ways.
Is advance always an advantage?
Train ticket selling websites are timetable-driven – you put in your journey dates and times and they return a timetable with costs, based on you choosing which trains you will travel on.
This ‘airline’-style way of doing things suits train companies (they, not the government, control Advance tickets and can vary the prices to get the most revenue possible), and may well suit you if you can commit a long time in advance and get cheap tickets that way.
But we’re losing the ‘walk-up’ railway here – where you can literally walk up and buy your ticket – as more and more people buy online (we found it was the most common way of buying train tickets, four in ten buying this way). And, as a result, we’re also losing one of the ways trains compete with cars as a ‘jump in and go’ travel option.
Where’s the flexibility?
Then there’s the issue of fees for booking, using a credit or debit card. Third party sites like The Trainline, Raileasy, Quno, My Train Ticket and Red Spotted Hanky charge these. But train companies don’t.
You can buy without fees from Red Spotted Hanky if you select certain options, but with all these third party sites you’ll also be missing out on the extra discount a handful of train companies offer on their Advance tickets sold on their own sites.
Those discounts aside, you could just buy all these Advance tickets at the station or on the phone, or take a look at more flexible options.
A glimmer of it-doesn’t-have-to-be-like-this hope has come from Chiltern, which recently launched simplified fares for its new London to Birmingham service. You can pay £75, £50 or £25 return.
£75 lets you get any train any day; £50 any train any day except those arriving into London in the morning peak; £25 any train any day except those arriving into London in the morning peak or leaving it in the evening peak. And that’s it. OK, this is just on one rail line, but it’s the underlying attitude that’s refreshing.
Would you prefer a simpler pricing system like this or do you like shopping around to find the cheapest ticket you can? Do you fully understand your tickets’ terms and conditions?