/ Travel & Leisure

What’s the point of third-party train websites?

Kings Cross train station

Third-party train websites are a popular way of booking tickets. But some charge fees that you can avoid by booking directly with the train company. Is there any benefit to using these websites?

Thanks to its annoying adverts, the Trainline is certainly the best-known independent train ticket website, but there are others out there. Have you used Travel Supermarket, Raileasy, My Train Ticket or Red Spotted Hanky?

Some – though not all – of these sites add booking fees and credit card fees on top of the cost of your ticket, just some airlines have done over the years.

Following our surcharges campaign, the government introduced a ban on excessive surcharges earlier this month. This means that credit and debit card surcharges can’t be more than the cost incurred to the business of processing the payment. We estimate this to be 2% of the total transaction for credit cards and about 50p for debit cards.

But when we examined the cost of booking train tickets on eight third-party sites and 13 train company sites, we found that some of the third-party sites are charging more than that.

Raileasy quoted the highest fees, charging a £2.50 booking fee plus 4.5% for credit card payments (or 2.5% for higher-cost journeys). Another site, Quno, was also expensive for cheaper journeys, charging a flat £2.50 for credit card payments. We’ll be writing to the sites concerned, asking them to lower their charges.

Book direct for a better deal

There are third-party sites that aren’t adding excessive card surcharges. The Trainline charges 2% for credit cards, in line with what we estimate it costs them to process those payments. But you can still avoid any fees at all by buying your tickets elsewhere.

None of the train companies’ own websites charge credit card, debit card or booking fees, and their postage charges tend to be lower. Train company websites also sometimes have exclusive cheaper advance fares that aren’t always listed on third-party sites.

All of this makes it extremely difficult to come up with an argument for not buying tickets directly from the train companies.

I do use Red Spotted Hanky myself sometimes – but that’s only because it allows you to exchange Tesco Clubcard vouchers for money off train tickets, and it doesn’t charge booking or card fees. But other than that, I can’t see a reason to use these third-party sites.

Have I missed something – is there a reason why you like to use third-party train websites? Or do you always book directly with the train company?


The train companies don’t exactly go out of their way to publicise their on-line ticket selling systems. My local one – Greater Anglia – is actually quite good and allows you to easily select the best price option. The train companies can presumably absorb the processing costs because they are dealing directly whereas they probably have to pay commission to the third-party websites and because they couldn’t get away with charging on-line buyers more than they would pay if they bought their tickets at the booking office. On-line sales must reduce pressure on ticket offices leading to reduced staffing levels and more full- or part-time closures. Being cynical, I would also add that web-selling increases the likelihood of passengers paying too much because the friendly ticket clerk is not there to split the journey or advise a more favourable journey plan. I fail to see any advantages from buying train tickets from third-party sites; they merely play on people’s expectation that such sites will save them money or be easier to use. Nil points on both counts.

It’s a mystery to me. As The Man in Seat 61 says:

“If you buy from a train company website such as http://www.virgintrains.co.uk you don’t pay any credit or debit card fee, in fact if you choose to collect your tickets at the station you pay no fee at all. Same prices, same tickets, in fact the Virgin Trains website is powered by the Thetrainline’s own system, just with Virgin branding instead of Thetrainline branding and without Thetrainline’s own booking fee & credit card fee!”

Now this site IS worth visiting for free information about all things to do with train travel:


I have just bought a one way first class sleeper ticket with a senior rail card from the Trainline because they were able to give me a cheaper price than Scotrail who run the Caledonia Sleeper. This was worth the £1.50 booking fee and there was no charge for the card.

James McLean says:
22 August 2013

Matt, late post I know….as someone who runs a rail retailing web site (and we don’t charge booking fees or credit card fees by the way) you need to be targeting ATOC (Association of Train Operating Companies), not the rail retailers. The rail retailers like us have our hands tied because the playing field is not level vs. the TOCs (Train Operating Companies). As one of your other posters correctly pointed out, the TOCs discount and absorb because they can authorise themselves (as train operators) to do this. Third parties can’t and receive a fixed commission so TOCs are always going to look more attractive.

So the TOC’s pay other people to sell their tickets but actually prefer to sell the tickets themselves so they put the retailers in an uncompetitive position so as far as booking fees go, there is nothing the retailers can do – unless they make a loss and go bust so don’t blame them for booking fees and credit card fees are just booking fees in disguise, sometimes its just psychologically more acceptable when fee revenue is made up this way.

If you ask them to reduce their cc fees, they’ll increase the booking fee, they have no choice, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a business is a business, they attempt to make profits.

So yes, go and use the TOC sites, I agree there is no benefit to using a rail retailer as the market stands today (and I’m a rail retailer saying this…) – unless you are a corporate in which case there are many advantages but not for this post.

Alan says:
11 October 2013

You gain nothing by using third party sites to buy rail tickets. National Rail Enquiries will give you the best price especially if you buy an advance ticket and select carefully the trains according to price. You then purchase the ticket from whichever TOC the site directs you to. If you are travelling on a route where different companies operate then if you search on their site first then all you get are their trains…and they might not be the cheapest.

If you’ve the time, splitting the journey up using intermediate stations can also bring the price down but you need to know where you are going and you do need the time to do it! That said, the saving can be considerable.

tony says:
16 August 2014

I just dont understand people who use 3rd party train websites to book tickets. I actually use Southern to book all my rail tickets irrespective of railway company and it works like a dream. Ok most of my journeys are on southern but also use it for point to point such as London Liverpool St to Norwich and get same fares as Greater Anglia and seat reservations and it keeps all my rail bookings under one roof.

Trainline.com recently told me that they don’t have any responsibility to advise me about railcards. I spoke to them by phone for advice on booking the cheapest tickets for a long distance uk fare for our annual holiday. I said I was booking for myself and family and I called way in advance to try to get best rates. Imagine my shock when on return journey the ticket inspector was horrified at how much I’d paid and that I hadn’t been told about friends and family card. For £30 I could have got major discount: 1/3 off adult fares, 60% off kids fares. When I complained to Trainline they happily admitted they could sell those railcards with tickets, and that their staff are definitely trained to know about the railcards. But they said they didn’t need to mention them to eligible customers. I should have been a mind reader and requested it after my own extensive research apparently. I work long hours, don’t often travel with family by train and was relying on them for advice! I have no other redress, apart from passenger force, which seems toothless. I was struck by how Trainline did not even admit I’d been given poor advice. They claim to help get you the best fares, then take no responsibility when such a blatant mistake is made. I can’t help thinking that this convoluted system works heavily in their favour. I should have just gone to the ticket office – the inspector was adamant it was such a key discount they’d have definitely sold me the card alongside my tickets.

Where did they claim to help you get the best fares? Was it a television advert, or over the phone?