Buying a train ticket in the UK is fraught with difficulty. There are loads of different ticket types, depending on whether you want to travel at peak time or off-peak, first or standard class, and whether you’d rather buy in advance or at the last minute.
Just in case you weren’t confused enough already, sometimes it’s cheaper to buy a return fare as two separate singles. And it can be even cheaper if you split one single into two separate legs, even if both are on the same train. In short, it’s really difficult to be sure you’re getting the best deal.
This over-complex ticketing system is crying out for a website to make it easier.
Right now, each train company has its own website selling tickets. But most of them are based on the same underlying system – the one that powers TheTrainLine.
It’s really not that intuitive. When I tried to buy a ticket from Reading to Edinburgh earlier today, it gave me a choice of 19 different ticket types, ranging in price from £21 to £184.50. And it presented them in one huge table, with no advice about which would be the best for my circumstances.
Virgin Trains do it a bit better. They have a new website which seems to be bespoke. It claims to show the cheapest prices for your particular circumstances.
It certainly cuts down the number of options, but it’s still far from easy-to-use. You always seem to be several clicks away from actually making a purchase. And changing your journey details is difficult because the site’s not been designed with the ‘back’ button in mind.
Add in a random error or two (“Due to inactivity, this site has timed out. This is for your security.”) and it’s enough to make you queue up at the local ticket office instead.
Truth is, the Virgin site is the best of a bad bunch at the moment. The ticket model is screaming out for a decent online booking service to let you:
- Search just for the cheapest fares, or for flexible tickets
- View fares over different time periods, so you can see when it’s cheapest to travel
- Alert you (via RSS or an email) when the cheap tickets for the dates you want go on sale
- Enter a starting point and see the cheapest places to go to for a weekend away
Making the trains run on time is another matter altogether, of course…