Thursday, October 30, 2008

(Not) Booking the trains in Europe

I’ve always been a fan of train travel in Europe: it’s clean, convenient, quick, and scenic.  So, when asked if I could help find youth fares for a return ticket from Paris to Amsterdam, I thought it would be a breeze.

Europe is moving towards an integrated rail ticketing system, RailEurope, available online or over the phone.  It is used for reserving seats for cross-border travel between major cities.  “Local” trains, without reserved seats, are generally booked at the station on the day of travel or are supported by national rail passes.

The RailEurope website is straightforward for anyone familiar with making online plane reservations, but I quickly ran into problems as displayed fares couldn’t be booked.  It wasn’t a payment problem, but rather a difficulty with displayed seats being unavailable for reservation.  So, I called the central booking office in England to complete the reservation.

Their agents are very helpful, quickly finding reasonable youth fares at 40 euro each way on the high-speed link.  But, again, as they tried to complete the bookings, the system removed the available seats, doubling the price at each attempt to complete a booking on the remaining slots.  It’s frustrating: the agent commented that there is lots of competition on busy lines.  Please.  It was past 10 pm, it didn’t seem reasonable that all of Europe is competing with me for those same seats.

By now, the price was approaching the cost of an InterRail Global Pass, a ticket which allows unlimited travel on all European Railway networks.  It’s actually not a bad alternative: a pass valid for 5 travel days within a 10 day window starts at 150 euro.  There are 5 euro surcharges to guarantee a spot on trains with reserved seating, but unlimited local travel within the five travel days.  The only other alternative is an EURailPass, but the price is vastly higher: 500 euro for 15 days.

Reviewing the options, the InterRail pass gave the most value for the euro.  I took the information so that the passenger could buy the tickets in Paris the next day.  But then everything broke down when trying to actually *buy* the option that the agent identified.

First, there is a six-month residency rule, requiring proof to supplement the passport.  Otherwise passes must be bought, in person, in your home country.  Further, the number of seats available to pass-holders is also limited, and surcharges increase quickly in parallel with the underlying ticket prices.

Fine, then, back to the simple RailEurope bookings.  This quickly turned into an even larger headache as we fully engaged their byzantine ticketing system:

  • The computers at the rail stations and at the central agents are only loosely linked.  The fares quoted by the central agents are often unavailable to agents at the rail station.  Despite efforts to synchronize route, time, and fare class, station agents cannot find what the central agents see.
  • Fares change with every inquiry, bouncing up and down over 150% at successive refresh cycles.
  • Tickets for various legs of a journey must be purchased individually as the booking is defined.  There is no way to ‘hold’ a seat while either agent defines the rest of the itinerary.
  • :There are no electronic tickets.  All agents, central or station, only sell paper tickets and passengers must board with these same paper tickets.
  • There is no option to print a ticket at a local station based on a paid central reservation or printed itinerary.
  • So, tickets purchased from the central agent must mailed  to the passenger. There is an (expensive) option to courier tickets from the central agent to the passenger.
  • However, you can pay central agents for tickets using a credit card over the phone…unlike….
  • Tickets purchased at the rail station, which require cash or credit card to be physically presented at the point of purchase.  So, for example, there is no way for a parent to give  their children (or the agent) credit card details to complete a purchase at a distant station.

It is hugely frustrating and time consuming.  The central and station agents are patient and understanding, but they are really struggling to cope with their booking computers and rule systems.   It requires hours to make a booking: the process of finding a fare, losing it, finding a new one, losing it again is endless and payment and delivery options are not workable for circumstances where the payer and passenger are distant from one another.

In the end, it ended well by having the purchaser buy the tickets at a local station and mail them to the passenger.  But why should it be so hard to do something so simple?

1 comment:

Jul said...

Ugh, that sounds insanely frustrating!

I was always disappointed at how disorganized and un-transparent the process was for buying international train tickets from Switzerland. You had to go in person, and it was very difficult to get comparative price data for different routes and trains.

The German DB site, in contrast, tends to do pretty well. It is good about showing the schedule and various rates, and I've never had a problem buying online.

I hope the international system gets its act together soon!