Rail-booking websites give wildly different results

Researching the same journey on the Eurostar, Rail Europe, Trainline and SNCF Connect websites gives very different results and shows that the booking systems are not fit for purpose

By: Daniel Elkan
Thu, 16 Nov 2023

Rail-booking websites simply aren't fit for purpose. The situation is utterly bonkers.

Nobody, to my knowledge, talks openly about this. No one wants to admit that there's a big fat elephant in the room. Rail-booking websites and train companies pretend that everything is ticketyboo, no pun intended. That they can help you easily to find and book the journey you want. But unfortunately, that often just isnt' true.

The problem is that in many cases, when you try to look up journeys from the UK to the Alps, websites don't show you what is actually available, nor the best journey options.

This isn't intentional, of course. The websites are trying to do their best. But they are powered by unsophisticated algorithms that have to interrogate an overcomplicated booking system.

As a result, you might:

A. Not be shown better, available rail journey options


B. Not be shown any available rail journey options at all

So you and your party miss out. You might even end up with missing the better journey options - or even having to fly or drive instead.

To show you how this works in practice, and how options get unintentionally hidden from you, here are some search examples. I did this for a peak date (10th February) on a popular route (London to Bourg St Maurice) where many options had already sold out.

And then a popular non-peak date, 9th March, on the same route.

In each case, I've put a screenshot and some thoughts and comments about what I found.

Search #1: Eurostar website – London to Bourg St Maurice
Travel date: Saturday 10 February 2024

Eurostar's website find some journeys and says that they are not available. If you believed this website alone, you would be facing airport queues and long transfers, or a long self-drive.  As we'll see, the truth is that there is an option available, but Eurostar's website algorithm can't find it.

On top of that, Eurostar is unable to provide any reason why a train isn't available. 'Sold out' would be more useful than 'Not available'.

Search #2: Rail Europe website – London to Bourg St Maurice
Travel date: Saturday 10 February 2024

Rail Europe's website has found a journey from London to Bourg St Maurice, via Lille. This is a perfectly viable journey, and a good thing. None of the other websites (Eurostar, Trainline or SNCF-Connect found this).

However, what Rail Europe's website doesn't show is journeys that are sold out or for some reason not available. And without seeing these, there is no context.  This is a disadvantage of the Rail Europe website, particularly if you are comparing journey options across more than one date. Knowing what journeys exist, but can't be booked, would be helpful.


Search #3: Trainline website – London to Bourg St Maurice
Travel date: Saturday 10 February 2024

Oh dear. Trainline's website finds journey options but can't find any journeys. But we know, from the search on Rail Europe's website above, that there is a journey via Lille that has available tickets.


Search #4: SNCF Connect website – London to Bourg St Maurice
Travel date: Saturday 10 February 2024

SNCF-Connect's website is very odd, in this case. It says 'We dont' know public transport schedules so far in advance. We will know more soon!'  This is incorrect. The first schedule that it gives start with a 46-minute walk from 'London' to 'St Pancras International'. And for all those it finds, it doesn't enable ticket booking. A big fail. The problem is that, anecdotally, many skiers and snowboarders use it, believing that is is a website that can be trusted.

Search #5: Eurostar website – London to Bourg St Maurice
Travel date: Saturday 9 March 2024

A search on Eurostar's website finds only two journey possibilities. In fact, many more exist. What's regrettable here is that the option of the 10:24 departure gives a slightly tight change of station in Paris, and there is an earlier Eurostar (at 09:31) that could be shown as an alternative. But the algorithm isn't programmed to offer both journey options, so travellers are only shown the one with the tight connection.

Search #6: Rail Europe website – London to Bourg St Maurice
Travel date: Saturday 9 March 2024

Rail Europe's website shows the five options compared to Eurotar's two. The algorithm has picked up the LIlle route too (11:04 departure). 

The journey at 06:31 shows in both Eurostar and Rail Europe's search results, but Eurostar's simpler algorithm only finds the cheapest ticket option to be £264, whereas Rail Europe is able to differentiate better between classes and give a £235 option too, for the same journey.

The 10:24 journey, with the tight connection in Paris, is shown. Same as with Eurostar. Rail Europe's algorithm fails to offer a 09:31 departure, for a more relaxed change in Paris.

Search #7: Trainline website – London to Bourg St Maurice
Travel date: Saturday 9 March 2024

A search on Trainline's website finds the timetables but fails to find any available tickets.  But tickets are available, so it's a big fail from Trainline on this occassion. Imagine if you trusted that website solely, and then went away thinking nothing was available, and made arrangements to fly or drive. That is what is at stake here.

Search #8: SNCF Connect website – London to Bourg St Maurice
Travel date: Saturday 9 March 2024

This is another case of a chocolate teapot. SNCF's website falsely claims that the search is for dates that are too far ahead. It's not true. It's just failure of SNCF-Connect's search algorithm.

Things that you can do to beat the algorithms

1. Split journey-searches into smaller and smaller units if necessary
When looking online, start with the normal, common sense search, such as London to Bourg St Maurice. If you get good journeys showing correctly, you'll be able to book the journey in one go. If not, break the journey into smaller units, such as London to Paris and Paris to Bourg St Maurice.  Or London to Lille, and Lille to Bourg St Maurice.  You could even split it further: Lille to Lyon and Lyon to Bourg St Maurice. It's basically like trying to explain what you are trying to do, in simpler and simpler terms.

2. Don't rely on just one website
An obvious point, but still worth emphasising.

3. Search for other travel dates
Try comparing what comes up on different dates of the same day of the week, particularly non-peak dates where trains are less likely to be sold out. So if you were searching for Sat 10th Feb, try seeing what shows up on Saturday 20th January.

4. Use maps to see what routes might be possible
Download a PDF of the new Snowcarbon Snowcarbon rail-ski map of France, which is a useful planning (and inspirations) companion.
Order a copy of the European Rail Map, which is just fantastic in general.

5. Contact a rail-booking expert, to make the booking for you
These experienced companies have more sophisticated systems which don't fall prey to the same algorithms as consumer-facing websites. Two good ones are The Travel Bureau and Trainseurope. You pay a small booking fee, but normally prices are pretty similar to booking online.

6. Pass this knowlege on
Send a friend who skies a link to this article, if you've found it useful. The more people who know about this, the better.

What I'll do next

In 1969, the moon landings.

2023, and rail companies with huge investment money cannot find a way to enable travellers to book simple journeys.

It's beyond ridiculous.

Its not good enough only for people in the know to be able to avoid the pitfalls.

Political action is needed to hold rail companies and rail-booking websites to account. I will do what I can to raise this issue with various organisations.  It's a vital issue for tourism offices, both national and regional, for whom promoting rail travel has moved up the agenda hugely.

Of course, these things take time to change. But I'm always hopeful and determined that things can improve.