Useful rail booking agencies
How many times have you read or heard the sentence ‘Save money booking online!’?
When it comes to rail travel to the Alps, sometimes the opposite is true.
And I’m not just talking about wasted money. I’m talking about wasted time, more hassle, less flexibility, less control of what you can book. Many of you, like myself, will have experienced hassle and frustration trying to book tickets online. Or done it and then scratched your head and thought, did I book the best available journey and tickets?
Now, before you think this is a gloomy newsletter, it’s not. I’ve got some great news in terms of alternative solutions to online booking.
The ‘perfect storm’
But first let me tell you more about the problem, to put you in the know. Because when it comes to booking rail travel from the UK into Europe, there is a perfect storm that has come together.
In one direction, you have (some) train companies that have ‘swallowed the Kool Aid’ and now firmly believe that everyone should only be booking journeys online. SNCF is a case in point, disbanding their UK Reservations Centre. No more phone number to call, or human to speak to, or book with. Not for you; not for anyone.
Coming from the other direction, you have a hopelessly complex ticketing system (much like that of the UK) where plenty of rail journeys by train can’t be booked online either because the underlying rail-booking systems don’t talk to each other; or because you have the audacity to want to choose a journey option that isn’t offered online.
A third factor is that with thousands of combinations of trains, you are talking about a complicated ‘product’. But web interfaces to look simple and be usable by the first-time user. As a result, they are designed to be simple, and this is their downfall. Imagine trying to build a car that people didn’t have to learn to drive: the car would be simple, but not very good. That’s what’s happened with rail-booking websites.
For some journeys, booking online is fine. For others, it’s not. So it’s worth having another very good option up your sleeve (which I’m going to tell you about).
Fifteen years of frustration (and I’m not just talking about being a Spurs fan)
Since 2004, I’ve been studying the rail-booking problem, occasionally writing media articles and blogs about it, and trying to give people the best advice I can. This is not because I have any interest in how booking systems work. I don’t. Nor does Snowcarbon have any commercial relationships with rail companies. But if people can’t book the tickety tickets, then they can’t make the nice journeys. And helping people ditch cars and planes and enjoy train journeys to the Alps instead, is the whole point of Snowcarbon.
(NB: The wonderful rail-travel advice site, Seat61.com, has top-notch advice about this subject too — and I highly recommend it.)
A good solution – expert rail-booking agents
Fortunately, great help with actual booking is a phone call or an email away. That’s because there are several expert rail-booking agents who can book your journey for you.
Why so good?
- They are experienced and knowledgeable
- They are trained in, and have access to, sophisticated booking systems, not the blunt consumer-facing website that are part of the cause of the problem.
- They are independent, and not tied to one kind of booking system or set of rail companies
Benefits of booking with rail-booking agents
They can quote and book fares as soon as they go on sale, to give you the best prices
They can hold tickets for Eurostar trains in advance of onward trains (such as TGVs) going on sale, and then put the options together for you (again giving you the best prices). You can contact them now, before your journey has gone on sale, instead of waiting for it to go on sale.
You can book any journey with them, any route, break your journey on the way (e.g. to stopover in Paris, visit a friend, spend more time somewhere, or allow extra time to change train if you prefer)
If you are booking a journey for people of different ages (such as children, teenagers etc) they can make sure that you get the discounts to which you are entitled.
They can help make sure you get the type of seats you want (such as table seats).
Their fees are modest, on average £10 or 10% per traveller; given the way they can help you get better fares and better journeys, this is really great value.
They are one of the best things about the rail-travel industry – using their knowledge and expertise to help people make journeys. By using them to help yourself, you are helping secure the future of intelligent human booking services over blunt computer algorithms.
Don’t give up on online completely
While I wholeheartedly recommend booking agents, I’m not suggesting that you should totally give up checking fares or booking online. If you look online and can find the journey that you want, for what you consider to be a good price, then by all means go for it. But even if the journey you’d ideally like is not showing online, it may be bookable via a rail-booking agent. Simple journeys with just one train, such as the direct Eurostar Ski Train are easy to book online too.
Who the rail-booking agents that we recommend?
Here are the four that I can recommend. This is not an exhaustive list – there are others that exist too. If you have recommendations of your own, I’d love to hear them. Snowcarbon has no commercial relationship with any of these agents. We welcome your feedback and experience of using them, at any time, so we can make sure that our recommendations are a reflection of good service based on many people’s experience. Please get in touch to let me know your experience, any time.
Helping people book rail travel since 1986, Trainseurope has an expert, knowledgeable team who can book journeys for you.
Can help with any journey.
Trainseurope charges a fee of £10 per traveller.
Phone: (+44) 01354 660222 (09:00 – 17:00 Monday – Friday; 09:00 – 15:00 Saturday)
A family run, Hampshire-based rail-booking agent with an experienced team of staff.
Can help with any journey.
Booking fees are depend on the total value of the order: Under £100.00 = £15.00; between £100.00 - £300.00 = £25.00; over £300.00 = £35.00
Phone: (+44) 03330 030 413. (Calls free within inclusive minutes package on mobile; otherwise standard rates apply.)
Call centre times: 09:00 – 17:00 Monday-Friday
Ffestiniog Travel is an experienced rail-booking agent — and also a charitable trust — based in Wales. Profits go to the upkeep of a local heritage railway. Their ticket-booking service is also branded as ‘MyRailTrip’.
Can help with any journey.
Ffestiniog charges 9% per booking, to a maximum of £40 per traveller.
Phone: (+44) 01766 515630 (09:00 – 16:45 Monday – Friday; 09:00 – 13:00 Saturday)
Husband-and-wife team Jacky and Phil run this small Canterbury-based agency and are hugely experienced in booking train travel.
Can help with any journey.
Rail Canterbury charges £10% per booking, with a minimum of £10 per traveller.
Phone: (+44) 01227 450088 (09:00 – 17:30 Monday – Friday; 09:00 – 16:00 Saturday)
Tips for contacting rail-booking agents
Look up journey schedules first, to see what journey you’d prefer, and whether it’s viable for you. You can find schedules for the whole 2019-20 winter season to many great resorts on the Snowcarbon Journey Planner.You can also use rail-compnay websites such as www.bahn.co.uk, www.sbb.com to look up journey schedules. (If the rail company website isn’t showing schedules for the date you want to go, try for the same day of the week using a date nearer the time, such as an autumn date.)
Email in the first instance, rather than phoning.
Let the rail booking agent know the date of your travel, the destination station, who it is for, age of the travellers, which class of travel and any desired journey schedule that you have found.
If you can no longer go, and have made an enquiry, ping the agent an email to let them know. This helps them save time too.
As ever, if I can be of any advice on which resorts to travel to, where to stay and how to get there, I’m always more than happy to help,
(Daniel Elkan, Snowcarbon Founder)