Ski resorts by train

Why booking online can make trains disappear

Thu 17 October, 2019


Daniel Elkan

With a whole bunch of indirect journeys going on sale tomorrow morning, do you remember that classic AA advert from the 80s?  On a beach, an exasperated father asks his son: “Kevin, where exactly did you bury the car?”

Kevin replies: “It’s in the sand!” Then after a pause, he adds reflectively: “I’m not helping much, am I Dad…”
(You can watch the advert here:

Sometimes, things that are supposed to be helpful can have the opposite effect – certainly if used incorrectly. I’m not talking about contraception, but rail-booking websites.

Because though these websites are designed and intended to make booking rail travel easy, there are times that they slip up.  As a result, if you are booking rail travel on these websites there’s a chance that you might not be shown journey options would have suited you better (had you known these journeys even existed).

Why do these rail booking websites, like Eurostar, SNCF, Loco2 and Trainline, fail to show you your options?
There are two main reasons:

1.    The underlying rail ticket booking system that underpins all the searches, is far too complicated and not fit for purpose. Rail-booking websites try their best to make sense of this, but frequently fail. It means that sometimes options that should show, simply don’t show.
2.    In order to try to present things simply and not overwhelm you with choice, rail-booking websites use algorithms, to show you what they think are the best options for "the traveller". But not all travellers are the same. The one-size-fits solution all means that you may not be able to see an option that would have suited you better — and you could end up wearing a very baggy jumper or overntight trousers. Tailor-made journeys are not easily done online.

Now people that live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, and it’s not like the Snowcarbon site is at all perfect.  But Snowcarbon doesn’t have the financial backing of large train companies, venture capital etc etc. So in the interests of helping travellers and getting the awareness out there that the system has to change, I am throwing stones.  Hopefully ones that make enough noise to attract attention, without breaking any windows.

Knowledge is power, and this article is to inform you about how this works – and what you can do about it.  Timely since on tomorrow, Thursday 17th October, indirect journeys for travel between 6th January and 8th March become bookable. (SNCF, irritatingly, doesn't announce what time booking opens, which just seems bonkers, but I'd expect it to be between 5am and 7am UK time)

So, about train booking online. Firstly, let me snow you just one example of a problem.
Let’s say that you want to book travel from London to Bourg St Maurice, via Paris, return. Here's a screenshot of outbound journey shown on Loco2's website.

You see the 08:31 Eurostar.  That arrives at Paris Gare du Nord at 11:47, giving you exactly 60 minutes before your TGV departs at 12:47 from Paris Gare de Lyon. Sixty minutes is doable, but it's not preferable.  If you had the choice, you'd choose to have slightly longer to change.  And guess what? You do have the choice. It just doesn't appear this way when you book online.

How can you tell? Well put in a search on Loco2's website, for London to Paris on the same date. Here we are:

See the 07:52 Eurostar from London, arriving 11:17?  That gives you 90 minutes between your Eurostar arriving and your TGV departing.  That's perfect for crossing Paris and swanning into Gare de Lyon to pick up baguettes, have coffee or a snack, perhaps grab a bottle of bubbly to celebrate your comfortable, social, low-carbon journey to the Alps. And in this case, as you'll see, the 07:52 is even cheaper.

But you can't book the damn train as part of a whole journey, because Loco2's algorithm (and that on other sites too) doesn't show it. The algorithm assumes you'd prefer 60 minutes to change, and can't cope with the idea of offering you both options.  Let me just check the year again...yep, it is 2019.  The iphone came into the world in 2007.  Twelve years later our tech can't cope with offering people a shorter and a longer change in Paris. We have Oyster, Citymapper, Rome2Rio, but we can't do this simple thing for travellers?  It's nuts.

But even if you are aware of these other trains, if they don’t show up online as part of a return journey, or don’t show up when combined with a Eurostar –  how can you book them? For a start, booking the various legs separately is a bad idea generally, because booking separate legs almost always makes your journey more expensive overall. Annoying and unfair.

The answer here is to ask a rail-booking agent, such as Trainseurope, International Rail, Ffestiniog or Switzerland Travel Centre to do it for you. Their booking systems are far more sophisticated, enabling them to pick the trains that you specify and combine them into one booking. They charge a modest booking fee which is well worth it for what they can achieve for you. You can see a list of these agents on the Snowcarbon train travel booking guide - and also on the booking guide for each resort listed on Snowcarbon. For example on the 'How to book train travel to Montgenevre" page)

Of course, it should be said that there are many occasions when booking online is fine. But because of my rather geeky knowledge of train schedules to the Alps, I frequently see examples of journey options that I know exist, but are not shown.  It’s a bit like the film The Six Sense, except the little boy sees missing trains, not ghosts.

As I was writing this from the café of a supermarket, I noticed a little boy take a toddler-size supermarket trolley and push it out the front door (see photo below).  He meant well, which is what these things are made for, but as his mum told me with a smile, he was ‘helping but not really helping’.  A bit like, in some cases, rail-booking websites — despite their good intentions. These issues desperately need addressing if we are to really enable a shift towards rail travel, and I'll be campaigning to help get them fixed. But of course that won't happen tomorrow or the next day.  (Today the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee inquiry on Sustainable tourism. published a Snowcarbon submission about how rail companies need to better work with the travel industry in order to help more people travel by train.)

It would of course be easier to pretend that these problems didn’t exist not make a song and dance about them.  But the whole purpose of Snowcarbon is to help people get out of cars and planes and find great train journeys – and that means the best possible train journeys. Pretending that problems booking online don’t exist, would be like burying one’s head in the sand. And like the little boy in the advert on the beach, that’s not really helping is it?