This post comes courtesy of our old pal the devil’s advocate. In response to Catherine Mack’s recent one about finding cheap international train tickets I was inspired to have another go at finding some myself. In her post on Ethical Traveller, I’m quoted alongside other ‘train brains’, as Catherine has us, such as Mark Smith (AKA the Man in Seat 61) Rail Europe, Loco2 and Richard Hammond of Green Traveller.
We dispense our top tips for finding the best rail fares in Europe and it’s certainly well worth a read. Catherine does a great job in proving that finding bargain train fares abroad is not quite as impossible as some might think, but that’s just half the story…
It’s not impossible to find these fares, but let’s be honest, it’s not exactly easy either. And it’s certainly nowhere near as simple as finding cheap airfares… and therein lies the problem. I decided to test this out.
As an experiment, I took Deutsche Bahn’s London Spezial fares as an example and went in search of the e49 tickets advertised on their site and mentioned in the post. I started looking from tomorrow’s date onwards for the best train fares from London to Cologne, the closest German rail hub for UK travellers.
Now e49 is a cracking deal, I’m sure you’ll agree. OK, there are cheaper flights out there, but once you factor in the 20 – 30 euros you’d pay for transfers, I’d bet that most people would happily stump up an extra twenty quid or so for the convenience and comfort that rail travel brings.
No need to pack your toiletries separately, take your shoes off, be put through a series of patience-sapping queues, be hememd into your seat and generally patronised into infantile submission by constant announcements and safety checks, or schlep to and from the aiports to the city centre.
And with a journey time now at a scorching 4.5 hours you wouldn’t be sacrificing much of your precious travelling time either, once you’ve factored in airport check in and transfer time there’s probably less than half an hour in it, if that. So wouldn’t it be great to find some of these special fares readily available?
Having nothing better to do with my Saturday night (apart from try to think up Morrissey-related MozRank memes) I looked at every single day over the following 90 day period (the furthest ahead that fares are released online). Reader, I found none. The best I found was e69 single or e159 return. At least these e69 fares were plentiful enough. There were a few per week for almost every week.
I’ll admit that I limited my search to the first half of the day, for departures spanning between 9am – 3pm, so it’s possible there may have been the odd supercheap fare after these times. The reason I did this is largely down to DBahn’s booking system. It’s pretty easy to flick forward to the next day and search again, changing the time slot would significantly slow the search.
But this is a simple usability problem which is surely easily solved?
Why make us search again for every possible day and time option for the Holy Grail of affordable rail travel?
Just show us the cheapest fares in our chosen date range – how hard can it be?
What this exercise proved, much to my dismay, is that there are two main problems with cheap European train fares, especially those originating from the UK:
1. They’re few and far between
2. They’re just too hard to find
If you think this is just unhelpful carping, then compare it to airfares for a moment. There’s hundreds of third party flight agreggators out there dedicated to finding you the cheapest flight. For the most part, they’re a breeze to use.
I did a quick search for flights between London and Cologne on Skyscanner (other flight aggregators are available of course folks, but they’re a local business and the one I’ve always used first!). In a matter of seconds I found one in April for e48. Skyscanner make things easy by showing you a nice, graphic bar chart of the cheapest fare available on each day of any one month.
So why can’t Rail Europe and others do this?
I’m sure there’s a good reason, but I can’t be the only one demanding an answer. Crossing Canada by train with Via Rail is not exactly cheap, but at least they have a section on their site dedicated to promoting their best discount deals.
I genuinely want to know what barriers exist. Obviously there is greater competition on air routes, whereas you are mostly tied into using the national operator for most train journeys.
Are there complex data issues that need to be resolved, convoluted issues around integrating different national railway systems? Or are the rail companies simply just too greedy to show their cheapest fares, or is it a combination of all of these factors as I suspect? What’s the problem?
If you’re an industry insider and have some of the answers, I’d love to hear from you.
Here’s another great usability example which rail companies could learn from. When you log on to the homepage of DoHop, you’re given an eye-pleasing overview of all of the cheapest upcoming flight deals to various destinations from your usual departure airport, which it helpfully remembers from your last visit. Howz about we have something similar for train journeys? If someone could work it out it’s bound to be a winner.
Now let’s turn our attention back to Rail Europe for a moment. On their homepage they proudly trumpet their best fares: £69 return to Bruges or Paris, £99 to Amsterdam. Great. But click on these and instead of taking you to some actual examples of these fares, you get a map of Belgium and a bunch of city gudies. Hmm…
The same is true with Eurostar. It seems that when it comes to finding bargain train fares, they’re all tease and no please.
I’ve talked about Rome2Rio before as they’re one of the few companies who seem to be actively tackling this issue, at least in public. But they’re a small, underexposed company still tweaking their excellent map-based search site which lets you compare multiple modes of transport in terms of price, time and Co2. So far it doesn’t let you browse for the cheapest fares.
Surely it’s time the big guns put their heads together over this? Where there’s a will etc…
FlightFox (run by the people behind the excellent travel buddy site Globe Trooper) have recently started employing travel bloggers to find cheap airfares for ordinary folks who can’t be arsed looking themselves. Maybe they should run a similar challenge for those looking for bargain train fares? Now that’s one service I’d consider paying for myself.