Letter from Europe

Travel planning: choices... choices

Issue no. 2015/23

Picture above: Image © saniphoto / dreamstime.com


The notion of pre-purchasing train tickets was generally unknown to Victorian travellers. It is only in the last generation that rail operators have started to use dynamic pricing, offering handsome discounts for travellers willing to re-purchase tickets for trains which the operator expects to be lightly loaded.

Dear fellow travellers

In Thomas Hardy's novel Jude the Obscure, Jude Fawley books two tickets from Melchester to Aldbrickham - one for himself and the other for his free-spirited cousin Sue Bridehead. Hardy's use of the work 'book' might suggest that Jude was pre-purchasing tickets for travel at some future date. But that was not the norm in Victorian England. Travel was by and large altogether more spontaneous than it is today. Jude just rolled up at the railway station in Melchester and bought the tickets a few minutes before the train was due to depart.

Our 1862 edition of a handbook for travellers on the railways of Britain reminds us that "The place where the tickets are issued is usually not open until within about a quarter of an hour of the departure of the train."

Modern man (or woman) would surely worry as to whether there would be enough seats on the train if they did not pre-book. But travellers of yesteryear were evidently less troubled by such concerns. At busy times, there were surely moments of anxiety as booking offices started selling tickets for a train which might be overloaded. By the start of the last century some companies had introduced a rule which prescribed that, where demand for a particular services exceeded the number of seats available, travellers making longer-distance journeys would have priority in boarding the train.

Planning versus spontaneity

The notion of pre-planning was anathema to early travellers. Karl Baedeker repeatedly reminded readers of his guides that they should avoid buying return or circular tickets, even though in some countries such tickets offered a small discount over the cost of making the same journey using separate single tickets. Such tickets, advised Baedeker's 1881 guide to Switzerland, "are apt to hamper the traveller's movements and deprive him of the independence essential to enjoyment."

Insofar as early travellers booked in advance, usually through an agency such as Thomas Cook, it brought no fare advantage. So, if funds were tight, it made perfect sense to buy a ticket on departure and that's what most rail travellers did.

Market pricing

It is only in the last generation that rail operators (along with airlines and hotels) have started to use dynamic pricing, offering handsome discounts for travellers willing to re-purchase tickets for trains which the operator expects to be lightly loaded. Such bargains are generally reserved for longer journeys. So a modern Jude Fawley travelling from Melchester (Salisbury) to Aldbrickham (Reading) would still not be able to undercut the regular off-peak fare which can be purchased anytime before departure. Though nowadays Jude and Sue might sensibly invest in a Two-Together Railcard.

Air travellers have long since discovered that booking many months in advance is the key to getting a bargain and some airlines already have flights for summer 2016 on sale. We note that one discount air carrier already offers tickets from Amsterdam to Britain for the last week of October 2016. But if like us you favour rail travel, you'll not yet find train tickets from Amsterdam to anywhere available for late October 2015 - let alone a year later.

Pro-environmental choices

That's because most European rail operators stick to the 'three-month rule' - whereby tickets for travel on a specific date are only released for purchase three months prior to travel. We believe this gives a very powerful incentive for budget-conscious travellers to opt for planes over trains. "Better to buy a bargain flight today for my late October 2016 trip than wait another year and see how the train fares look," goes the reasoning. Of course few people really do book 15 months in advance, but there are surely many who have booked winter holidays by plane where the train might have been a viable alternative - if only timetables and fares for next winter were already available. The modern European rail industry only loses passengers by still honouring the three-month rule.

Interestingly, we are beginning to see this system fragmenting. Eurostar has always been innovative and now challenges discount airlines by making it easier to change tickets - so restoring to travellers something of that flexibility so cherished by Baedeker. Albeit at a price.

Eurostar has also often bucked the three-month rule. Last week, it opened bookings for its seasonal ski trains from London to the French Alps which can now be booked right through to April 2016. Bookings on the direct Eurostar from London to Marseille (serving Lyon and Avignon along the way) can also now be made for journeys until the end of April

But these are isolated routes. Austrian Railways (ÖBB) has gone further. It has recently upped its forward booking horizon from three to six months, making it possible to book trips for the Christmas holidays and January 2016. These are chinks in the system. Let's hope we see more. It might help travellers make pro-environmental choices and opt for train over plane.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

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