Bargain Berths and advertising standards

You may be aware of the handful of blog posts I’ve written about Scotrail’s Caledonian Sleeper service between various Scottish stations and London; and in particular the posts about the bargain berths. These are the cheap – supposedly as little as £19 – fares you can get for berths on the sleeper, meaning you can get a good night’s sleep and an eleven hour journey almost the length of the UK for less than the price of a good night out.

To cut a long story short, a major tone of my posts has been the rather infuriating difficulty with which one can grasp ahold of these limited and blink-and-they’ve-been-snapped-up bargain berths. The most recent post documented my frustration at Scotrail removing the ability to search purely for bargain berths and bunging them in amongst the morass of general price tickets on their website, a search facility known as the “mixing deck”. Basically, it means it’s now even more difficult to catch the bargain berths, never mind the often-advertised £19 fares.

I’m not the only one to be frustrated, as the (at the last count) 63 comments on the post testify. It’s worth at least skim-reading them because it shows the range of comments from people who have searched in vain for these elusive £19 tickets. The comments have become quite a place for sharing anger and frustration at this, so much so it is in danger of becoming something of a community. I feel I ought to host a party for all the contributors in five years time or something.

Anyway. In amongst the tide of comments are a few from someone called Lou, who has wondered about whether there is a breach of advertising rules by claiming that there are £19 while hardly ever delivering on that claim. Lou has taken it as far as complaining to the Advertising Standards Authority, the UK’s advertising regulator, and – again, to cut a long story short – won an early resolution, though remains unhappy with the outcome.

As Lou’s most recent comment on that previous post explains:

“The ASA are satisfied with just the wording change and do not feel they NEED to create the website and are trying to close the case. I am arguing with them on that at the moment. The ASA seem to be hung up on the fact that Bargain Berths are a limited offer. My response is that is not the issue, it is a given that they are limited. The basis of my complaint is they are advertising tickets that are effectively impossible to find and purchase since they closed the Bargain Berths website and integrated it into the awful “Mixing Deck”.”

If you share Lou’s frustration, as I do, it’s well worth complaining to the ASA about their inadequate response to the situation. You can make a complaint to the ASA via this page, and the ruling to refer to is here.

As ever, I’m grateful for feedback or any reports people have of responses to their communications.

Update (January 2014): Lou has just commented again, below, to say that ASA have replied with a further judgement on the matter. It seems that not everything has changed as complainers might have liked, but at least there is no major discrepancy between what is being promised and what is being delivered. The Bargain Berths are still hard to find, but nobody’s promising otherwise. Well done Lou.

15 thoughts on “Bargain Berths and advertising standards

  1. Hello Simon,

    By coincidence, I received an email from the ASA today.

    They have agreed to re-open my complaint under a new reference number and will contact me as soon as they can. I should say that communication with the ASA has proved very slow but they do finally get there!

    One worrying aspect of the email is – “I should highlight though, that we could not insist that the advertiser reinstated a separate website for their Bargain Berths offer; we could only look at whether the reference to it is likely to mislead, or otherwise breach the advertising Code”

    I have again stressed that Scotrail are effectively advertising a product it is impossible to buy since the closure of the old website. I have even challenged the ASA to find a Bargain Berth fare themselves!!

    If any other reader of your website is planning to complain to the ASA (and I think that would be an enormous help) then please do point out the fact that they are advertising fares that are impossible to find therefore is false advertising. Whether they use the word “from” or not is beside the point!

  2. I have today emailed Scotrail regarding this issue.

    Hopefully if more people raise this issue with them, it will prompt them to change the Bargain Berth booking system to what it was before.

  3. I just managed to find one £19 Bargain Berth and a few £29 (Euston to Inverness) booking well ahead on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. However, if you try to book two together you never get a figure which relates to any recognisable combination of prices. Suspicious.

    The obvious thing is to try buying them separately, but that risks the second passenger getting stranded with a much higher fare.

    Has anyone ever managed to buy two BB’s for the same train, either separately or together?

    Mark

  4. As Mark points out, getting two tickets together (even non-bargain berths) is a nightmare … I was able to book two singles for £66 each for a Sunday evening back to London from Arbroath. Had I booked them as a pair, it would have been nearly £300! We ended up in adjoining compartments, but luckily one had a spare berth, so the hostess let us swap (she’d guessed we’d want to – as they were both booked in the same name)

    (Though I did manage to get a £29 on recently to Arbroath -as Mark found – mid-week [in February])

  5. Thanks for commenting Emma. How odd that you can’t book two tickets together at a low price. Have you complained to Scotrail about this?

    Well done on the £29 ticket though – it proves they do exist!

  6. Hello Simon,

    Been meaning to update on this for a while. Apologies but here goes!

    Having asked the ASA to relook at this issue they have have finally concluded that they can do no more on this issue. First Scotrail have agreed to remove the “from” element to their advertising and the ASA say this is afar as their remit allows. They argue that while it might be frustrating that the Bargain Berth web site has been withdrawn, they cannot make First Scotrail re-instate it despite saying they intended to.

    To quote the ASA;

    “If you are concerned that available Bargain Berth fares are not being displayed alongside other fare options when a search for a specific journey has been made, we would invite you to submit a complaint along those lines. However, we do not have grounds on which to investigate your complaint that, because it is not possible to search specifically for Bargain Berth fares, First Scotrail should not be advertising those fares.”

    I can’t, in all honesty raise a complaint along those lines because it IS possible to see Bargain Berth fares when using the Mixing Deck, it is just very rare and frustrating. Which is where I came in!

    Sorry this has not been more positive – the only action that has resulted from my compliant is a modification of the advertising, not the ease of searching.

    Lou

  7. Thanks for the update Lou, and well done on your persistence.

    I can see ASA’s point in a way – if Scotrail have changed their message to suit the product, then they’re not doing anything wrong. They may still be doing something a little underhand by making the fares harder to find, but at least they’re not making any incorrect claims. Well done again on delivering this win!

  8. Perhaps the next stage is to embarrass them publicly, either in one of the Money pages in the weekend papers, or on Watchdog etc.

  9. It appears as though ScotRail will lose the franchise from April next year to Serco. http://bbc.in/1ke7jdO
    Not sure if this is a good or bad thing for ‘bargain berth’ style tickets given that they want to revamp the customer experience and run a ‘luxury sleeper service’ in Australia…

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