Friday morning was the last cog in the wheel in terms of planning our summer’s European rail adventure: three weeks, seven countries, and eleven trains. You’ll of course be hearing more about this trip in due course.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been watching various European train operators’ websites like a hawk, waiting for the release date for each leg and managing to grab pretty good fares, most of the time. The haul includes two £19 bargain berth tickets for our first journey, the Scotrail sleeper to London. There’s always a sense of pride and achievement in grabbing those elusive cheap tickets.
One of the advantages of our trip, I reasoned, was that by not spending an overnight in London either outbound or coming home, we would avoid any adverse impact of the Olympics, which will be bringing various shades of chaos to the UK’s capital in the month of July.
However, I was nearly caught napping a few weeks back when Eurostar released their tickets for during the Olympic period well ahead of the normal schedule, and I only discovered this by chance via a retweet from the indispensable Man in Seat 61. I moved quickly, and managed to get our return Eurostar tickets before they’d got too expensive.
The Olympics reared its ugly head again last week, which was the scheduled release for the final part of our journey: the London to Inverness sleeper that would take us home at last after our three week adventure, just a few short hours after that hastily grabbed Eurostar journey.
I thought I knew what I was doing, as I was following all my own advice on the way to prepare for the cheapest fares. 9am on the alloted morning came and went, as did the customary tweet from Scotrail saying that the daytime and sleeper booking horizon was now open for the week in July that I was aiming for. But there was no sign of the bargain berths. I waited, refreshed my browser, waited and refreshed again, and even tried other browsers just in case. There was no sign of the new week’s worth of tickets. I twice tweeted Scotrail over the course of the morning to ask if they knew what was happening. I got no response either time.
Then I saw a tweet reply from them to another Twitter user, saying “Hi, we have referred the matter to our Bargain Berth Support team”. I expanded the message and they had been asked the same question I’d asked. I’m not sure why this other user got a reply and I didn’t. I was starting to think Scotrail was ignoring me, or it was a great conspiracy to stop me getting those magic £19 tickets.
I googled “bargain berth support team”, trying to dispel images of a Bond baddy’s lair where rows of computer operators were desperately trying to stop me getting anywhere near the fares I wanted. I found two telephone numbers in the extensive FAQ section of the Scotrail website. I called the first one and after a long wait and some terrible music, I got through to a woman with a thick Indian accent. Here’s the jist of the conversation:
Me: “Hi, I’m trying to find out what time the bargain berths are going to be released, that were announced to be released today.”
Her: “They are released every week for twelve weeks ahead, though I don’t know what time of day.”
Me: “It’s 9 o’clock in the morning [why did I know this and not the person on the other end of the line?]. And yes, I know they’re released twelve weeks ahead, but those for today have not appeared and I’d like to know what time of day they’re going to be released.”
Her: “I’m afraid I don’t have this information, I can only suggest trying later on in the afternoon.”
I tried the second number, where I was told it was a line purely for other sorts of tickets. The adviser gave me another number, different from the one I’d tried first. So I called it.
“Hello, welcome to First Great Western…”
Excellent, not just the wrong department but the entirely wrong train company. Not a good show from Scotrail, whose customer service I’ve mostly found to be very good.
Importantly, I was still no closer to knowing what time the ticket release would be. I tweeted Scotrail a third time, being quite careful to be as polite as I could. Still there was no response.
I’d noticed earlier in the morning that the regular berths were on sale as announced, at much higher – though not, admittedly, outrageously prohibitive – prices. It was specifically just the bargain berths that for some reason hadn’t gone live. I had a dilemma – we were both going away for the weekend hillwalking at the end of the afternoon, so wouldn’t have the ability to stay online all evening waiting for the mysterious moment of release.
Should we just go for those pricier ones, or spend the whole day refreshing the bargain berths page with no knowledge of when, or even if, they were going to be released? The other alternative, which we plumped for when we had a similar problem last year, of taking the overnight bus, was not, after that horrifically cramped experience, even remotely up for discussion.
As the morning turned into afternoon, the situation didn’t change. Though I did discover that others were now querying Scotrail on Twitter – “all this webpage refreshing is hard work”, complained one tweeter, who certainly had my sympathies. They were receiving the same response as I eventually did when I tweeted a fourth time: a brief “still awaiting info”. At least that killed off the conspiracy theory that Scotrail was out to spite my travel plans.
Eventually, though, a tweet came forth from Scotrail pointing the increasingly angry mob of bargain berth hunters to their website, where a statement declared that bargain berth availability could not be guaranteed during the Olympic period. Brilliant. So there were no bargain berths after all, which would have been nice to have known before spending a day waiting for them. The angry mob soon turned on itself in a Hobbesian free for all, as the regular priced sleeper tickets started to disappear quickly, and I missed the most reasonable ones of about £63 each. Rather than pay over double that, I made the spur of the moment decision to get them on the less popular Aberdeen line, with only a cheap and relatively quick two hour journey onward to Inverness necessary from there.
It was not an ideal solution, and not the smoothest final jigsaw piece in a trip that has been a long time in the planning, but given the circumstances it was the only real option. But why couldn’t Scotrail have told everyone about the non-availability of bargain berths in advance, or at the very least at the start of the day, to avoid a crowd of people wasting the day awaiting their release? And why were they being withheld at all during the Olympic period? It smacked of profiteering.
I emailed Scotrail’s customer services to put these questions to them, and their response which I received this morning, a couple of days later, includes this key information:
These heavily discounted fares are offered to fill spare capacity where that exists and their availability is kept under constant review. Any big events that result in large numbers travelling are likely to impact the availability of such tickets.
Staff are not made aware of how many Bargain Berth tickets are available on any given service. I can appreciate your frustration under the circumstances, however it is made clear that these fares are sold subject to availability.
This is a most unsatisfying response, for two key reasons:
1. The first statement that bargain berths are offered to fill spare capacity is utterly false: they are released at the same time as the regular fares, so there is no way of knowing (except guessing via long-term sales trends) how many berths are going to be left unsold. I’ve never seen any being released closer to the date of travel, for instance to fill up leftover seats at the last minute. This leaves me with the conclusion that these cheap tickets are simply being removed in an act of profit maximisation at a time of high demand.
2. That staff are not made aware of how many bargain berth tickets are available on any given service is most odd. Firstly they do know to some extent, because there are usually up to four at each price band. And in any case, that’s not the point, because my question was about their existence at all in a certain week, not their number. Whether or not bargain berths are going to be released at all in any week is a pretty basic piece of information. If customer service staff, whose job is to inform customers, do not know this basic information, then that demonstrates dreadful customer service management and poor customer engagement.
There is a curious contradiction with the (usually) clockwork release of these elusive fares and the idea that they are subject to availability. If you’re going to release such excellent value fares regularly, it is entirely understandable that customers will attempt to decipher the logic behind their release. When that logic appears unclear, and the company appears not to know its own affairs very well, it is not a good sign.
But then if travel is not always as smooth, easy and predictable as we would like, perhaps that’s supposed to be part of the fun…