Having reservations to travel

A couple of weeks ago, I expressed my regret at not being able to use Thomas Cook to make our travel arrangements to go to Scotland later this summer. Since then, the tickets have come, and it all got even worse. If you can’t bear to anguish about my experience, its message is simple: I won’t ever use trainline again.

To travel the length of the British Isles, or fairly close to it, we will be travelling by bus, ferry to Southampton, train from there to Inverness to stay overnight, then bus to Ullapool, and ferry to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis. And return a few days later. Each of these stages has had to be booked separately, using a different operator’s website, and the whole process took much of a day to complete.

Since that web marathon, I have been steadily assembling the tickets and reservations.

The CalMac online booking system was the most amusing at the time. At the end of it I was emailed a PDF booking confirmation, which contains no less than four individual tickets and four individual boarding passes. These have to be printed out, and cunningly incorporate the operator’s own adverts, so that I have to print eight complete A4 pages in all. It makes computers all so worthwhile when you can use them as a tool to cut more trees down.

But the train tickets have been my greatest worry. The only vaguely integrated mode of travel in our trip, our northbound journey requires three legs with three different operators, and the southbound requires four legs with three operators. We have almost achieved an octopus.

Having opted when booking online to have our seats reserved for us, I was dismayed when the train tickets arrived without any reservations. I checked online, in my account with trainline, the booking company, only to be informed that “seat reservations were not available”. I tried to phone them a couple of times, but as soon as I was connected, their recorded message advised me that I would face a long wait, and suggested that I tried at another time.

It’s a good few weeks before we travel, and I know that some of the trains on our journey will be very full indeed. Total train travel time is around eleven hours each way, so the prospect of standing, or scrunching into a little alcove, for all that period was not attractive.

Having paid trainline the cost of the tickets – over £250 – another £5 for paying with a credit card rather than pounds of flesh, £1.50 for making the booking (surely the purpose of making a booking), and finally £1.95 to have trainline print the tickets out and stick them in a second class letter (actual postage cost £0.56), I am more than upset they they couldn’t reserve us a single seat for such a long journey.

So there must be a centralised service for reserving seats for those who already have their train tickets? No: you then have to make individual reservations with each train operator. And in our case, not only would that have meant three separate operators, but none of them offered to perform this online, only by phone, and at additional cost.

I finally admitted defeat yesterday, and drove the dozen miles to our nearest train station with a full booking service. A real gentleman named Richard put off his rest break to sort our reservations out. Contrary to the claim made by trainline, all except one of the seven legs of our train journeys could have seats reserved. Richard made the lot of them in around ten minutes, a service which cost us nothing. Yes, it was completely free.

The next time that we want to travel somewhere by train, I certainly won’t go anywhere near trainline, but I’ll do it the nineteenth century way: I’ll go to the booking office and ask them to do the lot. At least until someone decides that physical booking offices have been superceded by websites. Because for now, they haven’t: Richard remains irreplaceable.