How to avoid TheTrainLine fees

TheTrainLine.com is a website that allows UK rail passengers to buy their tickets online. It has just introduced booking fees, meaning that a ticket booked with TheTrainLine now costs more than buying the same ticket at the station. Fortunately, there are alternatives.

The slippery slope to booking fees started some years ago, when TheTrainLine introduced a charge for paying by credit card. This then increasaed from £1 to £1.50, £2, and is now an extortionate £2.50. The fee could be avoided by paying by debit card. The newest fees are £1 for having the tickets posted to you, or 50p if you choose to collect them from a “FastTicket” machine at a railway station. These latest fees can not be avoided, as you have to obtain the tickets somehow.

So what is the alternative? It is important to remember that it’s possible to buy any rail ticket from any outlet. You don’t have to buy the ticket from the station your journey starts from or from the same train operator, and you can also buy cheap, advance tickets in person. TheTrainLine’s claim that they can save customers £63.28 on an Edinburgh to London journey, for example, is quite misleading as they are comparing an advance purchase ticket with one bought on the day of travel. The cheaper ticket could be bought at your local station, assuming it was convenient to go there.

Of course, it’s not always convenient to go to the station to buy tickets. Even if it’s nearby, there may be long queues, or it might not be manned at the right times. The customer can also never be sure the person in the ticket office has explored all the ticket options to find the cheapest, which can be quite time consuming. Fortunately, most of the train operating companies operate their own ticketing websites. For example, I use the website of my local operator, First Great Western. Once again, remember that it’s possible to buy any ticket from any outlet. Just because you are using a particular train operator’s website doesn’t mean the journey has to involve travel on that operator’s trains.

TheTrainLine and First Great Western rail ticket sites

Most of the operators’ websites are actually provided by none other than TheTrainLine. Anyone used to the latter would feel quite at home. The layout and interface are practically identical, it’s just the colours and branding that are different. It even appears as TheTrainLine on your credit card statement! However, unlike TheTrainLine’s own site, the train operators’ own sites don’t levy the extortionate additional charges and booking fees. At the time of writing, if you book a ticket with First Great Western, it is free to have the ticket delivered or to collect it from a FastTicket machine, and there is no credit card fee either! Therefore, it’s possible to save up to £3.50 just by using a site with different branding. In addition, TheTrainLine insists on selecting insurance for the journey by default, which the customer must remember to deselect. First Great Western leave the insurance option unselected so that the customer need only check the boxes if insurance is required.

According to Wikipedia, TheTrainLine accounts for 20% of all train tickets by value. It also runs the websites of 16 out of 20 of the train operating companies, most of which don’t charge additional fees. So next time you book a train ticket, please try the site of one of the train operators. You’ll save yourself some money, and hopefully reduce the market share of TheTrainLine.com, whose position as the largest retailer of tickets has clearly made it complacent, to the extent that it believes it can rip off its customers without them going elsewhere for their tickets.

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