Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Back on Track at Last!

Booking Train Trips for this Summer

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Over the last few weeks, and particularly since the May timetable update, rail services have been returning to normal in most places. It has been good to pass my local station in Stamford and see hourly trains to Stansted Airport (although not many passengers will be going that far!) instead of every two hours to Cambridge, and despite the problems with their train fleet LNER will be running almost a full timetable, too, once the reopening of Kings Cross is complete this week following a major rebuild of the track and platforms.

With the coming of the summer and the gradual easing of lockdown rules I have begun buying tickets for planned trips and have even planned an extra short trip at short notice. It is an exciting time and I cannot wait to get on a train again and write up the experience here - and it is not long to wait now. For now I thought I'd share some thoughts on the current difficulty in planning journeys and buying tickets, using a couple of examples of my recent (and, indeed, continuing) experience.

The ferry docked at Yarmouth
First, I have long had hotels booked in Yarmouth, Isle of Wight and Chichester for my annual summer break on the south coast of England, but travel was still pretty vague then and the hotels offered free cancellation so I was confident in booking them even though it was not certain I'd be able to go. Once the government's so-called "road map" to ending lockdown was published it all began to look more likely. First, LNER advertised Advance tickets covering all the summer, so I grabbed First Class singles each way between Peterborough and London, hoping that the other tickets I needed would gradually become available. Sure enough I was eventually, after many weeks, able to book from Waterloo to Yarmouth via the Lymington Ferry, and then from Chichester back to London Victoria and from Ryde to Chichester. The only outstanding tickets I have not yet been able to buy are the ones to get me from my home in Stamford to and from Peterborough! It is very frustrating, but Cross Country only seem to release tickets a couple of weeks or so before travel, and all my other arrangements hinge on them getting me to either Peterborough or Birmingham. Peterborough, though, is close enough for a taxi to be a reasonable alternative, although expensive and slow compared with the train, or in the daytime I can use the local bus, even slower but cheaper - free for a pensioner! I expect I'll get the Cross Country tickets eventually, but it is one job I have to keep in mind to do.

Second, the short-notice trip. It is just to Croydon to join friends for a wedding to which we were all invited when it was expected to be held last year; not that the wedding is in Croydon, we'll be joining it remotely from their home, such is the state of things these days. Anyway, Thameslink operate a through service from Peterborough to East Croydon so I went to their website to book the tickets and was put off considerably by their warnings that I would need to "reserve space" on the Cross Country trains to and from Peterborough and also reserve seats on the LNER train I'd have to use coming back because the through service does not run on Sundays. There was no clue there about how to do these things. Asking questions of the three companies' social media teams on Twitter came up with all sorts of friendly reassurances (apart from Thameslink who only asked me what date I was planning to travel, something I was not prepared to tell the world on Twitter) but no real information about exactly what to do to ensure that the tickets I bought (which were to be Super Off Peak Returns or something similar - a great bargain) would be useable at the times I needed to travel).

Eventually I took the plunge and, knowing I'd have to use one of their trains to get back, booked the tickets via the LNER website. Bingo! It was simplicity itself ... LNER came up with exactly the same routes and times and the same tickets at the same price, but crucially they also booked the reserved seats on their own train and on the Cross Country trains in both directions. Easy: paid up, job done! How I wish I had started with their website in the first place, but I did not know they'd be involved until I starting looking, and neither did I get that Thameslink's site would be so unhelpful. The moral is that I shall use LNER as my default for ticket purchases in future, no matter with which company I am travelling unless I need to use another site for a particular reason. It was all so simple, and I recommend it to anyone who needs to book a complex route with reserved seats. It is unsure yet whether compulsory reservations will be a feature of post-pandemic life, but even if not, they will be with us for a while yet, I would think.

So, with a file full of tickets and itineraries I am ready for about four or five trips over the next few weeks and months, and who knows what else may become feasible as time unfolds?