Expert insights

Is booking rail travel in advance always the cheapest option?

1 June 2016

A challenge of travel policy change – e.g. asking travellers to book rail in advance – is making sure they're aware of it. 

But don’t forget to also make sure that any change you’re asking travellers to make is actually possible…

We spend a lot of time analysing customer policies and travel trends; we’re always looking for tactical and strategic opportunities to reduce costs and improve traveller experiences. The more that travellers comply with company travel policies, the better, both in terms of savings and duty of care.

But what if your travellers can't comply because you're asking the impossible?

How much could advance tickets save you?

Encouraging travellers to book rail tickets further in advance of travel to secure lower fares has an obvious cost benefit for businesses. Advance tickets provide a cost saving for the option of stipulating a set time train and date. The potential saving with these fares can be up to 44% off the cost of a full ‘anytime’ single ticket.

We always recommend booking advance tickets as far ahead of travel as possible; ideally at least one week or more before your departure date, to ensure availability. The closer to the travel time, the less likely it is that advance tickets will be available, as train operating companies (TOCs) only provide a set amount per train.

Although this isn’t the case with Cross Country Trains, which has announced that passengers can now book advance tickets on its routes even on the day of travel. That’s great news for business travellers – although we’d still recommend booking further in advance for the best savings. With all TOCs, you’ll find that the advance ticket prices tend to creep up as your departure date approaches, so you’re less likely to secure the cheapest possible fare.

Are you asking the impossible?

There’s something you need to know before you start to push messaging about advance rail bookings for all of your travellers. It’s important to understand which routes they travel on most frequently. We’ve benchmarked the availability of advance tickets across intercity TOCs Virgin Trains West Coast, Virgin Trains East Coast, East Midlands Trains and Great Western Railways (GWR), to see if they can be booked consistently across the board.

We found that advance tickets aren’t as easy to get hold of on GWR’s peak-time services as they are on other operators. Our travellers book advance tickets over 40% of the time – except on GWR routes, where they book advance tickets on just 18% of all journeys. This trend is explained by our live availability analysis, which identifies a real challenge in booking advance tickets on any peak-time GWR train. GWR advance tickets are often unavailable to book anything up to six weeks in advance of travel – an unrealistic timescale for most corporate travellers.

By educating people to focus on booking advance tickets with this train operator, when in practice they aren’t actually easy to get hold of, you could be missing alternative opportunities to make savings.

Advance vs off-peak rail tickets

Take off-peak tickets, for example: these fares make it cheaper to travel on trains that are less busy. Offering good value for money, they may require you to travel at specific times of day, days of the week or on a particular route. GWR generally has off-peak tickets available for longer periods of time, and with fewer restrictions, than other train operators. For example, Virgin Trains West Coast off-peak tickets are not valid for travel on services leaving London between 1500 and 1900. But with GWR, the option to use off-peak tickets on services out of London is only restricted between 1640 and 1830.

The benefits of booking GWR off-peak tickets are supported by some of our customer data: 35% of rail tickets booked with GWR were off-peak a significantly higher number than the next best operator for off- peak, Virgin West Coast, at 22%.

Should you always book in advance?

Our analysis shows that advance rail tickets aren’t equally easy to purchase across all suppliers. So while we always recommend purchasing advance tickets as far ahead as possible, we also encourage companies to take another look at traveller and market trends. There could be alternative booking solutions that your travellers and your business are missing out on.

Interested? Let’s have a chat about your company’s travel, meetings and events objectives - from the stuff that keeps you awake at night, to the everyday experiences of your employees! Call us on 0330 390 0340, or submit your details below.