Once upon a time booking train tickets online was easy. Whichever operator you were travelling with booking on eastcoast.co.uk was most likely going to be the best option. With Rewards points on every booking, no booking or card fees and a decent booking option it made sense to be the default place for rail bookings. The only time it could be beaten is if another operator was running a sale or similar online only promotion.
Now it's not so clear. The first bit of advice is avoid sites that charge booking or credit card fees (such as Trainline), the only exception to this is if you want to redeem Tesco Clubcard points on rail travel as these have to be booked through RedSpottedHanky.com who charges a fee.
Otherwise the site you should choose for booking depends on what matters most to you:
Free WiFi and seat selection tool
If you're travelling in standard class on Virgin Trains East Coast (VTEC) you need to book directly with them if you want a code for free WiFi on their services. They also have a seat selection tool which works most of the time on their services.
Virgin Trains West Coast (VTWC) has a seat selector for their own services too, but you need to book on their site for that - www.virgintrains.co.uk - for free WiFi on West Coast services you need to install the Virgin Red app, unlike East Coast you don't get the codes for booking direct.
There's no benefits whatsoever for booking travel on other operators on these websites, these benefits apply for their services only.
Familiar look and feel
If you liked the way the old Virgin Trains East Coast website used to work the good news is there's a number of booking sites that still have the familiar look and feel. All the sites that below accept cycle reservations (except ScotRail) have a look and feel similar to the old Virgin Trains East Coast site.
Already covered in another article, there's a number of operators that stil offer online cycle reservations and they can reserve cycle spaces for any operator that requires it.
- Chiltern Railways
- Great Western Railway (GWR)
- Hull Trains
- TransPennine Express (TPE)
- RedSpottedHanky (this has a booking fee, but you can spend Clubcard points here at double value)
Yes, Nectar is rubbish, but if you collect the points you might as well book with an operator that offers points on all rail travel not just their own. There's two operators that offer Nectar points on all travel, and they're also in the list of operators that offer cycle reservations.
The Chiltern Railways site offers up catering vouchers when booking tickets on Virgin Trains East Coast services. This seems to be the only way to purchase VTEC catering vouchers online since the new VTEC booking engine is lacking this facility. It also offers cycle reservations and free postage, so if you don't care about Nectar it's a good option.
Note that this booking engine refers to the catering vouchers as being valid on NXEC services. NXEC refers to National Express East Coast which was a previous operator of the franchise. We have tested purchasing the catering vouchers and can confirm they're correctly listed as VTEC Catering when the tickets are printed.
No change fees
This is a big one for those who find themselves needing to change advance purchase reservations. Almost every website charges a £10 change fee for changing an advance ticket. The only site that we're aware of that doesn't charge the change fee is CrossCountry. This applies for any advance purchase tickets bought through their site regardless of operator. Please note this only applies to tickets collected from machines or posted, this site does not allow you to change mobile or print at home tickets so do not select those options.
The lack of change fees is the only reason we can see for booking via CrossCountry but if you expect there's a chance you might change your tickets booking via their site could save you money.
Please note when changing advance tickets you need to pay the fare difference if the new ticket is more expensive. This is the case on all sites, but others also add the £10 fee on top of this.
The previous Virgin Trains East Coast website used to charge for postage if you were travelling from a station with ticket collection facilities but would post them for free if you were starting from an unstaffed station. A number of sites offer free postage for all bookings (although this only tends to be offered if you book at least a week in advance to allow time for delivery), out of the sites previously recommended these ones offer free postage:
Individual seats in first class
Many trains have individual seats in first class which are ideal for solo travellers as they offer more privacy and means there's no need to share your table with a stranger. The new Virgin Trains East Coast website does not give you this option, the work around on their trains is to select an individual seat from the seat map but there's a small number of cases where the seat map won't work. It also means if you're connecting to another operator (so no seat map available) there's no way to pass on your preference for an individual seat.
The good news is all the booking engines recommended above except CrossCountry still allow you to choose an individual seat so just pick the site you're most comfortable with.
Flying Club Miles
If you want to earn Flying Club miles you'll need to book through the correct Virgin site so virgintrainseastcoast.com for East Coast and virgintrains.co.uk for West Coast. You only earn miles on journeys on that particular operator so there's no point booking tickets for other operators as these earn no miles. For East Coast journeys you earn 2 miles per pound, unfortunately Virgin Trains West Coast have recently halved the amount of miles you earn on their services.
There is a way to earn additional miles on West Coast, if you access the Virgin Trains website via the Virgin Atlantic shopping portal you will get an additional mile per pound which assuming it tracks correctly will bring you back up to 2 miles per pound, but that's just a needless hoop to jump through.
There's no longer a perfect site for everyone, for some people it will make sense to still book through the Virgin Trains East Coast website if seat selection and standard class WiFi is what you value most. But for other people it will make sense to switch to a site that provides the features that are now missing from the Virgin Trains East Coast site.