Don't let rail-booking websites screw up your travel plans

By: Daniel Elkan
Wed 25 Jan 2023
Cluses station in snow
Daniel Elkan


Before you book a train journey to a ski resort online, it's worth looking at why rail-booking websites sometimes completely fail to work - and what to do about it...

For years, I've witnessed rail-booking websites frequently fail to show the best train journeys to ski resorts.

And today I have a really good example for you, showing how skiers can get unwittingly fooled by the results on rail-booking websites. Of course, rail booking websites want to show you the best journeys. The problem is that they rely on algorithms that frequently fail to serve you up the best journey options. It's a scandelous situation and it needs to be called out.

Let's put this in context:  we are in the year 2023.  In London, there is a show called ABBA Voyage, where holograms of the band, ABBA, perform in front of you on stage. They are so realistic that you literally can't tell they are not the real thing. I've been. It's incredible.

Humans have the ingenuity to create a show like that, and yet the ability to successfully display train journeys between the UK and the Alps still eludes us. It's bonkers.

Given that we reached the moon in 1969, you'd think we could have made it easy by now to book a train journey to the Alps online. More and more skiers want this, so why should booking sometimes still be so difficult.

This blog article is going to:
1. Uncover a blatant example of the nonsense that happens - for the record
2. Help you understand better how to avoid getting fooled by website algorithm failure.
3. Suggest solutions to make it easier to book

The reason that I found this example is that a skier emailed me today saying:

"We want to travel by train to Bourg St Maurice and back. The tickets have been released but there’s no return trains on Sat 8th April, which is odd. We really want to go by train. Can you help?"

So I investigated. This is how I investigated:

Step 1: search Bourg St Maurice to London on Rail Europe's website

Although the skier in this case, like most people, wants a return journey from the UK to the Alps, the stated problem is that the inbound journey doesn't show up. So I've excluded the outbound journey (London to Bourg St Maurice) from the proceedings and am only searching Bourg Maurice to London, one way.

Rail Europe - Bourg - London 8th April - summary
 
However, as you can see in the screenshot above, there is only one journey option showing. The journey involved a change of trains (TER to TGV) at Chambery, as well as at Paris (TGV to Eurostar). The fact that on a Saturday at Easter only one journey was showing, and there was no direct train between Bourg St Maurice and Paris showing, set the proverbial alarm bells ringing.
 
Rail Europe - Bourg - London 8th April - detail
 
In situations where you are looking for rail journeys online, and you suspect that the website might not be showing you some of the possible journeys, there's a simple trick you can do: break the journey into smaller units.
 

Step 2: search Bourg St Maurice to Paris on Rail Europe's website

When I changed the search to 'Bourg St Maurice to Paris' (instead of to London), this resulted in several options: 
 
Rail Europe - Bourg - Paris 8th April
As you can see, there's a direct TGV from Bourg St Maurice to Paris, departing at the more wholesome time of 09:12. Why didn't the Rail Europe website manage to pair this TGV to Paris with a Eurostar back to London? It's not as if there aren't plenty of Eurostar trains to match it up with.
 

Step 3: search Paris to London on Eurostar's website

As expected, a search on Eurostar's website showed that there were plenty of Eurostar journeys from Paris to London. So one would think that the algorithm could have successfully paired the direct TGV from Bourg St Maurice to Paris, with one of these.
 
Eurostar - Paris - London 8th April - summary
 
It's quite baffling really. Something in the algorithm that powers the Rail Europe website is unable to put two trains together to show you the simplest journey. Next thing to do was to check whether this was a problem peculiar to the the Rail Europe website, or whether other rail-booking websites would also fail in their searches too. 

Step 4: try the original search on a different rail-booking website (eg Trainline)

When I tried the exact same original search on Trainline, this is what I found:
 
Trainline - Bourg - London 8th April - summary
 
Unfortunately, Trainline's website results turn out to be a bit of a shambles. It showed:
 
a) the Travelski Express direct train to London (which can only be booked as part of a whole package, not on the Trainline website)
b) the same 07:17 departure as we saw on Rail Europe
c) a departure one at 12:38, also with two changes
 
So basically a bit of a chocolate teapot, too. But not unexpectedly, because rail-booking websites rely on the same basic system. If two cafes use the same tea bags, you are going to get similar tea.

Step 5: search Bourg St Maurice to Paris on Trainline's website

When I changed the search on Trainline's website to Bourg St Maurice to Paris, instead of London, the site correctly found the 09:12 direct TGV, as well as a bunch of other trains.
 
As an aside, note that the 15:07 TGV from Bourg costs half the price of the 09:12 TGV, saving you £60. You could get an extra five hours' skiing, stay in a romantic Paris hotel (with the money you saved) and then go to London by Eurostar next morning. Always worth considering this. But I digress...
 
Trainline - Bourg - Paris 8th April - summary

 

Step 6: search Bourg St Maurice to London on SNCF' Connect website


I'm not a fan of SNCF Connect's website, because I think it isn't intuitive to use. But for completeness in this story, I checked that too.

SNCF Connect - Bourg - London 8th April - summary
 
And guess what. It was even more useless than the others, in terms of search results. It only displayed the Travelski Express, which as mentioned, isn't bookable as just a train ticket. But how many skiers would see this and think: 'Damn - there's no train options available.'?
 

Step 7: search Bourg St Maurice to Paris on SNCF Connect's website

 
Like the other websites, the SNCF Connect website was able to find the 09:12 TGV from Bourg to Paris, once the Paris-to-London leg of the journey was excluded from the intial search.
 
SNCF Connect - from Bourg St Maurice to Paris
 
 

 

 

Step 8: search Bourg St Maurice to London on Eurostar's website

Eurostar's website, which good for the simplest journeys between London and Paris, consistently fails to offer useful results for journeys further afield. It used to be better, but Eurostar changed its reservation system a few years ago and this seemingly hindered it's website's ability to help you travel into Europe beyond the core destinations of Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam. So how would Eurostar's website cope with this Bourg to London search?

Eurostar - Bourg - London 8th April - summary
 

Eurostar's website didn't manage to show any journey options except the direct Travelski Express Ski Train. Eurostar runs this train from an operational point of view. But it can't sell tickets, because tickets are only available as part of an all-inclusive ski package. So the website says that the train is 'not available'. That might leave skiers mistakenly thinking the Travelski Express was sold out, if they even realised what Eurostar was referring to.

Responses from rail-booking websites, when I told them what I'd found

Rail Europe seemed to take the issue very seriously. The media spokesperson wrote me an indepth and informative response, a summary of which is:

"The cause of the problem is the manner in which filtering is applied by one of our API partners (not by us). Breaking down longer journeys into their component parts (eg. splitting a journey from Bourg-Saint-Maurice to London in Paris) is of course a really good hack which will often surface additional options. We are very aware of this issue and are already liaising with various API partners to ensure that we are offered the full range of possible travel options.  We do of course apply filtering algorithms ourselves, but we prefer that the data served to us is not pre-filtered by the API."

Trainline's press office responded with a classic case of PR gaslighting, failing to answer any of the questions that I'd put to them:

"Trainline’s goal is to make booking journeys as friction-free as possible so we offer a selection of journey options providing a balance of convenience and price. This utilises the data provided to us by the relevant train operator."

Eurostar and SNCF's press offices have not responded yet.

Why do rail-booking websites sometimes fail to show you the best results?

They try to combine journeys schedules and available ticket types. And the ticket system is so complicated, with so many different fare types, that this causes them to fail. This ridiculous situation has been going on for years. What it really needs is the political will to ensure that rail companies simplify the booking systems.

Key tips for booking rail travel to ski resorts online

Although, as you've seen above, rail-booking websites might not be giving you the complete picture, or even allow you to book the journey you want to in one go, these tips will help you find the best journeys.

  1. Take the results that you initially see online with a big pinch of salt
  2. To test out whether you are seeing the best results, break the search into smaller units. For example, you can:
    a) search the inbound and outbound journeys separately
    b) search from Paris or Lille to the Alps (thereby excluding the Eurostar leg of the journey)
    c) look up Eurostar London-Paris or London-Lille journeys separately, on the Eurostar website. This allows you to see all the departures, not just the ones that the website has paired with the TGV train. And it shows the pricing of each too, so you can see whether taking an earlier or later Eurostar might save money.
    d) break journeys into smaller legs still, if needed
    e) write timings down on a peice of paper as you research, to make it easy to remember what you've just seen.
  3. Try different rail-booking websites - as some do better than others for certain journeys
  4. Use a website such as bahn.com to look up times too. This German website doesn't try to combine schedules and ticket types in the results it shows you. So you just get the schedules, more reliably.
  5. Consult the Snowcarbon Journey Planner, which is a compendium of hand-researched journey schedules. It's not comprehensive but shows you some of the journeys that are possible.

A simpler way to book train journeys to ski resorts

If, breaking the journey into smaller units you are able to see the journey you want, booking it in smaller units isn't necessarily a good idea.  That's because you have much better consumer protection when you book the journey as a whole journey, not separate parts. Delayed or cancelled journeys are subject to consumer protection. If you booked parts of the journey separately, and a part of the journey is cancelled, then you'll only be eligible for a refund or compensation for that part of the journey, rather than the whole thing.

An alternative to booking online is to use a rail-booking agent. Two that we particularly recommend are The Travel Bureau and Trainseurope. They can book journeys for you, at about the same rate that you get when booking online. You email them with your requirements, and then they email back the schedule (if you haven't specified it yourself) and the price.  In secret tests that I've carried out to test their pricing versus booking online, they are only very marginally more expensive.  And, they'll often enable you to book a more convenient schedule that you can't book online yourself.

It's for this reason that I'm very enthusiastic about them. Here are the details:

The Travel Bureau
Helping people book rail travel since 1984, The Travel Bureau has an expert, knowledgeable team who can book journeys for you and can help with any journey.
The Travel Bureau charges a fee of £15 per traveller (sometimes less for larger groups). 
Phone:  (+44) 01902 326 662 (10:00 – 16:00 Monday – Friday)
Website: https://rail-travel.co.uk/
Email: rail@thetravelbureau.co.uk

Trainseurope
Helping people book rail travel since 1986, Trainseurope has an expert, knowledgeable team who can book journeys for you. 
Can help with any journey.
Trainseurope charges a fee of £10 - £30 per traveller. 
Phone: (+44) 01354 660222 (09:00 – 17:00 Monday – Friday; 09:00 – 15:00 Saturday)
Website: www.trainseurope.co.uk
Email: info@trainseurope.co.uk