Looking good, booking smooth?

Don't scrap the old booking site - yet!

UPDATE: The new Virgin Trains East Coast website went live on the evening of 31st July. It is no longer possible to access their old booking engine.

Virgin Trains East Coast (VTEC) plan to launch a new booking engine on 1st August 2017 as part of their efforts to improve the experience for their customers. This replaces the existing booking engine called WebTIS which was introduced by GNER in 2007 so is nearly 10 years old. 

An email from Virgin Trains East Coast confirms that cycle reservations won't be available on this site from the start so we have created a guide showing where you can book your on-train cycle space online.

At the moment you can try out the new website on beta.virgintrainseastcoast.com - it will require you to re-register. Currently the existing booking engine is still available from the main site.

As the site is in beta, this means some issues can be expected (although we don't think VTEC has done a good job explaining what a beta is for those not from a software background - a beta is pre-release software opened up to a wider audience to help discover issues and gather feedback) however it looks like they're planning on launching with some key functionality missing. Everyone has their own idea of what's important in the booking engine but we list here some key ommissions that should be rectified before the site goes live.

There's also good features in the site, this article is just some reasons why we believe it should not be launched in its current state.

Cycle reservations

Very few rail booking engines allow you to reserve bikes online, the WebTIS booking engine currently used by VTEC as well as GWR and TransPennine Express is the only booking engine that we believe supports online cycle reservations (for regular trains, the Caledonian Sleeper website supports cycle reservations on the sleeper trains).

This is important because on many InterCity services including all Virgin Trains East Coast services cycle reservations are compulsory. You can only take your bike on the train if you have a reservation. If it's not possible to reserve online this means you either have to reserve over the phone or visit a station which is less than ideal.

Is there a workaround?

There is a workaround as you can just use another rail operator that uses the WebTIS booking engine such as GWR or TransPennine Express. Unfortunately the official support channels will not tell you that you can book VTEC tickets via another operator so many customers will be going through additional hassle trying to reserve their bike over the phone or at the station. This could put some people off taking their bikes on the train if they're not aware they can book via an alternative site.

We've had WebTIS for almost ten years and people based on the East Coast mainline have known they can reserve bikes online through their website. Now cycling is more popular than ever it seems odd that such useful functionality may be missing from the new site upon launch.

Online-only Super off-peak singles

Traditionally flexible off-peak tickets have been cheaper as a return rather than two singles. This is a legacy from the British Rail days. On the other hand, cheap advance tickets are sold as singles so you can mix and match. Many operators have introduced an online-only off-peak single which people can combine with an advance on the other leg so if the customer requires flexibility on one leg or there's no advance fares left they can still get the best deal.

The issue is the beta website does not currently support these online-only fares. So on the WebTIS based VTEC site if you're booking Newcastle to London you'll be offered an online super-off peak single at £66.35, but on the beta site it only offers the regular super off-peak single at £131.70 which is almost double!

Is there a workaround?

No, once VTEC retire their WebTIS site there's no other site that sells these tickets as it was exclusively available to those booking direct. Hopefully support for these fares will be added before the old site is retired.

Individual seats

One of the advantages of first class is that if you're travelling alone you can choose an individual seat which gives you more privacy. The beta website does not give you the option to select 'Individual' in the seating options meaning if you accept the default allocation you could end up on a table of four.

Is there a workaround?

Yes, if you're booking through the beta website you can select your seat (if you're on a VTEC service) using the seat map. However, there's times the seat map doesn't display and also if you're on other operators you can't choose your seat. Almost all other websites that allow ticket sales allow you to select an 'individual' seat so you can book through them.

Catering vouchers

Catering vouchers are a handy way to save money (20%) if you use the Foodbar on Virgin Trains East Coast services. The vouchers have been around for many years, introduced by GNER and survived through National Express and East Coast running the franchise. As well as a nice saving they're also handy if you're travelling for work as you buy the vouchers at the same time as your ticket and there's only one expense claim. Originally they were only available at ticket offices, but when WebTIS was introduced in 2007 the facility to buy them online was added and then a relatively hidden option was added to the FastTicket machines which made them easy to get hold of for those in the know. First of all there's new ticket machines that no longer issue the vouchers, now the beta website no longer supports the vouchers and as VTEC want to abolish ticket offices in their current form it will soon be extremely difficult, if not impossible to get hold of these.

Is there a workaround?

While ticket offices remain open it will be possible to purchase catering vouchers from there. Only Virgin Trains East Coast ticket offices are able (or at least know how) to issue them.

Ripping off visitors to London

Instead of offering catering vouchers which save the customers money the beta website tries to sell visitors to London overpriced paper one day travelcards when they'd be much better off using Oyster or Contactless payment. More info in the blog section.

Carnets

The carnet tickets (which offer five fully flexible standard or first class return tickets for the price of four) are not available online through the beta website. These tickets were aimed at the frequent business traveller that required flexibility.

Is there a workaround?

It appears these tickets are still offered on other WebTIS websites such as GWR and TransPennine Express. They'll also be available over the phone and in ticket offices.

Alterations

For refundable tickets (generally the flexible ones) it is possible to cancel the tickets online. It's not currently possible to change the date/time of Advance tickets on the new beta site. This was groundbreaking functionality when WebTIS was introduced in 2007, but now most ticket booking sites offer this functionality and so this should be implemented and working before the site is offically launched.

Booking reference in email subject line

A minor issue which helps usability. The current WebTIS site includes the booking reference in the subject line of the email, this makes it quicket to find if you're collecting from a machine. 

'Rewards' and #BrandConfusion

When you book on the beta site it tells you that you'll "Get rewards when travelling with Virgin Trains East Coast" of course it doesn't mean East Coast Rewards but rather the vastly inferior Nectar or Flying Club. There's one thing to keep an eye out for, this website labels both east coast and west coast trains with the Virgin Trains logo but you only get Nectar points or Flying Club miles from the site if you booked an east coast journey. This would mean on routes where both operators run services (e.g. London to Edinburgh) you could find yourself accidentally booking yourself on a west coast service if you're not careful.

Is there a workaround?

It's absolutely ridiculous that Virgin Trains East and West Coast act like one company when it suits them but don't even do simple things like give points for each others journeys even though in the beta site they've made it difficult to tell east and west apart. If you really care about Nectar points you can book all your travel at gwr.com and you will get points for every rail journey you make. Unfortunately for Flying Club miles you have to remember to book on the correct site but as west coast have halved their Flying Club earning it's not really worth the bother any more if you mostly travel on the west coast.