Whenever the press notice the prices of anytime tickets there follows a bunch of articles where they compare a ticket bought on the day with a cheap holiday flight bought well in advance.
There's two main points -
- If you compare like for like, air fares are normally more expensive
- Turn up and go rail fares are too dear in many cases. Being able to turn up and go should be one of the advantages of rail travel compared to flying
The current Tweet that's interesting the press is the cost of a First Anytime ticket from London - Manchester, the fare is an eye watering £484 but it is unfair to compare it with a holiday flight.
My return ticket to Manchester costs more than my holiday to Norway pic.twitter.com/yFopZPAGN4
— L (@13_lozzy) 5 January 2018
This particular ticket is:
- A turn up and go ticket - you can also buy it in advance, particularly if you want a reservation, but there's no need to
- You can use any train on the outbound within five days, and any train on the return within a calendar month (even if you reserve, you're not restricted to your booked train)
- You can break the journey multiple times within the validity of the ticket
- The ticket is refundable if not used, if you've used one leg you can get a refund for the other
- As it's first class you get the usual 'subject to availability' benefits such as catering and lounge access. First class also has significantly more comfortable seats
Holiday flights are usually booked well in advance, will be restricted in the changes that can be made and are often non-refundable.
If you want to compare strictly like for like a British Airways Club Europe (business class) flight from London - Manchester is £584.64 if you select the option for a fully flexible fare rather than the cheapest. This is over £100 more expensive than the train, plus if you're coming from Central London you'd need to add in the cost of getting to Heathrow (will be better when Crossrail opens).
So like for like the train is still cheaper than the plane.
There's still some things to consider.
Virgin Trains West Coast have some of the highest Anytime fares
We first looked at this in 2016, Virgin Trains West Coast have some of the highest Anytime fares, their off peak fares are more reasonable but their definition of off-peak is one of the worst meaning those that want a flexible ticket are often having to buy an Anytime ticket where a similar journey with another operator would only need an off-peak.
Now fares have increased for 2018 we'll revisit the fares we looked at in 2016 and see how Virgin Trains West Coast compares.
Prices from London to Manchester (Virgin Trains West Coast), Leeds (Virgin Trains East Coast), Sheffield (East Midlands Trains) and Bristol (GWR).
|London to||Standard Anytime Return||First Anytime Return|
Advance fares are cheaper
If you don't need the flexibility then advance fares are significantly cheaper. To compare like for like I'm going to book a train 3 months in advance and then book a flight for the same dates. We're sticking with Manchester for this comparison based on the original article.
Manchester only has British Airways operating flights as they're mainly operated for those requiring connections. Newcastle is in the same situation. On the other hand longer journeys like Edinburgh and Glasgow have more airline competition so in these cases it's easier to get a cheaper flight. We're doing this on the basis that there's a meeting in Manchester around about 12:00.
Outward: London to Manchester Tuesday 13 March 2018 - arrive by 11:00
Return: Manchester to London Tuesday 13 March 2018 - leave after 17:00
Virgin Trains West Coast
Outward: 08:40 arrive 10:46 - £33 standard, £56 first class
Return: 17:35 arrive 19:41 - £39.50 standard, £98 first class
Total: £72.50 standard, £154 first class
Outward: 07:10 arrive 08:15 BA1370 (the next flight arrives too late)
Return: 17:00 arrive 18:00 BA1403
Price: Economy basic: £110.64, Economy plus: £130.64, Business class: £227.64
- Economy basic does not come with a checked baggage allowance, for a days meeting this is unlikely to be needed
- Economy plus comes with checked baggage and allows you to make free changes on the day providing extra flexibility
- Business class is in Club Europe, this also includes lounge access, fast track and priority boarding. Complimentary catering is provided
Booked around three months in advance the train is cheaper if you're booking tickets in this scenario. The increased frequency of the train means if you need to be in Manchester for 11am as in this scenario you can set off later than you do with the plane.
Sometimes you may only be able to attend a meeting with a few days notice. Will the train still offer good value booked only a few days ahead? Checking a few different days between 3 and 7 days in advance the train still works out cheaper but the cost of both has risen significantly.
If you need on the day flexibility flying can be cheaper
The train is winning for the cost of fully flexible tickets, it is also winning in most situations (on this route, as mentioned routes like London-Edinburgh which have more competition often have better airfares) when booking tickets in advance tied to a particular service. There's another use case that's currently not well catered for on the railway but it getting more so with airlines, which is the ability to take an earlier or later service on the day if your needs change. This means if a meeting finishes early or overruns you are still fine as long as you don't miss the last service.
British Airways offer in this regard is the 'Plus' fare. Normal ticket changes are the same as advance tickets on the train, you pay the fare difference plus an admin fee. However, on the day itself you're free to change to a different flight on the day as long as it's to the same destination, you must make this change at least an hour before your flight is due to depart and is ideal if you want to leave earlier or need to leave later. The only restriction to changing your flight is that it needs to be one that has seats available in the class of travel that you're booked in. I usually book the last flight of the day as a plus fare and then change it to an earlier one if I'll get to the airport sooner.
Club Europe (business class) fares also now allow free changes on the day (for regular fares, if booking a sale fare or accepting a promotional upgrade this may not apply), so it means if the only flexibility you need is to change to an earlier/later flight on the same day then you don't need to pay for the expensive fully flexible tickets.
As there's no train ticket that gives you the flexibility on the day then if you need this sort of flexibility then booking a plus fare on BA will work out cheaper than booking an Anytime ticket on Virgin Trains. Using the example above for 13 March the Economy Plus fare is £130.64, the Standard Anytime is £338 making the plane over £200 cheaper in this scenario. Business class is £227.64 and a First Anytime is £484 making the plane over £250 in this case.
Virgin Trains East Coast did an experiment a while back where they allowed those travelling to/from Doncaster to travel on any train up to an hour before or after their booked train when they had an Advance ticket. During this trial period there was no extra charged for this additional flexibility but I'm sure an advance product that gave you some flexibility to take a slightly earlier or later train would have many passengers willing to pay a little extra, similar to how some passengers are willing to pay £15 each way for a British Airways plus fare.
One of the best benefits of train travel is the high frequency service, London - Manchester has up to three trains an hour and therefore you're very likely to find the train the most convenient option by far. Train companies need to understand that flexibility is not black and white, most people who buy a ticket do not need the amazing flexibility of an Anytime ticket but some would like to pay a small premium for a bit of extra flexibility that'll allow for a meeting finishing sooner or overrunning slightly. Although this would benefit business travellers significantly I could also see it being a popular option with leisure travellers who'd no longer have to stick to a strict itinerary or risk missing their booked train and having to pay out a large amount for a new ticket.
Things the rail network should do
- Have a consistent definition of 'peak' for all long distance trains into London - Virgin Trains West Coast over the years has increased the peak period well beyond the bounds of what is reasonable
- Introduce tickets where a small premium provides additional flexibility such as being able to take a train up to an hour before or after your booked service
- Sell off-peak singles at half the price of an off-peak return as standard so that they can be combined with an Anytime Single if you're travelling one way in the peak and the other way out of the peak
What about driving?
Last years advertising campaign for Virgin Trains compared the stresses of driving to the relaxation of the train. On the other hand if you own a car driving is the same cost whether you decide to travel impulsively or planned the trip many months ahead. As I neither own a car or do much driving I looked at journeyprice.co.uk to get a rough idea what the cost of petrol would be. It says the journey would be 209 miles and the petrol cost would be approximately £38.61 - if this is accurate then it's cost effective to take the train if you get one of the lower advance fares particularly when you take into account other costs like parking and wear and tear. HMRC allows claiming 45p/mile for the first 10,000 miles, this mileage rate is supposed to account for all the costs of running a vehicle not just fuel. This would allow you £94.05 from London - Manchester. The conclusion gathered from this is if you need complete flexibility driving will be significantly cheaper but if you can plan ahead it can be cheaper to take the train. This still doesn't take into account the bigger picture such as being able to work or relax on the train.
The points angle
Let's not forget the benefit of a decent loyalty scheme. If you collect points (Avios) with British Airways you can redeem them for flights. Unlike the pre-Virgin East Coast Rewards which offered truly free rail travel, redeeming points/miles on flights very often involves paying some sort of fee as well as the points. On British Airways short haul the fees are capped at £17.50 each way for economy class and £25 each way in business class. Availability on flights is limited so I'd not advise using the points for business travel, but they can save a fortune for last minute leisure travel and once helped me out in a family emergency.
To show how handy they could be, imagine I was in Manchester today (7 January) and wanted to get back to London this evening, as I have a decent stash of Avios the first thing I would do is see if there's any reward flights available tonight. Is see there's flights available with points departing at 15:05 and 19:25 with both business class and economy seats available. I choose economy (as my frequent flyer status already gets me lounge access and fast track) and it comes to £17.50 and 4000 points. If I didn't have frequent flyer status paying a small amount extra for business class would be worth it.
Being able to use points at short notice is good for an impulsive leisure traveller. Rail operators need to consider the benefits of a decent loyalty scheme, it's one area where British Airways comes out ahead.