UK train booking sites are not made equal. Though they (almost) all run on the same system, and are all obliged to offer all train fares across all operators, investment in their design and functionality shows, and some pack a far greater punch than others.
Best for international deivery
If you’re abroad and looking to book a train ticket to get you home from the airport on your return trip, you have two options – pick it up from the self-service machine at the station (not possible at Heathrow, as I found out to my inconvenience in October) or, if you book through thetrainline, have it sent to you abroad. For a hefty fee given the light weight of a couple of tickets, you can have your tickets airmailed to you anywhere in the world – a feature not available on the web sites of most individual operators. www.thetrainline.com
Best for cheap fares
Advance fares can be a steal and, with the East Midland Trains web site, finding them is a clinch. Their specially designed Best Fare Finder, not available on any other UK train site, shows the cheapest days and even times of day to travel to and from popular stations, and cleverly uses the results of searches by other customers to suggest the cheapest fares recently found. www.eastmidlandstrains.co.uk
Best for seat selection
If you are a fussy traveller – one who doesn’t like to go backwards, needs to sit near a toilet or must have a power socket for your laptop – then this one is for you. Though seemingly only available on their own trains for the moment, the East Coast Trains web site allows you to pick your seat not only on the basis of simple preferences, but by clicking on the position you want on an on-screen visual of each carriage – in much the same way as you would for a flight. www.eastcoast.co.uk
Best for sleepers
Not only does ScotRail offer arguably the most scenic and luxurious sleeper train in the UK – from London Euston to Fort William – they also provide a great way of doing the trip on the cheap, using the Bargain Berths section of their web site. Twin berth fares that usually go for around £90 per person (and that’s with a railcard!) are available for as little as £39. There are only limited numbers of tickets available at these prices, but the site tells you how many are left to buy so you can get it there before they sell out! www.scotrail.co.uk
What’s still lacking: When making preferences as to seat selection on regular booking sites, it would be helpful to be able to see whether these preferences have been met in the final seat allocation (they are not always) – for example, whether the seat is forward or backward facing, in the quiet carriage, in an entertainment carriage (on First Great Western). And on smartphone apps, being able to specify these preferences in the first place would be a plus – at the moment the site is slimmed down to increase speed on the phone, and these elements of the booking process have been given the chop.
What’s plain stupid: Use the CrossCountry iPhone app to book your tickets and you will only be able to buy one ticket, for one person, at a time. Thankfully not all the available apps have this design flaw!
This post was reformatted on 18 October 2013.