I thought twice about writing this post because I didn’t want to use this platform as a soap box for a rant about poor customer service. However, there are lessons to be learned for all travellers from my recent expensive ticket misplacement.
I’ve not had the best month when it comes to travel. First, I missed my flight in Milan and this week I found myself having to fork out £76 to sit in a seat on a train I’d already paid for.
The missed flight I take completely on the chin. The problem with Virgin Trains, on the other hand, irked me.
Virgin Trains: Your Gateway from North to South
Virgin Trains is the main train company that connects the north of England with the south, running a line through much of the centre of the country. As my family is up north and most of my friends are down south, it’s a mode of transport I take frequently when I’m in the UK (especially since I sold my car to travel the world).
The company used to have a lot of issues with delays (at least they seemed to every time I was on board) and for a long while I received one refunded ticket after another…and lost many hours to the transport process, my poor dad having to track me down at whichever station Virgin Trains had poured me out at, inevitably in the rain.
Thankfully, my last few journeys had been plain sailing…until the other night.
The Golden Rule of UK Train Travel: Book Ahead
Spend any time travelling within the UK by train and you’ll fast reach the conclusion that you need to book your tickets in advance because on-the-day prices are excessive. For example, by booking a few weeks in advance, I can get my hands on a deliciously good value ticket costing just £12 to travel the 200+ miles from Liverpool to London. Book on the day of travel, with the most flexible ticket and the price can cost as much as £144. Quite the difference, right? (Extra travel tip: a return ticket usually only costs around £1 more than a single).
With that in mind, I booked my most recent ticket in advance and while I didn’t get the cheapest fare, the price was still very good.
The Silver Rule of UK Train Travel: Don’t Use Fast Ticket Collection (if you’re prone to misplacing things)
The way the pre-booking system works with Virgin Trains is that customers are offered a number of ways to get their hands on their tickets. For a long time I’ve used the Fast Ticket collection option. This means I can turn up at the station on the day, tap in my booking reference number and the tickets are printed for me. Simple. Efficient. And effective…when it works well.
The problem I experienced on this trip is that during my four-day travel period I amassed a LOT of paper as I wandered the vastness of the World Travel Markets (the purpose of my trip), picking up travel recommendations, tips and contacts for the coming year. And at the end of each day I poured the contents of my pocket, bag and rucksack into my suitcase, my poor return ticket getting lost in the noise.
Of course, my misplaced ticket was MY FAULT. However, what I hadn’t realised is that these tickets should be treated like cash – lose them and they are gone forever.
The day my train was due to depart, I looked for my ticket. I rifled (at speed) through my paperwork, but couldn’t find it. Nevertheless, I had a booked seat, knew my reference number and had an email confirming my purchase. Ergo, I’d surely be able to re-enter my details at the Fast Ticket collection booth and get a fresh print of my ticket?
With that false confidence in mind, I went to the station.
Being the diligent traveller I (sometimes) am, I got to the train station with 40 minutes to spare, giving myself plenty of time to solve my small ticket problem. I tried the Fast Ticket machine twice but it wouldn’t let me re-print my ticket. Hmmmm.
So, I headed to the Customer Service counter still assuming they would be able to press a button and shoot a replacement ticket out.
Required: Customer Service Training
Grainy shot, but ever ready with my iPhone I was able to get this – Susan, the customer service manager turning her back on me and walking away while I was mid-sentence
What followed was deeply unpleasant. I may sometimes operate with a tiny brain but overall I’m not dumb (misplaced ticket aside). Equally, years of being a lawyer trained me to keep my temper in check, even when anger bubbles within. Yet, the way I was spoken to and treated by the staff was appalling. I approached them as a customer with a problem yet I was treated with a level of condescension that must have required formal schooling, the young “customer service” boy barely able to conceal his pleasure when he delivered the news that I needed to buy a new, full-price ticket.
Unconvinced by the boy’s professionalism and therefore accuracy of his statements, I asked to speak to his manager, an older woman, Susan, who was impressively even more rude than her junior. While I tried in earnest to engage in a logical conversation with the woman, she shouted over me, cutting off every sentence I tried to finish, completely unwilling to listen to what I had to say, topping the boy’s condescension with a look of disdain I couldn’t comprehend.
I understand that the ground staff can have it tough and my issue was one they probably dealt with several times daily, with customers venting their anger, but I was not that customer and the fact they’d encountered my problem a million times before was not the point. It was the first time I’d encountered it and they could have explained the reality of the situation so much more politely. My question was very basic – why couldn’t I get a re-print of my ticket when I had: i) my booking reference number; ii) my email confirmation; and iii) my credit card – three forms of proof of purchase, let alone whatever Virgin Trains held in their system.
But Susan didn’t seem to have the breath to bother to engage with me. Instead, she turned her back on me mid-sentence. She strutted off, leaving my final question, “What other options do I have…” lingering on the air along with a deep sense of embarrassment, anger and upset – emotions I’ve only ever encountered at the hands of Ryanair’s Customer Service staff.
Virgin Trains, I expected more from you.
With time running out, I was left with little choice – I no longer had time to complete a more thorough check of my bag for my ticket. I crossed to the bank of machines and hit buy – an on-the-day ticket that cost me £76 (it would have been £144 had I not been travelling on the late-night train).
Let’s Be Clear(er): The Booking Process
Susan did take the time to thrust a set of terms and conditions into my hand in lieu of any other form of customer service and, the ex-lawyer in me studied them well. Yes, they do say that any lost, stolen or misplaced ticket is my responsibility and a new ticket needs to be bought.
Equally, I accept that the email confirmation does clearly say “lose it, buy another” (or words to that effect). But the problem is, this all comes TOO LATE or is HIDDEN IN THE SMALL PRINT. By the time I receive my email confirmation, I’ve already made my choices (in technical terms, entered into a binding contract). What would be more helpful is for the booking process to make this clear along the way. They could have quite easily highlighted this fact here:
This screen tells me that to get a print of my ticket I need my Fast Ticket reference number and payment card, both of which I had. It doesn’t say that I will not be able to re-print my tickets. Yet, surely it would be simple to add this small but vital detail into the above list of key information instead of where it is currently placed…
I can get a re-print of a hotel reservation, a flight…hell, I can even re-print my Ryanair boarding card if I lose it. So, if I can’t do the same with my Fast Ticket, surely this fundamental booking difference should be pointed out, with a big red hand (as famous judge Lord Denning once said). Yet it isn’t and I wonder why not – for the benefit of customers and even the customer service staff.
Because if the system had been clearer as I was booking, I could have made a better informed choice….
See, the silly thing is that Virgin Trains offers a solution that could have prevented my problem. With a print-your-own e-ticket I’d have been able to solve my issue with a common household item – a printer.
And that really is the short message at the end of this post….
Lessons to Learn When Travelling with Virgin Trains
1. Always book in advance
2. A return ticket usually only costs around £1 more.
3. If you use Fast Ticket collection, treat your ticket at cash.
4. If there’s a chance you might lose your return ticket, then opt for an e-ticket.
I will end on a high note: when Virgin Trains works well, it works very, very well, which is why I had expectations of a smooth and good customer service experience. The next thing I have to attempt is claiming my frequent flyer points on my newly purchased full-price ticket…I may need a few days to garner the energy for that!
Have you had a similar experience with Virgin Trains? Or do you generally receive good service? Any other Virgin Train travel tips to add? Let me know in the comments below.