Is it still possible to save on train fares?
Short answer: Yes, but thetrainline.com is evidently not the way to do it.
Most UK railcard prices are going up by up to 50% on May 17, which is Sunday. In fact, the only railcard that isn't increasing in price is the one for disabled people. So, I guess if you're disabled, you're lucky. Or something.
Some of you may try to save by booking your railcards through thetrainline.com, but the number of complaints directed at the website have grown three times since a private equity firm called Exponent in 2006 bought it from Richard Branson's Virgin Group for £163m. Exponent also owns the Times Educational Supplement, a bed specialist, Radley bags and Virgin Mobitix, so who better to run a website for purchasing train tickets right?
HotUKDeals and other forums have been ranting about the thetrainline.com for months now, with commenters' negative experiences with the booking site far outweighing the positive ones. Complaints are mostly about fees, and about the near-impossibility of getting a refund, even if it appears obvious that trainline violated its own terms of service. Passenger Focus, an independent rail consumer group, has been tracking succesful appeals against Trainline in 2007 and have identified an increase from 95 to 143 the next tax year.
According to consumer group Which? and various commenters on the HUKD thread, you will almost always do better booking directly through the train operators themselves. In fact, there are some that offer discounts for booking online, such as National Express (just beware of their new evil reservation charges) Which? has a whole section on its website devoted to tips on how to get the best train fares.
In conclusion, your best bet for coping with the increase in railcard prices would be to (1) check out the Which? web page about saving on peak and off-peak train fares and (2) check out the train operators themselves, because often that's how you get the best fares. There are also alternatives to consider, such as obtaining railcards like Gordon Freeman or taking the bus. What are your thoughts?