Early bird booking… can it be even earlier?

I booked a lovely flat in Lyon. Well ahead of time for a low price. 'Un très bel appartement avec terrasse et jardin' the site promises. When I want to book the train, I am not able to. Train tickets are on sale only a few months before departure. This is extremely frustrating. Why is that?

Understandable question to which Ilona Gaasendam has an answer. She is Pricing Manager at NS International and will gladly explain.

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Good news

Ilona gets straight to the point: "I understand it's annoying. You want to arrange your holiday, accommodation and transport, and you can only arrange half of it. House, yes but train, no. I have some good news for you, though. It has been agreed at the European level that by 2025 we will have a system that allows you to book a year in advance. There will be a large booking system to which all airlines are connected. So you can then book that nice apartment, with the train to get there. That will make us all happy, including us at NS."

Engineering works are the culprit

Why doesn't it already work that way? Why is it so complicated? "For a start: we can only sell train tickets when the schedule is known," Ilona explains. "That is the basis of the system. The times and routes of trains have to be known and in a planner. Train and route are in a planner for up to a year ahead."

You say: the trains are in a planner a year ahead of time. But then why can't you book them? "Big culprit is engineering works on the tracks." Ilona explains what that means, those 'works'.

"To give an example: in recent years, regular work has been carried out on the line between Emmerich and Oberhausen. There will be a third track there. ICE then runs via a different route: not past Arnhem to Cologne but via Venlo. It will be some time before that extra track is there. This diversion is planned more than a year in advance and incorporated into the schedule.

"But it also happens that unexpected works have to be done on the tracks. A freight train recently derailed between Hannover and Berlin. Rails, switches and signals had to be repaired, and the train to Berlin only ran as far as Hanover. Our customers would get to Berlin with an extra transfer and delay.

"The longer in advance sales are open, the more often you have this kind of annoying discrepancy."

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Carriers set the sales deadline

Who decides how far in advance you can book? "The carriers decide. Deutsche Bahn, Eurostar or Thalys." Ilona explains that NS International has agreed with Belgian Railways that you can book Intercity Brussels 11 months in advance. She says that this booking period sometimes changes with the other carriers. They all decide that themselves. NS International is connected to its sales systems and has no choice but to go along. With Eurostar, the deadline is now more than eight months. With ICE and with Intercity Berlin it is 180 days. And with Thalys, the deadline is usually four months.

Request an alert

It is a complicated system with all these different deadlines. How do I know when I can book? "We have the handy booking alert for that," Ilona reveals. "You click in the booker on the date you want to depart. Sometimes, you can book directly; sometimes, you click on a bell icon. Then you can request an alert. We will then email you when you are able to book."

Three-year timetable

Is it a good plan to plan for two or three years? Incorporating all the railway works? So, I can buy tickets to Lyon for the next few years if there is a très bel appartement I like? "That may seem like a solution, but no, that is not a good idea. That means no new carrier could join the railways during that period. So, if a company comes along that wants to run a train from Utrecht to Luxembourg, for example, it will not be possible. All routes and times will already be fixed by then. And besides: there will be even more unexpected changes. And we have to inform even more people that their train will not run or will run differently."

Lovely prospect

Ilona concludes with a positive message. "I already told you about the booker we will have in 2025, to which all carriers are connected. Of course, there will still be engineering works, but we can keep everyone better informed should anything change unexpectedly. Smarter technology will probably have been developed by then, allowing us to rely on the schedule better.

"I think all of Europe is eager to have a reliable system. That très bel appartement you were talking about, with the terrace and garden, you will then be able to book well in advance. With the accompanying train tickets!"

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