Ticket sales at Birmingham Moor Street (photo © Arenaphotouk).
In many parts of western Europe, rail companies release tickets for sale on any given service about three months in advance of the date of travel. Thus, if you want to buy a ticket from Paris to Strasbourg for travel on 1 November, today (1 August) is the very first day on which you can book your ticket. If you want to make that same journey on 2 November, then tomorrow will be the first day you can book a ticket and a seat for your chosen journey. That’s the ‘three-month rule’ in action.
So far, so good. European rail companies change their schedules each year, usually introducing the new timetables in the wee small hours of a Sunday morning in mid-December. In the run-up to that timetable change, the forward booking horizon may be attenuated. Come early October, you may find you still cannot book tickets for Christmas travel, even though your preferred travel date is within the coming three months. That’s because the new timetables that come into effect in mid-December have not yet been loaded into the rail operators’ booking systems. It may be late October or even early November before you can book tickets for the period after the mid-December timetable change.
Many other countries in western and central Europe follow the three-month rule in broad terms. Some say 12 weeks, others stick to 90 days (or a day or two on either side), but three months works well as a broad rule of thumb.
Of course there are many exceptions. For Berlin to Warsaw journeys, bookings open two months in advance. For London to Brussels, we used to always reckon on being able to book from four months in advance, but latterly Eurostar has been experimenting with longer booking horizons, opening up bookings on its prime routes from London to Brussels and Paris as long as six months in advance. Thus you can already book Eurostar tickets on those routes right through to late January 2015. Indeed, if you are looking to book a Eurostar train to the French Alps for next winter, they can now be booked even further in advance. Eurostar opened bookings yesterday for its overnight and daytime trains to the French Alps for the entire 2014-2015 winter season, so you can now book a direct Eurostar to Bourg St Maurice for travel in early April 2015 - eight months hence.
Overall across Europe, the trend is towards longer booking horizons and more flexibility in implementing those horizons. Thus the lead French operator SNCF will often open peak summer season bookings on key holiday routes rather earlier than the three-month rule might suggest.
The one country which is a law unto itself is Spain. The logic (if indeed there is any) that underpins the setting of booking horizons in Spain is hard to discern.
Different categories of train serving the same route may have entirely different booking horizons. The Media Distancia (MD) services from Málaga to Seville routinely go on sale two months prior to travel. The Avant trains that link the same two cities can usually be booked 119 days in advance.
That might lead one to suppose that all MD trains go on sale two months in advance. This is broadly true — but there are exceptions. About 17 MD trains each day run from Vigo to Santiago de Compostela. Most go on sale two months in advance. But we have noticed that three MD trains on that route are often released for sale up to one week earlier than the others. And one of those three, the mid-afternoon departure from Vigo, may even be available for booking up to three months before the date of travel.
Our Málaga to Seville example might equally lead travellers to suppose that all Avant trains go on sale 119 days in advance, but that is certainly not the case. As of today, we can book tickets on Avant trains serving that Málaga to Seville route up to and including 28 November (thus 119 days before travel). But on many other Avant routes across Spain (eg. Madrid to Toledo or Santiago de Compostela to Ourense), Avant tickets are already available for sale right up to the mid-December timetable change.
The ‘perverseness’ of the Spanish approach to forward booking horizons is well illustrated on the Ciudad Real to Madrid route. The route is served by AVE and Avant services. We’ll stick here to the Avant trains, of which there are a dozen each day (at least on weekdays, and less at weekends). Avant trains on this route which originate from Puertollano can normally be booked 119 days in advance.
But those Avant trains which originate from anywhere other than Puertollano operate under quite different precepts. At the moment they can be booked right up to the mid-December timetable change — so further in advance than the trains that start their journey in Puertollano.
We put this complexity all down to phases of the moon (or perhaps it is merely the whim of a Fat Controller in Madrid). If you can explain the intricacies of the RENFE approach to forward booking horizons to us, please let us know. We are all ears.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries, 13 August 2014
Peter: A very good point, and of course you are absolutely correct that MD rail services in Spain do not generally use dynamic pricing. It's interesting that modern travellers are often preoccupied with advance booking in a way that a few years back was never the case. Where demand-led pricing applies (or where availability might genuinely be scarce), we can see the point of booking in advance. But now we see websites promoting advance sales of museum tickets and London Travelcards where is simply no advantage to purchasing far in advance.
About The Authors
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
Nicky and Susanne manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers and the authors of the book Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide. The 17th edition of that book will be published in mid-April 2022. You'll find a list of outlets that sell the book on this website.