Back in 2002 I was doing a poorly paid internship at Institut für Europäische Politik in Berlin and my then boss (who subsequently has become a good friend) Bernd Hüttemann said to me on my very first day “Jon, there’s no point you making travel bookings for me, it’s just quicker if I do it myself, as I know what I want and it takes longer to explain that than to actually book it.”
Now 8 years on I am stuck with the opposite predicament when trying to get hold of a Eurostar ticket between London and Brussels to speak at an event at an EU institution in December.
These are some of the things that run through my head as a Eurostar frequent traveller…
- When do I book? I want to get the best ticket prices but need to know my travel plans for sure before I do book.
- I want a print at home ticket rather than messing about queueing at the station.
- What time is the train leaving London, and can I get there on public transport without the need for night buses? Or can I cycle to St Pancras if it’s just a day trip?
- What are the relative costs of standard class versus standard premier, and is it worth £10 or £15 extra for a larger seat and some food? If it’s the latter then I am going to need to ask for veggie food.
- Whichever way what coach do I want to sit in? I want to be near the exit in Brussels and when returning to London, i.e. towards the front in both cases. But do I need a power socket for my laptop if I’m in standard class? If so then a UK or a continental plug?
- Do I want a forward facing seat? Or do I want a better chance of having no passenger beside be if I have a backwards facing seat? And in all cases I want a window seat rather than an aisle.
- Am I going to be able to claim the points for my journey on my frequent traveller card?
So for the aforementioned trip in December, better I book it, right? All they would need to tell me would be the maximum budget and the times I need to speak, and I’ll handle the rest.
Oh no, hell no. I am told that under no circumstances can I book the ticket myself as a reimbursement cannot be paid if I do that. It must be handled by the secretary of the person I am working with, and she must go through American Express Belgium travel agents, and I have to inform her of the trains I want to take. Then somehow or other a ticket will find its way to me. While we’re arsing around with this the train tickets have gone up in price, I’ve already spent a lot more time on this than I would have done if I had just gone ahead and booked the tickets, and a load of time of the person in Brussels has been wasted as well. When I finally get the tickets I’m probably going to end up at the wrong end of the train in an aisle seat as well (even though I’ve explicitly asked for particular seats and coaches).
So what does all of this say, apart from the fact that I am an absolute Eurostar-nerd? It also seems to demonstrate that I am my own best travel agent – no-one else is going to be able to book tickets for me as swiftly and efficiently as I can do for myself. Lastly – and most prfoundly – this all demonstrates the legendary structures and inefficiencies of the EU institutions, with systems geared up for accountability but that actually miss the point – by using more hours of staff time and costing more than a simple reimbursement based system. Replicate that the thousands of time people attending EU meetings need travel costs covered and the EU will be racking up quite a bill…
You guys are such train geeks 😉 I feel bad for flying to Denmark, but the connections are so bad in my experience that I don’t even consider checking train prices anymore.
Ron: are you aware of the DB booking system’s ‘stopover’ function? With a BahnCard 25 I have bought a London-Hamburg ticket for €44 including 36 hours in Brussels and 8 hours in Cologne. Through bookings onto night trains work too, in theory from €44 plus couchette/sleeper fee.
On a rail forum I once proposed a competition for the most outlandish itinerary for €49/€44. My example above is pretty good, but it should be possible to do London-Bad Schandau (Czech border), London-Basel Bad (Basel’s German station) and even London-Salzburg (historically a DB tariff station) for the lowest price… with breaks of journey in any Belgian station served by the ICE or almost any station (avoiding doubling back) in Germany.
Just so you know. This is not a uniquely EU problem: I’ve endured the same palava with several bureaucracies over the years. Size does not equate with cost.
Since writing the entry I’ve actually got the tickets – Standard Premier, while I said Standard was fine. Of course at a cost that’s more than if I had just got around to booking it myself…
As for plane versus train – I just said from the outset I would be on the train!
I have always found Eurostar staff, especially at St Pancras, to be very helpful, so I’m sure I can change the seats there if I need to. But of course getting the right tickets in the first place would have been more handy!
Since we are doing the presentation together, here’s my additional story line:
I’m not going to London afterwards but to Berlin, taking the night train from Cologne to Berlin because I have to work the next day. The obligatory travel agency American Express (Amex) Belgium had first proposed a first-class single person compartment costing 279 Euros. I wrote back telling that a 2nd class 4-person compartment would be enough and that I had a Bahncard 50 (reducing the price of the ride by 50%, except for the reservation fee for the bed). Amex told the EESC official dealing with the matter that they couldn’t book the 4-person compartment and that my Bahncard would not be valid, proposing a 2nd class 2-person compartment worth about 220 Euros.
I’ve now booked this part of the train ride on my own, paying 76.50 Euros (instead of 220 Euros) for the trip Cologne-Berlin in a 4-person compartment and with the 50% reduction of my Bahncard. I prefer paying this trip for myself without refund instead of letting the taxpayer pay an overpriced travel.
I think the EU (or the EESC, don’t know whether everybody in Brussels has to use Amex) has a serious problem here if they rely on a travel agency that makes travelling much more expensive than necessary on the back of the EU taxpayers.
I encountered the same nonsense when I travelled to Brussels earlier this year and it was the Commission who was paying. I was told I’d have to fly there from London, which struck me as odd since the reason I was going was to attend an event for bloggers to then write about environmental issues… Anyway I insisted Eurostar would be cheaper, more efficient and more convenient and finally they agreed (and booked me first class for good measure – even if completely unnecessary as I’m more than happy in standard class).
I got my reservation and took it to the nice people at St Pancras who changed it for me (just the seat mind you as I hate travelling backwards) so perhaps it’s worth you trying the same too??
Seems a mad way of doing it and I’m sure in the name of saving money some would rather book their travel themselves then claim a reimbursement. I know I would.