Last year Virgin Trains launched a revamped discount scheme for charity staff. At the time, it was clear the scheme would be less flexible and require extra bureaucracy, with the ever-present threat of a “full price fare” if you boarded the wrong train, or failed to carry a “photographic Charity ID” (not sure I’ve ever seen one of those).
“Unlike the previous Charityline scheme, you will need to travel on the specific train service that you book. If you miss this train then you will have to buy another ticket. To get the best deal, book early and try to travel off peak.
“Please travel with photographic Charity ID or a completed version of the attached Letter of Authority for checking by VT Train Managers, when using a charity ticket. Discounted tickets not supported by one or other of these forms of ID will be deemed invalid, and will result in the ticket holder being charged the full walk-up fare for the journey being made.”
The Directory of Social Change noticed at the time that the discount only applies to a limited number of tickets, which quickly sell out, and that the scheme was significantly less generous than its predecessor.
This week I tried for the first time to use the scheme, as two of us are attending a Help the Hospices conference in Manchester. I wasn’t certain that there would be any discounted tickets available, or that the 20% discount would offset the expense of having special “photographic Charity ID” printed up.
Surprisingly enough, applying the charity discount resulted in a fare that was 21% more expensive than the alternative: £144 vs £118.80 for a normal fare. It looks like this charity scheme isn’t worth the time and effort charities – or indeed Virgin – have to put into it.
Update on 4 April 2011: scheme is generally useless
I spoke to Virgin Trains customer services, who explained why this happens. Apparently it is very common. The charity discount mainly applies to a very small number of tickets available 8-12 weeks in advance. These sell out rapidly on peak time trains. After that, people will almost always find it cheaper to buy the “saver half return” – the cheapest option in my screenshot, than to use the charity discount, which only applies to much more expensive tickets.
Summary: only use the Virgin Trains charity discount if you’re booking tickets at least 8 weeks in advance. Otherwise don’t bother.
Update on 6 April 2011: scheme is significantly worse than useless
We tried to amend one of the bookings via Trainline. Since we have a charity account (even though we didn’t use the charity scheme for the tickets), they were unable to change the ticket. Instead we would have to make further extra phone calls and send the original tickets back in the post to get a refund. This only applies to charity account holders, not to any other business account with Virgin Trains.
Summary: do not join the Virgin Trains charity scheme unless you want higher prices and worse service.