Views of Lake District peaks flash by the window as I stretch out in my seat, sip my chilled glass of wine, pick up a snack box from the steward who’s walking past, spread my book out on the table in front of me and relax… I’m a big fan of rail travel, and over the last year I’ve racked up more train journeys between home in Cheltenham and my university campus in Scotland than I can count, but the reality of it often doesn’t quite live up to the fantasy above.
This post is a collaboration with Seatfrog, but all opinions are my own
First-Class train travel takes things up a notch, with extra perks that make the journey so much more enjoyable, from free food and drink to extra legroom and wifi. But although I do manage to bag the occasional First-Class ticket at a decent price if I book way in advance and am travelling at an obscure time, they’re usually much more expensive than standard tickets – putting First-Class train travel out of the reach of ordinary travellers. Or maybe not…
Upgrading your train journey with Seatfrog
I’m always on the lookout for ways to get a taste of luxury for less, so loved the idea of Seatfrog when I came across it. Rather than paying hundreds of pounds for a First-Class ticket, this clever new app lets you bid on empty First-Class seats on Virgin Trains’ west coast routes. You can bag a last-minute upgrade on your existing ticket for as little as £10. And because you have to already have a ticket, there’s no risk you won’t get on the train if you don’t win the upgrade.
The idea of paid upgrades has been around in the airline world for years, and some train operators offer weekend upgrades to First Class. But you normally get limited services (and food and drink supplies) at weekends so it’s not quite the same. Seatfrog works on weekdays so you get the proper First-Class experience for less. And you can upgrade from 24 hours to 30 minutes before you travel, so it’s perfect for a last-minute treat. But how does it work?
Using the Seatfrog app
Firstly download the Seatfrog app onto your smartphone – it’s available for Apple and Android devices – and set up an account with your credit card details. Then add your journey details. You can either put in the booking reference of your existing ticket or search for your journey by entering the date, time, arrival and departure stations. This means if someone booked the ticket for you, say for work, you can still upgrade – and railcard tickets are valid too.
Once you’ve selected your journey then you get a couple of options. If there are First-Class seats available you can choose how many seats you want to bid on and place a bid. You choose how high you want to go up to and the app will bid for you up to that level. There is a possibility you could get outbid, so if you don’t want to risk it there’s also a ‘Buy upgrade now’ option.
If you win, then you’ll get a notification in the app as well as by email. You’ll be sent your new seat number as well as a QR code which the train staff can scan straight from your phone, so you don’t need to print anything out. Keep hold of your old ticket though as you will still need to show that with your new one, as well as needing it to get through the ticket barriers.
Sounds simple? Well it really is that easy. I tried Seatfrog out on a couple of journeys – travelling from Carlisle to Birmingham with my mum and from Birmingham to London on my own. Both times I had no problem getting an upgrade. For the first journey we paid £15 each and the second £11. I could easily spend that much on food and drink alone so it was well worth it.
The First-Class difference
So what do you get for your money? Well to start off, if you’re travelling from a station which has a Virgin First-Class Lounge (so that’s Birmingham, Coventry, London Euston, Crewe, Liverpool Lime Street, Manchester Piccadilly, Runcorn and Glasgow) then your upgrade also gets you access to the lounge. You can help yourself to complimentary drinks, snacks and newspapers as well as having a designated quiet place to hang out while you wait for your train.
On board, Virgin’s First-Class carriages are a lot quieter and more spacious than Standard Class, with pairs of seats on one side of the aisle and solo seats on the other. Everyone gets a table, light and plug, and there’s a lot more legroom and space to spread yourself out as well as free on-board wifi – so it’s ideal if you’re trying to get some work done. Virgin also has an onboard entertainment system called BEAM where you can watch TV shows and films.
If you travel at peak time you get a hot meal (I’ve never had dinner on board but the breakfasts are really good). My trips were both at lunchtime so we were given the choice of a selection of snacks, sandwiches and meze boxes. I went for the gluten-free cheese and crackers and my mum had a really tasty-looking quiche. You can also get fruit, crisps and chocolates throughout the journey as well as hot and cold drinks, and we couldn’t resist a very welcome G&T.
Just having extra space and quiet made the journey so much more luxurious and relaxing. And as Carlisle to Birmingham takes around three hours, we had plenty of time to make use of all the services (i.e. eat all the snacks), making the £15 upgrade fee a great deal. Compared to the price of buying a First-Class ticket up-front, Seatfrog makes it really affordable and I’ll definitely use it on train trips in the future (I may never go back to Standard Class!). Download the app and you can just be spontaneous if you decide you fancy a treat or need to get some work done.