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Why are train tickets not available to buy?

Some of us like to be organised. Other times, we do things a little last minute. In both of these cases, we sometimes get hit with a bit of a painful question: why are train tickets not available to buy? Here’s our handy guide to booking horizons, why they matter and how to know when to buy your tickets.

What is a ‘Booking Horizon’?

Why are train tickets not available to buy? It could have something to do with something called a ‘Booking Horizon’. Just like looking over the horizon lets you see far away, the idea of these is that they ideally let you book train tickets for dates far away!

They’re usually pre-set at a certain number of weeks into the future. This gives rail companies and Network Rail the chance to decide what the timetables will look like when it comes to things like engineering works. During the week, there usually won’t be many changes so you can usually book further into the future on weekdays. On weekends, there’s likely to be some changes, so the rail industry needs a little longer to finalise all of this information.

Once all of this information is passed to the rail companies, they can start allowing you to book your tickets! With this, they’ll release any cheap Advance tickets they have, if they sell them for the trip you’re making.

Great, so why are train tickets not available to buy?

We made it sound awfully simple, didn’t we? Why are train tickets not available to buy, then? If that’s all there is to it, why isn’t there a definitive answer to when you’ll be able to grab the best bargain?

Well, it used to be (and still is, in some cases!) that you can buy train tickets 12 weeks in advance. There were some exceptions on weekends when timetables for engineering works needed some fine-tuning.

Unfortunately, in the months prior to COVID-19, issues arose with the planning of the timetable. This meant that six weeks became the new target to aim for. The COVID-19 pandemic then made everything a lot worse, with timetables needing to quickly adapt to changing demand. As a result, changes had to be made at much shorter notice.

And that’s the situation where we are today! Network Rail are often still finalising timetables at very short notice, meaning that rail operators can’t allow you to buy the tickets. If they did, you might end up buying a train that didn’t exist!

The pandemic has also meant that many companies are suffering from a shortage of staff, due to sickness and industrial disputes. When this happens, companies need to be able to confirm a stable timetable. This could mean reducing the timetable, or waiting until they know how many staff are available. Some companies have struggled more than others, too.

How do I know when I can book?

You’ll find all of the current available booking dates on the National Rail website. Here’s a guide of when you can typically expect tickets to generally become available for different rail operators at the moment (October 2022). Bear in mind that engineering works may affect these horizons and some days may be excluded:

Operator Weekdays Weekends
Avanti West Coast 6 to 7 weeks in advance 1 week in advance*
Caledonian Sleeper 12 months in advance 12 months in advance
Chiltern Railways 7 weeks in advance 6 weeks in advance
CrossCountry (East – West) 7 weeks in advance 6 to 7 weeks in advance
CrossCountry (North – South) 7 weeks in advance 6 to 7 weeks in advance
EMR (Liverpool – Norwich) 11 weeks in advance 7 weeks in advance
EMR (London routes) 9 weeks in advance 5 weeks in advance
Grand Central up to 24 weeks in advance up to 12 weeks in advance
Great Western Railway 12 weeks in advance up to 12 weeks in advance
Greater Anglia 8 weeks in advance 7 weeks in advance
Hull Trains up to 24 weeks in advance up to 12 weeks in advance
LNER up to 12 weeks in advance** up to 12 weeks in advance
Lumo 7 weeks in advance 6 weeks in advance
Northern 5-6 weeks in advance 5-6 weeks in advance
ScotRail up to 8 weeks in advance up to 8 weeks in advance
Southeastern 12 weeks in advance 8 weeks in advance
Southern up to 12 weeks in advance 10 weeks in advance
SWR (Weymouth route) up to 12 weeks in advance up to 12 weeks in advance
SWR (Portsmouth & Isle of Wight) up to 12 weeks in advance up to 12 weeks in advance
SWR (Exeter route) 1 week in advance*** 1 week in advance***
Thameslink 12 weeks in advance 6 weeks in advance
TransPennine Express 6-7 weeks in advance 6-7 weeks in advance
Transport for Wales 6 weeks in advance 6 weeks in advance
West Midlands Trains 10-12 weeks in advance 4 weeks in advance

*Avanti West Coast are currently running a temporary timetable and services may only be confirmed at late notice. Check before you travel.

**Services north of York to Edinburgh and beyond are generally available earlier than 12 weeks in advance.

***The route between Salisbury and Exeter St Davids is currently operating a temporary timetable due to track issues. Timetables on this route are updated on a week-by-week basis at present.

All information in this table is subject to change and is intended as a rough guide only. It is published without liability. It was correct at the time of writing (21/10/22). Railsmartr bears no responsibility for loss, inconvenience or additional costs incurred as a result of the use of this information.

It’s nearly my date of travel! Why are train tickets not available to buy?

As we’ve mentioned above, sometimes rail operators might not be able to confirm timetables until shortly before the date of travel. Yes, that could mean just a couple of days! However, there is another reason why train tickets might not be available to buy.

During COVID-19, many rail operators altered the way that their reservation data was shown online, so that it would automatically give you a seat reservation where possible. This encouraged social distancing and ensured that train tickets stopped being sold when all of the allocated reservations were filled. After this, it would show as ‘sold out’.

However, with the exception of the Caledonian Sleeper train, there’s no need to have a reservation to board a train. You might prefer to have one, but you don’t need one! These ‘compulsory reservation’ markers have hung around though, meaning that trains will still stop being selectable when all of the seats are filled.

This doesn’t mean that the train is ‘sold out’, but you might need to pick a different train that isn’t full in order to buy your ticket. Don’t worry, if you’re buying a flexible ticket, you’re not tied to any particular train, so long as it meets any date or time restrictions.

We know this can be frustrating and might make the ticket buying process a bit trickier. So if you have any issues, please contact us and we’ll be happy to help with this.

Is it possible to book too far in advance?

Sometimes, some websites will allow you to buy an Off-Peak, Super Off-Peak or Anytime ticket without a reservation before timetables have been officially confirmed. These are the most expensive type of tickets and they can be bought right up until your train leaves, so there’s no need to buy them months ahead!

Sometimes, two stations won’t have any Advance tickets available between them. But, if you were expecting to find some and you didn’t, it’s okay to wait a little longer until they appear. If it’s a weekend, it may be that engineering works are planned and the timetable needs to be confirmed.

It’s the same if all of the trains show as ‘sold out’ many weeks in advance. Don’t panic! They’re just not available to buy yet.

Ready to book your next journey? Simply visit the Railsmartr website. You could also check out our guide to some cheap rail tickets that you might not have known about!