How can you get a full refund from Trainline? Not like this

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By Christopher Elliott

All Linda Shapiro wanted was to change her train tickets from Seville to Madrid. That’s all. How hard can that be?

Harder than you might think, it turns out.

Her online travel agency, Trainline, took her on an unexpected journey through ticket-change hell, followed by a surprise stop in refund purgatory. And now that I’ve almost run out of theological metaphors, here’s one more: Shapiro needs a little redemption from our team of consumer advocates.

Along the way, maybe we can help her answer one question that a lot of our readers have asked lately: How can you get a full refund from Trainline?

Her case is a cautionary tale about “malfunctioning” websites and online agencies and why their technology doesn’t always work. But thanks to a little sleuthing, we have a pretty good idea of how to get a refund on Trainline tickets and the length of time it typically takes to receive a refund from Trainline.

Want to change your train ticket? Buy another one

Shapiro recently booked two train tickets from Seville to Madrid from Trainline, which bills itself as a digital rail and coach technology platform with headquarters in London. Trainline sells train tickets and railcards and offers “free” access to live train schedules.

But Shapiro just wanted to do something simple through the Trainline site. “I needed to change to an earlier train,” she explains.

She couldn’t do it online through her rail operator’s site. Whenever she tried, it kicked up an error message and recommended she call Trainline by phone.

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So Shapiro called Trainline’s customer service department. A representative tried to troubleshoot the site but eventually recommended that she buy a new ticket and then submit a request for a refund online.

That’s not exactly the solution she was hoping for.

It’s worth pausing for a minute to look at the calendar. It’s 2022, and changing a ticket online should be as easy as a keystroke or two. The Spanish rail operator’s site coughed up an error message, and the company ultimately asked her to spend more money. (Related: Can Globus keep our $500 deposit? I can’t afford to travel anymore.)

Very suspicious, if you ask me.

And even more suspicious when you consider what happened next.

“Now, Trainline is saying the refund is impossible — unless I send a screenshot of the error message I received, with a timestamp, when trying to cancel my ticket,” she says.

Of course, she doesn’t have a screenshot. No one told her to take a screenshot when she tried to cancel her ticket.

Is it possible to refund Trainline tickets?

Trainline tickets are refundable — to a point. Shapiro’s tickets are 70 percent refundable, which is a little strange by American standards.

But think of it like this: When you have a “cancel for any reason” travel insurance policy, you get between 50 and 75 percent of your nonrefundable, prepaid expenses back. This kind of works the same way.

Or so Shapiro thought.

Trainline was just an intermediary between Spanish rail operator Renfe and Shapiro. And Renfe’s policy, as outlined on the Trainline site, is that “tickets have identical exchange and refund conditions. You can cancel your existing booking and buy a new one.”

In other words, unless Trainline had negotiated some kind of an exception to the Renfe policy (which it might have), Shapiro needed to book a new ticket and then ask for a refund. Yeah, seriously.

Trainline’s refund policies vary by country. Some European rail operators offer full refunds or no-fee exchanges; others don’t. Trainline must abide by those rules. And the policies have been revised during the pandemic, so don’t assume you know them just because you’ve taken the train in Europe in the past.

But was she out of luck with this ticket exchange request?

The problem with ticket resellers

I probably don’t have to say this, but there was a serious communication breakdown between Trainline and the Spanish rail operator. Trainline told Shapiro it could process a ticket change request through its site, but it couldn’t.

This is a common problem with travel companies. They direct you to their websites for the “best” customer service but then offer you nothing but dead ends and error messages. And all this just ends up enriching the companies.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d say companies create sites to turn people away — and enable them to keep your money. But in this case, it was probably an issue with Shapiro’s browser accessing a European site or something similarly benign. Sometimes, these things just happen.

Trainline’s terms and conditions, which you can find on its site, are clear about the timeline for canceling your tickets.

If Shapiro had something in writing that shows she tried to cancel her tickets on time, she might have received the 70 percent refund. But she didn’t have any proof, which made her case more complicated.

I recommended that the next time she has to cancel something before the departure date and time, she should make sure she has evidence — an email, a printout, a cancellation number — that shows she contacted the company before the deadline for a refund. And for her, that deadline was her day of departure.

How do I claim a refund for a canceled Trainline ticket?

The process for claiming a Trainline refund is simple, more or less; it varies by country. For example, if you’re trying to cancel a train in the U.K., the company directs you to go online. Login to “My Bookings,” select your booking, and click on “refund tickets.”

But for Shapiro’s Spanish booking, the technology apparently isn’t that sophisticated. The site says she needs to email the company directly so that someone can handle the refund manually.

Shapiro couldn’t have known about this before she booked her tickets. A quick look online might have revealed the bureaucracy and hassle involved in changing or refunding a ticket, so at least she would have been warned.

How long does Trainline take to refund?

According to Trainline, refunds take between three and five days. If you get impatient, you can check the status of your refund in your account. If there’s a notation that your ticket is “Refunded/ Refund Approved,” just sit tight, and the money will be in your account within five days.

Trainline won’t like me sharing this with you, but EU passenger protection regulations govern your rail journey. You can read more about EC 1371/2007 and how it applies to your next train trip. Unfortunately, the law doesn’t prescribe a timeline for a refund, but there’s a precedent for fast compensation for other issues.

It could have been worse. We’ve had a few train horror stories in the recent past where a refund was the least of a passenger’s worries:

Here’s your Trainline refund

I reached out to Trainline on Shapiro’s behalf. The company reviewed her records and verified that it denied her refund. The reason? She had not canceled her tickets through her Trainline account. (Here’s how to fix your own consumer problem.)

“She contacted us so we can help her get a refund of these two tickets since she did not manage to exchange them at the station,” a representative said.

That’s not the way she remembers it, but it doesn’t matter. Trainline says it decided to make “an exceptional refund” and has honored the 70 percent refund.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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