So, for the last few years whenever I have gone to the UK, I have traveled around for free. This is started in 2005 when I was going back between Edinburgh and Glasgow, and realized the bus companies MegaBus and CityLink allowed to to show a code for your ride. This code was basically the date and time, and perhaps one or two random letters. The drivers only ever seemed to check the date and time, and so anytime you wanted to catch a bus, all you needed was a pen and paper. Citylink
may have been a bit stricter by requiring a printout. However, HTML is easy to change, and since the printout itself was the only authorization needed, it was hardly a problem.
A very lax system, with many benefits. Now, this is fairly immoral, but I just couldn’t feel bad about it. The buses will go their route regardless, and when backpacking around Europe on limited savings, I’d rather rob a national company then not eat for a few days.
Now, the code system above only works for short distances, although as far as I know in 2010 the same systems are in place, and it is still just as easy to do. Of course, this does not work for longer trips such as Glasgow to London, where codes and names are actually checked against a list. I found this out the hard way in 2007. I had a flight leaving from London, and thought I had booked a Megabus from Scotland overnight to arrive the morning of my flight. Alas, while in line to board and looking at my receipt, I realized I had stupidly booked my Megabus for that morning, so it had long since left.
Now….what was I to do? I was not prepared to miss my flight, and at that time I had not considered a train a possibility due to the crazy expense. So. I managed to covertly copy the code of someone else behind me in line, and make sure I wormed my way a few people in front of him. I managed to board the bus, no problems. Although by doing so, the bus was heldup for about an extra 20 minutes. See, when the guy whose code I had stolen tried to board, he was marked off. I felt bad…, but still wasn’t about to miss my flight. It worked out well, as he was still let on, and everyone got to go to their destination, and Megabus even got their money.
When I was catching a train with a friend in Glasgow around 2007, I was informed I could buy my tickets on the train, and it was not a worry. I happened to test this with a debit card I had that I knew had no money on it…and it worked, perfectly. It seems much like planes, the trains in the UK have no way to verify funds in real-time. Jackpot! Being the broke traveler I was…am, this was an enormous boon. This was even better than free bus rides…it was certain I could always get a fare, and in substantially more comfort!
Traveling between London and Edinburgh? No worry, just hop on the train, first class if I like and pay the fare, perhaps an open return. A canceled or out of money debit or credit card is accepted without a problem. Indeed, London Victoria stations had guys going around with portable ticket printers that also did not verify in real time, so you even had a ticket to get on the train. As immoral as this was, it was often a lifesaver for me.
Being at the end of a trip and having a flight back home, but not even enough money to catch the train to the airport? I don’t tend to have people I can ask to help out in these situations, and so knowing I can do this is a lifesaver. When I used to catch the Gatwick express the same trick worked for Citylink, simply modifying a ticket. Of course since you can simply pay with a card, there is absolutely nothing to worry about, a guaranteed trip if need be.
However, I certainly didn’t use this only when needed. After realizing how easy it is to get away with, I ended up using it for all my travel in the UK. It was especially nice to use on planes. I upgraded to a seat with more legroom on my flight a few months ago from Miami to Vegas. I don’t think I was ever charged for this, but it certainly helped out the extremely packed row I was in, and didn’t hurt anyone sense it wasn’t being used. Really, on a super packed flight it makes sense to distribute random people into the unused seats.
I have also used it as a weapon at times. As people familiar with Ryanair know, they are complete assholes, who break the law on a regular basis. They do not refund money for canceled flights, they charge you several pounds a minute and put you on hold for ages before you can even speak to someone, they charge made up taxes and fees and treat everyone like shit. Well, it’s always nice on a Ryanair flight to purchase quite a bit of food and merchandise to balance out these injustices.
I tried in March or so to catch the Amtrak from Orlando to Miami, and to try and buy my ticket on the train, however I was unable to see if this worked. The Amtrak site states that you can purchase tickets on the train, however I was unable to get on the train at all without a ticket. I would assume it is setup in a similar way to the trains in the UK, but it would be interesting to know for sure.
Now, is this fraud? Obviously writing a fake code to take a bus trip is, but really, what kind of security can be expecting when having the date and time as the code? I am surprised abuse of that system is not rampant. What about buying tickets on a train or things on a plane? Well, that depends. Using your own card, even knowing it is low on funds is not fraud, and most of the time the charges may not even appear due to the laxness of the system. Using a cancelled card on the other hand most certainly is. The point is that it is a flawed system that can be exploited in several different ways, not all of which are illegal. Indeed, using a card low on funds simply raises a debt, which is certainly not illegal.
It seems like this is mainly a problem in the UK, with trains not verifying in real-time at all and buses using the time of the trip as authentication. Certainly most inner-city public transport systems in the world don’t seem as easy to exploit, as they actually check people on a list or don’t allow you to buy tickets unless payment is guaranteed. That is the only way to ensure payment, with real time verification of funds, or making people pay at the next station. Until then the problem will be continue to be inevitably exploited.
I should also note that this post should not be taken as advocating fraud or any illegal activity.
Update 1 – October 10th 2010
I recently took an Amtrak train bound to Seattle, and can say that nothing described above that works on trains in the UK will work on Amtrak trains. It was impossible to board the train without a ticket of some kind. Well, of course not impossible, but more difficult than I had time for. I purchased a ticket just for the next stop, and while on the train I tried first of all to make a small purchase from the dining cart on a card that had fewer funds than was necessary, and saw the card reader actually makes a connection and verifies in real time. Fail. I then tried to extend my journey on to my final destination by purchasing a ticket with the same card. Fail. So, Amtrak can afford to do real time verification(at least on some trains, perhaps not all?) on credit cards, which prevents the abuse described above. What is keeping the UK behind?
Having said that, the ride was very pleasant and the staff were very friendly. The only thing I found annoying is that Amtrak is Pepsi only, so no Dr. Pepper for the ride. One curiosity I noticed was that had I purchased my fare on the internet, the total cost would have likely been $42, with the lowest I saw being $35. However by purchasing the second half of my trip onboard, the total came to $29. My guess for why this is is that on the train the price is fixed, and is not based on demand like internet fares possibly are. Either way it provides an advantage to purchase on the train where possible.
The other thing I noticed is that the QuikTrak self service kiosks offer no security at all. The idea is that if you buy a ticket on the internet, you must have the card the ticket was bought with in order to pick up the ticket. The QuikTrak kiosk only allows you to scan a barcode or swipe a card, however I found that swiping any card will work. You can swipe a cancelled or expired card and put in reservation number to collect the ticket. At no point was I asked for ID or to show my card. It seems that this would make it incredibly easy to buy train tickets with anyone else’s card in a fake name, and not encounter any issues.
One final point I should mention is that quite often taxis don’t use real time verification either. Approximately 25% of the taxis in Berlin did not seem to have it, and it was quite possible to pay with a card that would not be accepted otherwise. This certainly was not the case in NYC and I don’t recall trying it anywhere else. It seems crazy that taxis would not do this, as they are not subject to the same limitations as trains or planes.
Update 2 – December 16th 2010
Via Rail in Canada does not have any kind of electronic card processing on their trains, at all. They take an old style imprint much like on planes and process it at the end of a trip. I took the train from Vancouver to Toronto and found out that they do card processing in Winnipeg which can be a bit annoying…but otherwise if you were to go to Winnipeg or from Winnipeg to Toronoto then they have no way to check.
I also thought I would mention airport carts. In some airports you have to pay something like $5 for a trolley, not a deposit but a fee. This is ridiculous…using any card with funds or not will be accepted and release the trolley to use.