A first class scam?

Thursday 10th December 2020

Have you heard of ‘Seatfrog’? It’s been LNER’s way of offering upgrades from standard class to first class on its trains since 2017. More recently it’s begun doing the same for Avanti West Coast and GWR .

Although it’s been around for three years I only gave it a try for the first time for my trip last Saturday from Kings Cross to Newcastle. I’d bagged an advanced standard class single both ways on the Thursday before and used the Seatfrog app on Friday to register my interest in upgrading to first class having previously added my credit card and other details to enable payment.

The app works by entering the journeys you’re booked on and once bidding opens, specifying an amount you’re prepared to bid to upgrade. The minimum bid required for both my outward and return journeys was £10. I confirmed a bid at that level for both journeys.

I could have guaranteed success by paying £35 straight away which is and, before Seatfrog came along, was, the fixed price weekend first class upgrade for the East Coast Main Line. But as my advanced single (with railcard) had only cost £32.35 in itself I decided against that and see how my luck would hold out for success at £10.

Early on Saturday morning I checked the app to find I’d been outbid by someone bidding £11 and inviting me to rebid, which I did for £12, as there was obviously only one other passenger bidding against me; the app confirming there’d been two bids.

Once the “sale” had ended (1 hour, 28 minutes and 21 seconds later – see above), I checked again and good news, my £12 bid had been successful …

…and clicking on the ‘View Upgrade’ gave me a new QR code with a new seat allocation of K3 which was to be used in conjunction with my original ticket.

Now comes the interesting part. Boarding coach K, I soon found my allocated seat K3, which is the first forward facing gangway double seat on the left. 

There was just one other passenger already seated in the coach – a young woman in seat K2 – the first single seat on the right in front of the luggage rack. This seemed a surprise as seats K2 and K3 are either side of the gangway, whereas seat K4, next to the window in the double seat, was out of use for social distancing, but it would have made more sense to allocate that to me instead of K3, I would have thought.

There was no-one else in the first class section of coach K and we got chatting and soon realised we were the two bidders using Seatfrog, and the young woman had made the £11 bid, and when being advised she’d been outbid by my £12 bid, had bid £13 and been successful at that price.

Now the question arises, why did the algorithm make us increase our bids from £10 to £12 (for me) and from £11 to £13 (for her) rather than accept our original bids at £10 and £11? There seems no logic other than Seatfrog need to make their commission on the sale, and perhaps that’s calculated on anything earned over the base price of £10? Just a thought.

When the train manager came along I asked him why the two seats allocated from the whole of coach K for the two passengers travelling had been two seats next to each other (either side of the gangway). He explained they are the seats allocated for upgrades through the Seatfrog app.

This makes for a ridiculous situation I’ve noticed before on LNER that the seat allocation makes absolutely no sense at all. On that journey I checked the passengers in each carriage – there was just one in coach M, 12 in coach L and the two of us in coach K.

I wondered how many seats are made available for upgrade and what if there’d been three or more of us bidding, how much extra money the algorithm would have tried to abstract out of us before telling us we’d been successful?

It all seems very murky to me. Still, at least I didn’t unnecessarily pay out an extra £35 and find I’d been allocated seat K1 with its restricted view.

On the return journey I was successful at gaining my upgrade for the minimum bid of £10 being allocated seat K2 and on boarding found no-one else in coach K at all for the whole journey south; and only four other passengers in first class, all in coach L.

Checking ticket prices for the same 09:00 Kings Cross to Newcastle this Saturday, one week on, I see the standard class fare (with railcard) is another reasonable £32.30 but there’s a whopping difference to the first class advanced fare of £118.10, which makes the Seatfrog option obviously much more attractive – even at £35 – which is probably the objective.

A first class scam? No; but it is all rather opaque.

Roger French

11 thoughts on “A first class scam?

Add yours

  1. Presumably as with any ‘booked’ seat you’re free to move to any other unreserved and unoccupied first class seat? And even if technically you’re not, the on-board staff aren’t going to care? I normally find pre-booked seats in First are all crammed in one coach, with the adjacent coach often nearly empty (in those glorious pre-Covid days when there was such a thing as a full coach!).

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Certainly looks like a scam if you have two people bidding for two seats and they are treated as bidding against each other. I’m always very sceptical about any online auction like that.

    It isn’t that long ago that you could get a Weekend First upgrade for £5 each way, so at £35 that’s well over inflation rate rises. I said at the time that the knock-down first class upgrades were only there to lure people in and then they would ratchet up the prices once people had got used to travelling in comfort, seems I was right!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Or is it LNER only allocated 2 seats for Searfrog bidding!? I wonder if the bidding / outbidding just a market tactic, instead it is the algorithm we unknown working behind, just likes the pricing of budget airline, more people bidding in similar time, it would treated as demand increase and increase the price.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Seatfrog also ‘partners’ with Avanti West Coast, CrossCountry and GWR.
    Probably a good way of getting upgrades whilst few have heard of it. Once everyone has, cost of an upgrade will drift up to near the 2nd class/1st class ticket differential.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It does seems to be an artificial auction.. You have no idea as to how many seats are available in the so called auction. You also have no idea as to how long the auction is open for. Their web site just vaguely says bidding typically opens a few hours before departure and make no references as to when it closes

    In the case above it appears to be that only two people were bidding and that they were bidding for the same seat in spite of many other seats being available

    This claimed auction probably breaks consumer law. If it had been a fair auction both reservations would have been at £10

    Liked by 2 people

  6. For seat frog they adjust the number of seats that are available at different prices. It is possible that only one seat was available at £10 and a second came on stream at £12 and so on. Supply is not inelastic, this acts as a way of avoiding it acting as a guaranteed alternative to buying a first class ticket

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I think it would technically count as an auction if this is how it is carried out – there are different prizes at different starting prices. What they need, though, is to give a lot more transparency so that we can see exactly what is truly going on, for now it is just guesswork.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. If it is prizes it is a raffle and not an auction

    My view is it should be as below

    Auction open 3 hours before scheduled departure time and closes 1Hour before departure time and let say 20 seats are in the auction. The reserve price is £10

    When the auction closes the 20 highest’s bids win. If there is a tie the bid that comes in first wins

    Liked by 2 people

  9. I use Seatfrog all the time to upgrade on Avanti West Coast and on Virgin before that. For somewhere between £13-18 I get a table, drinks and snack. Virtually always good value. Have never sat in my allocated seat and never been questioned.
    Frustrating at weekends when it doesn’t seem to operate and upgrades are a standard £25.


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