In the cheery cartoon advert for this year’s new ‘Two Together Railcard’, the fictional couple Tony Lunlow and Sarah Townsend leave their mark around Britain in a montage of pure smugness. They run marathons together, camp out at Glastonbury together, play arcade games on Brighton Pier together, and share matching coffee cups along the way. Because, you see, as long as they travel with their ‘Two Together Railcard’ they get one third off their fare (excluding morning peak). So surely it’s win-win for Tony & Sarah, and win-win for consumers in general?
Let’s delve into the darkness of what the montage doesn’t show. Firstly, there are the times when the Two Together directly loses them money. Like the time Tony is ill and can’t travel with Sarah on their Advanced tickets to Doncaster. Since the Two Together stipulates they must travel together, she has to buy a whole new ticket at full price, or suffer the consequences. The feeling of culpability only contributes to Tony’s illness. Secondly, there are the times when the railcard is just plain awkward. Like their trip to see Sarah’s family in Salisbury after work, when they’re coming from different parts of London so they need to first buy time-wasting and overpriced Singles to a station of bitter compromise, such as Clapham Junction.
It goes on. The railcard causes prolonged tension in Sarah and Tony’s relationship, compounded by the fact that Sarah already has a 16-25 railcard and technically gets no benefits from cooperating with her boyfriend.
And don’t forget Tony and Sarah’s friends. There’s Monica, who is sick and tired of seeing her loved up couple-friends reaping the benefits of cheaper hotel rooms, meal vouchers, and tax breaks. So now they get cheaper train tickets too? And there’s Greg, who lives happily in polygamous and short-term relationships, rides the railways with multiple partners, and resents this institutionalised reward to the picture perfect traditional couple. They tell him he can get as many ‘Two Together Railcards’ as he needs; he’d rather not.
Let me make my position clear: I don’t like the Two Together railcard, even though I own one and have only ever saved money with it. It contributes to my fat wallet, and a fat wallet sounds good, but not when you consider what else is inside it: twice-stamped coffee cards, loyalty cards (conflicting, guiltily, in their disloyalty to one another), and Tesco vouchers for values like £0.54, £0.32, and £0.20 for future purchases which will never exist. I’m tired of having to study and compare the terms and conditions of the myriad discount schemes I am begrudgingly signed up to. I once went to a restaurant with a voucher receipt, only to be told, with a sigh, “Oh, you’re a Groupon”, before being led to the basement, to choose from the basement menu, along with the other frugal basement bastards.
“Stop whining!” I hear you say. “Just ignore the discounts!” But this is like telling the protagonist of a Kafka novel that he can just sidestep the central premise, sit at home, and have a cup of tea. He can’t: he’s a f*****g beetle. It is impossible to avoid a discount without suffering the nagging regret of pennies wasted. One of the most unpleasant dates I ever had was where I had to pay full price on a weekday at Pizza Express (something I’d always assumed was only endured by tourists).
And if you don’t put the pressure on yourself, somebody else will. Everyone’s mum has a friend called something like Linda who is just better than you at using moneysavingexpert.com, who always has the right vouchers to hand, and will cross-examine you on any minor retail decision before telling you what you should have done. But it’s not just the Lindas; the big companies do it too. My energy provider, EDF, now remind me on a monthly basis of the savings I would have made if I’d gone with a competitor (who, presumably, do exactly the same thing, in a never-ending Escher-like mockery of their consumers). And it is no longer possible to go on holiday without coming back to questions like: “How much did it cost?.. What website did you use?.. Oh, didn’t you see the deal in…?”
So a sprawling network of discounts, railcards, loyalty cards and voucher schemes have become a tedious game that we all must play. ‘Choice’ is, at first glance, a good thing, but we now acknowledge that it can lead to paralysis as we wade through 146 different types of tea in the endless aisles of Tesco. Likewise, discounts are at first glance good things, but we should now acknowledge that we have let them accumulate into one monumental ball-ache.
Rather than having to avoid discounts, in my idyllic fantasy they simply wouldn’t exist. I wouldn’t buy 1 pipe of Pringles at £2.48 and get another 2 free; I’d spend 90p on one. Trains would simply be 20 per cent cheaper all of the time, rather than 50 per cent cheaper some of the time (booked three months in advance, travelling on a Thursday at 05:20, with a named partner…), and 180 per cent more expensive at the other times (when I actually travel). I want simplicity. Ultimately, I think Tony and Sarah do too.
The lottery is bad for me, but I love it. Discounts are good for me, but I hate them. If you’re with me, sign up to my newsletter, and you’ll get 10% off a one way trip to Hull.
Zeph Auerbach is currently writing a play called ‘Two Together’, centred around the use, misuse and romantic implications of the Two Together Railcard
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