Friday, June 28, 2013

Bullying Tourists: The West End Way of Booking Tickets

This October, I'll be visiting London for the sixth time.

As always, I'm going to see a musical or two, and I like buying my tickets in advance. I know some swear by whichever last-minute discounts may be available – but I find buying tickets in advance saves lots of time and hassle, so it's often worth the extra price. I enjoy planning my schedules beforehand. I don't even rush to Finnish shows on last-minute discounts, so I think doing that during a vacation would just add to the inevitable holiday stress.

When it comes to London, however, buying theatre tickets adds to your stress levels, no matter how they're being bought.

How, situated in one of the most visited cities in the world, can the West End theatres have such a medieval ticket booking system?

In Finland, you go to a theatre's website, pick the show and the date, pick your seat, pay with your credit or debit card, print your ticket, and you're done. If you decide you'd rather pick up the ticket from the theatre, just purchase it via the box office and pick it up whichever day you please!

When buying tickets to West End musicals... Where do I begin? Well, first, you find a show you'd like to see and a date that suits you.

Then the downhill begins.

You might run across a site that sells you musical tickets in Finnish. You soon leave the site, though, when you notice they seem to add ludicrous amounts of fees on top of the ticket prices, sometimes 30 or 40 € worth of extra on a single ticket.

You might then think Ticketmaster is the site to go. But don't be fooled by the fact that when you buy tickets from the Finnish version, you can print them right away with your own printer, for a small extra charge. Instead, prepare for large fees, a ticking clock that gives you a minute and a half to fill out eighteen different information fields, and the tickets being sent to you by traditional mail two days before the show, quaranteed.

If it happens you'd like the tickets to your home adress a week before the show already, again quaranteed, shell out some ten pounds more and move to the checkout. Printing the ticket, you ask? Unheard of!

Scrap Ticketmaster, we're going to book the tickets directly from the theatre.

At first glance, buying from the theatre is easier and cheaper. You book the ticket and pay with a credit card. But when you arrive at London, remember to have the credit card you used with with you. It wasn't your credit card? Someone bought the ticket for you? Quite impossible!

It seems each West End theatre has a small print somewhere on their website that says the person who bought the tickets, and the card they were bought with, must be present at the box office when picking the tickets up. If it happens that someone in their teens or early twenties would want to see a musical... Someone who's old enough to travel alone but too young to get their own credit card yet, so they'd have to ask a family member to pay their tickets... Don't even think about it!

I've been in this situation countless times. My parents usually travel with me, but they aren't into musicals – so I don't think it's the high point of their holiday to be dragged to five different box offices to pick up my tickets. I've cheated the rules sometimes and picked the tickets up alone, since some box offices are sensible enough not to check every credit card. But some do, so going alone is terrifying. What shall I say if they ask for the card? Some theatres' rules generously state that if the card owner signs a permission for another person to pick up their ticket, it will be fine – but some don't, so it's always an unpleasant adventure.

There's an extra twist of excitement in all of this: in most cases, the tickets you booked aren't available until one hour before the night's performance. If it happens you're that late-teens-to-early-twenties person who cannot yet get their own credit card, with parents who'd much prefer a pint at a pub or a walk by the river to visiting box offices night after night... Too bad for them, they'll have to come to the theatre with you every night anyway.

This all makes me see red.

How can a simple thing be made so infuriatingly difficult?

What is the purpose of a system like this? Bullying tourists who enjoy a night out at the theatre? Why isn't a printed receipt from the online store enough to convince certain box offices that the tickets can be given to someone, why do they demand seeing the credit card? Why can't the tickets that have already been paid for be picked up earlier than an hour before the performance? Why on earth printing your own ticket isn't possible even for the most popular West End musicals?

I'd love to see the West End box offices wake up and notice they're in the 21st century. Stressing foreign visitors out like this has to stop. People actually own printers nowadays. And even in here, the far-away, cold, tiny country of Finland, you can pick up the tickets you've bought on whichever day you choose, not just an hour before the performance. So why can't London's famous West End figure that out? What purpose does it serve to make ticket purchases this difficult for tourists – especially seeing how the income from tourists helps to keep the West End musicals alive?

I'm hoping that when I one day plan my seventh London adventure, I can finally print all my tickets at home and just enjoy the shows.


  1. Ditto. Even Hungary, which isn't exactly the most technically advanced country in Europe, has excellent ticket systems both online and in theatres. I can understand the present-the-credit-card system in case of tickets printed at home, because it'd be easy to print multiple tickets and sneak people into the theatre that way. But when it's not possible to print them at home, it's getting a bit silly. The theatres would also avoid one hell of a rush by letting people collect their tickets at any time.

    1. Actually, the few times I've been able to print my own ticket to a West End show, they haven't cared about the credit cards. (The tickets had barcodes that were scanned at the door, so I guess you'd get caught if you printed too many of them.) It seems to me the rule's only about the tickets you pick up in person. Are they fighting off a specialised group of hackers who steal people's ticket purchase receipts from their e-mails and go pick up their tickets, or..?

  2. Unfortunately, this isn't a problem unique to West End theaters. Whenever I want to buy tickets to anything online, I end up having to pay quite a lot in fees. There's even a fee for printing the ticket out on your own paper with your own ink! Ridiculous.

    But there's also the note that if you want to pick up your tickets at the door (for theater or concerts or sporting events), you have to present the credit card that you used. This bugs me, because I like to use virtual credit card numbers. They're tied to my card so my actual card gets charged, but if some hacker gets a hold of this number, they won't be able to use it to make purchases anywhere else. However, that number's not going to match the one on my card! It also makes it hard to, say, let a friend pick up your tickets and go to the event if you have an emergency and can't go. Or buy tickets for someone else. I've never actually been asked for my credit card.... I've only ever been asked for an ID. But I still have to use my real credit card number just in case. An ID or a printed receipt with confirmation number should be enough.

    Here's a suggestion for you. When I didn't have a credit card, but was old enough to need one to buy gas, my parents got me a card on their account. It was my own card that I could carry with me, but it was tied to their account and they were the ones responsible for paying it. That way if I needed to buy gas, or go to the store and buy something for them, or had an emergency where I needed it, I had one. I always had to give them receipts for everything I purchased so they could check them against their statement. But they just trusted me to be responsible with it and if I did buy something for myself on it, I had to pay them back you know. So maybe you could ask your parents about this. I'm sure you're responsible enough. :) It doesn't really solve the problem, but it helps you.

    1. Argh, rest of the world, not you too... Your experiences sound way more annoying than mine, since I can after all get tickets the easy way in my own home country! I guess we have it way too good in Finland, I've been spoiled.

      I have a sneaking suspicion my parents wouldn't be wild about that – seeing how buying tickets to West End musicals would be the only use I'd have for a credit card... Debit cards are used a lot more here than in the USA, I suppose, and everyone can have one. So I'm able handle almost all my other purchases with that. But thanks for the tip! :)

    2. Oh all fees are waived of course if you go to the box office to make your transaction in person. But it's not always possible to get to the box office!

      Sorry for my ignorance (I've never had a debit card), but you can't use debit cards for online purchases? Or just for ticket purchases? Seems strange. How old do you have to be to get a credit card?

    3. True that! I understand having a small fee, the ticket booking agencies have to get their profit somehow – but for example the UK Ticketmaster fees are insane... :/

      You can use a debit card in all Finnish online stores. That's why I haven't really dreamed of a credit card... But yeah, debit doesn't work in foreign stores, so it's not all good! As for credit cards, at least as far as I'm aware, you have to be 20 years old (I am) and have a certain amout of study credits (for me, still ~30 credits to go) to qualify.