I would rather not take the chance of reserving non-refundable train seats from Edinburgh to Dunkeld & Birnham in early May with only a short stay in Scotland and planning around weather and two family members w/ their own preferences and unpredictable schedules. However, I've read about Dunkeld and don't want to miss seeing it myself. RailEurope and Trainline Europe info says "early booking is recommended" (I plugged in the date and preferred time, station). Is that just for their convenience and/or profit or it is likely trains will be full on any midweek morning? I haven't looked into a rail pass which might make sense for visiting Saint Andrews also from Edinburgh. Thanks for any help.
I cannot comment on how likely the train is to be full.
But, get your train times and prices from the company which actually runs the trains: https://www.scotrail.co.uk/
I picked a random day in May. It showed one train every 2 hours, that showed tickets at £8.40 with "limited availability", but no problem with tickets at £16.20. In other words, they have a limited number of the cheap tickets left, but if you don't mind paying full fare it is no problem.
If you are coming back on the same day, you can also get a "day return" for £13.50, even cheaper.
RailEurope and Trainline Europe are both resellers trying to make a profit from foreign tourists.
Rail Europe is not you best source for either schedules or pricing. It is a travel agency and not a train company. I don't have a lot of experience with British rail but general experience is that trains rarely if ever fill up so advance reservations are rarely needed. However, British rail is fairly expensive because of vast privatization and pricing increases substantial the closer you are to your travel date. So, if you can arrange it, it is best to buy as early as possible for the best fares.
I doubt if a rail pass would make any economic sense.
As I understand it, British trains don't, and can't, sell out. You can always walk into the station and buy a ticket, and if they sell more tickets than they have seats, some people will stand or sit on the floor.
Checking fares at nationalrail.co.uk, it looks like an off-peak round-trip (going and coming back on the same day, traveling on any train except the very first one in the morning) will set you back all of GBP 16.90. If you buy advance tickets for specific trains, you can get that down to GBP 10.00. This is one trip where it makes perfect sense to wait until you get there to buy your tickets.
ETA: And you probably won't have to stand. I'm not familiar with that specific train, but they usually match the capacity with the demand well enough so that everyone gets a seat. I've been on a few trains where a few people have had to sit on the floor in the vestibule at the end of the car (once I was one of them). The only time I've ever seen a significant number of people have to stand was when the train before the one I was on had been cancelled.
A midweek morning train to Dunkeld being so full you can't get on it - or even can't get a seat - is very unlikely IMO.
Booking is in no way required, it merely allows you to guarantee a seat (and often secure a cheaper ticket). As mentioned, one can always buy a walk up ticket on the day and stand if needs be,
Thank you all for sharing your knowledge and advice. Very helpful and timely!
Either get your ticket the day of the trip, or do it the day you arrive in Edinburgh. It reminds me of when I lived in Crystal Lake IL and we would take the train to Chicago--we would not buy in advance. I think that this is similar. Maybe Uncle Gus will respond. You might get the ticket a wee bit cheaper, but sometimes flexibility is worth the cash.
Good idea to do it the day of arrival. Thx.
Actually, buying the tickets on the day of your arrival almost certainly is not worth your trouble. Suppose you arrived in Edinburgh today. The earliest trip to Dunkeld & Birnham that would save you any money at all over the walk-up fare would be on Monday April 11. You'd save a whopping 10 pence (paying 16.80 versus 16.90 for the round trip) AND you'd be locked into taking specific trains, so you'd lose all your flexibility in case of bad weather, etc.
For this particular route, you can walk right into the station, buy a ticket for 16.90, and take whatever trains you want (the only exception being the one that leaves at 6:30 in the morning). Really truly. If you value flexibility at all (and it sounds like you do), there's no reason not to do it that way.
No reason to not buy the ticket on arrival. The "walk-up" tickets can be dated for the date of travel. You just have to hold on to them, and take any train covered by that ticket.
This is great! I will love not having to bother with it on arrival and yet know the trip I'm looking forward to isn't far off from happening! Flexibility is my biggest need within reason. Oh, and I'd never appreciate anything I saw at 6:30 AM!
Oops, I meant after arrival.