Express ticketing that isn't

Sitting on a National Express coach from Heathrow to Gatwick, I'm pondering the failures of system design of some so-called express ticketing systems, namely the one National Express has rolled out to its coach stations. For my trip back home I'd bought a Young Persons Coach Card online for £10 in the knowledge that I'd save on my tickets (I don't recall why I didn't buy tickets at the same time, but I wish I had).

Walking into the Central Coach Station at Heathrow and seeing the queue for the ticket counter, the natural thought may be to try out one of the Express Ticket terminals that isn't in use. Thinking I could avoid the queue, I went and touched the screen to start the process. A screen of popular destinations is displayed. So far, so good.

The first hurdle is right there though. Which terminal at Gatwick am I flying out of? I dig into my bag for my iPod, checking its calendar to see if I noted it down. No mention of it - my fault for not thinking about that when I put the flight into my calendar - but it'd be nice if the system asked who I was flying with and pointed me in the right direction.

Taking a guess at the South Terminal, I then wonder what the difference is between a single and a return. Do I get any savings for buying a return? Does it just mean I can do it in one go without having to hassle with ticket machines on my return? No assistance there, so already a little frustrated, I select a return ticket.

Choosing the first coach leg was easy, I just chose one of the ones in 20 minutes or so. Does the specific coach really matter? What happens if I've not finished this process and got to the bus by that point? Can I travel on a different one instead?

Now for the pain of selecting a return journey. Prompted with a calendar for this month, I tap on the right arrow to move on to September. About 20 times, my finger hurting more each time. Frustration building significantly, I contemplate giving up, but persevere and finally manage to get the button to accept my prodding.

Selecting September 2nd, I'm presented with yet another list of coaches. Out comes the iPod again so I can check on my return flight time. After scrolling through three or four pages of early coaches I can select one in the mid afternoon that seems like it will suit (again, I wonder what happens if I can't make that coach).

Now that I've selected my ticket I'm offered two pricing options, one an "On-the-day return" ticket and the other the same but with and extra £1 added for insurance. "On-the-day return"? How's that for confusing terminology (it makes me think same-day return), when you've just told the system that you want to return on September 2nd.

Choosing the one without insurance (I'm not going to pay extra out of choice when I'm frustrated by the transaction already) I get an itinerary with a button to press to say I agree to the conditions of carriage. Tapping it, I get another button to click in the corner of the screen to confirm that I'm really happy with the conditions. Not that I had read them, but of course I agreed... I want my ticket, let me pay you already.

The second button tapped and instantly a warning notice appears telling me that I didn't enter my payment information quick enough, even though it didn't actually give me a chance to enter my payment information before telling me I was too slow. Clicking the "yes" button to try again, it gives me a chance to put my card in.

"Authorisation failed." Oh how I wanted to scream. Why do these machines not have alternative payment options so people can pay with cash if desired? Not knowing if there was an issue with my card, I went to try and get some money from the cash machine (successfully) and wandered over to queue up for the ticket desk - something I should have done from the start.

After a few minutes of queueing I was at the desk and talking with a friendly ticketing agent. She took me through where I wanted to go (the terminal question came up again, but she just chose a terminal for me), put me onto a specific coach (but told me it didn't matter which one I took), asked me if I wanted an open return or a specific service (after I asked, she told me the prices didn't differ for that extra level of flexibility) and gave me the ticket. I paid with the same card that the machine had turned down.

As she was taking me through buying a ticket I remarked that I wished the 'express' machines were this easy. She agreed, much like the London Underground ticketing guy did about the problems with Oyster cards on another visit to Heathrow earlier in the year.

I think these machines could be vastly improved upon by simply defaulting to an outbound non-specific coach for the same day and a non-specific coach for the return journey. If people want to change the dates or choose a specific coach then let them, but I suspect the majority of people using those machines are looking to travel now and don't know exactly which coach they'll want to return on. People should be warned that by choosing an open ticket they're not guaranteed a seat, but how often have you tried to travel on a service only to find out that it's full already? Maybe I've only ever travelled on frequent services but I've never come across this problem.

Surely all the system really needs to know is the destination, that you want to travel now and return at some point in the near future and whether you qualify for any discounts (OAP, child, young person's card, etc.). Keep it simple! I get really frustrated when I see technology put in place supposedly to make things easier or faster for people and all they do is make it more stressful, confusing, slower and generally much less satisfactory.