Trains in the UK: how to save money on tickets

rail ticket and money sterling pound

I still remember the day I arrived to live in England for the first time in 2009. I had to go to Plymouth, and I hadn’t thought to look for information. I arrived at Gatwick, intending to go by train to the other side of the island, to Devon. I went to the machine that sold the tickets and… voila! I had to pay £72 for a one-way ticket. So I learned that before using the public transport in Britain, it’s important to book in advance online.

Here, I’ll give you some tips on how to save a few pounds if you need to use the train, whether frequently or occasionally.

1. Booking train tickets in advance

This may seem obvious, but many people don’t remember to. Specifically, it’s recommended to book a train ticket 12 weeks in advance of the planned date. This is almost three months, but the price reduction is spectacular. For example, if you go to the website TheTrainLine.com to book an off-peak train from Bristol to London, it’s £31 for a one-way ticket, while ‘anytime’ tickets on the ticket machine will set you back £96 or more. Another example: a London-Manchester trip for the same day costs more than £125, while if you book it online in advance you could buy it for £25. If you are flexible on dates, you can provide the website with your email address so that you will be notified when the cheapest tickets for the route you’re interested in come up.

2. Don’t buy train tickets on the first website you check

The most popular site for booking train tickets is TheTrainLine.com, but once you have found the route and schedule that suits you best, go to EastCoast.co.uk. The name makes it sound as if it’s only for trains of that area, but you can purchase tickets for any other route in the UK. In addition you will save the management fee and/or the credit card fee (between £2 and £4).

3. Book before, or book very late.

Let’s say that you forgot to book 12 weeks in advance, or that you need to go tomorrow for whatever reason to another city by train. Well, on some websites you can book cheaper the night before the trip and get 50% off. Even for same-day tickets it’s better to book (through a phone app) while you are heading to the station than buy tickets there, +as you’ll still get a better price.

4. Split-ticketing. Don’t buy one ticket, buy two.

Speaking of saving money with bookings made well in advance, there is another trick: divide the route into two tickets. This is easier than it might seem. Let’s say that we want to book a ticket from London to Edinburgh. Instead of booking a direct ticket, we would buy two: one from London to York, and another ticket from York to Edinburgh. Just check the schedule to make sure it’s the same train and bring both tickets. It’s that simple, and you don’t even have to get off the train. This also works for short distances. For example, a ticket from London to Gatwick Airport is almost £30, but if you split it and buy another ticket for a station in between (example: London-Croydon + Croydon-Gatwick), it can cost you less than £10 for the same train at the same time. To check where trains stop: www.transportdirect.info

There is a fairly new website that helps break the journey in two tickets, so you don’t have to do it yourself. You can check it out at: www.splitticketing.com

5. Season ticket.

There aren’t many solutions for those who have season tickets for a very common route, but there are things you can do in specific circumstances to optimize your expenses. In the event that you know for sure that for a few weeks you won’t be doing the typical route, you can buy a shorter ‘season ticket’, so you will not have paid for something you’re not using. Instead of buying one six-month season ticket, you could buy two shorter season tickets in a five-month period if you’re away on holiday for one month in between… It’s money you’re saving in the long run.

You can also check the conditions for a pack of 5, 10 or 20 tickets with your regular train company. Sometimes it’s cheaper than buying a full season ticket if you are not going to travel every day. Don’t forget to check the conditions – sometimes companies offer discounts of more than 10% depending on the dates, station, etc.

And finally, if you need to buy a season ticket, it’s better to do it before the Christmas price increase. Even if you have a season ticket that expires in January, don’t wait until the new year with its consequent rise in prices. Get a new one in December and avoid paying that 2%, 3% or 4% increase.

6. If there is a delay, claim your money

UK law says that the company must return 20% of the ticket price if the train is delayed more than one hour. So there you go: if you arrive late, go to the ticket office and get your money. Remember that with more than five hour-long delays, you get a free ticket. Moreover, some companies (check the conditions on their websites) give you 50% of the ticket price back if the train is delayed for more than 30 minutes, or all your money back for delays of more than an hour.

7. Travel in a group.

Summer is here, or you have a weekend off and you want to go sightseeing or have a city break somewhere on the island. If you go with more people, look for group discounts. The most common discounts are from more than three people, but it depends on the company, some offer very large discounts from two adults. A site with promotions: www.daysoutguide.co.uk/train-tickets/group-save

8. A railcard if you’re under 25.

A railcard is very cheap if you’re under 25, because it only costs £30 a year, or £70 for three years. If you’re older, there are still some cheap alternatives: a railcard for two people travelling together (£30 a year), a family railcard if you have children and they travel with you (£30 a year), and other railcards for retirees or people with disabilities.

Update 24/07/14

If you live in London or nearby (SouthEast) there is the Network Railcard for £30 a year that offers a 34% discount on all train tickets, with no age restriction. It includes the entire London area, as far as cities like Exeter, Weymouth, Brighton, Hastings, Canterbury, Cambridge, Bedford and Northampton.

BritRail Pass

For the remaining areas, even though the network is not as extensive as in London, there are also passes or RailCard with discounts. However, it’s not cheap at all.

9. Sometimes buying return tickets is not the cheapest option.

In most cases the train and transport in general companies offer a better price if you book a return ticket. But it’s not always the case. So, before making the payment, invest a few minutes checking the routes separately, as you may be surprised by the final price. The site redspottedhanky.com has a search function that tells you when is it cheaper.

10. If you only want to travel, check for offers.

So far, we have talked about planned trips, frequent routes, etc. But if you don’t care about all of that and you just want to travel by train using a special offer that may appear at any time, you can find all the offers, promotions and discounts from different companies across the UK on this site: www.moneysavingexpert.com/deals/cheap-coach-train-ticket-deals

UPDATE 14/1/2014

I’d like to remind you that if for any reason you need to buy the ticket in the station, don’t buy it at the ticket machines. These offer more expensive prices, while in the ticket office the ticket agents are required by law to offer you the best rate.

I hope this helps save you some money!

Websites to buy train tickets in the UK:

If you’re interested, watch this video published by The Guardian:

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