How to get cheaper rail tickets in the UK (without booking billions of years in advance)

The price of UK rail travel has undoubtedly gone up over the past 2 years. What used to be a cheap trip is now double the price for a lot of people. This article explores some ways you can buy cheaper tickets, whether you’re a native or coming to the UK from abroad.

Many people suggest “oh, you have to book in advance to get the cheap tickets” but this isn’t helpful for many people. There are three issues with this:

First, if you try and book in advance, you might think you’ll definitely get the cheaper tickets. But let’s say you booked three or four months in advance. The cheap tickets won’t show up because they haven’t been released yet! How ridiculous is that? Nowadays, they don’t automatically make the cheapest tickets available for all advance customers, there’s actually a narrow window of opportunity, so you might be getting penalized for buying tickets too far in advance!

Second, those advance tickets often sell out quickly (especially to regular travellers who snap them up the day they’re released which is exactly 9 weeks in advance of the travel date).

Third, many people don’t plan their travel that far ahead of time. A few years ago, you could get a one-month advance ticket or a two-week advance ticket and get decent prices compared to an anytime single or day return. There was even a three-day advance ticket once upon a time! Now? The whole system is so broken it’s insane.

So whether you’re a planner or you live life by the seat of your pants, you’re probably getting ripped off for the cost of your UK train tickets. But there are still things you can do to reduce your train ticket costs for journeys within Britain:

Check what railcards you are entitled to buy

This is absolutely the first and most important step in saving money on a train ticket. Unless you are travelling alone and aged 30-60, there’s probably a railcard that will net you about 1/3 off your travel. You usually pay about £30 for the year (or £70 for three years) and the savings can mean this pays for itself after just one long-distance or big family rail journey!

Instead of family tickets, senior tickets, and other discounts at the point-of-sale of the tickets, train tickets in the UK don’t work like that (why would they? That would make sense, and nothing about British train travel makes sense, as the rest of this article will show). Instead, you need to buy an advance railcard and then book your tickets with it. Be sure to have the railcard with you when you travel or you have to pay full price (so keep the tickets with the railcard if possible and take the lot for your journey).

The railcard options are:

16-17 Saver Railcard (gets you 50% off travel if you’re the right age)

16-25 Railcard (gets you 1/3 off off-peak travel when you’re this age)

25-30 Railcard (same as 16-25 railcard; I don’t know why the two are not just combined into a 16-30 card to be honest)

Disabled person’s railcard (1/3 off peak AND off-peak travel for you and a carer/friend)

Family and Friends Railcard (great for group bookings, this gets you 1/3 off for up to 4 adults and 60% off for up to 4 children). You only need ONE family and friends railcard for your booking, not one per person.

Network Railcard (perfect if you live in the South East, this covers 16 of the home counties and London. You get 1/3 off for up to 4 adults and 4 children). However, if you can get the family and friends railcard, the discount is better than the network railcard, and the family and friends one covers the whole of Britain. Again, you only need ONE Network Railcard for your booking, not one per person.

Senior Railcard (1/3 off for the over 60s)

Two together railcard (1/3 off for you and one other person) This card has no age restrictions or other requirements so anyone can get this card as long as you’re travelling on the train with someone else.

Veteran’s Railcard (discount and terms unclear). This card is for anyone who has served at least 1 day in the UK forces (including territorial/reserves) or anyone in the merchant navy who has seen active duty on UK operations.

With so many cards to choose from, there is probably one that can get your ticket price down.

What if you can’t get a UK railcard?

If you aren’t eligible to get a UK railcard, look into whether you can get an Interrail or Eurail pass if you’re coming from another country (or if you have a foreign passport). If you’re doing a lot of traveling in a short amount of time, this could save you hundreds compared to the cost of individual tickets. The Interrail pass is for Europeans. The Eurail pass is mainly for Americans.

The terms and conditions are very specific to your individual situation so read all the info thoroughly. You may still need to pre-book tickets at the train station (don’t pre-book via Trainline or anywhere else online if you have an Interrail/Eurail pass as it won’t work properly and you may end up paying full price for the tickets which puts you back to square one).

With or without a railcard, another good way to reduce the cost of your ticket is to split the journey (ideally on the same train).

What is journey splitting?

Due to ticket pricing algorithms, it is often more expensive to buy a ticket from a main city to another main city (or tourist destination). There might be another train station right next to your usual one where prices are cheaper. For example, if you’re travelling from Stoke on Trent to Derby, it could be cheaper to get a ticket from Stoke to Uttoxeter, then Uttoxeter to Derby. As long as the two tickets together cover your full journey on the train, this is fully legal and allowed.

There are sites that can help you find the best price for splitting your journey, otherwise, you can “overbook” your ticket.

What is overbooking?

Overbooking is booking a ticket for more stops than you actually wanted to travel to. Bizarrely, it can sometimes be cheaper than a shorter journey. This works best with day tickets or day returns due to the way ticketing works.

Say you wanted to go from York to Leeds. The trainline goes Nether Poppleton, York, Leeds, Bradford (I’m simplifying the stops here). It could be cheaper for you to get a ticket from Nether Poppleton to Leeds, or from York to Bradford, or from Nether Poppleton to Bradford. Put all of these into your train ticket booking site (such as National Rail Enquiries) to find the cheapest ticket, then get on/off at your usual stops. So you could buy a ticket that starts at Nether Poppleton, but still get on the train at York. As long as your ticket is valid for the whole journey, this is allowed.

Does this work with ticket barriers?

I have never had a problem using a ticket at ticket barriers but it depends on the ticket type and how rigid your journey times are.

With an anytime single or day return, if you’re on a train with a long stop, e.g. York to Manchester, and you get off at Leeds to grab a McDonald’s then get back on the train for the rest of your journey, you would need to go through the ticket barriers to get to McDonald’s. The day ticket (anytime single) or day return would allow you to do this. The same would apply to an over-booked ticket, for the same reason. The ticket barrier doesn’t know why you got off the train, but it should know that the ticket is valid.

Instead of being classed as an “anytime single” or “day return”, some tickets are classed as a “this journey only ticket”. These might not register correctly at the barriers for a different station to the ones where the journey begins and ends, so trying to get on at a later station can be a little more risky, but a reasonable ticket guard would check your ticket, see it’s valid for the train at the platform, and let you get on.

Avoid London if possible

Many tickets are more expensive if they include “London Terminals” (the big train stations in London). This includes travel via King’s Cross, Marylebone, St. Pancras, Waterloo, etc. If you can organize your journey avoiding these stations, you can probably bring the price down significantly.

For example, let’s say you’re travelling from Newcastle (Upon Tyne) to Bristol Temple Mead. Instead of going Newcastle to London on one train then changing at London to get to Bristol, you could specify a different route on your ticket booking to avoid London. So you could travel Newcastle to Birmingham New Street then Birmingham New Street to Bristol Temple Mead and it would work out cheaper (for this specific journey, this route is also quicker, and there’s usually a direct Newcastle-Bristol train that you could travel on, depending on the time of day you were travelling).

Some tickets even say, “avoiding London terminals” on them. If yours says this, you have got a cheaper ticket that hasn’t had the “London surcharge” applied to it.

Nice ideas, but what if you’re travelling TO London?

If you are trying to travel to London, you will probably be looking at the most expensive train tickets in the UK. No one knows why. The pricing of tickets to or from London doesn’t make any sense when you think about rules of “economies of scale” or “supply and demand” but there we go.

Travelling to or from London, you have two options to reduce your ticket cost, depending on where you live and whether you drive (or can get a bus) or not.

Your first option is to drive/bus to the edge of London, park at a train station such as Luton/Leagrave, Slough, Croydon etc then get just your TfL ticket for the overground/underground to reach your final destination.

The other option is, you could book your main train ticket to the edge of one of the TfL zones (the areas of London are broken up into zones and underground/overground tickets are priced according to which zones you’re going to) then use your debit card or oyster card to finish the journey. Paying separately like this can work out cheaper for some people, it depends on where you’re trying to go and what the cost for the full ticket is.

Overall though, get one of the railcards mentioned above to cover your main journey, then prepare to still bend over and be screwed a bit by the London train ticket prices.

Do also consider alternatives to the train (such as the bus) in areas of London where this is feasable. Some areas, especially at peak hours, the bus takes longer than just walking due to traffic, but other areas, such as Twickenham or Southwark, the bus is a reasonable and cheap alternative. I actually had a decently fast bus ride from Covent Garden to Trafalgar Square during the middle of the day last time I was in London, though, so don’t rule this out even in Zone 1!

Will these methods add to my journey time?

Not if you were travelling that way anyway. If you were going into London, at some point you would have to change from a mainline train to an underground/overground train anyway, so you might as well do it in the cheapest possible way.

The TfL network has clear and transparent fixed prices for the different zones whereas the mainline (longer distance) trains tend not to have transparent prices–and that’s where you want to avoid getting ripped off. In my own experience the main thing that adds to journey time is transfers, so if there’s a lot of walking such as between a train station and an underground station, or from a station to a bus stop, then a wait for the next mode of transport, it can take ages.

But if you’re splitting a ticket and staying on the same train, or getting off the mainline one stop early and getting the underground, you shouldn’t have a noticeable difference in journey times. Use a journey planner to help you decide (Google’s one can be shockingly inaccurate), and make sure to include all the places you want to stop/change so you can get a realistic timing.

Conclusion:

There is a lot you can do to reduce the price of a train journey in the UK. It seems counter-intuitive to pay £30 extra for a railcard, but if it saves you £100 on a £300 booking, it’s absolutely worth it!

If you have any other (legal) methods to get train costs down, let me know in the comments.

Author: Torie Adams

I am a thirtysomething travel writer, lifestyle blogger, photographer, and USA Today bestselling author in Ireland, aka Mama Adventure. As a writer, I have written articles that are published in Offbeat Bride and on Buzzfeed, and as a photographer, I have taken photographs that are published in local and national news outlets in the UK. I have a blog at www.mamaadventure.com Twitter: @mamaadventurez

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