If you find the UK train system overly complicated, don’t worry – you’re not the only one. Train travel in the UK is a maze of fares, offers and T&Cs, but these 10 simple tips will help you to fight through the information to find the best-value fares.
1. Get ahead of the pack
Booking ahead is the golden rule so don’t hang about to book your tickets if you know you’re going somewhere. The cheapest fares are released about 10-12 weeks ahead of travel. eastcoast.co.uk and takethetrain.co.uk don’t charge any booking fees or credit/debit card fees while redspottedhanky.com only charges a booking fee. thetrainline.com, raileasy.co.uk and mytrainticket.co.uk do have fees but it can still be worth checking for cheap tickets.
National Rail provides useful information such as its future travel chart which tells you when you can buy tickets in advance. Also, don’t assume all advance tickets have gone at the last minute – check websites even the day before or on the day. The National Rail website also links to all the major train companies from one page.
2. Be in the know
Knowledge is power. Sign up to things like thetrainline’s Ticket Alert emails which tell you when the cheapest tickets for your journey become available. They also have a Best Fare Finder tool which ensures you’re getting the best-value tickets for that particular trip. Other deal finders include Virgin Trains’ farefinder with bargains like £15 Birmingham-London return.
3. Use your smartphone
Your smartphone is packed with free money-saving apps including some train ones. thetrainline.com’s free mobile app lets you find and buy the cheapest tickets for specific journeys. You can also save time by collecting them from a ticket machine instead of queuing at the ticket office. National Rail has a free information app to let you plan journeys while CrossCountry trains’ app lets users check train times, search for fares and download digital tickets.
4. Remember, singles can be cheaper
It may not seem logical but 2 single tickets sometimes work out cheaper than a return fare. By the same token, if you only need a single fare, it’s sometimes cheaper to book a return and simply not use the second ticket. It’s easy enough to figure out on most websites as they show both single and return fares.
Also, first-class fares often have great deals and with the extra comfort and often complimentary tea, coffee and even snacks, the price can make it excellent value.
5. Get a railcard
If you’re eligible, a railcard can be a great money saver. The Family & Friends Railcard costs just £28 for a year and gives a third off adult fares and 60% of child fares when travelling with a child aged 5-15. Up to 4 adults and 4 children can travel on the same railcard, 2 adults can be named on it and you don’t all have to be related. There’s more information on the railcard.co.uk website.
There are also other railcards you can get if you’re 16-25, senior or disabled, and there’s Network Railcard for trips to and around London. Not all journeys are eligible for railcards, especially some peak journeys, so check before you travel.
6. Travel slower
If you’re not in a rush, slower journeys often give massive savings. Some routes are operated by several train companies so the different options are worth checking out. Obviously if you’re only saving a few pennies, it’s not a tempting alternative, especially if you’re travelling with young children and/or lots of luggage. But the difference can be enormous if you’re prepared to go around the houses, especially if you are booking last-minute when the cheaper fares have gone.
7. Use your Tesco clubcard
If you collect Clubcard points, they can be brilliant for cheaper train travel and if you spend your Clubcard vouchers in the Tesco Clubcard Rewards brochure, the value can be tripled or even quadrupled – so your £10 voucher is worth £30 or £40.
You can exchange Clubcard points on the redspottedhanky.com website for some real bargains. It has tickets for all UK journeys and operators without any booking or card fees. You could save up to 51% on tickets bought on the day and you can redeem and earn loyalty points (1 point for each pound spent).
8. Use Megatrain
Megatrain offers single journeys from £1 in England and Scotland. Glasgow to Preston, Birmingham to Carlisle and London to Bath are some of the routes on offer. The website is operated by Stagecoach that also own East Midlands Train, South West Train and who part-own Virgin Trains.
The difference is that fares are released just 45 days before, not the usual 10-12 weeks and even after the £1 fares have gone, there are still some excellent bargains with tickets from £3 and just a 50p booking fee.
9. Split the tickets
Slightly more complicated but one of the most effective tricks is to buy tickets for different segments of your journey. You’re still on the same train e.g. Manchester to Edinburgh via York but if you buy London to York as one ticket and York to Edinburgh as the second portion, the savings can be great – as long as the train stops at the station where you’re ‘splitting’ your journey.
Common routes include Leeds to Newcastle, split at York, Doncaster to Southampton split at London and Norwich to Birmingham split at Peterborough. However, if you’re changing trains and you’re delayed so that you’re now in peak time, the second off-peak ticket won’t be valid.
10. Eurostar train tricks
With Eurostar trains leaving from London and Kent, you can get a bargain day trip or short break to France or Belgium. As with UK trains, advance booking is essential – with Eurostar, it’s about 4-6 weeks to get the rock-bottom fares.
Unlike UK trains, a return fare is almost always the cheaper way rather than 2 one-ways. Returning after 7pm also results in significant savings. You can also redeem Tesco Clubcard vouchers against Eurostar deals e.g. £25 Clubcard vouchers for a Standard Class Return Leisure Seat.