Much like Pizza Express, British trains are not a thing you pay full price for. Be it a railcard, flash-deals or a sneaky advance ticket, there’s always a way to find cheap train tickets.
Notoriously expensive and usually late to boot, our trains are not our strong point, except in their coverage–which is largely impressive. Assuming you want to make the most of it and don’t have a small fortune, there are ways to beat the system and bring the ticket prices down. Often by a good chunk in fact, especially if you combine these tricks. The main savings come down to three main points: when you buy your ticket, who you buy it from and when you travel. Everything else is going to have minimal effect, but every little helps, right?
Good things to know:
- Returns are often the same price as an on-the-day single, so it’s often worth getting it just in case.
- Delay-repay schemes are easy and worthwhile. Depending on the train line you’re using, refunds can be made for any journey more than 30 minutes late.
- Cities with multiple stations (like London, Manchester or Liverpool) can have different fares depending on which you head to. Try to mix and match and see what works.
1. Railcards: An Easy 1/3 Off
With a railcard available for almost everyone, these are a surefire way to cut down on your costs.
Offering 1/3 off travel with few restrictions, you can make back your £30.00 in a couple of mid-length journeys. Lasting a year, they come in paper or digital forms (except the 26-30 which is digital-only) and are pretty easy to sign up for. Choose from the 18-25, the 26-30, military, senior, two-together, friends and family as well as regional options. For more details, check out our full guide to the cards and how to get them.
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- They’re available digitally so you only need your phone on you—which is great if you already get your tickets through apps as well.
- You can register some railcards to your Oyster card to save on London transport too—including the 18-25 one
- Did we mention you save 1/3 on almost every journey?
- There are some restrictions. For example traveling before 9.30am in some regions is prohibited.
- The so-called ‘Millenial Railcard’ (the 26-30 Card) is currently only available digitally, so you need to have a (charged) smartphone to use it.
- They cannot be used for discounts when you purchase tickets on the train, unless your boarding station has no purchasing options.
2. Off Peak and Advance Tickets: Planning Pays Off
While it may seem obvious to Brits, getting off-peak and advance tickets is an easy way to find cheap train tickets, which isn’t possible in a surprising number of countries.
Available up to three months in advance (and occasionally six months), UK train ticket prices can vary wildly. For example, a direct, two-hour train from London to Manchester costs £88.00 if you buy your ticket on the day. If you book early, it can come down to £24.00 for an advance. That’s without a railcard, which would lower it to just over £15.00!). While you do need to know what you’re doing in advance, even a little can help. As a specific number of advance tickets are released for each journey, they remain until they sell out, rather than being time-limited. That means if you’re lucky, you can still get advance tickets the day before. But it’s unlikely on popular routes, or busy days like Fridays for example.
Designed to stagger travel and make the commuting times less hectic, you’ll find travelling off-peak can be much cheaper. Offpeak travel times usually start at 9.30am and finish at about 4.30pm. That can differ depending on the train line and location. London is the most limited of course, but in most areas the evening restrictions don’t apply. Weekends are always considered offpeak, which is a great bonus. One place this can make a real difference is on off-peak return tickets, but be sure to check your time restrictions either online or with a train guard/station assistant.
- You have the best chance of getting a reserved seat of your choice when you book in advance.
- Sometimes advance first-class tickets can be cheaper than standard ones (or the same price) so you can travel in style!
- Advance tickets can be a quarter of the on-the-day price.
- OffPeak Tickets are cheaper—it’s as simple as that!
- Advance tickets are almost always time-specific, so if you miss your specified train you will have to buy a whole new ticket at on-the-day prices.
- You cannot buy advance open-return tickets, so you would have to buy a specific ticket for the journey there and one for the journey back.
- Advance tickets aren’t available on all trains, so you may have to work around the available tickets—for example commuting times often don’t have them.
- OffPeak tickets have time restrictions—be sure to check when you can travel if using a return
3. Fare Splitting: Breaking it Down
Made much easier with the rise of ticket apps and websites, fare splitting involves breaking a journey into different legs to get cheaper individual tickets.
For example, a Saturday morning direct train from Sheffield to Oxford costs just over £58.00 (with a rail card, both for a single or an open return). But using a fare splitting app, we were able to reduce it to £32.00, by dividing it into four shorter journeys, as shown above.
While some journey options require a change, you can also do this on a direct train and remain onboard the whole time. The only thing that changes is your seat reservation (and these often stay in the same carriage, as close as they can manage). Having tried and tested it, train guards seem familiar with the practice and don’t mind. Just remember to pick up your tickets before you board, as they aren’t available as digital tickets yet. Popular apps include TrainSplit and TrainPal (both tried and tested for you). Neither have any booking fees and have worked perfectly so far. Be sure to check the tickets match up however, as one option on a recent search had a missing link (though that’s very unusual).
- Saves around 35% on your fares (according to the figures of TrainPal).
- You can usually remain onboard the same train, so it makes very little actual difference to your journey
- The apps don’t charge booking fees so you’re just paying for the tickets—they make their money on ads.
- The best savings are usually on broken-up journeys, although that’s not always the case.
- You have to pick up your tickets in person and there are often quite a few, so you can easily misplace or lose them if you’re not careful.
- They only work for specific trains, so you can’t get an open return, for example.
4. Compare Apps: Window Shopping
While it won’t save you loads, you might be surprised at the difference a little browsing can do.
Partly due to ticket availability, it’s often the case that different apps will have different tickets. There are some which are just a platform, like RedSpottedHanky.com and The Trainline. These charge booking fees, though this varies depending on the journey, and is less common when booking on-the-day tickets. Alternatively, the more ‘official’ apps like National Rail or specific train company apps like East Midlands Trains or Northern Rail don’t add fees. These work across all train networks as normal.
Having a couple downloaded and signed into means you can switch between and compare. We’ve often found advance tickets on one app which aren’t available on another (especially National Rail for some reason). Bonuses include loyalty schemes (Virgin has one) and delay-repay schemes. Different companies have different rules, often basing refund on the delay time/total cancellation. East Midlands is a personal favourite as their 30-minute delay-repay system is done online and takes a few minutes. Often you’ll get the full ticket price back.
- You can save a few pounds for an extra minute or two of checking
- Takes up space on your phone and doesn’t always work
5. Promotions: Go on a Day Trip
Often quite specific but great if you don’t have any set ideas for a daytrip, these pop-up deals can be great savers.
Usually offered by the rail companies themselves rather than national promotions, you can often bag cheap tickets to places like London, Edinburgh, Brighton or Manchester, although they come with restrictions. Virgin’s limited-time ‘Seat Sales’ are pretty good (they have a newsletter if you want to be kept in the loop). They also offer family discounts—as do many companies over school holidays or weekends. Check out your local train provider’s website, as well as posters at your nearest station—they’re usually pretty well advertised.
- You can explore new parts of the UK you hadn’t previously considered
- The savings can be substantial if you meet the criteria
- Often very specific and short lasting deals—not great if you need to be in a specific place at a specific time (unless you’re lucky)
Alternatives: Try a Coach
If you’ve pulled out all the stops and you still can’t find cheap train tickets, the motorways are a great alternative. The two main companies are National Express and Megabus, the latter famous for it’s one-pound fares across the country. While they’re unsurprisingly limited, you can travel pretty much across the country with both firms for a fiver if you book ahead. The buses are pretty decent too. Most have been refurbished and now offer wifi, power points and comfy chairs. This is less common on National Express, as they have more buses.
- Coaches give you a guaranteed seat for the journey
- The fares are often far cheaper on long-distance journeys
- The meeting points aren’t always in central areas
- They obviously take much longer than trains