The UK rail system is far from ideal: it’s the most expensive in Europe and doesn’t exactly have the performance record to back it up—so UK railcards are a vital accessory for any savvy traveller.
Offering 1/3 off most tickets, UK railcards have made regular travel possible for millions, especially with increasing fares and stagnant wages. Between the different types, everyone can find a card to suit them: whether you swing it by age group, by region or by having a partner in crime, you can get your hands on one of the £30 cards. Since some of them even cover the Underground it’s easy to earn back the price of the card over a year, or even a few journeys if you’re traveling further afield.
What are the benefits?
- 1/3 off most rail fares when booked in advance (even if it’s at the station before you hop onto your train).
- Bonus discounts for events and attractions.
- Some cards an be linked to your registered Oyster Card for savings on Underground travel.
- A smug sense of satisfaction as you watch prices drop from horrifying to manageable each time you book!
Who are railcards for?
- People intending to travel by train on multiple occasions and are able to book in advance.
- Railcards come in the following categories: 16-25, Senior, Two Together, Disabled Persons, Military, Family & Friends, and Regional.
- They are perfect if you are planning to explore the UK a little, or specific areas of the UK a lot.
- They can be bought by UK citizens or visitors—although online orders require a UK address.
- The main aim is to make travel more affordable for groups who are expected to be on lower incomes (16-25 or Senior for example), as an incentive to travel by train (Two Together) or as a sign of appreciation (armed forces).
How to get one
Railcards can be purchased or renewed either in person, online, over the phone or digitally using a smartphone app (for some options). If you are visiting the UK and do not have an address here, you must purchase it in person, as online orders require an address. Alternatively, if you have a student bank account with Santander you can have one for free!
When purchased at the desk, you simply need ID (passport, birth certificate, national identity card or UK driving license [full or provisional]), a passport-sized photo and either cash or a credit or debit card. For renewal, you simply take your old railcard and accompanying photo card (if it’s a paper one)—there is no need for ID unless you are renewing an online card at the desk. For foreign visitors, you can purchase your card at Gatwick Airport, Stansted Airport rail stations, Luton Airport Parkway and Manchester Airport—but NOT at London Heathrow Airport. And at all regular train stations of course.
When purchased online, you will need your ID (same as above) a digital passport-style photo saved to your device and a debit or credit card to make payment. For online orders only, railcards can be issued in one of two ways: 1) you can choose a physical plastic card, or 2) a digital railcard. The plastic one is posted out to you and can take a few days to arrive. This can be renewed online or in person at a desk when needed. The digital railcard will be issued immediately and can be stored on up to two devices. If you do not have the device with you or if it is out of battery however, you will be asked to pay the full fare or a penalty. This can be renewed online using your devices and is available immediately.
When purchased over the phone, you can speak a telesales adviser, but you will still be required to submit a photograph via email.
Replacing your card
Online railcards can be replaced easily online, whereas for a paper card you must present the receipt portion of your original application form to a desk. Both processes incur a charge of £10.00.
Rules to remember
- Whatever you do, wherever you go, you cannot forget the golden rule of railcards: ALWAYS have it with you. There is no forgiveness, if you don’t present your railcard along with your ticket, you will be required to pay the full on-the-day fare (not even just the difference) or a penalty fare.
- If you do forget your card, you can make one claim a year for a refund by contacting the train company.
- Railcards cannot be used to purchase tickets on the train, you must purchase them in advance online, or at the station office/ticket machine. This can be minutes before your journey though, so it is still very convenient. The only exception is if you are at a station that has no ticket-buying facilities, or if they are closed.
UK railcards: which one suits you
Depending on where you intend to travel and who with, there might be a railcard that suits you best. For example, if you’re travelling with a friend in the UK, it would be cheaper to pay £15 each and get a Two Together railcard than each purchase a 16-25 card. It may also be worth considering which areas you will be travelling in, as one of the localised cards might be more worthwhile. Here are the different options you can choose from!
16-25 Railcard: For the young’uns | £30.00
The most popular of the railcards, the 16-25 card is a staple of most students and young professionals as they make trips home for the holidays or travel to see friends. The card offers 1/3 off Standard Anytime, Advance, First Class Advance and off-peak fares. If you are in the UK for three years, it would be worth buying the three-year card as it saves you £20.00 against three individual cards. If you time it right, you can purchase a three-year card the day before your 24th birthday, meaning it would run out the day before your 27th birthday—giving you a bonus two years of discounts! Mature students are also eligible to apply for this card, you simply need to prove that you are in full-time education, and to complete an additional form. These applications can be made online or in person, but the online process may take a little longer for the digital railcard as each application is checked manually. Underground use and time restrictions:
- Can be linked to your Oyster Card, for discounts on off-peak PAYG and daily price cap fares as well as off-peak travel cards for zones 1-6 (minimum fare of £8).
- Peak morning restrictions apply to all but Advance fares: A minimum fare of £12 applies on all journeys made between 4am and 10am Monday to Friday unless you book an Advance ticket.
26-30 Railcard: For the not-quite-so-young’uns | £30
After a controversial 10,000-card trial which led to a millenial version of the Hunger Games on the day of release, the government have finally released a 26-30 railcard. Offering the same discounts as the younger one, it’s more of an extension than a new card, but one that pretty much everyone under 30 is glad exists. The card is only available as a digital card on the railcard app. This means it’s pretty quick to set up, but it does require a smart phone, a debit card and the ability to remember not to let the phone die on long journeys.
- Note: Some train ticket apps don’t recognise this new card, but you’re allowed to book and use tickets selecting the 18-25 option.
Network Railcard: Explore London and the South East | £30.00
This is the perfect card if you’re planning to stick to London and the South East and if you are travelling with others. One card can be used to purchase discounted tickets for the named traveller and up to three additional adults if all are making the same journey. If there are children travelling with you, discounts of up to 60% can be applied to their tickets. These railcards can be purchased by foreign travellers in advance and posted abroad, or purchased at the station. Underground use and time restrictions:
- This card cannot be used for journeys that are only on the Underground, but it can be used for cross-London journeys, which require use of the Underground.
- Peak morning restrictions apply: it is not valid on travel between 4am and 10am Monday to Friday.
Two Together: For partners in love, life or just travel | £30.00
This card is perfect if you have someone to travel with as it offers 1/3 off Standard and First Class Anytime, Off-Peak and Advanced fares. The two people must be named, so the card is not transferable—but it is only £30.00 between two, so it is even easier to earn back your money. Both travellers need to be at least 16 years old. Underground use and time restrictions:
- Can be used on Off-Peak Day travel card for zones 1-6 (subject to minimum fare of £8.00).
- Peak morning restrictions apply: it is not valid on travel between 4am and 9.30am Monday to Friday.
Family & Friends Railcard: Group adventures | £30.00
Perfect for holidays and day trips, this card covers up to four adults travelling with up to four children—you don’t need to all be together, and you don’t need to be related! The card offers 1/3 off for adults and 60% off for kids on most rail fares, and only costs £30. The card requires two named travellers, and for an eligible journey it requires at least one named traveller and at least one accompanying child aged between 5-15. Under fives travel for free, and since this card is so flexible you can really make it stretch. Underground use and time restrictions:
- Can be used for discounts on Off-Peak Day travel cards for zones 1-6 (minimum fare of £8).
- Can be used for discounts on Anytime Day travel cards for zones 1-6 when bought as part of ticket to London from outside the London zones area (subject to minimum fare of £17.50).
- Peak morning restrictions apply in London and the South East. Check local peak times as they do differ.
Disabled Persons Railcard: For impaired travellers | £30.00
These cards are available to anyone who has a disability that makes travelling by train difficult. You can find a list of the eligibility criteria here as well as the evidence required for an application. The card provides 1/3 off Standard and First Class Anytime, Off-Peak and Advance fares for you and a friend travelling with you which makes it even better value. The card is also £10 cheaper than other railcards, so you will be saving money in no time. Unlike other cards, if you have a disability that prevents you from using ticket retailing facilities at the station, you can purchase tickets on the train. It is a good idea to buy a three-year railcard as you can save £6. Underground use and time restrictions:
- Can be linked to your Oyster Card.
- For discounts on Off-Peak PAYG and daily price cap fares as well as Off-Peak travel cards for zones 1-6 (minimum fare of £8).
- There are no time restrictions for this rail card.
Armed Forces Railcard: If you’re serving and protecting | £19.00
These cards are available to any serving member of the Regular Armed Forces or Volunteer Reserves as well as their spouses or partners. The card offers 1/3 off tickets for yourself as well as 60% off kids fares for up to four children. The ticket is the cheapest of the lot, costing just £19.00 a year and offers savings on Anytime, Anytime Day, Off-Peak, Off-Peak Day, Super Off-Peak, Super Off-Peak Day, Advance as well as Underground travel. Underground use and time restrictions:
- Can be used for discounts on the Off-Peak travel card, Anytime Day travel card, Oyster Off-Peak pay as you go single fares, Oyster Off-Peak Daily Price Cap fares.
- Peak Morning Restrictions Apply to all but Advance fares: For journeys made before 10am Monday to Friday, a minimum fare of £12.00 applies (except in July or August, or on public holidays).
Senior Railcards: For the not-so-young ‘uns | £30
Available to anyone over 60 years of age, this card offers 1/3 off Standard and First Class Anytime, Off Peak and Advance fares. You can purchase a 3-year railcard for £70 which saves you £20.00 against three individual yearly ones, and is easy to make back. The only thing you need to prove your eligibility is valid ID. It can be purchased online up to two weeks before your 60th birthday but not valid until the day of. To buy it in person you must be 60 years old already. Underground use and time restrictions:
- Can be linked to your Oyster Card.
- For Off-Peak pay-as-you-go daily price cap and Off-Peak pay-as-you-go single fares for journeys on National Rail, London Underground and Docklands Light Railway and Off-Peak Day travel card zones 1-6 (Subject to minimum fare of £8.00).
- Peak morning restrictions apply in the London and the South East. Check local peak times as they do differ.
Regional Railcards: For the London escapees | £5.00 – £10.00
Regional railcards are available in the following types: Cambrian, Cotswold Line, Dales, Devon & Cornwall, Esk Valley, Heart of Wales, Highland, Pembrokeshire and Valleys Senior. These all have different validity areas and some cover extra travellers or children, so if you’re planning to stay in these areas you’re in luck! The discounts vary from 1/3 to 50% and prices are mostly £10.00 but a couple are lower. Check here for more details. For more ways to save on travel: Getting Around in London Buy One Bus Journey, Get Another Free