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How to save money on train travel in the UK

Budget train travel in the UK

Taking the train is one of the most relaxing ways to travel, and the UK has some spectacular train routes – travelling over historic viaducts in the Scottish Highlands, weaving through the cliffs on the Cornish coast, crossing the wild Yorkshire Moors. And if you steer clear of packed peak-time city services, they’re easier and more comfortable than travelling by car. But a lot of travellers get put off travelling by train in the UK as they think it’s too expensive and complicated. And although I can’t do anything about the baffling array of fares and train companies, after years of taking the train in Britain I’ve picked up plenty of tips on how to travel by rail without paying a fortune. So here are my top tips for train travel in the UK on a budget.

Read more: Britain by train: Five great one-week UK rail trip routes

Train views in Cornwall, England

Views from the train to St Ives, Cornwall

Choose the cheapest ticket

The fare category system in the UK looks complicated, but when you break it down there are four main types of ticket. Most expensive and most flexible are the Anytime tickets. These let you travel on any train, are a fixed price and can be bought right up to when the train departs. The cheaper option is an Advance ticket, where you have to book in advance and travel on a specific train. Then there are the Off-Peak and Super Off-Peak tickets – these are a type of advance ticket which are available outside peak times.

St Pancras train station in London

Passengers in London’s St Pancras

Avoid peak times

Train ticket prices vary throughout the day, but the most expensive times are normally when commuters are travelling to and from work. To complicate things, these peak time periods vary slightly for each train company and each route – you can find out what they are here. But in general avoid travelling between 6.30am–9.30am and 3.30pm–6.30pm if you can to keep costs down. This chart from GoEuro shows how much of a difference even a small change to your travel time can make to the cost of your tickets.

Book early…

There are a limited amount of advance tickets available at various different prices and the cheapest sell out first.  So booking early is the best way to bag a bargain. Train tickets go on sale around 12 weeks in advance of travel and this is usually when the cheapest tickets are available.  If you’re keen to get in there fast and want to find out the first day tickets for a certain date go on sale, then there’s a chart on the National Rail website which shows you the furthest dates you can book up to for each of the train companies.

You can buy advance tickets online using a credit or debit card and collect them at the station. There are lots of different booking sites, but many charge a fee (e.g. The Trainline and Red Spotted Hanky). You can avoid fees by booking directly with one of the train operators (e.g Great Western Railway or Virgin). Each train company doesn’t just sell tickets on its own routes so you can book for any journey in the UK.

You can also try the Megatrain – they do heavily discounted tickets on major routes at off-peak times. Tickets are released three months in advance and if you get in there quickly you can sometimes find fares as low as £1. And if you’re travelling on from the UK on into Europe, GoEuro lets you compare and book train fares, with details of the cheapest way to get from the UK to any destination in 12 European countries.

Trains in Switzerland

Scenic trains in Switzerland

… or at least the night before

But if you can’t book far in advance, it’s still worth booking tickets the night before rather than waiting until you get to the station on the day. There are often advance tickets still available that are cheaper than those on the day, even at busy times – for example a single journey from London to Bristol at 6.30pm this week was £88 if you booked the night before, compared to £106 on the day. Most train companies let you book advance tickets up to 6pm the night before you travel, but some let you do right up until 11.59pm.

Train tracks

Train tracks

Buy single tickets instead of returns

You’d think that a return ticket would be the same price or cheaper than two singles, but that would make far too much sense! A lot of the cheapest tickets are only available for one-way fares. So where a normal off-peak return ticket from Birmingham to Manchester costs £38.40, you can get single fares for £11.80 each way. You are limited to specific trains when you buy single fares though, so if you want a bit more flexibility then you may be better off with an open return as that gives you a choice of trains.

Budget train travel in the UK

Speeding towards London

Split your ticket

In another strange quirk of the UK train system, sometimes it’s cheaper to buy two separate tickets for different sections of the same journey – and you don’t even need to change trains. It works best for longer journeys and more expensive tickets, like where you have to travel at peak times or at short notice.

So for example if you were going from Bristol to Durham on a weekday morning it would cost you £162.70. But by buying separate tickets from Bristol to Derby (£74.80) and then from Derby to Durham (£29) you could save £59, and you can sometimes stay in the same seat. There’s an online tool call Split Ticketing that helps you work out the best place to split your journey and shows you whether it’ll save you money.

St Pancras station, London

London’s gorgeous St Pancras station

Get a railcard

If you’re doing lots of train travel in the UK, it’s worth investing in a railcard which save you a third off fares. There are four different types of railcard available. There’s the 16–25 Railcard for under 26s and full-time students or the Senior Railcard for over 60s. There are also a couple of railcards for groups travelling together. The Two Together Railcard covers two named adults (who must be travelling together). Or the Family & Friends Railcard covers up to four adults with up to four children (aged 5–15).

Each card costs £30 and is valid for a year. Both UK and overseas travellers are eligible and you can use them on most journeys, though there are restrictions before 9.30am. You can buy railcards online or at the station. For the 16–25 and Two Together railcards you’ll need to supply or upload a passport-sized photo.

You also need to bring your passport if you’re applying for a Senior or 16–25 Railcard (or proof of student status for mature students). When you book tickets online you just need to select the railcard fare. But you do need to carry the card with you when you travel for the discounted tickets to be valid.

York Railway Museum

A vintage train at the York Railway Museum

Book tickets through from the airport

If you’re flying into London and travelling on to other parts of the UK, then it might work out cheaper to buy a train ticket all the way through rather than just into London. Yes it might sound strange but often these tickets includes the pricey Heathrow or Gatwick Express services for less than they would cost on their own.

For example, I got a train ticket all the way from Gatwick Airport to Cheltenham for £19.50 – including the Gatwick Express (£17.80 online), the Tube across London (£2.90) and the two-hour train to Cheltenham (£16.50), saving almost £18. It doesn’t work for all airport routes but is worth checking out.

King's Cross Train station in London

King’s Cross station concourse

Sleep on the train

For a different rail travel experience – and a saving on accommodation – why not try a sleeper train. The UK’s not big enough to have many overnight train routes (you’d be arriving as soon as you’d got your PJs on) but it does have two. The Caledonian Sleeper runs on two routes between London and Scotland – the Highland route going to Dundee, Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William, and the Lowland route to Glasgow and Edinburgh. You can book tickets up to a year ahead and if you book early and avoid travelling at weekends you can get a bed in a two-person cabin for £75 one way (with railcard discounts available).

The other UK overnight route is the Night Riviera Sleeper which runs between London and Penzance in the far south of Cornwall. You can book tickets up to 12 weeks in advance on the Great Western Railway website. You just book a normal seat and then can add on an extra fee for a cabin. It costs an additional £80 for a single cabin or £110 for a two-person cabin  – with discounts for railcard holders.

Caledonain Sleeper train in Scotland

The Caledonian Sleeper (image by sleeper.scot)

Consider a rail pass

If you’re visiting the UK from overseas and are planning on doing a lot of rail travel, then there are BritRail passes available with unlimited train travel. There’s an overall pass for the whole of Great Britain, or regional passes for England, Scotland and certain regions (e.g. South West England or the Scottish Highlands).

You can choose from 3–30 consecutive days or a certain amount of travel days spread out over a month. Prices start from £145 for three consecutive days or £183 for three days within a month, with one child aged 5–15 going free per adult. It’s not cheap so it’s probably best for people who want to be spontaneous and not plan ahead, as otherwise you could save by booking tickets in advance.

The BritRail pass isn’t available to UK residents and has to be purchased outside the country. But one regional pass which is available to everyone is the Spirit of Scotland pass. This covers off-peak train travel everywhere north of Carlisle and Berwick-on-Tweed plus ferry travel to the west coast and isles. Four days travel within 8 days costs £139 or 8 days within 15 costs £179, with discounts for railcard holders.

The Glenfinnan Viaduct in Scotland

Scotland’s famous Glenfinnan Viaduct

Read more train travel posts

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Budget tips for train travel in the UK – a guide to how to save money on rail travel in Britain, including booking tricks, railcards and rail passes. #UK #Britain #railtravel #traintravel #UKrailtravel #BritishRail

The post is brought to you in association with GoEuro.

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28 Comments

  • Reply
    jumpingpolarbear
    May 9, 2012 at 10:06 am

    That railwaystation looks like a castle :).

  • Reply
    danielandkellytravel
    May 9, 2012 at 10:08 am

    Great post, thanks for the advice! We have taken 3 sleeper trains in china so far and love them haha they are so funny for an experience and you save on accommodation! Hehe

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 9, 2012 at 10:12 am

      Thanks. I did a load of sleeper trains in Asia but this was my first UK one – it was a bit less manic than the Asian versions but still an experience!

  • Reply
    frugalfirstclasstravel
    May 9, 2012 at 10:11 am

    Great advice and the photo of st pancras is beautiful. I really love traveling by train in Europe – great people watching!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 9, 2012 at 10:16 am

      Thanks, I love St Pancras – it takes you back to the era of steam trains and glamorous rail travel. And if I can get somewhere in Europe by train rather than flying I always will!

  • Reply
    Ship's Cook
    May 9, 2012 at 10:29 am

    Look out for groupsave tickets, where three or four people can travel for the price of two. Best place to find them is the national rail website (the train operators don’t advertise them on their own websites), just enter the journey details into their journey planner including the number of people travelling and if a groupsave is availiable it will be show up.It will then transfer you through to the relevant train company site to make the booking, this includes train travel to and from Gatwick on non Gatwick Express routes. It’s also worth noting that many train companies operate services on the same or similar rotes and you can save by shopping around.

    I never use the Gatwick Express it’s too expensive. You can get cheaper fares on the southern Region or First Capital connect from Gatwick to London Bridge and it doen’t take very much longer.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 9, 2012 at 10:34 am

      Thanks for the tips, Groupsave is great if there are a few of you travelling. There’s some more info here for anyone who wants to give it a go: http://www.daysoutguide.co.uk/group-save.aspx Also that website has details of lots of London attractions you can get 2 for 1 entry to if you are travelling by train.

      Agree on the Gatwick Express too – the regular train services are usually much cheaper, so it’s only worth getting the Express if it’s included in an onward ticket.

  • Reply
    Bridget Pigott
    May 9, 2012 at 11:28 am

    It is worth looking at first class too. Last Friday I travelled to London on a ticket booked with a card in April. The first class was £3.00 dearer than economy and I had an excellent brunch of smoked salmon and scrambled egg, toast and several cups of tea included. I turned down the Danish pastry to feel virtuous. It was the Friday of the Bank Holiday so I assume most people were leaving London not going there.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 9, 2012 at 11:38 am

      Sounds great – and definitely worth a look. There’s usually free wifi and you can use the first-class lounges at the station too. You can often upgrade to first-class for £15 on weekends, but you only get snacks rather than the proper meals and drinks, so it’s probably better value on weekdays.

  • Reply
    Ship's Cook
    May 9, 2012 at 11:48 am

    Beware of First class travel at weekends, on East Coast you will only get a sandwich and no booze as they regard weekend passengers as less important than weekday business travellers who live it up on hot food and free beer

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 9, 2012 at 12:04 pm

      Yes most of the train companies will only give you a sandwich and a cup of tea in first class at the weekends, so it’s probably more worthwhile on weekdays (at off-peak times when it’s not pricey and packed with business travellers!).

    • Reply
      garybembridge
      May 25, 2012 at 1:42 pm

      Agree! In First Class on weekends they often have no food. But weekdays on some have full on meals. A bit hit and miss…..but can (with planning) be as cost effective using tips in the article and still get a First Ticket for price of standard regular. At some stations First ticket lets you use the lounge with snacks, drinks etc….

  • Reply
    marinachetner
    May 9, 2012 at 1:26 pm

    Great post Lucy. I will certainly refer to this post when I am in the UK 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 9, 2012 at 6:14 pm

      Thanks Marina, the UK looks forward to having you visit!

  • Reply
    2 Rivers Photos
    May 9, 2012 at 8:43 pm

    Great tips… I’ll have to reference this on my next visit to the UK. BTW, I love the image from above into the station… some people are blurred while others are not, love it 🙂

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 11, 2012 at 10:26 am

      Thanks, stations and airports are great for that kind of shot, you get a mixture of people standing around and rushing by that gives a good effect.

  • Reply
    Cressida Howard
    May 10, 2012 at 8:33 am

    Handy Lucy thanks, I’ll be bookmarking that one!

  • Reply
    aBitofCulture
    May 10, 2012 at 1:03 pm

    I find it frustrating that the Eurostar can be dirt cheap to get to Belgium and France from London, but it’s often just as expensive to get a connection to St Pancras from elsewhere in the UK. Any tips on how to get cheap Eurostar connections?

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 11, 2012 at 10:25 am

      If you’re on a Virgin train route they have a cheap farefinder if you’re not tied to a definite date http://www.farefinder.virgintrains.co.uk/ Otherwise its a case of the usual book early and try and grab a cheap fare. Though you can get a bit more advanced and try split fares – buying tickets for separate parts of the journey rather than the whole of it – which can save a lot. The Moneysaving Expert website have got a good article about it and a new app which helps you work them out http://www.moneysavingexpert.com/travel/cheap-train-tickets

  • Reply
    BarbaraGS
    May 11, 2012 at 2:50 pm

    Thank you for so many useful tips.
    If you book on line ahead then you have various options on how to obtain your ticket and you can often opt to pick them up at your local rail station, not just the station that you travel from, from the ticket vending machine. I do this because it saves worrying about a postal delivery and I pass the local station often and can pick up the tickets at my leisure.
    This one will give my age away! It only works if you have a London senior citizen railway pass. If you live in London you get free railway travel up to the edge of zone 6 after .9.30 on weekdays and any time at weekends. If you book in person at any station and show your pass then you do not get charged, even if you are travelling from the centre of London, say London Bridge, until you reach the edge of the zone thus reducing your total fare- and, if you have a senior railcard as well and are booking in advance, that makes the fare really low. One of the few benefits of old age.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 11, 2012 at 7:27 pm

      Thanks Barbara, some more great tips there, thanks for sharing them.

  • Reply
    nuresma
    May 20, 2012 at 5:27 pm

    Tank you! This is very helpful!
    I love sleeper trains. I went to Paris in one of these and it was the best!

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      May 20, 2012 at 9:24 pm

      Thanks – I love sleeper trains too, I haven’t done one from Paris yet but sounds good!

  • Reply
    Stamford
    December 21, 2015 at 11:44 am

    A great pots, Yeah I always do that, I split tickets and the best part is you don’t need to change the seats. Saving money is always great. Investing in a railcard is good but only if you gonna travel a lot.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      December 21, 2015 at 3:21 pm

      Split ticketing makes such a big difference, especially if you have to travel around peak times!

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