How to save on rail fares in the UK: all the tips and tricks | Rail fares

Use a train pass for a 33% saving

Everyone knows the youth subscription – or, to give it its proper name, the 16-25 year old subscription – but did you know that there is the 26-30 subscription or that the senior subscription is available to everyone? 60 and over?

There are now nine train passes to choose from, and the only group that does not have a train pass aimed at them are singles between the ages of 31 and 59. And even they have the option of buying a network card to use in the southern half of England, including inside and outside London.

The most popular rail passes cost £30 per year (or in many cases £70 for three years) and usually offer a 33% discount on the ticket price. Users of certain cards (including the 16-25 and 26-30 cards) can use them at peak times, but with a minimum fare of £12. Others, like senior citizens, have to travel off-peak, which is usually after 9:30 a.m. or, annoyingly, 10 a.m. in the case of the network card.

In some cases, users will save the purchase price of the card in one or two trips. They are now available in digital form (to be kept on a mobile) or in paper form. Don’t forget to take it with you or keep your phone charged.

Subscriptions are available in paper or digital form. Photograph: Peter Scholey/Alamy

Do you still need a full-time membership?

In response to the growing number of people working part of their week from home, the rail industry has started to offer flexible passes which typically allow users to travel eight days within a 28-day period.

The problem is that, in many cases, the discounts aren’t enough to make it worth it. When MoneySavingExpert crunched the numbers, it found that part-time memberships offered the best value for those traveling two days a week, but even then, not in all cases. If you go to the office one or three or more days a week, you’re probably better off buying daily tickets or the full membership, he concluded.

One of the best ways to save money while commuting is to shift your commute to off-peak hours, assuming your boss allows it. This is especially logical if you can also often add a train card. For others, Carnet tickets offer a 10% discount on certain journeys, but again only during off-peak hours.

Long distance course – buy ahead and watch singles

Train companies are now like airlines in that the earlier you book, the more likely you are to get a cheap ticket in advance. It’s usually best to start looking for tickets around 12 weeks before your trip. This is when Network Rail needs to get the timetables fixed. Train operators usually release cheap advance tickets, unless you’re traveling on the west coast of Avanti, in which case anything goes.

Travelers at Edinburgh Waverley Station in May 2022
It’s usually best to start looking for tickets around 12 weeks before your train journey. Photograph: Jane Barlow/PA

Don’t automatically buy a return, as two singles are now often cheaper – so check before entering your credit card number. If you’re traveling by train this Christmas, tickets on most lines are now on sale.

Another tip is to avoid high demand days and times. Just as it is generally cheaper to fly to Europe on a Wednesday, train fares drop dramatically on days and times when demand is lowest. Change to a train leaving London after 7pm and the fare drops considerably.

Get a free alert when tickets go on sale

Put your journey details into the Trainline ticket alert system and you will receive an email when advance tickets for that specific journey go on sale, which are usually the cheapest fares. The only problem with using Trainline is the booking fees it charges – up to £1.75 for tickets which can be bought free elsewhere.

A man retrieves train tickets from a machine
Check if two singles are cheaper than a round trip. Photography: Yui Mok/PA

Check online last minute

If you’ve passed the 12-week deadline and are traveling at the last minute, don’t despair. If not all tickets are sold out, seven train companies now allow you to buy the cheapest tickets in advance on the day. Check the website on the way to the station as it can be much cheaper than the walk-in fare.

Split ticketing

Traveling to Durham from London on a train that stops at York, it may well be cheaper to buy two tickets – one to York and one to Durham. A host of websites and apps will determine if you can save money by buying two or more tickets for your chosen trip.

Four sites stand out. TrainPal seems to be the cheapest because it doesn’t charge a fee, but reviews suggest it won’t always find the cheapest options. Split My Fare and TrainTickets.com are smoother but will charge 15% or 10% of the savings respectively. However, they only work through the website rather than through an app. Trainsplit is another worth watching. It also charges 15% but offers an app.

Dawlish station with train
Can you save money by buying two or more tickets for your trip? Photograph: Chris Thain/Alamy

The savings really vary but can be generous. For example, those booking a standard return from Taunton to London will pay £105. However, if you split the journey at Pewsey, you can reduce the fare to £42.70, a saving of £62.30.

To use split tickets, you do not need to get off the train, but the train must stop at the station where you theoretically change trains. For those who regularly take the same route, it is worth exploring all the options.

Claim any deferred refund due

You would be surprised to see how many regular rail users do not claim the compensation due in the event of their train being delayed. The exact terms of refund vary by train operator, but in most cases passengers are entitled to a 50% refund once they have been delayed for an hour, and a full refund once you are two hours late. Be sure to keep the ticket rather than tearing it up in frustration, as you may need to present a photo of it as part of your claim.

A National Express coach at Victoria Coach Station
On some routes, taking a coach can be as fast as a train. Photography: Hollie Adams/Getty Images

Take the bus instead

Although taking a coach from, say, Glasgow to London might be considered a step too far for many people, on some routes taking the coach is almost as fast as the train, and so much cheaper. This is especially true if you are traveling last minute and all the “cheaper” advance fares are gone. This week National Express was offering just £4.90 for a next day journey from London to Bristol – leaving at 8am and arriving just under three hours later. Great Western Railway wanted £100 for an early morning departure, or £55 if I was prepared to wait until 9.32am for a train which arrived at Bristol Temple Meads after the coach had arrived.

The Bristol route is a winner because the coach is on a motorway for most of the way, but there are plenty of other coach journeys that take longer than the train, but not long enough to justify the cost additional. Assess total journey times – bus stations are often closer to the city center or your final destination as well.

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