How to save on UK train tickets: all tips and tricks | train prices

Use a rail card to save 33%

Everyone knows about the Young Man’s Train Card – or to give it its proper name, the 16-25 Rail Pass – but are you aware that the Rail 26-30 Pass exists, or that the Big Rail Pass is available to all people aged 60 and over?

There are now nine Railroad Passes to choose from, and the only group that does not have a Rail Pass targeting them are singles between the ages of 31 and 59. And they even have the option of buying a network card for use across the southern half of England, including in and out of London.

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

In some cases, users save the purchase price of the card for one or two trips. It is now available digitally (maintained on mobile) or in paper form. Just don’t forget to take it with you or keep your phone charged.

senior railway
Railcards are available in paper or digital form. Photography: Peter Scully/Almy

Still need a full-time season ticket?

In response to more people working part of their week at home, the rail industry has begun offering flexible season tickets that typically allow users to travel on any eight days in a 28-day period.

The problem is that in many cases the discounts are not enough to make it worthwhile. When MoneySavingExpert analyzed the numbers, it found that part-time season tickets offer the best value for those who travel two days a week, but even then not in all cases. She concluded that if you go to the office one, three or more days a week, it is better to buy day tickets, or the full season pass.

One of the biggest ways to save money on the go is to shift your travel off-peak — assuming your boss will allow you to. This especially makes sense if you can often add a train pass as well. For others, Carnet tickets offer a 10% discount on certain routes but again only off-peak times.

Going long distances – buy in advance, see singles

Rail companies are now like airlines in that the earlier you book, the more likely you are to get a cheap advance ticket. It is generally best to start looking for tickets 12 weeks before your trip. This is the point where Network Rail must have a specific timeline. Train operators usually issue cheap advance tickets, unless you’re traveling on the west coast of Avanti, in which case anything goes.

Passengers at Waverley Station in Edinburgh in May 2022
It is generally best to start your ticket search 12 weeks before the train journey. Photography: Jane Barlow/Penn

Don’t buy an automatic return, since singles are often cheaper – so check before entering your credit card number. If you’re traveling by rail this Christmas, tickets on most lines are now on sale.

Another tip is to avoid the days and times when the demand is high. Just as it is generally cheaper to travel to Europe on a Wednesday, train prices drop significantly on the days and times when there is less demand. Transfer to a train that leaves London after 7pm and the fare drops dramatically.

Get a free alert when tickets go on sale

Put your flight details into the train ticket alert system and you’ll receive an email when advance tickets for that specific flight are sold, which are usually the cheapest. The only problem with using Trainline is the booking fee it charges – up to £1.75 for tickets that can be bought free of charge elsewhere.

A man collects train tickets from a machine
Check to see if the two singles are cheaper than the return. Photo: Yui Mok/PA

Check online at the last minute

If you miss the 12-week deadline and find yourself traveling at the last minute, don’t worry. If tickets don’t sell out, seven railway companies now let you buy cheaper advance tickets that day. Check the website on the way to the station as it may be much cheaper than the one-way fare.

Ticket split

Heading to Durham from London on a train that stops in York, it can be cheaper to buy two tickets – one to York and one to Durham. A range of websites and apps will determine if you can save money by purchasing two or more tickets for your chosen flight.

Four sites stand out. TrainPal seems to be the cheapest ever They don’t charge a fee but reviews say you won’t always find the cheapest options. Split My Fare and TrainTickets.com are more slender, but will charge 15% or 10% of the realized savings, respectively. However, they only work via the website rather than the app. Trainsplit is another thing worth looking into. 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? Photography: Chris Thane/Almy

The savings will really vary but can be generous. For example, those who book a standard return from Taunton to London will pay £105. However, if you split the trip at Pewsey, you can lower the fare to £42.70 – saving £62.30.

To use split tickets, you don’t need to get off the train but the train should stop at the station where you theoretically change trains. For those who make the same trip regularly, it is worth exploring all the options.

Claim any refunds of late payment due

You would be surprised how many regular rail users do not claim compensation due when their train is delayed. Specific terms of refunds vary according to the train operator, but in most cases passengers are entitled to a 50% refund once they are 1 hour late, and a full refund once you are 2 hours late. Make sure you keep the ticket rather than tear it up in frustration as you may need to provide a photo of it as part of your claim.

National Express bus at Victoria Coach Station
In some ways, riding a bus can be as fast as a train. Photo: Holly Adams/Getty Images

Take the coach instead

While taking a coach from Glasgow to London, for example, may be seen as a step too far for many people, taking a bus on certain routes is almost as fast as a train, and much cheaper. This is especially true if you are a last minute traveler and all the ‘cheapest’ advance fares are gone. This week National Express was quoting just £4.90 for next-day travel from London to Bristol – departing at 8am and arriving less than three hours later. Great Western Railway wanted £100 for an early morning departure, or £55 if you were prepared to wait until 9.32am for a train to Bristol Temple Meads after the bus had arrived.

The Bristol route is a winner because the bus runs on a highway for nearly the entire journey but there are plenty of other bus journeys that take longer than the train, although it doesn’t justify the extra cost. Keep in mind the total trip times – bus stops are often closer to the city center or your final destination as well.