10 simple secrets to saving money on UK rail fares

Fred Mawer
Save on rail travel by using clever tricks like split tickets or buying up to 12 weeks in advance -

Rail passengers are to be hit with another steep hike in the cost of train fares in the new year, with the average season ticket hitting £3,000 for the first time, a new analysis suggests. This, a rise of three per cent, further ups the exorbitant cost of train travel in the UK. Travelling at peak times on inter-city routes can be especially expensive, and the sheer complexity of the ticket pricing system often makes it difficult to find the cheapest fares, so Telegraph Travel has come up with 10 strategies to help cut the cost of rail travel.

1. Try split-ticketing

Rail bosses last year admitted that a glaring anomaly of the archaic ticketing system is that it can sometimes work out much cheaper to buy two or more tickets for different connecting segments of your journey rather than one ticket for the whole trip. This is particularly true on long-distance trips and research shows the unconventional practice can reduce the price of travel by nearly 90 per cent. The train has to call at a station named on a ticket, but there’s no need to get off or change. To unearth split-ticketing deals, turn to trainsplit.com and newcomer ticketclever.com.

2. Book well ahead

The earlier you buy, the cheaper the ticket. Train companies release their cheapest fixed-time Advance tickets, which are limited in number, around 12 weeks before departure. See National Rail’s chart (nationalrail.co.uk) for exactly how far in advance you can book with each company. Also register with the Trainline for an email alert saying when Advance tickets go on sale on a specific route – see thetrainline.com/ticketalert.

3. Book ahead – even at the last minute

You can often still making some savings by booking Advance tickets just before travel. Cut-off times vary by operator: in most cases they are 6pm or 11.59pm the day before, but with CrossCountry you can sometimes buy Advance tickets online as little as 15 minutes prior to departure.

4. Time your travel

Even if you can’t book ahead, you can save significantly by avoiding peak such as Monday-Friday during business travel periods and buying Off-Peak and, if available, Super Off-Peak tickets. Though pricier than Advance rail fares, they don’t restrict you to travelling on a specific train. See thetrainline.com/train-times for which services are peak, off-peak and super off-peak on a specified route.

5. Take a slower route

This may result in big savings. For example, peak-time travel on the main route between Bath and London Paddington costs £203 for an Anytime Return. But travel peak between Bath-London Waterloo, taking an extra 75 minutes and changing trains in Salisbury, and the Anytime return drops to £92.80.

6. Invest in a railcard

The nationwide 16-25 (as well as the new 16-17 railcard), 26-30, Two Together, Family & Friends, Senior and Disabled Persons railcards can pay for themselves on just one or two long-distance journeys. They get holders a third off fares (60 per cent off for children on the Family & Friends Railcard), and cost £30 a year (or £20 for the Disabled Persons Railcard. Details, including restrictions, on railcard.co.uk.

With some train companies, three to nine adults travelling together can also get a third reduction on off-peak fares under GroupSave (not a railcard). thetrainline.com automatically applies applicable GroupSave discounts to bookings.

Take your time and head to Bath via Salisbury Credit: Getty

7. Look for mega savings

On megatrain.com you can find very cheap fares on some services operated by East Midlands Trains (so you need to get yourself to East Midlands Parkway just south of Nottingham to benefit). Prices start at £1 (plus a 50p booking fee). Finding the deals on the website is hard work, but they are there.

8. Avoid booking fees

Most agents charge an online booking fee: Trainline, 25p-£1.50, and redspottedhanky.com, £1. Though small, the fees soon add up if you’re a frequent train traveller. Book through train operators’ websites and you won’t pay a fee. Any train operator can book any train journey, at the same price.

9. Research airport train options

Book airport express services in advance, and consider cheaper alternatives. On the Heathrow Express (heathrowexpress.com), travelling at the weekend a single costs £5.50 booked at least 90 days ahead, compared with £22 bought on the day of travel. Stopping services from London stations to Gatwick can take the same time or just a few minutes longer than the Gatwick Express, but be significantly cheaper.  

10. Don’t miss out on refunds

If your train is delayed you may well be entitled to money back; compensation is usually not automatic, so you need to put in a claim. Train companies have different policies, so check their websites for details. But most abide by a Delay Repay arrangement, paying 50 per cent of the single fare if the train is 30-59 minutes late, 100 per cent of the single fare if an hour or more late – whatever the cause of the delay. With some train companies (Southern and Thameslink for example), Delay Repay kicks in after 15 minutes. Other rail operators such as GWR won’t pay up if the delay was caused by something outside their control such as the weather.

Do you have any tips on how to save money on UK rail fares? Tell us in the comments section below.

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