Buying rail tickets


Buying rail tickets for train travel in the UK is complicated. Despite some simplification introduced last year, it’s still possible to buy a range of rail tickets at different prices that will get you on the same seat on the same train.

The fantastic Money Saving Expert has a very thorough guide and it’s well worth a read, but here’s my summarised advice:

  • Buy your rail tickets in advance, and as early as possible – you can get them up to 3 months ahead.
  • Rail tickets bought on the day (so-called ‘walk on fares’) offer lots of flexibility but are also usually the most expensive – you can book as little as 48 hours in advance and save a lot of money.
  • Avoid – it charges extra fees.
  • You can usually book any ticket from any train company, even if your journey doesn’t use their trains. So you could book with CrossCountry to travel on a First Transpennine Express (FTPE) train and get the same price as you would booking direct with FTPE.
  • Rail Easy displays fares in a different way which can make it easier to find cheaper tickets. I also found that they are more likely to send tickets by first class post for free, rather than charge £6 for next-day delivery. They do charge a booking fee though.
  • If you spend more than £76 per year (or £6 per month) on rail tickets, get a railcard. If you are between the ages of 16 and 25 you can get a 16-25 railcard. You can order a new one right up until the day before your 26th birthday too. Family railcards and senior railcards are also available. They give you 34% off the price of almost all train tickets, including those booked in advance.
  • Sometimes two single rail tickets are cheaper than a return – always check both. This is especially true if you book in advance.
  • Megatrain is worth a look as its fares start from £1 (plus 50p booking fee). Trains run from Sheffield, Derby and Portsmouth into London, but there are connecting coaches from cities like York and Bradford (I travelled from York to London for a total of £3.50 last year). There’s also additional discounts for NUS Extra card holders.

There are many more tips out there, which shows how confusing the system is. Ultimately, the best way to get the cheapest fare is to book as far in advance as possible, use a railcard and shop around a bit.